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Monday, June 16, 2014

Theory Musing: Is Introducing "NBS Anime" via Licensing a Dead Concept Now?

Today, Discotek Media announced that they would be releasing the 2007 TV anime adaptation of Zombie-Loan, based on the Peach-Pit manga of the same name (which was released by Yen Press), & 2009's Shin Mazinger Z Impact on sub-only DVD this September & 2015, respectively. Personally, I'm pretty neutral about Zombie-Loan as I never saw this anime via the fansubs that came out back when the show was airing, though I do like the opening theme, and I am ecstatic about Shin Mazinger but it has made me think about something: Is the concept of introducing "Never Before Seen" (I'll be using "NBS" for short here) anime via licensing dead here in North America?

Think about it for a moment... We live in "the future". Nowadays the combined efforts of sites like CrunchyRoll & FUNimation are offering close to every new anime that gets made each season, though some do slip through the cracks, and adding on sites like Hulu, AnimeSols, Daisuki, & Viki showcases that even a number of "catalog" titles are now getting their first official & legal English-subbed offerings. The sheer idea of such a thing existing even just ten years ago was considered ridiculous, absurd, & impossible to ever happen. Back then, anime fans either went for fansubs to get their immediate fix or prayed for an official home video release via licensing; streaming has lead to a much weaker fansubbing presence now & lessened a "need" for home video. When one thinks about it, though, what does that mean for anime on home video? What exactly are we getting?

For most companies, like FUNimation, Sentai Filmworks, Aniplex of America, & Viz Media, the focus is on bringing out the newest titles that have gotten an audience via streaming, alongside the occasional license rescue of an older title that has since become known as a "classic" (or was simply part of a larger package deal). Meanwhile, companies like Discotek, Right Stuf (via their Nozomi & Lucky Penny labels), Media Blasters, & Maiden Japan (let's ignore the whole Section 23 talk for now) focus now more on license resuces of what could be considered "cult classics" & bringing over titles that were skipped over the last time. Now I wonder if any readers are thinking, "Well, if these companies are bringing over stuff that was never licensed before but has some age to them, then isn't that introducing "NBS Anime" via licensing?" My answer would be both "Yes" & "No".

I say "Yes", because some people just never watched fansubs & for them these licenses are "brand new" or "NBS". Licensing titles like Uta-Kata, Zombie-Loan, Black Jack TV, Cutie Honey, or Space Adventure Cobra are cool & well worth supporting, since it can let these kinds of titles gain a potentially larger audience. Also, licensing costs are much, much cheaper than they were ten years ago during "the bubble", so it costs much less to bring these titles over now than it was back then. I say "No", though, because there is one thing to consider about all of those titles I listed just now: They were all previously fansubbed in the past. Even if only so many people saw them via fansubs, it still meant that there were people who had previously seen these titles & could therefore recommend them to others when the license finally happened. Also, licensing companies knew that these titles were fansubbed & therefore could actually gauge some sort of potential sales. It may be "NBS" to one group, but it's still known to another group.

"But what about the licenses of stuff like the Dr. Slump movies? Or Casshan TV? Kyatto Ninden Teyandee?!", some might be asking (if you really are, then that's freaky...). Sure, those are examples of anime that were either never fansubbed or only partially subbed, at best, but to offset that factor was the fact that all of them were still known to many anime fans. Just about every big fan of Dragon Ball has at least heard of Dr. Slump, we've received other versions of Casshan/Casshern in the past, & all you need to tell someone about Teyandee is that Samurai Pizza Cats was made from it. You can even stretch that to licenses of titles like the original Mazinger Z, the original Devilman anime, or even the Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams CG "movie" that Media Blasters released a few months back. All of them at least had a notable name behind each of them, making licensing them (slightly) less of a risk.

So, what would I categorize as "NBS Anime" then? Well, how about Ghost Sweeper Mikami TV or Matchless Raijin-Oh? Sure, Manga did release the GS Mikami movie back in the 90s & very early-00s, but the TV series was more of a case of "We know of it, but that's all", while Raijin-Oh was an anime that had never been fansubbed before & was only known to either uber-hardcore mech fans or big fans of the Super Robot Wars series, since the series was represented in both GC/XO & Neo. When Sentai licensed GS Mikami TV it was looked at with a general response of "Why?", while Anime Midstream's extremely slow release of Raijin-Oh has been looked at with a constant response of "Wait, Anime Midstream still exists?!" Still, these are two series that were essentially unknown to anime fans over here, & they were introduced over here via licensing, much like the days of old 10+ (even more like 15+) years ago.

