Lately (I’m writing this on November 1st, 2020) I’ve been seeing a few anime fans express their worry over anime becoming mainstream. As in if it becomes mainstream either quality or variety will suffer. This isn’t a new concern or an unusual one by any means. I have been seeing it for decades in fact. And it isn’t particular to anime either. Every group is worried that losing exclusivity will have negative effects on the thing they love.

I’m not here to figure out whether these anxieties are warranted or not. But I do find them increasingly baffling. Because to me, anime has been mainstream for a very long time. Like as long as some of my readers have been alive…I assume… Certainly most of my own life. So what are we comparing it to?

I once again get to use my huge library of confused anime girls!

First of all, I’ll admit that this is just an assumption. I’m thinking anime is mainstream because I live on the actual opposite side of the world from where anime is made. I have little connection to the culture and barely speak the language. Yet I can get pretty much any anime I want, literally 1000s of titles, any time with a click or two, for comparatively little money. If I was willing to up it to 4 clicks, probably for free.

It’s not like I’m hiking through an abandoned train terminal in the middle of the night to find a concealed door and give a gruff bouncer a password I read of a message tied to the leg of a specific goose who made a landing in a park 13 miles from where I live during its migratory route. I also don’t have to give up a month’s salary to watch a series.

I’m exaggerating of course. I sort of started on trying to do a parody of those exclusive hipster pop up bars and it got out of hand. But you know what I mean. Anime is very easily accessible to all and hardly an exclusive product. But that doesn’t mean it’s mainstream, I guess. And neither does my vague gut feeling. Just because everyone I know knows what anime is, doesn’t mean it’s applicable to the wider population. So I tried to figure if anime is in fact “mainstream” or not.

this is an anime nerd… cute!

As far as audiovisual arts for general public consumption are concerned (i.e. Series, Movies and General Programming), I think we can agree that the US Film and TV industry is mainstream. In that it pretty much dwarfs all the other ones to a ridiculous degree, making it ubiquitous.

I went on the internet and googled market shares for various film industries. Because the internet is the most reliable source of information, I got some pretty widely varying results. So I took the 10 to 12 first ones google suggested and made an average.

According to that, for 2019, the market share of the US film industry was 35.3 billion US. This is actually not that impressive. The market has not been growing as much as in past years. And this isn’t only Hollywood, the number also encompasses all traditional media and independent movies. It does NOT however account for YouTube (new media).

When you compare this to India for instance, and it’s thriving Bollywood. Their market share for 2019 was just a bit below 3 billion US. Or less than 10%. And it’s one of the biggest single country film markets out there, after the US.

what are they watching anyways?

That is unless you count anime. Again, please remember to take internet numbers with a salt mine. Still, following the same protocol I did for the US numbers, what I got for anime in 2019 is a market share of 20.47 billion US. And unlike the US industry, it’s growing fast. Hella fast. The market has doubled in the past 5 years.

In all probability, this growth will even out. However, projections of Anime being more or less on par with the entire US film market anywhere from 2027 to 2035 are fairly common.

And again, when we talk anime, we are talking exclusively anime. Not the content made around anime or inspired by anime. Avatar the Last Airbender would count as US rather than anime. Any commentary, live-action remakes, or US-funded Netflix originals are also not accounted for in that particular market.

So although Anime is still smaller than the US market, it’s way bigger than any other in the world despite being a more concentrated product. As far as numbers go, I would call this mainstream. Again I’m not sure what the comparison is.

this is getting messy

As many people watch anime as Disney movies. there is more anime merch sold than Marvel. However, there’s also a heck of a lot of anime out there. So that doesn’t mean people have heard of your favourite series. Or half of mine, cause I got some weird tastes.

Still, I think that whatever was meant to happen to anime once it became mainstream, probably happened a few years ago. By now, maybe even a decade ago. I don’t mean anime isn’t going to change or that market pressures won’t have a “negative” influence on it. But I don’t think that the number of people aware of anime or consuming it is what’s likely to tilt the balance at this point.

In my opinion, anime is already mainstream. What it isn’t quite yet, is profitable. Or at least as profitable as it could be. For tons of simple and complicated reasons, 1 hour of anime simply doesn’t generate the same amount of revenue as an hour of US programming. And it’s debatable on which is more resource-intensive to produce. However, this point is subject to change and I believe that this is where the problem really lies.

Once anime becomes more profitable, it will become more interesting to all sorts of elements which will start to have more and more influence on the end product. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. This is where investor meddling comes in and we start to get boring anime which are just copies of whatever is most popular or sanitized series for highest common denominators. It doesn’t matter how many people are watching anime if your profit is only half of what you could get with another form of media. Then it’s not worth the effort to meddle. But once that changes…

I know what you may be thinking, but Irina, if more people are watching then it will have a larger market share and it will generate more profit. So popular (mainstream) and profitable are the same thing, you irresistible sexy goof.

