How Anime Went Mainstream Without Losing Its Cool

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure -  via .

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure - via.

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by Max Genecov (@Maxgenecov)

Over the past few weeks, Kim Kardashian has revealed her secret otaku identity. She admitted on Twitter that anime was her inspiration for dying her hair pink—“I am obsessed,” she wrote—and later posted a fan drawing of her idol, the pink-haired, lascivious Zero Two from the new hit giant robot show DARLING in the FRANXX. Now she’s documenting herself on Instagram slurping noodles and wandering around train stations in Kyoto.

The most surprising part of all of this is that it’s not that surprising. Kardashian is part of a wave of celebrity anime mania. Britney Spears is extremely proud of her son’s drawings of Dragon Ball Z’s Goku. Screenshots of Michael B. Jordan nerding out about Naruto on social media have become endearing memes. Anime saturation has reached the point that Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell live-action remake felt passé by the time it came out, largely because anime fans could get their kicks elsewhere from non-whitewashed sources. Ezra Koenig and Jaden Smith were (somehow) able to finance the Netflix series Neo Yokio, a mish-mash of ‘90s anime tropes in a Gatsby-esque satire of Manhattan society.

This sudden omnipresence is something I would have never dared to predict as a teenage anime fan watching old Azumanga Daioh fansubs, but mainstream culture seems to have caught up. For me, anime was an experience privately enjoyed with a couple friends, supplemented by online commentary. The genre felt firmly outside the everyday conversation. Seeing anime now surge in the public consciousness is particularly exciting because it’s becoming more popular at a moment when it has also never been better or weirder.

Mainstream audiences — not just nerds or celebrities — are obsessing over anime. The leading anime streaming service Crunchyroll has over 35 million registered users, Joellen Ferrer, VP of Communications at its parent company Ellation, told me. Crunchyroll gained 15 million users in the last two years, and hit 1 million paid subscribers in February 2017. Though that’s still much smaller than services like Hulu, which has 17 million paid subscribers, it’s possible that more people could be checking out Shokugeki no Soma, an anime about a cutthroat culinary high school, than watching prestige-y content like The Looming Tower.

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Anime became a communal experience for kids in the U.S. around the turn of the millennium. Unlike most cartoons, anime was emotional, absurd, and, often enough, erotically intriguing. In some ways, anime presaged prestige television’s strengths, with well-rounded characters, critically subverted genre tropes, experimental aesthetics, and a willingness to challenge audiences without worrying about losing them.

Nostalgia seems to be the driving impulse for those who return to the comfort that anime provided in their youth. When the late-capitalist hellworld gets you down, it only makes sense to go back to something that nourished you with clear stories of good versus evil or giant robot versus other giant robot. A few vintage popular shows, like Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL, also dabbled in an existential terror that seems suited to confront the Trump era. The internet has helped fans do more than just go back to Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon; it’s about experiencing modern anime on its own terms.

Patrick Galbraith, author of The Moe Manifesto — a book about fan obsession with libidinal cuteness (“moe” in Japanese) — argues that anime fandom in the U.S. can be separated into eras. “There are waves, which probably correspond to VHS, TV, and the Internet,” Galbraith said. “Anime was less known and harder to get in the VHS wave, went relatively mainstream with TV and became another entertainment option with the Internet. There are really intense fans of really deep and obscure content now.”

The gender-bending Ranma ½ went direct to American VHS in 1994 and Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z were licensed in 1995 and 1996 respectively. The afternoon and evening animation segment Toonami was launched on Cartoon Network in 1997. The quality of these shows varied, but the genre often didn’t, sticking to action shows with the kind of tiresome physical comedy that preteen boys love, as Galbraith pointed out. It doesn’t help that Toonami burned through the best of the previous ten years of dubbed anime relatively quickly, hitting its peak by 2004.

Cartoon Network’s late-night program Adult Swim took up the mantle of premium anime outlet with edgier content like Cowboy Bebop in the mid-2000s. But besides shows like FLCL and Inuyasha, the programming was similar to the masculinist genre narrowness of Toonami. Sure, people kept watching hits like Bleach and The Big O, however mediocre they may have been, but TV viewers were dwindling. Toonami was cancelled in 2008, and Adult Swim cancelled much of its anime programming in 2009.

The internet allowed anime to bloom into something more mature and weirder, unfiltered by the standards of cable. With the availability of pirated video files, fans became aware that they had been seeing only “a very small sample of the diversity of anime,” Galbraith said. The mid-2000s was a turning point for anime. Crunchyroll was launched in 2006 by Berkeley graduates, and allowed users to upload their own anime. The service changed the way fans followed their favorite shows in the nascency of streaming online video.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya premiered the same year. The show is emblematic of the phenomena that Americans had been missing. Already a hit in Japan, the show was consummate insider content, with satirical references to other anime, supernatural happenings in a stereotypical high school, and a sizable helping of juvenile sexuality (hyper-jiggly breasts and Playboy bunny outfits). Haruhi Suzumiya was a breath of fresh air, totally different from the collisions of human meat familiar from action shows like Dragon Ball Z or Yu Yu Hakusho. Crunchyroll fed off the passion that these more niche shows stoked.

