Tokyo (AFP) -
Once a semi-legal sharing site, Crunchyroll is now a streaming giant credited with helping Japanese anime transform from a nerdy subculture into a lucrative global industry poised to conquer new markets.
This year, the US-based company held its annual Anime Awards in Tokyo for the first time, with the art form's heavyweights gathering for what have become some of the industry's highest accolades -- and a sign of Crunchyroll's influence.
Sony acquired the company in 2020 for $1.17 billion and Crunchyroll now offers anime in over 10 languages on 15 platforms.
Its evolution from a site featuring user-generated content that faced copyright claims to a platform with over 10 million paying subscribers has helped drive an explosion in the popularity of Japanese anime.
'We are really excited to see it become a global movement and be adopted across the globe,' Crunchyroll president Rahul Purini told AFP at the awards.
Presenters this year included 'Stranger Things' actor Finn Wolfhard and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, a testament to 'how anime has not only grown but become such a part of the mainstream cultural zeitgeist', chief marketing officer Gita Rebbapragada said.
While classics like 'Spirited Away' and 'One Piece' have long had devoted followings, anime has grown exponentially in recent years, helped in part by a pandemic-fuelled demand for indoor entertainment.
The global market for Japanese anime grew 13 percent to an all-time high of 2.74 trillion yen ($20 billion) in 2021, according to the Association of Japanese Animations.
- 'Not one size fits all' -
In the United States, 'there is a surprising amount of understanding that (anime) is not kids' cartoons', Rebbapragada said.
'Number one opening weekends is not uncommon anymore for an anime film.'
Crunchyroll can claim some of the credit: it is now dubbed the world's largest online anime library, present in over 200 countries and territories.
It offers anime, games and manga on its platforms, distributes animation films to US theatres, publishes manga and sells anime-related merchandise.
When it was founded in 2006, however, it skated along the edges of legality, with its content being largely pirated, user-generated cartoon uploads that often raised copyright issues.
It turned over a new leaf with the 2009 rollout of a fully licensed subscription plan, and has won over fans keen to give back to creators.
The company believes the range of titles it offers is part of the reason for anime's expanding market, with content going beyond traditional 'shonen (boys)' anime centred on coming-of-age tales about swashbuckling heroes.
'A lot of folks are familiar with 'Dragon Ball', that's a major franchise, but there's the unique opportunities for something like 'Spy x Family',' chief operating officer Brady McCollum, referring to the recent comedy hit featuring a telepathic girl and her make-believe parents.
The ingredients for good anime are 'not one size fits all', he said.
- 'Anime can come from anywhere' -
Still, for those unfamiliar with anime, who can sometimes assume the cartoon format is intended for children, violent or sexual content can come as a surprise.
Anime is a 'medium that encapsulates many different genres', said Rebbapragada.
'There's going to be a huge swathe of things -- some of it is going to be less palatable to some audiences than others.'
The company expects 'really strong growth in anime and for ourselves' particularly in newer markets like India, said Rebbapragada.
Anime's growth has also invited competition from Japan's neighbours such as China and South Korea, with 'Your Name' director Makoto Shinkai recently telling AFP that he thinks Chinese animation will 'sooner or later overtake us'.
Most of Crunchyroll's anime titles are still Japanese, though the firm sees major progress in Chinese anime, and will stream the adaptation of South Korea's best-selling webcomic 'Solo Leveling'.
'I think anime can come from anywhere,' Rebbapragada said.