Japanese anime is finally going mainstream in the UK. What's going on – and why now?
With the success of movies like Your Name and the rise of online streaming services, anime is experiencing a surge in popularity
If you mentioned “anime” to a bunch of British people you used to get a lot of this: "Huh? / Isn’t it all hentai porn and perverted stuff? / Isn't that for kids? / Doesn't sound like my sort of thing."
But these days you are more likely to hear something different: "Oh, I’ve been getting into anime recently, have you seen Your Name / Attack on Titan?" Or even: "Anime? I’ve loved it for years – so can we finally talk about it now?"
Yes, we can.
Japanese anime movies and TV shows have been sliding into the mainstream in the UK over the last few years. Having first arrived in the mid-80s with Studio Ghibli movies like My Neighbour Totoro, anime has attracted a dedicated British audience for decades – but until recently it was a decidedly niche interest. Now something is changing.
2016 movie phenomenon Your Name may have just missed out on an Oscar award, but the film made waves with a proper release in UK cinemas and coverage by the BBC, The Guardian (five stars), The Telegraph (five stars) and more.
Outside of the cinema, TV shows are easily accessible online through streaming giants like Netflix and specialised on demand services like Crunchyroll.
So, what is going on?
New, legal ways of watching
When it comes to anime TV shows, streaming really is a gamechanger.
Finding a way to actually watch anime in the West used to be pretty difficult. You had to know how to find it (legally or illegally), and you had to know exactly what you were trying to find. Casual viewers were extremely unlikely to stumble across anime, given that it was rarely to be found on terrestrial TV: you might get Pokemon anime on ITV if you were lucky, but that was about it.
But as on demand and streaming services shake up the traditional television scene, anime is suddenly vastly more accessible in the West.
“We're in a new age of how we consume media,” says social media manager Miles Thomas from Crunchyroll, an American streaming service set up to cater for anime fans outside Japan.
“When I was in high school, I wasn't able to legally consume most of the content I was interested in in the anime space. But as people are more and more comfortable with consuming media on the net, they expect their entertainment to be just sitting there waiting for them.”
Crunchyroll was founded a decade ago in California. At first it was a tiny operation hosting fan-subtitled anime and plenty of illegally-uploaded content alongside the legit stuff. Now it has smartened up and grown up, with more than 800 anime shows and over one million paid subscribers.
Increasingly the anime streaming service is expanding into the UK, where it has seen significant growth over the last two years. Each user spends an impressive average of 30 minutes per day watching content through Crunchyroll, where you can watch exciting new series like Yuri on Ice (a sports/romance anime set in the world of competitive figure skating) as well as plenty of old favourites.
Netflix is also experimenting with anime. Log in to the streaming giant in the UK and you have access to Attack on Titan, a popular 2013 series about horrific giants who eat humans for pleasure. Then there are classics, like 90s anime series Cowboy Bebop which explores deeper themes including existentialism, existential ennui, and loneliness – through the lens of a team of bounty hunters travelling in outer space in 2071.
The online catalogue includes more than 40 anime shows, and now the online streaming giant is also creating original anime content. Back in March, Netflix announced a "major milestone": its anime adaptation of Godzilla will be available internationally in more than 190 countries.
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Japan on the big screen
The revolution isn't just confined to the computer screen. Cinemas are increasingly seeing the value of giving major Japanese movies a UK release. Your Name, A Silent Voice, In This Corner of the World – after their popularity in Japan these movies all earned a UK cinema release. Recently The Red Turtle, a co-production between Japan's Studio Ghibli and European studio Wild Bunch, showed around the world and was nominated for an Oscar.
How did we get here? Let's backtrack and take a look at Studio Ghibli.
Even if you’ve never watched an anime film, you are probably aware of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, a large, fat, furry rabbit-like creature who goes on adventures with two young sisters. Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 and has since dominated the Japanese anime market, putting out blockbuster movies every year or two. Beloved movies include Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke.
Miyazaki’s films are some of the only anime movies to have penetrated the international market. Until recently, Ghibli movies have been about as mainstream as anime gets – and even so, their success in the West has been compared to “Disney B-movies”.
