The pros and cons of the Netflix anime studio partnership

On October 22, 2020, the NXOnNetflix Twitter account announced a partnership with NAZ, Science SARU, Studio Mir, and MAPPA. This isn’t the first time Netflix has partnered with an anime studio. In 2018, they made a deal with Production I.G, Wit Studio, and BONES. This was followed by Anima, Sublimation, and David Production in 2019.

On the surface, this announcement seems like unequivocally good news. Netflix is worth nearly $200 billion and they’re aggressively investing in anime. This means they see potential in the medium. It could also mean that studios will start seeing higher production budgets, which theoretically translates to higher quality programming.

It also means less simulcasts each season. Netflix Originals are typically released as a complete package. Episodic schedules aren’t impossible, they’re just uncommon. The 2018 Grappler Baki relaunch was released episodically on Japanese Netflix each week at 24:00 JST. The rest of the world, however, had to wait until it finished airing. It’s possible they received negative feedback for this, because in 2020 they dropped the entire follow-up season worldwide on the same day.

Another criticism is that Netflix doesn’t always release physical copies of their original programming. If you’re not a collector, this probably doesn’t bother you as much as others. Shows like Hi Score Girl and Devilman Crybaby aren’t going away anytime soon. Netflix produced them, so it’s probable that they would have a perpetual license.

That great, but what if they decide that anime is no longer part of their key strategy like Adult Swim did in 2008. Even worse, what if Netflix goes bankrupt and shuts down?

It’s not likely to happen, but it is a concern for some fans. Without a home video release, it’s plausible that exclusive titles could be lost to posterity. This isn’t true of all Netflix Originals. The Irishman and 13 Reasons Why both have physical releases, but it’s less common with their anime titles. The only one I can think of is Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is being handled by a third party.

My biggest concern is with the people working on the localizations. I trust that Netflix is hiring skilled translators, but are they hiring people that specialize in anime? Knowing the source material and the audience that consumes it is just as important as knowing what the words mean. This is how we ended up with the awkwardly translated “Sea King Retsu” in the last two seasons of Grappler Baki.

I hate to be the, “it’s Shinigami, not Soul Reaper” guy, but they call him Retsu Kaioh in every other season. This inconsistency implies they’re using multiple translators that aren’t doing proper research or sharing notes. This kind of mistake is unacceptable for a megacompany like Netflix, especially when those with less resources get it right.

That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, though.

As I’ve already discussed, Netflix has a lot of money at their disposal. Even when compared to Crunchyroll and Funimation’s parent companies, Netflix is no slouch. This is most apparent in how they dub their shows. Netflix is one of the only union anime dubbing operations in the business.

With Netflix dubbing more anime each season, this could put pressure on Funimation and Sentai Filmworks to pay their actors more. Actors go where the work is. More union dubs could incentivize anime voice actors to become union members. With less non-union actors, it will be harder for non-union studios to cast their dubs. In a perfect world, it would lead to SAG-AFTRA organizing these Texas studios.

It may also finally give Crunchyroll the kick in the ass they need to start paying their translators more than $80/episode.

The most obvious benefit to having more anime on Netflix is that more people will be exposed to it. Streaming is awesome. Being able to watch whatever I want, whenever I want is a dream. I grew up in a time where the only way to watch anime was on TV or DVD. Fansubs existed, but downloading anime wasn’t feasible on my dial-up internet connection.

Because of the proliferation of streaming, anime doesn’t play on TV as much as it used to. VRV and HIDIVE are great, but they have limited reach for people that aren’t already fans. Netflix has over 180 million subscribers. That’s a lot of potential anime fans. More anime fans means more anime gets made. It means more merchandise and video games. It also means bigger conventions with bigger guests.

Well, maybe not that last one quite yet.

For better or worse, I’m excited to see what happens next. Netflix is a force to be reckoned with. They just need to do a better job of catering towards anime fan specific needs like simulcasts and home releases. Most of my favorites this year have been Netflix Originals, so they have my trust so far.

