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What's Up With Dollar Store Anime Releases?

by Justin Sevakis,

Charles asks:

I've occasionally come across anime on the kind of DVDs that go straight to dollar stores and discount bins as if they're public domain. Some examples I've seen are The Little Mermaid (1975), The Wonderful Galaxy of Oz, and even Captain Harlock. They usually look like they're copied from a VHS master with an English dub produced decades ago, the cover art is usually a poorly-drawn original image in a style that doesn't reflect the contents, and the companies are never ones I'm familiar with. Do you know the story behind these things? Are they somehow licensed? Straight-up bootlegs? Somewhere in between?

Discount store DVDs were a short-lived subsection of the video market that popped up at the peak of the DVD boom around 2003, and didn't seem to last more than a few years. Companies like East West DVD Entertainment, Digiview Entertainment, Passion Productions and a handful of others would acquire some forgotten piece of media very cheaply, and then mass-produce thousands and thousands of copies in China. They'd sell them in such huge quantities to discount store chains that they were able to keep the prices low. Many lines were only US$1 each.

While many of these little companies at least started out releasing public domain films -- old American cartoons from the 20s and 30s and low-end 70s kung-fu movies mostly -- most of them blew through those pretty quick. Many of them turned to the dustier corners of the entertainment industry, licensing big libraries of really old things for not a lot of money. These included very old made-for-TV movies, more kung fu movies, forgotten genre movies of the sort that might end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and -- yes -- anime.

The anime fell into a few categories. Digiview Entertainment had a deal with Enoki Films to release some of their old dubbed kids-friendly titles such as Thumbelina: A Magical Story and Huck and Tom's Mississippi Adventures. Digiview also released several Korean-produced features from the 80s that were made with cels clearly bootlegged from mecha anime TV series that were in production at the time and partially outsourced to Korea. Given fake American credits and dubbed horribly, these films (given laughably generic names like Space Thunder Kids and Defenders of Universe) were pretty much unwatchable. (I had copies of all of them before selling them on eBay last year.) These films were being sold by a Hong Kong-based company called IFD Films and Arts (infamous among bad movie aficionados for producing incoherent kung fu and ninja movies by schlockmeister Godfrey Ho).

A few anime that ended up on these discs were more recognizable, like the aforementioned Captain Harlock. The legality of these discs are somewhat murky, as these tend to be licensed from small media holding companies, usually run by a semi-retired old crusty guy sitting on a warehouse of forgotten media ephemera. Some old kids' anime ended up in these piles. Many of the licensing deals that happened between Japan and American media companies in the 70s and early 80s were not structured well (the Japanese industry didn't yet know what it was doing), so the American media companies of the day ended up owning the rights to these shows indefinitely. Many of these media companies were not particularly honest. The rights may have been transferred several times, been through bankruptcy courts, and all sorts of other things, and often nobody even knows what happened to the original contract. Proving ownership might be hard for whoever ended up licensing them for DVD, but many companies like this will try to sell the rights whenever they can anyway, and small time publishers won't ask too many questions. Japan prefers to forget that deals from back then were ever made, and usually tries to ignore any traces of them today.

The quality of these DVDs were all over the place, since any remastering was obviously out of the question -- they simply grabbed whatever materials were easily available. The discs themselves were complete barebones affairs. Most were pretty blurry and washed out looking. As one would expect of such discs, as little effort was clearly put into them as humanly possible. As most of these films had no artwork, many discs featured cover art cobbled together from traced screenshots and stock artwork and photography.

For a few years these discs lined every dollar store and discount store in the country, and there were also reports of them showing up in the UK. The Korean fake-anime was briefly made available at Walmart. But as the DVD market crested, people were no longer in the mood to buy literally any shovelware that a publisher printed on a disc. Hollywood studios started lowering the prices on their overstock and catalog films to not much more than a couple of dollars. People could spend only a little bit of money and buy a real movie rather than what was probably garbage.

It's hard to tell when Digiview Entertainment and East West went out of business. DVD is no longer the white-hot market it once was, and people have too much to watch these days and are genuinely uninterested in cheap dollar store media. While it was fun for a few of us to dumpster-dive for a while, the relative lack of actual entertainment value meant that the boom was quite short lived. But so many of these discs were printed that they still sit in warehouses around the country today, and still can be found on store shelves occasionally. They are a relic of a time when people were very excited about DVDs. Perhaps too excited.

These days, those old vaults of forgotten old crap and the media holding companies that own them are getting hard to find. In the age of HD these libraries of dusty old analog master tapes are nearly value-less, and the grizzled old industry guys that run them are passing away. The media packrat in me often wonders what will become of their libraries of old garbage that nobody wants. And then I remember that life is short, and my time would be better spent on media that actually makes me happy.

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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