Anime on DVD: 1999 Year in Review

Anime on DVD in 1999? Well, to plagiarize one of the best-known authors in literature in the last century, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Anime in and of itself is like a microcosm of the entertainment industry in America--lots of different genres and styles, lots of junk, lots of quality, lots of personalities thrown into the mix. So it's really no wonder that anime on DVD has followed the trend of Region 1 DVD as a whole--lots of nice surprises, huge anticipation for unreleased titles, some really great discs, and not just a few real disappointments.

Let's take a look at the first part of my quote: it was the best of times.

1999 was the year that DVD started to come into its own. Although the laserdisc--certainly the medium of choice for the discerning otaku for many years--was not defeated outright, DVD took a huge slice out of that market, at least in the American sector. Although collectors and diehard fans still import laserdiscs from Japan, they had nearly faded off the American anime scene entirely by the end of the year. Grudgingly, many laserdisc aficionados admitted that DVDs tend to look better than laserdiscs, and the many features and possibilities of DVD were more attractive than their $75-150 60 minute Japanese-only platters that had been carefully protected for years from laser rot. The decline of laserdisc built the audience for DVD and vice versa.

There were many things that drew people to DVD in 1999. Great picture quality, full Dolby Digital Surround sound, the ability to watch a film as it was originally intended rather than in a Pan and Scan version, special editions and features...they all helped, but the one that sticks out in particular to anime fans is simple: price. Anime has always been a limiting hobby due to its expensive nature. Imported tapes and laserdiscs could run hundreds of dollars, and translated anime could easily run $20-30, even for English language dubs. DVD was nice in price for the public at large because discs were much cheaper than their laser counterparts, even if they were more expensive than VHS tapes. However, anime fans found themselves able to buy DVDs at prices even less than most dubbed tapes! This was a good deal on single titles, but proved to be a lifesaver on large sets. Series that would have cost a collector over $100 for just the sub or dub version wound up at around $40 for both on DVD. It was certainly a nice break.

And what would 1999 have been without titles? Some really great titles wound up available in 1999, and some of them day and date with their VHS counterparts. By far, the best of the new titles on DVD would be Pioneer's release of Serial Experiments Lain, the 13 episode television series that combines the cyberworld of The Matrix with the surrealism of David Lynch and the bizarre of Terry Gilliam. Not just a beautiful looking series, this show defines itself as a "thinking man's anime". The four DVD series easily qualifies as the best new series of 1999. But there were plenty of other great things afoot, too, especially box sets to drool over. Bubblegum Crisis, Record Of Lodoss Wars, Heroic Legend of Arslan, Tenchi Muyo Ultimate...these were the sets of dreams, and they were available at even reasonable prices over the Internet! Some classic titles were also available, such as Grave of the Fireflies, Ghost in the Shell, Beautiful Dreamer, and more. We also saw certain series, like Tenchi In Tokyo, Pokemon, and Battle Athletes, become regular monthly staples for the anime DVD diet. Although not every single one of these titles were released in 1999, necessarily, they were important during the year as a whole.

It's a little hard to say, but many of the best things about 1999 were the announcements for 2000! Macross fans were overwhelmed to find that AnimEigo had picked up the entire series uncut for release on DVD. AnimEigo also scored on their announcement of Urusei Yatsura on DVD. Fushigi Yugi isn't out quite yet, but it will certainly be a hit for the last month of 1999 and certainly for 2000! And with the promise of Neon Genesis Evangelion bowing on DVD right as the millennium ends, there are high hopes for the new year. 1999 has been the best of times.

And, at the same time, it's been the worst of times.

Excitement turned to disappointment as one of most anticipated titles of the year, the aforementioned Bubblegum Crisis, was found to have several flaws, and new ones appeared on the second printing of the set. It wasn't the only one to have problems, though, and DVD owners occasionally found themselves playing guinea pigs to the manufacturers. Subtitle fans were disappointed by poorly timed titles and by the occasional dubtitle on some discs. A lack of standards meant that some discs had virtually no menu system at all, and few came with special extras that DVD has become known for. Soundtrack problems plagued some discs, and lousy pictures haunted others. At times, it became a real decision to preorder a disc and take the risk to save some cash, or to wait around and read the reviews to make certain a recall wasn't in order.

Then there were the titles that did make it to print over the ones that didn't. Mindless, pointless fare like Tekken--a true train wreck of a show if I'd ever seen one--made its way onto DVD far more often in 1999 than the true classic films. Fighting films based on video games became the first shows released by some companies, and fans waiting for great shows wound up sorely disappointed by titles that arguably didn't merit a DVD release in the first place. Meanwhile, the cries still ring out for titles, good titles, known titles: where is Akira? Wings of Honneamise (whose release date has been pushed back into oblivion)? Any Miyazaki films? Matsumoto? Gundam? Macross '84? Maybe even (gulp) Kishin Corps? The list of anime shows waiting to reach DVD is staggering. Although it seems clear that not releasing DVD day-and-date with VHS is hurting many companies' sales, there's still a hesitancy about getting one's feet wet. If 1999 is an anime DVD disappointment in any major way, it is because the world latched on tight to DVD this year while the anime companies wavered back and forth worse than Kyosuke in Orange Road. (And yes, it needs a DVD release, too.) The promise of 2000 is wonderful, but it doesn't stop the fact that not nearly enough was released in the way of anime this year. So yes, it was the worst of times too.

But it's been a fun ride getting there.

Personally, I am thankful that DVD has made such an inroads. As an anime collector for over 14 years now, I'm glad to see anime available in an affordable way that still highlights the beauty of the medium. I've never been one with too much money--certainly not enough for personally importing LDs--and so my collection has mostly consisted of less-than-perfect copies and fansubs. Not only does DVD help me to legitimize my collection (which has always been my dream) because of its price, but it looks so much better. Anime has never seemed so alive! As DVD grows, as I'm certain it will, anime will become more of a mainstream product. DVD should help anime grow and vice versa. The possibilities are so vast that, even through the disappointments of 1999, the good things really shine and the future looks promising. So perhaps we'll drink a toast yet to anime on DVD this year...there's miles of road to go, but the journey has started.