7.5 C
New York
Sunday, April 21, 2024

There’s Something Super Weird About Netflix Anime

For a while, Taiki Sakurai wasn’t sure Netflix was serious about anime. When he was interviewing to be the company’s chief anime producer back in 2017, Netflix suits insisted he’d get to form superhero teams of anime creators, manage the direction of a couple shows. He still wasn’t convinced. Even then, Netflix was regarded as a streaming platform, not exactly a studio. Netflix is an American tech company. Anime is a Japanese artform. Netflix executives could just drop a stack of cash on licensing a well-liked shonen or two and call it a day.

“I found out after I joined that they were serious about it,” Sakurai says.

On Google Meet from his home in Tokyo, Sakurai is all smiles and easy candor, seated in front of a wood table scattered with dinosaur fossils. At one point, he excitedly shows me the prize of his collection, a replica of the Smithsonian’s saber-toothed tiger skull. When I tell him I hid my anime figurines for the interview—a corporate-culture compulsion—he seems surprised. “Oh really? You are a fan yourself?” he asks. “I am,” I respond, “for better or for worse.”

It isn’t the only time either of us would be surprised. I came into the interview with certain assumptions. Ungenerous ones. Even suspicion—the kind that sprouts dark from the part of the brain where identity and fandom intermingle. After a lifetime watching anime, and several years reviewing it, I have absorbed most of the genre’s tropes, and from those tropes, built expectations. I know a couple of minutes into a new anime that it is a titty anime, or caters to some indefensible fetish. I can guess by episode two whether the will-they-won’t-they shoujo will end in a won’t-they. Most of all, I can trust that any given anime will probably be 2D, and I can be sure it was made by Japanese people. Netflix’s anime tends to upend these expectations.

To be sure, the suits licensed their shonen, but over the last three years, Sakurai has indeed produced anime for Netflix, all prefaced with the words, “A Netflix Original Anime Series.” They are, to be blunt, super weird. Dragon’s Dogma, based on a Capcom video game, opens with a 3D rock tumbling down onto a mountain town. A blocky, robotic hero-type clutches an injured shoulder as he limps down the street toward his wife, Olivia, whose sheetlike hair flows in one piece like cardboard. She turns to dust. A big red dragon appears. It’s all a bit plastic, overengineered. So is the trailer for Netflix’s upcoming sci-fi anime Eden, a glued-together kids’ collage of “stuff that’s worked”: cute child, robots, mysterious dystopia. Netflix now offers much in the way of this, several dozen anime in all, and 16 additional projects were recently announced.

It’s big business—and the more of it I watch, the more off it all seems. So much of it is action or sci-fi. A lot of it is fast-paced, without slice-of-life details of school-day melancholy or dreamy Tokyo subway rides, staples of beloved anime genres. A fair bit skips moody scene-establishing shots in favor of big-impact conflict cuts. It’s extremely international, with characters and settings far outside of Japan. Also, some is plain corny. As Japanese anime analyst and journalist Tadashi Sudo puts it to me over the phone, “There are clearly a number of anime that are made with the Western or American audiences in mind. And they are such that, for Japanese people, they wouldn’t even be considered anime.”

He adds, “It’s like turning an American sitcom into an anime.” It’s a calculated approach, a capitalization and maximization of trends in anime production. It could also change the art form forever.

It would be a serious mischaracterization to call Netflix a distribution company. A media company, maybe, and definitely a tech company. At the same time, Netflix is among the biggest contemporary shake-ups in the 60-year history of Western anime distribution.

In the ’80s, before the genre had entered the American mainstream, resourceful otaku ordered whispered-about anime from enthusiast magazines and local video shops, sometimes pirating them to add in their own translations. A decade later, Cartoon Network, specifically its Toonami programming block, would inject Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z into the consciousness of millennial America. Sometimes, symbols of Japanese culture eroded in the process. Pokémon’s onigiri rice balls became jelly donuts in the US. American-French TV production company DIC removed Sailor Moon’s mature themes. Eventually, though, these awkward localizations faded from view, as specialist companies like Funimation, founded in 1994, began distributing anime VHSes and DVDs.