So why has the Zombie-Loan license in particular gotten me thinking about this? Well, it's been seven years since that anime ran on Japanese television, and even with the manga having been released over here it's not really talked about or celebrated; at least Shin Mazinger is championed by its fans. That's not a knock against the title by any means, but it does seem slightly like a "NBS Anime", except for the fact that it's been fully fansubbed for (7) years & the original manga has been fully released over here. It's not exactly an example of a company licensing an anime because the manga was a giant hit, but rather a case of a company wanting to give an anime a chance it didn't get in the past, even if it doesn't quite have a strong (branding) name behind it. But what exactly makes Zombie-Loan worth licensing & releasing on sub-only DVD instead of something that wasn't even given an English translation at all?

For example, at my Great Anime We'll (Probably) Never Get panel at AnimeNEXT I showed a clip from episode 1 of Hareluya II BØY, which only saw its first three episodes fansubbed years ago (and not well, at that) & has never seen an official DVD release anywhere, even Japan. Giving it an attempt at translation myself, of which I am not trained at all to do, I received a very surprising reaction: Entertained laughter & roaring applause when, after the "Hallelujah Chorus" finished playing, I stated "You're Welcome" (which itself was meant to be a sort of inside wrestling joke to Anime World Order's Daryl Surat, who was in attendance at the moment). The con-goers who were at my panel looked to be really into the scene I showed; they loved Hareluya's cockiness & his dream of "World Domination". In fact, Gerald Rathkolb, also of AWO fame, liked it so much that he told me that he really wanted to see more of the show. In essence, what I did was something that is rarely seen nowadays: I introduced anime fans to a true-blue "NBS Anime". Without trying to sound cocky, I'm sure that if this anime had some sort of English translation, maybe even an official release, I might have gotten some people interested in buying it, or at least watch it streamed.

So, why exactly is this concept dead now? Well, to ruminate a theory here, I think it's mostly due to hesitation & fear. Back in the early days of anime licensing for home video, the companies were the main way, possible even the only way, for fans to get introduced to titles. When fans started subbing titles themselves, then the companies became more of a way to watch them in better quality, with the occasional "nice find" done by them, like ADV's original license of Princess Nine (which wasn't fansubbed & no one knew of at the time). When fansubs got better, both in translation & video quality, then companies started going off of what was gaining momentum via fansubs more often than not (though they would rarely admit such). Now, with simulcasting, the companies that do streaming are, once again, the way fans get introduced to titles, but what about the titles that don't get simulcasted? Sure, a title like Demon Prince Enma Burning Up! might get lucky & still get licensed without getting simulcasted, but that's a rare thing to see happen now. Even if titles like Showa Monogatari, Hyouge Mono, & Marvel Disk Wars: Avengers have either been fully fansubbed or are getting fansubbed right now, there's no guarantee that they may ever see official release, like what happened with JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. And what about titles that have aired in the past 4-5 years & have still not seen any sort of English translation yet? What about Wasimo, Yasuhiro Imagawa's return to directing after Shin Mazinger? What about a personal favorite of mine, Ring ni Kakero 1? In fact, RnK1 is a perfect example of what I mean by "hesitation & fear".

At Otakon last year I found a quick opportunity to talk shortly with Selby Johnson, the head of Discotek Media, at the Dealer's Room. At that point they had just released the Saint Seiya movies from the 80s across two DVDs, but were not going to release the TV series due to Cinedigm's announced license. I decided to ask Selby about, in place of Seiya, maybe trying his hand at Masami Kurumada's other works, specifically Ring ni Kakero 1, which has relative recency behind it, or B't X, which has a partial dub & a previous attempt at market penetration behind it. Yes, B't X failed both as a manga & anime over here, but it's not like Discotek is foreign to the idea of giving failed names second tries, as they've become the de facto Lupin the 3rd company & are willing to release titles like Mad Bull 34 and, recently announced, Violence Jack. Selby's reaction was visibly one of hesitation & audibly one of "Uhhhhhh" for a few seconds before going with a resounding "Probably not". When I pressed slightly & asked for a reason Selby's answer said it all: "Because it's Seiya, you know?" Selby wasn't exactly releasing those Saint Seiya movies because he wanted to try out some other Masami Kurumada titles, like what he's doing with the Dr. Slump movies, but rather Selby knew that Seiya was all people talk about when Kurumada's name is brought up, and he wanted to give that specific series a new try here in North America. This also extends to a streaming sites like CrunchyRoll, who offers the Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas anime adaptation, Saint Seiya Omega, & in Latin America & Spain is now offering the Saint Seiya Hades OVAs. Essentially, if it's not called "Saint Seiya", then it's apparently not worth giving even a first look at, even if it's from the same creator... And that's not right.

