The Mike Toole Show Dropping the Ball on Anime
by Michael Toole, Feb 9th 2014
Last month, me and about 2000 other anime nerds rang in the new year by heading to Las Vegas, where the veteran showrunners behind Otakon celebrated the east-coast convention mainstay's 20th anniversary by launching a brand new event, Otakon Vegas. The prospect was certainly tantalizing: just take the sensory overload of Vegas and mix it with the sensory overload of a typical anime con, and you're virtually guaranteed to come away with a huge crowd of anime fans who are really exhausted and grouchy by Sunday. Otakon Vegas, ensconced in Planet Hollywood, delivered on that sure promise with the usual great ingredients—cool Japanese and western guests, musical performances, and a much-touted premiere for Space Dandy, Shinichiro Watanabe's apparent spiritual heir to Cowboy Bebop. There may have also been sumo wrestling; I admit to nothing.
What was kinda neat about Otakon Vegas was its scale—unlike the 30,000-strong behemoth of Otakon itself, the Vegas event packed 2,000 attendees into a space that fit… well, maybe 2,200, at most. For me, it was happily reminiscent of my first Otakon in 1998, which packed about 2,500 people into the Hyatt Crystal City. In that respect, Otakon Vegas was a fresh new show with a nice, relaxed old-school feel. Sealing the deal for me was the Anime News Network panel on Saturday, at which I took my seat next to news editor Egan Loo. Egan was one of my roommates at Otakon 1998.
But what do we think of when we think of Las Vegas? We think of taking gambles. I didn't go nuts with the betting this time around, but the idea of taking a gamble occurred to me at one of my panels, Anime in Orbit, a rundown of eight or ten anime shows featuring realistic space travel. One of these shows is 2007's Moonlight Mile, an engagingly goofy seinen story about a pair of best buds who take very different paths to becoming astronauts and making for the moon. It's awfully silly at times (one episode features, no joke, a stripper with a heart of gold!), but it's got fun heroes, a pretty interesting story, and some moderately realistic space vehicle designs and EVA/spacewalk scenarios.
The thing is—and I never miss an opportunity to complain about this—we only got half of Moonlight Mile. The other half, a second set of 13 episodes subtitled “Touch Down,” remains unreleased in the west. My inquiries to good pals at Funimation have been met, more often than not, with exasperated smiles. I guess that's fair - Funimation kinda had Moonlight Mile tossed in their laps as a result of ADV's messy divorce with ARM/Sojitz, already translated and dubbed. We know from the subsequent release of court documents that it was pretty expensive to license—well over $100,000, originally—so there's no reason that Funimation should feel obligated to finish it off. Obviously, I think they should finish it, because it's a cool show that I want, and I'm the one who matters here!
Unfinished commercial releases of good shows are kind of a sad reality here in North America. Sometimes it's down to contracts and licensing – different pieces of the same property can end up in different hands. Just as frequently, a show underperforms, and it just doesn't make sense to continue releasing it. Or sometimes, the contract situation changes, and for whatever reason, the remainder of the series in question simply isn't available anymore.
Funimation have been at the center of this phenomenon several times now. On the one hand, I applaud their bravery and willingness to take that gamble with a variety of shows in several genres. On the other hand, jeez, would it kill them to release the second half of Galaxy Railways?! The thing is, Galaxy Railways is likely to remain half-finished in the US for two reasons. The first and most important reason is because, with only a couple of exceptions, no Leiji Matsumoto anime has really hit it big on these shores. The various iterations of Harlock and Galaxy Express have gotten a little traction, but most titles have been splintered across several publishers, with no clear-cut hit save for the singular INTERSTELLA 5555. When they announced Galaxy Railways in 2004, Funimation pointed this fact out, and declared their belief that Galaxy Railways had what it took to break the trend be a big hit.
