The Mike Toole Show Collect 'Em All
by Michael Toole, Aug 28th 2011
My frustration was mounting. Here's the thing: a few years back, Sunrise created this series called Zegapain. Well actually, the real story is that Microsoft said "Hey, we should have some sort of mecha tentpole for our Xbox 360 in Japan, so hey Sunrise, please help us put together a franchise that we can use to sell video games!" A couple of different insiders have told me that, but I can't verify it - Microsoft isn't in the production credits. Seems believable, though, because there was not one but two Zegapain 360 games in Japan. There were also a few really neat model kits with LEDs that lit up. These nifty video games and toys didn't make it stateside, but the anime did, which tempts me to go off on a rant about how Zegapain was never designed to be a home video-only franchise and was destined to fail without the toys and games, but anyway... the show came out in single volumes on DVD, starting in fall of 2007.
The cartoon is a really pleasant little surprise - it really looks like a cookie-cutter shonen mecha show, but it's a story filled with apocalyptic visions and false realities and quantum computing that reminds me a little bit of Duncan Jones' Source Code. It's not grade A material, but I'd call it a very strong B in my book. My friend, translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman, worked on Zegapain, and pestered me for a couple of years to check it out. I eventually snagged volumes 1 through 3 for a few bucks, and found myself liking the show quite a bit. So I went to order volume 4. Right Stuf didn't have it for some reason. So I shrugged and went to Amazon. "Currently unavailable," the site informed me. Weird, the thing came out in 2008 - you'd expect it to still be around. After all, you can still order Blood: The Last Vampire, and that came out in 2001! I eventually turned up a copy on eBay, but it was $75.00. My frustration simmering, I started asking other people if there was anime they just couldn't find. The answers I got back surprised me.
Of course, I've been cognizant of the fact that certain anime DVDs have completely vanished from store shelves for some time now. In many ways, that was brought on by the major industry shakeup of 2007 - many older Geneon and ADV Films titles are extremely tough to find. Aura Battler Dunbine, one of my favorite older shows, is infamously difficult to complete thanks to its impossibly rare 11th and 12th volumes. Currently volume 12 isn't available via Amazon, but volume 11 can be had for a mere $224.99. Keep in mind that the entire original series, if purchased at retail price, would have cost about $250, and maybe cheaper if you used the coupon below, which fell out of an old DVD today and made me laugh like crazy. Amusingly, a quick search of eBay's expired listings indicates that someone lucked out and got volumes 1-11 for a paltry $90.00. I'll bet they already had 1 through 10! I myself ordered volume 11 via ADV Films' old website during one of their crazy fire sales, getting it for about five bucks. A few weeks later, I moseyed into a closing Virgin Megastore, where I'd spy the spine of a Dunbine DVD poking out of the shelves. Thinking it was volume 1, I plucked it out-- but instead discovered volume 12. It was priced $3.99. "50% OFF LOWEST MARKED PRICE," screamed the signs all around me. I walked out of there with the disc for $2.00. Oh, how I laughed.
There are several reasons why your old favorite might be gone from shelves, or otherwise impossible finish. The industry shakeup that would eventually claim Geneon, Central Park Media, and ADV Films is a big one; two of the three companies had stuff in the pipeline when things started to go wrong, and huge swaths of their back catalog also sank without a trace. Geneon had finished dubbing two seasons of Nanoha when they abruptly shuttered. How to get them to fans? FUNimation stepped up to the plate, but the window for Nanoha closed astonishingly quickly - just two years after the shows finished release, they're impossible to find at retail and priced sky-high in the secondhand market. Popular favorites like Trigun were rescued fairly swiftly, as were not-so-favorites like Gad Guard, but other high profile titles like Ergo Proxy have gotten irritatingly difficult to track down, and forget about finding all of the individual volumes of Card Captor Sakura. One fan on twitter griped about getting the first Hajime no Ippo box set, but the second - released mere weeks before Geneon crashed - never turned up. He was half-convinced it didn't really exist, and I would have agreed if another fan hadn't responded with a photo of the rarity. As for Central Park Media, well... it's all gone, guys. Some of it is easier to find than others - you can still get Gowcaizer for fairly short money, but you'll have to make it rain to get your very own legit copy of Night on the Galactic Railroad.
