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Why Is Anime Getting More Popular In The West (Again)?

by Justin Sevakis,

Joachim asks:

If i look around me, there's more and more people starting to like anime. and i love that. but of course those people are all of western origin and not japanese, so my question is: why is anime growing so much in popularity in the west these days? How do the japansese see anime these days, and is it true that it is losing its popularity in japan? And if this is true, what will become of anime in the future? will it change drastically for us westerlings to watch anime if it's not as popular anymore in japan?

These are good days in the anime business, especially in the West. More shows are reaching a wider audience than ever. Japan is really starting to take Western audiences and their viewership seriously, and starting to depend on revenue coming from Western fans again.

At the heart of all of these trends is the revolution of online streaming, either legally or otherwise. For years, anime consumption was being held back by the inherent cludginess of needing to be delivered on a VHS tape or DVD, and we didn't even know it. Fans had to hunt down and buy anime in order to see it, often not knowing if they'd like it or not. To discover anime, they'd have to stumble across a (rare) TV broadcast, or be introduced to it through a friend. If those fans were unlucky enough to live in a place where there were no shops around that stocked a decent selection of anime (or a country that didn't have local anime publishers), they were often completely out of luck.

No longer. The fact that you can watch most anime, for free, any time, anywhere, drastically changed both the amount of anime people watched, and what they chose to watch. No longer are fans needing to prioritize seeing the newest, most talked-about shows -- they can deep-dive and check out some classics. Ancient shows that once had been relegated to the dustbin of anime history are now often starting to find their niche on sites like Crunchyroll and Hulu. There are still issues to be ironed out, of course -- not the least of which is improving streaming availability outside of North America. But companies are hard at work trying to fix that situation as much as the red tape will allow.

Now new fans see anime artwork on Hulu or Netflix, and will click on it out of curiosity, leading them down a rabbit hole that will lead to many hours of anime consumption, and possibly becoming an otaku. Like traffic to a web site, this is organic growth -- putting out good stuff in a way that it can be discovered, and letting people come and discover it on their own. It really is a testament to how good the content really is.

But people wouldn't be coming and sticking around if Japan wasn't making the shows that Western fans wanted, and it's only been the last few years that this has been happening in earnest. Producers are returning to action, sci-fi, and other genres that travel well, and relying less on more otaku-pandering genres like moe and slice-of-life "healing" anime that are really only popular among Japanese fans. (There are Western fans, but a very finite number.) Shows like Attack on Titan, One-Punch Man, Fairy Tail, and others like them are incredibly important in bringing in new fans in the West.

It's difficult to know if the Japanese target audience is shrinking or not, but going by DVD sales (the industry's bread and butter for many years) it's clear that there is no boom period in Japan -- sales are static or declining across the board. This movement towards making anime a more globally palatable product couldn't come at a better time for them.

Japan has a shrinking population. If anime companies keep depending on domestic fans for their livelihood, the entire business will be in trouble, as that younger population shrinks and shrinks. In order to grow their businesses, the government is trying to push businesses into becoming export-minded, and targeting their products to people worldwide.

As this trend continues, I expect a few companies to invest in co-productions with Western publishers. But I'm skeptical that much will come of that. Japanese content producers tend not to do well at collaborating with creatives overseas, for both business and language barrier-related. I do expect this trend towards more genre-focused shows that more Western fans enjoy to continue, but beyond that, I have no idea what will happen. Japan is not very good at trying to predict the tastes of foreigners, and they're not yet willing to jettison their domestic fan base either. Those conflicting priorities will doubtlessly lead to some real crap being produced in the coming years. But it could result in a few truly great shows as well.

These are good times for fans and anime publishers alike. Let's enjoy them while they last.

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.

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