It is pretty clear that FUNimation’s roll out of their new license Shikabane Hime onto streaming video websites on Friday trumped what little bit of buzz ADV planned to generate with its Monday license revelations, not only because the title debuted only three weeks ago on Japanese television but also because of the strings and behavior involved in what will be the company’s most ambitious venture into digital distribution yet.
Let me make this clear before I proceed: I will not intentionally imply or assert that FUNimation has any ill intentions despite what the title of this editorial might suggest through subtle reference to contemporary politics; I simply wish to flesh out the many promises and concerns I have about their influence on how the handling of Japanese animation in North America will evolve in the near future. I will give them respect when due but I will also not hold back on expressing any pertinent criticisms.
President and CEO Gen Fukunaga said in the press release his company issued on Monday, “Often by the time a licensing deal is signed to bring a series from Japan to the U.S. the episodes are already available as illegal downloads….In bringing this series to anime fans within days of its premiere we are not only offering unique content and increasing the awareness of the series but we are offering a legal online alternative to illegal file sharing.” A man who was declared “the most powerful person in the North American anime industry” in July 2006, Fukunaga has made his intention of shortening the gap between Japanese and American releases very clear over the previous year, particularly following Geneon’s and ADV’s falls from glory. In an interview with ICv2 in January, when asked if there were any way to halt the trend of illegal downloads, he replied:
I actually think that it is fruitful to go down that path of anti-piracy. The biggest problem is being caused by the timing gap, being that the illegal stuff comes out as it’s being broadcast in Japan and the stuff doesn’t get licensed for the U.S. for many months later. That gap is what’s creating a thorny problem for the U.S. market and the U.S. distributors. So if we can find a way to get rid of the gap or get rid of the fansubs themselves before they license it, that would make a huge difference. I think there are methods and techniques out there that would work if people are willing to invest the time, effort, and money to do it.
Thus their current effort, which shortens the gap to approximately two weeks between Japanese airing and English subtitled release – the smallest turnaround time conducted by a North American publisher yet. (GONZO’s offerings through BOST, CrunchyRoll, and YouTube have been same-day releases but since they were the production studio, they had immediate access to the scripts and footage.)
I want to focus on Fukunaga’s terminology for a moment since what an company executive says publicly is usually a good indication of which direction the firm intends to head and what their motivations are in pursuing that path. The press release announcing FUNimation’s agreement to put content on Joost contained the following language from Fukunaga: “Joost recognizes that there exists a varied entertainment landscape and a thirst for unique content….Partnering with them offers us the opportunity to provide the content fans are already looking for, legally, while also reaching new audiences.”
Notice that he uses the phrase ‘unique content’ in both instances in an attempt to consciously communicate that people cannot get these series anywhere else, at least not until they come out in disc form within a year. He also exudes a positive perspective on the future by using the words “fruitful” and “opportunity” in the above quotations and his adage that has been featured in most, if not all, of the company’s industry panels this year, “Change creates opportunity”, makes me think Fukunaga may be a student of Zen teaching. Wanting to reach new audiences carries the obvious business connotation of “more eyeballs” but it also reflects a deeper desire to connect with more people as benevolent agents of content distribution, as good guys willing to share some of their content without charge rather than holding it captive for an aging method involving physical media.
Rise to Greater Influence
If you had asked me five years ago about FUNimation, I might have said, “Oh, they put out Dragonball, Yu Yu Hakusho and Fruits Basket!” I may have been able to rattle off Kiddy Grade and Blue Gender but that would have been it. ICv2 awarded it the title of Anime Company of the Year for 2003 for launching Dragon Ball GT along with “grabbing a number of licenses which should ensure that [the company] will be a US anime powerhouse for years to come”.
Those licenses were Kiddy Grade, Tenchi GXP, and Case Closed (Detective Conan) and while they didn’t turn out to be outright hits, they formed a diversification strategy along with Spiral and Samurai 7 that would continue with Gunslinger Girl and Mushi-shi. Unfortunately for Case Closed, it got onto Adult Swim in May 24, 2004, and aired for 50 episodes in weeknight strips but was not renewed due to poor ratings.
