To the surprise of no one in this community, Anime is getting big. The movies, the exciting new projects, the growing fandom here in the states and the new players tackling this previously niche market are all very exciting. With this change though comes cynicism, as typical when the cool little clubhouse fandoms start as expand to cover more broad demographics and become something larger.
Subject to this vitriol recently has been Crunchyroll. The former illegal fansub site turned big streaming service has been growing for years, becoming one of the biggest names in Anime here in America. One that is lending a hand to the industry itself. Such growth is impressive and depending on who you talk to, really positive. Talk to the others though, and there is a different story.
Recent controversy mixed with my friends’ opinions regarding the service has given me pause to think critically about this company. Its quality as a streaming platform, it’s relationship with the Anime industry, and it’s own “agenda” (god I hate that word) are all up for discussion. So, as strange as it sounds, here is a review of Crunchyroll.
The Home For “Everything Anime”
I’m judging CR primarily for its merits as a streaming service of Anime only. I don’t read manga, nor do I partake in J-dramas. I don’t really frequent forums enough to have an opinion of the quality of CR’s own forums and I have never bought from their store. I like the news page, but otherwise, I’m only covering the Anime streaming portion.
To that point, if we are only talking about paid, legal streaming, Crunchyroll is the definitive place to go if you want to watch Anime. Not counting dramas and manga, they have over 800 anime and that was the reported number back in 2017. It isn’t surprising considering their past. Back in 2013 during an interview with Otaku Journalist, co-founder and then-CEO Kun Gao stated that CR’s policy was to “make an offer on every single title.”
Their goal is clear. They want to be the biggest supplier of anime to the point that their marketing boasted the tagline “Everything Anime.” They continually acquire the biggest and most talked about shows of any given season. If there is a new show I’m interested in, more often then not they have it. It helps that they have several of the most renowned series of all time, in their entirety, available to stream.
My own success in finding anticipated shows in their library vary, though mainly because there are more companies tackling the anime industry. B: The Beginning and Violet Evergarden were some of my most hyped shows of Winter and Spring and they were exclusively on Netflix. Still, CR keeps adding new stuff to their roster, and not just seasonal additions.
It was one thing to add Kekkai Sensen. That’s enough to win me over, but adding all of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (Sub AND dub) or the entire Garden of Sinners series, was a smart power move. Their growth in the last two years specifically was only aided by their deal with Funimation. If I had to assume, I would say this drastically expanded both the number of shows the former could stream and which shows the latter could release on Blu-ray.
… Although that deal ended as of last Thursday, the 18th of October. It is unclear exactly how that will effect CR as of yet, but at the moment it does not look like there will be any big deductions to their library. Still, just my luck that something like this happens right when I start to get cracking on this review.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. If you frequent illegal streaming sites, I DO NOT CARE. I do it too every time my paid subscriptions don’t have a show that I wanna watch. You really think I’m gonna wait until December to watch Sirius the Jaeger just cause Netflix doesn’t know how people watch Anime? If I’m gonna get disappointed by that show, I’ll do it week by week bitch.
However, I pay for Crunchyroll, primarily for its convenience. Whether my money is making a difference or not is a discussion for later. And yes, I’m aware that they have an unpaid version available, but it sort of seems redundant. It isn’t bad necessarily, but the experience is lacking. See the chart below.
Ads, 480p video streaming, a limited library across all three provided media, and limited device accessibility are the main drawbacks here. Plus you need to wait an extra week to watch new episodes. Trying to compare this to illegal sites is a waste of time. Obviously, people want access to everything or at least a large portion of Anime and they want it in HD. Plus the rules of their free service aren’t always consistent
Some shows that are either older in the library or new additions will let you pick higher definitions. When watching Attack on Titan season one without logging in I didn’t even get ads. However, when I booted up Kekkai Sensen season one, I got HD and the ads didn’t even load at their designated times. So either it was a glitch or they were being generous.
To get the most out of their service, you really need to pay for premium. Premium Plus only offers further benefits for the Crunchyroll Store, VIP convention perks and some other goodies so that isn’t a necessity. But why pay at all, you may ask? I mean the latter option is free, right?
That is true, but the first of three arguments against paid anime streaming services is that paid services offer an inferior product. Or the claim is that is so similar to their competition as to render the cost-benefit analysis in the illegal site’s favor. So what is a typical user experience like watching Crunchyroll?
