Top Ten Anime / Manga Companies of 2009

Yeah, I know that a lot of people tend to only care about content when it comes to anime and manga, but personally, I am just absolutely fascinated by the industry behind it. Something about taking a foreign niche product, adapting it for Americans, and then marketing it to that geeky audience completely interests me.

So because I do keep a very close eye on everything that goes on in the anime and manga business in America, here is my annual list of the ten companies I feel made the biggest difference for the industry and for the fans out there in 2009.

10) Tokyopop

Tokyopop was noticeably absent from my list last year, but that is because they really hit a rough spot in 2008 and had to go off the grid for a good part of that year. But we saw them gradually recover in 2009 and really try to clear up all the loose ends that were left with their sudden departure. Series that went on “indefinite hiatus” now started to come out again, and the paper quality on their books began to improve as well. The company also started holding panels again at anime conventions and have even starting holding online “webinars” for the fans.

They’ve been doing a great job rebounding in 2009, and I look forward to an even stronger presence in 2010.

9) Del Rey Manga

Frankly, Del Rey should have been higher on the list. Following the fall of Tokyopop, they became the second largest manga publisher in America. But honestly, they haven’t done much in the past year. They released only two notable titles in 2009, Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei and Moyasimon, and did a fairly remarkable thing with the release of a shojo-infused X-Men series that was also generally liked by critics.

But other than that, it has been pretty bland. Hopefully they make stronger presence in the new year.

8) CMX Manga

CMX was actually my #11 pick last year, so they just missed the cut-off. But in 2009, I started to review all their new releases, and because of this, I was exposed to the one part of their company where they truely shined, their shojo division!

They put out some really good shojo series in 2009. I probably would have never picked them up on the store shelves, but as I was reviewing their products, I found myself enjoying mostly all of them. In fact, three of them ended up on my Top Ten of 2009 list last week.

CMX has had one of the best track records of putting out quality manga series in 2009, and I’m looking forward to checking out all their new releases in 2010.

7) Bandai Entertainment

Now, I often give Bandai a hard time, and I’ve been predicting their eventual demise for quite a long time now. But the truth is that I really like these guys, so whenever they do something that I find interesting, I tend to praise them to the high heavens.

This year, they won me over with marketing blitz of Kannagi. They teased the title for months ahead of time, and then for Otakon weekend, the unleashed the title at full force. This was such an insane marketing ploy completely unprecedented in the industry, and I loved every minute of it.

No Thank You! (biggest disappointment of the year)

Sentai / Section23 / ADV / Whatever

I named ADV the 2nd worst anime / manga company in 2008. This was not because of the fact that they nearly went bankrupt that year, but because they nearly went bankrupt and kept the fans in the dark the entire time. I felt that if you’re going to die, at least do it quickly and with some grace and respect for your customers.

Well, ADV managed to outdo themselves in 2009 for them to be named my biggest disappointment of the year.

On September 1st, ADV announced that they were officially no more, and that all of the company’s series and assets were being sold off to a group of other companies, such as Switchblade Pictures, Sentai Filmworks, Seraphim Studios, and AEsir Holdings.

The thing is that these were not companies that came in to pick up the pieces left in ADV’s wake, these were companies created by ADV for the sole purpose of acquiring ADV’s assets. They were selling off the company to themselves. The-Company-Formerly-Known-As-ADV renamed this new branding “Section 23″, after the set of Texas bankruptcy laws that allows them to protect themselves from bankruptcy by selling off their assets like this.

Let me repeat that – they renamed their freaking company after the legal loophole that keeps them in business!

Enough is enough, ADV / Sentai / Section 23 / whatever the hell you’re called this week. It’s over. The market is not going to turn over and suddenly anime DVD’s become profitable again. Please step away from the anime, and allow any of these other companies on this list to take over these series for you.

6) Right Stuf / Nozomi Entertainment

Right Stuf / Nozomi are far from being the largest or most influential company in the business, but my God, do they have a huge fan following!

Whenever they have a sale or special deal going on in their retail store, Twitter and various message boards begin buzzing. When they license a title, they do so knowing that there is a hardcore niche audience there begging for the title to be released in America. And they appeal to those hardcore fans by offering to print their names in the packaging and releasing limited edition lithograph prints for them to buy.

Right Stuf / Nozomi is the finest example of solid company-to-fan relations in this industry, and all the others should look at what they are doing in this respect.

5) Vertical Publishing

When Ed Chavez saw that Vertical made it onto my list at #10 last year, he said something along the lines of, “That’s great, but I’d really like to see us much higher on the list next year.” At the time I thought he was crazy, because Vertical’s ultra-niche and reclusive approach to the market wasn’t really impressing a lot of regular manga readers back then.