They’re also the company that produced three seasons of Grappler Baki after a 17 year hiatus, so I’m a little more forgiving of their flaws than others.

Will anime conventions come back after COVID-19?

Anime conventions have been a critical part of fandom for longer than I’ve been alive. The first US anime convention was YamatoCon in 1983. This single day show was held in a hotel in Dallas, Texas and had around 100 attendees and 8 dealers. The main event was a 13-hour Star Blazers marathon. YamatoCon was so successful that the organizers decided to do it again.

Three years later.

A lot has changed in 30 years. Now there’s an anime convention every weekend. Even the small shows host thousands of attendees. The largest convention is Anime Expo, which draws over 100,000 fans each year.

At least, that’s how it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. April 2020 was the first month in over 40 years to have no conventions, anime or otherwise.

This left anime fans all over the world asking the same question — when will they come back?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Many people falsely assume that COVID-19 will simply go away and life will go back to normal. While that’s not impossible, it’s also unlikely. Even with a vaccine, I expect we’re going to be wearing masks and doing regular tests through next year.

Does that mean no anime conventions for another year? Not quite. In fact, smaller shows are still happening now. You can argue the moral implications for running an anime convention during a pandemic, but without government restrictions of large gatherings, there will always be someone willing to take the risk.

The real question that you need to ask yourself is, “If your favorite convention comes back, will you be comfortable attending?”

If Otakon returns next year, I don’t know if I’ll attend. It will depend on a lot of things that we don’t have the answer to yet. Now that more people are going back to work in my area, positive cases are on the rise. In some parts of the world, they’re back in lockdown. Many people fear that a second wave is around the corner.

In the meantime, people like me have attempted to recreate the convention experience in the digital world. Virtual anime conventions may not be the perfect replacement for the real thing, but they’re a great alternative with their own strengths.

When you don’t have to worry about fire codes, panels can be attended by an unlimited number of people. There’s no more waiting in line either. It also expands the potential audience for each event to anyone with an internet connection.

The online anime convention scene has slowed down, but I hope they don’t go away completely. While I will always prefer to attend a convention in person, it’s not always possible. Online conventions also make programming accessible for people that can’t attend because of disability, financial stress, or not having conventions in their area.

For some people, shows like Anime Lockdown are the first time they’ve ever been able to attend an anime convention. And that’s pretty cool.

Do you have a question for Ask GONZO? Send it to @gonzodotmoe on Twitter!

The Cirque du Freak manga is getting an omnibus and I’m nostalgic as hell

Irish horror author, Darren Shan recently announced that an omnibus edition of the Cirque du Freak manga is being published, and the nostalgia hit me like a truck. 

The Saga of Darren Shan, more commonly known as Cirque du Freak, is Shan’s most well-known work. You might remember it from that time it got a film adaption in the midst of all the Twilight hype in 2009.

So why does it matter? 

Firstly, in the hellscape that we know as 2020, it’s nice to get some good news. The Cirque du Freak manga has been out of circulation for a few years. This reissue will give newer fans of his novels access to the manga without having to pay a fortune for a secondhand copy on eBay.

Secondly, the manga adaption is a great way to become immersed in the world he built. 

I’ve always been one for investing myself in stories — whether it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, or the many, many emo concept albums I adored as a teen that I still love today. 

I was 5 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was in theaters, and I was 7 for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Admittedly, I didn’t get into Lord of the Rings until I was an adult (because I was stupid), but it goes without saying that these worlds have played a large role in my life.

Cirque du Freak is one of those worlds. 

I don’t know who I am without those worlds. They just became a part of me. Of all the vices in the world, or weird coping mechanisms, isn’t being a little too obsessed with art one of the best? Was being a fangirl really a bad thing when I could have been doing worse with my time?

Cirque du Freak follows Darren Shan (yes, he names the protagonist after himself). His world changes when he’s turned into a half-vampire after stealing a vampire’s pet spider at a freak show. Shan’s best friend, Steve, feels betrayed when he leaves him for a world of darkness, a life Steve feels is rightfully his.

