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The Mike Toole Show
Revenge of the Special Edition

by Michael Toole,

Okay, I give up. The plan was to write a column about the history of weird premium crap that came with anime DVDs. Then, when Bandai Entertainment dropped their little "no more new releases" bombshell, it was going to be a feature about Bandai Entertainment's crazy premium crap specifically. Then, Media Blasters laid off two thirds of their staff, so I figured I'd be extra-nice about their incredibly bizarre Giant Robo deluxe box. Then, when Funimation sued Sentai Filmworks, I emailed some people to find some stuff out so I could work them into the conversation, too. But that all went down yesterday, I haven't gotten any responses, and I'm at Arisia, Boston's beloved science fiction convention, where a man in a utilikilt and a Thundercats t-shirt has just walked by. I guess it's time for plan B: write about all of that shit, and then some!

To preface things: while I've worked in the industry, I don't currently, and what you're about to read isn't stone-cold, immutable fact, it's just my informed take on things. Bandai Entertainment made a somewhat graceful exit from the business of licensing new anime early this month; I'm sure you've read all about it. The fact that there isn't a local custodian for the Gundam franchise, that any future releases are likely to be brokered entirely from far-off Japan, seems hilarious and a little sad to me. Once upon a time, Gundam was kind of a big deal here. Non-Gundam goodies like Gosick have gotten the chop, as well. But what has intrigued me has been the reaction - many fans, and weirdly, an awful lot of voice actors, have been quick to point the finger straight at piracy. In fairness, that makes some sense. Anime DVD sales have flat or dropping every year for a few years now, which just happens to coincide with the rise of digital fansubs, followed by the introduction of more legitimate online sources like Crunchyroll and Netflix.

But folks, piracy isn't the only reason for Bandai Entertainment's radical slowdown. In fact, Bandai Entertainment prez Ken Iyadomi sums it up well in his interview - his company's releases were making a little money, probably enough to sustain things for a few more years. But according to the business unit that oversaw the company, it wasn't enough money, and they made the decision to pull the plug on Bandai Entertainment. If piracy was the driving force, Ken would've made that clear in his remarks. I certainly think Bandai Entertainment could've hung tough, but so continues a long history of retreating in confusion after a series of minor setbacks, a la Toei Animation USA and Bandai Visual USA.

There are pretty obvious indicators why the long-term decline in anime DVD sales isn't just a matter of sheer piracy. Ten years ago this month it was 2002, the hot new shows were Fullmetal Panic and Rahxephon, and if you were going to watch anime and wanted it right away, you'd need to wait for a few things. First of all, there were the fansubbers, who were fast, but not as blindingly fast as today. You'd need a pipeline to get these newfangled digital files, which usually took the form of a Hotline or USENET or IRC server; bittorrent was still in its infancy, and video sites like Youtube were still years away. If you had a fast enough computer to view fansubs (NOT a given in those far-off days), then after all of these criteria were filled, you could watch your pilfered anime. A lot of people, at this point, still used VHS tapes to get fansubs. As for the Rahxephon and Fullmetal Panic DVD releases? Well, ADV would license them in the summer, and the DVDs would hit shelves - next year.

Let's compare that delivery system to now. I just watched the first half of Fate/Zero, which would arrive on NicoNico, subtitled in several languages, exactly one hour after its Japanese broadcast. Other shows, like Hunter X Hunter, might take as long as a day to get posted on Crunchyroll. Thanks to streaming, if I found myself in Tokyo tomorrow, I could easily talk to the fans there about fare like Brave 10 and Knight in the Area, because they're posted quickly after their brodcast. In the past few days, I've watched anime on my TV's blu-ray player, on my laptop, and on my phone. And thing is, even with the good stuff, these are shows that I'm really not going to watch again. See, that's how TV shows are designed - you watch once, you sit through a commercial or two or pay a subscription fee, and everyone prospers. Maybe if you're really wild for the stuff, you'll buy the DVDs - but that home video sales model is designed for a small segment of the viewership. Since it's hard for anime to get on TV, however, the anime business on these shores has used that relatively small collector segment as its primary customer base. In other words, it was already a fairly small pie - DVD made it bigger, but then it just started shrinking again.

