Crunchyroll fails to meet industry standards for Closed Captioning

By: Vrai Kaiser March 29, 20240 Comments
Crunchyroll mascot Hime wearing a crown

In 2017, Sony Pictures Entertainment bought a 95% majority share of Funimation Entertainment for $143 million. Four years later, Sony completed its acquisition of Crunchyroll for $1.175 billion, bringing the two companies back together after their partnership break in 2018. The decision cements Crunchyroll-qua-Sony’s place as the largest monopoly in the English-language anime streaming space.

The merger has included the gradual sunsetting of Funimation’s streaming site; all titles that aired after Spring 2022 will be uploaded exclusively to Crunchyroll; while any Funimation-exclusive titles have either been transferred over to Crunchyroll or will leave streaming, and dubbing projects are now carried out under the Crunchyroll umbrella. All of this makes one of the biggest issues with the site even more glaring: with a few exceptions, Crunchyroll does not offer closed captioning for its English dubs.

Crunchyroll ad reading "welcome to the ultimate anime experience'

Why Closed Captions?

Closed captions are enjoyed by a wide spectrum of audiences, from Deaf viewers and those with hearing loss to neurodivergent viewers with auditory processing disorders that can make it difficult to separate and discern different sounds from one another. Speaking from personal experience of the latter, it often means catching some of the dialogue but not all, particularly in cases where dialogue is layered quietly under soundtrack and sound effects, or filtered in post-production. 

In all these cases, closed captions are an indispensable utility distinct from subtitles. While the latter translate onscreen dialogue, the former also note ambient sounds, musical choices, and sometimes tone of voice or other useful context clues like who is speaking if the dialogue belongs to a character who is currently offscreen. Dubbed anime are not always captioned this completely, sometimes only including dialogue and key sound effects, but it’s still enormously helpful. And because dubbed scripts are rarely 100% equivalent to Japanese subtitles, simply turning on the sub track alongside the dub isn’t an ideal solution; but even that stopgap is unavailable, as subtitles for Japanese audio cannot currently be paired with English dub audio on Crunchyroll.

Kaylyn Saucedo, who has worked in closed captioning for anime and live-action titles, noted their importance this way: “Captions are an important accessibility feature not only for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, but to anybody who just likes having them turned on. It has become more necessary over time as audio mixing for shows and films has become more dynamic and oftentimes sound effects are now drowning out the dialogue between characters.” 

Subtitling company and accessibility advocate 3PlayMedia, meanwhile, created an entire list of the practical benefits of comprehensive closed captioning, from allowing audiences to watch in locations with variable sound issues to increasing SEO for the website itself.

Hime opening a clear chest full of treasure

What Closed Captions Does Crunchyroll Have?

No official list of titles currently exists (though there are a few user-compiled ones), but there are a small handful of titles with closed captioning functionality available on Crunchyroll. This is likely because of 2010’s Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which requires closed captions for any online streaming video that has been aired on US television with captions. In practice, that means the list of available programming is limited to a handful of titles from the Toonami block, such as Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia.   

However, even this qualification isn’t applied evenly across Crunchyroll’s catalog. Paranoia Agent, which aired on Adult Swim in 2005, has captions; but the original Trigun (Adult Swim,2003) and its follow-up film, Badlands Rumble (Toonami, 2013) do not. Cowboy Bebop (which ran on Adult Swim in 2001 and in reruns when Toonami was rebranded as a late-night block in 2012) is captioned, but Deadman Wonderland (2012), Food Wars! The Fourth Plate (2021), and Kill la Kill (2015) are not. Soul Eater (2013)? Yes. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2010)? No. The list goes on. There seems to be no consistent approach to the implementation of these mandated captions.

These requirements were acknowledged by Funimation’s streaming service, which included a Help page regarding the CVAA and a point of contact should anyone wish to raise concerns about captioning oversight. All of Funimation’s English-audio videos, as uploaded on, contain closed captions. When their titles were ported over to Crunchyroll, however, these completed and encoded captions were not included. The option to turn on “English Subtitles” in the options menu only translates on-screen text. While much has rightfully been made of the termination of digital copies purchased by users, this significant loss has largely slipped under the radar. Prior to the announcement that Funimation’s site would be shut down, both Crunchyroll and Funimation included a FAQ encouraging customers to switch over from using Funimation to Crunchyroll, noting differences in content insofar as one could watch Funimation’s “most popular” titles on Crunchyroll.  

Stars Align screencap that includes subtitles of onscreen text and spoken dialogue
Stars Align screencap that includes only onscreen text subtitles, not dialogue.
The English dub of Stars Align with closed captions enabled as rendered on Funimation (above) and Crunchyroll (below)

Official Responses to Inquiries

When Sony announced the merger of Crunchyroll and Funimation in 2022, a spokesperson assured the reporters at Anime News Network that closed captioning and other accessibility features were a priority for the site. Two years is a considerable amount of time, and no further official statement has been made. Seeking further clarification, Anime Feminist contacted both Funimation and Crunchyroll for further information, but received no reply. Meanwhile, I emailed Funimation and Crunchyroll’s support lines in a private capacity and received a response there. Funimation’s technical support responded to the February 2024 request with “We’re still working to complete our migration to Crunchyroll, and it’s expected to add more closed captions, dubs, and subbed shows to their catalog.” When asked if existing closed captions would be transferred by the time Funimation’s site closes down, they responded, “At the moment, since we do not have enough information about the release or add the closed captions, I can not provide more information. But do not worry, we are working to get the permissions and improve the experience in Crunchyroll.”

