Crunchyroll and the Circuit of Culture
Crunchyroll began in 2006 under four Berkeley graduates: Kun Gao, James Lin, Vu Nguyen, and Brandon Ooi. The company has since become a staple name in Western anime licensing and distribution, and they have even entered into anime production and the creation of new content. Their site is one of the most popular anime-streaming sites, despite being ad-driven or requiring a paid membership to bypass ads. In an era that houses a long list of streaming giants, it is fascinating to see how a streaming service based around a relatively niche material (by Western standards) has taken root and continues to grow and flourish. It is only really possible to understand the rise of Crunchyroll through the lens of the Circuit of Culture and its 5 tenets: Regulation, Representation, Consumption, Production, and Identity.
Regulation (and History)
Regulation refers to a how a site places restrictions and manages usage. How are the users restricted? What restrictions exist for the company?
The story of regulation behind Crunchyroll begins before its founding. Anime and manga have a long history of piracy that took off with the internet and increased dramatically since the introduction of torrenting and file-sharing sites. This is true even in the Western hemisphere, and perhaps to a greater degree. Even with the pursuit of high-quality paid anime streaming, many mildly popular sites are still illegally showing anime episodes or manga chapters that they don’t have licensing for. Crunchyroll began not as an exception, but as the rule.
The early Crunchyroll site was a haven for “user-submitted videos”. In other words, a subset of the early users would illegally download or record new anime episodes when they released. They would then personally translate and type new subtitles to go with it. Afterwards, they would upload it to Crunchyroll for other users to enjoy. With the wave of Western anime interest still in its early stages, the translators and pirates on Crunchyroll and other similar sites were an important step in the online streaming of anime. Crunchyroll grew as a for-profit upload site, and even separated itself by receiving financial investment and interest from a growing number of anime companies despite its user-submitted videos. This did not go unnoticed, and multiple legal distributors without dubious pasts, such as Bandai Entertainment and Funimation, voiced their disapproval of Crunchyroll’s success.
The company got a fresh start alongside their January 2009 deal with TV Tokyo to host episodes of Naruto Shippuden. Crunchyroll announced they would only offer licensed videos on their site. This meant taking down all of the user-submitted material and also fundamentally changing the way an average user could interact with the site. A user could no longer upload their own content with subtitles for other users to see. Despite the gravity of these changes, the site made the shift and managed to remain popular. It also now had ample room to grow, as the fear of corporate backlash due to the hosting of illegal content was now gone. The users themselves would now have to more strongly consider the revamped subscription model, but they could also take comfort in the fact that they had access to a growing collection of anime on a functional site that did not require malware protection to simply visit.
Representation refers to the image a site tries to create for itself. How do they market themselves? How much do they match the image they put forward?
Crunchyroll ultimately strives to paint themselves as the Western face of anime streaming and anime-related content. This means going beyond the United States. While Crunchyroll is a US based company, the market for anime streaming exists and is growing everywhere there is internet access. A large portion of Crunchyroll content is available in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic, and German. Often, Crunchyroll themselves create the new subtitles. In order to make their catalog more accessible, they also must encourage the production of dubs for licensing, since these take much more time and investment than subtitles. With the commencement of their own anime production, Crunchyroll is even beginning to dub episodes themselves. While the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a temporary hiatus on dubbing new episodes, Crunchyroll is poised to make their content more available for a larger audience through their own efforts.
Crunchyroll also seeks to go beyond anime. Although anime is the primary focus, the company and website also provide access to a sizeable catalog of East Asian dramas and manga. They have also developed Crunchyroll Games, a game publisher focused on “anime-based mobile games”. With it, they have already released numerous games that correspond with some of the larger titles in their anime catalog, such Mass For The Dead for the Overlord series. Crunchyroll also sells anime-related merchandise and occasionally hosts anime-related conventions where fans can gather for events and shop in person. In their store, they have a large collection of clothing and linens, accessories, and, to draw in collectors, figurines and plushes.