But for a long time, that worked fine! There were plenty of fans who wanted to own their favorite shows, and more casual fans got their DVD fix via Blockbuster and other rental chains, which still funneled money back to the publishers. But then, things changed. DVD sales started to dip, large retailers like Best Buy started returning unsold discs (and not just anime - even big Hollywood flicks) to publishers in shorter and shorter order, meaning less time on the shelves for the DVDs, which only got harder to sell as they aged and were supplanted by budget collections and re-releases. Suncoast, which was, despite its high prices, an extremely visible place for anime to be seen and purchased, vanished. Anime's TV profile shrank. These were ominous portents, and Geneon and Central Park Media collapsed under their weight. The thing is, they signaled something important: people just aren't as into the idea of owning media anymore.

Of course, I love owning media, and I'm sure many of you do, as well. It's partly out of sheer love of the material, but also because, as someone who writes and speaks about anime professionally, having a big collection of the stuff is a good investment. But an awful lot of people don't collect; I have friends who only have a handful of physical DVDs of any genre. My brother owns none, receiving his media exclusively via cable TV and his AppleTV. Young fans are essentially being raised in a post-DVD world, and drooping sales are an effect of that. The other elephant in the room is that most anime TV series, even pretty good ones, aren't really worth owning, simply because, like I said, you're not likely to watch them more than once.

Think about it: how often do you watch an anime TV series, short or long, more than once? I can think of a couple, personally: Cowboy Bebop here, The Big O there. But Fullmetal Alchemist and Kikaider and Princess Tutu and Eden of the East probably aren't going to get revisited. Let's face it: this media, in its TV form at least, is planned to be inexpensive and expendable. Money from these goodies is supposed to be made somewhere besides DVD, either through advertisements or merchandise. IPTV sources like NicoNico, Hulu and Crunchyroll are making it easier to make this ad/subscription model work, but it's still immature, with payouts that are dwarfed by broadcast TV commercials. That will change, but it's going to take a lot of time.

It's even crummier in Japan, where a majority of TV anime runs late at night as infomercials. Consequently, the producers purchase airtime from broadcasters and must rely on media sales and ancillary crap much more. This is somewhat easier to do in Japan, which is still pretty focused on buying hard media despite the digital age we live in - CD stores are all but gone here, but chains like Tower Records soldier on in Japan. A lot of anime releases involve lavish collector's editions, packages with deluxe boxes and toys and posters and other crazy crap, to tempt the otaku who buy them. Hey, we used to do that!

Remember January of 2002, and Rahxephon? Well, a year later, in April of 2003, ADV Films released volume one of the series, packaged in a collector's box that would fit the entire run, and included an exclusive T-shirt. The shirt was a total piece of crap, a cheap white shirt with an iron-on transfer, and the box was flimsy cardboard. Fans complained about the quality-- and then asked for more. Bandai Entertainment actually struck first in March, with a puzzling hexagonal shaped box for its .hack//SIGN series. Tantalizingly, the box contained not only a t-shirt, but also a soundtrack CD and a plush 'grunty,' one of the cute little animals from the show. Fans bought this ritzy $65 box, too-- and thus, in 2003, the collector's box arms race was on.