The front page of the site is an amalgamation of different elements from the whole site. Prominently featured are the currently airing simulcasts for that season. You get the typical slideshow of links to trending shows as well as news articles, and the sidebars display featured shows, trending forum posts and a schedule for upcoming episodes, typically uploaded within an hour of their broadcast in Japan.
It’s a pretty underwhelming front page that certainly isn’t treading new ground compared to its competition, but go to the “Shows” page and things get a lot more comprehensive. By default, the most popular shows at the time will be listed, but there are so many options for filtering the large library. You can specifically look for simulcasts and the most recently updated series, but also search alphabetically and by genre.
Similar to MyAnimeList, CR allows you to filter by seasons, though it doesn’t go nearly as far back as the former. The drop-down menu only goes as far back as Winter 2009, even though there are shows from much earlier than that in their library. I’m assuming this is because Crunchyroll started actively adding the hottest shows of each season around that time.
You will see shows that were new during those seasons and continuing shows will have their pages moved up to a later date. This means that even though My Hero Academia started in the spring of 2016, it will only be visible in the spring 2018 page of the seasonal charts because that was when it last aired.
Even if a show has multiple seasons, they will all typically be under the same page. All episodes of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure are under the same page, just with the thumbnail replaced for each new arc. Individual series pages are easy to navigate thanks to the drop-down tabs for each season. It saves the user a lot of time scrolling through. And if you want to check the reviews or if you are a masochist and want to go to the comment section, those are all accessible right from the top.
The only times you will find shows split up across multiple pages is if the titles of those shows are different but still in the same franchise. Hence why the Monogatari series is split up across like six different pages when they could just make it one page titled “The Monogatari Series” or something like that. Then you could have individual links to specific seasons in the seasonal charts.
There is a Queue that is actually really clean and reliable and easy to use. I can even move the shows around in priority order, promising myself that I will at some point watch the shows at the bottom of my list (I won’t). Though it pales in comparison to something like MyAnimeList, and while the impetus to imitate it is not present, the way CR presents itself would suggest that is the right direction for them.
For those unaware, MyAnimeList is an OCD Anime fan’s dream. It is not only a comprehensive database of every Anime under the sun but also a means to create a list of all the shows you have seen, are currently watching, want to see, dropped, etc. You can also rank them, tag them, and update your progress. The lists themselves, whether they are for Anime or Manga, are sharable, exportable, and viewable by those who look up your page on the site. It’s a social database about Anime.
Now I’m not saying that I want CR to copy this system, but maybe they could partner up with MAL and make it so that when I finish an episode, it will automatically update my list. When I finish the series, It could even let me give it a score and set the show’s status to complete. I mean, MAL already uses Crunchyroll’s video player on their site, it wouldn’t be too much of a jump. As it is, CR’s current system for tracking completion is kinda an afterthought.
There is a watch history tab, but you can’t organize it by year or anything, just scroll down and click “more.” Additionally, I think I have gotten the “achievement” for finishing my first anime series like three times… Yeah, there are achievements on CR. You probably didn’t notice because most messages in your inbox are premium guest passes anyway. I don’t know any other achievement names.
The only reason I keep getting that one is because I tend to skip ending credits and move to the next episode, which means my views don’t always register as finishing an episode. It also feels like CR’s attempts to create a community through the website just fall flat. If they tried to partner with a site like MAL or at least take some lessons from them, they could scratch that same itch that MAL does and maybe form a sort of Anime social network.
And in a perfect world, the metric for “finishing” an episode would be tailored to when I reach the end credits, similar to how Netflix knows when the next episode is gonna start. There are a lot of small things that streaming services need to fix and CR isn’t alone in that, but the most important ones come in how the video player functions. In CR’s case, they have done very well in that regard as of late.
For the longest time, CR’s video player was utilizing flash, baffling considering how outdated and dead it is. Often I would play an episode and wait an abysmal amount of time for the video to start, and there was no buffering at all. I suppose I just bore with it for a while but someone created a browser extension for Chrome that made the player HTML5 compatible. It improved the loading and the player had a much more pleasing aesthetic. A great fix to a problem I never paid much mind to.
Had that been the end of the story I would have said that Crunchyroll’s video player was outdated and a real detractor, but then they fixed the problem. Almost right after I became aware of how bullshit the old player was, it’s like Crunchyroll rolled out an official HTML5 player right away, and it works like a dream.