Crunchyroll also responded to the private inquiry, stating that, “I know how important it is for all of our fans to still be able to watch their favorite shows in their preferred ways. While we can’t promise that any specific show will immediately be available for viewing in exactly the same way that you’re used to, we’re committed to making this transition as seamless and enjoyable as possible.”

While these two responses are functionally the same, and understandably somewhat vague given that tech support is run by individuals with no systemic power, the approved corporate response’s conflation of “being able to understand what I’m paying to watch,” with “watching things the way I prefer” is a touch insulting.

app update for crunchyroll promising closed captions are now available in multiple languages
Crunchyroll App update from December 19, 2022

Technical Challenges and Home Video

Hoping to better understand the internal journey toward captioning availability, I spoke with a former longtime Crunchyroll employee. This individual spoke under condition of anonymity, but Anime Feminist has confirmed the details of their employment. They noted that requests for captioning grew in 2017, when Crunchyroll first began adding Funimation titles to its library. “To be clear, it was a very, very small contingent of voices for feedback about this, but I thought it important since accessibility should be a core value of a company like Crunchyroll.”

They continued:

“It was mentioned several times over the years prior to the updated video player (launched in 2018/19) and became a larger issue internally with the release of the first Crunchyroll original released that was produced originally in English, Onyx Equinox. 

“It was always technically possible but there were concerns about setting a precedent that would require too much work.

“Internal excuses were made about it potentially being against some licensing agreements (which is often true but is usually brought up to shut down ideas regardless) but the actual issue was the scope of work. Doing captions for even one show in one language would then necessitate doing it for all shows in all languages lest it get even more backlash, which was a project that no one wanted to take on within the operations team.

“My team had asked many times ahead of Onyx Equinox if we could have English subtitles on the Spanish dub, as we imagined it would be positive for the show’s performance (for a more authentic experience) but that was rejected for the above reason. I cited the fact that since we produced it ourselves, we likely would have to legally have CC for accessibility reasons even though it was on TV, but I was told that only lawyers should worry about legal concerns by my VP.”

The actual work of subtitling is primarily handled through contract work, either Crunchyroll subsidiary MX or the company producing the dub in question. Closed captions are available when a Crunchyroll title is made available on home video, but those captions are not added to the streaming dub following the blu-ray’s release. 

Saucedo was unable to comment on the depth of conversation her employers may or may not have had with Crunchyroll on the subject, but did note that, “shows that I’ve worked on through this same company that have gone to other streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have had the closed captions displayed on those platforms without issue.”

As far as technical limitations, the former Crunchyroll employee stated that the majority of Crunchyroll’s videos are soft-subbed (meaning the video and subtitle track are separate) rather than hard-subbed (meaning the subtitles cannot be separated from the video), which should allow for flexibility in matching subtitle tracks to video. They displayed skepticism at the time it would take to add Funimation’s existing closed captions to [Crunchyroll’s] videos. 

“It’s an affront [to] the anime community that Crunchyroll does not make efforts for accessibility that are quite simple in the scheme of things. There’s no good reason why this can’t be done for most titles, and it’d be better to have exceptions for the incredibly small number of cases where supposedly licensing agreements don’t allow it. Funimation had CC for all of its content, so the sub files exist and would take essentially no time to add, but it would set a precedent that would cause some additional operations work, which is the biggest bottleneck in Crunchyroll. I hope they can fix this.”

Hime cheering about the treasure chest she's found and wearing a crown

The Disability Tax

At present, the only surefire way to have closed captions for a dubbed anime streaming on Crunchyroll is to purchase the physical release. If closed captions exist but only on physical media, this functionally puts the accessibility of titles for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences behind an additional paywall, beyond the monthly subscription fee required to access Crunchyroll in the first place. And while it’s now commonplace for dubs to be offered near-simultaneously to the Japanese release, blu-rays have many additional requirements—formatting, features, art approvals, and more—that delay them for multiple months after a show has completed airing. And while Crunchyroll licenses hundreds of shows, their home video releases since the merger have slowed to a sometimes single-digit number of titles per month. While there have been assertions that this low rate is due to Crunchyroll’s home video releases being moved under the umbrella of Sony Home Pictures Entertainment, there has not yet been any official statements to corroborate this.