I think they were kinda right. Galaxy Railways is a good-looking show with magnetic characters, engrossing stories, and Matsumoto's spellbinding imagery of starbound trains criss-crossing the milky way. But while it merited a box set and priced-down re-release, Galaxy Railways never made it to the top of the heap, sales-wise. The other reason we never got the show's second series, subtitled “Eternal Junction,” is a question of timing—just a few months after the US release of the first series wrapped, the second series started airing in Japan. Would Funimation be able to continue Railways’ very modest success after the requisite one-year gap for localization of the second season? Not likely. Sadly, while the forthcoming S.A.V.E. edition touts the “complete series” of Galaxy Railways, it really isn't.
One higher-profile example of a fan-favorite show getting dropped would be Kodocha, which Funimation announced, with great fanfare, at Anime Boston 2004. The marketing of this shoujo comedy seemed right on the money – fans at conventions were presented with fun-size replicas of heroine Sana Kurata's squeaky toy hammer, and the eventual DVD release featured a handsome collector's box and a hilarious dubbed version, music licensing problems notwithstanding. But there's sort of a structural problem with Kodocha – it starts off as a zany, lightning-fast schoolroom comedy, but after the first onslaught of thirty or so episodes, it starts to tilt the balance in favor of melodrama. In that way, a show that finds its greatest success squaring off a saucer-eyed egomaniacal TV actress against her chronic troublemaker classmate/nemesis (and obviously, they secretly like each other) ends up climaxing with a melancholy death in the family. And that's just the windup of the first 52-episode season!
It's hard to keep fans interested in a series with that formula, especially since this was back in the middle of the 2000s, when anime dorks were still buying single discs for $20ish each. Fans were bummed out when Funimation announced they opted not to pick up the second season in 2007, but to me it didn't come as much of a surprise. It was a bit more surprising to see D. Gray Man, a fairly popular shounen action series straight from the pages of Shonen Jump, quietly fizzle out on home video. Just as with Kodocha, Funimation released the first 51 episodes, but not the remaining 52. I guess, like Kodocha, it just didn't generate enough heat to keep it going.
Viz has had a couple of their long TV shows fizzle out under similar circumstances. I've heard the lamentations of fans far and wide concerning the fate of Monster, Madhouse's superb adaptation of Naoki Urasawa's legendary psychological suspense manga. Despite the manga's excellent reputation, I've always felt like the anime series was going to have an uphill battle – not only is it an extremely exacting, meticulous adaptation (i.e. if you've read the manga, you don't really need to watch the series), its release schedule of five 15-episode box sets was kind of unwieldy. Ultimately, only one would make it out of the gate, leaving fans to seek out the generally excellent English version at online streaming sites.
Right now, we're left with a mixed footnote for Monster; on one hand, the series has faded from the big streaming portals, making it all but lost to fans in North America. On the other hand, Australia's Siren Visual has picked up the rights there, so maybe a new deal can be struck for fans in this hemisphere. And on the other other hand, film director Guillermo del Toro has expressed interest in developing Monster as a live-action premium cable TV series, a move that would likely see the anime version return to shelves in a hurry. Let's cross our fingers for that one. In the meantime, Urasawa fans can console themselves with Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl, which suffered a similarly ignominious fate (AnimEigo released a big chunk, but couldn't justify releasing any more), or with the fine Master Keaton, the only Urasawa anime adaptation to be released in full. Good luck tracking those discs down!
Monster isn't the only tale of woe from the Viz catalog. The heartwarming/heartrending shoujo tale Full Moon o Sagashite also retreated to streaming-only channels after half of its run completed on DVD. The discs are still floating around out there, but the stream has vanished into the ether. A bit less worryingly, Corrector Yui, manga auteur Kia Asamiya's stab at the magical girl genre, never came close to catching fire. But while the show looked pretty and had its occasional moments, it just wasn't that great. A dubbed version of Corrector Yui had been produced and aired on overseas networks like Cartoon Network Latin America, which probably made experimenting with a US DVD release more viable. The experiment failed.
