Over the past few years, Netflix has dramatically increased its anime library. This includes slightly older series like Death threat as well as more recent ones like Man with a fist, and many of them were popular before they came to Netflix. But there are also Netflix Original anime, which are licensed and exclusive to the streaming platform. Recent successes include Aggretsuko and Devilman crybaby, and the catalog continues to grow.
Traditional anime fans often straddle what can be called “anime”. This is especially true with shows like Netflix’s. Castlevania and the next one Cannon hunters, which are not entirely made by Japanese designers and, for some fans, fall into a difficult gray area to define. During Anime Expo 2018, we spoke to several Netflix anime creators about what can be called anime, how anime has evolved, and more.
Featured in this interview are Castlevania producer Adi Shankar, Cannon hunters longtime showrunner and host LeSean Thomas (whose previous work includes The Boondocks and The legend of Korra), famous Japanese director Shinji Higuchi (whose new series, Dragon pilot, arrives on Netflix on September 21) and Netflix anime director John Derderian. Be sure to read our rundown of Netflix’s latest anime announcements for more details on the upcoming series. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to start with something that you [LeSean Thomas] said on twitter very recently on the definition of anime. I think anime fans are very attached to defining what is and what isn’t anime, and with shows like Castlevania and Cannon hunters, this is something some people get annoyed with. What does “anime” mean to you as a creator and with Netflix in particular?
LeSean Thomas: I mean, I think that’s a fascinating question, and it’s almost always the case with Americans or Westerners asking other Americans or Westerners what anime is and what it doesn’t. is not. I have yet to see anyone ask a Japanese animation director, creator or producer … what anime is, as that would be somehow counterproductive to their argument about what they believe to be l ‘anime because of the purpose in which they consider anime to be a descriptor, from a western point of view. So, generally, anime is associated with the belief that animation is only from Japanese creators and Japanese people, all of which are brought to life by Japanese animators.
It cannot be identified as an anime as they consider it a western descriptor unless it is. If there’s an American creator who works with Japanese animators, then this vocal minority we’re already talking about doesn’t consider him an anime. So these are arbitrary rules, created to somehow control … or protect, if you will, this sort of identity that they attach to bodies of work. I mean, it’s been a topic of discussion for a few years with me and other people. I would sort of divert the question to [Shinji Higuchi] to see what he would think of that question.
These are arbitrary rules, created to sort of control … or protect, if you will, that kind of identity that [fans] attach to building blocks.
Shinji Higuchi: It’s very difficult to answer. If I had only worked on the anime, I probably would have a much more concrete take on it … When it comes to working on the animation, I’m a bit on the [fringes]. So now that I am producing animation, there is some theory about creating anime, but I am creating this animation [Dragon Pilot] assuming, like, how much of this theory I can break.
The protagonist is not the definition of “kawaii” at all. The character or protagonist – there is usually a certain personality that accompanies [that] you’re expecting anime characters, but we want to revisit what it should be when we develop the show’s characters.
John Derderian: [At Netflix], we are trying to enable vision, and that touches your question a bit [about] people who like anime. Someone on my team who always talks about anime as a “tribe” of passionate, deeply in love people, of benchmarks, of a catalog. You can talk to LeSean for an hour about each referral he has. There is such love, and [Thomas and Adi Shankar] are part of that “tribe” of anime so they can sit down and create the best anime ever. They can sit down at the table and contribute to that conversation and that evolution of the anime.
But to be clear, Netflix does a ton of more traditional anime, based on light manga and novels, and we’ll continue to do a ton of them. We have invested a lot in Japan, in a partnership with Japanese studios to enable an art form that has been, in particular 2D animation, which has struggled and has kinda disappeared. We believe this is one of the greatest art forms in the world and we want to continue supporting it, and the homeland of the anime is Japan.
There also seems to be a group of people who are very attached to the simulcast anime rather than the Netflix style of releasing an entire season at a time. Like with Little Witches Academy– a lot of people were really upset that they had to wait for this show. [Editor’s note: Little Witch Academia was released on US Netflix as a full season after the Japanese broadcast had concluded.] Is simulcasting something you are considering at Netflix?
Derderian: I mean for us, the challenge with the simulcast window is that none of the rest of Netflix is on that window. So it creates a little challenge for us – and we’ve tried it and we’re probably going to experiment around this – but overall we prefer to invest and get the best subs and voices we can get. Let people experience it however they want, whether they want the dub experience or the subtitle experience, but it takes a few months [to produce].
The best [solution] do we do a lot of original anime, and in that there is no expectation anywhere. They will be launched in Japan and the United States at the same time with all the additional linguistic resources. We want to invite a lot of people into the anime, so voice acting is often a way to do that, but we also want to give someone who loves Japanese voice actors to listen to them and understand that.
Is it a different process of working on a typical episode-by-episode TV show versus the Netflix-style full season package?
Higuchi: I really don’t have too much experience in delivery [a show in package form] except for a standalone movie. So when we create a series that airs episode by episode by episode, we always have to think about how we can keep the audience engaged, wanting to know what’s next. So we want to keep their interest for a week or so.
So when we produce [a show episode by episode] we can use the user’s imagination. So when users are done watching the show, they can kind of use their imaginations on the stories they just watched … This week [gap] can be used very effectively. So when the episode is over you have [to wait] one week, then another episode airs … [in the Netflix style] we will not be able to use this particular method.
When we create a series that is broadcast episode by episode by episode, we always have to think about how we can keep the audience captured, wanting to know what’s next.
Thomas: I guess you would basically associate it with watching a box set from a show you haven’t seen yet. You sit down and watch them all at the same time. So what we do is compare experiences. I don’t think that has an impact on whether the show is good or not, does it? … There is talk of a new form of information sharing, and weekly content consumption is largely anchored by advertising bias and advertisers being able to maintain a season’s draw so that they [can] continue to generate money to sell the product. With a package, it’s a bit like buying DVD boxes. So to me you get the same results, you only get it over a period of time … I guess what we’re saying is “Which one is better? Which one do you prefer?” And I think it depends on the individual.
Adi Shankar: This allows new types of creators and new types of information to be disseminated globally. It’s no mystery why people are ditching movie theaters, because there is no room for experimentation, you are locked in a format. You are locked in for a duration, aren’t you? If I describe my day, and you describe your day, and we have the same five seconds to tell this story, it’s going to sound a little similar. But all of a sudden, if you’re like, “Well, can you describe your day in 10 hour nuance? All of a sudden, that same story, even though we have the exact same story, we’re going to tell it differently. The beats will move, right? So it’s not even experimentation, it’s about creating the blueprint for how stories will be told in the future.