Why Can't Some Older Anime Be Remastered?

by Justin Sevakis,

Geoffrey asks:

There are some older series (especially Toei series) that can't be properly shown in HD because the original materials (usually the audio) were lost or junked. Why is that? Why would they get rid of the original masters? For Saint Seiya, Dragon Ball, and Dragon Ball Z, the audio master tapes are long gone, and all Japanese reruns and home video releases have horribly muffled sound. Yet other shows, like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball GT have their original audio fully intact and sounding clear on most releases. There are also many older shows that couldn't be dubbed because the music and effects tracks were no longer around. Is there anything that determines which shows have their materials thrown out?

There was seldom a rhyme or reason behind what got lost. A good amount of it was just plain negligence. When a lot of anime was being made in the 70s and 80s, it was thought of in Japan as ephemeral entertainment, and carefully archiving and cataloging the film materials just wasn't a top priority. As the industry has always been a tightly-budgeted understaffed panic, such rainy-day archival projects were put off and put off. Film labs went out of business. Companies got bought out. When an anime is produced by 5 or more companies as part of a production committee, it's sometimes impossible to tell who has what.

When a licensor tells an American publisher that the materials to an older show have been lost, it's impossible to tell how hard they actually tried to find anything. Nicer materials have mysteriously materialized merely months after the US publisher gave up and made due with a sub-par master. But given the haphazard way in which old materials are stored and indexed (or not), pretty much anything is possible. I've heard tales of old masters and film cans literally just stacked up in the corner of a dusty conference room, completely disorganized.

A number of older shows, specifically ones from Toei Animation, do have really terrible, muffled audio. I never did figure out why that is, but it's easy to guess: the Japanese entertainment business is rife with guys who cling onto older, outdated technology, and the recording studio Toei used probably had one of these guys in charge of mixing. Some of these old shows have had their audio remastered, but many haven't -- and probably won't for the foreseeable future. Maybe the master tapes are lost or unusable. Maybe they'll magically resurface one day, or some amazing new audio filtering software will be able to restore the tracks we have now. But for now we're stuck with what we've got.

Audio materials for older shows (pre-1988 or so) can be especially hard to pin down. The final mixed audio, the same tracks you find on all currently existing copies, are the only things left that can reliably be synchronized with video. Unmixed audio, including separated music and effects tracks, were all created and stored on reel-to-reel tapes. These usually have no timecode, and over time, have streched, warped, or had the oxide fall off. Many Japanese production companies simply stored materials like this in a closet or a basement somewhere, where they were subject to years of humid Japanese summers. If you can even get a good digital capture of the contents of these tapes, they now have so many problems that trying to do anything useful with them is a futile effort. Many of them have been thrown out.

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