While scouring the interwebs today, my good friend Mario posted this article about what had happened to the anime industry. The way it is now isn’t how it was fifteen plus years ago. So Rob Bricken over at io9 wrote up a pretty much straight to the point version of how things came to be and so forth. So hit the jump link below and read it for what it’s worth… And trust me, it’s worth it’s weight in gold.
Come What Anime
I was looking over some of my old anime DVDs and reminiscing and started wondering what happened to anime? Anime used to be HUGE. It used to be on TV after school. We used to gets like ten DVDs released every week, and nowadays we’re lucky to get a box set or two every Tuesday.
I know you used to work at Anime Insider back then, so I figured maybe you could tell me what happened? Why doesn’t anime sell like it used to?
Oh, boy. You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this question (in “Postal Apocalypse,” I’ve answered it in other formats before). But I love talking about it because I was there; I watched the anime industry go from this massive, thriving, city-sized blob monster screaming “Kaneda!” over and over again, to the complete destruction of Neo-Tokyo, as it were.
Let’s start in the late ’90s, early ’00s. Anime is huge, in video stores and on TV. Shows like Dragonball Z, Pokémon, and Gundam Wing have toys in toy stores, more than a dozen anime DVDs are released every week, there’s are many U.S. anime companies, and they’re all riding high, releasing basically the last 20 years of Japan’s finest anime TV shows, movies, and OVAs at their leisure. But there’s not an infinite supply of great anime; just like any entertainment medium, there are good shows, mediocre shows, and crap — lots and lots of crap. For the first several years of the American anime boom, U.S. licensors got to pick cream of the crop, and what they sold sold well. But eventually the well ran dry, and the only good shows became the 2-3 new ones that appeared each season — but at this point the U.S. anime industry was still a machine that had 5-10 releases a week. What to do?
Well, the smart thing to do would have been to admit you no longer have the same quality or quantity of product, and scale back your business and your projected sales accordingly. But U.S. companies were making a lot of money and didn’t really want to stop, and Japanese anime companies — who the U.S. companies had to pay for each anime license — were also making lots of money, and they especially didn’t want to stop earning these massive piles of effectively free money, reality be damned.
So here’s how it broke down: Based on the inflated sales of the early boom, Japanese companies demanded the same high price for an inferior product — for a not-necessarily real example, demanding to be paid the same for the RahXephon license as they did for Evangelion. RahXephon isn’t bad, but it had no chance in hell of coming close to matching Evangelion in sales. Now repeat that with pretty much every single anime series released after 2005 or so. The Japanese, wanting to match their initial revenues, overcharged for pretty much everything, and the U.S. companies, both out of wishful thinking and because Japan had a complete monopoly on the source (where else was the U.S. going to buy anime?) paid them. And the U.S. companies lost and lost and lost money until basically two U.S. anime companies survived — Funimation and Viz.
There are other aspects to it. For instance, Bandai and Geneon — owned by Japanese parent companies of the same names — were treated as, to use the financial term, “bitches.” Bandai Japan and Geneon Japan made anime, and not only forced their U.S. counterparts to license them, but to pay massive amounts of money for them, as if they were bidding on it no matter how shitty or inappropriate for the U.S audience they were. Basically, the Japanese companies sucked their American versions dry until they had to close. This is why Geneon released so many terrible, terrible series over its last few years that never had a chance of selling anything in America (Strawberry Eggs, anyone?) — because Geneon Japan forced them to. Same with Bandai Entertainment — I guarantee you they didn’t want to try to release junk like Angel Links, Dan-doh, or Junkers Come Here.
And the Japanese companies could fuck with them in other ways, too. I’ve mentioned before how Bandai Japan forced Bandai Enterainment to pay a shit-ton of money to Cartoon Network to have them air the original Mobile Suit Gundam, because someone in the Japanese office thought he could recreate the entire Gundam franchise from start to finish in America by airing a 22-year-old anime on TV in 2001. I promise you, the guys at Bandai Enetrtainment knew this was a bad idea, but they had no real choice in the matter.
Anyways, back to it: Titles were already selling poorly when U.S. anime fans started realizing that pretty much every other TV series was getting released in reasonably priced DVD box sets, while anime releases came one at a time, with four episodes max, for $30-40 each. These prices were insane, even back in the “good” times, but once anime companies started charging the same thing for the crappy titles, anime fans kept their wallets closed and many of them went online to download the shows illegally. This only exacerbated the problem, obviously.
Nowadays, the U.S. anime market has balanced out. The Japanese know they can no longer charge an arm and a leg for every title, because then there will be no U.S. licensors left. Funimation and Viz are still the leaders, but there are some smaller companies with sensible game plans who can release titles but not destroy themselves — or if they do, it’s by their own mistakes, not because the entire market is artificially overinflated. If you miss those days, I’m sorry, but I assure you this modern scenario was completely inevitable. The only reason that so many companies destroyed themselves while getting to this point is because of greed and self-delusion, on both sides of sides of the Pacific.