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Ex-Arm, and the case of Crunchyroll Originals

Ex-Arm

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Ex-Arm, and the case of Crunchyroll Originals

The term “Crunchyroll Original” has turned a lot of heads over the past few years. Even now, as many of the so-called “Originals” have released, the definition has never quite been clear. It started with the announcement of High Guardian Spice in 2018, a controversial show which lied dormant until it resurfaced in 2020 as part of the year’s lineup of Originals. Recently, the discussion over the merit of the title has come into question yet again with the release of a trailer for a new series.

Back in July, Crunchyroll announced three new shows under the “Originals” banner. One of them was Ex-Arm, an adaptation of a 98-chapter sci-fi manga from 2015, with a story by HiRock and artwork by Shinya Komi. Ex-Arm‘s TV anime had actually already been announced, with two key visuals having been released. It actually looked pretty promising and I was curious how it would look in motion. Just earlier in November, the first trailer was released and words cannot describe how shocked I was.

The fact that the thumbnail is the same key visual that got people’s attention is adding insult to injury. This trailer has 20 thousand dislikes at the time of writing and for understandable reasons. As if the whiny, derivative rock song wasn’t bad enough, the animation carried none of the aesthetic from the key artwork that got people interested in the first place.

It all looks very floaty like there’s no weight to any characters’ movements. The main girl seems to have no expression, nor any movement to her hair. Worse yet, the direction is cluttered and it’s impossible to tell what’s going on half the time. It ends with this bold claim that it’s “declaring war against all of the SF series around the world,” whatever that means.

An image of the Ex-Arm section of the Crunchyroll Originals page, displaying no trailer.

This is all you see on Crunchyroll’s page for the Originals

There are many questions to be asked in the wake of this trailer, but the most notable one is: why did Crunchyroll license this show in the first place? And I don’t think there is a clear answer. Based on their unwillingness to promote the trailer or the show on social media, it’s clear they’re aware it may not have been advised. The most they have is a section on their official Originals page for it, but without the trailer embedded.

Now, the instinctive reaction may be to blame it all on CGI. However, I’m of the mind that 3D animation has a place in anime and that Japan has gotten better at implementing it over the past decade. However, Ex-Arm doesn’t look even somewhat passable by industry standards and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to be shown in its current state. So how did this happen?

A deceptive key visual for Crunchyroll's Ex-Arm

Well, the answer might actually be easier to pinpoint than you might think. Looking at the staff list, no one involved in this production has worked on anime before this. The director, Yoshikatsu Kimura, is mostly known for live-action directing but took on this show as a fun challenge. The writer, Tommy Morton, is likely a pen name, as I can’t find anything he has done. The closest connection to anime – by a few degrees at best – is Takahiro Ouchi, who did stunt work on Rurouni Kenshin… the live-action films.

Those films are great by the way – don’t mistake the ellipsis. My point is that none of the people working on this show have experience in the medium and at a directorial level that can be a huge problem. What about the studio? Same deal. This is the first anime project by Studio Visual Flight, whose prior animation work includes a bizarre action demo reel and model work on From Software video games.

Now, Callum May of Anime News Network did a phenomenal job breaking down interviews with the staff to get to the heart of why the above-mentioned are huge red flags. Getting staff with no experience in animation is going to reflect poorly on the animation quality (duh). Now maybe you might ask, why not give them a chance? Isn’t it good that they get any experience?

In fairness, I’m always excited to see new names pop up in the industry. Fate/Grand Order Babylonia, despite its flaws, had some of the most consistent animation quality I’ve ever seen, all from a mostly young staff of up-and-comers. So is it fair to completely lambast the existence of this show when the staff has no prior experience?

Yes, as a matter of fact.

Perhaps it wouldn’t if the staff was believably invested in becoming a bigger player in Japanese animation. However, with a director mostly known for live-action work at the helm and a studio with just as little experience, I’m not sure there is anything in the portfolios presented that would make a case for even a “beginner project.”

Let’s not forget the biggest problem: this is an adaptation! If I was the one who wrote or did the art for the manga, I would be livid with how my creation was handled here. Perhaps if you’re an optimist you might hold out for a quality story to save the project, but with the manga ranking around a 6.97 on MAL, I don’t think much can save the project.

(All I can say definitively is that, after this trailer, no one is ever allowed to complain about that last Ghost in the Shell series on Netflix.)

