Mainstream culture has an attitude towards anime similar to your relationship with a friend-of-a-friend. You’re vaguely aware they exist, but don’t feel the need to pursue any further relationship. This is because anime is in a similar place now that video games were years ago: still seen as niche and skewed towards a younger market. However, while gaming has since expanded to become the multi-billion dollar mainstream business it is today, anime is still relegated to the ghetto of college students wearing Attack on Titan shirts and high schoolers claiming to speak Japanese. While that niche’s growth is steady, it will remain a niche if things remain as they are. However, judging by the current climate, they won’t.
A little background: In 2006, the video streaming service Crunchyroll was formed. Unique to other streaming services, Crunchyroll focused exclusively on anime, both currently airing and finished. The venture grew at an alarming rate and, seven years after it was created, was purchased for close to $100 million. While companies such as Funimation and Bandai were happy with marketing solely to the niche they had cultivated, the success of Crunchyroll demonstrated to other companies that anime on its own was a viable business capable of expanding beyond the expectations set for it. So, naturally, they took an interest.
In late 2013, soon after the acquisition of Crunchyroll, Netflix announced that they had licensed the anime series Knights of Sidonia as their first Netflix Original Anime. With this move, Netflix was both committing to investing in anime and dipping their toes into pursuing it further. While they were joining in on the anime licensing game, they were not actually investing in the production of the shows themselves. For the next several years, Netflix licensed more original anime such as Seven Deadly Sins and Glitter Force, each to varying degrees of success. Apparently, these results were to Netflix’s satisfaction, as their next big investment into anime has been confirmed.
In November of last year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated his desire for Netflix to make a great anime show. In February, Netflix announced that they were partnering with Production I.G., the studio behind classics like Ghost in the Shell and FLCL, to produce an original anime series called Perfect Bones. Unlike previous Netflix Original Anime, the company would be involved with the production as well as the licensing. This announcement is somewhat of a paradigm shift for the involvement of the west in anime. Not since the 80’s in the era of Transformers has a western company been closely involved with the production of an anime series, let alone one as high-profile as Netflix.
So, what does any of this have to do with anime becoming mainstream in the west? See, the main obstacle preventing anime from becoming big in the west is a lack of familiarity and marketability. Aside from big franchises such as Dragon Ball and Pokémon, anime is seen as “foreign” and “weird” by most of the mainstream. On the other hand, Netflix as a company has become so familiar to the western market that there is a large audience who will watch something simply because it was produced by them. By backing Perfect Bones, Netflix will be exposing anime to this audience, a large percentage of which have never seen it before. If it goes well, then there’s a chance that anime’s influence will grow beyond where it is even now.
On top of that, it’s not just Netflix who are players in this field. Amazon, who have been closely following Netflix with their Prime Video program, announced in March that they had the exclusive streaming rights to Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, the latest show from the director of Attack on Titan. It’s safe to assume that Amazon is currently in the stage with anime that Netflix was in a few years ago: willing to leap in the pond, but not ready to dive into the pool. As Amazon licenses more anime, you can bet that they’ll be watching the reception to Perfect Bones with an eagle eye, ready to greenlight their own projects. So not only is the exposure of anime to a large audience riding on Perfect Bones, but the possibility of other companies following suit as well.
What this would ultimately mean is an increased western presence in the production of anime, which would in turn lead to a growing western audience. Ideally, these companies would be smart enough to know that letting Japanese producers do what they please, and solely lend their name and money to these series. More companies would follow Netflix and Amazon’s example if their investments prove successful, leading to an even bigger growing audience. Eventually, presumably, hopefully, anime would reach a status approaching mainstream.
Would this be a good or bad thing? Well, look at another example of a nerd-oriented medium that became semi-mainstream: video games. The rapid growth of gaming has resulted in many quality blockbuster titles being released, but it’s also resulted in a lot of problems with the industry and how it’s run. Right now, gaming publishers are primarily led by people with backgrounds in advertising who, quite honestly, don’t care much about games, and it’s caused a lot of growing pains. Anime, however, has more of a lineage to it than gaming, which means that while gaming enthusiasts still have a lot of climbing up the corporate ladder to do, anime fans have already done that climbing. So, as far as the eastern production side goes, not much would change, and the problems in the gaming industry would be averted.
Ultimately, though, it all rides on Perfect Bones. If it doesn’t succeed, Netflix quietly sweeps it under the rug. If it does, we could be seeing season two of Attack on Titan alongside Game of Thrones on HBO. Just don’t hope for the Japanese-speaking high schoolers to go away anytime soon.