Netflix is after a piece of the action. More literally, a piece of the One Piece action. The streamer has just released its live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese comic book and cartoon about a crew of happy-go-lucky pirates seeking a mythical treasure. That treasure is the “One Piece”: hence the name of the show.
Along with its fellow streamers, Netflix has become increasingly selective about the projects it backs. In the case of One Piece, though, the green light was a no-brainer. Japanese cartoons and comic books – known as “anime” and “manga” – have become a rare global success during a time of uncertainty in mass entertainment. One Piece for instance is a higher grossing franchise than James Bond ($20.515 billion versus $19.9 billion) while the even more obscure Fist of the North Star ($21.8 billion) is worth more than Transformers ($17.2 billion).
But anime – which typically features bright artwork and characters with large, empathic eyes – isn’t simply a success. In the past several years, it has grown into a full-fledged phenomenon. In the first six months of 2020, 100 million households worldwide watched at least one anime cartoon on Netflix – a 50 per cent increase from 2019.
Sales of Manga comics have soared, too. To get a feel for this demand, you need only visit your local bookstore, where acres of shelf space have been cleared to make way for best-selling manga such as Assassination Classroom, Tokyo Ghoul and Demon Slayer – a 23-volume story set in early 20th century Japan which has moved 150 million copies worldwide.
But if the popularity of manga and anime is beyond doubt, a trickier question is why these intertwined genres – an anime cartoon will typically be adapted from a best-selling manga – are taking off now. What in the last five years has fuelled our appetites for fast-paced, quippy and often violent Japanese entertainment?
“The big jump in popularity started when Netflix started adding anime to its site; like Demon Slayer,” says Jess McCauley of TokyoToys Birmingham, a popular manga and gaming toy store. “This anime significantly increased the number of anime watchers and in turn, encouraged those people to pick up the manga books of their favourite show – often times due to scenes from the manga being cut from the anime.”
In the case of younger readers and viewers, there is the added allure of manga and anime being more violent and less wholesome than Disney. Manga will often come with “teen” or “older teen” ratings, and if the violence is usually (and literally) cartoonish, for preteens and young adolescents, the books carry a thrilling whiff of the forbidden. There’s no street cred in being into Disney’s Frozen. Knowing everything about Nezuko, the possessed heroine of Demon Slayer, brings a lot more cachet.
Netflix may have helped spread awareness of manga. But fans have also turned to dedicated streaming services such as Crunchyroll and Hidive, which have posted spectacular subscriber growth. In 2017, Crunchyroll had around one million paid subscribers. By 2021, that had grown to five million – a figure that doubled to 10 million by February 2022. By then, Sony had acquired Crunchyroll and merged it with its distributor Funimation.
Backed by Sony, Crunchyroll has moved into film distribution, bringing manga movies to Western cinemas. One notable success was Jujutsu Kaisen 0, about a teenager haunted by the ghost of an old girlfriend. In March 2022, it made £15 million at the US box office and £825,000 in the UK.
“This is a terrific opening,” David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research told Reuters. “Reviews are exceptional for this and for all of Funimation/Crunchyroll movies. They have not missed.”
“Films based on some of the most popular anime series can compete with major Hollywood films now,” Miki Niina of LA-based anime distributor Eleven Arts told Cartoon Brew last year. “That didn’t happen often a decade ago.”
The impact on the books industry has been no less seismic. Manga sales in the US jumped 160 per cent from 2020 to 2021, with 25 million books sold. The trajectory is similar in the UK, where 434,000 manga were sold in 2012, rising to nearly two million in 2022.
“It’s been really interesting – a lot of people in comic books distribution and bookstores will tell you that manga is doubling the sales of comics every year,” said one prominent comic book artist. “This thing has come in and its massive…It has taken over the world. You see NBA players reading manga in the middle of matches. The whole world is like, ‘Well, if he’s cool and he’s doing, then I can do it as well’. It just keep on growing.”
Anime has, it should be remembered, always had a fanbase. In the 1990s and early 2000s, films such as Akira and Ghost In The Shell attracted cult followings. But the mainstream generally shunned them – they were regarded as the preserve of extreme nerds. Nobody took anime seriously.
With Demon Slayer and Crunchyroll that has changed. These and other successes have shifted perceptions. Netflix’s embrace of the genre is significant too. The company bases its decisions on raw data – and its faith in manga was noticed elsewhere.
“That was an incredibly important shift for anime because it took away some biases that people had. It’s not that exhibitors didn’t want to believe in anime, they just didn’t have enough data to do so,” Crunchyroll’s Adam Zehner told Cartoon Brew.
He recalled when “it was very hard to convince theatre chains that anime fans would show up”. “I remember when we launched Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, the projections from theatre chains were not that high. Eventually, we did about $2.55 million and they were amazed.”
Netflix, though, was out front. As Disney + poured billions into Star Wars and Marvel spin-offs nobody wanted, its rival was quietly building up a vast anime library. A live-action One Piece will further cement its status as the mainstream streamer with the best understanding of anime. With Demon Slayer in its corner, Netflix is perfectly placed to slaughter the opposition.