There comes a time in the career of every unpaid, amateur anime blogger that certain facts catch up with him, and he needs to product some content. Those facts may or may not include living with one of his editors, and the attendant opportunities for Cardboard and Fabric Waifus to be taken hostage. So here is a guide to today’s anime streaming market!
This year, Amazon finally explained what they were doing with The Great Passage by launching their own anime network. This is just one of the recent trend shifts in streaming anime, along with last year’s great purge, Crunchyroll and Funimation’s bizarre “partnership“, and Crunchyroll’s announcement of 1 million paid subscribers. It’s as good a time as any to write a guide for what today’s anime streaming services are like, what kind of value they present, and how they might improve. More importantly, that’s the only way I’m going to get my waifus back. Let’s do this.
There are a few criteria I’m using to compare the various anime streaming services:
- New Shows: This is how many shows from the currently airing Japanese season the service is simulcasting (ie., new episodes are available to stream within 12 hours of airing in Japan)
- Backlog: How many older shows are on the service? What’s their relative quality, how long do they tend to stay on the service, and is there any broad pattern to what type of shows the service focuses on?
- Technology: Does the website work? How many other platforms have apps? Do they work?
- Dubs: How many shows have an acceptable dub to help corrupt your muggle friends?
- Value: Given what the service offers vs its cost, is this worth paying for?
First, we’ll start with the major services. Odds are pretty good that these are your primary source of streaming anime.
Hit and miss. Distributors Viz and Sunrise are still simulcasting shows through Hulu, but not much, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to what shows Hulu will get. (They don’t have any of the best shows of this season, for example.)
After the great purge disheartened us, I and many others in the anime community had begun to discount Hulu as an important source for anime. We were wrong, and I admit that now. Even without maintaining it, Hulu has an impressive backlog. Hulu was the only option I could find to show a muggle family member the English dub of Sword Art Online season 1. (I was showing them this because I feel being related to me should entail a constant blood-debt of suffering).
It should also go without saying, but Hulu only has access to broadcast episodes, and does not use the Blu-Ray masters (which means that fans of To LOVE Ru and High School DxD are still basically watching lens flare animations).
Because it’s primarily aimed at normies who want to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other gross shows involving 3D fleshy characters, Hulu’s technical proficiency is very good–it seems those meatbag-loving muggles have less tolerance for technical issues than us weebs do.
I would love to say that Hulu’s technical quality is flawless, but while they have well-maintained and well-performing apps on every modern device, there are a few specific issues with the original transfers being used. A number of transfers involve frustrating artifacts\compression, and others have been far too dark to be watchable without brightness adjustments.
Also, as with everyone except for Netflix, Hulu has no offline option.
Meh. Hulu’s tech doesn’t allow for language options, so subtitled vs dubbed are two separate videos (unlike Netflix, which allows you to switch language tracks mid-watch). They have relatively few dubs.
It’s free, and you probably pay for it anyway to avoid commercials.
Now that we’re seeing what it means in practice, the great Crunchyroll/Funimation partnership is a mixed bag at best. Crunchyroll titles are going to get home video releases, while Funimation and Crunchy are “merging” their catalog (sharing previously exclusive titles between them) at a decent clip. This means Crunchy is taking a strong backlog and making it stronger.
- New shows:
Unfortunately, the downsides to this merger are now also becoming apparent. It seems that Funimation is no longer putting in independent bids for shows to license, but is only working on simuldubs and DVD\Blu-ray releases. However, this is more of a theoretical future downside, as for the current season every show worth watching has been licensed by someone.
Two content providers having three distinct apps is a mess. The Crunchy app is slightly more mature than the Funi app, but is available on fewer platforms. I haven’t had the chance to test the VRV app, but probably should. Then again, I’m tired of apps.
Crunchy getting a few of Funimation’s dubs does nothing. Crunchy (on its own) is a service for people dedicated enough to read subtitles.
Best backlog for subtitled shows, best selection of new shows. Lots of exclusives. Except you know, Crunchy only costs a little less than VRV, which also has a shitload of dubs.