Sometimes shows don't disappear altogether, but certain volumes slide out of sight, making a complete set nigh-impossible. That's exactly what I was facing with Zegapain-- and brother, Zegapain isn't the only title affected by Missing-disc syndrome. See, the old single-disc model for TV shows has a major flaw - volume 1 always sells the most. From there, it's a case of diminishing returns, as each subsequent disc sells fewer and fewer copies. Naturally, the last couple of discs sell the least, so why print up a whole bunch when you can satisfy most of the demand by printing just a few thousand? That happened with Aura Battler Dunbine, that happened with ADV's bilingual Macross release, it happened with Jojo's Bizarre Adventure and Darker than Black and Key the Metal Idol. My friend Jennifer Fu, who presided over the MIT Anime Club and is still involved with the group, tells me that the club's library has every single volume of Eureka Seven except for 11. "We got most of the series cheaply," she comments, "For like five bucks per volume. But 11 seems impossible - I think there was an error in the original production run. We could just get the brick packs, but to re-buy the whole series for just four episodes... the club's money is better spent elsewhere."
Sometimes your favorite show is released and sells perfectly well, but years later, the license simply expires. That's happened with a large portion of AnimEigo's catalog - old fart favorites Crusher Joe and Arcadia of My Youth have already been out of print for years, and they've lately been joined by the likes of BAOH, Battle Royale High School and Kimagure Orange Road. You can still get stuff like Otaku no Video and Riding Bean cheaply, and frankly, I wouldn't wait! You can get Dan Doh!! from Bandai Entertainment (yes, the golf anime), but certainly not Ronin Warriors - the fan-favorite boys-in-armor title got both a 13-volume singles release and a pair of beefy box sets, but none of them are easily found anymore. You can buy used copies of each disc, but you're going to be out about $250 - not an appealing figure for today's budget-conscious fans. ADV Films and the phoenix from their ashes, Sentai Filmworks, have quietly let huge swaths of their catalog expire, and while the Dirty Pair OVAs and movies have been snapped up by The Right Stuf International, nobody seems to be in a big hurry to dredge up The Five Star Stories or Prefectural Earth Defense Force. PEDF in particular is an odd case - long-rumored to be permanently mired in licensing hell (the late Jeff Thompson loved the show but was convinced that all of the holding companies involved in its ownership had gone out of business), ADV somehow excavated and released it, largely via direct sales and the Right Stuf. Within a year, all of the copies were gone, and that's all you get, fanboy!
There's also the original Evangelion movies, long held up as one of the most overpriced licenses of all time (Manga reportedly paid well into seven figures for the privilege of releasing the films in North America). The famed V for Vendetta guy has griped more than once about the mixed blessing of Manga's End of Evangelion DVD going out of print - to him, the film's disappearance is good because the DVD was of notoriously poor quality, but at the same time, it's certainly not acceptable for such a famous movie to be unavailable to fans. Who will step up to the plate and release the remastered Criterion-quality blu-ray of End of Evangelion that we all long for? I'm not holding my breath. Speaking of blu-rays, we're already seeing waves of BD releases quietly disappearing - it seems like Bandai Visual USA's Jin-Roh disc (essentially an unaltered copy of the Japanese import, right down to the massive and completely untranslated storyboard book) and Bandai Entertainment's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence blu-rays were available for a matter of weeks before falling off of store shelves and resurfacing, at significant markup, on eBay. Actually, pretty all of Bandai Visual USA's release slate is in this boat - but like the other kaput labels, you can get some stuff fairly easy (Royal Space Force, Gunbuster) and other stuff... well, forget about it (Super Robot Wars OG: Divine Wars). You can get the individual Die Buster (Gunbuster 2) DVDs, as well as the compilation movie BD, but the Gunbuster vs Diebuster double feature is just about off the table.