In that same 2003 posting, ICv2 said that the company was “more concerned with mass-market success than with pleasing the cognoscenti”, an insight that seems to have predicted their current status, particularly when contrasting how narrowly Geneon focused some of its licensing. This sentiment on broadness was later echoed by Fukunaga himself when asked about the company’s property picking methodology in a November 2004 ICv2 interview: “Our strategy is to pick only the AAA titles. Also, we pick mass titles as well as good fan titles. Our motto is, ‘Content is King.’”
Furthermore, in a release announcing anime’s debut on iTunes in February 2007, he said the addition would “expose a wider audience to the unique storytelling and graceful animation inherent in this Japanese style of entertainment”. Their initial offerings were Samurai 7, Speed Grapher, and Desert Punk – the last two made up half of the company’s 2006 “Babes, Blades, Blood, Beauty” all-Gonzo campaign in conjunction with Basilisk and Trinity Blood – and they have added about ten others since then including less gritty fare like Suzuka, Rumbling Hearts, and Moon Phase.
When the anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist debuted on Japanese television in fall 2003, it was a breakout hit there and among the global fan community. FUNimation was smart to jump on it with their licensing announcement during E3 2004. Fukunaga said in the press release, “Fullmetal Alchemist has unique elements that make it a perfect fit for the U.S. market and merchandisers. Its rare blend of action, comedy and fantasy is combined with a remarkable storyline.” (There’s that word ‘unique’ appearing for the fourth time.) FMA’s crossover appeal as well as its placement on Adult Swim and on the covers of the three major anime magazines – Anime Insider, Newtype USA, and Animerica – that November helped launch it into wider awareness among the American audience, which would be expanded when the manga made its North American debut in May 2005 from Viz Manga.
Navarre recognized the company’s success and acquired it in May 2005 for approximately $115 million of cash and stock. Within the first and second press releases, FUNimation’s annual net sales from 2001 ($49.8 million) to 2004 ($72.4 million) were revealed and so was their pre-tax income across those years (2001: $20 million; 2004: $29.8 million). Those figures were buffeted by Dragon Ball sales as well as handling 4Kids’ distribution of Yu-Gi-Oh! DVDs in a partnership formed in May 2002. The purchase appeared to pay off for Navarre – one example is FUNimation bolstering the firm’s publishing numbers in Q4 2006 to a 24.9% gross profit year-over-year increase.
Flexing Their Muscles
Some people may have been surprised that FUNimation captured just under a third of the total North American market share in the first half of this year according to VideoScan data, but I would like to remind them that the company showed off a 31% market share for 2007′s first quarter at Anime Central 2007 and had a 23.2% share for calendar year 2006. They have been the market leader since 2001 in terms of sales numbers but you wouldn’t have known it based on the breadth of ADV Films was producing at the turn of the decade.
A significant complaint that global anime fans may express about FUNimation’s early licensing is their use of the DMCA to prevent torrent distribution. Brand manager Lance Heiskill, a major leader in the fight against fansubs, sent a cease and desist notice to torrent listing website Tokyo Toshokan and ordered them to remove the English subtitled listings from the site. FUNimation has been unafraid to use the DMCA in the past to defend the copyrights of Japanese studios regarding properties for which they had not, but eventually would, announce region 1 licenses and some that they were not even considering. These good faith efforts with Japanese studios including GONZO allowed them to grease some gears into making digital distribution rights a viable, standard component of future negotiations.
As the only major publisher unharmed by the industry ills of late ’07/early ’08, FUNimation took a more prominent leadership role in combating fansubbing by aggressively reminding people that the act is copyright infringement in the letter of the law. The company did not use arrogant methods like a certain American voice actor did to get out that message but rather followed their three-part strategy of “fan education, enforcement, and providing viable and legal anime downloading alternatives” as expressed by Fukunaga during his keynote address at AX 2008. Heiskill has been the public face of the first two efforts by participating in panels such as the “Fansubs – Death of Anime?” roundtable at AX 2008 and the joint Fansubs and Industry panel at Otakon.
