The Old West

by Justin Sevakis,

I'm crankin' on a lot of discs over here, so let's just cut right to the chase this week.

ConfigSpace asks:

Given the recent news about Ben-To and what happened with Nura and Sakarea, and how you had previously mentioned using master tapes that appear to have been setup for broadcast as disc masters, if I understood you correctly, how often is this actually occurring? I'm glad Funimation is being proactive about this. But are other publishers even aware of what they're getting? Sentai had previously gotten a mix of broadcast episodes for the first season of Koihime Musou and Bandai had used the broadcast version of Sora o Kakeru Shoujo for the US home video release.

To clarify the question, what's been happening is this: there's a TV version made in Japan, and then a revised version is made for Japanese home video release. Mostly these versions improve on animation that was rushed out the door to make it in time for TV broadcast. In the case of fanservice-heavy shows, these home video version often, shall we say, "enhance" the experience, sometimes slightly beyond what most TV broadcasters would feel comfortable showing. Then a US distributor gets the rights, asks for the masters, and puts the show out, unaware that the masters they have are the original, less desirable TV versions.

This happens ALL THE TIME, and has happened for decades. Just to pull some examples out of the distant past: Bandai Entertainment was never able to get the extended "Director's Cut" version of Escaflowne. Right Stuf never got the version of His & Her Circumstances with one particularly tasteful scene re-animated to be slightly less tasteful. Central Park Media only ever released the TV version of Maze: The Mega-Burst Space with less nudity. The list goes on and on and on.

It's hard to say who's to blame in scenarios like this. Western publishers can (and often do) build stipulations into the contract that the licensor HAS to give them the "final" or "home video" version of whatever show. Unless some fan online somewhere has already done the leg work to compare the TV version from the home video version, the publisher pretty much has to take the licensor at their word. ("This is the final, uncut, home video release, right?" "Of course it is!") Unless the publisher has literally taken the masters and watched them alongside the Japanese home video release -- and in the overworked-and-underpaid world of anime production nobody has time to do that -- they're none the wiser unless someone online has tipped them off. Also, since HDCAM SR decks cost tens of thousands of dollars (and playing back the tapes can wear them out and cause drop-outs), casually sitting there and watching them is generally not an easy option.

The US publishers are getting better at spotting when they got the TV masters, thanks in large part to the work of obsessive fans posting about the differences online. Anime companies find these reports and compare them to what they got from the licensors. The unfortunate part is, since their work often starts well before the Japanese discs get released, production can get quite far along before any red flags get raised. And that's a problem. It happens all the time, where a dub and/or formatting is almost complete, and then everything has to stop because someone somewhere discovered that the wrong masters were being used.

Many times, all of this is happening so far behind the scenes that fans have no idea any of this drama happened. Ben-To was supposed to come out in only a month, so for Funimation to delay it now, you can bet that those discs were already pretty much done, and possibly already at the replication plant. Funimation definitely took a loss in pulling them at the last minute like that.

As for why they keep getting the wrong master tapes? Sometimes it's malice -- the Japanese publishers are always reluctant to let the overseas release of an anime be as good as the far more expensive Japanese versions. Sometimes it's ignorance -- sometimes the animation is revised and delivered straight to the Japanese home video publisher without the international sales office even knowing about it. The practice of revised animation makes everything much more confusing on the home video end, and far too often, the people involved in international release have no idea when it happens. This is one area where fans can definitely help, but the sooner they do it, the better.

Frubam asks:

When these Japanese anime voice actors[actresses] come to an US anime convention, do they take a translator with them? I'd imagine it'd be pretty scary coming to a country you've (probably) never been before, without even knowing how to speak the language. What does the voice actor/actress actually think about it? Is he/she just doing it because he's/she's told to by his/her agency or does he/she express interest in going? And how does the convention staff decide on who is popular or notable enough to warrant an admission for a specific VA? I mean, I'd imagine its hard to even know how the US fans perceive his/her, at least from VA's perspective(or his/her agency, if they are the ones that set this up). I'd appreciate a little insight on this.

It can definitely be a little intimidating to visit America when you don't know any English at all (or barely remember the crappy English you learned in high school). But it can also be a dream come true: America is a land that most Japanese (and indeed, most people in the world) only get to see on TV and in movies, so getting to see the real thing, particularly in a famous city like New York or Los Angeles, can seem extremely glamorous. For a lower-level voice actor or other guest, an invitation to an American convention can seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After all, the convention (or sometimes, a sponsor company like a US publisher) pays for everything!

That said, not everyone jumps at every chance to do an American convention. Some are scared of flying. Others have internalized too much bad TV news and consider all of America to be terrifying and dangerous, what with the guns and the gangs and the terrorism. The West Coast of the US can seem much easier to travel to (it's the difference between a 10 hour flight and a 16 hour flight, and 3 extra hours of jet lag -- which is a lot to ask when you'll literally only be in town for a weekend). Anime cast and staff often talk amongst themselves, and if someone they know had a good or a bad time at a particular convention, that can definitely sway someone's decision. That, whether or not your schedule allows you to take the time off to travel, and the input of your management, are all things that Japanese guests must take into account.

Well-run conventions make the process as easy as possible for their guests. The convention picks them up from (and deposits them back at) the airport, they are chaperoned to tourist spots of their choice whenever they're not making appearances, and every meal is paid for. The chaperons usually know enough Japanese to get the guest what they want or need, although occasionally you get a weird one: some chaperons are a little too big of a fan, and get a little territorial and creepy. Most guests have a good time. But it can be a little stressful: if something goes wrong and you miss your connection or something, I can only imagine the panic of being stuck in an airport, unable to speak the language and unsure of anything you're supposed to be doing.