Some complained about not having a togglable autoplay button or an episode skip feature, having the episode play right after the current one ends is an incredible improvement. No longer will I have to wait through the unskippable five-second loading screen that apparently wouldn’t let you exit fullscreen. CR’s new video player is immaculate and if the sudden change was in response to criticisms as of late, they should be commended for having such a quick turnaround.
Finally, there is subtitle quality and I’ve gotta be honest, I can think of only one time where I noticed spelling errors while watching a show on their platform. People talk about there being a ridiculous amount of errors, but I can’t refute nor support the claim because I literally have not witnessed it that much. I can get being annoyed when they change the stand names in Jojo but other than that I have no complaints.
As a streaming service, Crunchyroll succeeds at offering reliable video streaming, an ever-expanding library of shows, and plenty of functions to tailor search results to the shows you wanna watch. The more nebulous and seemingly pointless features meant to gamify the experience come off as cheap knockoffs of other websites for Anime fans. If they want to offer other intuitive features, they need to make them more appealing. Otherwise, they should just stick to what they do best.
It’s one thing to assess the quality of the service, but getting the most out of Crunchyroll still demands one pay for the service. To that end, the second and most common argument against paying for CR is that the money isn’t actually going to the industry. Alternatively, people believe that the money that is being funneled into the industry is not nearly substantial enough. So the question remains…
Does Crunchyroll Support the Industry?
I believe that it does. I wouldn’t pay for it, nor would I buy Anime Blu-rays if I didn’t. To what ends and how much, however, is a more complicated matter to discuss. Why do we pay for streaming services in general? For many, it is the convenience of having that library of shows available. Illegal sites can be annoying, filled with pop-up ads and video streaming that is as mixed a bag as you can get. Sometimes, you gotta pay for quality.
However, just as prevalent I believe is that people want their money to support the things that they like. They pay for Netflix for the convenience, but they generally assume that the subscription costs are going to the people who make the stuff they watch. These are at least the two major reasons that people gravitate towards these services.
It would be hard to imagine that CR works any different. They and other providers here in the west pay a licensing fee to the production committees and publishers in Japan to get the ability to put the shows on their platforms. Back in 2013, when people were still casting aspersion on CR, CEO Kun Gao elaborated on how their company worked.
Keep in mind that exact numbers couldn’t be provided at the time because of NDA’s (nondisclosure agreements). Maybe that raises a red flag, but remember that disclosing that could also screw them over. For instance, it would allow their competition to easily outbid them for certain shows if they take into consideration the limits of how much they are willing to bid.
Gao had stated to some effect that “publishers probably wouldn’t agree to work with Crunchyroll in such large numbers if they were getting such a bad deal.” It’s hard to argue with that fact, and with so much talk about how little money is in the Anime industry, I don’t find it too far fetched. (Otaku Journalist)
Gao expressed an idea that when you watch specific shows more than others, your subscription money goes to those shows. “So if you’re watching Kill La Kill 75 percent of the time and Golden Time the other 25 percent, that means Kill La Kill’s publisher gets 75 percent of your money.” It’s an easy enough pill to swallow, though the reality is often a bit more complicated. (Otaku Journalist)
In August, Justin Sevakis elaborated on this process in a response to Digribro‘s critique of Crunchyroll. The royalties paid based on viewership do make up some of the revenue, but there is also an advanced payment made known as the “minimum guarantee.” As Sevakis puts it, “These can run from US$30,000 all the way up to US$200,000 PER EPISODE.”
For perspective, think back to 2013, a time when Crunchyroll got about 10 million visitors per month. According to the Otaku Journalist article, “only 200,000 or so actually pay for the service.” That’s less than 10 percent of the viewer base, and they were still giving money to the publishers with the help of ad revenue.
In February of 2017, Crunchyroll announced that they had reached a milestone of one million paid subscribers. A shift in 250,000 in just one year. Now I’m not saying that the ratio of unpaid-to-paid users is the same as it was in 2013. Maybe the unpaid users started paying for the service finally. After all, 2013 was a time when a lot of people were getting into anime thanks to Sword Art Online and Attack on Titan. But that is still a lot of people paying for the service, so imagine how much money they have amassed since.
But I know, so don’t bother. A year later, in February of 2018, we finally start to get an idea of the money that Crunchyroll is making and boy oh boy it’s a doozy. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Kun Gao, who now is the General Manager of Crunchyroll, who revealed that the company has put 100 million dollars into the industry.