Around this point is where people start giving Crunchyroll the side-eye, wondering just what led to this show being brought under their banner in the way it was. But like with everything else about these Originals, the answer is complicated, and to get even close to understanding, you need to look at the history of Crunchyroll’s foray into original content.

How Original(?)

Believe it or not, but Crunchyroll has had a hand in the production side of things for a very long time. According to this helpful list, they’ve been producing and co-producing anime since 2014 with I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying. I actually used this list in my 2018 review of Crunchyroll and I’m delighted that it’s still being updated.

So in 2018 when they officially announced that they’d be making “Crunchyroll Originals,” it was assumed that these would be original stories produced in the west. After all, this announcement came packaged with the trailer for High Guardian Spice, a collaboration with Ellation Studios. It would be a cutesy fantasy show about four girls going to a school to become heroes.

The trailer caught a lot of flak for several reasons. Watch the trailer for yourself and you might understand why.

I have no idea why I should care about the show. They don’t show much of anything or tell me who’s in the cast or explain what their ‘fantasy-show-about-going-to-a-school-to-become-heroes’ has to offer apart from the rest. Most of the trailer just talks about the all-woman writer’s room, which is cool but, I want to know more about the show itself. If the show is progressive and has good messages, let those messages speak for themselves.

People had already been complaining about Crunchyroll using the subscribers’ money to host their own convention and hold their own awards show. Seeing an announcement for a show that might not have a large audience overlap with Crunchyroll’s demographic only added fuel to the fire.

Now for the record, I don’t mind this show existing. It might not be for me, but it looks cute and harmless enough, and there are plenty of shows on Crunchyroll already that aren’t my thing already. My issue is the poor marketing for what is clearly a big project for CR. Worse yet, the show still hasn’t come out.

It was said to be coming out in 2019, but it never did. Raye Rodriquez, the creator of the show, did announce in November of 2019 that it had wrapped production, however. But it’s been a full year since then and the show hasn’t even gotten a release date. For a time, it seemed Crunchyroll Originals were dead in the water. Until the beginning of 2020 that is.

We’ve Got It And That’s It

We finally got an official lineup of Crunchyroll Originals that, at the time, were planned to be released throughout 2020. High Guardian Spice was one of them, but there were also a lot of adaptations and a few other original stories, some produced by major Japanese studios and others made in the west.

It appeared that the scope of what made a Crunchyroll Original was broadening. A lot of the big names were adaptations of WebToon comics like Tower of God and The God of High School. Stuff like In/Spectre or this season’s Tonikawa: Over The Moon For You, seem like more standard anime fair. It felt like Crunchyroll was approaching originals similar to how Netflix does. That said, when you look into it a bit more, it’s a lot more complicated.

A poster for In/Spectre

In/Spectre

The first original to be released was In/Spectre, which had already been airing for a month by the time the announcement of the lineup came. It was funded by Crunchyroll through the Crunchyroll SC Anime Fund in collaboration with Sumitomo Corporation, a fund established in 2016. So really it isn’t much different from other anime co-produced by the company. Shield Hero also had support from that fund.

It would seem that going forward, any new anime that would typically have this funding will be lumped under the Originals banner. This has been the case with Noblesse, Tonikawa, and In/Spectre; all Crunchyroll Originals, all supported by the SC Fund. So what’s the difference between these and the other Originals then?

Well, Crunchyroll isn’t listed as a producer for Tower of God or The God of High School, but WebToon is and they have a partnership with Crunchyroll. High Guardian is produced by Ellation, who are partnered with them too and Onyx Equinox is apparently produced directly by Crunchyroll Studios, which I didn’t even know existed. Since the western-produced originals aren’t considered anime by MAL, it’s a bit harder to find production info but not too hard to fill in the blanks.

What’s interesting to note about this Anime Fund is that it reveals a lot about how Crunchyroll involves itself in the production end. Richardson Kilis from MyAnimeList responded to a question about Crunchyroll’s involvement in production on Quora.com of all places. Interestingly enough, this fund gives Crunchyroll some control over marketing in addition to exclusivity.

What sets Crunchyroll apart from a company like Netflix is that the former technically sits on the production committees. According to Kilis, “anime titles marketed as Netflix Originals were already commissioned by their respective production committees without the participation of Netflix.” Netflix simply wins the bid on the anime once it’s been put up on the market.