But in the course of the year, Mr. Chavez completely turned around the company’s manga division and announced that they would be releasing such highly anticipated series like Chi’s Sweet Home and Peepo Choo beginning in 2010. Not only has this made the company jump half way up my list this year, but I’m predicting that Vertical will become one the most talked about manga publishers in the new year.

4) Yen Press

Frankly, Yen Press’ placement on the list can be summed up in three words:

They saved Yotsuba!

Yotsuba&! is one of the best manga series to hit the US market, and it was a shame that it was in limbo for two years as ADV fell apart. When Yen Press rescued the license at the New York Comic Con in February, they made a whole lot of American manga readers really happy.

But even besides Yotsuba, Yen Press still continues to be doing amazing things like putting out their monthly anthology Yen Plus Magazine and releasing the light novels to fan favorite franchises like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Spice and Wolf. And on the business side, they have been making smart decisions by creating original manga adaptations of their parent company’s top selling novel franchises, Maximum Ride, Gossip Girl, and the Twilight saga.

No matter how crazy or unconventional these schemes seem to be, Kurt Hassler continues to run this company the only way he sees fit. And because of these risky-yet-successful ventures, they have continued to impress me  year after year.

Honorable Mention (not really an anime or manga company)

Reed Exhibition

Reed Exhibitions is not an anime or manga company, but every otaku in the New York area owes them a huge debt of gratitude.

The local anime scene in New York City was dead following the final Big Apple Anime Film Festival in 2003. If otaku wanted to go to an anime con, they had to travel out of state. But when Reed Exhibition hired former Central Park Media employee Peter Tatara as their lead program manager for their new east coast conventions, we saw a massive resurgence of anime and otaku culture in the city that never sleeps.

With Tatara at that helm, they debuted the New York Anime Festival in late 2007. The NYAF began with over 15,000 in attendance, instantly making it the third largest anime convention in America and continues to grow year after year. But even besides the NYAF, Tatara also organizes the occasional otaku-centric events at the midtown Kinokunya bookstore all year around – ranging anywhere from Haruhi Day to Lolita Day to Occult Day to Tezuka Day.

Ever since Reed Exhibitions has come to town, we have had plenty to look forward to around here. That is why they deserve an Honorable Mention this year.

3) VIZ Media

Yes, remember VIZ Media? They’re still around, and they’re still the largest manga company and second largest anime company in America. And even though their public relations and brand marketing obviously still needs a lot of work, they have made massive changes to the manga market in 2009.

VIZ presented the first ever manga “simulcast” in America in 2009. They began releasing weekly installments of Rumiko Takahashi’s latest comic Rin-Ne on the internet the the same day the chapter came out in Japan. They also started their first online manga periodical IKKI in 2009, and released a lot of critically acclaimed series through that medium as well.

I really believe the manga industry will be going digital in the next year, and I really commend VIZ for taking some initiative in this movement.

2) Crunchyroll

I named Crunchyroll the worst company of 2008, yet they somehow managed to become the second best company of 2009. What brought about this massive shift? Well, in the first week of 2009, the video streaming service that was orginally designed to hold illegal fansubs went 100% legit.

2009 was the Year of the Simulcast, and Crunchyroll was the company that coined the term. They began with a handful of series in winter including the highly popular Naruto series. From there, they bumped it up to a dozen series simulcasted in spring, and by the time the fall season started, over 50% of every new series airing in Japan was legally streaming on Crunchyroll.

This was a game changer. Crunchyroll shifted the entire anime industry in one year, and thankfully, they did it 100% legal and legit.

1) FUNimation

Okay, is it really a surprise that I name FUNimation the #1 company for the second year in a row? I mean, come on, I freaking love these guys.

But it is not just me. FUNimation went from having 30% market share in 2008 to over 50% in 2009! They dominate over half of the entire US market. As other companies continue to fall by the wayside, FUNi emerges as the only game left in town. They are clearly doing something right.

So let me just recap why they remained awesome in 2009.

2009 was the year that FUNimation dived into social media and social marketing. They began a Twitter account, Facebook fan page, and of course, a very funny blog which they update daily. They have directly engaged the fan community through these avenues by answering questions, sending out surveys, and running spontaneous contests for fans to win free stuff.

Heck, even I managed to win a Twitter contest from them back in February. (^_^)

And on the digital front, we saw FUNi massively expand their online video streaming service as they have been gradually putting up their entire catalog online for free. They have also been simulcasting the highly popular Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and One Piece series using this avenue. While this simulcast did end up biting them in the butt when videos began leaking prior to their Japanese broadcast, FUNi eventually pulled through to become more stable and secure.

While they may be coming close to monopolizing the American market at this point, they haven’t shown any signs of abusing that power. Unlike most other companies, FUNimation continues to be very open and honest with the fan community. Unlike most other companies, FUNimation continues to innovate within the medium and experiment with new technologies. That is why FUNimation is my #1 Company of 2009.

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