“We’ve been a big part of the internationalization of anime,” says Colin Decker, Funimation’s CEO. “But we view it as stewardship.” Decker’s approach is all deference. Anime is a Japanese product, definitionally. The manga that inspires it is made in Japan. The storyboarders, writers, and producers are in Japan. (Although now, some animation is outsourced to Korea and China.) Its stories tend to take place in Japan, with Japanese characters doing Japanese things. This dazzling stained-glass window into a distinct foreign culture is a large part of what charmed millions of Westerners looking for a little escapism. “A lot of what is appealing about anime for audiences around the world is that it represents such a different POV,” Decker says. “Not only is it from Japan, but these creators—if you’re not doing an eight-armed supernatural love story set on Mars, you’re not trying, you know?”

American fans fell in love with a Japanese cultural product; so, by the time they get it, it had better still be Japanese. It’s an approach shared by Funimation’s anime distribution competitor and sometime-collaborator, Crunchyroll. “Authenticity is our currency,” says Crunchyroll’s head of global partnerships, Alden Budill. “We’re bringing our fans an experience as close to what they’d see on Japanese broadcast as possible.”

Now both streaming services, Funimation and Crunchyroll cater to the diehard American otaku community—a community that, many times a year, attracts hundreds of thousands of cosplayers, artists, and fans to conventions across the United States, where they might communicate in weeb-Japanese (Baka! Kawaii desu!) or feast on the aforementioned rice balls (perhaps stuffed with fried chicken). They’re all reverence, too, even if it ventures into high-cringe territory. Decker has spent a lot of time studying his audience, throwing them conventions, making them merch and DVD box sets. To him, it’s the “fundamental otherness” of anime that charms people outside Japan, who account for half of the anime market.

Cultural purity, however, is not commercial purity. Anime as an artform has always been influenced by business interests. To make room for commercials, episodes last 20 minutes exactly and pace the plot around short breaks. Toy, merch, music, and DVD makers have traditionally been at the table deciding what manga gets the anime treatment to begin with. Ten years ago, anime that could be spun into a cute, popular pachinko machine was likelier to get greenlit. Japanese norms around workflow, too, impact the look and feel of anime: overworked and underpaid employees and freelancers churning out frame after hand-drawn frame under intense deadlines. And because Japanese studios are making more anime than ever, to ease the workload, many are beginning to rely on CGI in lieu of traditional art, giving action-figure texture to a fight scene or gravitas to a slow pan of some big sword.

With DVDs on their way out, streaming platforms are now the be-all, end-all of anime production. As such, anime is contorting again. “There’s two ways of making anime in Japan now,” Sudo, the anime industry journalist, tells me. “One is the traditional way, what we call ‘media mix’ in Japan, where we have anime, manga, and goods all being sold at the same time.” Sudo says that Crunchyroll and Funimation, which cater to Western otaku, fall into the “media mix” category. The other category—brand new—is the made-for-Netflix model.

As a company, Netflix wants to be something for everyone, everywhere. So part of its strategy has been to suck modern hits from across the ocean, like a data-driven Scylla—Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, One Piece, Haikyu!!. Nothing odd about that; it’s pure distribution.

But the other, more interesting part of the equation is the anime Netflix is exclusively streaming, producing, or making on its own. A Netflix spokesperson claims the company doesn’t keep an official tally on what’s licensed versus produced, but there seem to be roughly 40 series the platform markets as “original.” In 2014, before Sakurai was brought on, Netflix released its first original series, Knights of Sidonia, an entirely CG-animated space opera cell shaded to appear 2D. It’s mecha-monster mania, not beautiful, but not cynical either. It’s reminiscent of beloved anime like Gundam Wing, and well-paced, too. Aside from the 3D animation style, there is no question that it is an anime in the anime tradition.

