The Mike Toole Show
The Strange Saga of Star Anime Enterprises
by Mike Toole,
There's a pretty simple, obvious Thanksgiving tradition in my household. We get up early, we go to our pals' place (they host), and as we start to prepare for the multi-hour eat attack later in the day, we put on the big parade in New York. You know, the one where something awesome usually happens, like the time when Barney exploded (I will never forget how loudly people cheered this), or the time when Spider-Man did something alarming, or that one instance of the NYPD marching band breaking out into the Space Cruiser Yamato theme song. We usually follow this with the dog show, but there were signal problems this time, so we listened to the latest episode of my Anime World Order pals' podcast.
While I'm aware that some podcasts are amazingly, almost hilariously popular (I'm pretty sure our very own ANNCast has decent listenership numbers across several continents), I still stodgily view podcasts as something akin to HAM radio – it's a pain in the ass for me to really commit to them, and from my fractured point of view, most of the people who avidly follow podcasts are, themselves, podcasters. So I don't listen to podcasts as a matter of routine, but the holidays are a good time to break with routine. This episode the hosts did something different, posing a series of fun trivia questions to each other and the listeners. One of the questions concerned a long-gone home video label that, according to questioner Gerald Rathkolb, had released just a single anime title. That label was Star Anime Enterprises.
“Now wait just a minute,” I yelled, leaping to my feet and sweeping my arm around with such emphasis that it knocked the waiting Thanksgiving turkey straight into the fireplace, “Star Anime Enterprises did not have just one anime release. They had two! How could you people not know this?! I have to stop this, somehow.” I remarked on this oversight on Twitter, and soon enough, the question was posed: what was the deal with Star Anime Enterprises, anyhow?
Well, it turns out that I mentioned them in one of my very first columns here at ANN, a mere six years ago… jeez. Star Anime Enterprises landed in the anime business in 1994, when home video in general was a free-for-all where seemingly anyone with access to duplication facilities could flood the market with their dross. Their only competition at the time consisted of ADV Films, Viz, Central Park Media, Pioneer, Manga Entertainment, AnimEigo… actually, an awful lot of the 90s-2000s regulars had cemented their presence at this point. But there was still plenty of room on the anime battlefield, and Star Anime Enterprises' first bomb was called Homeroom Affairs.
Here's some background for you. Star Anime Enterprises was really one man: a big fan of anime with just enough capital and plans to get his dream off the ground. His name was David Norell. Mr Norell had gotten real-world experience doing some sort of work at Central Park Media, and he'd worked some fan conventions to get an angle on his prospective audience. From what my peers have related over the years (seemingly everyone who has encountered Mr Norell has their own personal Norelliad; I'm not an exception), his strategy for getting his anime publishing company started was to hassle every single overseas licensing firm in Japan until someone caved in and made a deal with him.This seems kinda pushy on its face, but AnimEigo were doing the same thing when they started!
Eventually, Norell's strategy worked, and he was able to cut a deal with Tokuma Shoten for the rights to Tanin no Kankei, aka Human Relations, aka Homeroom Affairs. My impression (once again, based on a weird sort of oral history) is that the Tokuma people kinda gave it to him just so he'd stop calling their LA offices every couple of weeks. Honestly, it didn't seem like a bad pickup, from a business perspective—it was a neat little two-part softcore smut comedy, just the sort of thing that ADV Films was making hay on down in Texas. The show's formula—about a coquettish schoolgirl tormenting her well-meaning young male teacher—is hoary and kind of gross these days, but it was new and interesting back then. What grabbed my eye when the series came out is the way it was marketed, with the ad copy hysterically pointing out that the cutie on the cover was an 18-YEAR OLD HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR, and that the series was recommended for viewers 16 and older. Wait a minute, why 16 and not 18?!
The story with Star Anime Enterprises isn't entirely a matter of half-remembered anecdote. I actually spoke with Mr Norell several times on the phone when I was starting up my old anime website, Anime Jump. (Back then, I called everyone. Like, on a landline telephone. Remember those?!) I found the man's naked enthusiasm for the media charming, as he happily took my cold call and gabbed for hours about the anime business. He did have one really interesting story about the nuts and bolts of home video sales, wherein he'd shipped a bunch of Homeroom Affairs tapes to a major video rental outfit, ostensibly for them to purchase and rent to their customers. Several months later, the tapes were returned en masse, all of them opened and presumably enjoyed by renters in the ensuing time; apparently, the terms of his agreement weren't specific enough about compensation, so he was unable to properly bill them for the goods. Sneaky!
