Interview: Anime Villiage

by Justin Sevakis,
AnimeVillage, an new operation by Bandai of America, raised eyebrows last year with its offers of animation no one else has been able to get, such as Gundam and Vision of Escaflowne. While some problems have since occured, AV is still going strong, with its recent release of its video library to retailers, and Bandai's Marketing and Sales Manager Nobu Yamamoto is here to talk with us about it.

Anime News Network: How did the idea for AnimeVillage come about?
Nobu Yamamoto: Bandai basically understands that anime from Japan is still a niche market in the United States, and people here that like Anime are probably a bit more otaku-oriented. We're seeing how we can expand [Bandai's US presense]. Cost/performance-wise, it's better to have exclusive information on the web, where we can explain to people about each title, and eventually, you can see video clips. So, for people who already know about our titles, they can purchase them right away and then get more information. For people who don't know very much about our titles or animation at all, on the other hand, we can have a process of education, so that people can understand [what the product is] before they buy anything.

It's hard to show people or explain to them what our products are on a magazine page or on a shelf in a store, because you just see the packaging, and there's no opprotunity to express how interesting our product is. That's why we started on the web, and are expanding to retail distribution.

ANN: So, the eventual goal is to be like every other anime distributor and have their tapes in, say, Blockbuster Video, right?
Yamamoto: Eventually, yes, but we'll have different benefits if you buy from the web page. We'll have our point system [where you can earn bonus items from buying online] starting in March or so, and we'll have different product packaging. People buying from the web will be more of the collectors' market, and so we'll keep producing clamshell plastic collectable cases, with free boxes to make up a complete boxed set.

ANN: Was the plan always to eventually sell through to retail distributors, or was it originally to sell only through AnimeVillage?
Yamamoto: It was originally to only sell through, and we wanted that to happen, but sales weren't enough for us to be a separate company. To expand on that company and to license more titles, and to make sure that company had high enough sales to continue running, we had to go through retail distribution. We're going to make the benefits of ordering online clear to the consumer, and then I'd like to increase both markets.

We got complaints that, say, a sixteen-year-old boy didn't have a credit card, and his mother didn't want to use her credit card online, so he couldn't buy it, so why not set up a retail outlet? That kind of thing came up a lot. Also, people from Canada wanted to buy from us, but had to pay duty and additional shipping costs. It would be a lot easier for them to get it from a store nearby. They don't need to pay customs, or go through the hassle of paperwork. Just a few things we needed to do something about.

There are always going to be people going to our online catalog, because it's still very difficult to find anime in a normal video store. With shop people, it's just not a top priority: they just carry new releases and stronger titles. Online, they have access to all of our titles. For people that can't find it at a store, they can come and get the more premium boxed set. The selection is quite a benefit. We want to make clear that we try to make our products available to anyone that's interested in anime, especially our titles, we well as information.

ANN: Do you think AnimeVillage has had more problems than normal startups?
Yamamoto: Oh, we have already! (laughs) Database-wise, everything cracked, nothing could keep track [of anything]. But, you know, video production and other information needs to be updated, like, in real time. Sometimes that gives people the wrong idea about things. See, because everthing is real-time on the web, we have to have information right away, and [if it's not exactly accurate] we have to change it afterwards because we didn't have any lead time in which to verify that information. So sometimes, we confused the consumer. But after four months, we're fixed internally, infrastructure-wise, and while the schedule used to see a lot of delays, now everything's set and we have more product. We can do preorders now, so we know the quantity we have to make for AnimeVillage. That way, everyone can get their product right away, after the release date. [One of the problems we had was] we kept having to wait for back orders.

ANN:What happened to the promises of more episodes per tape and lower prices that were originally announced?
Yamamoto: That was our wish and that was our effort. But still, we have to license from Japan, and we don't have control over that part. To make the product available in the United States, we have to work with the licensor. Our Japanese licensor was having trouble [with the differences] between the Japanese products and the American products. It's cheaper here, and if we have more episodes than the Japanese release, then the pirate import issue would have a big effect on the original Japanese licensor. So, I don't want to make excuses, but it was more the licensors than anything else.

ANN: What's the latest on DVD's?, for example, has over 300 signatures on their Escaflowne petition. What will it take?
Yamamoto: Okay, this is a long story... (laughs)

ANN: Okay...
Yamamoto: I'm not sure I can explain it, but I'll try my best. Umm... DVD's in Japan are very expensive. Just about $90. American pricing is very low... less than $40. This is, again, part of the import issue. We tried to produce those here. Everybody makes comments like, "It'll be a big seller! Why don't you make one?" We want to make DVD titles, but the licensor is very conscious about pirate imports. DVD's, as you know, can have, say, four languages. So we could have English subtitles, English dubbed, Japanese original dialogue, everything in one package. That's a problem for them.

ANN: But wouldn't reigon-encoding take care of that?
Yamamoto: Yes, officially you can say that, but there are lots of hackers, and so there are lots of ways to get around that. That's just another thing the licensor has to consider. We're part of the Bandai Group, you know, Bandai Visual, Bandai Entertainment, but at the same time, we are a different company. Everyone has to look after themselves. We are working very closely with each other to expand as a group, but that also means there's more than one side to the story.

It's a benefit, being part of the Bandai Group, because we can have more titles than any other company, but at the same time, we have to look out for each other... So that pirate import issue is a big one for us. If we can resolve it somehow, then we can start releasing DVD's. But right now, it's not a matter of cost: it's a matter of business strategy.

