For many Australians, anime feels like a quiet and distant underground. Local fans always seem to be looking elsewhere for recommendations and discussions, with Studio Ghibli often being the be-all and end-all of convincing friends and family of what anime is or can be. But over the past year, things have begun to slowly change.
In 2016, it wasn’t uncommon to see simple lists like “5 Reasons You Should Watch Anime”, the syndicated stories on “The New Miyazaki” or the fandom-based praises of “Anime’s Year of Queer” coming from Australian writers. While many of these discussions failed to push beyond anime’s merits as fantasy and escapism, each reflected on the larger and more invested interest Australians now have in the industry. Gone are the days of fans waiting for SBS to screen Akira or for Cheez TV to show another episode of Sailor Moon—the internet has changed the way in which Australian fans can gather and debate.
“Back in the day, there was a strong perception that anime was either for kids or the complete opposite,” Jessica McCallum of Madman Entertainment explains. “People are becoming a lot more open and embracing of the idea of anime as a category with something for everyone, rather than a small, niche genre.”
Since their inception over 20 years ago, Madman are the leading local distributor of anime on disc, holding down 90 percent of the Japanese animation market in Australia. Based in Melbourne, the team have slowly been building their reputation between publishing and promotion, connecting the dots for the local community. Forming strong ties with Japanese creators over the years, their digital extension was inevitable—in 2014, Madman announced their streaming service AnimeLab out into the world.
Heading both social media and brand for Madman, AnimeLab and Madman’s Anime Festival, Jessica is one of the few Australians that gets paid to have their finger on the Japanese industry’s pulse; her Madman team—Ben Pollock, their publicity manager, and Sylvester Ip, their product and marketing manager—also nodding to the shifts in these interactions between market and fandom.
“The overseas market for anime is arguably the healthiest it’s ever been. The sheer number of shows being licensed for streaming services has drastically increased over the last year alone, which has a lot to do with the thriving resurgence of the market in the West,” Jessica confirms.
With 86 percent of all Australian households having access to the Internet, resurgence in the Australian market could be more than a reflection of global growth, but rather the effect of new technologies on fansub production, distribution and streaming. Put simply: Australians can now participate in fan activism as prosumers, moving away from traditional mediums to become active producer-consumers building stronger communities.
“We have greater access to content,” Ben notes, discussing the spurs between Australian fans and authority, “it’s especially important considering the steady stream of new shows coming out of Japan over the last few years that have contributed to word-of-mouth.”
A rarity in contemporary media history, this word-of-mouth foundation is exactly what defines the anime community—prosumer fans are no longer simple targets for litigation or campaigns, but instead accepted in the global marketplace as creatives to be adopted and sought out. “Again, this has been influenced by the category’s global growth, with theatrical films especially carrying a wide and varied appeal. From hardcore otaku content to Ghibli-esque offerings, in observing the response from audiences there’s a pretty clear and demonstrated increase in awareness,” Jessica presses.
Trailer for "Your Name", screened by Madman in Australian cinemas late last year
Cementing them in the eyes of Western audiences, theatrical releases could be the clearest and most logical step in bridging the gap between viewers. In 2016, Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) was a standout performer that received critical acclaim, praised for its animation and emotional impact. Directed by Makoto Shinkai, the film takes body-swapping and slice of life anime tropes—similar in many ways to Kokoro Connect and AnoHana—to flesh out 107 minutes of lavish cinematography, loose character development and implied feeling. As of January 2017, Your Name is the highest-grossing anime film in history, sitting pleasantly at US$281 million worldwide with plenty of chatter on its recent Oscar miss.
“A strong area of growth for us is in theatrical anime,” Jessica ensures, “it’s something we’ve done for many, many years.” Looking beyond arthouse circuits, anime features have only begun to hit Australian cinema chains in the last 15 years; director Hayao Miyazaki pioneering a treaded path with Oscar award-winning film, Spirited Away. “Anime features were once limited. A big part of our local business in the last couple of years has shifted towards delivering anime features such as The Boy and the Beast, Boruto: Naruto the Movie, Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F, One Piece Film: Gold and most recently, the incredibly successful Your Name. We’re using a much wider pool of cinemas to suit demand.”
In spite of this, there is still a considerable time-lag between airing and physical purchases, with only a limited amount of television anime being produced for significant domestic and international distribution. To get some perspective, Your Name was released in Japan on August 26 while in Australia, fans had to wait until November 24 for the film to debut. As Sylvester explains, the speed of a release “all depends on the content,” and fans are aware that things can get—quite literally—lost in translation.
“The source material needs to be great, however, with anime and manga being Japanese, there are a lot of cultural barriers that need to be dissected and broken down before we can see more of the content being transposed for Western audience tastes,” Sylvester says. “What works in one market may not always work in another.”
Of course, fans backed into a corner of waiting will always find other alternatives—the latter being online streaming. In 2014, around 50 percent of internet-connected Australians were watching professionally produced film or television content online across multiple devices. Noticing this change in the market, Jessica agrees: convergence between digital mediums is happening naturally and fast. “We’ve seen our anime audience broadening a lot over the last couple of years and a big part of that is due to our own dedicated streaming service called AnimeLab.”
Madman Anime Festival crowd. Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment
The streaming service—dubbed as “the Netflix of Japanese Animation”—is a heavyweight contender against America’s Crunchyroll, focusing on reducing time-lag for targeted Australian audiences. As Jessica shares, “our platform has enabled users to locally access, consume and discover new shows without the hassle of VPNs and other less than legal workarounds. In fact, in mildly ironic twist, the service has been so popular in some circles that we’ve had international users trying to access it.”
Wielding these services that invite Australians to consume anime, Madman is also one of the few local entertainment companies to create a dialogue for and by fan communities. Results of these conversations are especially apparent in their yearly Madman Anime Festival, where they openly invite cosplayers and fans from all around Australia to build momentum around anime cultures. In past, this has been the Australian anime community’s biggest step-back—there was only so much fans could propagate between each other without a greater hand.
“We really wanted Madman Anime Festival to foster that community spirit by involving fans with as many aspects of the festival as possible. They suggested the questions we should ask our guests in panels and interviews, joined our cosplay fan meets, danced on our expo stage during our community performances and interacted with our unique exhibits,” Jessica explains. With inclusivity at the crux of Madman’s world, fans and fringe communities were also encouraged to participate online. “The festival wasn’t the only place fans connected… we had more than 15,000 fans interacting with each other on our Facebook event page in the week leading up to the event. It became a hub of community activity… The fans are at the heart of everything we do.”
Leading these communities, Madman’s endeavours are few of the leading examples on how the Australian anime community is changing. With fan interaction finally being encouraged beyond bedroom viewing or the occasional Miyazaki click-through, 2017 could be an essential year for bloggers, cosplayers and anime communities to come together to write their own discourses. And now, with convergence of old and new reigning digital consumption, the realisation is clear: anime has always been cool—but Australians now have more platforms to interpret it.