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The Mike Toole Show
The Great Unwatched

by Michael Toole,
Lots of anime nerds are collectors. I definitely count myself among that number - I've got hundreds of anime cels, artbooks, autographs, sketches, con programs, die-cast robots, and other detritus. My DVD collection, the actual physical media I own, is approaching the 1000 mark. Okay, I'm cheating a little - I have just over 800 discs. A close scrutiny of my collection revealed something interesting, though - there's about 75 that I haven't watched. Some of them, like my Armored Trooper Votoms ammo case set, sit unloved because I saw the show years ago on VHS, and I felt compelled to buy it to support the commercial DVD release of what I consider to be a really excellent series. Others are things I like and want to watch, but haven't had the time to wrap up - I have to confess that I never quite finished up with Zeta Gundam, stalling out in volume 4, and I also need to burn through the second Ghost in the Shell TV season. Still other titles are stuff that I picked up on the cheap, like the Sakura Wars TV series. I watched two episodes and found it pretty lousy, but the discs were cheap (four bucks apiece) and I'm a huge fan of the franchise, so I took the plunge, thinking I might watch them on a rainy day.

I bought those discs in 2004. I haven't watched them yet.

What I've discovered over the years is that pack-rat anime fans like myself tend to have unwatched portions of their collections. Browse your favorite anime forum, and you'll probably notice that at least one poster's signature mentions what's at the top of their "backlog." For some reason, lots of anime fans have these backlogs. I polled a bunch of folks on twitter (remember, I'm @michaeltoole if you want to tell me what a shithead I am!) and a couple of different active forums, and the goofy sci-fi convention that I'm visiting this weekend Arisia, natch) and noticed a trend over the answers in that 25-odd person anonymous sample - most of these fans have more than a hundred DVDs (in several cases, more than a thousand), and almost every single case, at least ten percent sit unwatched, or even unopened altogether. Given the enormity of my own backlog, I was left wondering why, and I've come up with several reasons. Intriguingly, all of these reasons are connected.

First of all, a lot of anime fans with the purchasing power to collect DVDs are old enough to remember a time when anime was well and truly scarce - well into the 1990s, it was rare when more than one or two anime titles would come out in a single month, so the true enthusiasts naturally bought everything in sight. I kind of miss those days in that respect, because back then it was possible to watch and enjoy every single commercial release - well, okay, maybe not Gude Crest - but that became completely impossible after the rise of DVD and the anime boom. The late ADV Films' first DVD release was the slightly dubious Queen Emeraldas, but five of the fans I polled own it, because they bought it when it came out. To a man (they were all men, of course) each guy also had CPM's Battle Arena Toshinden, because that was CPM's first DVD. Each respondent admitted that they hadn't watched either of these discs in a decade or so, but the DVDs still remain in their collections. These are the types that buy everything when it comes out, even if they don't have time to watch it, because they're still stuck in the mindset that it's very important to get the anime - all the anime! With the rapid increase in the number of titles, even the most addicted of fans have tended to fall off the pace; one respondent reported a collection of over 1000 DVDs, but more than 600 hadn't been watched.

Of course, anime isn't scarce anymore - quite the opposite, in fact. It's cheap and common. Compulsive buyers are falling behind in their viewing, buckling under the sheer volume of releases, but the ease of finding anime has given rise to a tribe of bargain hunters who load up when big sales hit. Entire box sets can be had for as little as $10, after all - one fan I spoke to at Arisia stated that he loves buying inexpensive box sets and thinpaks, and has more than thirty that he hasn't taken out of the shrinkwrap. He doesn't fret about scarcity or buy out of sheer compulsiveness; he just enjoys the feeling that a full shelf and plenty of fresh viewing choices gives him, and likes the feeling of getting a lot of episodes for a few bucks.

