Will Manga Go Public Domain?

by Justin Sevakis,

No time for an intro today, let's get to it!

Cyrus asks:

The Mangaka of a popular series called Say Hello to Black Jack did what would surely give Alan Moore nightmares. He revealed that the series was now 100 percent public domain per his own wishes. Why did such a bold move fail to make more of an impact on the fairly controlling japanese companies? In the end was this a meaningful occurrence or a one time incident? Is it viable for a creator to follow this path?

While certain people would have loved for this incident to have been the start of something, I think it really was a one-time occurrence that ultimately meant very little.

To catch everyone else up to date, a recap: Shuho Sato had a bestselling hit with his seinen manga series, Say Hello to Black Jack (or Give My Regards to Black Jack), a thriller about medical industry corruption in Weekly Morning magazine -- the title is a cheeky reference to Osamu Tezuka's seminal manga about a rogue unlicensed doctor. It ran 13 volumes starting in 2002, and was a big enough hit to get a TV drama series. In 2009, Sato had a major fight with his publisher Kodansha, claiming that the amount he was being paid for his hit manga was ridiculously low, and that the terms of his contract were unfair. (He didn't even bother drawing a cover image for the final volume, since he wasn't getting paid for cover illustrations.) He then quit the series and continued the manga on his website as "Shin Black Jack ni Yoroshiku". In 2012, he announced that he'd gotten the rights to the original series back from Kodansha, and would be giving it away on his website. He also announced that he was opening up secondary rights, including foreign publishing, film and TV adaptations, and merchandise, to whoever wanted them for free, effectively rendering the series public domain.

Sato is far from alone in decrying the treatment of manga artists by their publishers, and many of the most powerful ones have found ways to wrestle away more control of their work for themselves. They usually do this by legally getting back all of the rights to their work, hiring their own lawyers and agents, and then licensing back JUST the publishing rights to either the same or another publisher for reprints. But Sato had distaste for the entire publishing business, and has chosen to even do that by himself.

Note that he has ONLY released that first Say Hello to Black Jack series to public domain. Not the sequel series, nor his other two big hits, Umizaru and The Isle of TOKKOU. This leads me to believe that there wasn't any sort of idealistic reason behind his move, but perhaps an experimental one. By that time the original series was a decade old and had already been published overseas (though not in English). A TV drama had already been made. Further interest in the series would have been unlikely, but by opening it up, he could call attention to his new series, which despite being given away for free, is not public domain. He's since had a movie made of the sequel series. There is still business to be done this way, and it seems like he's doing it. I'm not in a position to know if it's working for him, but he's keeping on with it.

Regardless, it doesn't appear that there are a bunch of manga artists following his lead. It might suck to work for the big manga publishers, but Sato hasn't yet come up with a viable model that will work for other artists (yet?). So, it's true, nothing's really changed. Only time will tell if he's shouting into the wind, or forging a path for others to follow.

Mp> George asks:

What exactly is digipaint? Why was it so prevalent in anime production during the 00s, and why does it make anime made with it so hard to remaster into HD? Has this product essentially made a part of anime's existence, the 00s, relegated to DVD, never to see on Blu-Ray?

"Digipaint" is a shortened way of saying "digital ink and paint," which is how virtually all anime made after 2000 or so has been made. Rather than the old fashioned way of drawing animation on paper, tracing it onto acetate cels, painting them, layering them on top of painted backgrounds, and photographing them on film, this new method simply involves scanning line art (or drawing it on a computer in the first place), digitally paint-bucketing in all of the colors, and layering everything together in compositing software to create a digitally rendered output of each individual frame of animation.

You hear people muttering about the early digipaint shows because the transition from analog to digital was a pretty bumpy one. It took a few years for animators to figure out how to color things digitally without everything looking ridiculously bright and garish. It also took a lot of trial and error before settling on current software methods for layering and moving all of the layers over each other, and some of those early experiments look pretty terrible today.

