Researching the Business of Anime – Crunchyroll

In one sense, an academic approach to anime does not require much beyond access to anime – and access to/familiarity with some kind of theoretical framework to base the approach in and validate it. But, this kind of approach is also exactly what Thomas Lamarre has criticized as exemplifying the “the book report or film review model” of writing about anime – useful, but limited and limiting. Anime studies – like film/television studies in general – must be concerned with more than the texts themselves. How are these texts created (in all senses of the term)? By whom? With what money? For whom? How are they distributed? To where? Again, why?

crunchyrollAsking these kinds of questions, in turn, requires a different set of resources and essentially, a different knowledge base. For example, writing about how anime developed in America in the 1980’s and through the 1990’s could require using articles on the work of various “anime entrepreneurs” that appeared in business publications such as Forbes and Fortune, as well as local magazines and newspapers, and interpreting the annual reports that public companies like 4Kids Entertainment and Navarre (for several years, the corporate parent of Funimation) are required to file. And, the recent announcement by anime streaming platform (“the leading global destination and platform for anime and manga”) Crunchyroll, Inc. that it now has over 1,000,000 paying subscribers, and over 20,000,000 total registered users can lead into a great case study on the kinds of materials that are available for research on the “business of anime”. In the decade now that Crunchyroll has existed, how has it been covered in the media – and in scholarly writing?

crunchyroll-oldIn its original form, Crunchyroll was just a central hub for individual users to upload their anime videos – without worrying too much about how legal or illegal this would be – and definitely drew some attention, such as from TechCrunch: Crunchyroll Pushes the Envelope on Video Copyright. So, how did it grow from that to – this?

The first steps of Crunchyroll’s evolution into its present form can be documented in brief notices on specialized websites like PEHub:

CrunchyRoll Inc., a San Francisco-based video sharing site focused on anime, has raised $4.05 million in Series A funding, according to a regulatory filing. Venrock led the round, with partner David Siminoff joining the board of directors.”

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“Anime in the US: The Entrepreneurial Dimensions of Globalized Culture” – What Could Have Been

In my critique of the Pacific Affairs article Anime in the U.S.: The entrepreneurial dimensions of globalized culture, I argued that one of the most frustrating things about this essay is that it actually contains the basic shape of a vastly article on the role that individual entrepreneurs played in introducing Japanese animation to American audiences. So, how would this much stronger paper actually look like?

Astro BoyThe most logical way to open it would be with a discussion of how Japanese animated television programs were first brought into the U.S. Much of this story is already described in Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider’s View of a Pop Culture Phenomenon (McFarland, 2008). Brian Ruh provides additional details in “Early Japanese animation in the United States: Changing Tetsuwan Atomu to Astro Boy“, in The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki (pp. 209-226). This process could then be traced forward to the present. Aspects of it, in particular, the kinds of changes that anime films and TV episodes were subjected to as they were prepared for theatrical releases, television broadcasts, and distribution on VHS/DVD in the West are discussed in Rieko Okuhara’s “The censorship of Japanese anime in America: Do American children need to be protected from Dragon Ball” (in the same book, pp. 199-208), Rayna Denison’s “The global markets for anime: Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001)” (in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, pp. 308-321), Ruh’s Transforming U.S. anime in the 1980’s: Localization and longevity (Mechademia, v. 5: Fanthropologies, pp. 31-49), and especially, in his Ph.D. dissertation, Adapting Anime: Transnational Media Between Japan and the United States.

It could then be contrasted with how “anime entrepreneurs” approached Japanese animation. Perhaps precisely because they were not coming from the entertainment industry, and perhaps because they also operated at much smaller scales, with much more modest goals in mind, these entrepreneurs – people like John Ledford, Gen Fukunaga, and Gene Field – did not feel any particular need to subject the anime that they were presenting to American audiences to any major changes; in fact, its non-American nature was a selling point. Academic writing on these entrepreneurial activities is still fairly limited, though two examples are Jonathan Clements’ “The mechanics of the US anime and manga industry”, in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, 64, 32-44 (1995), and Laurie Cubbison’s Anime fans, DVDs, and the authentic text (The Velvet Light Trap56, 45-57), but there are plenty of articles in various general-interest publications – such as:

A great way to conclude the piece would be with a case study of Crunchyroll. Launched originally as a Youtube-like website focused on streaming Japanese anime episodes and films, many of them subtitled by fans without authorization – but also without seeking any profit for themselves (the site itself would, of course, receive income from ads), it has since reoriented itself entirely and now works directly with Japanese production companies to license anime series for online distribution to Western audiences. In 2013, The Chernin Group, a media investment company, acquired majority control in a deal valued close to US$100 million; Hollywood Reporter recently ranked it as the 8th-largest video streaming app (by revenue), and according to a Japan Times article, earlier this year, it had “the fifth largest streaming subscription base in the United States“.

This article could still reach the same conclusion as the original paper – that entrepreneurs and their activities are key to the “transnational penetration, distribution, reproduction and consumption of cultural commodities” – but the examples it would draw on would actually support the conclusion vastly more effectively than what Anime in the U.S. is able to present.