Crunchyroll Originals Have Been A Disasterby Callum May,
It's difficult to sum up exactly what a “Crunchyroll Original” series is. If you ask Alden Budill, head of global partnerships and content strategy, she'll tell you that “a CR Original is a piece of content that could only exist within CR and is made for our audiences with the distinct intention to fulfill what they're looking for from us as a brand and what they're looking for from anime as an art form.”
Basically, it's a little vague. So I'll try and give my own definition.
Crunchyroll Originals is an umbrella term used to brand the company's current and future attempts to create shows both within and outside of Japan. With the anime industry busier than ever, the streaming service has established its own animation studio in Burbank and has been working with Japanese partners to co-produce shows so that Netflix and Funimation can't get their hands on them. The term doesn't necessarily mean Crunchyroll owns the anime, but rather that they had some involvement in its initial funding.
The brand was announced in 2020, but what followed has been a series of management issues, production disasters, and massive gaps in communication. Announcement dates have been missed without comment, and even simple questions like, “What on earth is Crunchyroll Studios Japan?” have gone completely unanswered. In fact, in our correspondence with a Crunchyroll spokesperson, they refused to answer any questions about their work in Japan.
Each part of the Crunchyroll Originals initiative has had a different level of turmoil based on their specific circumstances, so it makes sense to separate the umbrella term into four different sections. As of writing, Crunchyroll Originals are continuing, but with the upcoming buyout from Funimation and Sony Pictures, it'll be up to them whether this article ends up as a post-mortem or not.
Most Crunchyroll Originals that we see coming from Japan are a part of the company's existing line of co-productions. One of the earliest parts of the anime production process is a search for investors who will make up the show's production committee. These usually involve advertising companies, entertainment conglomerates, publishers, and now more frequently, online streaming services. In 2015, Crunchyroll created a joint venture with the trading company Sumitomo Corporation to create a fund that would be used to increase the amount of shows they were able to invest in. This led to a whopping 19 Crunchyroll co-productions releasing in 2017.
One of their most notable co-productions was The Rising of The Shield Hero, an adaptation of a Kadokawa light novel that Crunchyroll staff pitched to the publisher. The streaming platform already had a strong connection with Kadokawa through their “strategic alliance”, which would have them license the majority of Kadokawa programming, but they now had the ability to pitch suggestions as well. The Rising of The Shield Hero isn't technically a “Crunchyroll Original”, but that's more of an issue with timing than anything else.
From January 2020, a number of Crunchyroll co-productions were branded as Originals. These included Gibiate, TONIKAWA: Over The Moon For You, and So I'm a Spider, So What? However, it notably doesn't include co-productions like A Destructive God Sits Next to Me, Woodpecker Detective's Office, or the currently airing Odd Taxi. This is part of the reason why Crunchyroll Originals are so difficult to define – there's little consistency in what counts.
In my description before, I mentioned that the anime industry is busier than ever. It's part of a current overproduction crisis spurred on by the growing financial success of anime, largely due to the growth of overseas streaming services. In fact, revenue from overseas licensing makes up almost 50% of all anime revenue. International markets are expected to overtake the Japanese market for anime in the coming years. For fans, this has meant a larger selection than ever before, but behind the scenes, this has been the cause of shorter schedules, overwork, and a difficulty in finding animation staff. These struggles have been obvious with many Crunchyroll Originals, particularly EX-ARM and Gibiate, two examples of strained productions (although Ex-Arm was a disaster before it had even started). When asked what steps the company takes to prevent overwork on co-productions, a Crunchyroll spokesperson declined to answer.
Of course, Crunchyroll isn't the only one creating co-productions. The same is true for Funimation and several Chinese streaming services. Fullmetal Alchemist director Seiji Mizushima has criticised this trend, noting that overseas streaming services have a habit of investing in these shows as a way of owning partial rights to the brand, and that a lot of the modern anime industry has just become about fulfilling requests from streaming companies. While this brings more money to the industry, he says that it doesn't affect how the staff is paid. Animation studios are often treated as just contract workers by those in the production committees. Mizushima has called for higher budgets, an increase in pay for animators, and less corporate hands within animation production.
We asked a Crunchyroll spokesperson to facilitate an interview with Takaya Yamaguchi, Senior Director of Global Content Strategy at the company, but they failed to respond to these requests.
Crunchyroll Studios Burbank
The Crunchyroll Originals brand didn't just involve original programming from Japan. In 2018, they announced the establishment of Ellation Studios (later renamed Crunchyroll Studios) in Burbank, California, dedicated to creating anime-inspired shows from the United States. These would have a similar budget to anime, making them considerably low-budget programming for American animation. The first would be High Guardian Spice, a magical coming-of-age story from Raye Rodriguez, supervised by Animaniacs director Audu Paden.
According to Head of Studio Margaret Dean, Crunchyroll Studios Burbank was founded on the “core principles of workplace diversity and respect”, and boasted a 100% female writers' room for High Guardian Spice specifically. The studio takes inspiration from the creativity of the anime industry in regards to wanting to cover a variety of different genres and create animation for many different demographics. These claims were accompanied by a trailer announcing both Ellation Studios and High Guardian Spice specifically.
