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In a little over five years, Netflix has gone from being a relative newbie in Japan’s storied anime industry to a major player.
Netflix only launched in Japan in late 2015 and released its first anime feature film, Blame!, in 2017. Fast-forward five years and the streamer says that half of its estimated 222 million subscribers watched some anime on its service in 2021. Globally, the company also saw a 20 percent increase in the total hours users spent watching anime last year.
During the AnimeJapan convention in Tokyo, which wrapped up last week, Netflix revealed that it would launch 40 new anime titles, spanning a growing range of genres, in 2022 alone. The company is bringing back new seasons of popular series such as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure STONE OCEAN and Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, as well as releasing feature films from top-tier creators, like Tetsurō Araki’s youth action fantasy Bubble, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, and Studio Colorido’s Drifting Home.
Veteran producer Kohei Obara, based in Tokyo, currently oversees all of Netflix’s anime acquisitions and originals as the company’s creative director of anime. Obara began his career at Japan’s powerhouse studio Toei Animation, later working as a freelance producer and also spending three years developing anime projects at Disney. He has been with Netflix since early 2019.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Obara during AnimeJapan for a quick chat about Netflix’s bullishness on the anime business and how Japan’s industry is coping with the incoming flood of international production cash.
How would you summarize the current state of the market for Japanese anime internationally?
It’s going amazingly well. The popularity of anime has been rising quite a bit in recent years. Anime has been big here in Japan for over seven or eight decades, ever since Osamu Tezuka created the first anime title. But in recent years, its popularity has been growing a lot internationally. At Netflix, more than well over half of our subscribers globally have watched anime in the past year, which is an incredible number. In Japan, at least 90 percent of our subscribers have been watching anime. In Japan, it’s always been very big, but the popularity has been rising on a global basis quite a lot as well.
Even in the beleaguered North American theatrical space, some anime titles are putting up really impressive numbers lately. Obviously, you’re not engaged in theatrical distribution, but you must see some synergy in that?
Absolutely. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is just killing it (Distributed by Sony’s Crunchyroll, the film opened in North America on March 18 and has earned about $30 million). It’s an incredible achievement. It’s tempting to say that it has never been done before, but Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train actually carved that slice out of the U.S. box office a couple of years ago (the anime blockbuster earned $49.5 million in North America and $454.7 million worldwide). Seeing this trend continue is really encouraging and reassuring. It tells us how much anime is really a global medium now.
Could you give an overview of how Netflix’s anime strategy has evolved since you became active in the local industry?
Netflix Japan started investing in anime in 2016 with Blame!, and we’ve been growing our investment year after year. We’ve leaned towards a lot of action, adventure, fantasy and sci-fi — very action-heavy titles — but recently I think we’re starting to get to a new stage. Anime has a really wide range of expressions and reaching out to different genres has been one of our goals, especially this year. We have about 40 titles to be announced and released this year as originals, but we’re trying to diversify the programming by getting into, say, lean-back content, romantic dramas and things that are different from what we’ve usually been pursuing.
Based on the large volume of licensed and original anime content you’ve released, what categories have proven to be the most popular so far? And what have been some of your interesting takeaways or surprises about the films and series that connected in different parts of the world?
Well, the biggest hit shows that we’ve had so far — like Devilman Crybaby, for instance — have been very edgy, bloody and sexy, sort of R-rated anime titles, which have made a big splash on a global level. When many people who are new to anime still expect cartoons to be more family-friendly, I think those kinds of things do have a big influence of bringing people in — by extending the understanding of what anime and animation at large can be. On the other hand, we have very lean-back sort of comedy shows like The Disastrous Life of Saiki K and The Way of the Househusband, which are sort of high concept comedy pieces. Those titles resonate really well with the Japanese audience, as expected, but also with global audiences in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. The way anime titles resonate is quite diverse and unique in a way, where you never know what will hit. But that’s sort of how we feel about anime’s capacity and potential on the service right now — that any show could actually become a global hit.
Your major streaming rivals — Amazon, Disney+, HBO Max, etc. — are now following the same playbook by ramping up their anime output, so there is a flood of international capital coming into Japan’s anime sector. How do you think this will affect the local industry?
That’s a really good question. The overflow of capital isn’t necessarily a great thing — because of the relatively small size of the industry and the number of people who are working in it and actually drawing the frames for these shows. It’s not like we can have twice or three times more of them instantly, just because the money is there. We really have to nurture new talent and give them time to learn how these prestigious studios work — and that’s not something that comes overnight with more money.
That’s the tough part of it, but we’re in this for the long term. We’re not just trying to snatch up the best shows out there with a chunk of cash. We’re trying to establish really warm and organic relationship with studios, artists and creators. Of course, we want to come up with the best titles, but we want to do it in a healthy, well-paced manner that will help the industry grow and stay sustainable. To do that, I think we all need to be more grounded in the sense of, like, staying in touch with what anime is and how it is made. Those who understand what’s happening on the ground for these artists are the ones who will prevail in the end. We’re in there to really understand what’s going on.
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