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Why Does Anime Go Unlicensed?

by Justin Sevakis,

Imogen asks:

With the recent news article about Sentai dubbing Amagi Brilliant Park I was curious to know if there's a reason why one of Kyoto Animation's other works 'Hyou-ka' hasn't had any distribution beyond Japan when all of their other shows have? Is there a licensing issue?

Like all cases like this, we will likely never know why a show hasn't gotten licensed, or if it ever will happen in the future. Licensors keep information like this very close to the chest, and so the reasons behind the lack of international release of any particular show are never made public.

That said, there are a few reasons why a show might be withheld from release in territories outside Japan, and without addressing any single anime, I can definitely explain those.

1. The Original Creator Said No, Hates The Show, and/or Is A Nightmare Of A Human Being

This is the number one cause of an anime not getting a release overseas, or even a re-release in Japan. Japanese copyright law stipulates that the original creator of any series (usually the manga artist, light novel writer, or something) gets to approve basically any deal that involves any incarnation of their creations. While that sounds like a good thing, it's resulted in more ridiculous hold ups, delays and failed licenses than any other part of the process.

The first reason is that many creators are, well, creative people. They don't often live in the business world, and very often have a skewed idea of how things work. Many creators are very old, or hire their completely uninformed immediate family members as managers. They may dislike the idea of their work being available on the internet, or think that the American market is so huge that a license fee of millions of dollars is entirely reasonable. I've even heard of one manga artist who demanded that, if her work was to be released in the US, that she must be allowed to walk the red carpet at the Oscars.

But of course, only a handful of original creators are THAT far gone. Many times manga artists are being overly-precious with their work due to having been wronged in the past, or not consulted about a major decision. Others might dislike the anime adaptation and have decided to nix any possibility of it getting further released. They have the power to veto any deal at any time. That's just how the industry works, and there's nothing that anybody else can do about it.

2. The Production Committee Has Become Dysfunctional

The original creator isn't the only one who can go rogue. Sometimes the committee of producers who all contribute money to a production can get into a fight, or one of them can decide to refuse to sign off or participate in any further discussion. Since the committee system works by consensus, this effectively kills the committee and anything they might do, including approvals of international deals.

This doesn't happen very often, and is a major reason why the established anime producers in Japan are very reluctant to bring new companies into the process. If things go very wrong, as they have in the past, it can easily gutter the whole project.

3. The Show Was A Huge Disaster And Everyone Is Really Embarrassed

It's rare, but on occasion a show completely goes to hell during the production process, and all of the producers involved would much rather sweep it under the rug than allow people in other countries to see it. The whole thing is an expensive embarrassment for them, and they'd prefer that the show just be allowed to die and be forgotten. Usually these shows are pretty crappy anyway, so it's not like they're turning down a huge amount of money for them.

4. The Licensor Thinks The Show Is Worth WAY More Than Anybody Else Does

There are quite a few shows from back in the day that aren't really worth much, but might be worth a small-scale US release, like on subtitled-only DVD or Blu-ray. However, there are licensors who have a greatly inflated sense of that show's value, such that their asking price is simply out of the range of sanity for any prospective overseas publisher. Every once in a while, a publisher will ask the price, gasp, and walk away.

5. The Rights Holder Doesn't Have It Together To Make A Deal

Finally, there are some companies in Japan who are able to make fully-finished, produced animation, but don't have a dedicated licensing department. Often, if they've made a movie, ONA or OVA out of love, they haven't put in the time to work out a contractual system with all of the creators to sell the show to overseas markets. They don't have the experience in dealing with contracts in English, they might not even have any English speakers on staff, and simply don't know how to structure a deal in a way where they won't get ripped off.

These smaller companies might have tried once or twice to do a deal, and if it didn't work out, they didn't have much recourse to fix the situation. Some of them, such as Madhouse, have opted to hire an outside sales agent to take care of these things, but most of them just decide not to pursue licensing deals and just sit on their shows. A more persuasive anime publisher might be able to get something out of them eventually, but it takes years and a lot of persuasion.

These cover most of the scenarios why a show might sit on a shelf rather than get released outside of Japan. If there's something that you think seems conspicuously absent from release in North America or other countries, one of the above reasons is the likely culprit. As for which one is the hold-up, we may never know.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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