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Time Well Spent

by Justin Sevakis,

The crushing heat wave is finally over here in Los Angeles. I didn't get to go to the beach, but instead I sat in my apartment building's hot tub-sized pool, and then went inside and watched Free! I think I did OK.

EpicWizard asks:

I've been visiting anime streaming websites like Crunchyroll for a while and notice that long-running anime like Ojarumaru (aka Prince Mackaroo), Nintama Rantarou, and Soreike! Anpanman aren't on there. With tons of anime series being on those anime streaming websites, the people involved on them always seem to not bother streaming the long-running anime series that have been popular in Japan for years. Are those just too expensive to license for streaming, or are they thinking that no one will watch them?

The three series you named all have two things in common: first, they're non-serialized shows for little kids. Second, they're all well over a thousand episodes long. Prince Mackaroo is at 1,458 episodes, Rantaro Nintama is over 1,800, and Anpanman is well over 1,200.

These shows have been going for so long that many of them probably are not cleared contractually for online streaming. Moreover, kids shows generally don't do well on streaming sites -- while it's true Western anime fans have gotten younger, they're generally still aged pre-teen and up. These shows are more for kids that would have trouble reading subtitles consistently. Lastly, while these shows aren't really serialized and it's not necessary to go back and translate every single episode to introduce them to American audiences, the sheer volume of content available makes them somewhat daunting.

Since these aren't otaku shows, but rather kids' properties, the producers likely won't be all that excited to put them on streaming services overseas either. The real money in kids' properties is in merchandising, so without having a solid marketing plan in place to launch these shows in those countries, they will probably feel like they're wasting their "official debut" on a platform that doesn't get them their desired audience. So that's why -- it's just not a good fit.

Emily asks:

I've been wondering why some anime have gaps of a year or more between seasons and others have gaps of a few months or just continue for long periods of time. I've also noticed that the number of long running series (especially those with lots of filler episodes in) seems to have declined in number, is that true or am I just imagining it? For example, I would have imaged Kuroko no Basket would have been turned into a long running show, especially with how popular it is at the moment, but it's in distinct seasons separated by a year.

There's a key difference between a long-running show like, say, One Piece, and a late-night show like Kuroko's Basketball. The former is a very mainstream show aimed at kids, which airs on Sunday mornings. The latter, despite how teen-friendly it seems, is aimed more at otaku than a mainstream audience, and it airs late at night.

The economics of a "daytime" kids' show and a late-night "otaku" show are very very different. Kids' and family properties are designed to run as long as possible, since their primary reason to exist is to sell merchandise. The merchandise makers sponsor the show through the TV network, the TV network pays the producers, the producers pay the animation studio. Everybody's happy, and as long as the sponsorship money holds (i.e. the toys and stuff keep selling), the show continues.

This system produced a lot more bombs than it did hits, and the thing is, anime has such a long lead time that putting the breaks on a show that bombs can take literally months. By the time the sponsor and/or TV network decides to pull the plug, there might be another dozen episodes in various stages of production, and all of that still has to be paid for. It's a huge waste of money. So now this system is reserved only for the "surefire hits", i.e. proven kids' and family properties like One Piece.

Everything else goes in late-night infomercial timeslots, which are purchased outright by the production committees, who find sponsors on their own, and plug their own commercials into the programs. They have their own plans for making money (usually involving DVDs and merchandise), and the TV airing just acts as a commercial for those products. And to mitigate risk, they only produce them a season at a time. That way if it bombs, they're only out for those handful of episodes they set out to make. And if it's a hit, like Kuroko's Basketball, they'll start another season going.

But the engines take a while to get moving again. The team has to be reassembled, new scripts have to be made, and there's so much to do before the show can see air that it's usually only possible to make a season of anime once a year at this rate. Occasionally a production committee will get daring and green-light two seasons at a time, but that's a rarity. It's all in the name of not taking unnecessary and expensive risks.

Jacob asks:

Will a Japanese Anime Company will buy a US Anime Licensing Company (i.e. Sunrise buying Sentai Filmworks)?

I'm not sure what inspired this question (I took nothing out of context here -- that was the whole email), but your timing with it is oddly prescient. To get the straightforward answer out of the way: no, I honestly can't envision a scenario where that would happen. Mostly because it happened once before, and it was a disaster: Sojitz Corporation, a giant Japanese megaconglomerate, bought a good percentage of ADV Films, and the resulting culture clash, the in-fighting, and the overall failure of the whole venture was so great that ADV basically had to saw themselves apart into different holding companies (of which Sentai Filmworks is but one) just to re-form themselves without Sojitz. (Okay, they might've been going bankrupt too. There was a lot going wrong, there.)

Japanese producers are always interested in taking more control of the American market, and splitting the resulting revenue pie with fewer people. Many of them are not all that thrilled with the current options for selling a title to Western audiences. At main issue is that nearly all of the publishers hold out for exclusive online rights, when the producers could easily just put the show on Hulu and/or Netflix themselves and collect 100% of the revenues. With streaming becoming more and more important, they're more and more eager to cut out the middleman. However, buying an existing company does not seem like a good investment.

The thing to remember about anime distributors is that, unless they do something else besides license and release anime, they don't actually own ANYTHING. No assets of their own. Everything they "have" is a limited-time loan and once those contracts expire, they're gone. So with no actual assets (office chairs and PCs notwithstanding), the only real value in an anime distributor is its established distribution network, the staff (any of whom can leave at any time) and their reputation as a corporation (including things like their value as a brand, their web traffic, etc). Those things definitely have value, but how much is debatable.