Anyway, when I phoned his little office in Sea Cliff, New York, Norell wasn't just looking for an interested and sympathetic ear to explain his ups and downs with Homeroom Affairs; he was fired up because of his company's forthcoming second release, the TV series Dragon League! I love Dragon League, man. It's about a world of magic and fantasy, and how one kid who looks kinda like Ranma has to beat all of these formidable knights and wizards and dragons at soccer. The big adversary is the captain of the Eleven Winners, a pugnacious Soccer Lion who, upon being defeated, immediately becomes one of the main character's buddies so they can go into battle together. The series is great fun, and at two episodes per VHS tape, it would've run to completion after a mere 19 or 20 volumes. I don't think Star Anime Enterprises got past volume 1, though…
…which is a shame, because as you can see, the series had surprisingly good-looking marketing and packaging materials. Months after getting a Dragon League screener in the mail, I briefly met Mr Norell at a symposium in New York. He seemed happy enough to meet me, but even happier to be rushing off to lunch with Yoshi Enoki, the Enoki Films guy, who was a potential business partner for him at the time. I never did encounter Dragon League in a retail store or a con dealer's room, which mystified me… until I got a call from Norell months later, sheepishly admitting he'd forgotten who I was and asking me if I might be one of his vendors. And that's the story of Star Anime Enterprises.
I love weird little companies like Star Anime Enterprises, outfits that just took a flying leap at releasing some anime, and AWO's fun trivia chatter about the ones that sank largely unnoticed unsettled me a bit. It wasn't that the companies had gone out of business that bothered me, but rather the idea that anime fandom's collective memory of them was starting to fade. I remembered these weird boutique labels, damn it, so why doesn't anyone else?!
My willingness to reach out and touch someone would serve me well some years later, when I dug up the contact information from a little Washington state video label called Hen's Tooth. I had some questions about their release of the Nippon Herald anime film Jack and the Beanstalk, but as I shook the sheets, I figured I'd be met with the same surprise I got when I emailed a publisher called Catcom about their DVD release of Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon. Catcom actually released several other early anime films, including The Adventures of Sindbad and The World of Hans Christian Andersen, by employing an old loophole in public domain rules—the same one that's given us a million zillion different releases of Night of the Living Dead and those old Fleischer Superman cartoons. Anyway, the Catcom folks were surprised that I'd heard of these films at all, much less that I wanted to talk about them.
As for Hen's Tooth, soon enough, I had a reply from the company owner Steven Newmark, who cheerfully confirmed that he knew exactly what Jack and the Beanstalk was when he'd licensed it and was happy that anime fans were seeking it out. He told me a funny story about how they'd had to license the movie via a German outfit called Atlas Film (that's why the DVD is a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, because the source tape was PAL), and that they had no idea the Japanese audio was included until the materials arrived. “What made us jump on this movie,” Newmark said, “was the string of cable TV showings in the 80s. That's the audience we figured would show up for Jack and the Beanstalk. It's not really an anime-style title.” Hen's Tooth didn't have the resources at hand to re-translate and time the Japanese dialogue for an accurate subtitle script, but they threw in the dubbed script as subtitles, figuring that any subtitles were better than none at all. These days, Hen's Tooth's Jack and the Beanstalk DVD is long out of print, but they continue to keep classic film and TV in circulation. After all, someone has to release High Road to China on Blu-Ray for all of those Tom Selleck fans out there!
That AWO episode brought up some other small outfits, like Best Film & Video (I've long contemplated tracking down the actor who played Noel, who told you how to work your VCR's tracking feature in Best's Celebrity Just for Kids imprint, and having him painstakingly recreate the bit for modern re-releases of fare like Techno Police 21C and Revenge of the Ninja Warrior), but one that they didn't mention was AnimeWho. I assume that the company chose this name because, years later, most folks hear the name and go “Anime who?!”
Anime These Guys, that's Who. Here was a company that was created as a spinoff of hentai publisher JapanAnime, with the notion of breaking into the mainstream anime business. But their timing was off—2008 might've been the nadir of the anime bubble bursting—and their choice of title wasn't a particularly inspired one. Still, they really gave it a go with their single release, Joe vs. Joe, lavishing a pretty unexceptional OVA (see, the two boxers are both named Joe, and the show was created by the Tomorrow's Joe people, so… Joe! Get it?!) with decent subtitles and a competent pro dub. They quietly disappeared, but I'm tempted to ascribe that to the anime market crashing rather than the company being on unsteady ground.
AnimeWho only released one title, but many of these smaller outfits were more like Star Anime, and managed to poop out two titles before quietly disappearing. One of them was Tai Seng, a Hong Kong film label that was hugely important in the 90s, but saw their influence wane as larger studios elbowed them out of the way to secure the action and kung fu blockbusters that used to be their bread and butter. I wrote about their release of Legend of Condor Hero in my wuxia column a few months back. That one was obviously a good fit, a Japanese-Chinese co-pro martial arts epic.
But Tai Seng also released Champion Joe, a digest movie version of legendary boxing anime Tomorrow's Joe. (What is it with these smaller companies and boxing anime?!) At the time of Champion Joe's release, I was regularly in touch with Tai Seng, because I liked showing their titles at Katsucon, where I was the video manager at the time. According to their PR man, they were having a hard time competing for the higher-end Hong Kong fare, so were experimenting with what else was available to them. They weren't big on anime, but they had the know-how to put out a bilingual DVD release, which is really all you need. Years later, Tai Seng quietly vanished, which is a shame. Without them, I never would have discovered God of Cookery!