Not all people travel well. I've heard stories about Hayao Miyazaki literally packing instant ramen before traveling to New York City to promote Princess Mononoke years ago. Other guests have called their chaperons in the middle of the night asking how to use a hotel vending machine. Some are gigantic prima donnas. The entire field of guests of honor at conventions is one fraught with hushed stories of nightmare scenarios, most of which never get out in public. There are bad guests, bad conventions, and a whole lot of really nice great times with good people to be had, which don't make for good stories. I'm guessing in the real world, there's mostly the latter.

Edgar asks:

In your most recent column you answered how anime producers and distributors are the ones with the last word and how anime studios end being but hired staff for them. Does this mean that they can influence the outcome of a show in terms of story and development? May a company making a show with SHAFT ask Shinbo to refrain from some of his particular stylistic silliness, for example? I'm wondering, if this is the case, how many great anime out there is more the product of the quiet behind-the-scenes producer and not as much of the usually praised animation studio?

Most of it. The animation studio is tasked with making the actual animation, but their duties mostly end there. Creative decisions, story guidance, sponsor demands, and most of the other "big decisions" that go into an anime production are the domain of the producer and planner. The vast, vast, vast majority of traits that anime fans like to credit to the Animation Production company usually can more accurately be credited to (or blamed on) the producer, or his/her's immediate pick of creative staff.

I'm not surprised that Anime fans don't pay much attention to the producer. Most of the time, it's not even altogether clear what company the producer works for -- whoever company is often obscured behind a credit for a "Production Committee" that covers all of the producers and companies that threw money into the production. Looking at the credits, it's impossible to tell, "okay, this was produced by Bandai Visual" or "this was produced by Kadokawa Pictures."

To see who's REALLY in charge of a production, look for the credits "Producer" (プロデューサー) and "Planning" (企画). These are often (but aren't always) the same person: the producer coordinates the requests of the sponsors and original creator, and makes sure everything functions from a business point of view, while the Planning people select and hire the creative staff, drill down on defining the story, and coordinates all the gears to work in synchronicity together. Those guys are the ones calling the big overarching creative shots. The director then coordinates the episode directors, the art directors, character designers, and all of the people who define the look of the show.

At what point, exactly, does the actual animation studio take over? When the actual animation is being done! Some of the top level creative staff do tend to work a lot with certain animation studios, but everybody is freelance. While a particular artist may heavily influence the work that goes on at a particular studio, and often has a desk AT the animation studio, they answer to the director and a producer. The animation studio is there to facilitate the actual drawing and compositing of the animation (and possibly some other pieces of the puzzle, such as editing), and that's pretty much it.

Unlike Western producers, Japanese producers usually are businessmen who haven't gone to film school, and don't feel comfortable telling a director "this scene doesn't work with that music" or "this scene drags and needs to be cut down." Which is nice to a point, but there are definitely times where someone in charge saying things like that might really help.

For more info on job titles within anime production, I highly recommend Jan Scott Frazier's excellent Anime Job Titles glossary.

Marcelo asks:

More than one person (okay, specifically, two persons) have told me some variation of how "useless" it is to feed the R1 market in regards to supporting your favorite anime; that if you really want to make a difference, you should import from glorious Nippon; that American otaku are cheap if they don't import. I've always believed in the notion that you should support the market of your country first and foremost, but I wonder what are your thoughts on this. Is our R1 support "useless" when it comes to keeping a show alive?

This is an old canard that just will not die. The idea of American releases being useless and "real fans" being the ones that import the insanely expensive Japanese releases with no English, plays directly into fanboy notions of exclusivity and elitism. And nothing gives fanboys giant raging boners than proclaiming themselves to be better than other fans.

The thing about this particular story is that it's not true or false, but rather that it's partially true but twisted in a way that doesn't quite hold water anymore. It's true that Japanese disc unit sales contribute a lot more directly to a show's bottom line. Western releases are mostly paid for up front by the company releasing it, so only after (and if) the intiial license fee is recouped does the Japanese producer see money from a US sale (and when they do, it's a lot less money). But that up-front payment isn't nothing (and HAS to be recouped if the American publisher is to license more), and the producers still see sales numbers from overseas releases. Those numbers do make an impact.

There are more than a handful of shows that were made (or had sequels made) specifically BECAUSE of the Western market. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Escaflowne: The Movie, Trigun: Badlands Rumble, The Big O, and more recently Space Dandy were all green-lit based on overseas sales of previous shows, rather than what sold in Japan. But as you can probably tell from those titles, it takes an awfully big hit to move the needle. If I were to make a shot in the dark, I'd say it would take sales in the 5,000-10,000 unit range to really get a Japanese producer's attention when it comes to the US market for a given show. (Of course, that doesn't mean the show broke even, that just means "hey, there's a sizable fanbase for this show in the US!")

But tell me something, what's more likely: 5,000-10,000 fans buying the latest Funimation or Sentai release, or 1,000 fans buying a high priced Japanese import with no English? I would argue the former, by a landslide. Worse, a significant number of American fans buying a show from CD Japan or could easily slip under the radar and go unnoticed, since there's no way to tell those sales from every other unit sold in Japan. Either way, your grand gesture of support is just a drop in the bucket, and open to what could be very wrong interpretation.

What is your end goal in buying anime, exactly? Is it to support the shows you love? Buying the US releases and/or enjoying your anime by legal means is all that's expected of you. Is it to "vote with your wallet" about what shows get made in the future? If that's what you're planning, I really suggest you move on from that notion. It's important to support the shows you love, but no matter what you do to buy your favorite shows, what you do only has the most abstract effect on the business of making anime. As a consumer, you are empowered to support what you like, but you have no control at all over what gets made. There's really little point in wringing your hands over exercising power you don't actually have.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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