I’m not sure this post is going to reach the intended audience. I think most of my readers either don’t care if anime is mainstream or not or are happy if it is. Still, I have been reading a lot of comments, and even some think pieces about how anime is becoming too mainstream and why that’s a bad thing and I have some good news about that. You don’t need to worry, anime has been mainstream for a really long time.

In the past, I have actually looked up numbers that show that anime is a massive market worldwide and a very rapidly growing one at that. I do agree that anime has become more generally popular in the past decade or so. But where do you draw the line between mainstream or not? At what point does popularity change anything. Because for me I would say the existence of Crunchyroll was that point.

You see Crunchyroll is a huge digital distribution platform. I’m not teaching you anything new here but just bear with me for a little bit, I’m going to try to explain my point. Crunchyroll was rolled out in 2006. Meaning that if there are any 20-year-olds reading this when it publishes, they were 4 when Crunchyroll became public.

Although not exactly the same platform as we know it now, right from the beginning it was entirely focused on distributing East Asian media and the bulk of it was anime. Some of it was fansubbed and dubbed but it was still an entire platform dedicated to anime. Moreover, it also quickly became popular (and potentially profitable) enough to be bought out by AT&T.

When a huge Texan-based company thinks that anime is watched by enough people to have a dedicated distribution platform, I think it’s safe to say it’s mainstream. Only sports and news get that kind of treatment. It’s as mainstream as you can get.

And Crunchyroll was hardly the first platform to distribute anime. Specific shows had been airing on network television all around the world for decades prior. It didn’t have the fandom it has now but honestly, nothing did. Fandoms as we know them today are a fairly modern phenomenon that exists in great part thanks to social media. 

So from my point of view, anime as a general medium has been mainstream all over the world for quite a while. And it’s been mainstream in Japan forever. Whatever bad thing is supposed to happen when things become mainstream has happened to anime long ago in my opinion.

But to take it one step further, I would say that there are some really great things that happened as well. Let me conflate anime and manga for a bit.

20 years ago I couldn’t really find manga where I lived. Even if I went to specialty comic book stores, I might be able to find one or two volumes of the most popular titles like Akira, but that was it. And even getting it shipped here was dicey.

for some context, these shelves are where vol 17 of Demon Slayer was before it sold out in Japan…

Fast-forward a few years. Things started to shift a bit. I could now find volumes of manga here in there in large chain bookstores le Chapters. It was still rare and they were just mixed in with western comics but you could find them. Especially in French. I would say there was two to three times more French manga than English at the time which is why half of my collection is in French.

And then something happened. Indigo bought out Chapters and opened a slew of enormous bookstores I still love wasting hours in. And maybe a decade ago they started putting in Manga sections. At first, it was just a few shelves, then it grew to an entire bookcase in the back corner of the store. A few years ago it was about 5 bookcases in the graphic novel section and just a few weeks ago, when I went in to pick up the latest Bungo Stray Doges volume, they had redone the manga section to a real section. Rows of bookcases filled with various manga in alphabetical order. I could actually go in and have a reasonable shot of finding what I was looking for.

By now I can also easily and reliably find most things online and get them delivered to my place (as long as I play just as much in shipping as the manga costs…) but there’s something nice about being able to go in and browse. See the books for myself before picking them up. I like it.

And it sounds very mundane. Even I take the availability of manga for granted. But it’s fairly recent. For a very long time, I just couldn’t read the manga I wanted to. I would hear about it, make wild assumptions in my mind and if I was lucky find some French versions because France has been distributing both anime and manga regularly since the 70s.

In case it isn’t clear, I really like the fact that I can get most manga I want. I can even discover new manga I had never heard of before. This is something I dreamt of for a long time. But it only became possible relatively recently because anime and manga have gained enough popularity for commerce to follow.

I won’t even get into the fact that I have dozens of new anime to choose from every season. Instead of three and two of them are just the continuation of long-running shonen or well…Sailor Moon. Not that I’m complaining about Sailor Moon. That was my jam. Irrelevant tangent, have you ever heard the German OP of Sailor Moon?

Crazy right? Oh and here’s the French One. I should just have done an international Ops of Sailor Moon post. That would have been way more fun!

