Why Are Compilation Films Made?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ryan asks:

Why are compilation films of anime series in Japan so popular and why are they rarely licensed in the US? I just don't get it.

Compilation films of TV anime have been made since at least the 1970s. They once filled an important need: in the era before home video, they were the only way to re-live a show you once watched. If you missed an episode or came late to a series, it was the only way to revisit the story -- as Japanese TV doesn't really take breaks to show reruns -- to figure out that missing chunk of story. There was no home video back then, and of course, no internet. A show was broadcast once and gone forever (unless someday a network decided to re-air the whole thing again in its entirety -- a rare and unpredictable event), and compilation movies were all fans had.

Even after the advent of home video in the 80s, collecting TV shows on video cassette was seldom even an option. This was an era in which TV series went on a lot longer than they do today, and with 2-3 episodes per tape being relatively standard -- and costing upwards of ¥11,000 per volume -- there simply weren't very many people that could afford to collect whole series, and video rental shops had limited shelf space. Most hardcore collectors just made do with blurry, copied-until-quality-went-to-crap taped-off-the-air copies. Consequently not many shows were even made available through official sources.

As the home video market matured in the late 80s and early 90s, more people started buying full series, first on laserdisc, then on DVD and Blu-ray. However, the prices for anime on home video in japan really never came down that much. They stayed high (¥7,000-12,000 per volume, boxed sets from ¥20,000), making them the domain of only the biggest fans of each show. And frankly, most people aren't going to sit down and rewatch most series in their entirety after they've seen it once. The cost of buying a whole series means that really only the hardcore fans are going to buy it. But that doesn't mean that only the hardcore fans will ever want to revisit it. They're just the only ones who will probably want to eat the entire pie again.

Recap movies can serve as convenient reminders of a show's crucial plot points, especially prior to a sequel coming out. A theatrical event can act as a gathering point for fans of the show, and the events surrounding a theatrical release make for great marketing that drives sales of everything related to that show. Otaku will usually pony up to obsessively collect any new media release, even if there's only the barest hint of any new material included.

But more than anything, compilation films are just really, really cheap to make. Even if nobody goes to see them, the cost of producing them is a small fraction of the cost to make a single episode of anime. No new animation needs to be made (and if it does, it's usually only a couple of minutes' worth). Usually only a single voice actor is required to add new narration. No new music needs to be composed. Most of the sound design can be re-used. When an entirely new product from an existing franchise can be made for only the cost of hiring a few editors, making it becomes a question of "why not?"

The American market has been different from the beginning, and the way we consume anime has usually meant that compilation films are not for us. Most of the time American releases include them as a bonus, or don't bother at all. The few that have been released separately often don't sell very well, unless they're part of a huge franchise, like Evangelion: Death. But in Japan, they still serve a purpose... even if that purpose might sometimes just be a marketing one.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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