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Love, Death & Robots’ team wants more adult American animation — and anime is helping

Kung Fu Panda 2’s Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Deadpool director Tim Miller on embracing edgy, violent cartoon stories

a man surrounded with blood wielding a sword Image: Netflix
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Netflix’s anthology series Love, Death & Robots returned for a third installment on May 20 in all its edgy, red-band glory. It’s like nothing else in animation right now: Each episode tells a different, self-contained story ranging in tone from crass comedy to dark drama. None of the shorts shy away from gritty, hardcore elements: blood and guts, nudity and sex, horror and horniess galore. And unlike other staples of adult animation, like Big Mouth or Family Guy, Love, Death & Robots is a genre spectacle, adapting various science fiction and fantasy stories.

Co-creator Tim Miller says he hand-picks the stories from the vast collection of short-fiction anthologies on his Kindle. Miller (director of Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate) and co-creator David Fincher (director of Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, and much more) launched the anthology series in 2019, picking a wide variety of directors and studios to work on the shorts. One of those directors happened to be former DreamWorks director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3), who directed season 2’s LDR short “Pop Squad” and season 3’s “Kill Team Kill.” She also serves as an executive producer this season. It might seem strange that the director of Kung Fu Panda 2 pivoted to helping manage a hardcore, edgy anthology, but Nelson tells us that moving into adult animation came completely naturally to her.

“My natural sensibility is very dark, much more adult animation,” Nelson explains. “I grew up on anime. And so for me, animation is not supposed to be just a child’s medium. But that’s been what it’s been mainly in the U.S., especially if you’re going for big-budget world-building stories. When a chance like this comes along, where I can finally stretch into what I want to do, as far as trying to approach stories in a completely full-spectrum way and be free — this is what I actually have always wanted to do.”

In the United States, animation tends to be shoved into a family-friendly, all-ages box. There are exceptions, of course, but big theatrical projects are usually PG affairs. While many animators fight this stereotype, jokes about animated movies being primarily for children continue to persist. But Miller and Nelson want to fight against that stereotype. They feel like the tide is slowly but surely shifting. One big reason? The growing popularity of anime.

a strange blue glowing alien mind Image: Netflix

“I think it’s a generational shift,” says Nelson. “Because when I was starting out, everyone I was working for had never seen anime before. They just thought it was weird. So they didn’t understand it. They didn’t get it. They didn’t want to pay for it. They didn’t want a show about it. You’re preaching to this empty void. Even though things like Akira and Ghost in the Shell were happening, they’re like, Oh, it’s just weird to me. But now everyone’s been online. Everyone’s seen what every other country has. And when you look over there, how come they get to tell those stories and we don’t?”

Theatrical animation does still sway toward family-friendly content. But in the television space, shows are expanding beyond the norms of adult-geared animation like American Dad and South Park. In the streaming world, series like Netflix’s Arcane and Castlevania and Amazon Prime’s Undone and Invincible are pushing genre boundaries, telling serialized stories, and catering to a more mature audience. Not all of them are as hardcore and edgy as Love, Death & Robots, but they tackle more adult themes and center around older characters. That difference alone speaks to how far the medium has evolved since Miller first had the idea for an animated movie for adults.

“David Fincher and I tried to get a new adult animated film on its feet for 10 or 12 years,” recalls Miller. “Despite having pretty much the pantheon of giant Hollywood directors involved and not a large budget, people still weren’t willing to take the chance. And now Netflix […] they have so much adult animation on there. They’re building, and that just begets more fans of adult animation. I think the snowball is truly and firmly rolling down the hill now, here in the West. There’s been an avalanche in Asia for a while now. We’re just catching up. We’re slow.”

The third season of Love, Death & Robots is out on Netflix now.

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