So yet another video game re-release has attracted some negative press (I say when no such thing has happened, but can confidently assume it will because that’s just how games are) because it didn’t change enough/ changed too much/ was overpriced/ came out too soon/ was delayed too long/ wasn’t ported to PC/ came out only on PC/ was published by Konami, and I can’t help but feel a little jealous of gamers’ “problems”. See, I’m an anime fan, and when I see video games constantly getting re-released, ported, and just generally preserved, I can’t help but think, “Why can’t we have that?” Why can’t classic anime series see re-releases, and collection bundles? They certainly need them.
In anime, at least in North America, the release timetable is pretty hard set. In the first 4-6 years of a show’s creation we get a varying number of DVD releases depending on popularity. Shorts are hardly ever released at all. Niche shows are lucky to get a dub. A less known series will get released one 3-episode disc at a time until the whole series is done, and then a full season discount edition. Popular shows start off with the 3-episode discs, then get 2 half-season collections, then a full-season box set, and then maybe an Anime Legends or S.A.V.E. release somewhere down the line. And, finally, Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Monogatari franchise require spreadsheets to figure out the cheapest way to Frankenstein different releases together so you get every episode. All of this happens in the first 4-6 years, after that the official stuff just stops and the market becomes a place for resales and pirates.
The problem here, from my perspective as a fan, is the preservation of older anime. Most of the stuff made these days is pretty safe from the passage of time thanks to the rise of digital distribution and storage, and online streaming, but you don’t have to go that far back to start feeling kinda sad about this. Even shows made as recently as 2007 are in short supply these days. I picked up season two of Code Geass a while back when I found it at a nice price, but still haven’t watched it because I haven’t been able to get the entire first season of Code Geass. It’s not like Code Geass isn’t popular enough; while it never reached the same status as Attack on Titan or Death Note, Geass was an anime that ran on Adult Swim in the US, and had a decent non-otaku following. Yet already it has become fairly rare in the English market. That said, Code Geass is only a problem for collectors; it’s not a show we’re on the verge of losing.
I’m not going to bring up that statistic about how 50% of films made prior to 19XX are lost forever, partly because on-campus internet is crap and I’m having DNS problems right now, and partly because, while that’s kind of an eye-opening statistic to know, it’s not really a premise. Instead, I’d just like to talk a little bit about a few specific anime which we are on the verge of losing.
Urusei Yatsura is a comedy/romance anime, based on a manga written by Rumiko Takashi, who you probably know as the creator of Ranma ½ and InuYasha. She is one of the most financially successful mangaka ever, and Urusei was her first major work, showcasing her style or romance and comedy that she is now known for.
This show has been on my list since I first saw it for one reason. I really like the animation. It’s not good in the sense of fluidity and detail that we look for in modern animation, but I’ve always simply loved the look of older, cell animated works, graininess and all. And having run from 1981 to 1986, Urusei has just that. The story, on the other hand, isn’t anything special, and the writing feels like an early version of Ranma or InuYasha, that is to say, it’s not particularly good.
The story is about a humanoid alien race called the “Oni” who come to earth and agree not to blow it up if the main character, Ataru, can beat their princess, Lum, in a game of tag within one week. With this structure the show actually does well for itself, and produces some good romantic scenes. Had it been a short series, limited to maybe twice this time frame with the better of the later elements worked in, it might be genuinely good. But you know that “one week” thing? Yeah, the whole series is just under 200 episodes, and the vast majority of its runtime is about school romance hijinks that take place after that week.
Regardless of the quality of the anime, it definitely has had a long lasting effect on the anime and manga mediums as a whole, whether good or bad, and is a significant piece of anime history. Most romance anime will have a scene or a gag that can in some way be traced back to Urusei, which is why it’s a shame that it’s nearly impossible for an Anglophone fan to find. The TV series was only ever released subbed in North America, and the manga only had the first 9 volumes translated before VIS Media gave up on it. Of that limited release, it’s nearly impossible to find even one scrap of English Urusei material.
Still, it wouldn’t be hard for a localization studio to get a new license on this and at least give it a subtitled release. I’m not sure who actually would have ownership rights of this content, but the manga publisher, Shogakukan, Rumiko Takahashi, and studios Pierrot and Deen are all still around, so at least one of them could probably still license it.
