“KICK BACK” — a song written for Chainsaw Man by Kenshi Yonezu — recently became gold certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), highlighting how the growing popularity of anime introduces Japanese music to American audiences.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently announced that “KICK BACK” by Kenshi Yonezu – a sensational Japanese singer and songwriter – was gold certified on October 24, 2023, meaning it achieved the equivalent of 500,000 physical sales in the United States alone. Such accomplishment marks the first time a song both written and performed in Japanese has received gold certification from the RIAA.
Yonezu released the single in October 2022. Soon after its release, it landed on Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart – a first-ever for a Japanese artist. The music video has garnered over 137 million views, with the shorter animated version accruing 96 million views so far. Significantly, it was also the most streamed song associated with an anime on Spotify in 2022.
The song gained much of this notoriety serving as the opening theme for Chainsaw Man, an anime based on a manga. Focusing on Denji, a young man burdened by familial debt, the series explores his role as a devil hunter who can turn into the titular Chainsaw Man – a transformation with distinctive chainsaws emerging from his head and arms. The series was immensely popular in the United States, especially among young people, and hit an audience demand 10.9 times the average TV series in October 2023 – a year after its release.
The success of “KICK BACK” and Chainsaw Man represents a broader trend happening in the United States: anime becoming more mainstream and raising the popularity of Japanese songs associated with it.
Anime’s Ascension in the United States
Ten years ago, anime was seen as a taboo form of entertainment. However, it has soared in popularity in recent years. In an interview with BuzzFeed Australia, Brady McCollum – then-COO of Crunchyroll – claimed 300 million people streamed anime in 2022. Over the period from 2020 to 2022, global demand for anime content grew 118%. The remarkable increase in attention towards anime worldwide boosted its market size to $22.6 billion in 2020. Looking ahead, this market is projected to nearly double, reaching an estimated $48.3 billion by 2030.
A huge driver of this popularity is the United States, which is believed to be the biggest market for the medium outside of Japan. More than 55,000 people attended the Anime New York City Convention – up from 22,000 in 2017. A similar event called Anime Expo in Los Angeles brought in more than 115,000 fans. These are fans willing to buy merchandise, including DVDs/Blu-rays, collectible figures, posters, clothing, manga volumes, and exclusive art pieces. Such events and demand have the US anime merchandising market poised to expand to $1.2 billion by 2030 from $365.7 million in 2022.
Americans have also flocked to theaters for anime. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 – released in 2022 - had a sensational opening weekend with gross revenue of $17.6 million, making it the second-most popular movie behind The Batman. It became the fourth highest-earning Japanese film in the United States. Similarly, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train made over $19.5 million in its opening weekend in 2020, setting a record for the best opening for a foreign-language film in North America.
One of the reasons for this growth in interest in anime was the COVID-19 pandemic. People were indoors constantly during lockdowns, causing widespread boredom. Netflix reported that over 100 million households worldwide chose to watch at least one anime title in 2020, growing 50% year-over-year.
Furthermore, a recent poll found half of anime fans became interested because a friend or family member recommended a title to them. Many people were in contact with family members more during the pandemic. The polling data suggests that in an environment of broad boredom, family members might have recommended something new or entertaining, such as anime, to each other to keep themselves occupied or spend time together.
Another reason for the growth of the anime industry is the increased interest from younger generations. WordFinder by YourDictionary recently found that based on a sample size of 1,000 users, Gen Z has the highest percentage of anime fans, with over 69% stating they watch it, compared to 40% of Gen X and 23% of Baby Boomers. Similarly, another poll revealed the anime fan base in the United States is predominantly male and consists largely of millennials, many of whom were introduced to anime in the 1990s through shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z. This generation is now sharing their love for anime with their children, fostering a new generation of fans.
