Earlier this month, Funimation finalized its acquisition of Crunchyroll for $1.175 billion, merging the anime megaplexes of Sony and AT&T and setting the stage for industry upheaval. The era of Big Anime is officially here.
Consolidation is the hottest trend when it comes to streaming services. Power players in the world of content are folding in their competition like giant solar systems bending space-time in their direction. WarnerMedia is merging with Discovery; Disney acquired 21st Century Fox; Viacom merged with CBS. Sometimes, these deals are impactful enough to attract regulatory scrutiny. The US Department of Justice sued AT&T over its plans to buy Time Warner in 2017, claiming the resulting megacorp would harm consumers, but the company prevailed. Funimation’s acquisition of Crunchyroll was also reportedly the target of an antitrust review after the agreement was announced last December.
Eight months later, FuniRoll will exist—though details remain scarce about what that will look like. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s CEO, Tony Vinciquerra, did give one hint: “Our goal is to create a unified anime subscription experience as soon as possible,” he said in a press release on August 9. Anime industry experts interviewed by WIRED say that Funimation-Crunchyroll, however it manifests, represents a big shift in the size and structure of the anime industry and a key footnote in the greater narrative of today’s streaming wars.
“The influence and business of anime is changing from niche to mainstream,” says anime industry analyst and journalist Tadashi Sudo, through a translator. With Funimation-Crunchyroll on the horizon, he adds, “the power balance of the anime industry in North America will change dramatically.”
For decades, Western anime distribution was the domain of media companies laser-focused on the genre. Funimation was founded in 1994 and launched its streaming service FunimationNow in 2016. Crunchyroll started as a streaming site in 2006. It was taken over by AT&T in 2014; Sony grabbed a majority stake in Funimation a few years later. While other streaming companies like HIDIVE exist, Crunchyroll and Funimation had long been the major players in licensing television series from Japanese studios for Western audiences. They can offer an experience tailored for otaku, an ecosystem of forums, merchandise, and even anime news—plus, most important, simultaneous episode publishing alongside Japanese cable networks.
More recently, however, as international appetite for anime grew, mainstream behemoths like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have entered the licensing fray, gobbling up exclusive titles like Beastars, Kakegurui, and Made in Abyss. Anime has ballooned into the third-most in-demand TV subgenre globally, according to data from Parrot Analytics. In fact, the firm estimates that otaku thirst could support 33 percent more anime titles—and already, 190-plus are released every year. Between 2001, when Dragon Ball premiered on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, and 2019, the number of new anime series produced in Japan annually increased by over 50 percent. And it’s not just Japanese people producing anime anymore; Netflix has poured millions into the industry with the goal of internationalizing the genre with talent from across the globe.
Crunchyroll and Funimation have had to compete with each other and with streaming giants like Netflix not just for anime fans’ free time and subscription dollars but also for rights to the hottest titles. For years now, licensing fees have been inflated because of the mad rush to get into anime, says Shawne Kleckner, CEO of anime video and merchandise company RightStuf. “They were bidding to try and get the best deal. And very often they were bidding too much. So when you have consolidation, they stop needing to do that.” According to Anime News Network, a “triple A” anime simulcast for North America might cost the licensee $250,000 per episode.
A ruthless criminal operative is poisoned and has less than 24 hours to exact revenge on her killers in Kate, a new action thriller from Netflix starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who played Huntress in Birds of Prey.
The streaming service seems to be casting about for a female version of the hugely successful John Wick franchise, but it’s harder to pull off than it looks. First, there was 2020’s The Old Guard, in which Charlize Theron leads an immortal group of mercenaries on a mission of revenge. Theron was terrific, but the film itself was uneven. Just last month, Netflix served up the disappointing Gunpowder Milkshake, which had a stellar cast and all the right elements, including some impressive fight choreography. But as with The Old Guard, nothing really jelled, and as much as I love Karen Gillan, she seemed ill-suited to the role. Gunpowder Milkshake ended up feeling flat, predictable, and like an exercise in style over substance.
The basic premise of Kate is a familiar one; it’s essentially a twist on the classic 1950 film noir D.O.A., in which a man—a seemingly ordinary accountant and notary public—walks into a police station and says he has been poisoned, with only a few days left to live and discover who murdered him. (Due to someone not renewing the copyright on time, the film is in the public domain.) It has inspired three direct remakes: 1969’s Color Me Dead, 1988’s D.O.A. (starring Dennis Quaid), and the 2017 film Dead on Arrival. And the film has influenced countless more, such as the 2006 film Crank, in which Jason Statham plays a British assassin who has to keep his adrenaline levels spiking to counteract being given a deadly poison.