Go Nagai is a creator who needs no introduction. This great mangaka is probably tangentially responsible for some aspect of every single anime you can name off the top of your head. The man completely changed the demographic of the industry. With Devilman he showed anime can be violent, with Cutey Honey he showed it can be sexy, and with Mazinger Z he created the entire mecha genre. You can throw a dart in Akihabara and thank Go Nagai for whatever it hits. So why is it so damn hard to find most of his work?
Mazinger is actually interesting here, as it’s the only anime I can think of that actually has had a modern re-release. It was given to us as recently as 2014, but still had no English dub. Despite the fact that Nagai is a well-known figure in anime history, pretty much everything else he made is pretty hard to come by. I’ve been trying to add his work to my collection for years, but so far I only have one OVA to show for it.
Finally, the anime that spurred me to write this, Magnetic Rose. I won’t go into detail about the story of this anime out of respect for it. It is an absolute masterpiece of storytelling, technical animation quality, and smart direction, and if you can get your hands on it, you need to watch it. It is one of if not the best 44 minutes of anime ever produced. But you probably can’t get your hands on it.
The short film was released in 1995 as part of the anthology Memories, containing three animated films in total. While the other two, Cannon Fodder and Stink Bomb, showcase similarly impressive animation, they are not significant beyond that. But Magnetic Rose is something special. And of course, this was the only release the movie ever got, and, in keeping with our trend here, it’s sub only. What’s more, it’s rare and expensive, to the point where I simply cannot find a subtitled version most places, and where I can it’s selling for upwards of $100.
If we are to take anime seriously as an art form, we must protect its art and history, and Magnetic Rose damn well is a piece of art, one that could soon be forgotten. It, or Memories as a whole, desperately needs to be released today, just to keep this art alive.
So why don’t re-releases happen in anime? Well I certainly can’t say for sure but I can note some factors that definitely aren’t helping. Firstly, it’s a licensing thing. The typical anime license lasts for seven years, with a conditional license of 2-5 years. This also includes the time studios spend on dubbing or localization, so the actual release timeframe is more like six years. After that, if they don’t renew (which they don’t have much reason to, because most of the sales have already been made by then) then the license expires and it’s unlikely any studio will pick it back up. Why? Because this is compounded by a market thing.
I may be wrong here, as this is the only aspect of this article I can’t just research, but I get the impression that anime fans in general aren’t particularly interested in older anime. After a few years, most shows seem to become exclusively of interest to enthusiasts of that particular show or a studio or staff member who made it, and people like me who actually write about this stuff and have to watch certain things to stay informed. The vast majority of anime fans are really only interested in what’s new, what’s coming out now, which really puts a damper of DVD releases in general because simulcasting always has a good lead on them. Again, that’s just my sense of the market. So what studio would want to put resources into obtaining the license for an older show, making sure it’s safe for the market (ie. no 16-year-old titties, because ADV Films apparently didn’t realize they were supposed to change that in dubs back in the day) and putting it out there when the money is in what’s new?
While these are mostly out of our control, there’s another factor I think goes into it. Perception. Now, this one is on shaky ground for a number of reasons, but hear me out. Companies, at least the Japanese companies that produce anime, don’t completely forget about at least some of these older series. Look at Dragon Ball Z; it’s quickly gone from an artifact of anime’s past, to a kinda disappointing look at anime’s future (I watched Resurrection of F recently, I’m a little bitter). And that all started with what is essentially a re-release, Dragon Ball Kai. Except it wasn’t a cheap, money grab re-release; the entire Dragon Ball Z series was reanimated using modern techniques and technology for Kai, which probably wasn’t much cheaper than making a whole new show. Why undergo all this cost when it probably would have sold almost as well if they just re-released original Dragon Ball Z? Maybe because they were worried about a backlash of fans calling them greedy for selling something that already made its creators enough profit.
That’s why I get a little bitter at gamers giving companies this exact kind of negative feedback. It’s turned re-release into a dirty word, at least in the gaming industry. Meanwhile, in anime, re-releases are something we desperately need. Anime has more fans in the west now than it ever has before, and for older works, there just aren’t enough prints to reach that audience. We should be encouraging licensing studios to make these shows widely available at reasonable prices.
Otaku often argue whether the anime industry has a future. I don’t really know much about that, but I do know that things tend to stand stronger with firm foundations. Anime’s future would be a lot safer if it protected its history.
Don’t Lose Your Way