I'm fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of awesome people in the anime business and fandom, so not long after I started publically griping about my lack of Zegapain volume 4, a good friend was able to turn up a copy at a local shop for retail price and snagged it for me. (Thanks again, James!) Volumes 5 and 6 are getting scarce, but I got them without much trouble. In the run up to Otakon, I pestered Bandai Entertainment's twitter account (@bandaient, natch) for details about the disc's lack of availability, and entreated them to search the office couches for any loose copies. I caught up with the company's marketing director, Bob Napton, at the convention itself, and quizzed him on the show's puzzling disappearance. Bob was forthright, explaining that Zegapain wasn't a success and they had to scrap plans for a cheap-o brick re-release. When I asked him why volume 4 was the hardest one to find, even he was a little stumped-- though his theory was that, while there weren't any left at the warehouse, some partner somewhere in the supply chain had to have a cache of copies. Maybe the next wave of cheap Big Lots DVDs will include lots of Zegapain discs.
To round things off, I'll throw out a couple of examples that just stun me-- I mean these ones really stop me in my tracks. First, there's Black Lagoon. Sure, this was part of the Geneon-to-Funimation kerfuffle, so there's probably a mess of red tape behind the scenes-- even so, seasons 1 and 2 got single disc releases, steelbook collection re-releases, and a big-daddy complete set. Geneon and then Funimation flooded the market with the show, a vulgar but well-constructed and extremely accessible action-movie homage. Well sorry guys, it's gone - while it's certainly possible that the show will get re-released, right here and now all you'll get at affordable prices are a few scattered single discs. The other example is Hellsing Ultimate. In fairness, that series has even more crazy red tape - Geneon themselves (the big-daddy Japanese company) has changed hands recently, and there's also been a complete turnover of the show's production studio. Still, we've got eight episodes of this, and until this week, I was completely dumbfounded that only three had been released.
Then someone gave me the bad news: four episodes had been released, actually. "Oh shit,"I thought. "I only have 3 discs!" Quickly I ran to Amazon, where I beheld volume 4 in all its glory, priced at a trifling $65.00 for used copies. A few twitter pals actually pointed out that the UK release is fabulously cheap, but I'm concerned about the old NTSC-PAL-NTSC conversion process introducing jitter and artifacts into my viewing experience. In fairness, the British contingent of anime fandom has had to put up with the kind of crap I'm describing for years, so I guess it's fair enough that they still have cheap, accessible Hellsing Ultimate. Maybe Hellsing isn't the top-shelf brand it was in 2004, but to me it seems like it should be something that fans can acquire if they want to. Even taking the episodes we've got into account, there are still four more Hellsing Ultimate episodes that haven't even been localized yet. Funimation have said that they're waiting on materials delivery, so hopefully it's just a matter of time.
If you love to collect physical media, this little problem isn't going to go away. In fact, it's going to get a lot weirder and more complicated. After all, stuff goes out of print constantly. Paradise Kiss is gone. Kamichu! is outta here. Even as this column goes live, Overman King Gainer is quietly becoming impossible to find. And at the end of September, Urusei Yatsura goes out of print, and gaps in the show's run have already formed. I'm just trying to hustle and get the rest of the OVAs and movies, and I'm not totally sure that's gonna work out. Manga fans have felt this pain for years - I've got my copies of Tokyopop's Cyborg 009 release, but you can't get yours anymore!
One question remains: what are you after? Which prized loose volume, special edition box, or thinpak do you scour convention dealer's rooms and used CD shops for? I'm slightly better-connected than many fans, but even my network of spies hasn't turned up a copy of Galaxy Angel Rune volume 4, a disc I only want because I have the rest of that crummy series, sequel to the superior Galaxy Angel. I'm also looking for Super Robot Wars OG: Divine Wars volume 5, but I don't hold out much hope - those ones aren't even available in the hopelessly overpriced annals of half.com or eBay. So readers, what are you looking for? Sound off in the comments!
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