While Shan is adjusting to his new life as the vampire’s assistant, Steve joins the Vampaneze, a rival vampire race. The two boys become pawns in a war that has been raging for centuries between the vampires and the Vampaneze. 

Settings like the Cirque du Freak itself and Vampire Mountain became second homes in my mind. As someone who read as many vampire books as possible, I felt Shan’s take was one of the most unique. Hell, he created his own species of vampire!

The Vampaneze are purple-skinned vampires who kill their victims because they feel it is dishonorable and disrespectful to leave them alive. Vampires only drink enough blood to survive and spare their victims. 

The manga spans 12 volumes — the same as the book series. It ran from 2006 until 2009 and has been out of print for some time. This is concerning because Shan is a prolific author who regularly gains new readers. Understandably, these newer fans want access to the same collection of works as the older fans that were around when the manga was first released.

I had never read manga before Cirque du Freak, but I was always intrigued by it. All my pocket money went towards collecting the original books, and I felt lost as I finished each entry. After spending so long invested in this world, so where do I go now? 

Sure, fanfiction exists, and I did read a few fics in the day, but I wanted to remain mostly in the canon. 

That’s when the manga jumped out at me like a beacon in the bookshop. I had a way to stay in the universe that had begun to feel like home. Soon enough, I was buying copy of the manga each week or reading the next volume in the library. 

I vividly remember drawing art from the manga and striking it to my bedroom wall — which, at the time, was mostly a shrine to My Chemical Romance. 

One of the most endearing nuggets of information about the manga is that the artist, Takahiro Arai, was chosen via a competition judged by Shan. The character designs are quirky and unique, but the manga stays true to the plot of the books. It felt like a project that was crafted with love, not just another cash grab.

While the manga is beloved by fans, opinions of the movie are more divisive. When the film was released it received a considerable amount of criticism — most of which is entirely justified.

But I still love it.

I love it because it’s another way to become invested in Shan’s world. Yes, the casting was questionable. Yes, they may have tampered with the canon and timeline. Yes, they may have tried to shove three books into one movie, and then somehow skipped the whole book the film is named after. Despite everything they did wrong, it still felt like home to me.

That said, the manga feels closer to the real thing than the film does. 

As a writer myself, I’ve picked up so much from this series, as well as Shan’s other stories like Demonata and Zom-B. There’s never been another author where I’ve had to put the book down and take a moment because I was so mindblown. 

Shan’s work inspired me to tell my own stories. And he lives in the same town as me, so seeing someone from a relatively small city in Ireland gaining recognition as one of the best-known children’s authors in the world was inspiring to a 15-year-old who wanted to do the same. 

Cirque du Freak was the story that started it all.

The omnibus will be released in 2021 by Yen Press. 

Leave the door unlocked, but savor the stay: Returning to anime on my terms

The first time I heard about anime was in high school. While wading through social formalities and finding a niche to carve for myself, shows like One Piece and Dragon Ball Z would slip into conversation as if they were common knowledge. 

Despite being uninitiated, there were small things that became facts: 

  • Subs are better than dubs. 
  • You can try to get into One Piece, but you’ll never catch up.
  • Even if you’re not involved, having friends yell phrases in broken Japanese at you will earn unwanted attention from down the hall. 

Anime was still shadowbanned from pop culture, but to relate to these people, I would dip my toes into the popular fandoms. I did the research on what was trending – focusing on hot, rising shows — while making sure to stay away from anything bright and squeaky or overly sexualized. 

My first anime had to be strictly cool. 

I settled on two shows — Attack on Titan and One Punch Man. Attack on Titan for its action and emotional content, and One Punch Man for its lighthearted and personable tone.

I found the sketchy streaming websites to watch for free — the ones where the 360p subbed versions have barely legible subtitles. I looked up memes, read forum posts, and enveloped myself in the show’s culture to make sure I wasn’t missing out on anything. I wanted to wring out the same rich experience my new friends boasted about.