The backlash was immediate. Some were concerned about revenue being spent on American animation, but others were outraged by the focus on diversity and LGBTQ+ creators. While I agree that the trailer struggled to explain the appeal of High Guardian Spice outside of Rodriguez's infectious enthusiasm, the reactionary YouTube videos and sustained anger was far from proportional.
High Guardian Spice was announced for release in 2019 and completed production in November of the same year. “Now it's just a matter of when [Crunchyroll] wills it to be released into the wild,” said showrunner Raye Rodriguez. Except Crunchyroll didn't end up willing it to be released anytime soon. It missed both its 2019 and 2020 release dates without any explanation. The show is now expected to be receiving a new release date in Summer 2021. In the meantime, a hashtag #ReleaseHighGuardianSpice was popularised, and Rodriguez responded glumly to those asking where the show was.
🌚— ⭐️Raye Rodriguez🌙 (@dinoraye) December 1, 2020
Many have speculated that the immense backlash was the reason for both the lack of communication or release; last year, animation graduate Sara Eissa claimed to have been told exactly that by Crunchyroll executives. In a Twitter thread, she alleges that when she pitched her idea to a large company (heavily implied to be Crunchyroll), they turned it down, explaining that they had trouble with the marketing for High Guardian Spice and were actively trying to avoid creating shows with diverse themes. Onyx Equinox creator Sofia Alexander claimed later that day that animation creators have no say in how their shows are marketed.
So far, Onyx Equinox is the only Crunchyroll Originals Burbank show to have released, and while it struggled to achieve the reach of the more popular anime airing that season, it had a dedicated audience, particularly within Latin America. No other Crunchyroll Studios Burbank shows have been announced past High Guardian Spice. According to a Crunchyroll representative, the studio remains open.
Crunchyroll Studios Tokyo
The Crunchyroll Studios brand expands beyond just Burbank, but the former Tokyo branch was an entirely different operation that resulted in more missed deadlines and a lot of wasteful spending.
The streaming platform has been trying to create original programming in Japan for a while now. There was 2017's Children of Ether by LeSean Thomas and Yapiko Animation, as well as Urahara, created by Crunchyroll News' former Editor-in-Chief with animation studios EMT Squared and Shirogumi.
Children of Ether was particularly significant in that it was meant to be the start of a strong relationship between Crunchyroll and the French company Yapiko Animation. In the mid 2010s, Crunchyroll was trying to develop original content, but they didn't have contacts within the larger studios to make it happen. Yapiko's team in Japan would be Crunchyroll's gateway into the industry, starting with Children of Ether.
However, at that time, Yapiko's Japanese branch was mostly just that: a branch. And so they collaborated with Studio pH president Sachiko Kondō to establish a proper Japanese company that could handle the kind of animation production Crunchyroll was asking of them. Along with Yapiko Animation, the streaming service would also contract the services of Tsumugi Akita Animation Lab (then Tsumugi Animation Research Institute), a 3DCG team Studio pH themselves and the background company Inspired.
These companies would provide the talent while Crunchyroll would provide a space where they could create Crunchyroll Originals from. This would be Hicut Building in Nakano, otherwise known as Crunchyroll Studios Tokyo. The anime studios would remain independent, but the streaming service would rent out five of the building's ten floors for them to work in. Within these walls, the studios would have staff working on Meiji Gekken: Sword and Gun and Warren Ellis' FreakAngels.
Even with the streaming service only using five floors, those at the studio still found an abundance of space within the large Hicut Building with some rooms being left half-empty. In a city where most studios consist of small rooms with tightly packed lines of desks, Crunchyroll Studios Tokyo was bizarre and overly expensive. It started in 2018 and shut down in 2020, with most studios going elsewhere. Tsumugi Animation packed their bags and moved all the way to Akita (this move was unrelated to Crunchyroll Studio Japan's closure, only a part of their staff worked there) where they are finishing off work on Meiji Gekken: Sword and Gun, while Yapiko's Japan studio has now closed after having struggled to handle production on two different shows.
If this is the first time you're hearing about it, that's not surprising. Crunchyroll's struggles to maintain their own Japanese production house have been kept tightly under wraps by the streaming service, and the teams behind their shows have never been mentioned in any promotional material. Even some of those working at the company and on these Original shows weren't clear on how the relationship between Crunchyroll and the studios at Hicut Building actually worked.
In the wake of over 60 people accusing Warren Ellis of abuse of power, manipulation, and predatory behavior targeting both fans and other industry creatives, some have wondered about the fate of the FreakAngels anime. When asked if they would still be releasing the show, a Crunchyroll spokesperson stated that they would be, and we can expect to hear more information soon.
By this point, it should be clear that Crunchyroll was having difficulties in creating Japanese original anime programming, and so it made more sense to team up with a studio that had far more experience in US-Japan hybrids. Sola Digital Arts CEO Joseph Chou was the bridge between US companies and Japanse studios on projects like The Animatrix and Halo Legends, while also having previously worked on a pitch for a live-action Evangelion film with Weta Workshop and ADV Films.