To be fair, I can't hate on Selby for giving the answer he gave me; in fact, I highly respect that kind of honesty from someone in the industry. What it does showcase, though, is that anime companies over here are still afraid to really reach into the darkness; the "void" of titles that don't have some sort of previous name recognition. In other words, even a company like Discotek, who has seemingly made a viable business out of releasing a mix of old cult-classics & more recent fare once in a while, "plays it safe". It's a lot of work to license something anime fans don't already have some sort of familiarity with, even if it's only through a vague knowledge of the name, & get them interested in it. Even though I put Ghost Sweeper Mikami TV down earlier as a "NBS Anime", it still had that prior name familiarity by way of Manga's release of the movie more than a decade ago. In comparison, Anime Midstream admitted with (seeming) pride that they entered the anime industry with the intent of bringing over titles that people may not have known about; titles like Matchless Raijin-Oh. From a business/economics perspective, Jimmy Taylor & Anime Midstream are idiots who think that they can release something that's absolutely unknown, with essentially no real promotion, and hope to see some sort of success. Well, we don't know how "successful" the company is, but they've been releasing a new DVD once every year & will be releasing the second half of the anime as one big boxset sometime this year... Once they get that last bit out into the hands of the (few) people who have been buying each DVD (*raises hand*), then I'd call that a "success".

Look, I understand the power of the "Almighty Dollar", and I'll be the first to admit that if I was to ever start my own company for the sake of licensing anime (& other foreign media) I would/should/could be called "the worst businessman in the industry" because I would focus on trying to bring over titles that aren't as well known & deserve a chance at gaining some sort of audience (though I would, at least, try to offer some sort of streaming option alongside home video). Still, I do feel that the North American anime industry may have lost it's sense of "adventure"; it's penchant for "being different". One could even say that this industry may have become "domesticated", where it's perfectly fine with doing what it's become acclimated to. Sure, we get titles like Cobra the Animation & Gifu Dodo!! Kanetsugu & Keiji simulcasted, while "passed over" titles like Akagi, Kaiji, & Champion Joe 2 have been given chances over here, but the chances of titles like these ever being given home video releases are seemingly next to none. These "off the beaten track" titles have become more like a carnival sideshow, and we all know that the sideshow has long since exited its heyday.

I'm in no way trying to say that I have a distaste for the anime industry over here; in fact, I love it & I think it's stronger than it's been in years. Still, we've hit a pretty damn powerful Catch-22: The companies are afraid to take risks because they fear fans won't bite on stuff they aren't familiar with. At the same time, though, fans obviously won't buy this kind of stuff if the companies won't even offer them in the first place.

Do you agree with this theory of mine? Do you vehemently disagree with it? Great! Say your side, because that's what these "Theory Musing" posts are all about.


  1. Count me amongst the people that bought each Rajin-Oh discs as it was released. Got all five here and I'm waiting for the final five box set. BTW, great having you at AnimeNEXT. Your panels are always welcome.

  2. This article was really interesting and a bummer all at once. I have championed Discotek personally for being the company to take a risk on some of the unknown titles. But as you say it's still been few and far between that they have dived deep on an unknown title. It'd be cool if Selby himself did that with a title that he really wants to see come out. Like you If I were in his position I don't think I could resist. Maybe he has already done it but if not he totally should.

    I'd release Kaiji in an instant If I could. Now it's on Crunchyroll I hope my wish may come true anyway.

    I definitely sense the Catch 22 at the moment although there have been some rays of light. Aforementioned Discotek and Nozomi still are looking to surprise. Yakitate Japan was a brave move for Right Stuf and I really hope it works well for them. I'm looking forward to it alot.

    NIS America did have the element of surprise at one point. Seems those days are over though but maybe they'll return. Sentai's release of GSMTV really felt like a title that someone there (probs David) really wanted to put out as a personal motive rather than a business one.

    I hope to see more older shows given a chance although imo in 2014 a complete and true NBS license even without minimal fansubbing is close to impossible. If only for the fact that alot of stuff out there of any moderate interest to Anime fans has been looked at for fansubbing at least and that will only continue as we go forward.

    A few pure (no fansubs) NBS Licenses I would love would be '2010 Romance and the three Kingoms or Kawamoto's Puppet version' , 'Submarine Super 99', 'Hiatari Ryoko' and 'Queen Millenia TV'

  3. I humbly request your permission to use images from the series Hareluya II Boy on my account at Fanfiction dot net. I make no profit from it, I merely wish to use these images as "front covers" for my fanfiction stories.