Little Witch Academia was the first of Netflix's prominent exclusive anime releases.  via .

Little Witch Academia was the first of Netflix's prominent exclusive anime releases. via.


In 2009, Crunchyroll went straight, banning user uploads as part of a distribution agreement with publishing giants TV Tokyo, Shueisha, and Studio Pierrot. Simulcasts would be available to subscribers and free to everyone else a week later. Further partnerships with Funimation, AT&T, and Kadokawa along with ownership changes allowed Crunchyroll to stream nearly every current anime out there in a scalable format with an unbelievable back catalog. The company also began investing directly in shows as a producer, helping to cater to international audiences. It was simpler than ever to seek out exactly what you wanted in anime, and thus easier to get sucked down the rabbit hole.

But now, anime isn’t just floating around the internet; it’s being actively promoted by some of the biggest content companies. A few months after the service’s slow start in Japan in September 2015, Netflix recognized that investment in new content for Japan, particularly anime, would be necessary to succeed there. Thirty Netflix-produced anime series and movies will come out in 2018 throughout the world, starting with the emotional-murder-demon sensation Devilman Crybaby. Meanwhile, Amazon Prime has found a niche in strategically licensing new anime, some of them, including the critically acclaimed Made in Abyss and Land of the Lustrous (the former about a girl and her robot friend searching for her mom in the abyss, and the latter about sentient, androgynous gems defending an unpopulated Earth from gem-poachers from the moon).

What’s interesting about anime’s popularity is that it hasn’t been watered down to appeal to wider audiences. For instance, Attack on Titan, one of the most popular shows right now, is extremely weird when compared to anything on American TV. The show is gothic in the extreme, with references to Norse mythology and influence from the history of the Japanese military. Its plot involves soldiers equipped with Spiderman-ish grappling hook machines defending the remnants of humanity (trapped in a single city of concentric walls) from enormous, mindless humanoid cannibals, called titans, outside their gates.

Attack on Titan is both monstrous and philosophical.  via . 

Attack on Titan is both monstrous and philosophical. via

From the idiosyncratic fighting sequences to its interrogation of trauma and PTSD, Attack on Titan goes deep. It’s not my personal cup of tea, but the way that AoT builds off its action-genre roots gives it a groundedness that would otherwise be hard to locate in such a high concept. Most importantly, though, this bizarre concept today finds a huge audience across the world who wouldn’t have been able to see it without online streaming services.

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Anime’s weirdness includes an unavoidable dark side, driven in part by the same otaku culture that Kim Kardashian references. Hardcore anime fans have become an influential audience, but they can also influence how shows are made in unsavory ways. “Fan service” — characters stuck in sexually revealing outfits or situations — is one example, including the stereotypical waifu character who is vivacious but deferential, beautiful but innocent, and  whose infinite clones and variations are present in almost every anime.

To watch some shows that are otherwise great, you have to endure the camera leering at high school-age cartoon girls, catering to a male gaze that overtly sexualizes young women. Racist caricatures, drawn straight from the American racial imagination, are sometimes presented without comment or critique. Anime can provide a problematic outlet, even a brand, for misogyny even as it offers diverse offerings that might challenge the sociopolitical status quo on American TV. (Thus arises the Horseshoe Theory of Twitter Avatars.)

And yet, unlike most subcultures that celebrities parachute into, the weirdness and darkness of anime hasn’t been sapped away. Perhaps it’s because new converts still encounter it on their own without clear expectations based on previous experience. It’s still a new enough field in the U.S. that you can still be surprised — and that’s exciting.

In its virtual omnipresence, anime is a kind of meta-meme of the moment. It’s a culture we can all participate in, whether we’re watching the shows or posting anime reaction GIFs on Twitter. Its spread works in two directions: from the top-down through new digital content providers and bottom-up through the recommendations of everyone who keeps loving it. After years of ignoring anime, my brother recently watched Kill La Kill on a lark because Netflix suggested it (the almighty power of the algorithm). When he finished, I suggested Devilman Crybaby because it’s new, buzzy, and violent. Now he’s hooked — devastated by the scorched-earth end of the show, but hooked nonetheless.

At its best, anime is something so idiosyncratic and enticing that you have to watch it to satisfy your own curiosity. It’s a uniquely labyrinthine subculture. There’s always a deeper level that the bandwagon is unlikely to break into, either because it’s too hard to access outside of Japan or just too weird for wider audiences. As Western viewers become more fluent in anime’s signature tropes, we might also seek out more obscure gems and develop a taste for their quirks, like a funky wine. Your new favorite is already out there, somewhere. You just don’t know you like it yet.


Some Relatively Current Anime Suggestions:

—If you want a sophisticated form of the punching and yelling you liked when you were a preteen, now grounded in character, watch My Hero Academia.

—If you want sumptuous fantasy and emotional self-discovery, watch The Ancient Magus Bride.

—If you want to know what all your friends were yelling about last year and you miss the Winter Olympics already, watch Yuri on Ice.

—If you want to dissect problematic heterosexuality, scream at DARLING in the FRANXX.

—If you want something unbearably cute, watch Gakuen Babysitters or How to Keep a Mummy.

Otherwise, ask me on Twitter: @Maxgenecov. I will find something for you.


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Peter Moskowitz