But a funny thing happened in 2016. A movie called Your Name swooped in and surpassed Studio Ghibli as the highest-grossing anime film ever. Your Name is an absolutely stunning movie that starts off with the classic teen body swap plotline and then develops into something way deeper.
Rising star Makoto Shinkai’s new movie was a phenomenon in Japan, but on a lesser scale it was a phenomenon in the UK, too, grossing half a million and raising the profile of anime.
Anime director Naoko Yamada, from the smaller studio Kyoto Animation, explains: "In Japan, Ghibli is huge and everybody loves it, but other works from other studios are now getting wider release. And in the UK and Europe more anime works are shown – I'm really pleased about it."
Andrew Hewson from anime distributor Manga Entertainment tells RadioTimes.com: “Over the last two years we have managed to change the landscape for anime in the UK by taking a big risk and bringing more films to the big screen.”
Manga Entertainment has secured cinema release for movies including In This Corner of the World (a beautifully-drawn tale of a Japanese woman and her family during World War Two) and Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F, the latest in the successful anime movie franchise.
“We convinced cinema chains who, up until recently, would only support Studio Ghibli films that there's a real appetite and audience for anime here,” he explains. “We challenged the status quo and fortunately it paid off.”
Miles Thomas from Crunchyroll adds: “I'm seeing all the major English papers covering a smaller, more niche anime film in A Silent Voice. That was very inspiring to me, since I feel like that kind of film is the kind of thing that would not even be noticed by the traditional anime audience ten years ago, let alone mainstream British newspapers.”
A Silent Voice is a curious but moving film, where our main character bullies a deaf girl and is then, in turn, shunned by his classmates. He grows up shaped by the knowledge of his own childhood cruelty. It is stylistically Japanese and set in the beautiful landscape of Ogaki Gifu, but from the start director Naoko Yamada had her eye on its international potential.
“I was actually thinking internationally when I was making it,” she tells RadioTimes.com on her tour of the UK. “The film has got universal appeal. It deals with human emotions, and I think no matter what your nationality is, that's pretty much the same for everyone.”
With anime becoming more accessible and more popular than ever before in the UK, that is changing what it means to be a "fan" of anime.
“We find people are a lot more willing to try new things,” Hewson says. “For example, Death Note and Attack on Titan have reached audiences outside of the usual fan base, and this in turn introduces a casual non-anime fan to a whole new world of content.”
But what about that hard core of completely non-casual anime fans – the ones who in previous years have sought out the Japanese TV series they want to watch, the ones who founded online forums and crowdsourced English subtitles?
That audience of super-fans is going nowhere. Far from melting away as anime goes more mainstream, they still use anime as a marker of identity, of community, even of “otherness”.
“Being able to feel like you are part of some exclusive community is really important,” Thomas explains. Take a look at Crunchyroll's forums and social media and you will find a fanbase which is extraordinarily engaged.
“You see something like what's happened with Marvel movies: everyone watches Marvel movies now, but the people who still go out of their way to express their love for Marvel are still in another class,” he says. The same goes for the Star Wars fandom who dress up as stormtroopers, or Harry Potter's 'Potterheads' who are fanatical about the books and movies. “They are still considered Other by society, which I think is really strange.”
Not that this sense of "otherness" is altogether a bad thing. “I think it will always have at least the community element and feeling like you can be Other even if everyone's watching it, and you can still have the safe space to be different within the anime community,” Thomas says.
So who is anime for?
It’s not just for men or women, with Crunchyroll reporting a "pretty close split" between the sexes. It’s also not just for children, with the largest demographic in the 18-35 range. And while there's plenty of "very adult" sexual content out there, that's because anime is really more of a medium than a genre.
Anime is for fans of adventure and sci-fi and fantasy, fans of romance movies, fans of action films, fans of time travel dramas and historical fiction and fans of superhero movies. There is content for kids and there is content for adults.
And as anime movies and TV shows become ever more accessible, more and more people across the globe and in the UK will appreciate Japan's unique creative achievements as anime hits the mainstream.