After this brief Sailor Moon intermission, let’s get back to the post!

Personally, I think that the availability and variety of anime are worth any drawback that popularity may bring. But some people might disagree. So let me throw one last thing out there…cautiously.

I know that fandoms have their ups and downs. They can be exhausting, and I have occasionally just steered clear of anime I would have otherwise watched because the fandoms around them were just too much for me. It’s very rare but it has happened.

However, I would say that just as often I have discovered great anime because I heard fans talking about it enthusiastically. I have had interesting conversations about anime as well. You have to choose your venue and subject. It’s pretty obvious that if you inject yourself into an already contentious argument, you probably won’t get any interesting takes out of it but there are some thoughtful threads out there and you can always start your own conversation.

That would probably be possible if anime wasn’t as popular as it is, but it would still have to be mainstream enough to easily find other fans. Heck, I have even made friends through a shared love of anime. That’s amazing!

Personally, I hope anime stays very popular. I don’t want to go back to watching only the one or two shows that made the worldwide distribution list. And I want to be able to chat about my favourite series with people.

This is a very one-sided post. I can’t really argue the opposite point because I’m not sure what the detriments of anime being mainstream are. Corporate influence? Maybe but that’s also not exactly a new thing.

Most of the other issues I’ve seen, fans can’t agree on whether they are a good or bad thing. Like studios put more importance on visuals because it’s an easy way to get a wider audience. But there are a lot of fans that really like the fact that we have so many beautiful anime now. And there are a lot of fans who say anime was better looking when everything was hand drawn. And I know the underlying complaint is that they focus more on visuals than story but no one can prove that. It makes it really difficult to figure out exactly what the issue is.

I’m sure there are some genuine concerns. I just haven’t put my finger on what they are yet.

17 thoughts

  1. Speaking of anime being minastream, I’ve started to notice more people, even at shopping malls or carnivals in Toronto wearing anime-themed shirts, and even stores dedicated to it have begun to open up whereas 10 years ago, that kind of stuff would have been unthinkable. Sometimes I’d even stop by and compliment their usage of such, and smile knowing that anime’s become so mainstream in a good way (and that I’m not alone in enjoying it). Good times indeed.

  2. I’m an old punk. And I have been through the frustration of having a fantastic punk band only known through a few crazy local bars with live music that, after five or six years becomes “an overnight sensation” and gets a record deal and an album and some coverage – and then there’s always that group of punks who whine and cry and scream and call the band a “sellout”. And I’ll say the same thing I tell them – damn, isn’t it GREAT when really exceptional creatives are actually able to make a LIVING from their work and the Evil Corporate Overlords make their work available to a much wider audience so everyone can enjoy them?! Now, there’s a few dozen little rabbit holes everywhere in this conversation about how the ECO are stealing from the creatives and consumers and blah blah blah. But by and large – ain’t it great? There’s this funky punk band in Germany I love – but I only know them because they put videos on YouTube that I can watch here in America. And back there in Germany, they probably get a mark or two because I watch them (I hope). What’s not to love?

    Sure, there is the influence the ECOs weild over what they produce and what they discard. But see, we live in this global world now where creators can raise money through crowdfunding and put their work out through lots of little indie portals. Even Nintendo ports Indie games to the Switch now. There’s a world of opportunity even for the hopelessly weird or kinky to reach their audience.

    And yeah, it’s just cool to be wearing an anime t-shirt and have some stranger run up and say OMG OMG OMG I love that anime! So much nicer than people curling a lip and saying “Isn’t that for CHILDREN?” You know, life changes and goes on and things grow or disappear, and I know which I prefer for anime…

  3. When I first starting getting into anime/manga, I had to find Sailor Moon in the children’s section of my mall bookstore, and finding any anime/gaming T-shirt was like finding buried treasure. And now even though I know anime is being more widely accepted, I still get a bit of culture shock when I keep seeing anime-related merchandise in stores I never would have thought and often part of big geek/otaku displays. It makes me happy though!

  4. As someone who has grappled with the mainstream my whole life, I will say that anime is in a weird limbo, depending on the definition of the word. Essentially, anime is mainstream because it’s huge, easily accessible through official channels, and has these big events catered to them.