This is not to say that Crunchyroll neglects its anime. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Crunchyroll touts “the largest collection of licensed anime”, with over one thousand different titles. Alongside hundreds of smaller seasonal anime releases, they house a multitude of classic popular titles like One Piece, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Attack on Titan, and Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. Generally speaking, if there is an anime someone is interested in, they can find it on Crunchyroll. The only time this is untrue is when a rival company owns exclusive rights, one of the most notable recent examples being Funimation’s exclusive claim on season 2 of One-Punch Man. However, with the announcement of Crunchyroll’s acquisition by Sony’s Funimation Global Group on December 9th, even this may drastically change.
It is also important to note that Crunchyroll strives to represent themselves an ally of marginalized communities. Crunchyroll is very open about their support of the LGBTQ+ community and their active inclusion LGBTQ+ people in their workforce. While most businesses nowadays try to avoid any discrimination, Crunchyroll is working toward public acceptance.
Consumption refers to site usage by users. How much does an average user engage with the site? What factors are affecting the sites growth and usage?
Crunchyroll is quickly becoming a powerhouse in the field of anime distribution, and many other Western companies such as Funimation are eagerly keeping pace. This wasn’t always the case, though. Japan has a long history in animation and anime, and companies from the country had worked on establishing the licensing and distribution of anime long before Crunchyroll or any of its competitors had firmly entered the scene. The first anime by modern standards stems all the way back to 1958. Names that are big today, such as TV Tokyo, were distributing anime by the mid- and late-70s. Other Eastern countries, such as China and Taiwan, were also quick to stake their claim and declare their presence in the manga and anime industries. Still, it is anime distributors like Crunchyroll that are making the anime world and its fans a globally-felt force with each passing day.
Crunchyroll’s rapid growth is fueled by a growing Western anime fan base. Now more than ever, watching and enjoying anime is becoming a broadly accepted pastime. Since its founding in 2006, Crunchyroll has experienced tremendous growth. By early 2017, Crunchyroll had announced that they had broken past one million paid subscribers and 1.5 billion minutes of anime streaming per month. Obviously, it is hard to compare to other Western streaming titans of the digital era, such as YouTube and Netflix; but Crunchyroll is very serious when they make the bold claim about being “the world’s most popular anime brand.” Today, the site is home to about 100 million active users, 3 million of which are paid subscribers.
Crunchyroll and the Western anime community in general are now being placed right in the public eye. Celebrities that watched anime as teenagers and young adults are making a name for themselves, and they are beginning to show their open support for anime as they do so. In particular, anime-appreciation has found an interesting niche in the R&B and rap communities. Perhaps it is the humble origins of many of the artists, or perhaps it is merely a coincidence. Either way, it is not uncommon to hear a reference to popular anime such as Naruto or Dragon Ball Z nestled in among the lyrics of a new song. Thundercat, a growing R&B artist, often includes such bars in his songs, and he has even released a song entirely based around the concept of a “Dragonball Durag” on his album It Is What It Is. Megan Thee Stallion is a popular female artist, and she often sports shirts with graphic designs featuring imagery from some of her favorite anime. Lil Uzi Vert is a widely-known rapper that has been dubbed by some as the rap game’s “Favorite Weeb“. Not only does he sport anime apparel or weave anime into his songs and lyrics, but he has also gone so far as to wrap many of his high-class sports cars in some of his favorite anime imagery. These are merely some of the bigger names, but it can certainly be said that these and other artists are already inspiring younger fans to check out the same shows they like and join the community. As a new generation of fans joins the ranks and eventually spawns some of their own big names, it will be interesting to see how sites like Crunchyroll adapt and grow alongside them.
Production refers to the sites ability to produce content? Does the site produce its own content or rely on users? If it makes its own, how does it do it?
As noted in the Regulation section, Crunchyroll began as a user-submitted video platform and then transitioned to the exclusive release of properly licensed anime. It was not until 2018 that Crunchyroll announced their plans to begin producing original content in 2019. While the announcement itself was seemingly light-hearted, this was the result of numerous years of partnerships and development and would mark a crucial moment in Crunchyroll as a company and website.
