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.