Remember the minimum guarantee that Sevakis talked about? “Since production costs generally hover around US$275,000 per episode, this actually has the potential to outright pay for an entire production.” Now, obviously, this doesn’t account for marketing and other such expenses, which is why many doubt Crunchyroll’s support of the industry. However, the impact should not be underestimated. (Sevakis)
With huge successes and more competition on the scene from other platforms, some show’s can see their entire budget paid. “the bombs can still lose money for the production committee, but there has never been more money flowing from international fans to anime productions in the history of the art form.” (Sevakis)
Assuming we come to an understanding that Crunchyroll does put a considerable amount of money into the industry, there is a more serious moral quandary. The question as to whether or not the industry should be supported in its current state.
This type of cynicism is nothing new. The same year that Otaku Journalist was interviewing Kun Gao about the business, itself a response to criticism of the company, Kill la Kill came out. A grand new concoction from the minds behind Gurren Lagann that was supposed to “save anime.” It was a good show that would have been better if it was half as long and saved nothing.
That’s not to say I’m unaware of issues in the industry. “Animators still make a pittance, there are too many shows being made, and a shocking amount of it still suffers from production problems that impair the quality of the work.” Just try to look at the price of Anime Blu-rays in Japan and tell me that things are all right. (Sevakis)
Now, I’m going to 100% blame companies like Aniplex for feeding these shitty practices, but consider the BDs upwards of $200 or more. A running joke between my friends is that with Aniplex, “every edition is a special edition,” with rarely a low-cost alternative. Bakemonogatari (15 episodes) and Gurren Lagann (27 episodes) both sell for $150, and those are the only editions sold. If the business practices of the industry seem counterintuitive and Crunchyroll is that industry, should we support them?
This is where many people will suggest other ways to support the industry, preferably in a way that supports the animators themselves. Some would just say pirate it and then buy the Blu-ray if its good, but others deny even that as a good workaround. A new school of thought is that Patreon is the answer and that animation studios should start their own patreons so that fans can directly fund them.
The biggest proponent of this is Digibro on YouTube, who has been adamant in his support of this solution. It would seem that could be happening more, as Studio Trigger (Kill la Kill, Little Witch Academia) started their own Patreon recently. It’s really cool and if you like their work I would recommend becoming a patron. But can Patreon really fund an entire production?
“No. Not even close,” says Sevakis. “Let’s say a studio manages to get enough contributors to pull in $30,000 per month… which, assuming they’re only making one series at a time, comes out to $7,500 per episode?” Currently, Trigger has 3,683 patrons and makes $10,479 a month. Remember that Sevakis mentioned production costs to be approximately $275,000 per episode. It’s just not a good enough solution on its own. (Sevakis)
The ways I currently try to support Anime are through my subscription to Crunchyroll and my purchase of BDs. I wish I could support the studios more and the animators themselves, especially. I would give SO MUCH MONEY to Studio BONES and god knows they deserve it.
Patreon is an exceptional idea, not because it can replace the current practices, but because it can help alleviate some of the issues stemming from them. Trigger’s Patreon outright states how they would use the money to cover extra expenses. “Possibly a new line of merchandise, attending/conducting more events, or simply providing a little more to our staff.”
Going back to an earlier point by Sevakis, there are way too many shows being made. Typically I would chalk this up the industry getting larger because every medium has garbage in it. America has garbage reality TV, so Japan has the lower 75% of any seasonal MAL chart. But Anime is in an especially poor state because of how its made, the lack of money in the industry and the conditions, so there is an impetus to reform. Check out the below video for more on that.
If you care about supporting the Anime industry, Crunchyroll’s contribution will be insufficient or not depending on how you view the industry. For me, despite all of the above-mentioned issues, Anime is only getting better and not just because it is more popular.
Every year I seem to be getting a few new shows that are truly incredible or some that will be (or should be) remembered as classics. Kyoto Animation’s works like Violet Evergarden or Silent Voice, New shonen crazes like My Hero Academia, or underrated favorites of mine like Kekkai Sensen. Whether TV or Film, we are still getting some incredible new works.
Anime needs to cut the fat as it were, and consolidate more of its resources on large projects rather than cheap crap that doesn’t sell. Furthermore, we need to support causes aimed at giving the people creating these shows more money. If there is a purpose for crowdfunding in the Anime industry, this is it.
There are plenty of things that could be better and just as many solutions, but in the end, should we help support the current Anime industry? I think so, if not for the continuous stream of good shit I touched on above, then because there are even newer ways to help it grow. To a larger degree, I truly believe that the growth in the west will be a boon for the industry and CR has a big role to play in that.
