LILLY WEBBER WRITES – While Japanese animation has become popular in mainstream American culture and internationally as a result of the rising accessibility of anime, this has not always been the case. Due to the previous lack of access to options of watching anime in America, purchasing bootleg VHSs from local flea markets or recognizing ‘XYZ Anime Title (part 1/3)’ as a Youtube search result is a common experience for many older fans of anime. Anime only started becoming popular in mainstream American culture in the 1990s when American distributors began importing wildly popular Japanese series such as Sailor Moon, Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z. However, if certain animations weren’t popular enough to be dubbed in English, where they were typically restricted to air only on late-night television channels like Cartoon Network’s Toonami, the option to legally watch such animations was difficult without relying on pirated sources. For these reasons, dedicated fans would often pirate Japanese animations from online sources and ‘fan-translate’ (an unofficial, non-licensed translation) their favorite animations. Then fansubbers (those who fan-translate anime) would redistribute the translated products either for profit or as a hobby. However, despite the plethora of legal streaming options now available for fans to watch their favorite animations, piracy still remains a major problem.
Fans of anime will often turn to pirated sources due to both subscription costs and the fact that some shows are either not licensed for distribution through a media service website or are not simulcast. Simulcasting, or simultaneous broadcasting, refers to shows licensed by streaming platforms, with subtitles, and aired within 24 hours of airtime on television in Japan. Simulcasts are highly popular as a way to combat piracy; as fans are often willing to watch new episodes from the earliest provider possible, regardless of translation quality or the legality. In addition, series are typically turned over exclusively to their licensed distributors, resulting in hefty costs for fans who wish to go the legal way in watching series which are exclusively licensed by separate streaming services.
Netflix, one of the original pioneers in online streaming-on-demand media providers, has also co-produced and invested in several massively popular original titles, like Aggretsuko, Devilman Crybaby and Castlevania (2017). When it comes to ongoing animations aired weekly on Japanese television and even on Netflix’s own Japanese server, though, compared to most animation streaming sites Crunchyroll, Funimation, Netflix falls flat, as the company does not simulcast ongoing animations internationally which is considered an industry standard. Rather, shows licensed by the company are frequently added to international Netflix servers several months after the initial animation finishes airing.
While this strategy may allow time for Netflix to translate the content into several languages and prepare marketing campaigns, it has inadvertently been harmful, causing several highly promising animations to flop within the US market. One example is the 2018 award-winning studio Kyoto Animation’s anime ‘Violet Evergarden.’ The series was streamed internationally on a weekly basis during the Winter 2018 anime season, except in the United States of America and Australia, where the animation was made available only after the final episode had broadcasted. By the time the animation was released legally within the United States, the majority of interested— or impatient —fans had already watched the entire season through pirated sources, resulting in fewer overall views and reduced support for the original creators. Without proper advertising or the advantage of simulcasting, new Netflix anime releases often find themselves buried in content and ignored by potential audiences.
So, while Netflix has made anime more accessible to Western audiences, as witnessed in the reemergence in popularity of Neon Genesis Evangelion, added to the provider in 2019, the streaming services’ current strategy and competitive nature have drawn criticism from others in the industry. Notable critics include Funimation’s President Gen Fukunaga, who feels that Netflix’s fast-paced management has failed to do justice to the aforementioned classic animation, despite the company’s willingness to “…significantly overpay for something like Evangelion and outbid anybody by multiples, no matter what their ROI is.” When Netflix purchases the exclusive rights for a series and delays the release of the animation, the company isn’t just annoying their paying subscribers by keeping the show region-locked to the Japan Netflix server, but rather also directly harming the very creators who rely on overseas support. Should Netflix’s current strategy continue, the company’s attempts at becoming a major anime streaming hub will likely suffer reduced success despite the company possessing several exclusive licensing contracts for such upcoming animations as the recently concluded ‘Beastars’ and the currently airing cult classic ‘Dorohedoro.’ Simulcasting is clearly the future of anime globally, and Netflix is falling behind.