It would be hyperbolic to call this year a great one for anime. But in many respects, 2020 is ending better than it began.
Back in April, the Japanese government’s declaration of a state of emergency raised the specter of 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown stopped anime studios cold, forcing many to consolidate for survival and some to close for good. The triple disasters of nine years ago disrupted the industry for at least a month and took three or more to overcome.
“We almost went under in 2011,” said Joseph Chou, the CEO of computer animation studio Sola Digital Arts, when I spoke to him in early May. Work had just been abruptly suspended on major shows such as “Pokemon,” “Doraemon” and “One Piece,” and his own staff were struggling to make progress on their forthcoming series, “Blade Runner: Black Lotus,” due out in spring 2021.
Chou compared interrupting the production process to halting a speeding train: “You can’t go from 100 miles per hour to zero and then expect to get right back to 100 again.”
But the effects of the Tohoku catastrophe in 2011 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 have so far been vastly different. Technology helped salvage anime’s prospects this year and beyond, arguably brightening a few of them.
While the stereotype of Japanese studios filled with fax machines and paint-stained, underpaid illustrators is not wholly inaccurate, anime companies now use computers for a variety of tasks. Even the traditionalist Studio Ghibli, home to septuagenarian master Hayao Miyazaki and once a digital outlier, premiered its first fully CG-animated film “Earwig and the Witch” on Dec. 30, despite the misgivings of diehard followers.
Teleworking via video-call meetings and shared servers proved not only possible for anime creators, but also may have increased productivity, especially for studios that already specialize in CG animation and have the servers and bandwidth to handle it.
By mid-October, during an ebb in Japan’s COVID-19 infections, Polygon Pictures President and CEO Shuzo John Shiota told me that although his CG studio had reopened, more than half of his employees continued to work from home.
“They work just as efficiently as they do in the office,” he said. “Advances in data compression allow us to do things that were inconceivable just a few years ago, so this new type of flexible work arrangement will be permanent for us.”
There are still delays and cancellations industry-wide, of course, and there have been more serious setbacks — notably the tragic death in April of actress Kumiko Okae, who voiced characters for “Pokemon” and Studio Ghibli movies. Okae succumbed to pneumonia caused by COVID-19 at the age of 63.
The entire sector known as “live events,” which covers everything from anisong (anime theme song) concerts to the AnimeJapan trade fair and the Comic Market, a fan-art manga and anime convention better known as Comiket and attended by roughly half a million people, has been dormant since February, causing 2020 revenues to plummet for related merchandising businesses.
But technology again provided a virtual lifeline. E-commerce transactions for Comiket’s first-ever internet replacement in May, Air Comiket, were brisk and profitable, according to translator and veteran participant Dan Kanemitsu. Air Comiket 2 Week, an online 45th anniversary celebration, is running now through Dec. 31.
“The overall demand for anime, manga and video games in Japan has never been higher than it is now,” said Kanemitsu. “It’s just being redirected through online portals.”
This explains the rise in Japan of VTubers (virtual YouTube hosts), he said, entertainers who livestream on the video-sharing platform with computer-generated anime avatars. VTubers dominated the top 10 list of online donations this summer via Super Chat, a service that enables viewers to contribute cash while commenting on livestreams.
The other unexpected phenomenon to hit the anime business this autumn was the blockbuster “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie — Mugen Train.” The movie opened on Oct. 16 and became the highest-grossing film in the world for that weekend. It is now the top grossing film ever in Japan.
One month before the theatrical release of “Demon Slayer,” I spoke with professor Tadashi Sudo, anime critic, business analyst and founder of trade site Anime!Anime!. Sudo was compiling the annual anime industry report for 2019, which was published on Dec. 9 by the Association of Japanese Animations.
According to Sudo, the overall industry saw record growth of 15% from 2018 to 2019, driven by the expansion of international markets and streaming services. But the surprise was that the domestic market also grew, with a spike in merchandising sales from two titles launched last year, both based on character goods: “Rilakkuma and Kaoru” and “Sumikkogurashi.”
The anime audience in Japan now spans the “Anpanman” age (young children) to fans in their 60s, he added, “and Japanese studios seem to be handling the COVID-19 crisis pretty well. A lot of big releases have been pushed back to the end of this year, so we’ll soon see what happens.”
The explosive success of “Demon Slayer” is what happened, and it has overshadowed nearly every other anime story in 2020 except one: the equally dramatic surge of anime on streaming platforms.
Shortly after Netflix announced that the number of households watching anime on its service jumped by 50% in the year leading up to September, with anime titles in top 10 most-watched lists across almost 100 countries, Sony Corp. purchased U.S.-based anime streaming service Crunchyroll from WarnerMedia for $1.2 billion.
The Crunchyroll sale capped off a year in which anime became a darling of streaming media platforms. The box office bonanza for “Demon Slayer” is a case in point. Its original manga sold modestly in the three years leading up to 2019, when the anime series was first broadcast on domestic network television.
The staggered rollout of episodes on TV built audience loyalty over enough time for a fan base to develop on social media and go viral. The series was then streamed non-exclusively on a range of sites, making it ubiquitous and accessible prior to the movie’s October premiere.
It’s a lesson Japan’s industry players should heed in 2021. Exclusive co-production and licensing deals with behemoths like Netflix and Amazon have created a price bubble for studios, raising the investment fees paid per-episode by three or four times. But a series that is only streamed on one site and binge-watched in a single session is less likely to become a record-breaking mega-hit — let alone get renewed for another season.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting professor at Waseda University.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.