Media Blasters, for all of their reported financial woes, only have a handful of “unfinished” black marks against them. It's not entirely fair to point at Gaogaigar, since the sequel OVAs are certainly a separate license and the show didn't do well enough to justify them. Nor can you really lump in candidates like Moyashimon and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, which were picked up by Media Blasters but later dropped without any sort of release at all. If you want to shine a light on their unfinished business, just start with Squid Girl.
Squid Girl’s circumstances seem quite mysterious to me. The original series, a streaming and fansub favorite about the comical adventures of a petulant aquatic teen girl as she ineptly wages war against the surface world (read: gets a job at a beachside restaurant), was duly dubbed into English and rolled out on DVD and bluray. You can still find it streaming on Netflix in the U.S. It's chock full of funny situations, weird ocean-themed puns, and the always-hilarious image of our titular heroine dutifully puking ink onto a plate of angel-hair pasta. In light of that, Media Blasters’ announcement of series 2 wasn't the least bit surprising. But we never got it, and over a year later the company finally admitted they no longer had the rights.
Well, I hope someone picks up series 2! Or rather, I hope some other publisher “gets kraken” on series 2. Ha! See what I did there?! Don't go thinking I'm clever, I just stole that pun from one of the episodes. Media Blasters’ cancellation of Bakuman., the charmingly self-referential saga of a hot-blooded manga artist in his quest to make the greatest shounen manga of all time, was quite a bit more abrupt, coming straight on the heels of the first DVD release. Dozens of episodes remain, but we've got no choice but to take solace in the manga.
I'll wind this curious and sad set of incomplete releases of generally excellent anime TV shows by first touching on ADV Films. They've failed to finish up their business here and there—Queen Emeraldas comes to mind, but that's another case where the first two episodes and the second two episodes are owned by separate licensors. Also, the second two episodes are absolute rubbish. But fans really got their hopes up in 2003, because that was the year that Bandai teamed up with TV cartoon producer DIC to inflict Knights of the Zodiac on the American public. Of course, some rolled their eyes at this obvious but clunky retitling of the shounen fight classic Saint Seiya, but I was OK with it, having caught several episodes of Los Caballeros Del Zodiaco on Spanish-language TV. Best of all, fans wouldn't have to settle for DIC's weird adaptation, featuring out-of-place CG transitions and a cover of Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” by pop-punk also-rans Bowling for Soup, because ADV were doing a proper release.
Sadly, a proper release of Saint Seiya, while bilingual, uncut, and featuring a fine English dub with an entirely separate cast from the Knights of the Zodiac version (god, I love weirdly divergent adaptations), wasn't complete. Give credit to ADV, who did their level best and pumped out 60 of Saint Seiya’s 113 episodes. What chaps my hide about Saint Seiya is that these 60 episodes still fall short of the series’ complete Sanctuary arc, which lasts through episode 73. More recently, a publisher called New Video has been flogging their upcoming release of Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Classic Complete Collection. This would seem to suggest that the publisher will at least get fans to episode 73, but the release has already been postponed a couple of times and has no release date, so who knows what'll happen with that? In any case, Seiya's Asgard and Poseidon arcs remain beyond reach.
Now it's time to address a couple of pretty enormous elephants in the room. One of these elephants is pretty, and wears her long blonde hair in twin ponytails—her name is Sailor Moon. I've chronicled Sailor Moon’s halting, scattered US release in this space before, but it's worth revisiting for a moment ahead of the franchise's impending revival with a new anime adaptation slated for this summer. Getting Sailor Moon R finished after the show flopped in broadcast syndication was a long shot, but we got it. Getting the movies? Unlikely, but that eventually happened too. The show's revival on cable meant that releases of Sailor Moon S and Super S came along in due time, but that still leaves a couple of odds and ends.