The merger has also led to the creation of fewer dubs overall. Prior to being absorbed by Sony, Funimation was steadfast in creating a dub for nearly every show they licensed, partly because Funimation was not in the habit of releasing physical copies of anime in subtitle-only format. While arguments can be made about the feasibility of this practice overall, it meant that captioned home videos became available at a quick pace for most seasonal anime licensed by Funimation. Now, titles without dubs are still highly unlikely to see a home release, meaning ever-larger numbers of titles are under greater risk of archival loss should their licensing agreements lapse in future.

EDIT 3/29/24: Even this, as it turns out, is not a reliable source of preservation or access for closed captions. As multiple commenters have pointed out here and on social media, Funimation’s home video releases no longer provide closed captioning for their dubs, even if those dubs are captioned on Funimation’s website. I’ve confirmed this with several of my recently purchased blu-rays.

the lobby of the Crunchyroll office, which includes a large fake cherry blossom tree

Is Crunchyroll a Place of Public Accommodation?

There remain questions regarding the degree to which Crunchyroll is adhering to the letter and spirit of the CVAA. The law has been slow to catch up to the changes required by online streaming, with only one major case addressing the issue at hand. In March 2011, the National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix over its lack of closed captioning, alleging that Netflix is a “place of public accommodation” and that its lack of closed captioning was in breach of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Places of public accommodation” are privately owned business that are open to the general public, and the ADA requires that they be made accessible to disabled individuals. While the text of the regulation refers to physical buildings, the statement of interest references precedent regarding a travel service which concluded that “Congress clearly intended to ‘include providers of services which do not require a person to physically enter an actual physical structure.”  Id.  The Court also found that its conclusion was consistent with the legislative history of the ADA, given “Congress’s intent that individuals with disabilities fully enjoy the goods, services, privileges and advantages, available indiscriminately to other members of the general public.”’

Netflix sought a dismissal of the case, but the motion for judgment was denied by the US District Court of Massachusetts, making the landmark implication that the ADA does apply to buildings without a physical address. Following the dismissal, Netflix settled with the NAD and agreed to caption the totality of its catalog. This was a major win for what was then the largest streaming library on the internet. Since then, there have been thousands of smaller suits every year across the country, but plans to revisit Title III on a federal level were dismissed in 2017 under the Trump Administration. That means that legal decisions currently vary wildly across the circuit courts. Some agree that online-only services are public accommodations, while others do not. The 9th Circuit Court, which covers Crunchyroll’s headquarters in California, ruled in 2022 that a public accommodation must have a physical location, which is where legal precedent stands at present.

Hime hugging a number "3" with million written in the background
From the announcement of 3 million paid subscribers in July 2020.
As of January 2024, they have crossed 13 million paid subscribers.

Crunchyroll’s Place in the Industry

With the Sony buyout and integration of Funimation, the Sony-owned Crunchyroll has a near-total monopoly on the anime streaming industry. Of the 38 non-sequel premieres of the Fall 2023 season, 34 were licensed by Crunchyroll—almost 90%. In 2011, the year it was sued by the National Association of the Deaf, Netflix’s market share of online film streaming was 44%. Goldman-Sachs projected that by 2036, Crunchyroll would account for 80% of all anime sales in overseas markets. The second-highest number of seasonal licenses go to HiDive (which was acquired by AMC Networks in 2021), which licensed three new premieres and three sequels/continuations in Fall 2023. Netflix and Disney+/Hulu do not reliably license titles every season and generally acquire only one to three new titles at a time.

The other major participants in the battle for seasonal streaming licenses—HiDive, Netflix, and Hulu—offer some form of subtitling/captioning for their English dub catalogs. All three of these companies are of similar size or smaller than Crunchyroll in its current form as a Sony subsidiary. But they are not alone. RetroCrush, a subsidiary of Digital Rights Media that specializes in anime from the 2000s and earlier, offers closed captioning on its dubbed titles. For comparison, all of Digital Rights Media was recently acquired for $16.4 million, including nine other specialty channels. Sony’s acquisition of Crunchyroll cost $1.175 billion.

Free-with-ads streaming service Tubi, which platforms an enormous number of titles that regularly cycles (sometimes on a monthly basis), was the only other streaming service I found that offered both several dozen anime titles and inconsistent captioning. Even then, this seemed to be tied specifically to titles licensed by Bandai Visual, while anime provided by Shout! Studios, Media Blasters, and others all provided some degree of subtitling or captioning for titles.At time of writing, the only recourse for Crunchyroll users who require or desire closed captioning on English-language content (including Crunchyroll Original titles only available in English) is to share homebrew solutions involving notoriously mixed-quality live captioning services.

This state of affairs continues apace as Crunchyroll overtakes a larger and larger share of the market. Sony Pictures Entertainment recorded a 57% increase in profits in 2023 over 2022, for which it at least partially credited Crunchyroll. The site’s subscription streaming app, meanwhile, was the third most-downloaded paid streaming app worldwide in Q3 2023, behind only HBO (nee Max) and Disney+. Crunchyroll generates an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue. And yet it cannot live up to its competitors in even the most basic realm of accessible accommodations, including services that do not have a tenth of its financial success. Forget loftier emotions like shame; Crunchyroll should feel embarrassed.

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

%d bloggers like this: