How Are Old Releases of Anime Preserved, And Why Aren't Manga Preserved Too?

by Justin Sevakis,

Melissa asked:

It seems like when companies like Discotek license rescue older shows, they're usually able to get the old dub or subtitle scripts from whatever original company released it. I imagine this is because the licensor has taken the time to archive the English materials made for its initial release. I recently inquired about license-rescuing a manga title, and was told the licensors have no English materials, and that I should try to contact the original publisher (who is no longer in business). Why do anime licensors keep these things, and yet manga publishers don't?

I think you may be giving the anime licensors too much credit. I've worked on many re-releases of classic anime, by Discotek and several others. There are a couple of licensors who are very good about collecting old English dub masters and subtitle scripts, and now that such things are easily transmitted via internet the entire industry has gotten better at obtaining them. But just as often, the licensor is of no help in obtaining those materials. When asked, their answer is often, "if you can find it, you can use it."

Some licensors are so bad at managing their properties that they've completely lost ALL of the masters for entire series. ALL OF THEM. Even the original Japanese masters. If the US distribution company no longer has them (or is out of business), no production or broadcast partners have them, and nobody in Japan has any idea where they are... well, that means they're just gone!

This failure to keep track of materials decades ago can be somewhat embarrassing for the Japanese rights holder, so I won't name any names. In fact, I've even been asked to try and track down English materials for shows that nobody has even re-licensed, because the licensor doesn't feel they enter into a discussion without them, and isn't comfortable getting these materials from consumer media. But the sad fact of the matter is, if the license has been expired for a long time, those tapes are probably in a landfill.

If anyone wants to re-release them, the only way to get what's missing is to find decades-old DVDs and ripping out whatever you're missing. Audio tracks are easy enough to pull of a DVD if you have the right software to do so -- chances are, they're compressed in Dolby Digital format and will need to be manually synchronized to a better video source. If there was no DVD release, dubs have been digitized and restored from old laserdiscs (imported or domestic) and even VHS. With no proper materials, you really have to take what you can get.

Subtitle scripts are much harder to re-use. There have been so many weird, proprietary subtitle products over the years that, even if the original scripts were saved, they might be in Microsoft Word, Excel, or an even more obscure format. Ripping the subtitles from existing DVDs is often easier than trying to convert those old files into something that's useful today. DVD subtitle tracks have to be turned back into timed text scripts (using optical character recognition software that was originally developed for... shall we say, the hobbyist community). This can introduce typos and other formatting problems, so the subtitles need to be freshly reviewed by an editor. I've even seen projects where someone had to manually transcribe subtitles from an old VHS tape, and re-time each line from scratch. Many old translations have problems, and need review by a translator; some are so terrible that you're better off starting over.

For manga, re-using old translations would be even harder. There's no easy, automated way of ripping the English text off of old books and properly repositioning them. Prior to the mid-2000s manga boom, some English versions didn't even get the original art files from Japan. Viz, Dark Horse, and many of the bigger manga publishers often got analog film elements, but retouching and reproducing these art files in the old days caused a boost in contrast, and a loss in fine detail. Pages that were once color, in particular, ended up very dark and difficult to read. And, don't forget, all of those pages were flipped to read in English left-to-right style.

Smaller publishers had an even harder time. Publishers like Central Park Media, early Tokyopop, and several others didn't have the technical expertise to deal with film elements, so they literally hired freelancers to break the binding of the Japanese tankoubons and use a photocopier to blow up each page to poster size. They would then mount each page on poster board before using White-Out, ink and cut-out laser-printed text to retouch the English versions. That's why so many of them are blurry or washed out. Many early English manga releases simply don't exist in digital form.

It's only the last few years, with the rise of digital manga distribution, that Japanese publishers started caring about archiving English versions of their catalogs. Many older releases were not archived, particularly from publishers that have gone out of business. And unlike anime, there's no good way of reproducing the old versions. Someone would have to go through each page and apply all the retouching all over again.

A huge amount of work on English release of anime AND manga went unarchived and is lost in its native form. Yet another reason we should all be grateful for the switch to digital.

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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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