In 2020, there was a single anime story that dominated all others: the box-office success of “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train.” That film, the sequel to an anime series about demon slayers in the early 1900s, became Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time despite being released in the middle of a pandemic. Even anime journalists like myself were asked to appear on television to explain what “Demon Slayer” was about and why the entire population of Japan seemed to be into it.
By contrast, 2021 had no all-dominating anime headline, though there were plenty of interesting titles and industry moves nonetheless.
This year’s biggest theatrical hit was “Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time,” the long-awaited and oft-delayed conclusion to the “Evangelion” film series. That series retold (and reworked) the story of the generation-defining robot series from the mid-1990s, and fans came out in droves to see director Hideaki Anno’s second run at concluding the franchise, earning the film over ¥10 billion. That’s a massive sum for any anime film, let alone one that isn’t child-friendly, boasts a 155-minute runtime, and was released during a state of emergency, which meant that theaters in Tokyo had to close by 8 p.m. The success of the film cemented Anno, who also directed the 2016 hit “Shin Godzilla,” as Japan’s favorite geek chic auteur. Following the film came multiple Anno-centered documentaries, talk shows and even an exhibition about his career at The National Art Center, Tokyo. The Anno craze doesn’t seem likely to wane soon: He’s now helming reboots of the superhero franchises “Ultraman” and “Kamen Rider.”
Other hit films of the year included “Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet,” the latest in the long-running franchise about the pint-sized detective. Originally meant to be released in 2020, it posits a Tokyo holding an international sporting event packed with spectators from around the world. Oops. Meanwhile, “Belle,” Mamoru Hosoda’s modern take on “Beauty and the Beast,” became the director’s highest-grossing film to date. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get an Oscar nomination (then inevitably lose to whatever Pixar film came out this year).
Aside from breaking records, “Evangelion” also served as an example of how streaming is making anime more accessible worldwide, and at an ever-increasing pace. It took “Evangelion 3.0,” which was released in Japan back in 2012, over three years to get a home video release in the U.S. By contrast, “3.0+1.0” was streaming on Amazon Prime worldwide in multiple languages by August of this year, just months after first hitting theaters.
Amazon isn’t the only streamer that made aggressive moves in the anime space in 2021. There’s also Netflix, which continued to license and fund its own original content such as “Way of the Househusband,” “High-Rise Invasion” and “Super Crooks,” as well as creating live-action adaptations of classic properties like “Cowboy Bebop.” [Full disclosure: This writer does consulting work for Netflix.] As for Crunchyroll, it’s now officially owned by Sony Corp. after a ¥120 billion agreement announced late last year got the thumbs-up from the Federal Communications Commission. Even Disney+ teamed up with anime studios this year to release “Star Wars: Visions,” an omnibus of short films set in the “Star Wars” universe, and has licensed more titles for 2022 and beyond. Aside from a handful of independent licensors, the world of anime publishing in the West is now, for better or worse, in the hands of a few giant corporations.
It’s not hard to see why the big guys have gotten into the game of selling Japanese cartoons. According to the latest annual market report by the Association of Japanese Animations (the bible for industry-watching nerds such as myself), the overseas market for anime surpassed the domestic market for the first time in 2020. The overall market saw a small decline from 2019 to 2020 — the first such decline in 11 years — but 2020 was still the second-best year for the industry since the AJA started keeping track. There were, after all, a couple little factors that made 2020 an irregular year — it’s no surprise that streaming was way up and live events like concerts were way down.
There’s a lot of money coming in, but that doesn’t mean the industry’s problems have disappeared. It was another year filled with anecdotal reports of animators facing low pay and tough working conditions, leading to low retention and harried producers forced to recruit illustrators online to plug gaps — not exactly a sustainable way to run an industry.
What will happen in 2022? In the pre-pandemic days, live events were becoming an increasingly large part of the anime industry, and if infection numbers stay low in Japan, they will likely see a resurgence. One test will be Comiket, a major fan event happening in person for the first time in two years at the end of this month (proof of vaccination or a recent PCR test will be required). And we might just get a glimpse at the new Hayao Miyazaki film, “How Do You Live?” Then again, I made the same prediction back in 2019. What can I say: The master works at his own pace.
Four more notable anime titles of 2021
“Tokyo Revengers”: “Tokyo Revengers” is, like “Demon Slayer,” a shōnen (boys) manga that got a major boost thanks to an anime adaptation. It’s a time travel story about a schlub in his mid-20s zapping back into his middle school days to save the life of his ex-girlfriend, which requires him to tussle with some delinquent gangs. In addition to the anime, the manga also received a live-action adaptation that became the year’s highest-grossing non-anime film.
“Uma Musume”: They’re girls, but they’re also horses: They’re horse girls, and they’d give Seabiscuit a run for his money! This franchise first appeared in 2018, but picked up a whole new stable of fans this year when a smartphone game and a new season of anime were released.
“Sonny Boy”: The latest from inventive director Shingo Natsume, “Sonny Boy” opens in a high school floating in the middle of a black void where the students have suddenly picked up superpowers. Soon, a battle for class hierarchy begins — think “X-Men” meets “Lord of the Flies.” Bold stylistic choices (the first episode has no music) and character designs by renowned illustrator Hisashi Eguchi made this one a standout.
“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba”: “Demon Slayer” is back on the small screen with a new season that picks up where “Mugen Train” left off. This season, which adapts the original manga’s “Entertainment District” arc, brings the crew to Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s old red-light district. Around 10% of Japanese households tuned into the first episode on Dec. 5, so it seems as if folks are still plenty hungry for tales of Tanjiro and the gang.
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