It might not be far-fetched to say that, as Kilis puts it, “Crunchyroll has produced more anime than Netflix has.” So they get involved earlier and get exclusive streaming rights earlier. Now, none of this gives an exact idea of how much oversight they have during production, but it stands to reason that their involvement allows them a certain luxury of seeing what projects look promising.

With this in mind, let’s assume that the Crunchyroll SC Anime Fund sets a good standard for the kind of involvement they have in all of the Originals. If other Originals had less involvement, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. And obviously, the stuff produced in-house will understandably have way more oversight. In that case, how have the Originals fared before Ex-Arm?

Tower of God was arguably the first big success of the project. Having watched the first episode, I can safely say that I was entertained thanks in no small part to Kevin Penkin’s wonderful soundtrack. Since it concluded its first season, I’ve heard many positive things and the show is currently sitting at a comfortable 7.74 on MAL.

So there’s room for error, sure, but the reception was positive enough that it appeared Crunchyroll had gotten off to a great start. Of course, with COVID hitting around the globe, many of the shows started experiencing production delays. By the end of 2020, only five of the eight shows announced at the beginning of the year would actually come out.

The delayed shows were Freak Angels, Meiji Gekken: Sword & Gun, and High Guardian Spice. Everything else has been released, with Onyx Equinox set to release in November, being the first western-produced Crunchyroll Original.

Next up, another big WebToon adaptation came out: The God of High School. Like with Tower of God, this was a highly anticipated one. Wynn Smith of Anime Quarterly even wrote a short “Should You Watch” back in July to get us all hyped up. Now I can’t speak to the quality of the show myself, though I’ve heard some mixed things. Still, it had some of the coolest hand-to-hand fight animations I’ve seen in a long while. Sunghoo Park and Studio Mappa went all out.

That same season, however, there was another Crunchyroll Original. See, the lineup at the beginning of the year was just the start. More Originals were added as the year went on and while a lot of these were seasonal shows produced with the help of the SC fund, some were… special.

See, before all of this hate for Ex-Arm, another show felt uniquely cheap from its first trailer. Looking back now, it’s childish to think that was the worst it could get but people in the comments were quick to point out how low the bar was set. The show in question was called Gibiate.

This is a collaboration between Studio Elle, which apparently helped with Tezuka Productions’ The Life of Budori Gusuko, and l-a-unch BOX, a studio with no prior credentials. Now, granted, this show has a few more credits that have actually worked in anime in the past, unlike Ex-Arm. The director, Masahiko Komino, has previously done key animation as well as animation direction for shows like Bleach, Dororo, and Hellsing Ultimate.

Additionally, the character designer, Yoshitaka Amano, did the character designs for Angel’s Egg and Vampire Hunter D (both the original and Bloodlust). That’s why, despite the numerous visual flaws, it sometimes has the look of Ninja Scroll or other Yoshiaki Kawajiri works. Pretty much everything else is the problem.

Abhorrent looking CGI monsters? Check. Stiff character animation? Check. Yet another trailer that focuses more on the production rather than the actual show? Yet again, check. Although to be fair, their focus this time was on music and that is probably the best part of the trailer, especially the ending theme.

I had completely forgotten that this show was a Crunchyroll Orginal and remembering that was very amusing because it reminded me of my naivete, not knowing that just a few months later I’d be shocked by something even worse. For those thinking I’m being too judgmental without having seen it, the show has since gotten a 4.0 on MAL. When talking about these shows, I try not to be biased but now that it’s done, I’m fairly safe in assuming it’s not worth my time, or yours for that matter.

The current fall season has three more originals: Tonikawa, Noblesse, and Onyx Equinox. Tonikawa is currently the highest-rated original at a 7.95 on MAL. Noblesse has fared worse, scoring a 6.59 at the time of writing. Keep in mind, neither of those shows is finished. Onyx has only one episode out at the time of writing and isn’t listed on MAL.

Having watched the first episode of Onyx, I’m unconvinced it will “save” the Originals. The premiere moved way too fast, not letting me get too invested in anything or anyone before a display of disaster and death that felt tonally confused. All that before setting up a protagonist that I’m not too interested in spending an entire show with.

That’s just my take though. Here’s hoping it will improve but so far, it feels like it’s conflicted between having the heart of a show aimed at kids and the presentation of one aimed at adults. Some have said that it looks like a new Avatar, but you have to give that show credit for having a much more finely-paced premiere. It’s a wait-and-see deal for the moment.