With Attack on Titan, I barely made it through two-thirds of the first season. With One Punch Man, I stopped two episodes in. Fuck having to read grainy subtitles, fuck the overly dramatic voice acting, and fuck the massive knockers that made me have to lock the door in fear of my parents walking in. 

Despite my best efforts to enjoy myself, watching anime felt like homework. I spent more time focused on catching every word that popped up on the bottom of the screen while ignoring the action itself. 

I tried to latch onto the characters, but there was nothing to relate to. My big Italian-American family had not yet been eaten by titans. A chunky band kid, I even tried the Saitama workout (and subsequently failed). 

I gave up. 

I chalked it up to a cultural difference that my upbringing left me incompatible with. As a literature lover, I must have just found a genre and medium that I could extract nothing from. That left me frustrated, but I came to peace with the fact that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ll just read the SparkNotes and laugh awkwardly when the topics come up like a normal person, thank you very much.

But the culture around anime through the lens of a spectator has changed. While it retained the classic tropes, themes, and stylings that made it popular (and even expanded on them), anime had assimilated into the mainstream through the shameless pride of its fans. 

People from all walks of life are now Chika Dancing on TikTok. Spongebob was revisited in an epic anime battle-style vision. The audiences from blogs and conventions blossomed and grew. It was a public acknowledgement, and I was reminded that anime was here to stay. It was no longer relegated to the nerdy table in the corner of the cafeteria.

I decided to give anime another shot due to editing content for my dear friend’s blog — a friend who is exteriorly opposite of the traditional anime-lover stereotype in his affinity for fine wine with cheese and crackers. With my background in writing, I would listen to him discuss with friends and edit his reviews. Anime was dragging me back, asking me to dive in again.

Because I had failed before, I took a new approach finding a suitable show to watch. Outlining my interests in art styles, settings, themes, music, and more, I set up the criteria a show had to have before I considered it. 

I landed on Shinichiro Wantabe’s 2005 series, Samurai Champloo. It checked all the boxes with its setting in Edo Japan, its Nujabes-laden soundtrack, and early 2000s art style that reminded me of the Daft Punk music videos I loved growing up. Unlike my hunt for precarious, grainy videos in high school, it was conveniently on Hulu, like the other shows I watched. 

Akin to installing Tinder for the fifth time, I was hoping my second experience with anime would be different.

Even with a fan favorite like Samurai Champloo, my excursion back into anime was conflicting. While watching the first episode, the frantic animation and early-2000s stylings snuck its way into my heart. I got goosebumps as hip-hop instrumentals butted up against animated rain and battle scenes. I was drawn by the tension of Jin being guided to a duel with Mugen, unsure of whether his prowess will finally be trumped. 

At the same time, themes like tying two characters together by their desire to kill one another was foreign to me. It became difficult to resonate with because it was unlike any plot hook I had seen before. 

I began to groan during the episode’s climax when Fuu runs through town to save our heroes from public execution with her enlarged breasts galloping in the air. That is, until the self-aware thirst trap pulls two fireworks out of her kimono and uses them to save the day. The realization was brilliant and addressed my spite of the overly sexualized animation with a hysterical twist. 

Even when there were unfamiliar aspects and themes that lacked draw, I found footholds to stand on. This allowed me to soak up what I enjoy personally, as well as the aspects that make Samurai Champloo a classic series. And hell, I even shrugged off my high school teachings and watched it dubbed, which let me enjoy the work as a whole much easier. Down with sub supremacy! 

I will absolutely watch more of Watanabe’s work. Cowboy Bebop is next on my list with its jazz and sci-fi-infused themes. But (maybe unfortunately) that’s about where my appreciation of anime ends. 

Outside of Watanabe’s catalog and the occasional movie, there’s nothing for me to hold onto in anime. However, rather than limit myself from watching more, this experience encourages me to dig further and be more intentional with my viewership in the event I dive back in.

I’m convinced that for any audience that doesn’t have a familiarity with anime, there is a niche to carve for yourself — especially with the growing age and diversity of the media form. Whether your interest be sports, history, memes, or heart-wrenching dramas, the sheer depth means there’s a hook for everyone. You just need the time to set criteria for yourself and dig in — perhaps with the help of goodhearted friends who have more experience. 

