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Why Did So Many OVA Series End Prematurely?

by Justin Sevakis,

Hey guys, I could really use some new questions! It's the dog days of summer, so people are kind of checked out... and not sending in questions for me to answer. So come on, send me something! [email protected] Thanks!!

Parker asks:

I recently purchased Discotek's DVD release of Mighty Space Miners (a 1994 OVA), knowing full well that it was never finished. Only two of its originally planned six episodes were animated, but those that do exist show plenty of promise. Unfortunately, it clearly flopped big time in Japan; they didn't even bother tying up loose ends in an ad hoc third installment. Its fate got me wondering about the volatility of the Japanese OVA market back in the day. How often did OVA series go bust as spectacularly as Mighty Space Miners, abandoned before they could even complete a planned story arc? And how often did western distributors pick these shows up? I assume they would have been able to get the rights at a bargain.

The Japanese OVA market was a really tough and unusual one. The whole thing started in the mid-1980s, as home video was starting to become a big thing, and video rental shops were popping up in huge numbers across the country. Since all of the established directors in the business were busy with more established types of media (TV series and movies), a lot of first-timers and young newbies got their chance at making anime as OVAs. Most of them blew it quite spectacularly! But some really cool and interesting stuff came out of that OVA boom as well.

OVAs initially gained prominence because there were pretty much no restrictions on what you could show. They could have sex or violence, or be about controversial topics. Unlike TV series, there was no need to integrate product placement or toy-ready designs to make a sponsor happy. This allowed for a huge amount of creative freedom, and really meant that, with the right producers and enough budget, creators had the freedom to do almost anything they wanted. From the first OVA ever be released, Mamoru Oshii's Dallos, the tradition was that the budget would be somewhere between that of a TV series and a movie. The releases would make back most of their money from video rental shops, but popular series often got bought by fans as well.

Unlike the world of late-night TV anime today, the OVA world had no regular schedules and very little business discipline. Some OVAs, most notably Megazone 23, were TV series that were converted to the format halfway through production after sponsors pulled out of the show. this was a way for the producers to recoup some of their investment on all of the design work and scripting that had gone into the projects. Others were produced by companies who had never produced anime before, and had no idea how to manage production. Some OVA series came out quarterly, some came out monthly, and some had years go by in between episodes.

Whether an OVA series was successful or not depended largely on the thousands of video rental shops across Japan, who would buy new OVAs as they came out and closely tracked how well they did. Animation's long lead time meant that by the time the first episode of a series came out, the second episode was usually nearing completion. If that first episode died on the shelf, the producer would finish up that second episode, but then move quickly to cancel the remaining episodes. This led to a huge amount of series in the early 90s that were cancelled after two episodes, from Dragon Half to Elf Princess Rane to Battle Angel. This really happened a lot.

However, in the early days of the anime business in the US, OVAs were the ideal format for Western publishers. VHS tapes could only comfortably hold 2 hours of video, so TV series (which were usually much longer back then) quickly became unwieldy for both customers and retailers. But an OVA could be put on just one or two self-contained tapes. Video stores would carry it, fans would buy it, and rental chains would stock it. It didn't matter so much at the time that many of them didn't have endings -- anime is already notorious for having cliffhanger endings anyway.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

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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