The Rise of Gen Fukunaga
Back in the early 1990s, anime was rarer in America than gold. Akira had made a certain cultural splash and Hiyao Miyazaki had a deal with Disney, but there was almost no anime on television. No internet distribution. No DVDs for sale in Walmart. No issues of Otaku USA at the Barnes and Noble. Even French Art Films had more cultural presence, more popularity, more ease of access than anime.
Then came Gen Fukunaga.
Growing up in the least kawaii place of all – West Lafayette, Indiana – the Japanese-American Fukunaga began his career as an engineer. He worked for IBM in Florida. He designed ATM machines in California. His uncle, meanwhile, was a producer for the popular Japanese cartoon Dragon Ball Z, which had been a major success in Japan for years. Although there was no real interest in bringing it to America, Fukunaga asked his uncle for the chance to try, and his uncle told him that, if he could raise the start-up costs, the uncle would make sure that Toei Animation gave Fukunaga the rights to distribute the show in North America. Convincing a friend’s family to sell their feed mill business and invest the proceeds in his Anime distribution scheme, Fukunaga founded what would become the greatest anime licenser the world has ever known: Funimation.
Funimation’s role in the initial success of anime in America is crucial. Without Dragon Ball Z, it’s hard to imagine Toonami striking it big, and without Toonami there would be no great anime boom of the late 90s, early 2000s; no transformation of Japanese cartoons from the most niche of niche markets into a multi-billion dollar transcontinental business. But as with any boom business, Funimation quickly had a lot of competition. Over the next decade, dozens of companies would bring hundreds of animes to America. Manga Entertainment, Viz Media, Bandai, 4Kids Entertainment, Madman, and Geneon would all get in on the action, many selling far more DVDs, toys, and broadcasting rights than Funimation could ever dream of selling. But for all his competitors’ pomp and circumstance and exorbitant expenditures on licensing fees, they could never match Fukunaga for his business sense.
His Complete Conquest of Anime
In 2005, during the height of the Anime boom, Fukunaga and his business partners (you know, the feed mill people) sold Funimation to a Texas media conglomerate for $100 million. Fukunaga remained in charge of the company, but he didn’t own it anymore. People talk about George Soros or Warren Buffett pulling off the most prescient financial deal of the 2000s, but those people are wrong. If those people knew anything about anime, they would know that Gen Fukunaga was the true oracle.
What the 2008 financial crisis did to the world economy, it did five times over to the anime industry – already undercut by streaming services, bit torrent, and the growing disinterest of children in toys that don’t involve screens. Between 2008 and 2012, almost every major anime licenser either went bankrupt or (if they were part of a larger, generally Japanese conglomerate) abandoned the industry. ADV was liquidated. Geneon withdrew from North America. Bandai Entertainment shutdown. Media Blasters was dissolved. Synch-Point went out of business. Things were so bad, that when in 2012 the company Sentai Filmworks was formed, its founder specifically stated that its goal, as a company, was to try and keep the anime industry alive in America.
Funimation, however, survived. It took a beating, of course. Its business model was gutted. But where everyone else saw catastrophe, Fukunaga saw opportunity. In 2011, at the depths of the Great Anime Depression, Fukunaga (along with a few investors) bought back Funimation from the Texas conglomerate for $25 million, one quarter of the selling price. Then, when everyone else was desperate to get rid of their anime licenses, he started buying animes.
In the wake of the Great Anime Depression, Funimation took control of hundreds and hundreds of animes. If you think of any anime that you loved growing up, that you love now, that made you care that anime existed, that if somebody asked you why Anime was “good” you would show them, then it’s probably controlled by Funimation. They control Tenchi Muyo, Trigun, One Piece, .hack, Corpse Princess: Shikibana Hime, Fist of the North Star, Evangelion, Bubblegum Crisis, Digimon, Disgaea, Hellsing, Hetalia, the new Ghost in the Shell, Gantz, Galaxy Express 999, Fooly Cooly, Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture, Yu Yu Hakusho, Eureka 7, The Slayers, Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy, Gungrave, Space Dandy, Full Metal Alchemist, Sasami Magical Girls Club, Initial D, and Cowboy Bebop. They didn’t translate most of those shows. They didn’t do the dubs. They didn’t take out full page spreads for them in Newtype. But they own them now. As much as one company can own an entire cultural product, Funimation owns anime.
This means that whenever you buy an anime DVD or video file from the iTunes store, whenever you watch an anime streaming on Netflix or Hulu, whenever you waste away your entire day on CrunchyRoll, you’re dumping little droplets of money into Funimation’s coffers. You’re supporting them as a business. You’re supporting the personal wealth of Gen Fukunaga just like using Windows supports Bill Gates or buying Brawny Paper towels supports the Koch Brothers.
I bring this up because Funimation isn’t Gen Fukunaga’s only business interest. It’s just his least objectionable one.
Fukunaga’s Unsavory Business Partner
In 2012, he used some of his anime money to found a movie company called EchoLight Studios. EchoLight was not Fukunaga’s first venture into the movie business (he and his wife had produced the 1999 straight-to-DVD Chuck E. Cheese spin-off, Chuck E. Cheese in the Galaxy 5000) but it was his first serious attempt at becoming a force in the movie industry. Not the Hollywood movie industry, though—the Christian movie industry. EchoLight makes movies explicitly designed to present stories of Christian faith and values to a family-friendly audience.
In and of itself, that isn’t really troubling. Who cares what Fukunaga’s personal beliefs are so long as he still delivers to us our blatant Anime soft-core pornography?
But in 2014, Fukunaga hired a new CEO to lead EchoLight in its dream of creating making a more suitably Christian version of The Lords of Dogtown: former Pennsylvania Senator and Presidential candidate, Rick Santorum.
That’s right, the man who says that homosexual sex is comparable to bestiality, who actively opposes the legalization of gay-marriage, who once publically argued that gay-marriage should be illegal because it “hurts the economy,” the man whose name Dan Savage transformed into a synonym for the residual goop leftover after sodomy. He is Fukunaga’s employee and business partner. Your anime money goes to paying Rick Santorum, a man who hates gay people, to make movies that support “Christian values.”
Surely this isn’t acceptable. Wanting to forbid the right of people to marry who they love because of their gender is no less a bigoted abomination than opposing it because of their race. Last year, when it was discovered that the CEO of Mozilla had donated money to a campaign to illegalize gay marriage in California, the whole of the internet boycotted Firefox until he resigned.
This Santorum-Fukunaga situation is the same. It’s even worse. All the CEO of Mozilla ever did to forward his personal beliefs was give a campaign donation; Rick Santorum has fought against gay rights across the nation, ran for the President on an openly anti-gay rights platform, and voted against gay rights in the United States Senate and House of Representatives for more than a decade and a half.
How is watching anime, the vast majority of which is controlled by Fukunaga’s Funimation, any different than providing direct financial support to our nation’s most prominent enemy of the LGBTQ community? Fellow anime nerds, are we not by watching anime tacitly condoning the hatred and societal exclusion of the gay, the queer, and the transgendered?
The time has come for a boycott of all anime and anime related products. Not just those licensed by Funimation, but all anime, even those licensed by its competitors, even those stolen in flagrant violation of copyright law. So deeply is anime in America intertwined with Fukunaga that it cannot be separated out—all American anime consumption is tainted with the stain of homophobia the same way that the works of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen are tainted with the sexual abuse of children. As much as we may love anime, how can we allow even the casual appearance of supporting the oppression of the LGBTQ community in this county? Or is our anime more important to us than social justice?