The History of Anime in the USA: The 2010s

The History of Anime in the USA: The 2010s

-Written by: Lisa Marie Cooper

By the 2010s, anime was an established part of the American entertainment market. No longer riding high on a bubble, expectations were more modest and companies became (somewhat) more judicious with the titles they licensed. As old licenses held by defunct companies expired, “license rescuing” became popular. Several Japanese parent companies took more control over how their titles were handled by setting up American branches to handle licenses directly.

A new avenue opened up for revenue: streaming, whether online in an internet browser or directly to TVs via a service like Netflix. Though anime wasn’t quite as prevalent on traditional American TV as in the 2000s, alternative content delivery systems meant fans had access to more free and legal titles than ever before. It had never been easier to be an anime fan.

New Companies

Most new companies established this decade were Japanese companies going into American business for themselves. Where Bandai Visual had failed, Aniplex found success. Other Japanese licensors took notice and followed in their footsteps. These Japanese-style releases have raised some new controversies in the American market.

While the US has always had a strong market for collector’s editions, they have usually been paired with standard editions and eventually followed by budget collections. The new Japanese companies have largely eschewed this model, releasing only a collector’s edition. Budget collections, if they are made at all, come out much later after the initial release than Americans have grown accustomed to. On the other hand, these companies have fully embraced streaming for the majority of their titles. Will this be the decade remembered for when streaming replaced the standard edition? Time will tell.

Aniplex USA was founded by Japanese parent company Aniplex in 2005, but for the first five years of its existence only facilitated licensing to other American companies. In 2010, Aniplex began releasing titles directly, starting with Read or Die and fan-favorite Durarara!! Aniplex is notable for being the first Japanese-owned company to find success in the American market with Japanese-style releases; that is, high prices for higher quality video, bonus pack-ins, and single-volume releases during the age of complete collections. Unlike Bandai Visual, Aniplex focused primarily on popular, current titles and targeted select online retailers instead of shipping copies to every Best Buy in the country. Thanks to their parent company, Aniplex’s catalog now contains many of the most popular titles of the decade.

GKIDS was founded in 2008 as a theatrical distributor of international animated films. In 2011, they acquired the theatrical rights to the Studio Ghibli catalog (previously held by Disney). In 2017, GKIDS acquired the video distribution rights as well. The company is associated less with anime, however, and more with animation in general.

NIS America (aka Nippon Ichi Software), best known for video games like Disgaea, branched out into anime distribution in 2010 with Toradora. NISA’s initial releases had some production issues, but the strength of their titles, backing from an established company, and responsive replacement programs earned them enough goodwill to continue. They continued to license fan-favorites like Natsume's Book Of Friends and Cardcaptor Sakura, making a point of avoiding fan-service heavy shows. NISA has become known for their distinctive collector’s editions, which are sized like coffee-table books and include hardcover artbooks, and their excellent translations.

Anime Sols was launched as a streaming platform for English-subtitled anime in 2012 by a group of Japanese companies including such big names as Tezuka Productions and Pierrot. The focus was on classic titles that had not previously been made available in North America, such as Dear Brother and Creamy Mami. In addition to streaming, crowd-funding was used to support DVD releases. Three titles were successfully released this way, but many more of their titles failed to raise enough funds for a physical release and few fans knew about the project at all. The company closed in 2015.

Pied Piper was founded by Ann Yamamoto in 2013 to crowdfund a Blu-ray release of Time of Eve. The release was well-received, but the funds raised turned out not to be enough to completely cover costs, particularly international shipping. The company was fortunately able to learn from its previous mistakes, however, and in 2016 successfully crowdfunded Skip Beat, complete with dub. Pied Piper has been especially open about the process and pitfalls of the crowdfunding model, unusual for the anime industry but perhaps the best way to move forward when raising funds directly from fans.

Following directly in the footsteps of Aniplex, Ponycan USA was founded in 2014 by well-known Japanese producer and distributor Pony Canyon. Like Aniplex, Ponycan has been able to take advantage of its built-in catalog when choosing titles to release (even starting with a modern magical girl show comparable to Aniplex’s Madoka Magica, Yuki Yuna Is A Hero). The company has focused on offering high-quality individual volumes (3-5 episodes each) with physical extras like booklets and CDs.

Streaming

The 2010s were the decade streaming came into its own. After years of experimentation, companies finally began seeing revenue from uploading their titles online. It wasn’t an easy road. Getting advertisers on board, determining what kinds of copy protection to employ, luring viewers away from piracy sites, and convincing Japanese companies that sales wouldn’t be cannibalized by the streams all took a lot of effort on the part of many people across the entertainment industry. Little by little, however, the pieces began to fall into place and now streaming actually makes up a large portion of the profits for certain titles.

Legal digital downloads of anime had already begun in 2005, when CPM announced that VOTOMS would be available for the iPod. iTunes was followed closely by Amazon and Google Video, with CPM again leading the way for anime titles, offering Black Jack on Google in 2006. However, it was difficult to convince Japanese licensors to make their properties available this way. Not only was there fear that the videos would be instantly uploaded to piracy sites, but there were questions about how much fans would pay for a digital download and whether that amount could support the costs of making anime.

Streaming, which can pull in revenue from both advertisements and subscriptions, was an easier sell. Not only did it sidestep the question of downloads, streaming could be easily restricted by location – an important consideration for Japanese executives facing the threat of reverse imports due to Japan and North America being grouped in the same Blu-ray region. Furthermore, fans often decide they want to own physical copies of shows they’ve streamed and enjoyed, and these fans are more likely to want pricier collector’s editions packed with extras and a nice box to display. Overall, streaming has been very good for the anime market.

There are many different platforms to choose from for anime viewing. The best-known with the widest selection right now is Crunchyroll. Crunchyroll is interesting because it is not backed by an anime company, like Funimation’s streaming services, nor is it a broad attempt to replace TV, like Hulu and Netflix. In fact, it was originally one of the piracy websites Japanese companies were so afraid of. The founders always had visions of becoming legal, however, and responded instantly to take-down requests and license announcements. They went legal in 2009 with a deal to stream Naruto and today they’re well-respected in the industry. Not only does Crunchyroll have over 2 million paid subscribers, they’ve also expanded into manga and live-action titles.

Netflix was originally a DVD rental service, sending subscribers discs through the mail. As has always been the case, anime fans were early adopters and anime DVDs were popular rental choices. When Netflix began looking for more content with a dedicated fanbase, they turned to anime licenses just like TV channels had in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 2018, Netflix began producing anime as well, beginning with Aggretsuko in partnership with Sanrio.

If you didn’t have a Netflix subscription in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s and weren’t dialed in to the anime scene enough to know which sites had contracts in place for which series, Hulu was a great place to find all sorts of popular titles. As long as you didn’t mind watching the same three ads over and over again, you could stream endless episodes of hits like Naruto, One Piece, and Inu Yasha on your computer, completely legally. On the other hand, if you were invested in seeing the latest episodes as soon as possible and were familiar with American publishers, your destination of choice was Funimation.com or Viz’s Neon Alley.

There have been many other streaming services, of course, with varying degrees of success. Amazon, seeing the popularity of digital anime, launched Anime Strike as a video-on-demand service in 2017. Unfortunately, Amazon was unfamiliar with the specifics of the anime market and the service was not popular. It was folded into Amazon Prime just a year later. Japanese streaming site NicoNico entered the US simulcast market in partnership with Funimation in 2011 as Funico, but never achieved the same level of market penetration as Crunchyroll. The service was rolled back into NicoNico’s Japanese website in 2012, and in 2018 NicoNico stopped offering English services altogether. Even 4Kids gave online streaming a try starting in ’07 with 4Kids TV. It was shut down in 2012 when 4Kids closed.

Streaming Rights vs Home Video Rights

An unexpected consequence of the streaming age has been fan confusion about who owns a show. When a company licenses a title, they don’t automatically get every right related to that title. Instead, the licensing contract specifies which rights are being awarded to the company. The rights may include (but are not limited to) broadcast, home video, streaming, digital download, merchandising, and/or theatrical distribution. Furthermore, rights may be awarded globally or for a specific region, and may be exclusive or shared. It all depends on the title and the companies involved.

Japanese companies have always had a habit of splitting up rights, but it wasn’t very noticeable unless you were an extremely dedicated fan. For instance, for the average fan it doesn’t matter which company arranged for Princess Mononoke to be shown in theaters; you only care which theater near you is playing it. It doesn’t matter who made that Hetalia t-shirt on the rack, just whether or not you like the design and fit. But with streaming, suddenly it does matter in a very visible way. If Netflix has the exclusive North American streaming rights to Castlevania, then you watch Castlevania on Netflix. If Crunchyroll is the only company simulcasting Kemono Friends, then you watch Kemono Friends on Crunchyroll. Which platform you’re on is unmistakable.

But Netflix and Crunchyroll aren’t exactly known for their home video releases. What if you want to own one of their shows on Blu-ray? The Japanese licensors know (most) streaming platforms aren’t involved in home video production and they want their shows released for fans to buy. Consequently, they award the home video rights to companies that do produce Blu-rays and DVDs. In the case of Castlevania, for example, the home video rights went to Viz. Generally, if there’s money to be made and the rights aren’t in legal limbo, you can count on a physical release for most streaming shows.

Obituaries

By 2010, most anime companies either closed within a few years of being launched or else survived as they found their market niche. Just a couple companies from the prior decades closed their doors. Urban Vision quietly stopped shipping titles in 2010, but did not officially shut down until 2016. 4Kids faced a number of legal troubles in 2011 concerning royalty payments to TV Tokyo for Yu-Gi-Oh!. They declared bankruptcy in 2012.

License Rescues

One of the biggest licensing trends in the 2010s has been “license rescues.” When an American company licenses an anime title for release, it’s usually for a fixed amount of time and in a specific region and/or format. At the end of the license period, both the American company which licensed the title and the Japanese company which owns the title must decide whether to renew the license and, if so, whether there should be any changes to the terms (more/less money, digital rights, more/less time, etc.).

While license renewals often go off without a hitch, it’s just as common for there to be a holdup in the process. Sometimes, the Japanese company decides they aren’t happy with the way their title has been handled or thinks they aren’t making as much money as they could be. Sometimes, the American company will conclude there’s not much life left in a title and it’s not worth paying money to continue releasing it. Sometimes, one of the companies will have gone out of business or been bought by another company. If no new deal is hammered out, the license is lost and the rights (be they video, digital, merchandise, or other) revert back to the Japanese owner.

Since Astro Boy first came to America in 1963, many, many anime titles have been licensed for American release. But as you can see just by reading through these articles, many of those companies have since gone out of business or faced financial troubles. That’s left a lot of titles unavailable despite already having English adaptations. The answer? A license rescue.

A license rescue is when a company licenses a title that has previously been made available in the same region. For example, NISA license-rescued Cardcaptor Sakura after it had been out of print and unavailable from Nelvana and Geneon for many years. Choosing a license rescue involves many factors, and each rescue is a bit different. In the streaming age, of course, some license rescues are as simple as sending the digital files to a new platform. But that doesn’t work for older titles or titles in need of new materials, like a subtitle track for a previously dub-only release.

There are many decisions to be made. Will the rescuing company choose to reuse the existing subtitle and/or audio tracks, or create new ones? It depends on how easy it is to obtain those materials and if they’re considered up to the standards of the new company. If the new company does create new audio, what about fans who prefer the old English track? Do you include both? What if the old audio is for an edited version? Do you create new audio just for the previously censored bits? (These questions come up even for non-rescues, as they did for Funimation’s unedited release of Dragon Ball Z.)

Remastering video for high definition is also a big consideration. Are masters available for the title? What kind of condition are they in? If the film is in particularly bad shape, will the new release bring in enough money to justify restoring it? It’s a lot of choices to make with a lot of potential pitfalls. Some companies specialize in these sorts of rescues, like Discotek, and some companies license-rescue only titles they’re certain will be big sellers worth the investment, like Viz’s license rescue of Sailor Moon.

That’s All for Now

As we approach the end of the 2010s, most Americans have heard of anime, if only as “that thing my friend/kid/cousin is really into.” Hollywood has taken note of anime’s popularity, too. American movies have often looked to Japan for inspiration (Star Wars was notably influenced by Seven Samurai), but in recent years movies based on anime like Ghost in the Shell, Speed Racer, and yes, even Detective Pikachu have become high profile and open about their origins.

What new innovations will we see in the anime market over the next 10 years? Looking at history, the most obvious points of change are likely to be new methods for content delivery and globalization bringing the American and Japanese markets ever closer together. But who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, it’s certain that American fans will continue to love anime just as they always have, right from the very start.


Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com, where she offers tips and insights into business writing.

Special thanks Anime News Network and their vast encyclopedia, which was an invaluable resource for double-checking dates, titles, and company names. Even the Right Stuf database can't (quite) compare.


How many of these popular 2010s titles have you seen?


Attack On Titan, Bananya, Black Butler, Blue Exorcist, Durarara!!, Fairy Tail, Free!, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Kemono Friends, My Hero Academia, Natsume's Book of Friends, One Punch Man, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, A Silent Voice, Steins;Gate, Summer Wars, Sword Art Online, Toradora, Your Name, Yuri!!! On Ice

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