But as it gets bigger, the more this discussion comes up. The reason that CR has been getting this sort of attention as of late is that people are concerned as to where their money is going. The only reason I’ve decided to write about it now is that it feels like Crunchyroll has recently stirred the pot quite a bit with its recent decisions.
High Guardian Spice and ‘Crunchyroll Originals’
It all started in 2016 with the Anime Awards, which came under scrutiny for the same reasons that all Award shows do. The shows people want to win don’t win, so they complain. In fairness, both years have seen specific shows win most of the awards, some they absolutely did not deserve, but the award show would have come under scrutiny no matter what. Though that’s just me being cynical about award shows.
Next came the Crunchyroll Expo, which was like any other convention, and brought together tons of Anime YouTubers for tons of great panels. Friends of mine in California liked it and reception has generally been positive. However, it also brought on the question of ethics in Crunchyroll using their money to make a convention. It gets hard to dodge criticism about not funding the industry at that point.
The hate reached critical mass this past August when they announced a new original series. Produced in collaboration with Ellation Studios, High Guardian Spice would be a “Crunchyroll Original,” the first of many I would assume, given their history and their reach. To put it delicately, the community fucking exploded.
In typical fashion, there were some good reasons to be critical, caked beneath layers of bullshit. They said the show was pandering to SJW’s and that it looked ugly and of course people tossed around the word “CalArts” like it was oplatek at a Christmas party.
It wasn’t all unjustified. The trailer they released was awful. One minute and thirty seconds of just people talking about how great the show was gonna be without actually showing anything besides concept art. It reminded me of the trailers for the X-Box One X when it was called Scorpio and no one knew what the fuck it was.
When they toted the diverse cast, diverse production staff, and the all-female writer’s room, I thought to myself, meh that’s cool. At the same time, a part of my brain dreaded the backlash that this would get. I couldn’t give less of a shit about who’s writing it. If they got an all women writer’s room, good on em. I just hope it’s more like CLAMP, which is all women mangaka, and less like the Huffington Post.
I would love to say more about the show, but even after re-watching that trailer I don’t know much about it. I’m sure it will be a really cute show with some positive messages and if it’s successful it will pave the way for more original shows that are more up my alley. However, it’s not for me and that’s fine. What baffles me is the extent of the backlash.
From what I can tell, people hate it because it reminds them of social politics they are tired of. Nothing about it is actually offensively bad. People just associate it with something bad. The most reasonable and non-political reason I have found is that people don’t trust that their money is going to the industry if it is being used to fund original products. A reasonable concern if ever there was one, but the problem is that CR has already been using their money to fund shows for a while.
This is a list of 53 shows (at least at the time of writing, it could be updated) which Crunchyroll has produced or co-produced. There are several acclaimed series on this list including Trigger shows like the beautiful Kiznaiver and the amazing Space Patrol Luluco. There are even non-Anime shows like Children of Ether, so it’s not like they have suddenly abandoned their roots. For Christ’s sake, they have been broadcasting RWBY for years and they even have talk shows about Anime on the platform.
After the High Guardian Spice announcement, I saw a lot of people commenting about how they were going to unsubscribe because CR was “using their money to make shows no one asked for.” I sincerely doubt that those people have watched every show on that list I linked, probably because a couple of them were “not for them.” Crunchyroll’s viewer base is very evenly split between men and women, much like the Anime fandom at large.
I know I’m generalizing, but I’m sure a show pandering to Western trends that have already captured a large female demographic is going to do just fine. If you don’t like it, I’m right there with you, but Crunchyroll was never making shows just for you. They were helping to produce a bunch of shows because the community expressed interest in trying to help the industry. If you want your money to go directly to Japan, there are few ways more productive then actively contributing to the production end.
I think that’s where I land at the end of the day. I don’t hate Crunchyroll. I don’t love it necessarily, but it hasn’t really let me down any in the four years I’ve been using it and I doubt it will anytime soon. I see it as a reflection of the ever-changing, ever-growing industry to which it is a window. It’s got some hiccups it needs to work through, but it also gives me some of the coolest shows I’ve ever seen, so I stick with it.
And again, if you pirate, I don’t give a shit. Just don’t turn around and give me crap for paying for quality, cause time is money and with $100 million contributed to the industry, it seems like good support in my eyes.
Thank you so much for reading!!! Do you like Crunchyroll? Not so much? Tell me why in the comments below and let me know what shows are good this season! Follow the blog for more reviews, analysis and impassioned ranting, and see you next time!