ANN: I see... So, will we see DVD's ever?
Yamamoto: Uhh, we'll try to make it happen, we think, this year. But I can't make any promises! (laughs) Does that sound fair?

ANN: So, if there's a possibility we won't get DVD titles, what about Laserdisc?
Yamamoto: Aah, Laserdisc. That's dying, in a way. (laughs) I don't know... We won't take a risk on that! Hm. Yeah, we're not even thinking about it. Just DVD's. (laughs)

ANN: The AnimeVillage web site mentioned forthcoming goodies like CD soundtracks, T-shirts, and of course, the recently-released Sunrise calendar. What else is coming, and when will we see them?
Yamamoto: Okay, because of what happened before [with AV's early promises], I'm going to be very careful in what I say here... There will be new items coming, starting this summer. I'm currently working on [releasing] a model kit for Gundam and other things like that, but that's not concluded yet. Those things are very big in animation. New graphics, content-wise for the web page — we produce a lot of graphics for retailers, and those graphics will be available soon for downloading. People can use them to create personalized printouts and such. By summer, we hope to provide T-shirts for our titles, and those will be available on the web also.

This year we hope to attend as many conventions as we can. We want to meet as many people as we can - - especially strange OTAKU people! (laughs) We want to communicate with them what they want, and try to get more of an ability to make our web page more interesting. Our web section is really starting to come together... Now, you see, the "Daily news" section has become "Weekly news," and editorial-wise, getting to be very consistant. Every week now we have something new, and that'll be very interesting.

ANN: Now, according to the AnimeVillage web page, there are only a few dubs in the works, and they're only Gundam titles. Will we be seeing more?
Yamamoto: Not from the web. There will be in retail stores. On the web, we're concentrating more on subtitles and collectible items and packaging, and we care about the quality of those a lot — we want to continue doing that. Retail-wise, they'll be more of a consumer-type product. Regular paper packaging... we'll concentrate on that. Retail stores don't carry many subs. That's a good definition of the difference between the web and the retail store.

ANN: Are all the dubs being produced by ZRO Limit as well?
(Note: ZRO Limit currently produces dubs for Pioneer, Manga Entertainment, and sometimes Media Blasters.)
Yamamoto: Yeah.

ANN: Would you like to tell our readers what we can look forward to from AnimeVillage?
Yamamoto: This month (Feb. 99) we're releasing volume 2 of the Gundam 0083 dub and Escaflowne Best Collection, and in March we'll have new titles Eat Man and Haunted Junction, both subtitled, of course, and both of those are brand new in the United States. Eat Man is a very interesting character: he actually eats bolts (laughs) and produce a gun out of his hand. A very cool, high-tech drama type anime. Haunted Junction, on the other hand, is a very anime-type product. Both are very characteristic [of anime], but very different from each other.

ANN: Is it possible we'll eventually see AnimeVillage theatrical releases?
Yamamoto: You mean, our videos in the theater? Yeah, we wish! (laughs) I'd like to do that, though — that is a goal, actually. It's hard to because the industry still sees anime as a niche market. We have to change those attitudes, and THEN we'll be able to do that. Especially with the Gundam series. You know, Gundam has a huge story and great visuals also. It's not just about robots — a lot of love and peace and stuff.

ANN: Is there a chance we'll be seeing more anime that other anime distributors couldn't afford? Say, the Evangelion movies, or Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories?
Yamamoto: Yeah, licensing is a big deal. Those people [in the original Japanese companies] — they'll spend the money, 'cause they're otaku too! They care about quality because they've invested so much money. To license to another market, they need to recoup the money they've spent. We'd have to have enough confidence that we could pay them back. Otherwise, it'll be very tough negotiations.

ANN: So, probably not until the market grows more, then?
Yamamoto: For now, let me just say that we're working on it. (laughs)

ANN: Speaking of "working on it," is it possible we'll see the "uncut" versions of Vision of Escaflowne that were on the Japanese releases?
Yamamoto: That will be... not available. Again, licensing issues. There has to be some kind of benefit in Japan to buy the Japanese releases. That's the deal. It's cheaper here than it is there, and if it's subtitled, they can still understand the dialogue of the US release.

ANN: What do you have to say to the people that had trouble ordering from AnimeVillage within the first few months of operation?
Yamamoto: I have to say, "I'm sorry." I really apologize, even if it isn't my personal responsibility at AnimeVillage, I really have to say "sorry." That will be resolved mostly because we've finally figured out our problems as to how to sell a boxed set.

We used to release the boxed set before all the volumes were available. That was a nightmare, and we learned from it, so now we're not going to sell a complete boxed set before everything is released. Instead of that, if you buy the first volume from AnimeVillage, a free box comes with it. That's the way it works with the dub of 0083 and Escaflowne Best Collection — volume one comes with the box. That way, you feel like you want to fill up the box with new releases. You don't have to order the whole box, or schedule payments: you can either continue to buy or not. That's a lot more realistic, administration-wise. So those problems won't happen, and now we have more professional employees taking care of things daily.

ANN: Anything to add?
Yamamoto: In the magazines, we will start expressing benefits of AnimeVillage memberships, so please wait to see those. There will be people buying from stores and online at the same time, so with a clear difference between the two, the customer will be able to chose.

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