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Innovation

Meet Bilibili, the Chinese Streaming Platform That Wants to Challenge Japan’s Anime Dominance

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The news that Marvel will publish Ultraman comics in 2020 has drawn no shortage of attention in China. The Japanese character is one that swathes of the Chinese population have grown up with since the 1980s, while Marvel’s Avengers movies have enjoyed enormous success in recent years. For Chinese comic fans, it’s therefore something of a perfect link-up. But for some, the US-Japan collaboration is yet more evidence that China needs to build up its roster of homegrown heroes.

Efforts are already underway in this regard. The establishment of a production company calling itself The Three-Body Universe perhaps hints at attempts to turn Liu Cixin’s science-fiction novels into a TV and movie powerhouse in the vein of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), while the runaway success of Nezha this summer was a boost for those looking to mine Chinese mythology for new icons and for China’s animation industry as a whole.

Both The Three-Body Universe and Nezha‘s success were referenced at a recent event held by Bilibili, China’s leading anime streaming platform, as the company’s COO Carly Lee declared, “2020 will be a historical milestone — it will be the first year in the era of nationwide enthusiasm for animation.”

Related:

How “Nezha”, a Revamped Tale from Chinese Mythology, Became the Country’s Biggest-Ever Animated Movie

“In 2020, the post-’80s generation will turn 40 years old and the post-’00s generation 20,” said Lee. “With the maturing of the animation audience, it means that animation as a content category is set to evolve from serving the needs of children or adolescents to meeting the demands of nationwide demographics.”

To this end, Bilibili is betting big on the future of Chinese animation — and intends to be a major force in it.

From Hatsune Miku to the NASDAQ

Interestingly for a platform that aspires to compete with Japan’s influence on animation, Bilibili — often referred to by users as B站 (B Station) — owes its origins to Hatsune Miku and A Certain Scientific Railgun.

In 2009, teenager Xu Yi created a Hatsune Miku fan site, borne of his frustrations with AcFun, and a few months later — on January 14 2010 — launched it as video-sharing site Bilibili, taking the nickname of Mikoto Misaka from A Certain Scientific Railgun. As then-CEO Chen Rui declared in 2018, “Over the next eight years, more than 100 million users visited Bilibili via the website or app, and 2 million users contributed 19.7 million videos.”

Chen’s words came in an open letter delivered around one of the biggest milestones in Bilibili’s near-decade-long history: listing on the NASDAQ. That IPO valued the company at around 3 billion USD.

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Shots Fired

As the article linked above notes, the IPO was met with celebrations among Bilibili’s loyal user base. Some fans danced in the streets of New York, others peppered the video announcement with a classic B Station feature: bullet comments.

As Fan Shuhong writes, “The video sharing website is famous for its danmu (弹幕), or bullet comments: user-generated subtitles that streak from right to left on top of videos, usually reactions to the content submitted live by fellow viewers in real time. These freewheeling commentaries create the feeling that viewers are watching, interacting, and sharing with other users.”

This carefully-nurtured feeling of community has been a key part of Bilibili’s growth and success. Users are often also content creators, something which the company encourages through a range of schemes under its PUGC (Professional User Generated Content) Uploader programs.

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In recent years however, Bilibili has had to balance a purportedly open and welcoming atmosphere for user-generated content with the demands of the current climate surrounding censorship and sensitive materials — particularly as the platform becomes ever more prominent.

Such prominence has caused some major players to sit up and take notice. In November last year, Chinese entertainment and internet behemoth Tencent dropped almost 320 million USD on a 12% stake in Bilibili, making them the company’s second largest shareholder.

This followed a “strategic cooperation agreement” between the two firms. As we reported at the time, “This partnership means, among other things, that Tencent and Bilibili will share their library of original animations (if the copyright allows), and build a deep collaborative mechanism in terms of the purchase, investment, and production of animated programming. They will also share production costs, sync up on premieres and broadcasting, and offer investment priorities to one another.”

Related:

Tencent Goes After Gen Z via Major Anime, Comics and Games Partnership with Bilibili

The move was widely seen as a strategic push from the creators of WeChat toward engaging the Gen Z market, which comprises much of Bilibili’s user base. Yet the combination of investment from one of the Chinese internet’s biggest corporations, plus the increasing strictures imposed upon content, means that Bilibili runs the risk of alienating its core community, even as it heads for mainstream acceptance.

Blurred Vision

As part of this march towards the mainstream, Bilibili has diversified its offerings. Livestreaming, gaming, and documentaries have all found their way onto the platform, with the latter yielding some big hits and big name collaborations.

Nevertheless, anime remains at the streaming platform’s core. And in a recent speech unveiling 27 newly-commissioned anime series (including new seasons of existing shows plus 13 original productions) for the remainder of 2019 and 2020, Bilibili’s COO Carly Lee put down some bold markers for the industry in the coming decades.

“We believe that by 2022, the output and quantity of Chinese creations will be several times that of Japanese productions, becoming the mainstream of the animation market and the film market [in China]. By that time, if you speak to a young Chinese person who says they like to watch animation, your assumption will be that they are talking about domestic creative content.”

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Lee went on to say that “by 2026, animation itself will become the mainstream of the entire entertainment industry” and that “the boundaries between animation and live action movies, games, and social entertainment will be completely blurred.”

Amid a flurry of statistics pulled from Bilibili’s watching figures that supported her case for growing interest in Chinese animation among domestic audiences, Lee recognized that such ambitious plans were not without challenges, identifying three major problems for the development of China’s animation market. “The first problem is the lack of originality and original talent. The second problem is that positioning cannot meet the needs of the entire population. The third problem is that overseas content styles cannot meet the needs of mainstream Chinese consumers.”

Anime With Chinese Characteristics

The highlighting of this third issue puts Bilibili’s thinking in line with prominent players in other industries in China, as companies increasingly tap national pride for profit and to please the Party. (Bilibili’s event also featured a short segment from a Party official, while the platform showed off one of the productions it had produced for the PRC’s 70th anniversary.)

“We need to pay more attention to the Chinese people’s own lives,” stated Lee. “We should no longer simply remake the popular IP, no longer simply follow the path put forward by international companies. […] The industry is too concerned by creations in Europe, the United States and Japan, ignoring the core appeal of more local audiences, which leads to the existence of animation as a limited product in China.”

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However, such a future will not only impact upon Chinese audiences, in Bilibili’s vision. Instead, as with Chinese tech, fashion, and other areas that have sought to reinvent the “Made in China” tag, Lee sees animation as an industry that can win the respect of global audiences.

“By 2030, we believe that original Chinese animation will go to the world, lead the world, and be popular across the world,” she said at the event.

“In fact, I don’t think it is necessary to wait until 2030 — this era will come soon.”

Perhaps it’s understandable that a China-based anime-focused platform would want to talk up the prospects of Chinese animation going global after decades of US and Japanese domination. Yet it remains questionable how much productions mining historic Chinese stories such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which features on Bilibili’s new slate of shows) will resonate with viewers internationally, as much as their may be appetite for alternative narratives.

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First Look: Bilibili’s Animated “Three-Body Problem” Teaser

Whether or not the world is ready for it, and whether or not Lee’s lofty declarations can be realized, one thing seems certain: Chinese animation is on the rise as a new front in the revamping of the “Made in China” image — and Bilibili wants to be right at the heart of it.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.