Last week in California, I caught up with some of the chief purveyors of Japanese popular culture in the United States and elsewhere in the world. It became rapidly clear that 2016 won’t be at all like 2015 — or any other year before it.
The rollout of streaming media is fast approaching an avalanche. Mainstream portals Hulu and Netflix are snapping up anime licenses in an effort to target an expanding niche of young and dedicated global fans. Crunchyroll, the pioneer and leader in the market, is exploring content coproduction deals with anime studios, as Japan’s notoriously byzantine anime production committees slowly disintegrate in the face of plunging domestic DVD sales.
Anaheim, California-based Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA), the nonprofit organization behind Anime Expo, North America’s largest anime convention, is expanding, refocusing and rebranding. It plans to move beyond otaku/fan culture and embrace the broader challenge of integrating successful conventions in film, gaming, tech, music and other forms of entertainment media. SPJA will open an office in Tokyo later this year and will soon reveal a new brand name and logo.
Anime Expo celebrates its 25th anniversary in July. The con has signed as its first featured guest Japanese artist and character designer Yoshitaka Amano, whose works include decades-spanning iconic titles — from “Speed Racer” and “Gatchaman” to “Vampire Hunter D” and “Final Fantasy.”
Azusa Matsuda, the SPJA’s director of industry relations, tells me that the anniversary will be a chance to take stock of anime history. “It would be great if we could stage some events looking back on 25 years of Anime Expo, and at those same years in terms of anime and manga. How did we get here? More than half of our attendees are 18-25 years old. They love anime, but they want to know more, they want context.”
Originally from Arima Onsen, Kobe, Matsuda has lived in California for 28 years, nine of which she spent localizing Japanese entertainment content. Before joining SPJA, she was a translator for a gaming import company and a localization developer for Burbank, California-based post-production, audio and creative studio, Bang Zoom! Entertainment.
The biggest changes she sees in 2016 are interrelated: The transition from physical products, or “package businesses,” to on-demand, streaming media has resulted in a radical transformation in the intellectual-property licensing process.
“There was ‘before Netflix,’ and an ‘after Netflix,’ ” she says. “And it happened in only the past three or four years. Before, you sold your content to (U.S.-based distributors) like Viz Media or Funimation, Aniplex and Media Blasters. But with Netflix, you can sell it to them directly and go straight to your audience. You don’t have to have this industry connection and talk to these U.S.-based licensing companies. You can just go to Netflix and sell it and that’s it.”
The success of the new model relies on the diehard and insatiable devotion of niche fanatics, what Crunchyroll CEO Kun Gao recently called “passion audiences.” Anime fans were binge viewers long before U.S. TV serials like “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” were scripted, and the now seven-year-old Crunchyroll targeted, cultivated and respected them — to the tune of 20 million users, 750,000 paid subscribers and the backing of Hollywood and telecommunications company AT&T.
For most Japanese producers, Matsuda says, the watershed moment occurred in 2013, when the Tokyo-based 3-D computer graphics studio Polygon Pictures clinched a deal with Netflix for the distribution of its series “Knights of Sidonia.”
“Everyone (in the anime industry) was like, ‘Oh, crap: Can you do that directly with streaming? And then, ‘Oh, wow, you really can!’ ”
Shuzo Shiota, Polygon’s president, tells me that his studio’s specialization in digital media is an asset when competing in Japan’s relatively conservative and parochial anime industry.
“Digital animation studios like us have had difficulty gaining a footing in the Japanese market,” he says. “So, we’ve worked with North American clients, including Disney and Hasbro, for the past decade, building trust and reputation. Not being tied down to legacy industry norms in Japan allowed us to react swiftly to the massive changes happening in media and content distribution.”
In 2016, Japanese IP producers are scrambling to sell their content directly to fans, while conjuring new ways to pay for it. On a recent flight from New York to Manila via Tokyo, I watched an entire season of “Knights of Sidonia,” offered on the same sub-menu that included mainstream U.S. films and series such as “The Martian” and “Game of Thrones.”
Matsuda is sanguine about the shakeup of the domestic Japanese industry. “I hope this pushes anime creators to make more content that doesn’t have to follow the norm in Japan,” she says. “With options like Kickstarter and digital streaming, there are now a lot more ways to get your IP out there, wherever you are.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.