This has become what Scott Adams once described as a confusopoloy: you can purchase subscriptions to VRV, which includes Funimation and Crunchy, or just Crunchy, or just Funi, or both Crunchy and Funi separately.
The upsides of this situation are obvious: you can recommend Funimation for dubs of whatever show is worth watching to your dub only friends/family members (I recently showed my mother Yuri on Ice, which she never would have given a chance if Funi hadn’t dubbed it), and if you want to be a subs-only snob, you no longer have to remind yourself that because Funi got the exclusive license to Railgun or Psycho-Pass years ago, Crunchy doesn’t have it.
Next, I’ll discuss the minor (or niche) services. These won’t cover you completely but they may have important exclusives or other desired features. Or they might just suck.
In the interest of completeness, I’m including this service on the list, may Tatsuya-sama have mercy on my soul. In every way I can judge an anime service, this one fails. They do not directly license shows, but relicense them for their own streaming service–and for a video on demand service, which is best not spoken of.
- New Shows:
It’s important to note that when it comes to online streaming services, technology matters. Anime Network has no PS3/PS4/XBOX/Roku app, and while their web player no longer takes to the crown for hands down the worst of every possible anime web experience (and I include in that illegal streams being hosted on servers outside of the continental US for jurisdictional reasons), that is only because it no longer routinely crashes. That doesn’t change the core issue for their streaming service: there isn’t enough unique in their catalog to justify any price over the Crunchyroll (ad-supported) free model. While they appear to be the exclusive licensor for English dubs of certain shows (like Little Busters), that just isn’t enough.
Their VOD offering is almost indescribably worse, and demonstrates that they’ve missed two of the primary lessons of the last 10 years of media consumption: 1) Binge watching is how most people will finish your show, and 2) the weebest of the weeb trash have already watched anything older than last season.
It’s important to note price here. While most of the majors (and almost all of the other minors) offer an ad-supported option, Anime Network’s ad-supported options are meager at best. The service offers nothing to justify its price.
Daisuki is a minor player in the space of American streaming, which is superbly ironic, because the entire organization is directly owned by a consortium of Japanese companies involved in the production of anime.
They’ve existed as a free-if-you-register service for a while, and have also recently joined the somewhat crowded field of “pay per month for exclusive options.”
- New Shows:
Daisuki has very few original shows that aren’t on another service (by which I mean Crunchy).
In terms of selection, Daisuki has just under 100 shows, with a tilt towards modern (the past 3 years) and Gundam (so much Gundam) anime, with very few shows that are not available on Hulu or Crunchy. So, like the gif above, it’s hit and miss (but more likely to miss, given Shimakaze’s aiming style)
I can’t find any evidence of any apps for Roku, PS3/PS4 or XBOX, but iOS and Android apps give Daisuki a larger technical footprint than most.
The value here is hard to see. Their tech requires a mediacenter PC, and a lack of exclusives makes it hard to justify Daisuki versus another service.
While I would love to be a troll and claim the only function of Youtube is showing free episodes of Gundam Build Fighters (beause that show is nothing more than a commercial for models), there are a number of real animes that are using Youtube as their distribution platform.
Youtube just works. On everything.
The Ghost Stories dub is available. 11/10, would watch again.
It’s a free service.
Amazon (Anime Strike):
I was originally inspired to write this article because of Amazon’s entry into this space. Amazon’s offering is what they call in the tech industry the “minimum viable product.” It’s in the same price category as Daisuki ($5 a month), and two dollars cheaper than Anime Network.
Kabaneri and Battery are still Amazon Prime, not Anime Strike, but Great Passage and Scum’s Wish show that this is where your Noitamina shows will be found for the foreseeable future.
Besides Anime Strike’s few originals, the service has a grab bag selection at best. It has a number of the Sentai dubs (Black Bullet, No Game No Life), some old classics like Code Geass and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. There just isn’t much of an identity/pattern to the selection here.
The biggest complaint I have about Amazon’s service is something of a personal frustration. Unlike many of the other shows on Amazon Instant Video, none of the Anime Strike shows can be downloaded to a Kindle Fire device, which means Netflix is the only service that allows for offline viewing with a streaming subscription.