Ok, so you’re right about that. Both counts. However, I have a theory about that as well. It’s just a theory though, I haven’t really crunched the numbers on it or anything. Anime is sort of too spread out. It has so many genres, niches, weird tropes, a multitude of studios (that appear and disappear) and authors to really be properly stirred in one direction or another.

although it does occasionally look homogenous

As long as we all watched different types and genres of anime, with different influences and tropes, it becomes really difficult to pinpoint what the popular elements that should be imitated are. And as long as we can’t easily identify what the profitable part of anime is, then no one can just blindly copy it over and over again.

It really is just a theory. Still, my hope for anime is that as long as we all seek out new types of anime and give them an honest chance, that will keep the industry agile and diversified. After all, it’s an industry. It cares about profits. So if all the anime are making a reasonable amount of profit and no one is overtaking everyone else….

We’re all going to end up watching fighting shonen, aren’t we? I mean, that’s basically what I just wrote. Ok, now I worried myself a bit. Let’s see what 2020 was like. Oh wow, actually as far as popularity goes, 2020 had a romantic comedy series, a couple of isekais, a sports anime of all things and whatever the God of Highschool is. So we’re safe for now. Nevermind, crisis avoided!

Ok, real take away. Keep being weird fellow anime lovers! There may be a ton of us, but we’re all different, and that makes us great!

38 thoughts

  1. I feel like anime will always be somewhat niche, as the culture differences are quite big still. But some aspects of anime are definitely already mainstream – everyone knows Pikachu, etc. I guess the most important for the industry is to have an increase of fans that go in-depth and build communities amongst themselves

  2. I think anime is headed in the direction of being included in pop culture. Certainly shows like DBZ, Naruto and Pokémon are already mainstream. There’s DBZ floats during the Thanksgiving Day parade for Peet’s sake! I still think the genre has some way to go before being considered mainstream, however. Although the fan base is huge, it’s kind of one giant network and hasn’t crossed over yet. I think we’re on the cusp, tho. I personally can’t wait to see anime get the respect it deserves 💚 I’m not worried at all 😉

  3. Great post and I do agree, mostly. I love your plan to all watch what we like and be passionate about it to our hearts content so what is popular becomes harder to pinpoint and from the positive stance I think you are right.

    As long as we are positive about anime and treat it like a passion I do not mind if it becomes the biggest thing in the world. Anime is too much of a thing to treat as a single type of show. It’s not a genre.. it’s a way to tell a story. We should not say we like anime, in a way we say “I like those CSI shows” or I like Crime Dramas. I am an anime-fan is more akin to “I am a bookworm” or Movie-Lover” . I feel like people forget that.. and treat it as something smaller. I love(d) to read.. but only in two or three genres. One of them is mainstream. But just because many people like reading these books doesn’t mean we don’t get other books either. We also always need to innovate in books and movies.. so anime as well all genres can exisit.

    The problem however I think lies in the toxic side of anime. Toxic fandoms that are very vocal about changes or make a lot of fuzz. Aided by gatekeepers that want to diversify away from those mainstreamers. It’s unfortunate but toxic fandoms.. are a bit more associated with the “mainstream” anime.. Naruto, Dragon Ball, Jojo My Hero Academia..
    They can make (often shonen) fans seem much more prominent. I am not sure if that is used as a measuring tool but for people in the anime world it might seem that these groups are out of proportions and it might cause fear that that is all we will be getting.

    I don’t think it will work that way though.. I see more and more manga stores pop up here in the country.. and you can’t fill your shelves with just Shonen.. so even if that is produced more.. the store keepers and the websites will eventually toss a niche thing into discount where it will be discovered and we will see new genres being pushed by the community. I don’t know a single person to stick with just shonen.. so even if we get one “bad” season filled with fighting anime.. we will also get a season with experiments.

    I am not sure if anime is Mainstream yet.. maybe in our generation and below.. but when I say I like anime I still have to explain what that is quite a lot of times, so there is room for improvement.. I would think it is pretty awesome if there would be an anime for everyone! More to experiment with for me! The only way we can make anime mainstream in a bad way is if we all distance ourselves from the Naruto and the My Heroes.. and shout.. THATS NOT WHAT WE WANT.. then people will notice we are not the folks that make them money and we will not get anything. So I totally love being mainstream with all my mainstream gems like Kyousougiga, Flip Flappers and Tengen Toppa.. and Natsume.. should be mainstream as well!

    1. I don’t know this but I heard that the most toxic fandom out there is Yuri on Ice.
      You know, I love anime and I watch a lot of it. I also talk about it a lot. But I have never once encountered as toxic fandom. Granted I have never looked for one either but I think that Toxic Fandoms exist for pretty much everything and they are fairly easy to ignore.
      Of course I have zero experience so i could be wrong.

