Why Do Delta Airlines Flights Have Japanese Movies?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

I recently was on a red eye Delta flight to the west coast over the holiday and was flipping through the movie section on those new tablets they now have built into the seats and found something quite surprising. I was expecting to find a bunch of semi-new Hollywood movies, but instead I found quite a large selection of international releases, amongst them a few live action anime adaptations like Assassination Classroom and two Rurouni Kenshin movies. This surprised me for many reasons, since as far as I know all three of these movies are not legally available to purchase or stream in North America. Also why would an airline company get the rights to play something as niche as live action anime? Do you think that more titles such as these, and possibly anime, will become more widely available on long or international flights?

It may surprise you to learn that Delta Airlines is actually one of the major carriers flying in and out of Tokyo Narita airport. In fact, their presence at the North end of Terminal 1 is considered a major hub for the airline, and is used not just for people going between the US and Japan, but also Japanese travelers and layovers going to other Asian cities like Shanghai, Taipei, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila and Saipan. The hub was integrated into Delta Airlines when they merged with Northwest in 2008. Northwest was so well-known in Tokyo that many of my Japanese business contacts were familiar with Americans' annoyed nickname for them, "NorthWorst."

Airlines spend a lot of money on entertainment, and have done so since the early days, when stewardesses would play semi-current films on 16mm projectors for passengers, and pipe in the sound to each seat through special earphones that connected via rubber tubes. Showing movies on a plane requires purchasing exhibition rights, and to do so, airlines have always worked directly with movie studios.

As technology progressed and airplanes started having electronic headphone jacks in each arm rest, it became possible to have more than one audio track attached to a film. This was very important for airlines running international routes, as it would now be possible to accommodate far more of their passengers' native tongues. Japan Airlines famously funded (wonky) English dubs of several Miyazaki films -- Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso -- as well as Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo, entirely for the purpose of showing them on international flights.

Now that nearly every international flight has crappy touch screens offering low-resolution video-on-demand programming, every month each airline's fleet gets loaded up with an assortment of new movies, tailored to offer something for as many people as possible. This includes movies from every country that the airline has a hub in, as well as subtitles and dubbed audio in whatever other languages are available. So of course, every month Delta has a selection of movies from Japan on their touch screen-equipped planes.

Who subtitles these films? As a matter of course, every Japanese movie studio subtitles their films in English as just a normal part of doing business. The subtitles are used on screeners for overseas licensing, as well as for film festivals, and for airlines. They don't usually include those subtitles on their DVD/Blu-ray releases, but sometimes they do.

Business transactions between airlines and movie studios in the countries they fly to are a normal, everyday thing. A movie being available on a plane has nothing to do with whether that film will be made available anywhere else. And the fact that your plane ride had some manga-based films on it is really just a coincidence -- it's just what was available and reasonably mainstream from Japan at the time. If you happen to be on one of those flights, it's definitely worth checking to see what they might have to offer, because you may not get another chance to see those films.

As for me, I'm a die-hard Virgin America fan. If you happen to fly them out of LAX this holiday season, go for broke and order the turkey cranberry sandwich. It's literally the only meal I've ever had on a plane that I actually look forward to. Some things are more important than low-resolution Japanese movies.

By the way, big thank-you to Jake, who is one of my most prominent question-askers, probably tied for #1 with Chris A. I don't use everything he sends in, but he definitely has a knack for asking interesting questions in a way that I can easily answer them.

I've recently heard that some of you think that if I answered you once, you've had your turn and won't get picked again. But honestly, I barely look at who's asking each question -- and if I chose one question of yours once, chances are you know how to write a question I can use! So don't let that stop you. There are some weeks where I check the email box and once I've deleted the spam, the "will ____ get another season" questions, and the ones I just can't answer, I don't have many options left. So, by all means, don't be shy. You could be sending these emails from prison and I'd be just fine with it.

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.

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