This phenomenon wasn't limited to anime - plenty of gimmicky releases have hit mainstream DVD, like the discs of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight that involve model motorcycles and bat-masks.  But the box+volume model was unique to anime, and it yielded some incredibly interesting products. Media Blasters heralded their releases of the legendary Giant Robo with a plastic box that doubled as a scale model of the Eye of Vogler, the show's doomsday weapon. ADV issued Naijica Blitz Tactics with a real, cotton pair of women's panties, and Bandai Entertainment vomited up a wide variety of extras, from plastic busts (Scrapped Princess) to figurine collections (Galaxy Angel) to urinating plush wolves (Wolf's Rain). One of their most infamous releases was the 2004 Zeta Gundam box set. This massive release contained the entire series in a ten-disc set, plus a set of figurines that doubled as pencil sharpeners. The retail price for this monster was $199.99, which means that most fans paid at least $130 to get a DVD set that turned out to be dubtitled and missing the opening and ending theme songs thanks to rights issues. It's a tough situation, but Bandai sowed an awful lot of ill will by holding back on letting fans know about this issue until literally days before the release. Many Bandai Entertainment releases also included a booklet and the near-ubiquitous soundtrack CD, a practice that I still like very much. Included with this column is a brief video; watch and learn as I examine Bandai's elaborate (and still fairly recent!) Lucky Star collector's editions, the current incarnation of "collector's sets" that Funimation utilizes, and unbox a new, sealed copy of Infinite Ryvius volume 1+box!

Premium items actually go pretty far back in the anime scene. When they acquired Minna Agechau, Central Park Media famously planned to issue paper panties with the VHS tapes, an idea that struck so much fear of bad publicity into Sony of Japan that they hastily withdrew the rights and traded CPM a package of titles that included future classics like M.D. Geist and Roots Search. Geneon released lovely DVD sets of fare like R.O.D. the TV and Fushigi Yuugi, but they got on the premium item wagon early, packaging their subtitled VHS tapes with goodies like trading cards and posters, and including a complicated set of inserts and posters with their laserdisc release of Green Legend Ran. AnimEigo's blockbuster box of Urusei Yatsura laserdiscs included a slipcase and a t-shirt of Lum illustrated by British comic veteran and anime nut Steve Kyte. So these items aren't new - but they didn't hit critical mass on these shores until DVD.

So, what's changed in these past ten years? Well, one thing that leaps out at me is the scale. Aniplex made headlines last year when they released a limited edition blu-ray box of Garden of Sinners. This box is gorgeous, a very handsome, high quality package for Type-Moon's films. Only 800 copies were produced, and while the set's absurd $300 price tag sent fans into fits, the entire run sold out before street date. All eight hundred copies were claimed. Back in 2003, Bandai Entertainment released Infinite Ryvius box+volume 1 with a sticker on the bottom, which indicated that it was part of a limited edition of 15,000 copies. So clearly, the scope has narrowed. Higher prices are grating, but in order to get your absolute favorite anime in disc form, they'll probably stick around. Now, a lot of people are complaining about the high prices of Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero blu-ray releases, but I have a feeling these shows are still going to sell out as well.

What else has changed? Availability in other media. Pirated fansubs are sadly ubiquitous, though legitimate outlets have finally caught up, with Crunchyroll turning a profit in 2010. I hope this trend continues; online streaming has resulted in me watching a lot more anime than I normally would have. The experience that Funimation, Crunchyroll, Viz, and other outlets offer is almost seamless, especially if you've got a computer hooked up to the TV. The sheer variety and flexibility of IPTV has me wondering how long cable TV will be in charge of things. But the abundance of legitimately streaming anime has, for me, really put its biggest flaw in the spotlight: you don't need to watch it more than once. And in the end, that'll eat away at the physical media market more effectively than any number of pirates on bit torrent.

I don't think DVDs will go away. What we're seeing now is the beginnings of them turning from cheap, plentiful, plasticky mass-market goodies to fancy boutique items-- at least, that's how I see it. If you love that new series so much you just have to own, it, you're probably gonna have to pre-order. But don't panic if you love DVD and blu-ray and have nightmares of going to Best Buy and seeing the entire section vanished. This transition isn't going to be overnight, I'd guess it'll take years. It's really fun to look back at how nutty special edition anime used to be, though-- and while the medium isn't going away, its business model is changing terrifyingly quickly. Let's hope the anime business we love keeps calm and carries on!

So what's your favorite anime collector's DVD? Which shows did you love but only watch once, and which extra special shows do you find yourself revisiting over and over? Let me know in the comments!

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