    Conversely, the only truly mainstream anime are that handful of household classics, and each iteration of the next big battle shounen. A lot of awesome anime and manga take too many weird, creative risks to be what I consider to be “mainstream”, e.g. a conscious effort to achieve maximum public appeal.

    From my past experiences on MyAnimeList, I have a different perspective on this subject matter. I always figured they were talking about what essentially boiled down to the “Americanization of anime”. Some people seem to believe that art has borders that must be accounted for, which I think is complete BS, but works as a placebo effect to those who believe it; one example, I heard that the creative liberties taken in Hollywood’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, among others, was because the original themes leaned too much toward “Eastern values” and not “Western values.” I think people were worrying that Japanese studios might be forced to operate under that system, so that they can cater to the people who watch Breaking Bad and the like. I’ve consumed media (especially music) from practically all across the globe, and lemme tell you, art is art, with no boundaries.

    Sorry for rambling. I do love the accessibility of anime and manga these days; BookWalker and Viz have been my lifeblood for years. Great post as usual, Irina!

  5. Did I ever hear the German opening of Sailormoon? Well, I’m Austrian. For years, that was all I knew. New openings and endings for international releases were the norm back in the day, since distribution companies often wouldn’t or couldn’t get the rights for the original songs. One show I remember watching back in the early eighties (Captain Future) had an entire new musical score (not only the opening), written by a German composer. I’d always loved the soundtrack so it came quite as a surprise to learn that later. The soundtrack was iconic and a remix even entered the Pop-charts around here, during a wave of nostalgia for the eighties.

    Anime mainstream vs. anime fandom is an interesting topic, or probably will be as soon as I get a handle on the terms. It’s fairly easy in Japan: there’s daytime anime and after midnight anime. Stuff like Sazae san, Doraemon, My Hero Academia, Shiro-kuma Café or Iruma-kun are pretty mainstream. It’s the otaku anime that air after midnight that are niche. It’s more difficult in the West, since both types of anime used to share the same market, which used to be fandom driven until Amazon and Netflix entered the game. But the divisions aren’t the same as they are in Japan.

    And I don’t have market figures. For example, Little Witch Academia would definitely have made more of a splash in anime fandom than it did, if it weren’t for Netflix jail. But Netflix has a huge audience, and it’s entirely possible that Little Witch Academia made more money than some Cruchy stuff that has its seasonal spike and is then forgotten. And it’s also possible that LWA made more money on Netflix than it would have on, say, Crunchy (though that’s something you can’t ever be sure about).

    I regularly miss Netflix shows, i.e. I don’t even hear about them until they suddenly drop all at once. Often only later. Netflix shows are the most likely to be missed by me.

  6. Ha, I still have some nostalgia for these days. As a kid, I’d gotten hooked on Naruto. I desperately needed to get my hands on every volume! So I spent an entire summer rummaging through Montreal’s public libraries, to find them all.

    This was before the municipality set a network connecting all public libraries, notifying you which volumes were available in the network, and at which library. Armed with a passe mensuelle from the STM, I wound up visiting nearly every library in the city.

    Good times. The real treasure troves were at Mile-End, Parc-Extension & Robert-Bourassa. I found all volumes, by the way. Naruto was mainstream enough for that.

      1. Too true. I did dedicate an entire day to Vieux-Longueuil & Saint-Hubert, which in hindsight may be my dumbest mistake to date. Certainly top five, next to not following your blog from day one. And so, after scouring seven entire libraries — seven! — there wasn’t a single Naruto volume in sight! Fucking Rive-Sud…

        I took a solid 10 minutes to curse myself for my idiotic ideas. Why did I care so much about some dumb ninja, whose brash behavior was anathema to me? Why spend so much time looking for his shitty story, when I could be re-reading Candide instead? And, most inexplicably of all, why the fuck did I expect better from the birthplace of Roi Heenok?

        So I reminded myself that a couple summers back, rather than search for stupid comics, I was looking instead for shelter from bomber planes. Their nice pilots would go out of their way to deliver colorful gifts to the whole neighborhood. Now, launching fireworks in broad daylight was a new concept for me, and it tended to catch my attention. But I must say it lost some of its allure, and quite quickly. In comparison, wasting a few hours on a frivolous wild-goose chase looked like a pretty pleasant pastime. Right?