      1. As I am kind of big on Dragon Ball I have seen people get fairly toxic with each other… for forgetting small details. I haven’t heard about Free’s Fandom. Pokémon is also fairly known for it’s share of toxic fandoms.. (though it’s not the anime but the games)

        I am into a lot of .. beyond series/games stuff. Like Dragon Ball What If stories, Pokémon discussions, fan content and of course cross series versus.
        Which I weirdly got into due to me liking My Little Pony.. they are very powerful and when Twilight Sparkle beats an anime character stuff goes wild. But to fall down that hole you need to be deep, deep within a series… or just say.. I think Natsume would be a great Stand User and he would beat all the Jojo’s ..
        I think there we might be a bit to old to encounter toxic fandoms.. like the 12 to 17 year old fans or those who never matured beyond that. It’s mostly a phase people go to I think on the way to becoming a more settled fan.
        Like I kind of believe Toxic Fandom to mimic young love.., when having a fresh boyfriend or girlfriend and someone tells them their lipstick stains you feel like punching them in the head… or if your puppy has new toy and you try to take it away. If that love settles you become more reasonable and share it .. rather than keep it to yourself?

        Maybe if people start to get toxic about Natsume .. it means new people are passionate about it and it becomes mainstream?! Then it settles into love? I don’t know just an idea and a take! In which case we would have two types of mainstream?!

  4. Wow, you did a lot of research for this! I’ve always considered anime to be mainstream too. I’ve watched anime for over two decades, and at the beginning, without even knowing that what I was watching was called an ‘anime’ because to me it was just like any other entertainment. If that’s not the idea of mainstream I don’t know what is. It’s like thinking about whether or not gaming is mainstream.

    I’m happy about the growing popularity of anime because I’m positive that out of the billions of shows that will eventually be produced, at least a handful will be great. I’ve yet to see anything really outstanding from new stakeholders like Netflix but I remain hopeful.

    1. I loved Dorohedoro a lot and really enjoyed Beastars and to be honest that’s like 66% of the Netflix anime I have watched so for me they have a great batting average so far

  5. “password I read of a message tied to the leg of a specific goose who made a landing in a park 13 miles from where I live during its migratory route. ”

    Alright, who talked? We thought we finally had an unbreakable exchange mechanism, and now this…

    “However, projections of Anime being more or less on par with the entire US film market anywhere from 2027 to 2035 are fairly common.”

    You know, I wondered why I’d been reading news stories that equated anime with the Hentai site that France just blocked. The US entertainment industry is a tad jealous of their turf. I would not be in the least bit surprised that an unnamed mousey marketing department received a memo from an unnamed mousey board of directors suggesting that gosh, little kids are in danger in France, so better get to it.

    I’ll second ROG’s comment. Actually, let me switch to poker mode and see ROG’s comment and raise it with “Good extrapolation of the data,” too.

  6. One more response- I love the final message that we should all go forth and keep being fans of such different genres of anime!
    I am with you on this plan. In other words, permission to keep being strange granted- thanks! Hahah!

  7. I agree with ROG, the amount of time and research you put into you posts truly shows.
    And I am totally with you on this. I actually welcome anything I love becoming popular by the masses. Whether it is music, art, food, etc.
    I can hog a cake to myself, but it really isn’t a party unless it is shared with people.
    It is more fun, the whole experience is amplified beyond just the cake (as incredible as it is), and I don’t feel sick afterwards either.

    I think that whether something loses it’s genuinness comes down to the people who create it.

    Since I am on the food kick, any small food stand faces a decision once they have a flood of people realizing how amazing their food is:
    they can still stay small and go until they sell out, and continue to do business as they always have. They can expand, and build a restaurant. a hall, a castle, as big as they like. Or they can create food chains.

    As a consumer, if I love a place, I will share it. I am not going to withhold business or praise for a place that deserves it.

    If by my amazing powers of praise, they suddenly skyrocket in business, I let them decide how they want to proceed. As a loyal customer, I will do whatever I can to help. If they want ideas, I won’t hold back!

    However, everyone that is doing anything started out with a dream, and most of the time what I see at the moment is not the full fleshed-out plan of what the dream is. So, I usually assume that they already have a plan of where they go.
    It won’t be the same as what I have been accustomed to and it won’t be my usual, but who am I to hold them back because it is inconvenient for me?

    Lastly, yeah. Anime is totally mainstream!
    Sure, it is not as prevalent as Disney films, but I meet as meet as many anime fans as I do Trekkies and Country music lovers… which is a lot. Ah, no I am not a Trekkie, although yeah I love it! I have a Klignon dictionary my brother gave me for Christmas. I have yet to dust memorize any verses as of yet. And no, not a Country music lover. I DO love Patsy Cline (what a voice!) but that is the extent of my Country music inclinations.

