Why Are Some Old Anime Never Re-released?

by Justin Sevakis,

Tony asked:

One of my favorite anime in the early 90's, Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai, in Japan got a VHS release, but never got a single DVD release. It aired in Japan in October 1991, and got all 46 episodes released on VHS. The other Dragon Quest anime Legend of the Hero, Abel (Dragon Warrior in North America by Saban) got DVD releases in Japan, but not The Adventure of Dai. Is it about the sales? Interest? Or maybe copyright issues with Weekly Shonen Jump?

I don't know what, specifically, is up with that particular show, but there are a LOT of old shows that are currently languishing in obscurity, having never been re-released in any digital format. Some have only ever been released on VHS and never even saw a proper LaserDisc release, let alone a DVD!

There are a lot of reasons why this might be. These are also the reasons given to overseas publishers when they try to license a title, but are told it's unavailable. These reasons change all the time. People die, companies close and get bought out, different people are put in charge. These are all very fluid things.

Reason 1: The music isn't cleared.

This is the #1 problem preventing old anime from re-release and overseas licensing. The anime business used to be a very ramshackle, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants industry, and producers often didn't do a lot of the things that, contractually, they really should do. This is especially true of 80s OVAs, which were often produced by startup companies that didn't have much experience in the entertainment business. Everyone was focused on getting new shows out as quickly as possible. Nobody thought fans would still be interested in these shows decades later, in other countries, and via new technologies that didn't exist at the time.

So, you got things like music being licensed for inclusion in an anime for ONE release, specifically on videotape, in Japan only. If the artists are really famous, or are represented by a particularly ruthless management agency, the price to get those songs licensed again would be huge -- way more than you could ever hope to recoup from a re-release. (The market for old anime is only so big.) And that's assuming the music artist is even interested in doing a deal.

This is why certain shows, like Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and Kodocha, had to have music replaced or deleted for overseas versions. It's why Akazukin ChaCha's opening theme got a new version recorded with a different singer for its re-releases. And it's why an untold number of shows can't be authorized for release again -- in Japan, or overseas.

Reason 2: The creator doesn't like it.

The Japanese copyright system gives an enormous amount of control to the original creator of a work, be it a light novel author, manga artist, game publishing group, or anime studio. In order for a deal to happen in which a show gets sold to be released overseas, or dusted off and given a new re-release in Japan (after the contracts for the original deals for the show expired), that creator has to approve it. And they are under absolutely NO obligation to do so.

Sure, they might get a little bit more money. But if the artist feels that the adaptation didn't do their original work justice, or they're embarrassed of the work to begin with, it's completely within their rights to withhold that adaptation from further release. Sometimes they might be trying to get a new adaptation off the ground, which would mean even more money, and they don't want to muddy the market for the show and confuse consumers by making the old version available again. Other times, they just want that anime adaptation buried.

Many in the anime industry get very frustrated when this happens, because they know there are fans that could be satisfied, and money that could be made. But if the original creator isn't interested, there's really not a whole lot that could be done.

Reason 3: Nobody knows who owns it.

A lot of original works made decades ago weren't made by production committees like they are today. Often, in the 80s and 90s, anime would be produced primarily by one or two companies, and many of those companies went out of business. Some of them did so in an orderly way, where another company bought the assets, or a remaining partner inherited the rights once held by the deceased company. But other times, it's not at all clear who owns the show after that.

Any disc publisher or streaming service in Japan or any other country would have to track down who owns a particular show and buy the rights if they're to make it available. But often times it's not even clear who they can even ask. If all of the involved companies are dead, the people that ran them are no longer in the business (or also dead), who could possibly authorize its further release? No legitimate company could ever release something without being able to prove that they have the rights to do so. (What if somebody sued?) And so, the title languishes.

Reason 4: The Producers Are Feuding.

Every once in a while, a production committee becomes dysfunctional, companies that once partnered together turn on each other, and massive fights completely derail any attempt to make money off of an anime. For an example of this, one needs to look no further than Macross, and the years-long legal fight between Tatsunoko Pro and Studio Nue over its ownership. That particular case didn't stop the franchise's release in Japan, but it very well could have.

I know of at least one show that has never seen release outside of VHS because its two producers hate each other and refuse to do anything that would enrich the other. There are, I am told, dozens more.

Reason 5: Everyone forgot about it.

Storied, old school anime companies like Madhouse, TMS, Toei Animation and others have made so many anime over the years that even the companies themselves have trouble keeping them straight sometimes. I've seen dioramas of past works in the offices of anime companies, pointed to an obscure title and told my contact I was a big fan, only for them to look at me like I was from Mars: "You've SEEN that?? NOBODY has seen that!"

It's not just current anime companies, either. Companies like Konami, Nippon Columbia and others were once very active in anime production, but now don't deal with filmed entertainment at all. It's not even clear if they have an office capable of licensing out the rights to one of their shows.

Old and obscure shows would very seldom make much money, and it would take an astounding amount of detective work for someone to go through a title, find all of its old production contracts, and figure out who owns what piece of it. If a company or individual gets to sign off on something, or needs a contract updated to reflect the existence of digital technology or the internet, they need to be tracked down... What if they're dead? Tracking down all of the interested parties can take weeks or months or years, and frankly, many companies come to the conclusion that all that detective work is simply not worth their time.

This is why, although it's technically piracy, I don't find anything particularly upsetting about the online trading of ancient, forgotten, long out-of-print shows. It's one thing if we're talking about a hot series that can be easily watched legally; it's a very different matter when it's been out of print for decades and the only available copies come from imported Laserdiscs and VHS tapes. Some shows from the past have truly been abandoned, and I do think preserving them is important.

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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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