Four years later came Devilman Crybaby, a phantasmagoric, mind-bending masterpiece. (Many might say Neo Yokio, Jaden Smith’s American-Japanese animated series, should be noted here as well; others will argue it does not belong in this essay at all.) Some were led to believe Netflix would continue releasing anime too edgy to fit neatly anywhere else. It wasn’t so. Although Devilman was a cannonball leap into the adult end of an acid-laced swimming pool—entirely too “mature” and “artsy” for, say, Crunchyroll’s roster—what followed trended in the opposite direction.

It began to dawn on me when I was watching The Great Pretender, a Netflix original from earlier this year that is eerily, heinously likable, to a degree that almost feels engineered, that Netflix was attempting to broaden anime’s scope. Its protagonist, Makoto Edamura, is a Japanese con-man who graduates from small-time crime to the drug-fueled endorphin circus that is Los Angeles, where he and some charismatic pros pull off big swindles. There’s hijinks in Singapore and fraud in London. It’s very international, very “something for everyone.” Review headlines write themselves: “thrilling,” “fast-paced,” “kickass.” It’s good. It’s gorgeous, actually. It’s also a little canned.

It’s not the only anime that swerved away from my expectations. Blood of Zeus looks like a teeny, Hellenic superhero show that might have lasted a season on Nickelodeon in the ’90s. (Its original voice language is English.) Carol and Tuesday, an entirely lovable anime about two girl musicians in sci-fi Mars-New York, feels more like a Disney movie than Decker’s cephalopod Martian romance.

Altered Carbon: Resleeved, Ultraman, Sakurai’s Dragon’s Dogma: It’s anime the same way we call banana scent “banana.” It is, and yet, there’s something that hits harder and less hard at the same time, pushing it into the realm of the abstract. A lot of those debuted within the top ten shows on Netflix. Most were described by Netflix, in marketing materials, as “exciting.” It’s something Sudo points out to me: “People in the anime world in Japan think that the way that Netflix chooses shows leans in a specific way. They tend to choose fantasy, science fiction, violence. They don’t choose, like, school dramas or everyday, essayistic kinds of anime.” (Netflix does have shoujo in the works.)

Netflix and anime creators blessed by it are gunning for international resonance; they are international resonance itself. It makes sense. Only 3 million of Netflix’s 195 million subscribers are Japanese. And in 2018, the non-Japanese market for anime exceeded $9.5 billion. Netflix’s Canon Busters, an action anime by South Bronx native LeSean Thomas, is maybe the most emblematic of Netflix’s anime project: financed by British and Taiwanese companies, produced by a Japanese studio, and inspired by an American comic book.

When Sakurai joined Netflix in 2017, it was his dream from the get-go to unite anime creators and build an international anime movement. If anyone has the pedigree to do it, it’s him. When he was nine, he began attending school in England, where his father moved for work at a life insurance company. In college back in Tokyo, under the name Yoshiki Sakurai (he now goes by Taiki), he wrote eight episodes of Ghost in the Shell’s television series, Stand Alone Complex, while at the same time writing a thesis on the heart of the anime subculture. Ghost in the Shell producers liked his theory that, in the year 2030, Asia might adopt a unified, Euro-like currency, and his poetic lines inspired by Karl Marx. He would go on to write the screenplay for three later Ghost in the Shell movies, for the xxxHOLiC movie, and Napping Princess. Internationally minded, and with a career spanning most anime genres, Sakurai pushes hard against the limitations of tradition.

“We don’t always have to talk about Japanese people,” Sakurai says, speaking of shows like The Great Pretender and Carol and Tuesday. Both he and Netflix are giving anime creators more freedom to tell the stories they’ve always wanted to tell. “Global, international storytelling—I think they want to prove they can do that kind of stuff,” he says. Manga artist Mari Yamazaki, whose Rome-based manga Thermae Romae will soon debut as a Netflix original anime, compared Netflix to the “Cosimo di Medici and Lorenzo di Medici of today.” Netflix gives creators lots of money and little direction. Compared to traditional anime production, she says, “a wide variety of stories which are not tied to a single cultural value are able to coexist.”

Sakurai’s dream is becoming reality, and for that, much of the Japanese anime industry seems grateful. But how will the industry look after a couple more years of Netflix’s patronage?