Chou and his studio Sola Digital Arts already had a track record working with overseas streaming platforms in their recent collaborations with Netflix, Ultraman and Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. But what Crunchyroll asked for was different. They didn't want the CG animators at Sola Digital Arts – they wanted the producers, and the company established the new brand Sola Entertainment to facilitate these kinds of requests.
So far, this has been Crunchyroll's most successful attempt at creating original series. In 2019, they announced a partnership with South Korea's Webtoon where they would fund adaptations of popular Webtoon comics. These included Telecom Animation Film's Tower of God and MAPPA's The God of High School. Joseph Chou would serve as a producer on both of these series.
For The God of High School, Chou was looking for a studio that could handle the fight scenes from the comic and immediately thought of MAPPA. He contacted the studio's president Manabu Otsuka, a personal friend, and they put forward Sunghoo Park as director. During production, Park wanted to capture real-life stunt actors and recreate their performances in animation. Thankfully, they already had a Sola Digital Arts producer on staff whose motion-capture studio they could take advantage of.
While the streaming service doesn't have any more Webtoon anime announced, they are still working with Sola Entertainment on the upcoming Shenmue anime, produced at Telecom Animation Film studio, the same team that handled Tower of God. This time, Crunchyroll is collaborating with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block to create it.
I mentioned before that Funimation's acquisition of Crunchyroll may turn this article into a post-mortem. This section is one that you can expect to see in the grave first. Crunchyroll's latest Original announcements have come as part of a team-up between the streaming service and WarnerMedia's Adult Swim block. Of course, once Crunchyroll leaves the Warner empire, there won't be much reason to continue these collaborations. So far, the announced shows include Blade Runner: Black Lotus, Shenmue, and Fena: Pirate Princess.
Blade Runner: Black Lotus is a 3DCG show created at Sola Digital Arts and serves as an extension of Shinichiro Watanabe's Blade Runner: Black Out 2022. Watanabe is listed as “Creative Producer” on the new project, although in an interview with OTAQUEST, he notes that he has very little to do with the project. “I am only loosely involved in the new Blade Runner series. I provided my opinions on the early concept, but that's about it. The directors are Kamiyama [Kenji] and Aramaki [Shinji], so I left my expectations with them.” The show will be another of the two director's frequent collaborations that also have included Ultraman and Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. The series is now scheduled to premiere this fall on Adult Swim in Canada.
Shenmue will see series creator Yu Suzuki serving as Executive Producer on an anime adaptation managed by Sola Entertainment and produced by SEGA's Telecom Animation Film studio. While Suzuki left SEGA in 2011, he still retains an advisory position at the company. At Virtual Crunchyroll Expo 2020, the 13-episode series was announced to be directed by Chikara Sakurai, who also directed Season 2 of One-Punch Man.
Fena: Pirate Princess is now director Kazuto Nakazawa's second chance at developing an original show for a major streaming service, with the first being the Netflix Original series B: The Beginning. Fena is part of a line of collaborations between Adult Swim and Production I.G that started with Immortal Grand Prix in 2003 and was revived by FLCL's sequels and the upcoming Uzumaki adaptation. Producer Rui Kuroki refers to Fena as "something Production I.G has never done before.”
Adult Swim are also producing several shows outside of their work with Crunchyroll, including Uzumaki and several Rick and Morty anime shorts (with help from Sola Entertainment). Even once Crunchyroll has moved onto Sony, WarnerMedia and Adult Swim will still be able to create their own original anime for the block.
I Don't Even Know Anymore
Crunchyroll has a communication problem, both internally and externally. From the lack of information about High Guardian Spice, to the complete media blackout on anything related to Crunchyroll Studios Tokyo, the streaming service has frequently failed to answer questions on their productions. This is all exacerbated by an irresponsible push for more co-productions that contribute to the current overproduction crisis that is overworking and pushing creators out of the industry. Although Crunchyroll was among many to sponsor a college animation festival in 2019, there have been no apparent moves to improve conditions on their shows. A Crunchyroll spokesperson declined to answer my question regarding working conditions.
Original programming is hardly a new trend, but it's certainly become more popular among anime streaming services in the last five years. Netflix has become so dedicated to their Original Anime brand that they've even worked to expand the definition to include series produced in the United States and South Korea.
Crunchyroll's latest Original Series include Dantai, an afropunk sci-fi series in collaboration with Idris and Sandra Elba's production studios, and an upcoming anime series in collaboration with WWE Studios that Crunchyroll has refused to comment on. Due to the profitability of the medium, more companies than ever before are investing in anime, and that seems to involve those in the United States as well.
“Even though they need other people to do the work for them, they want to reap all the rewards and take advantage of the people working with them by making them agree to waive their rights in advance,” says Seiji Mizushima on streaming companies.
In some ways, it feels like telling a lion not to bite. Large corporations will always persist in attempting to create as much revenue from the anime industry as possible until the trends change or all the artists burn out – whichever comes first. From an animator's perspective, Crunchyroll's buyout by Funimation will only mean that artists will have to sleep at their desks to create shows for a different uncaring megacorporation.
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