        Wrong. I still went home pouting. Fucking Rive-Sud…

  7. Mainstream is a pointless term in the day of the internet. There is so much content and so many people, everything you watch will have a community behind it. I’m a big fan of discord communities, spiky in quality they may be. Real time discussion is a wonderful thing.

    If anything, I actually think mainstream and “obscure” are blurring because of the sheer volume.

  8. I don’t really care about something going “mainstream.” I do miss the days of 80s and 90s hand-drawn anime though. It’s nostalgic for me. Someone else said something in the comments that resonated with me too.

    It is jarring that when I was a kid I would have to do a deep dive to find a more obscure anime title I wanted to see. My options were the Internet or our local Suncoast (RIP. I miss it so much! It was the place to go for anime in my town.). Now, I can find whatever I want in a Google search. Yes, it was more frustrating. But there was something about those searches that I miss. The triumphant feeling you got when you located that allusive anime and the romanticism of it all.

  9. I totally agree that living in a world of mainstream anime is wonderful! I can go into almost any book store, even used book stores, and find a good variety of manga on the shelves. I can watch almost any anime I can think of on a streaming service when ever I want! And I think what I love the most about anime going mainstream is the acceptance of anime in public. I got into anime in the early 2000’s and that was not a time when it was okay in my community to visibly be an anime fan. No one wore anime T shirts in public, no one read manga in public, even if you were an anime fan, it was not okay to admit it in public. Of course as a new and very happy anime fan back then I wanted to share my love of anime with my school friends, and I learned very quickly that it was a bad idea. I had friends that I thought were very open minded, but when I shared that I was an anime fan, I was accused of being a pervert, hating my own country, and acting like a child. I had to learn the hard way in the early 2000’s that anime fans were a fandom in hiding. Now that anime has gone mainstream it’s like a breath of fresh air! I can be myself in public and no one is going to say anything mean to me! I can wear an anime T shirt in public and people might actually compliment me, rather than reprimand me! I can read manga on the bus, and someone might mention that they are also a fan of the series. I love that anime has gone mainstream and I hope it stays that way!

  10. I personally fall on the side of not caring whether it is mainstream or not. Mangas are still not available to purchase in India, and given how things are going on right now, it probably won’t be for a long time.

    Also, the first ever anime which aired according to the quick Google search I did was Astroboy in 1960s. The first ever fandom which developed around a series was Sherlock Holms. These fans have same characteristics as the modern fans.

    My only problem would be if anime just became another way to tell the same kind of stories, just because they are popular. Then, just like the book publishers, the studios will stop investing in some unique ideas and stories, instead of taking risks. This is the same thing I have observed in video games in the past decade. Most of the unique ideas come from indi developers, instead of big game studios or publishers.

  11. I think I realized anime was fully mainstream when The New York Times did an article on Netflix buying the rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion in 2019. Finally something there worth reading 😛 jk

    I don’t mind anime being mainstream but it feels jarring having grown up in a time when it wasn’t. When I was a kid I was bullied for liking anime, gaming, fantasy novels, etc. News stations would often blame violent acts on the fact that the perpetrator played games or watched anime. Now these things are more accepted and that’s definitely a good thing. But it’s frustrating that society judges things it doesn’t understand, right until they becomes mainstream and then it acts like it never did so in the first place. I could say the same thing with some formerly “niche” genres that became mainstream like hip hop, electronic music, even rock and roll way back in the day.

  12. I kind of glossed over this in my recent post, but going to a con really opened my eyes on how many people, from my region and beyond, were unified in their pursuit of the In-Person Anime Experience (TM)., whether it be as a volunteer or congoer

    One first world problem corporate influence brings is the market not knowing how people like their anime (so-called “Netflix Jail”).

    Personally, I like anime being mainstream, even if sometimes there’s so much content I get stressed about it unnecessarily. It means people actually know what I’m going on about…sometimes (I guess it doesn’t help I look at up-and-coming Japanese-language content occasionally, so for manga, I complain about missed opportunities and then get my wish granted 4 years later).

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