Anime and the Netflix Niche
On February 24, Netflix announced that it was partnering with powerhouse anime studio Production I.G. to create and distribute an original series. Called Perfect Bones, the series would debut across all territories with access to Netflix (i.e. most of the world except the People’s Republic of China), a first for any anime. Moreover, it won’t air on Japanese TV at all, and we can assume that it will mostly target a Western audience.
Why a Western audience? Netflix’s choice of collaborator is a key clue. Production I.G. has been associated with some of the most important cross-PAcific hits in the last few years. Attack on Titan was an I.G. production, which for Netflix makes it a proven hitmaker. The director himself is associated with Tarantino, having created the anime sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Note also the, at this point vague, plot outline. According to Netflix’s press release, the show has a science fiction concept:
the 12-episode series is set in the future where scientists have tried to create the “perfect human” in hopes of keeping peace in the universe. After nearly achieving their goal through several children, the scientists send their “new humans” for further training where they are kidnapped by an evil organization set on using their powers to implement their own concept of a new world order.
In other words, perfect fodder for crossover success: it’s in a genre recognizable to Western mainstream audiences, produced by a studio many might have heard of and directed by someone who has experience working with Westerners. Of course, it’s also launching just a few months after Netflix arrived in Japan, and might help strengthen its presence there as well.
There are two analytical points I want to make here.
- Japanese media production is incredibly advanced and productive. It has experience and a large, entrenched home market. However, it has always relied on American intermediaries to get its products out to an international audience. Sony didn’t build a Japanese film studio to rival Hollywood; it bought Columbia Pictures. With the exception of Viz Media, which is owned by a Japanese publisher, Japanese companies have relied on American firms to get their work to an English-speaking audience in Noth America. Virtually every Japanese animated film to hit it big internationally has had an American distributor (Warner Bros. for the Pokémon movies, Disney for Ghibli, etc.).
- Netflix is able to target and grow its audience through exploitation of niche tastes. None of its original series, including PERfect Bones, ever have to answer to the demographic hungers of advertising firms who want to broaden the appeal of media as much as possible. Rather, Netflix can be both “thin” and “wide” by targeting a very small part of their viewing public and releasing the show in dozens of countries at once. Its infrastructure and access to viewer data are unprecedented, and we can expect anime produced under its aegis to meet a particular standard. Since far more than half of its global subscriber base are in the United States or other English-speaking countries, it can tailor the storyline and concept to fit those expectations.