Why Don't DVDs Contain Japanese Commentary Tracks Anymore?

by Justin Sevakis,

Tyler asked:

On some of Central Park Media's DVD releases, like MD Geist and World of Narue, one of the “disc set-up” options were commentaries from a few of the original Japanese staff, which I think is really cool. However, when ADV released these titles, they scrapped the Japanese commentaries, and it is pretty hard to find any other anime release that has such a feature (Funimation just seems to do dub actor commentaries). Do you know of any other releases that have Japanese commentaries?

While, in the heyday of the anime DVD boom, commentary tracks from the Japanese side of production were relatively common, they are generally a feature we don't see much of anymore... And when we do, it's typically a re-release of a track that came out before.

Commentary tracks are a nightmare to subtitle. There's never a script, so the entire thing must be translated by ear. Voice actors tend to constantly talk over each other. Non-voice actors (aging male directors, for example) tend to mumble, trail off, and speak in constant run-on sentences. Even for seasoned translators and subtitle timers, commentary tracks usually take 3-4 times as long to subtitle as an actual anime program of the same length.

Commentary tracks from Japan can also be a nightmare to get permission to include on a US or Western release. They often are only cleared for release in Japan, and need additional clearances from the actors' or director's management to make available overseas. (This often requires more money.) Sometimes the company that owns the commentary is NOT the same company licensing the rights to overseas publishers, and if the licensor doesn't want to bother with trying to get permission, they're just going to shut down any attempt to obtain it.

And while director commentaries can be very enlightening and informative, actor commentaries usually... aren't. While you might get a behind-the-scenes anecdote or two, most of what you get is wacky actor-banter and reactions to the show as it's playing. Which might be mildly entertaining if it's in your native language, but can be pretty exhausting to watch subtitled.

Many anime directors are pretty soft-spoken, and are reluctant to sit in a booth and talk for the entirety of an episode or movie. The handful of Japanese commentary tracks produced by CPM back in the day were anomalies, often produced directly by Managing Director John O'Donnell. While visiting Japan for business, he, his wife Masumi Honma, or a Japanese staff member would sit in the booth with the director in question and engage in conversation while the film played. This was a very effective way of getting information out of them. CPM is no longer around, but the commentary tracks they produced for Project A-ko, Harmagedon, Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, Black Jack, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (and the final few episodes of the TV series), and a handful of others are among the best work that company has left behind. Most of those have been reproduced on subsequent re-releases, but not all of them.

There are a few scattered other releases over the years that include commentary tracks licensed from Japan, and lots more with American voice actors (which are cheap and easy to produce -- no subtitling required). But as DVD bonus features stopped being an important selling point and started being a luxury, publishers were no longer interested in investing the time and money required to license them, subtitle them, or produce them from scratch. It's a shame. Hopefully it's something we'll be able to see again, someday.

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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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