One of these odds and ends is Sailor Moon SuperS Plus - Ami's First Love, a 15-minute theatrical short that was packaged with the SuperS movie. The short is a bit run of the mill, but very cute – it's a pretty obvious showcase for the brainy, soft-spoken Sailor Mercury, a perennial fan favorite in Japan. I feel like it got sneaked out on Pioneer's DVD of the SuperS movie, but a quick inspection yields nothing – it ain't there. Why not? It's a mystery. Less mysterious is the fate of Sailor Stars, the show's final TV season – fans were abuzz with speculation for years about the show's fate. After all, the series really ups the ante with its androgynous Starlight fighters, who swap genders when they transform. How the heck were they supposed to adapt that for kids’ TV? It had to be a big sticking point. But ultimately, Sailor Stars was kept off the market per the wishes of Toei, who simply opted not to pass it on to Pioneer. Frustrating, but that's their prerogative. With the show's rebirth on the horizon, I hope we get the whole classic on DVD; seems like that'd be the logical thing to do, which means it probably won't happen. Meanwhile, ADV managed to poop out all of Wedding Peach, even the OVAs! Where's the justice, I ask?!
The ultimate example of an enormous, globally popular anime that's been left in the dust here in the United States after an unsuccessful release comes to mind pretty quickly. It hit the airwaves with a thud. Title and catchphrase changes confounded dedicated fans. The show's specter haunted its North American licensee, who found themselves pursued from convention to convention by rabid fans, persistently begging, for years, for just one thing: more Detective Conan!
More Detective Conan is a pretty terrifying prospect. This is one of Japan's most enduringly popular shows (not anime, shows period—Conan hangs around mainstream public consciousness along with broad favorites like Doraemon and Chibi Maruko-chan), with more than 700 episodes in the can and still counting. In 2004, Funimation tackled the gargantuan prospect of bringing Detective Conan, the action-packed story of teen detective Shinichi Kudo, trapped in the body of a kid who, thanks to a mixture of necessity and artistic license, calls himself Conan Edogawa, to America. The show underwent a smattering of editing for TV (turns out there's a lot of murder in family detective shows!), most obviously in its title change, to Case Closed. I can't find a direct reference, but I seem to recall the reason for this title change involved an old trademark claim to the name “Conan” in relation to TV cartoons by the Conan the Adventurer folks. Or maybe Funimation and TMS just wanted to avoid brand confusion.
In any case, the company chewed through a whopping 130 episodes of Case Closed, but the show never really took off. It aired on the Cartoon Network and later on Funimation's own cable and VOD offerings, but the audience for it never arrived. This hasn't really been enough to dissuade the small but potent audience of Conan-lovers, who persistently visit Funimation's booth and panels and politely ask for more at con after con. But Funimation's tried every angle available to them – TV broadcasts, deluxe collector's boxes, and priced-down economy releases. Getting that whopping run of episodes up on Netflix would seem like a smart move, but it hasn't happened. I don't think picking Detective Conan back up is feasible at this point, but I do have one wish for the franchise: I wish we still got the movies. Like many shounen anime movies, the annual Detective Conan theatrical films are deliberately constructed to be self-contained, fairly straightforward, and very good-looking. Any one of them is a decent introduction to the character and his world, and while we've got six of them on video, that still leaves twelve more!
Now that I've run down a series of unfinished shows that range from somewhat well-known to big favorites, my one hope is that I've struck terror into your bones about the shows you're collecting. Because frankly, I still feel a little bit of that terror from time to time. Don't you? Even though it's become very well established, I still eye those One Piece DVDs nervously. What if they suddenly stop coming out? What then?! And when are we getting more of the movies, anyway?
Anime is a fickle business, and the future isn't always guaranteed. Aborted releases like the above can be galling, but they also hearken back to the olden days of VHS, when patient fans were rewarded with unfinished releases of Tekkaman, Dragon League, and so many others. Actually, I think it's kind of astonishing that so many anime releases have been completed! Like, who do you suppose bought the last couple of volumes of Sohryuden from U.S. Manga Corps?! It wasn't me, that's for sure. Do you worry about your favorite long-running shows vanishing due to slumping sales? Are you a frustrated Detective Conan or Sailor Moon fan? Or are you just happy we've got such an abundance of finished shows next to these unseemly gaps? Talk all about it in the comments!
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