Now I’m not here to say that Crunchyroll Originals are successes or failures based solely on MAL scores. After all, I haven’t seen most of these shows. My goal is to ask why certain disasters were licensed in the first place. See, regardless of the scoring, I can see why Crunchyroll would have funded most of these.

They likely funded these shows because of the reputation of the source material (if any existed). Alternatively, they could have been swayed by the staff involved or the studio producing it. Maybe they saw promising demo reels and scripts decided to fund shows based on those. I can reasonably imagine the explanation behind every Crunchyroll Original getting funded… except for Gibiate and Ex-Arm.

By this point in my train of thought, I would suspect that Crunchyroll’s goal would be exclusive licensing above all else. They have their established avenues of funding and getting exclusivity early. They also have partnerships with non-Japanese companies with which to create new content, though it’s taken them a long time to get anything to air.

While the above-mentioned logic tracks, Crunchyroll themselves seem to insist that the process is a lot more thoughtful than that.

“Made For Our Audiences”

Back in May, a month before Gibiate was announced, Alden Budill, head of global partnerships and content strategy, spoke to ANN about “what makes an ‘original.'” Firstly, she seems to differentiate Originals from co-productions, despite the lines becoming blurred recently, as we’ve seen. It’s how she describes the Originals themselves, though, that makes me scratch my head.

She describes them as shows “that could only exist within CR” and says they are simultaneously what the audience is looking for from CR and “what they’re looking for from anime as an art form.” Obviously, I have a few complaints about that last point.

If Ex-Arm is what we’re supposed to be looking for from anime, then I’m not sure that CR thinks very highly of us. Worse yet, if Ex-Arm and Gibiate are what we are meant to expect from them, I don’t think CR thinks very highly of themselves.

The Crunchyroll Philosophy

From what I gather, Crunchyroll Originals are built upon the following goals:

  1. Help produce original content that might not otherwise get funded. This would make sense for their WebToon adaptations of Korean web novels.
  2. Get hold of shows exclusively for CR that you can’t get anywhere else. This would apply to shows funded through the Crunchyroll SC Anime Fund that then are labeled as Originals.
  3. Generate diversity not only in the kinds of stories told but in the kinds of characters portrayed as well as the production teams of the shows. This reflects the intent of shows like High Guardian Spice as well as Onyx Equinox.
  4. Promote content that is tailored to the audience based on what they expect from CR and from “anime as an art form.”

So where have they faltered? A chief concern could be the lack of a ‘killer app’ as it were. Few of the originals have won big enough to make something that draws attention to the project as a whole, nor CR as a brand. Obviously, it’s a big company already, but with Netflix’s growing partnerships with big studios and Funimation cornering home video and theatrical releases, they need something big.

Without any of the western-produced original stories like High Guardian or Onyx, CR hasn’t had anything different enough, while still being promising, to really justify this endeavor. With Onyx now airing, time will tell if that changes. Even then, the rest of the lineup is a risk.

With cheap and poorly considered projects being brought into the fold like Gibiate and Ex-Arm, it’s safe to say that quality control is lacking. Even among the shows that don’t suffer from the same glaring red flags, the Originals as of yet have performed averagely. This isn’t entirely on CR, however. It’s not exactly something they can predict. Noblesse‘s original webcomic has an 8.32 on MAL. It isn’t as though they anticipated it scoring a 6.

For me, the biggest problem with Crunchyroll Originals might be the very reason Netflix has a better idea (relatively). There is a lack of identity. Now, Netflix is a much larger company that deals in more than just anime. They are a giant, so sometimes it does come down to them making a higher bid on a show.

However, when they make those bids, you can tell that they are choosing shows carefully according to what I would call a “Netflix feel.” Netflix doesn’t just get the license to a show like FMA like every other service. They also get shows that fit their brand.

This means a lot of sci-fi shows, or programs with a darker, more mature tone that might intersect with Netflix’s drama crowd. They also explore CGI anime way more than any other service, helping studios like Polygon Pictures and Sola Digital Arts to grow. Additionally, there are more than a few anime that seem to target western demographics very hard.

Stuff like B: The Beginning or even the derivative successor Hero Mask target the crowd that loves police dramas while injecting supernatural action spectacle. Even if the “Netflix feel” doesn’t have a concrete definition, I bet you can recognize it when you see it. And by no means are they always successful.

