In the spring of 2009, there was no anime series more anticipated than Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. At that time, when Western anime fans wanted to watch a new show, it was a struggle to find a legitimate and timely way to watch on the other side of the Pacific. Brotherhood changed all that.
Brotherhood, the second anime adaptation of Hiromi Arakawa's dark fantasy manga, is widely regarded as one of the best anime series of all time, holding the number one slot on My Anime List. The series introduced newer fans to the characters and world of FMA, inspired dozens of articles and videos analyzing the series, and perhaps most importantly, Brotherhood was the first major series to be simulcasted through Funimation, instantly establishing the anime distributor as a major player in a new era of anime viewing.
Today, if you want to see the latest episode of One Punch Man, Fruits Basket, or any series this season on the same day it premieres in Japan, all you need is a subscription to a streaming service. For a generation of fans, same-day simulcasting is all they will ever know, however, at the time of Brotherhood's release, legal simulcasting was still a very new concept.
Though Brotherhood was certainly one of the highest-profile anime to be simulcast, it wasn't the first. That distinction belongs to Studio GONZO's Spring 2008 series The Tower of Druaga: The Aegis of Uru, which was simulcasted on YouTube and Crunchyroll. Prior to Druaga, Western viewers relied on fan-translated torrents and Usenet files. While this rampant piracy (six million downloads a week via torrent alone according to a 2007 ICv2 article) was good for fans who wanted to chat about their favorite shows on forums as soon as they aired, it was an untimely problem for the industry. And it didn't need any more problems, as it was already being hit hard by the country's economic recession and oversaturation of the market. GONZO, which had been struggling financially, decided to take a risk and meet fans halfway.
The popular anime streaming service Crunchyroll, then two years old, made a deal with GONZO in a successful attempt to go legit. When Crunchyroll went online in 2006, it quickly became one of the most popular sites on the internet; a place where fans could watch fansubs of their favorite series and talk about it on forums.
Still, many of the Japanese publishers behind these popular anime weren't ready to play ball. Kun Gao, Crunchyroll's co-founder and former CEO, recalled in a 2013 interview how "publishers were reluctant, and didn't see the value in bringing shows online."
Luckily, not every publisher was so skeptical of the internet. TV Tokyo; in late 2008, Crunchyroll made a deal with TV Tokyo to simulcast the extremely popular Naruto Shippuden. VIZ Media made their own deal with the network, one where they would drop eight-episode blocks of Shippuden each week, going back from the first episode until it caught up with the series.
While all this was happening, Funimation was lagging on the online front, despite having been responsible for some novel innovations beforehand. At the time, Funimation was running Funimation Channel, a 24-hour cable channel dedicated solely to showing anime. An all-day anime channel might have been a dream for many fans in the 1990s and early 2000s, but by the late '00s, fans were moving away from watching anime on television and doing so online. With TV Tokyo and Crunchyroll making serious forays into streaming, the pressure was on Funimation to adapt to their oldest and newest rivals, respectively.
They needed to start simulcasting series. Thankfully for the Texas-based distributor, a wave of major reboots of older franchises was in the works, presenting them with the ideal first series to launch their new venture.
In July 2008, a leaked internal document from the Japanese anime studio behind Brotherhood, Studio Bones, leaked, showing their intention to produce a new FMA series. The show's existence was made official a month later on the manga's 20th volume. Fittingly, this new rebooted series promised to stick closer to the original text. Two days before its premiere. Funimation, which distributed the original 2003 series in the west, announced that it would be showing each episode of Brotherhood, the most anticipated title of the year, on its website less than a week after it premiered in Japan.
This was the first time a major series was going to be simulcasted from its opening episode. Shippuden had already been out for a year before the Crunchyroll/TV Tokyo deal, and while Druaga and the other GONZO series were simulcasted from their opening episode, those shows had nowhere near the name recognition of Fullmetal Alchemist, the biggest anime title of the 2000s.
A month later, Funimation announced that they made an agreement with Toei Animation, the Fuji TV Network and publisher Shueisha Inc, to simulcast One Piece, a show as popular as Shippuden. With one of the biggest anime titles in the world in One Piece and the biggest show of the year in Brotherhood, Funimation let it be known they were prepared to be competitive in this new era.
Funimation would eventually lose the rights to Brotherhood, in 2016. If you want to re-watch the series today, you would have to watch it on Netflix or Hulu. Still, Brotherhood's time with Funimation established Funimation as one of the two major players in anime streaming, along with Crunchyroll. The two even joined forces in 2016, sharing their libraries with one another in what was viewed as an attempt to compete with Netflix and Amazon, who were starting to build their own anime libraries. The partnership only lasted two years, with Funimation not renewing the deal.
Ten years after Brotherhood's premiere, Funimation, which was a newcomer to simulcasting just a decade ago, is now making moves to prepare itself for the future. At this year’s AnimeJapan convention, Funimation announced it would forge a partnership with Bilibili, a major Chinese video sharing site, to license anime in China. It's a move that makes good on a promise that Sony CEO Gen Fukunaga made after Sony acquired a majority stake of the company in 2017. Under Sony, the plan was to make Funimation not just a brand known to western fans, but "a global sub and dub anime brand."
With a slew of new streaming services all asking for our money and attention dropping by the end of this year, no one knows what's going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years when it comes to simulcasting anime or Funimation's place in it. What we do now is how it started with Funimation, a company that has done so much in building the western anime fanbase. It started with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, one of the best series of the 2000s and one of the best anime series of all time.