As a smaller complaint, rather than putting up a show with dual audio and allow for switching back and forth between English and Japanese on the fly, Amazon (like Funimation and Hulu) treats the dubbed and subbed versions of a show as different episodes.
FMA:B, Black Bullet, Code Geass. Enough four-quadrant, crossover classics to almost make up for a lack of depth.
Time will tell. If Amazon takes the Crunchy approach, where shows very rarely leave the service, as opposed to the Hulu/Netflix approach, where low-performers are purged every 12-18 months, Anime Strike has the start of a real service. But even then it’ll be another year’s worth of aggressive acquisitions before it matters.
Something of the 800-lb gorilla in the streaming space, Netflix’s entry into the anime market has been characterized by an utter flaunting of any of the “rules” the other services play by. Specifically, Netflix insists on releasing shows all at once at the end of the season, usually once the service has completed an English dub. What this means on the practical level is that when Netflix licenses a show, it cannot be watched week to week, effectively removing it from legal streaming options for the season.
Netflix actively removes new shows from the streaming ecosystem by taking licenses and sitting on them until their season is over.
Very few shows, and no commitment to keeping them. For example, SAO season 2 is on Netflix right now, but part 1, which introduces all of the characters and the premise of the show, has fallen off.
Netflix has the best tech of every site on this list. They are the only one that works for every platform, full stop. They also allow for offline viewing on their mobile apps (so I can watch a season of Aijin on an airplane).
Yep. Lots of dubs. They commission several very good dubs, and most of their shows have dubs.
I have no idea what to say about this. You already have Netflix. Everyone does. So it’s already free to watch Yuki Yuna, Durarara!! or Knights of Sidonia on an airplane for anyone who might be reading this blog–at the overall social cost that Little Witch Academia, Aijin, etc., can’t be watched week to week. At least not legally.
But what does this all mean?
The licensing overlap, where Sentai shows go subbed to Crunchy, and sometimes subbed and dubbed to Amazon’s Anime Strike, combined with multiple competing technological platforms has left the entire space a mess for consumers. I am more sympathetic to the option of “build a mediacenter PC and just stream fansubs” than I was when I started this article, but I do have a few closing thoughts on the overall anime streaming market.
- We have too many platforms. Being a “channel” for Hulu and Amazon is probably the best way for anime to be handled for almost everyone.
- We have too many overlapping licensing situations. (I have watched Iron Blooded Orphans on three different streaming sites, for example). Anime Strike is promising in this regard, in that it’s built into an existing platform (Amazon Prime). VRV is trying to fix this with its “choose your packages” option, and I hope others follow their lead. The difficulty is that figuring out which platform has the show you want to watch is so frustrating that it threatens to make the entire legal streaming space less attractive.
- Funimation’s simuldub experiment is a roaring success. It is difficult to describe how cool it was watching a show like Yuri on Ice cross over to a wider audience. Having a good, watchable dub is a big part of a show hitting the mainstream, and weebs and muggles alike getting into the flashmob that is Yuri on Ice Tumblr fandom while the show was still airing is a big deal for the community.
- Subtitle quality is a mess. Shows like Occultic Nine are unwatchable with the legal translation. Others (like Monogatari) which use heavy amounts of onscreen text are almost unwatchable without something like Commie’s creative typesetting. As others have pointed out, translation issues are never improved or fixed due to certain licensing issues.
- Backlogs are awful. Only Crunchy and Funi truly maintain the availability of their backlog shows over long periods of time, which makes Hulu and Netflix frustrating platforms for introducing new people to the lifestyle (as I’ve written about before). Not being able to predict this means that all “you should stream this dubbed anime” recommendations must be timestamped, because the shows won’t be around forever.
As I complete this post (Kyu, give me my waifus back!), of course something goes and upends the market–namely, the community’s increasing awareness of technical quality shenanigans occurring behind the scenes at Crunchyroll. I hope to have an in-depth article about this situation soon, so stay tuned.