Kate seems like a combination of D.O.A., Crank, and Gunpowder Milkshake. Per the official premise: “Meticulous and preternaturally skilled, Kate is the perfect specimen of a finely tuned assassin at the height of her game. But when she uncharacteristically blows an assignment targeting a member of the yakuza in Tokyo, she quickly discovers she’s been poisoned, a brutally slow execution that gives her less than 24 hours to exact revenge on her killers. As her body swiftly deteriorates, Kate forms an unlikely bond with the teenage daughter of one of her past victims.”
I don’t know why filmmakers seem to think female assassins have to bond with young girls to show their softer emotional side, but so be it. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan received an Oscar nomination for his visual effects for 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman and made his directorial debut in 2016 with The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Based on this trailer, he has put that background to excellent use in Kate. We’ll have to see if Nicolas-Troyan can take this well-worn formula and make it his own, despite a frankly boring title.
The Huntress was my favorite character in Birds of Prey, largely due to Winstead’s deadpan delivery, which draws out both the character’s single-minded resolve and her extreme social awkwardness. Case in point: After taking out several bad guys with her trademark efficiency and athleticism, she turns around to see her compatriots staring at her in awe. “What?” she says, completely unaware of what a badass she is. If Winstead gets the chance to showcase that mix of skills again in Kate, she could easily establish her place alongside Charlize Theron as a credible action star.
Watching the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a strange experience. It’s been 2021 for more than seven months now, and seeing the logo feels like living in a time warp. Pandemic precautions mean there are very few people in the stands, so each event looks as though it’s taking place post-apocalypse. The time zones aren’t doing North American viewers any favors, either. Tokyo is 13 to 16 hours ahead of the US, so watching any competition in real time means staying up late or getting up horrifically early.
Then there’s the issue of how to watch the Games in the first place. NBC likes to tout its streaming service as the “place to be” to catch all the action, but navigating the app is so confusing, it’s already spawned headlines like “Why Is It So Hard to Use NBC’s Peacock to Watch the Olympics?” It also makes viewing any single event in its entirety a bit of a nightmare. Peacock does, however, have one program that brings all of the oddity of the 2020 Games into a kind of focus: Tokyo Tonight.
Streaming live from an unusually purple set at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, Tokyo Tonight is notably not in Tokyo. Unable to do on-site reporting, hosts Kenny Mayne and Cari Champion fill their impressively long 7:30 pm to midnight ET run time with off-kilter banter and a rapid-fire collage of coverage on everything from BMX biking and white water kayaking to skateboarding and ping-pong. It’s the ideal thing to watch while scrolling TikTok—and it’s a delight.
Champion is beautiful and witty, while Mayne exudes a loosey-goosey Boomer charisma and tends to approach his guests as though they’re people he just happened by chance to encounter, asking random questions and supplying odd anecdotes about his personal life. Crucially, both are unexpectedly droll for anchors—so much so that it’s often hard to tell when they’re joking. After Mayne started asking guests, abruptly and with little context, whether or not they like the band Pearl Jam, Champion got in on the action by asking for their stance on Beyoncé.
All of this gives Tokyo Tonight a whiff of experimental public-access charm previously unseen in traditional Olympics coverage. Often, Mayne and Champion appear onscreen seemingly unaware that their mics are hot. “Am I supposed to be doing something right now?” Mayne asked Champion one night last week, deep into the stream. “I’m tapped out.”
Even in the more polished portions of the show, a sense of whimsy persists. Mayne devoted one segment to a sketch in which he pretended a toddler was an elite gymnast. During “Shredding the Gnar With Mike Parsons,” Mayne interviewed the veteran American surfer in a conversation that bordered on the surreal. “How many times have you been out there, and there’s been a shark by you?” Mayne asked Parsons, who was clearly thrown off by having to estimate the number of sharks with which he’d shared an approximate location in his five decades of surfing. (He was unable to provide an estimate.) Unfazed, Mayne then informed Parsons and the viewers that the world’s waters belong to sharks, not humans. “It’s their ocean,” he said.
Then he asked Parsons whether he liked Pearl Jam.
Die-hard, gotta-watch-it-all Olympics fans will probably not like Tokyo Tonight, partly because of its hopscotching format and partly because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. But for those who enjoy seeing elite athletes shine on a global stage but who also feel a little queasy about watching a competition that really should not be taking place, and who like to watch Olympics coverage while looking at social media, it is a perfect sampler of short-form highlights presented by hosts who seem determined to make the least-boring version of a highlights show possible.
If NBC continues to control Olympics coverage for American viewers, it’ll have to make some changes to keep people happy. It would also do well to preserve this kind of anarchic fun. The ocean belongs to the sharks, but my heart belongs to Tokyo Tonight.