After all, I still hate how Netflix releases anime. They get the rights to seasonal shows that are airing on Japanese TV, but wait until after the show finishes (plus like two or three months) and then maybe release the entire thing. The Great Pretender, a show I think has the potential to be one of the best of the year, got split into two, with the “second season” (give me a break) streaming on November 25th.

Has Netflix had more time to create this identity? Absolutely. But Crunchyroll isn’t a young company. They’ve been around the block a few times and should know what people want. They want a service that gives them a crap ton of anime, and they still have one of the largest libraries of it. So maybe they don’t need originals? Probably, though I still believe it would be a benefit if they could just get it right

The Hard Crunch

Back in 2018, I wrote a review of Crunchyroll, assessing the quality of the service, the library, the subscription model, their impact on the industry, and even the then-controversial High Guardian Spice. As to the third point, I brought up an interview with General Manager Kun Gao by the Hollywood Reporter. In it, Gao proclaimed that they put 100 million dollars into the anime industry.

Now, when I bring up the money that they actually funnel into the industry – after all, it’s a very contentious point – a common response is that CR is only supporting the production committees. They aren’t helping to support overworked animators or fixing other problems with the production end.

Now, if you’re like me, you might think it’s unfair to ask a company to help fix all of the problems of a foreign industry that it is importing. We should be expecting the industry itself to fix its problems, and that more or less means asking Japan to change its work ethic.

However, if you tell dissenters this, they’ll likely counter by saying that CR should be an outlier and try to actually inspire change. And that’s why Crunchyroll Originals are so infuriating. They have a golden opportunity to give their haters the middle finger by actually producing content themselves.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem capable of making a great case for themselves, meaning people are complaining about where their money is going, again. And for once, I can’t blame them. Because now we definitively know where our money is going and its funding shows like Gibiate and Ex-Arm, shows that don’t even have the decency to be good-looking disasters.

Again, maybe Onyx will change that. As it is, January will see the release of two Crunchyroll Originals: Ex-Arm and ‘So I’m a Spider, So What?’, the latter of which looks infinitely more charming than the former. Beyond that, High Guardian, Freak Angels, and Meiji Gekken have no set release dates and new Originals seem to be announced and added every few months.

Budill’s statement implied that co-productions are separate from Originals but if anything, blurring the lines gives them more options. Hell, if being funded by the SC Fund is enough, will Shield Hero seasons two and three be Crunchyroll Originals? They may as well and the only reason they might not is if CR is worried about enough people who don’t understand the show complaining about it being sexist again.

Dear Crunchyroll

If I might suggest something to this multi-million dollar company I’ve criticized so thoroughly above, I think I could be of great help. I’ve already outlined the key pillars of their philosophy with this project, all’s left to do is suggest the next course of action.

So Crunchyroll, let’s say you’ve got a story you want to animate and need a studio to do it. Why not hire a studio such as Grackle, founded by Spencer Wan. From his work with Powerhouse Animation on Castlevania and Disney’s The Owl House, he’s clearly a very talented animator with plenty of talented connections in the animation community. You already interviewed him twice on YouTube about his studio and his insights on animation.

The only work by this new studio is the launch trailer for the game Hades, but that trailer likely sold a lot of copies. Plus, the portfolios of the animators involved speak for themselves. And if you’re looking at potential partners based on opportunities for diversity, then there is no better option than this kind of creative team.

The web generation of animators not only transcends the typical avenues of entering the anime industry but it also transcends borders. From Japan to the Philippines to China, WebGen really transcends what is anime and who makes it. And as an added cool fact, Spencer Wan is openly gay. He is an openly gay head of a bitchin’ animation studio. That’s awesome. Just don’t make the mistake of fixating on that in the marketing instead of showing what these people are capable of.

So right there, I’ve considered an avenue of original content that would be a promising producer for exclusive content for the platform. I’ve also taken into consideration diversity when it comes to the people producing the work without disregarding the importance of their talent. Furthermore, I’ve made it a priority to consider what the anime audience wants from this art form.

So I’ve put more thought into hypothetically hiring a badass like Spencer Wan than anyone who greenlit a dumpster fire like Ex-Arm. This is what Crunchyroll should be focusing on: getting talented people from different backgrounds to create new content that will be as enriching for the people making it as it will be for the audience.

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