Reaching Out to the Community
FUNimation has been involved in various degrees in attempts to interact socially with the fan community through promotional and direct campaigns over the past few years. Some may remember parent company Navarre’s (not FUNimation’s) attempt at a social network, animeOnline, that launched in February 2007 and folded five months later. Anime Insider ran a short piece about the site in issue #43 (April 2007) wherein editor Summer Mullins posed some general questions to key site member and former Insider editor Rob Bricken including what the goal of the site was. Bricken replied that it was “[t]o fulfill a need, both for fans and the industry. The video game industry has 1up.com [...] and we thought the anime industry needed an equivalent.” He mentioned the site’s Top Rated Series feature, where members would visually select their five favorite anime and manga series to display on their profile page and those choices would then be compiled onto a front-page listing. Such features now exist in more improved forms on MyAnimeList. ComiPress has a Backstage feature where they interviewed founder Gen (yes, that Gen) and four of the site’s once editors after aO went offline.
Prior to that, they launched a web initiative called FUNiGiRLs in February 2006 which was aimed at female fans and that, according to PR for a party at Anime Boston 2007, “provide[d] a safe, comfortable, and fun environment in which girls can obtain information and share their love of anime and entertainment with those who have similar interests”. The site disappeared without a trace sometime during the summer.
More recently in June of this year, the company launched a promotional podcast called the FUNimation Update consisting of monthly 25-minute “Updates” and weekly 5-minute “Quickie”. At first the alotted time was used to announce licenses and cast lists, show trailers for current releases, and provide updates on production projects. When convention season got heavy, there were cut-together segments of host Scott Porter talking to cosplayers and having convention attendees inform viewers of that week’s new releases.
Alas, the past three Quickies have been heavily focused on a frivolous battle between hosts Todd Haberkorn and Porter over who would make a better MySpace friend with petty platforms of having a good time partying and defending against an imminent zombie attack, respectively. They did manage to reveal the main English voice cast for Baccano! in Monday’s edition but I would rather learn more about the methodology behind adapting dialogue to fit American comedic tastes, as was done in the debut episode with the Shin-Chan writers. Then again, I do not consider myself as part of the company’s group of fans, having rolled my eyes at the overflowing gratitude given by numerous audience members at their Anime Expo panel.
At that same convention, their floor space within the exhibit hall contained a lounge where members from American Cosplay Paradise wore Ouran High School uniforms and attended to conventioneers’ needs akin to a maid cafe, line included. The stunt was intended to promote the announcement of the English voice cast at a dedicated panel that weekend. Other members of ACP were donning Gurren Lagann and Lucky Star costumes at the nearby but not neighboring Bandai booth, which had a more commanding presence than the open, carpeted plot FUNimation had.
Spiting The Rest of the World?
While FUNimation has certainly been busy reaching out to anime fans in the United States, they do not seem to have the same passion for non-American fans. Why should they care anyway, since focusing on their realm of licensing rights makes the most business sense? One must remember that most fan communication takes place over the Internet and this past week, there were concerns about the US-only restriction viewers need to satisfy in order to watch this specific content on Hulu and (I assume) Joost as well as purchasing download-to-own episodes through FUNimation’s own site. That means legal offerings of Shikabane Hime currently available to, say, European viewers would be YouTube and streaming through the company’s website. Their previous postings on YouTube do not appear to have region restrictions on them so I would expect the same to hold for this wave of new additions.
An issue for potential viewers regardless of their region is the time it takes to translate and encode each episode. By the time the first legally translated episode premiered online yesterday, the second and third have already been fansubbed. It appears that FUNimation will upload one episode per week to the multiple sites and that the prime element that would prevent them from updating quicker would be the acquisition of high-quality digital copies from the studios, not the translation process itself since amateur groups can put out decent subtitles within two to three days and it should not take longer for professionals to do the same. In his essay this week called “The Optimism of FUNimation Entertainment”, Scott of the Anime Almanac asked the following question: “Will the fans be willing to wait a week or two for [a FUNimation subtitled episode] to show up on Hulu when the illegal version is already available?” I believe that many of the regular week-to-week viewers will not but the more casual viewers might and since those patient ones overlap with the mainstream audience they are targeting, the overall reception will likely more favorable rather than oppositional.
