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Netflix Anime Creators On What Defines Anime

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"These are arbitrary rules created to sort of control or protect this sort of identity."

Over the past few years, Netflix has greatly increased its anime library. This includes slightly older series like Death Note as well as newer ones like One-Punch Man, and many of them were popular before coming to Netflix. But there are also Netflix Original anime, which are licensed by and exclusive to the streaming platform. Recent hits include Aggretsuko and Devilman Crybaby, and the catalog continues to grow.

Traditional anime fans are often sticklers when it comes to what can be called "anime." This is especially true with shows like Netflix's Castlevania and the upcoming Cannon Busters, which aren't made entirely by Japanese creators and, to some fans, fall into a hard-to-define gray area. During Anime Expo 2018, we spoke to several Netflix anime creators about what qualifies as anime, how anime is evolving, and more.

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Featured in this interview are Castlevania producer Adi Shankar, Cannon Busters showrunner and longtime animator LeSean Thomas (whose previous work includes The Boondocks and The Legend of Korra), renowned Japanese director Shinji Higuchi (whose new series, Dragon Pilot, is coming to Netflix on September 21), and director of anime at Netflix John Derderian. Be sure to read our roundup 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 off with something you [LeSean Thomas] said on Twitter very recently about defining anime. I think anime fans are very big on defining what is and what is not anime, and with series like Castlevania and Cannon Busters, that's something certain people get testy about. 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 isn't. I have yet to see, at all, anyone asking a Japanese animation director or creator or producer...what anime is, because then that would sort of be counterproductive to their argument of what they believe anime is because of the lens in which they're viewing anime as a descriptor, from a Western point of view. So usually anime is associated with the belief that the animation is only from Japanese creators and Japanese people, all animated by Japanese animators.

It can't be identified as anime as they view it as a Western descriptor unless that's the case. If there's an American creator working with Japanese animators, then this vocal minority that we're already talking about don't view it as anime. So these are arbitrary rules, created to sort of control...or protect, if you will, this sort of identity that they attach to the bodies of works. I mean, it's been a topic of discussion for the last few years with me and other people. I would sort of deflect the question towards [Shinji Higuchi] to see what he would think about that question.

These are arbitrary rules, created to sort of control...or protect, if you will, this sort of identity that [fans] attach to bodies of works.

Shinji Higuchi: It's very difficult to answer. If I'd only worked on anime, I'd probably have a lot more concrete vision about that...When it comes to working on animation, I'm kind of on the [fringes]. So now that I'm producing animation, there's a certain theory to creating anime, but I'm creating this animation [Dragon Pilot] on the assumption, like, how much of that theory I can break.

The protagonist is not the definition of "kawaii" at all. The character, or the protagonist--there tend to be a certain personalities that comes with [that] you expect from the anime characters, but we want to take another look at what it should be when we develop the characters for the show.


John Derderian: [At Netflix], we're trying to enable vision, and it kinda touches on your question [about] people that love anime. Someone on my team that always talks about anime as a "tribe" of people with passion and deep love, reference points, a catalog. You can talk to LeSean for an hour about every reference he has. There's such a love, and [Thomas and Adi Shankar] are a part of that "tribe" of anime and so they can step to the table and make the best anime there is. They can step to the table and contribute to that conversation and that evolution of anime.

But to be clear, Netflix is doing a ton of more traditional, manga- and light novel-based anime and we will continue to do a ton of that. We've invested heavily in Japan, into partnering with the the studios in Japan to basically enable an art form that has been--especially 2D animation, which has been struggling and kind of disappearing a bit. We think it's one of the greatest art forms on earth and we wanna continue to support it, and the home of anime is Japan.

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There also seems to be a group of people that are highly attached to simulcast anime rather than the Netflix style of releasing a whole season at once. Like with Little Witch Academia--a lot of people were really upset about having to wait for that 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 consider at Netflix?

Derderian: I mean for us, the challenge with the simulcast window is none of the rest of Netflix is on that window. So it creates little bit of a challenge for us--and we have tried it and we'll probably experiment around it--but overall we'd rather invest and get the best subs and dubs we can get. Let people experience it how they want to, whether they want the dub experience or the subtitle experience, but it does take a couple of months [to produce].

The best [solution] is we're doing a lot of original anime, and in that there is no waiting anywhere. They'll launch in Japan and the US at the same time with all the complements of language assets. We want to invite a lot of people into anime, so dubs are often way to do that, but we also wanna give someone who loves the Japanese voice actors to listen to them and understand that.

Is it a different process working on a typical episode-by-episode TV schedule versus the Netflix-style full-season package?

Higuchi: I really don't have too much experience delivering [a show in package form] except for a standalone movie. So 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. 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 finish watching the show, they can kind of use their imaginations about the stories they just watched...That one week [gap] can be utilized very effectively. So when the episode is done, you have [to wait] one week, and then another episode airs...But if we're going to do [in the Netflix style] we won't be able to use that 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 essentially you would associate it with watching a box set of a series that you haven't seen yet. You sit down and you watch them all at once. So what we're doing is we're comparing experiences. I don't think it has any impact on whether the show is good or not, right? ...We are talking about a new form of information sharing, and content consumption weekly is largely rooted by advertising bias and advertisers being able to maintain the draw of a season so that they [can] continue to generate money to sell product. With a packaged deal, it's kinda like buying DVD box sets. So for me, you're getting the same results, you're just getting it over a stretch of time...I guess what we're saying is, "Which one is better? Which one do you prefer?" And I think that it's up to the individual.

Adi Shankar: It's allowing new types of creators and new types of information to get out there globally. It's no mystery why people are abandoning movie theaters, because there's no room for experimentation, you're locked into a format. You're locked into a time length, right? If I describe my day, and you describe your day, and we have the same five seconds to tell that story, it's gonna sound kind of similar. But all of a sudden, if you're like, "Well, can you describe your day with nuance over 10 hours?" All of a sudden, that same story, even if we have the exact same story, we're gonna tell it differently. The beats are gonna move, right? So, it's not even experimentation, it's creating the blueprint for the way stories are going to be told going forward.

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Kallie Plagge

Kallie Plagge was GameSpot's reviews editor from August 2018 to March 2021. She loves Pokemon, inventory management, and Grunt Birthday Party.

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