A more recent publisher to join the two-title dance is Anime Midstream, which our very own Answerman wrote about not too long ago. Once again, I met the news of their entry into the market in 2010 by writing them. Soon enough, I heard back from executive producer Jimmy Taylor, who detailed the massive undertaking required to become an anime DVD publisher. “We contacted Sunrise, “ he said, “and told them we would like to license one of their releases. They sent us a list of available titles, so we picked one (Raijin-Oh) and made an offer. They then proceeded to grant us the rights to the series.” This is really the long and short of how the licensing of this stuff works. There's no trick to it. Their Raijin-Oh release seemed like an odd choice, but the managed to get the series finished up. Now, as they prepare to release B't X, I wish them the best.
One of my favorite cautionary tales in this screed about one- and two-hit anime publishers is S'more Entertainment. They generated some excitement several years back by announcing plans to release Shonen Jump oddball hit Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo bilingually, and Toei classic Galaxy Express 999 (TV) with subtitles. Even better, the company was staffed by a bunch of ex-Rhino employees, people who understood home video well and had dealt with anime fans before, with the release of Battle of the Planets. But their brief foray into anime was characterized by a series of blunders. That Bo-Bobo release had both English and Japanese audio, but instead of subtitles, PDF scripts were included on the discs. The publisher seemed taken aback when fans complained about this; the ensuing disclaimer is still on their site!
What really did S'more in was their inept stab at Galaxy Express 999, which amounted to little more than highly-compressed encodes of the episodes that Toei had been streaming online for years, complete with burned-in subtitles. When fans upbraided them for the hard subs, the company publicly complained that furnishing Galaxy Express 999 with proper soft subtitles would've cost a small fortune, seemingly unaware of the video OCR tools and cheap, motivated freelance subtlitler/timers that would've driven their costs down. They quit the anime game, leaving behind great examples of how not to do a DVD release and how not to engage with fans.
Hey, remember that weird company that said they were gonna release Unico and then disappeared? I had to do a fair bit of googling before I found the 2007 press release heralding their arrival. Now, all that remains is an archive.org copy of their website. Check out that logo! Yeah, these guys were destined for greatness, alright. I'm still intrigued by the mystery. Did New Galaxy Anime ever actually license Unico, or any title? Googling the company and CEO's names turns up nothing.
I was rooting for Crimson Star Media. They were yet another one-man publisher, run by a character with a spotty reputation and a criminal record. But he had a good contract with Pony Canyon for the release of a very solid little one-shot romance, and he'd signed on talented freelancers to help him translate and prepare the show for DVD release. Then, he disappeared. Turns out he'd violated the terms of his parole and was back in the slammer. D'oh! There are some other sad details, but I won't go into them, because I just feel bad for everyone involved. Suffice it to say, this is a particularly infamous cautionary tale, one that applies to both prospective licensees (have a business plan and remember to obey the law, gang) and licensors (take a good, hard look at the people coming to you to license your works for overseas release). If there's a happy ending here, it's that the commercial translation and subtitling job was still finished, so the release was eventually handled by Right Stuf.
A few weeks back, someone in the ANN forum compared Discotek (disclosure: I work for them from time to time) to another DVD publisher called Mill Creek. Oh boy, I love Mill Creek! They're infamously cheap and third-rate (their Ultraman and Iron King tokusatsu releases are dirt cheap, but have badly-timed subtitles), but they also keep a ton of interesting media in print. My decent-quality and fabulously inexpensive Daimajin and 90s Gamera blu-ray sets came from them. You can still find the 2003 Astro Boy TV series here and there, and it's because of Mill Creek, who helpfully festooned their $5-ish re-release with quotes from my editor. The company expressed polite confusion when I wrote to them and asked if they'd consider releasing Astro Boy  uncut with subtitles. They didn't get anything from the licensor except the edited, dub-only version they released! Discotek's approach might be a little more studied, but I absolutely think that the anime home video business could really use a Mill Creek-style publisher, someone who roots around for the cheap stuff that's even too obscure for the likes of Discotek. Hey, someone oughta step up and keep Himiko-Den and that Virtua Fighter cartoon in print, right? Right..?
Most of the above publishers failed almost out of the gate, but here's the thing-- every publisher that succeeded started the exact same way the failures did. Good and bad, they each stepped into the arena with something nobody had ever seen before, be it AnimEigo with MADOX-01, ADV Films with Devil Hunter Yohko, or Bandai Entertainment with Monkey Magic. (Alright, Monkey Magic was only their first DVD release. I guess they did some Gundam and Escaflowne stuff on VHS before that.) I yearn for that spirit of adventure, of throwing something crazy at the wall and seeing if it sticks. It's why I welcome every new publisher with enthusiasm first and skepticism second.
I know that people love to talk about these weird old releases, so here's a poser for you this time: who'd I miss? Koch Vision, who released The Little Prince? Those Illumitoon guys, who thought they could swipe Funimation's business model and apply it to Beet the Vandel Buster? Some larger publishers have dabbled in anime, like Warner Archive (Magic Boy, Marine Boy) and Twilight Time (Space Pirate Harlock CG). Should they be in this conversation, too? Tell me about your lost favorites and lost favorite niche publishers!
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