Obnoxious Vitriolic Arrogance: Why US Anime Companies Release Junk

Since the 1950s, anime has been a viable form of entertainment in Japan. For the last 40 years, literally thousands of television series, movies, and OVAs (or original video animations, also known as OAVs) have been created. So why is it that we have such a limited amount of material here? And why is so much of it such trash? I'd like to take a look at the reasons for this, as well as at some ways to encourage the "quality over quantity" crowd.

Back in 1983, when the OVA market was just starting, OVAs were often full-length features that, for one reason or another (usually length), were released directly to video. At that point, there was no concept of "straight to video" meaning "poor quality," as video had barely come into its own as a medium. The form started (arguably) with the release of Megazone 23. The successful science-fiction story spawned two sequels and showed in the fledgling days of video that movies made directly for that format could sell--at least in Japan.

The OVA format has taken two major shapes: mini-series made up of several episodes, and one-shots. The mini-series tend to be quite good; some of the best and more popular OVA series of recent memory include Bubblegum Crisis, Lodoss Wars, Vampire Princess Miyu, Tenchi Muyo, and Patlabor. Often times, you can spot the best OVA series by their related products...all of the above mentioned shows now have television series that are at least loosely based on their OVAs. The reverse is also true, as televisions shows such as Urusei Yatsura and Kimagure Orange Road have spawned some great OVAs.

The second type is the one-shot. These are simply shows that don't have any follow-up or continuation; they are meant to stand by themselves. This is where both the greatness and horror of OVAs really shines through. There are some truly incredible standalone OVAs--Robot Carnival, Riding Bean, and Vampire Hunter D, to name a few--that achieve a measure of excellence and are genre expanding. Unfortunately, there are many others that seem to be nothing more than pilot episodes...shows that serve no purpose other than to introduce characters and blend some action around them. Some of the worst ones that can be faulted here are OVAs built around pre-existing manga or video games. Although some, like Grey: Digital Target, actually expand upon their source, others like Legend of Lemnear, Outlanders, Appleseed, and Tekken are essentially just the characters and the bare bones plot thrown together on the screen with almost no regard for artistic style. Some of these can sell based on fandom, though--even a lousy show can sell if it features someone's favorite characters. However, some shows have nothing but their names to sell them, and some are just plain awful. Ever seen copies of Judge, Twilight Of The Dark Master, or They Were 11 on the shelf at Blockbuster on a Friday night? There's a reason for it. Plenty of one-shot OVAs are absolutely terrible. Why do they get produced? Well, some of them must be failed pilots; others are just good ideas gone bad in the execution phase. Since anime forms lots of genres in Japan and covers a vast amount of their airtime and video output, it serves to reason that some of it will be junk.

So why is so much of this junk appearing stateside? After taking a look at the current DVD market, it's clear that a lot of companies are marketing some of their worst titles to that format first. And there are plenty to choose from--American companies, while they still haven't picked up some of the best titles, certainly have released some of the worst on videocassette. The primary reason for this? Money. Japanese companies are very protective of their rights to popular shows--look how long it took for someone to license Mobile Suit Gundam--and they know that they can get top dollar for certain shows. Although some "American" anime distributors, like Viz and Pioneer, had anime connections and financial backing from Japan, others got their start releasing anime, not other media. Without significant backing, the companies bought up what was in their price range--and often, that price range involved shows that had essentially failed in Japan that needed to make a bit more return. Easily licensed, these titles had very little to recommend but were also easy sells to rental locations and helped satiate the market's desire for more translated product. As the American companies made money, they were able to purchase better, more expensive titles...but the no-name shows never really went away. The economics of it show why. If Anime Company Z sells 10,000 copies of a no name show they paid $5000 to license, then sells 40,000 copies of a great show they paid $30,000 to license, which one profits the company the most? The one-shot OVA.

But what's the danger in this? Certainly, it's profitable for American anime distributors, at least in the short term. Some fans even appreciate these kinds of shows. However, the danger lies not in the present, but in the future of anime in this country. A viewer whose first exposure to anime is something second-rate is likely to equate all anime titles with that show. With the limited arena in which anime is distributed, there is very little realization that there are multiple genres and multiple show types within Japanese animation. Each person who's exposed to Crystal Triangle or Dog Soldier before Akira, Kiki's Delivery Service, or a good episode of Orange Road will likely not become an anime fan. Eventually, that hurts the bottom line, as there are fewer fans to purchase anime, and the long term prognosis is less than favorable.

So what to do about it? Well, there's only so much that can be done, but here's my recommendations:

    1. Keep an eye on The Anime Review and other sources you trust for information on shows that you consider picking up. That way, you'll make sure you don't get a clinker.

    2. Write to your favorite anime distributor and let them know what titles you'd like to see. Also inform them of the kind of titles you won't buy--like bad one-shot OVAs--so that they know where fandom stands. Most of these distributors are readily found over the Internet.

    3. Rent first. Most video stores now have at least a reasonable amount of anime on their shelves. There's no reason not to be discerning and spend $3 rather than $20 if something's not that good. Also, for DVD fans, I recommend Internet sites like Netflix, which will rent you DVDs (including a good anime selection) for a week at a time.

    4. Put the money down. When a good show comes out, don't copy it from a friend or just bum it from someone, buy your own copy. This will clear the way for other upper-tier titles to be purchased and distributed.

So what's your take? Do you like one-shots? What kind of show is best for your money? Send us your thoughts. Your comments are important and may be used in a future column. Until then...happy collecting!