Another factor that creates ominously large piles of unwatched discs in fans' collections is the phenomenon of double-dipping. Some shows have been reissued three or four times, often in box set or reduced-price format, and also because they've switched publishers. This can lead to a puzzling variety of versions of the same release that feature different packaging, different extras, and in some extreme cases, different dubs. Consequently, you'll often see fans purchase re-releases with superior or new extras, but then neglect them because the primary content has already been absorbed in a previous release. I'm guilty of this behavior - you can blame early DVD releases by Image Entertainment like Lupin III: Mystery of Mamo and Megazone 23 for that. Newer versions would feature extras, better subtitles, and brand new dubs, but was I about to toss out my original discs? Certainly not! This phenomenon has also been exacerbated by the emergence of blu-ray; Samurai Champloo may look a bit better in the format, but the original Geneon release has extras that aren't present in the newer box set, so having both is a necessity for serious fans. I haven't yet met anyone crazy enough to buy all four re-releases of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but I'm sure they're out there.

This wave of reissues has also had the interesting side effect of flooding secondhand stores and bargain outlets like Big Lots with old single discs. Back in 2001, these releases of 3 or 4 episodes would go for $25 each, but with popular favorites like X and Trigun and Nadesico seeing repeated reissues that are cheaper every time, it's gotten hilariously easy for fans to pick up random single discs for as little as a dollar. One forum user I quizzed indicated a fondness for acquiring loose DVDs and even VHS tapes, which are then tossed aside for rainy-day viewing. Trouble arises with this approach, however, because it can be surprisingly hard to track down all of the single discs in a given series. One very popular example is Aura Battler Dunbine - it's very easy to get the first half of the series for pennies per disc, but later discs are increasingly scarce, and the final two volumes saw very limited release that has driven their price stratospherically high. More than ten of the folks I talked to said that they had weird "holes" in their collection where the lack of a volume 2 or 4 of a series has kept them from sitting down and watching the show. Still, the incomplete series remain in their collections, waiting hopefully to be filled out and enjoyed.

The rapid deflation of the anime video market has also been a big contributor to the phenomenon of fans wildly stockpiling DVDs. The vicious cycle of reissues, blowout sales, and then anime publisher downsizing has created a growing list of out-of-print titles that can't be found for cheap, but are instead growing more expensive as times goes by. It is inconceivable to me that The End of Evangelion film is out of print, for example, but this disc, which once sold for as little as $10 at Sears, now easily commands more than $30 and climbing. AnimEigo's jumbo 2-disc Crusher Joe movie/OVA pack once sold for $7.99 at their online store, but now commands more than $50. I've talked to ANN's own Justin Sevakis and discovered that we're both guilty of speculating on this phenomenon, using big sales as excuses to buy huge stacks of discs that may someday become very difficult to find. It sounds incredibly stupid, but I'd be really irritated if I didn't get those Sherlock Hound DVDs a few years ago, because they've vanished from retail outlets, they're getting harder to find used, and a reissue of any sort seems like wishful thinking.

Coming up to the present day, there's one final problem that dogs fans who buy a lot of discs - the emergence of streaming and on-demand anime outlets that are doing a neat job of stealing attention from that nagging pile of 472 DVDs that are all still in the shrinkwrap. The combination of all of the above factors has given thousands of fans backlogs - out of all of the folks I talked to, only one respondent has watched every one. One respondent had more than 600 unwatched DVDs, and he admitted that the number is closer to 1000 because he was counting box sets as single titles. Several respondents have pointed out that they no longer keep count of how many of their DVDs sit unwatched, because they find dwelling on this fact irritating, even depressing. And finally, some are aware of their pile of unloved otaku crap, but continue to gleefully buy DVDs that they know perfectly well they won't have time to watch, because like Konata in Lucky Star, they just don't want to miss out on that shiny new release.

I'm in the fortunate position of being a professional anime critic, so my voluminous collection is frequently used as an asset. But I still find myself amazed that so many fans are plagued by something that one friend ominously refers to as "the pile," and I wonder what can be done to remedy this situation. I've joined up with an online "simulwatchathon" where a group of fans are watching one episode of VOTOMS or Patlabor per day, and this is doing wonders for allowing me to actually watch the discs I own. One con attendee I spoke to told me that he's designated Thursday as "anime day," and won't allow himself to go to bed without enjoying at least one full DVD. He still has some 40 discs that haven't been touched.

With that in mind, dear readers, I've got a query: how big is YOUR pile? What's the one show you just can't seem to finish? Which 8-disc series is neglected because you don't have volumes 3 and 7? Think about it - and think about enjoying your collection, because the anime that we all love was made to be watched.

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