A bigger problem is that when you output digital animation, the finished product is generated at a set resolution. There are a specific number of pixels in that final image, and there is no more detail to be gotten out of it, no matter what effects you throw on top of it later. This is a huge problem with shows that were created before everything switched to HD. Most shows were only rendered at 720x480 pixels, which is very low by today's standards. (If it was rendered in 4x3 letterboxed format, it's even less -- 720x360!) This makes remastering early digipaint shows very difficult. Old shows that were shot on film can be re-scanned from the film elements (if they can be found), and a the image quality will be hugely improved: a digital scan in HD can bring out a lot of previously-invisible detail. But digital shows can't really be improved much beyond the quality of their master tapes.

Depending on how that animation was composited, it might be possible to upscale that image to HD (which is 1920x 1080), using software to smooth out the jaggies that normally happen when you try to do that. But some early shows use a bunch of now-outdated techniques that make upscaling impossible to do well.

Now that virtually all anime is made in HD, this isn't such a concern. 1080p is high enough resolution that we're unlikely to need better quality in animation for the foreseeable future (4K video is a nice luxury, but isn't noticeable in most viewing scenarios). But we are left with about a 7-10 year gap wherein a bunch of anime was created with video quality that isn't really very good by today's standards, and there's not a whole lot we can really do about it.

Stan asks:

Hi! So back when many ANN readers were still nestled in their mothers' ovaries, there were Parn and Deedlit in Record of Lodoss War, one of the earliest and best of the genre. Lately we've seen a lot of '90s classics come out on streaming and physical media. What about Lodoss? Do you see any hope for an affordable re-release, or do you think it's doomed to remain a wistful memory or an exorbitantly-priced collector's item?

Media Blasters had the rights to the series for a while, but never got to release it before losing them. This co-incided with the time the company was going through some amount of financial turmoil, and a lot of their licenses were cancelled, but we can't know if Lodoss War was lost due to that, or for another reason.

I think it might've been for another reason, because I know of several companies that have tried and failed to license the show later. My sources tell me that there are issues in Japan that are currently preventing a re-license of the original Record of Lodoss War OAV series. There was recently a Blu-ray reissue in Japan, and if I were a fan of this show I would definitely want to pick those up -- we're unlikely to get a domestic release in the near future. I remember seeing the original SD master tapes while I was at CPM, and those looked ROUGH.

Anyway, I know that this effects the original OAV series, but I have no idea if it affects the TV series. Which nobody seems to want, anyway. If I recall correctly, the only thing people even liked about it was the Maaya Sakamoto opening theme. Sure sold a ton back in the day, though!

Paul asks:

A while back, I remembered you talked about how short some of the shows are since long running shows are risky and the 12 to 24 episodes is typically safe for companies to work with. So I'm wondering how do long running shows, such as One Piece, Naruto, Pokémon, Detective Conan/Case Closed and Crayon Shin-chan, for example, are green lit if they are risky. Is it the popularity of the original work that allows it to become long running, another party that is funding the project (like Pokémon I'd imagine) or is it something else?

It's both, really. Long-running shows, where no pre-set number of episodes is determined, is really only considered for shows where a major outside sponsor can be brought in. These sponsors are almost always toy companies, and as long as the producers want to keep going, they'll keep throwing money at a series for as long as the toys keep selling. This is why so many of the long-running shows are Shonen Jump series: they're easily merchandisable, marketing-friendly vehicles to sell products. Until very recently, most TV shows were made like this, which is why so many series from the 90s and earlier either have obvious product placement (Hana Yori Dango, for example) or are about things that can obviously be turned into toys (every mecha show ever made).

Producing a show like this has a lot of pitfalls. If the series (and therefore the toys) don't do well, the long production time of animation means that by the time you figure out it's a bomb, you already have 25-30 episodes either done or in various stages of production. Since those episodes are already contracted to be finished, sponsors can lose a ton of money on loser shows that way. So now, the only series that are produced this way are ones that are sure-fire hits, and can secure a good, kid-friendly time slot on major TV networks. Everything else gets made in short, 1 or 2-season bursts, which can bomb without completely ruining its producers.

The other type of long-running anime are the family sitcoms, such as Sazae-san and Crayon Shin-chan. These shows also have merchandise, but often times the TV networks will pay for those outright because the ratings are good and regular ad time can be sold to regular advertisers.

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 real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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