Anime Reanimates on Adult Swim

Japanese animation is making a quiet comeback—and Cartoon Network is cashing in

Like a magic sword lost for a thousand years or your bad-seed vampire sister, anime is coming back.

Cartoon Network’s action-oriented programming block Toonami is back on Tuesday, this time late at night during Adult Swim—and as an anime-only affair, at least for now. “We were mostly looking for older-skewing material,” said Jason DeMarco, vp of strategic marketing and promotions for Cartoon and AS. “We could probably do Family Guy in the middle of the night, and it would do better. But we love anime.”

There are other considerations too. Off-net episodes of Fox’s Family Guy, which have pushed the network into the prime-time top 10, come with a hefty price tag, and “with anime, the market is so depressed that the license can just be trade-out,” said DeMarco. “For April Fools (when the network aired Toonami as a practical joke), we just traded a commercial, and they let us air an episode once.” Toonami is restarting on a shoestring—and ironically, shows from the original lineup, like Dragon Ball Z, are so popular the network can’t afford them. Instead, it’s opting to debut new series Casshern Sins and Deadman Wonderland alongside niche favorite Bleach and classics like Cowboy Bebop.

It would be understating the case considerably to say that anime fans are enthusiastic. Google Dragon Ball Z in English, and you’ll get 114 million hits. Google Deadman Wonderland, which doesn’t even have an official English-language dub yet, and you’ll get more than 4 million. Men and women both watch anime, and their net worth is surprisingly high. Fully one-third of Hulu-watching anime fans (and the site does a booming business in the material) have a median household income of $75,000 or more.

But that passion isn’t easy to monetize. The anime market took a major nosedive in 2005 when services like Netflix started pounding away at DVD sales. “The value of packaged media has just collapsed,” said Anime News Network editor in chief Christopher Macdonald. “It hit anime even harder than other markets because it’s geared toward younger and tech-savvy people, and there’s a long delay between when it comes out in Asia and when it comes out in North America. All that lends itself to piracy.”

However, that problem isn’t insoluble, according to Hulu. “Most people—not all people, but most—don’t want to pirate,” said Hulu’s head of content, Andy Forssell. “Most people will make the choice to go to the clean, well-lit place.”

Fans have quietly made imported cartoons a valuable proposition for Hulu, which airs 298 different anime series. One of the top five most-watched shows—the other four are high-rated broadcast comedies—is Naruto Shippuden, the tale of a ninja-in-training destined to become the greatest ninja ever.

Sharpen your swords.

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