It used to be that having the ability to distribute DVDs to stores nationwide was a big thing, which took years of relationship building and salesmanship. These days you can cover almost all of your customers just by selling to Right Stuf, Amazon and a handful of other retailers. Only the biggest shows are worth the trouble and expense of a push into brick and mortar stores, and that can be done through a partner when the time comes. Relationships with Netflix and Hulu are but a phone call away (and both are trying to work more directly with Japanese licensors these days). Marketing to Americans is a lot harder of a prospect, but even that can be done with just a few people, rather than buying a whole company. And all this is to say nothing of the culture clash. Americans and Japanese work very, very differently, and many existing teams of Americans would find working for a Japanese company to be insufferable.

No, if a Japanese producer wanted to have a presence in the US, they'd be far more likely these days to just build their own. Aniplex of America, for all the relentless hate they get from some fans, is the industry success story right now. Their sales are good, they've been adding staff, and they've successfully cut out the middleman and are selling anime direct to Americans on their own. Other anime producers want a piece of that action, but they don't have longtime American industry people like Hideki "Henry" Goto and Hiroe Tsukamoto (both formerly of Pioneer Animation/Geneon) to guide them through what would be an expensive venture in what is a very intimidating market from the outside. Everybody remembers what happened to Bandai Visual USA, too.

The Funimations and Sentais of the world are still the undisputed champs when it comes to putting an anime title in as front of many eyeballs as possible, but for more niche shows, that may not be a necessary step. Bandai Visual and TMS are already putting their back catalogs directly onto Hulu themselves, to say nothing of Polygon Pictures' direct deal with Netflix to dub and stream Knights of Sidonia. I expect at least a couple more Japanese producers to start working more directly with the American market in the near future, but how successful they will be is anyone's guess.

Full disclosure: I do work for TMS Entertainment, and have done some with Bandai Visual.

Jake asks:

I have been watching a few slice of life shows recently and have noticed that whenever shows about people who work part time jobs at fast food or casual restaurant like Working!! or The Devil is a Part Timer!, why are they so happy? Here in the USA these places are sort of a necessary evil of modern society. I have eaten in restaurants all over the country and have worked my way through college doing similar work and it was miserable. Almost every movie about working in these establishments like Clerks, Office Space, Waiting… among many others in some way show some true aspects of the food industry. Maybe it's just me, but I just find it strange to see happy part timers that strive for excellence and not just the bare minimum. Managers who actually care about their employees and reward them for good work and sales by giving them raises, promotions, more hours, or better shifts. Customers that aren't rude and disrespectful and belittle you for working there. No mention of the illegal nonsense that goes on that pops up on the news time to time here. Is working in Japan's fast food/casual dinning industry way better than here in the USA? If this is not true, as far as I know, why aren't there any truly realistic depictions of working menial part time work?

I guarantee you that working a food service job in Japan is just as crappy and hard as it is in America. Their minimum wage isn't substantially higher than ours (¥664-869 per hour), and food service sucks no matter what. But what you're seeing is a pretty major cultural difference known as the Japanese work ethic. In simplified terms, it's the "it's hard, but I have to do my best!" ethos that bleeds through to nearly every part of their popular culture. You've seen it in anime, you've seen it in TV dramas and movies, you've heard it in pop songs. Here is how it manifests itself in real life.

Japan has a very high standard of decorum for service industry workers. Smile. Follow the script from Corporate. Use a high voice so you sound friendlier. Bow and say thank you after every transaction. These are not optional, and if you visit Japan you'll see that this happens everywhere, at every store, restaurant and consumer-facing office. They're very strict about that -- it's part of the job. The end result is that sometimes it's as if the whole country has OCD. While I was in Tokyo I would often see things like janitors in spotless uniform jumpsuits literally leaping to the ground to sweep up some freshly dropped cigarette ash with their hands. It's all very nice, but to an American, feels just a LIIIITLE bit robotic. Or fascist, whichever you like.

It's easy to say that Japan has it better, and for a consumer, the better service can be quite nice. Americans tend to fetishize both rebellion and the idea that we're all a special snowflake, so having to work in an unglamorous, low-paying job with little space for creativity or individuality makes us feel like we're wasting our lives, or doing something beneath us. So a lot of us put on bad attitudes, sluff off, and do the bare minimum. That has a depressing psychological effect and makes us even more miserable. (Trust me, I worked at an EB Games in 1998 right when Pokémon hit really big. "Do you have any Pokémon Cards?" is still a trigger phrase for me.) Also it seems like customers, frustrated by completely unrelated things, take out their frustrations on service sector employees a lot, too.

This isn't to say that the Japanese way is much better. The relentlessness of it all makes for a lot of pressure, and people burn out. Employees end up getting tunnel-vision -- obsessed with the strict confines of their own job description but unable to see a bigger picture. (This is known, derisively, as being a "Sarari-man," and it can be very frustrating to deal with.) The lack of upward mobility makes people give up on ever getting a well-paying job, and never pursuing anything serious career-wise. It's a small part of a much larger societal problem, and it's affecting the younger generation quite strongly as I understand it. Others who have spent more time in Japan than me would be better qualified to explain this more, so I invite them to do so in the forums.

But also, keep in mind, you're watching anime -- and anime about teenagers, at that. It's all going to be idealized, stylized, romanticized. Shows like Wagnaria!! are more about exploring otaku fantasies about the cute waitress at the family restaurant than depicting the grit of real life. Anime is escapist entertainment.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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