Much of production has been a network of collaboration with smaller companies. Crunchyroll began working with Ellation studios in some of their early work, such as the controversial High Guardian Spice discussed later in the Identity section. They have also worked with Glitch Productions and Viz Media on smaller projects and distribution goals. By far, their most successful recent creative partnership has been with WEBTOON, a Korean based platform specializing in manwha and web comics. This collaboration spawned the two popular series Tower of God and God of High School, both of which were heavily watched and praised for their animation.
Crunchyroll’s new production also extends to distribution. Being under the Warner Media umbrella, Crunchyroll ended up as a sister studio to Adult Swim, the late night programming block that has followed Cartoon Network for many years. While the two differ drastically in usual content, Adult Swim does have its special Toonami block where the studio plays primarily Japanese anime. This created an opportunity for Crunchyroll and anime to strengthen their presence in American television. Following the collaboration, Crunchyroll has allowed parts of their catalog to air on the Toonami block, and recently there have been regular showings of episodes of Sword Art Online and the newer Fire Force. As Crunchyroll increases their interaction with American audiences through various media, it seems likely that some new viewers will inevitably find their way to the site.
Identity refers to the behavior of the users. Who are they? How do they communicate using the site as a medium? What are their beliefs and motivations when it comes to the site?
The collective identity of Crunchyroll’s users are a driving force behind Crunchyroll’s success and continued growth. It does not take long for a new user to find themselves engaged in press releases, anime releases, and other aspects of the site. Pretty soon, a user is a member of a tightly-knit group of fans actively involved in a show or series. Since anime is seasonal and there are a lot of details behind each weekly episode, Crunchyroll actually has a news tab among the main categories on their home page. A new anime adaptation announcement or a season two announcement and trailer can quickly spark a conversation between interested parties who have never met or talked before. However, the largest conversations still take place in the comment sections of each episode of a popular anime.
The discussion between viewers in the comments on every new episode is interesting, frequently thoughtful, and surprisingly civil for an internet forum. Often a popular comment will spark a long chain of dialogue between users, even if it was only a notable quotation from one scene. Part of this might be simply because of anime as a media. Anime, whether legally or illegally, has been consistently found online for a long time given its relatively small audience in relation to, say, popular television shows or even some larger YouTube communities. A large proportion of the viewers on any given anime actually care about the continued popularity and success of the show they are watching. Of course, toxicity and criticism are still present, but they make up a much lower portion of comments than they would on any given YouTube video.
The unity of the users also extends to many of their ideals. A large subset of Crunchyroll users use the site to, in part, support the legal distribution of anime. Many of the viewers who care about a show’s success know that it needs financial backing in order to continue and potentially release new seasons, and watching pirated episodes reduces that financial support even if only marginally. Some also want to see the writers, artists, and animators they love get their share of fame and wealth. This is why many people are happy to watch ads or pay the monthly subscription fee to watch ad-free. Although they know Crunchyroll receives most of the profits, they also know that a portion of their subscription fee goes to current and future anime.
The cohesion of the community even circles back to Crunchyroll, and this can be negative and positive. Crunchyroll has received its fair share of community backlash for its video player, which doesn’t meet some viewers standards even with the increased quality provided by a paid subscription. There have also been questions raised about promises that Crunchyroll made and did not deliver on. For example, the Crunchyroll subreddit featured a post by user TwistDev asking “What ever happened to High Guardian Spice?” High Guardian Spice was one of the first Crunchyroll Originals announced alongside Crunchyroll’s announcement to begin producing original content, yet in just a few months it seemingly lost traction and then vanished. Crunchyroll also announced their acquisition by Funimation and Sony to bittersweet response from users. While some tried to maintain optimism about an even more expansive catalog of anime, many comments expressed a preference for Crunchyroll over Funimation and showed concern about potential changes should this deal go through. Regardless of who is ultimately in charge, it appears Crunchyroll may need to engage with feedback from users in order to take their site to the next level.