What Makes Eden Netflix’s First “Japanese Original Anime”?

As Netflix cancels its American, live-action TV series, it wades furthers into the arena of international production.

Two Robots Hold the Hands of a Human Child in Netflix's Eden
Photo: Netflix

Earlier this week, Netflix re-released the promising trailer for Eden, a science fiction anime series coming to the streamer in May 2021. The four-episode, Japanese-language series is set thousands of years in the future in a robot city known as “Eden 3.” When two farming robots accidentally awaken a human baby girl from stasis during a routine assignment, they begin to question everything they thought they knew about the myth of humanity and decide to raise the child secretly on their own.

Great premise, right? Well, the production has some great creative talent to drive it too. Eden comes from director Yasuhiro Irie, who also did Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and boasts Toshihiro Kawamoto, best known as character designer and animation director for Cowboy Bebop, as a concept designer. Hopefully, Eden is good; regardless, it is a notable series in the history of Netflix, as Eden is being billed as “the first Netflix Japanese Original Anime.”

What does that mean exactly? If you’re at all familiar with Netflix, then you know the phrase “Netflix Original” can mean a lot of different things. Broadly, it means a TV show or film that is exclusive to Netflix (in the consumer’s specific market) and has not been made available elsewhere previously (in that market). More specifically, for TV series, it can refer to: 1) a show commissioned and produced by Netflix (e.g. Stranger Things), 2) a show for which Netflix has licensed exclusive international streaming rights (e.g. The Fall), 3) a show Netflix has co-produced with a partner from another country (e.g. Dracula, commissioned alongside BBC), or 4) a show picked up by Netflix for further seasons after being canceled by another network (e.g. You). From the production standpoint, a show can be a “Netflix Original” without Netflix actually having had a creative or financial hand in making it, such as with The Fall. Or, Netflix can have been involved in the production process since day one, such as with Stranger Things.

So where does Eden fall in this system of categorization? It’s a #1—or, as Japanese production company Qubic Pictures, who makes the series, puts it: Eden is Netflix’s “first wholly owned anime original title.” The series is based on a pitch from Qubic, but it was commissioned by Netflix and the streamer has a voice in the production process. Per the Qubic site: “Working closely with the creative team at Netflix,  Qubic managed all aspects of the production and assembled an international group of anime industry all-stars to help contribute to the project.” The fact that this series is being created in Japan by (mostly) Japanese creators in the Japanese language makes it “Japanese,” and the fact that it is commissioned and owned by Netflix for distribution on Netflix makes it a “Netflix Original.”

(Note: I’m unclear why Dragon’s Dogma, which was a “production line partnership” with Japanese production company Sublimation, is not considered Netflix’s first “Japanese Original Anime”—maybe because it was bad?)

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Netflix expanded into Japan as a streaming service in 2015, but its expansion into Japan as a production partner has been more recent. While Eden is Netflix’s first “Japanese Original Anime,” the company is already in the process of making more. Just last week, Netflix announced partnerships with three production houses in Japan (and one in Korea), bringing its number of total content deals in those two countries to nine. Each deal is a non-exclusive “production line partnership” with the larger aim for Netflix “to create the best content for the global anime community.” As part of the partnership, Netflix will “provide support in every stage of production to create the best content for the global anime community.”

“In just four years, we’ve built a dedicated team based in Tokyo that serves to entertain the global anime community through new and aspirational storytelling,” said Taiki Sakurai, who serves as Anime Chief Producer for Netflix, in a press release. “With these additional partnerships with industry trailblazers who do amazing work, often marrying the latest technologies and traditional hand-drawn animation, we’re excited to bring fans a greater variety of even more amazing stories.”

Netflix famously spends a lot of money on producing in original content. At the beginning of 2020 (so pre-COVID), according to a forecast from Wall Street firm BMO Capital Markets (via Variety), Netflix had plans to “invest around $17.3 billion this year in content on a cash basis,” with most of that going toward original content. COVID-19 most likely affected those plans, but, even before the outbreak of the global pandemic, it seemed likely that Netflix might choose to shift more of its spending on original content towards international markets.

Currently (via ABC News), Netflix only has 5 million Japanese subscribers, a fraction of its total 193 million global subscriber base. Netflix needs to grow its subscriber base, but with 73% of American households estimated to have Netflix, that growth is probably going to have to come in international markets. While international markets will and do watch English-language, American-made television, audiences tend to prefer watching television in their native language about the country they live in. Because of this, Netflix’s role as a producer and co-producer of international TV—animated and live-action, scripted and unscripted—will no doubt only grow in the coming years, and some of that growth will be in Japanese-style animation, better known as “anime.”

During last week’s Netflix Anime Festival 2020 livestream out of Japan, Variety reported on Netflix’s continued plans to grow their original anime offerings. The streamer said that over 100 million households globally watched at least one anime title between October 2019 and September 2020, which representing a more than 50% increase from 2019. Another Netflix self-reported metric: Anime titles appeared on the top ten lists in almost 100 countries so far this year.

“In just four short years since launching our creative team in Tokyo, Netflix has expanded the reach and overall audience of anime – a category conventionally seen as niche,” said Sakurai, during the event (via Deadline). “Given the success of shows such as Seven Deadly Sins and Baki, we are excited now more than ever to challenge ourselves to expand our aspirational anime programming for fans around the world.”

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It’s hard to estimate to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Netflix’s original series production plans for the coming year, but, as the streamer continues to cancel English-language, American-targeted TV series like Glow, Away, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it doubles down on its international anime orders—productions, it should be noted that are not only less expensive than the aforementioned live-action shows, but also, during a global pandemic, much less complicated and dangerous to make. Eden may be Netflix’s first “Japanese Original Anime,” but it surely won’t be its last—good news for anime fans everywhere.