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan; I’m more of a visitor. In fact, if and when I try again, I’m not sure my trip will be more than a small venture out of town to check something off the bucket list. And while that’s not the deep-dive I always wished I had the desire to crave, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Because in spite of that all, I enjoyed my stay.

Everything is bigger in Texas except anime voice actor wages

One of my favorite stories from the film business is about a non-union gaffer known for getting into trouble. We’ll call him Bob.

Bob is working on an indie film somewhere in the middle of South Dakota. The hours are long, the pay sucks, and the summer heat is unbearable. 

They’ve been shooting outside for 14 hours with no end in sight. The sun is going down as they began work on the final scene of the day. As the actors and director rehearse, Bob goes to the electric truck and cracks open a beer. 

The line producer walks by as he pops the can. 

“What the fuck are you doing‽” she shouts at Bob. “You’re still on the clock!”

Bob looks up from his drink with a sinister grin. “I’m going to tell you two things. 1) We’re in the middle of bumfuck nowhere South Dakota. The nearest gaffer of my skill level is 500 miles away, and they wouldn’t get out of bed for what you’re paying me. 2) I’m drinking this fucking beer.”

Bob did not get fired that day.

If the producer had fired him, Bob would’ve loaded his truck and taken his crew with him. The grip department would have likely done the same in solidarity. You can’t shoot a movie without lights. 

How does this relate to anime?

When the news broke that KissAnime was shutting down, several members of the anime localization community took to social media to remind fans of the legal streaming options available to them. Nothing wrong with that. This is how they make a living. Of course, they’re going to encourage those options.

It could have been an opportunity for these companies to convert new customers. We know that fans are upset about the recent news. If you sign up for an account today with the coupon code “KISSANIME” you’ll get a free month of Crunchyroll premium.

Instead, the prevailing message was condescending, complete with industry professionals getting into Twitter arguments about ethics that, frankly, no one involved was qualified to have. One of the most egregious arguments came from Alex Moore (Fire ForceFairy Tail), who compared people who pirate anime to colonizers.

Alex Moore's controversial "colonizer" Tweet.
Source: Alex Mooree’s Twitter

I have always loved and supported the people that work to localize anime. For a few years, I worked as an ADR technician for a small cartoon studio, so I know what it’s like to spend all day recording lines. It’s not easy work. 

The unfiltered behavior on social media is another story. It’s nothing short of a PR nightmare, and if localization companies paid their contractors worth a damn, they might be in a position to fire some of them. 

This is where Bob the non-union gaffer comes in. 

Bad wages give skilled workers leverage to be a little rowdy. A few years ago, I was on a film where I would pull out a bottle of bourbon each night during loadout. The reason I got away with this is because it was easier for my employer to tolerate my behavior than find a suitable replacement. It also helped that I shared with the executive producers.

This power is great for the workers, but it can become a problem for the employer. What if I start bringing out the bottle before loadout? What if I show up already drunk? Paying low wages is the same as gambling. Sometimes you get a skilled technician for a bargain. Sometimes people win the Powerball, too.

Rachael Messer (My Hero AcademiaBlack Clover) has been open with fans about the rates that localization companies pay actors. She states that actors – presumably non-union – can sometimes make $100/hour, but the number she most frequently cites for anime work is $35/hour. 

That’s a $72,000/year salary, right? Not quite. Most recording sessions only last a few hours. The actors I used to work with were typically booked 2-4 hours at a time, twice a month. Our company didn’t cover any tolls or parking expenses either.

It’s a hard truth about the entertainment industry. When you’re starting out, you’re lucky to get paid at all. This problem is particularly bad in the anime industry because its tendency to hire fans.

Callum May (The Canipa Effect) discusses this at length in his video “It’s Impossible to Live as a Crunchyroll Translator.” When Crunchyroll started producing simulcasts in 2008, they contracted people from fansubbing groups. These translators would have been doing the work anyway, so making $80/episode didn’t seem like a bad gig to them.