    So yup! I LOVE this post and with you on every point.

  8. I would say yes as well. Financial information for me is kind of irrelevant to determine the answer of “Mainstream?” but the fact that it’s accessible (Crunchyroll .vs. anime video tapes 15yrs ago), out-in-the-open (I have seen people watching anime in the subway in Toronto myself), and the significant rise in anime convention attendance compared to 10-20 years ago would be the deciding factor to make me say “Yes”. It’s kind of become like what hockey is in Canada.

  9. You know, I was worried about foreign money for a while, but I find that it has actually invigorated anime. For example, Netflix shows tend to be more action oriented and less about moe. Netflix seems more interested in the US model of sex and crime than cutesy stuff. That was part of what worried me, but how it turned out was that they provided a market for other stuff at a time where moe dominated. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have gotten Great Pretender (Kaburagi looks like a director to me who generally only does things that interest him: Kimi ni Todoke – Tonari no Kaibutsu kun – Hoozuki no Reitetsu – 92 Days – Great Pretender.) And Netflix is currently teaming up with JC Staff to make Way of the Househusband, which I’m excited about. Netflix means it’s going to get production values; this is a title I’d have expected to get a budget release if at all in Japan (but I may be underestimating the manga’s popularity over there).

    Anime has been riding a retro wave for a while now. Production committees aren’t the most risk-taking they’ve ever been right now, but they’re also de-empahsising the fading moe boom (there’ll always be cute shows, no worries there), and it seems to me they’re looking at what worked before that rather than figuring out where they could go now, but that’s also pretty nice.

    I’m quite fond of Crunchy looking towards Korean sources, and there’s quite a bit competition from China lately (though the Chinese/Japanese co-productions seem to have slowed down a little – you know, like To Be Hero(ine)).

    We’re not experiencing the most creative anime phase ever right now, but I really don’t think we’re in a crisis right now.

    Very little anime has gone mainstream, I’d say, the way Superhero movies have. Ghibli and Your Name come to mind, but they’re a different market anyway. I’d say it’s more a vibrant subculture. (I’m wondering if, with the internet becoming ever more popular, the concept of mainstream is a bit outdated, and what we really have a chaotic mingling of many streams?)

    Part of why I’m not worried is because I’ve got a pretty broad taste. I’ll watch CGDCT shows, shounen fighters, sports anime, SF Noir thrillers… whatever you throw my way. I can’t even complain that there’s not enough weird stuff, not in a season where we finish up the leftovers of Gal and Dino, that really strange anime, stop-motion, live action mashup nonsense. It cheers me up.

    1. I don’t think many singular anime have dominated the market as much as singular movies have although the Big Shonen still have pretty enormous name recognition.

      I’m also really looking forward to Way of the Househusband. I hope it translates well.

  10. Basically my thoughts exactly. The only thing I would add to this post is that I do very much fear it’s only a matter of time before anime becomes like the games industry, where it’s really all about what the investors and higher-ups want– where it becomes this very streamlined, very *profitable* medium. Indie studios driven by passion, not profit, may emerge to carry the torch, but the big-name studios will be turned into soulless money-making instruments.

    I feel the longer it takes for foreign companies like Netflix or Crunchyroll to embed themselves in the production side of Japanese media, the better it will be for anime as we know it. So far their influence has been largely benign, but will that last as their influence grows? I doubt it. Corporations, especially American ones, always want more and more and more, until things start breaking under the weight of their demands.

    But hey, maybe I’m just paranoid. I would love to be wrong, in this case. Anyways, thanks for the thought-provoking article.

    1. You know I’ve played so many amazing indie games in the past 5 years. I know everyone is really down on the gaming industries but I find it’s a lot easier to find unusual games in a wide variety than it was 20 years ago or so. It’s not perfect of course and AAA games have a lot of issues but it’s not the only options out there. And they use to be the only options out there.

        1. I have not. I actually find it very difficult to write about video games. I just don’t really have the vocabulary for it but maybe I should do a top 5 indie games or something

      1. That’s a good point. There’s even an argument to be made that the games industry is oversaturated at present, what with all the half-finished games that get thrown up onto Steam and abandoned by devs. I’ve heard similar arguments about the anime industry, i.e, “there are too many anime per season,” “Studios should focus more on quality, not quantity,” etc. I’m guessing the majority consensus will be that the anime industry is already oversaturated– but again, that’s just a hunch. If so, what will happen when western production labels get more control over the industry? Will it become more streamlined, akin to Hollywood? Or is it possible that our options might become even more diverse? I’d hope for the latter, but as you can probably tell, I’m skeptical 😛 .

        1. Considering the Sony purchase right now Western control over the industry just went down. My understanding however is that Eastern business culture favours consistency and quantity much more than Western one so those specific concerns might actually be worsened buy anime being Japanese….

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