However, this new generation and the broader public have been hooked to anime through a swath of more recent shows, as opposed to some notable older ones, that have come up over the past decade. Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer – two titans of the current industry – have particularly captured people’s imagination. By some 2021 metrics, Attack on Titan achieved around 60 times the amount of interest of an average series on Netflix and became the most in-demand show on the streaming website in the United States. In a similar fashion, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train became the second Japanese film and second anime film ever to rank #1 at the weekend box office in the United States, behind only Pokémon: The First Movie released in 1999.
Famous musicians have even publicly shown their interest or love for anime. Megan thee Stallion, whose real name is Megan Pete, spoke about being an anime fan, stating in interviews she watches shows such as My Hero Academia and Assassination Classroom. She harnessed this passion through collaboration with Crunchyroll on an anime-inspired clothing collection inspired by her song “Savage.” Similarly, Lady Gaga also announced a clothing collection with Crunchyroll to celebrate her sixth studio album Chromatica. Ariana Grande has a tattoo of Chihiro – a beloved character from the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Companies have noticed the reasons pulling an assortment of people into anime and invested heavily in it. During the AnimeJapan convention in Tokyo, Netflix revealed it would launch 40 new anime titles in collaboration with Studio Colorido in 2022 alone. In a similar fashion, Netflix and Japan’s Nippon TV recently agreed to a new deal that will allow the streamer to add 13 popular anime titles to its platform, including Hunter X Hunter, Monster, and Death Note.
Likewise, Sony Pictures Entertainment acquired Crunchyroll, one of the largest American-based anime streaming services, for $1.2 billion from AT&T in 2021. They eventually merged it with the platform they already owned called Funimation, creating one of the largest anime streaming services in the world. Disney+ released its own anime-inspired series Star Wars: Visions in 2021, and Hulu launched a hub in 2023 dedicated to animation titled Animayhem, which showcases over 200 anime series. Considering the potential of the industry and estimations, which claim that the average anime show on Netflix costs around $275,000 to $459,000 per episode to make, companies are poised to keep their investment high.
Japanese Music Buoyed by Anime’s Soaring Popularity
Oshi no Ko – one of the most popular anime in North America in the past few years – was released in 2023. The story and characters have captivated audiences like other anime, but the opening song titled “Idol” by YOASOBI has generated immense commotion.
The song gained 300 million total streams within three months of its release on April 12, 2023, breaking Billboard’s Japan record for the fastest single to make the milestone. Among all audiences, the music video has grossed 382 million views on YouTube – higher than even “KICK BACK." Most strikingly, it ranked #7 on the US Billboard’s Global 200 chart. Such feat marked the highest ranking a Japanese artist has ever achieved in the chart’s history.
In a similar fashion, SiM’s “The Rumbling,” the opening theme for the second part of Attack on Titan’s final season, reached #1 on the US Billboard's Hot Hard Rock Songs after releasing. It was the first time the Japanese alternative metal band had made it to the list. Though released earlier in the 2010s, Ling tosite sigure’s “unravel” - opening theme for Tokyo Ghoul – had more total monthly listeners in the United States than Japan at one point.
For many listeners of Japanese music and artists in the United States, anime was the introduction to the songs they are playing on repeat. It is no coincidence the opening themes coming from popular series such as Attack on Titan, Oshi no Ko, Tokyo Ghoul, and Chainsaw Man became staples of Japanese music in the United States.
Shunsuke Muramatsu, CEO of Sony Music Entertainment Japan (SMEJ), acknowledged this power of anime in bringing songs to audiences, claiming that the global popularity of anime can serve as a gateway for Japanese artists in bringing their music to wider audiences around the world. Even Yonezu recognized this strength as a gateway in an interview about his RIAA gold certification, saying “[the song’s gold certification] is all thanks to Chainsaw Man.”
Yonezu's skillful musicianship played a key role in the success of "KICK BACK" in the United States. However, the rising popularity of anime series like Chainsaw Man also significantly contributed to drawing attention to such songs. Japanese artists aiming to gain international recognition, especially in the United States, should consider the potential of linking their music with popular anime. This strategy not only aids in initial exposure but can also help in building a devoted fanbase in America, independent of the anime context.
Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.