The business was also in different shape back then. In the late-2000s, we lost Geneon EntertainmentADV FilmsBandai Visual USA, and Central Park MediaBandai Entertainment would join them in 2012. ADV would rise from the ashes as a series of shell companies. 

It’s been over a decade since the anime bubbled burst. Funimation and Crunchyroll somehow survived and were swept up by Sony and AT&T respectively. Being owned by multibillion-dollar corporations means the excuse that anime companies can’t afford to pay better wages is no longer valid.

Then why would they do it?

The answer is a dangerous combination of “because they can” and “because we let them.” Let’s give Funimation the benefit of a doubt and say that $35/hour is a good rate for a voice actor. There still needs to be a minimum guarantee regardless of hours worked. Eight hours should be the standard. Tolls and parking expenses should also be reimbursed within 30-days of turning in a receipt.

We know they can afford to do this, but why would they pay better rates if they don’t have to? The reason is because anime fans would line up around the block for an opportunity to be in a dub of their favorite show. Many would do the work for free. 

In rare cases, fans will pay the anime company.

In 2016, one fan donated $5000 to the Kickstarter campaign to redub The Vision of Escaflowne for a small role. Later that year, three fans did the same when Pied Piper, Inc. launched a campaign to dub Skip Beat!

Due to the secretive nature of the anime industry, it’s difficult to determine the exact costs involved in dubbing. The Escaflowne Kickstarter goal was $150,000. When asked for a breakdown, Funimation Brand Manager, Jennifer Fu, said the details were “locked down via contract.”

The Skip Beat! Kickstarter was more transparent. Their original goal was $155,000 with 47% going towards producing the dub. When Nozomi ran campaigns to dub Aria the Animation and Emma: A Victorian Romance they budgeted 75% of their goal towards dubbing costs. Based on these three examples, we can surmise a budget of $3000-$6000 per episode. 

Without knowing the percentage Funimation budgeted, we can’t say for certain that they fall within this range; however, their cost per episodes should be lower because they have an in-house recording facility.

Taking a deeper look at the Skip Beat! campaign shows that $21,855 of their original goal is budgeted for cast. Splitting this across the series gives us a whopping $874.20 per episode. That same amount is spread among the director and sound team. 

It’s worth pointing out that all of these campaigns exceeded their original goals. Funimation put the extra money towards special features and higher quality packaging. Nozomi dubbed additional seasons and added a 5.1 mix. Pied Piper, Inc. stands out as being the only campaign to openly put that money towards hiring actors.

We may never know the real numbers, but the connection between low wages and bad behavior can’t be ignored. People act rashly when they have nothing to lose. When I started making more money at work, I started acting more professionally.

It’s the golden rule of employment. Respect your employees, and they’ll respect you. Well paid employees are also happier employees; happier employees are more productive employees. I still love to pull out the bottle of bourbon after a long day of work, but I wait until I’m done working now because my job is more important to me than waiting another hour for a drink.

Localization companies need to do better. They’ve been taking advantage of their workforce for too long. In 2017, Gen Fukanaga was boasting that Funimation makes $100 million in annual revenue. That number doubled in 2019. Crunchyroll surpassed 3 million subscribers this year, which should put them around $290 million annually. Meanwhile, industry professionals are forced to use GoFundMe to cover their medical costs. It’s embarrassing.

The solution to this problem is to organize. This will only work if aspiring voice actors and overzealous fans stand in solidarity and refuse to cross the picket line when it happens. The money is there, it just needs to be demanded. Imagine what would happen the entire cast of My Hero Academia and Black Clover just said “naw” one day. There would be a collective bargaining agreement complete with better pay and health insurance within months.

Unless these companies start to offer competitive wages, they’re more likely to hire people that don’t even have the common sense to make a horny Twitter or a Finsta when they want to talk shit online. Sometimes a company will get lucky, but when skilled actors make a name from themselves and join the union, they stop doing anime. When you lowball your contractors, you get what you fucking pay for.