Netflix’s anime episodes can last 18 minutes, or 28 minutes. There are no commercial breaks. Merch sales aren’t really an end goal, although Sakurai says merch is coming. And it’s not solely Japanese people telling Japanese stories, produced in Japan. In theory, its creators are liberated from the production committee system that deeply entwined anime the artform with anime the commercial enterprise.

Or, a new system has replaced it. One of my deepest suspicions about Netflix’s anime offerings—the international settings, the emphasis on action, the fast-paced plots—was that it was data-driven. The United States is the top anime market outside Japan, and just going by the numbers, the top three anime every year are often action series targeted to young men. If you were an anime creator trying to eke out a living in the competitive, international world of televised media, wouldn’t you want to tap into Netflix’s NSA-levels of information about who consumes what?

Sakurai says that before he joined Netflix, he too thought everything would be driven by data. “I had the impression that Netflix was ruled by some big brother AI computer or something, and all the content the company created was calculated by those analyses: ‘OK, make the character die episode 3.’ That wasn’t the case.” At least to that extent. Sakurai’s team does use data to determine which anime will be successful—“as a basic guideline to see what kind of content is preferred among our customers.” It’s a reference, in other words. “Creators might use those data to help form their story and characters,” Sakurai says, “but I don’t strongly suggest or navigate them in a current direction.”

It was a ping-pong response—to acknowledge the likely reality that data could overdetermine content, but does not, unless it does. (Though if Dragon’s Dogma or Ultraman were data-driven, they may have been more successful; a lot of American anime fans knee-jerk hate CGI.) Netflix isn’t the only anime streaming company to leverage data. Decker says that, at Funimation, Japanese anime-makers are very curious why their shows are so popular in America. And they have the analytics necessary to make educated guesses. “They ask that question a lot,” he says. “What we don’t do is say, ‘Hey, instead of doing, you know, the teenaged girl superhero, can you do a 6-foot-tall guy with muscles?’” Crunchyroll too is clear that its “originals strategy marries art and science,” as Budill puts it, committing to the balancing act of making resonant art with sophisticated data readouts.

Like a hot-water load of mixed laundry, anime on Netflix may come out of its data churn a new color. In go the numbers for Brazil on shonen, the numbers for Germany on a strong female lead, the numbers for Kentucky on anime set in medieval times. It’s easy to envision, harder to prove. Netflix’s absurd customer retention rate is a direct result of its Orwellian recommendation algorithm, which is a direct result of its ability to profile its international customer base. So while anime fans might recognize a horse-girl-idol-competition (yes) anime like Uma Musume Pretty Derby as a shameless, SEO bid for otaku attention, on Netflix, the lowest common denominator may look a little less kawaii.

Netflix, put simply, will make anime less Japanese. It can introduce Japanese writers to Australian directors. It can broker deals between Canadian writers and Japanese manga artists, Chinese background artists and German composers. And it can shoulder the risk. “We’re acting as a hub,” Sakurai says. “I know several Japanese animation studios that have long wanted to work with Western writers, but they didn’t know who to reach out to, how to negotiate with agents. They got afraid of contractual deal terms with a Hollywood agent.”

Toward the end of our interview, Sakurai talks about how Netflix has been poaching artists from a French institute to make anime. I tell him it’s all very interesting—the internationalization of anime by this big, tech-driven media conglomerate—because, in America, a lot of people watch anime to escape, maybe to Japan, or some otaku vision for it. Japan is a different country with a different culture. Its media might resonate on a visceral, human level, but sometimes, in a welcome turn, nothing about an anime will remind me of my life at all. “Oh wow,” Sakurai says, as if he’s never considered that possibility.

A quirk of good art is that a love story involving a 3,000-year-old demon and a 16-year-old high schooler with cat ears might get you through a breakup when Bridget Jones’s Diary cannot. In the US, anime is still an outsider’s medium, an escapist vehicle. In time, Netflix may discover that nobody really wants what everybody wants.

Related Articles

Latest Articles