Role of the Niche in Localizing Anime

Okay, when you get in a slump for blogging fuel (actually, I’m not sure if I’m in that place), all you need is to shoot some fish in the barrel to get some juice. I mean, eternal topics like dubs vs. subs or fansubs orAniplex of America pricing gets people’s panties in a bunch in a hurry. I think I’ll do just the last thing now. This post gets pretty ranting so I apologize (a little).

Reading that thread through (and contributing to it), I feel there are some things I probably should address. Please note I’m definitely biased. I’m very much for all those expensive releases of crap throughout the years, from Pioneer’s LDs to Geneon’s fancy DVD boxes to Bandai Visual (LOL) and of course, to the imported stuff from Aniplex of America. I don’t buy all of them (and few of us could), but they put out things that is highly desirable from a rational perspective. Things that have, usually, Japanese-import qualities to them. It sets apart from the usual regional licensee and their wares.

But that’s where it ends. I buy lots of stuff from FUNi and Sentai too, probably the two North American licensees still engaging in the low-price, high(er)-volume release cycles, although there are some very large trends that I’d like to share with you, if at least to get the idea off my head and maybe you can tell me if it’s just me.

I think one of the fundamental issues here is a matter about the freedom of choice. When I see people say that anime is a right or it is not a privilege, I still giggle and sigh, because ultimately anime is still a form of protected speech. And, last I checked, it’s a constitutional right for Americans. What is not a right? Clearly, what we can do with speech is restricted. That includes not only the things about government’s limitation on speech (which is what is the actual “rights” part of the thing), but what private people can do with speech in general, including copyright and all that dead horse meat. And none of it has much to do with “rights” or “privileges” unless you are the copyright owner, which to you then anime IS a right. None of it has to do with privileges, eg., things above the norm. Being able to purchase Kara no Kyoukai BD box is not a thing above the norm. Perhaps some might feel entitled to purchase it at a lower price, but that is just teenage entitlement speaking and the internet is full of this crap, let alone anime fans on the internet. [You'll need a bigger forum signature than that.]

The second fundamental issue here also involves obviously, that not all anime are created equal. I don’t consider clock shows the same as the 2:30 am crap that most of us watch. Production companies don’t treat it the same. Japanese kids don’t treat them the same. Stores don’t treat them the same. So why should the “no dub no sales” people treat them the same? Or the people who always want their 13-ep releases priced in the same $30 retail price tier, treat them the same? Or for that matter why should we not treat them the same? Well, I could go on, but here is a fundamental issue. It’s like people saying anime OVA X is too expensive compared to outsourced TV anime Y on a per-minute basis. Congratulations, you just made all the Production IG in-betweeners cry.

The fact people cannot recognize these two major issues is a major failure of fandom at talking about industry stuff. I mean, okay, maybe it’s not clear why you should equate Aniplex of America with Sony, and why you shouldn’t equate Aniplex of America with Sony. Japanese holding companies are sneaky like that, but they’re not the same sort of thing. And really, I think it’s okay to hold out buying something because it lacks a dub, because for some people it’s a requirement on the product they want to pay for, that seems fair. It’s probably also fair to call out on people who are probably too entitled for their own good. But let’s not any of that obfuscate the bottom line and the fundamental nature of anime. It’s more than just a medium. It’s the same reason why I can go to an Otakon or AX and still feel like the people around me don’t watch the same stuff I watch. Because it is really all different kind of stuff.

I think there’s another thing people don’t really take into account, even if they realize it: it’s a matter of personal preferences. Just like there’s all kinds of anime from outright adult entertainment to things only interest 8yo kids, there ought to be release models appropriate based on the title. Some shows (like DBZ and One Piece) should get that sort of release FUNi is doing. Some should get the release AoA is doing when they “import” something. Some should get what NISA is doing, whatever. There might be an acceptable range where most shows we care about fall in to, where certain release formats make sense for that range of shows. I think we see that today. And then there are shows that should sit higher, or lower, depends. And that is kind of a personal choice which titles falls in which range. It’s not really okay to think every anime should be released only in the way you like. What is odd is most people who complain about Aniplex of America’s pricing is really doing just that, as if there is some notion of a common or public good in terms of the titles these companies procure and publish.

From what I observe, people generally recognize this fact. But what people don’t recognize is that you need a wide range of publishing and retail businesses and business models to support that. Sometimes a big company can subsidize a smaller run of something more niche, but anime is already pretty niche and I’m not sure what kind of margin FUNi has, being the biggest kid on the block in North America. And that necessarily means things will have different price points.

Which is to say, the longer the Aniplex of America thing drags out, the more likely that the discussion/argument is driven purely on people’s entitlement on “cheap” anime seems to make sense. I mean, it does kind of suck that someone brings over a title you love but you can’t afford it. I guess maybe it isn’t so much entitlement about cheap anime but entitlement about whining and attacking companies verbally for not considering people who don’t buy their stuff. (…And it’s not a pollution/economic inefficiency problem.)

It’s just personal opinions at the end. Let’s just state it that way. If you think something is a rip, it’s fair to explain it. But don’t do it while making animators cry.

Switching gears, there is a larger trend at work. If we accept the hypothesis that Aniplex of America is actually an agent of the Japanese production companies trying to raise the floor on the price of anime licensing (not necessarily the price of anime) so that they can realize more oversea licensing revenue, mostly because they did some analysis and the BATNA of launching an IP via AoA is better than lowering the license price of the same IP so a FUNi or Sentai can license it (plus any overhead cost involved), then ultimately having AoA enables more anime to be released in a local region. It is kind of a weird case because now we are talking about shows that may be licensed if Aniplex decided to do it cheaper, and it may mean that AoA will not release shows that are not often localized, if the cause of that obscurity is its low profitability.

In that sense, if Aniplex of America can help raise the price and realize additional revenue in the R1 market, does it help the industry overall? In as much as having more competition versus Sentai or FUNi might cut into their profitability and probably lower the price of anime licenses overall in the long run, it behooves AoA to operate in a model that complements both the titles too expensive for Sentai and FUNi while not stepping on their toes by avoiding direct competition. This is traditionally a role Geneon has occupied as well, except I don’t know if Geneon went to the same extremes. I think there’s a lot to be said that why raising the price of anime directly help AoA’s long-term goals, although it doesn’t have to be the only way. I think they have came up with ways to not directly compete with the business models FUNi and Sentai are doing, partly because that’s really the biggest piece of pie left and few people are serving it up.

And then there’s the pure marketing effect. For starters, I’ve voiced my displeasure about the way K-ON is being treated in America. Maybe it’s a sensible thing to do given the economic reality of the time, but it feels like such a waste! I think it’s things like that that serves the anime industry no good in the long run, and why Aniplex’s investment is something much welcomed. It’s okay to keep your head down, put out simple anime on BD or DVD that serves the bare minimum, but that cannot be the only mode and that is inefficient when applied to every title. Granted shows like DRRR and SAO are, well, problematic at best, but it’s definitely a net positive to have more than just FUNi try their hand at the TV stations. That is another area where Aniplex of America can really give anime the boost that it needs in North America.

By “another area” I really mean it. Nozomi is barking up the old school tree along with Viki, as well as Discotek. It’s bringing into the fold unrealized or expired IP that probably still have good value in North America. There are the streamers like Viki and Crunchyroll, not to mention the usual suspects like Crackle and Hulu and Netflix. I guess in terms of the adult/porn stuff throughput has slowed, but that’s going to get picked up sooner or later. There’s plenty of opportunities in the industry and I think there’s plenty of space for everyone to make a decent living out of that.

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