Evaluating The Digital Rollout
“The Dead Dance” (episode 1) is now on all four services and each has their own quirks. Embedding from YouTube is disabled (not something unusual for content owners to activate); Hulu requires viewers login into their account because it is marked for “Mature Audiences Only”, which could be bypassed with a gracious embed by another user; Joost requires viewers to login because that is how Joost operates; and FUNimation’s own site strangely rates the episode as TV-14 when streaming but TV-MA when showing the purchase selections. Metrics for Shikabane‘s legal viewership are publicly listed on YouTube and FUNimation’s streaming hub, meaning we will have to wait until the company releases a press release to find out how the whole episodes on Hulu and Joost may have fared. I will note now that the first part is featured on FUNimation’s channel page on YouTube and set to automatically begin playing when one accesses the page, meaning its view count may be unintentionally inflated from people wishing to look at Funi’s profile but not the video itself.
I ended up purchasing the $1.99 download version out of curiosity. How FUNimation’s digital purchasing system works is a user download the file and then purchases the media rights with Windows Media Player, the reverse of how other services like Direct2Drive work where the purchase comes before the download. Another difference is that you cannot play the verified file in Winamp as I managed to accomplish when viewing Pretty Cure from D2D. The bit rate is listed as 10.12 Mbps in the file’s properties, making it marginally better than the maximum total bit rate for DVD-Video according to videohelp.com.
Naturally, I wanted to compare the “official” subtitling to an fansub, namely Lunar’s, so I watched both versions simultaneously in an attempt to glean any differences in phrasing. (Lunar-Anime dropped this project after the license was announced.) Without knowledge of what was truly said in Japanese, I would say FUNimation’s subtitles were more accurate and formal. There were clear terminology differences: Funi used “Guardian” for Keisei’s formal title and “servants” for Hagino’s (the harem criminal’s) women while Lunar provided “Sentinel” and “minions”.
Also, Lunar’s subs appear to give more credit to Hagino than he may be due. In one instance, Lunar’s TL has Keisei suggesting he may have controlling the women using his vampire powers while Funi’s subs have him saying it’s possible the women convinced themselves that Hagino is a vampire. When Makina later confronts Hagino on a rooftop, she says that he “possessed a will and took action” after he died, according to Lunar, while he simply has a will that does not want to leave this world and thus causes his body to stay animate under Funi’s translation. Regarding the visuals, the official release contained truer color tones and shadowing, as it should be coming from the source, compared to the washed out look of a television raw. For the above qualitative reasons, I prefer FUNimation’s version over an fansub but the two week lead time may be too long for myself to hold off seeking the episodes as they air.
Closing It Out
FUNimation looks like it will continued financial success in 2009 with the second half of Ouran, Claymore, D.Gray-man, Kaze no Stigma, Baccano!, and I suppose Shikabane Hime among their titles slated for release but what about the message they have been pushing for the past year, one of changing viewing habits in an effort to save the industry? Will it stick with the young people that may fuel steady growth in the next five years?
I will close with a concern I have held against FUNimation since attending their AX panel. I do not feel comfortable with the paternal role they put upon themselves as so called “saviors” of the anime industry. Their attempt at reassuring conventioneers with an opening slide of “DON’T PANIC” at their panels this summer season accompanied by Adam Sheehan’s “we’re in control of the situation” attitude made uneasy as I felt treated like I were a child whose parents were making choices for him. Being patronized or talked down to is not something I and surely many of my 20-something peers enjoy when having a conversation or attending a conference. I honestly want the company to do well, as I do with the other companies in this business, but I do not want FUNimation to become too powerful and overbearing. They are certainly welcome to lead a crusade against illicit downloads but I wish they would do so as part of a “coalition of the willing”, so to speak, rather than going it alone like an arrogant warrior.
While I credit FUNimation for being ambitious in putting Shikabane onto free streaming sites, I do not believe that this move alone will cause a shift in how anime is distributed to an English-speaking audience. Robert from RACS shares my basic view, commenting in his newsletter this week that the series “looks promising” and that “[t]he hurdles to shortening the time frame in which episodes become available in English are still huge, and while it was possible to expedite this particular license, that door will unfortunately remain closed for most new Anime series for some time to come”.
They played it safe with this first one as the series is sure to sell many copies due to it a) coming from GAINAX, b) involving undead beings, and c) displaying a certain level of gore. (I must disclose that I have grown fond of the series so read into that what you may.) The real test will be what happens with the next series they release in this manner, particularly if it were a series like lesser buzz. If they truly believe in their plan to make over a stagnant business model, they should be willing to take on a greater risk in order to yield a more beneficial result for the industry as a whole.