When Did US Anime Publishers Transition from VHS to DVD?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

I have been wondering for a while now about when the anime industry transitioned from VHS to DVD's. I know that the DVD player was introduced on the market in the mid 90's but like a lot of people I did not get around to transitioning until the early 2000's when VHS was on the decline and the DVD players were finally getting affordable. Have heard that the industry was very slow to make the transition and were still releasing series like Yu Yu Hakusho up to the very end of VHS's life. What was or were the first anime to be put on DVD. When did the industry finally abandon VHS?

The anime industry, both in the US and in Japan, were actually pretty quick to make the transition to DVD. The first DVD players and discs were launched in November 1996 in Japan, March 1997 in the US, and not until 1998 in Europe and 1999 in Australia. The first DVD players were slow and buggy, and initially sales were aimed at videophiles that were still collecting movies on Laserdisc. It was a few years until the format was seen as a replacement for VHS.

That said, anime made its debut on DVD very quickly after the format went on sale. The first anime DVD release was Toshiba EMI's Japanese re-release of the two-part Ninja Cadets (Ninja Mono) OVA, in 1997 -- both 30-minute episodes together for only ¥9,228! The first English DVD release was The Art of Fighting, a video game tie-in OVA released by Central Park Media through Laserdisc sub-licensor Image Entertainment on November 15, 1998. Some of the crew who worked on it once told me how unbelievable it seemed that the format could switch audio and subtitle tracks on-the-fly.

There were quite a few issues with releasing anime on DVD in those days, both technical and legal. Many Japanese licensors didn't know what to make of the new format, and considered the fact that it had menus and chapter stops to be "interactivity", requiring the licensing of separate rights. (In fact, a handful of early anime DVDs had no chapters for that reason.) What's more, English masters were created for VHS without any regard for matching up with the original Japanese audio tracks, which were kept on entirely separate tapes. The timecode tracks on the master tapes, essential for synchronizing A/V as well as subtitles, didn't even match. There was a steep learning curve that affected every aspect of how publishers mastered the shows.

Authoring a DVD in those days required a huge expenditure on equipment and technical know-how, and for boutique publishers like the US anime companies, it was mostly out of reach. Initially, publishers dipped a toe in the water by sub-licensing their more popular shows to dedicated disc publishers, which was the same way the Laserdisc market worked. Central Park Media licensed a few titles to Image, and some lower-tier titles to a small company called Digital Versatile Disc Ltd. Streamline Pictures also sent their titles to Image; Viz distributed their titles via Pioneer Entertainment (who, of course, published their own anime and later became Geneon). AnimEigo sub-licensed their best-selling title Bubblegum Crisis to software publisher Multimedia 2000 (M2K), who then proceeded to release it in a giant cardboard software box. Bandai Entertainment, Media Blasters, Manga Entertainment and ADV all waited until a better plan of attack came along.

And indeed, within only a few months, authoring studios -- dedicated work-for-hire DVD development companies that were sometimes attached to larger video post-production companies -- sprang up, and by that time DVD was really starting to take off. Anime publishers quickly hired them so they could take charge of the DVD market and sell discs directly. Most of these companies, such as Crush Digital Video, Cinram DVD Center POP, Digital Video Compression Center (DVCC) and a few others, lasted for about a decade before fading away or getting absorbed by bigger corporations, and to this day most video post-production companies will do DVD authoring.

It's with the help of those early authoring companies that the anime publishers really started going full-steam into the DVD market. ADV shipped their first DVD, the dub-only Tekken OVA, in January 1999. By later that year, virtually all of the anime publishers were going all-in on the format. VHS releases were still being released simultaneously, if not a little earlier. 2000 was the year DVD really exploded, helped along in no small part by the launch of the PlayStation 2, which doubled as a DVD player.

The VHS format was in steep decline by late 2002, and by 2003 nearly every publisher was stuck with a huge pile of VHS inventory that was quickly becoming worthless. (FUNimation, back then really only known for Dragon Ball Z, was rumored to have been sitting on over a million units.) The publishers tried to get creative by blowing the old tapes out for cheap, particularly at anime conventions, but most units ended up either in liquidation (and ending up in places like Big Lots) or in landfills.

By this time, anime publishers were also getting tired of relying on outside companies to make their product, and started looking into authoring discs on their own. Apple Computer, who had revolutionized desktop video with the introduction of Final Cut Pro a few years earlier, unveiled a retooled DVD Studio Pro in 2003, which was based on the professional authoring package Spruce DVD Maestro. While DVD Studio Pro had some limitations and was never fully embraced by the professional community, its release made publishers realize that authoring was something they might be capable of doing themselves. Some of the more technically ambitious ones took the plunge and bought full professional authoring suites such as Sonic Scenarist (the de-facto standard). ADV was the first to do this: they gave their in-house authoring department the tongue-in-cheek name of MOFC -- rumored to stand for "My Own F---ing Computer."

To this day, some anime publishers, such as Viz Media and Aniplex USA, still out-source DVD. Blu-ray is far harder and more expensive to produce, and only Funimation, Right Stuf and Sentai Filmworks regularly do that in-house. But VHS? The format did hold on for quite a while in some circles. A few series, mostly shonen fighting shows, tended to be more popular on VHS due to its appeal to younger kids and lower-income households that were less likely to own a DVD player. The format was quite durable as well. The anime publishers dutifully kept putting out VHS releases (albeit in very small quantities) until around 2005. Bandai Entertainment was the first company to go DVD-only with their release of Avenger, and everyone else followed suit not long after.

But now those days are a distant memory. I can't find what the last anime VHS release is or when it took place -- these things were phased out so quietly that nobody really seemed to notice at the time, and so documentation is now hard to come by. Anime fans tend to be early adopters of new technology, and so anime publishers also tend to be pretty quick to jump on new formats, as soon as they're within reach by someone other than major Hollywood studios. And it's in those new formats where the excitement lies.

Full disclosure: I work on or have worked on DVDs and Blu-rays for several publishers mentioned in this article.

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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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