Is Aniplex USA’s Special Import Business a Danger to Frugal Anime Fans?

Is it? I don’t think so.

[Hey, it’s free PR for expensive Blu-ray box amirite]

For the unfamiliar, the thinking goes that by making these tailor-made releases (sold usually exclusively from RightStuf) which are glorified Japanese releases slapped with a store-specific bonus (a translation booklet) it will lead to a line of anime where in order to buy and own, prospective buyers have to pony up Japanese prices for these (typically luxury) goods.

Generally this is the thinking parroted by people with too much time on their hands (ie every whiner in the ANN forum re: Aniplex releases), so they default to worrying. However, is there any merit to it? It’s a fair question that deserves a closer look.

At about a year since that first controversial Kara no Kyoukai box’s release, Aniplex USA has handled a few other SKU, with the first Fate/Zero box being the repeat of the first expensive experiment. Let’s lay down some information that we know about the these releases. We  know that they are a low-risk experiment to test how big the “import” market is. Low risk meaning it doesn’t cost Aniplex a lot of money or good will. And by import I mean not only people who are empowered enough to know what to buy from Amazon Japan or HMV or whatever, but people who are willing to put up big bucks for a deluxe release as long as there’s enough hand-holding to meet their expectations as a “normal” customer.

To repeat myself, the gap between the goods and the person who would like to buy it is wide and deep when it comes to buying things sold in Japan from over here. By doing this legwork for us, I’m thinking Aniplex just wants to grow their sales of Japanese items organically without making any core changes to their business. It is relatively cheap and easy to make a translation booklet and put subs in some anime, especially this day and age. Doubly so since the anime itself will get a time/sub job via simulcast deals. Thus also the “low risk” statement earlier.

If we assume that a growing line of titles will get the same treatment (for sanity’s sake I’ll use the term “weeaboo-glove” to refer to this treatment, as opposed to white-glove), will this mean more titles will fall in this gap? Will more titles become faux-import only?

Absolutely yes.

So why don’t I think so in regards to the titular question of this post? Mainly because this is a failure to measure the BATNA.

In a hypothetical world, where Aniplex isn’t doing this weeaboo-glove treatment, titles like Kara no Kyoukai will be more akin to, say, Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere–available for purchase, comes with subs, and nobody would raise a stink about this. However once the ads and PR drops in “America” the situation drastically changes for some people. I’m not sure why, but it’s like they expect something as Aniplex crossed some kind of line.

It’s something of an experiment in the first place. When Aniplex and NISA entered the fray after the anime bubble that popped a few years ago, they said as much. We know they were trying to do different things to find the best niches to operate within. They explored dubbing, putting shows on TV, doing limited releases and doing traditional releases. From a business perspective I don’t see the weeaboo-glove imports any differently, it is just another experiment.

But from the consumer perspective that is obviously a gap. By selling it in such a way it is now a “domestic” something or another. Even if I get the same 2-day speedy service from Amazon Japan off of any of their catalog items that they’re willing to ship oversea (to the degree that I may very well buy Fate/Zero from them over Dark Lord’s offering). I guess the translation booklet is part of the deal? And I can see a gap where someone who is familiar with importing will understand how that booklet is just a store-specific tokuen (which is very common-place), and not some kind of crazy “IMMA GONNA RAISE PRICES” conspiracy. But not everyone understands this.

If that 5-letter abbreviation about the best alternative to a negotiated agreement confused you, don’t. It’s just another way to say it’s difficult for some people to see what the alternative is for people who don’t know how anime works as an industry oversea, so irrational thoughts took the best of them. What Aniplex USA is doing is already what they have been doing, in essence. The only things different are things that are, from their end, trivial; but it makes a big difference for a few buyers. The alternatives, in which either you do not buy what Aniplex USA is selling, or in a world which Aniplex USA isn’t doing this service, is definitely not better for you–either you have a world with fewer consumer choices while prices remain the same, or you have a world with less industry participation while prices remain the same.

Mainly because all these things already exist in all three hypothetical worlds. It’s seems, at least to me, the group of people who dislike what Aniplex is doing, seems blissfully unaware what is out there to be imported unless it crosses some magical threshold. I might look condescendingly to these guys, but I know this magical barrier is real and if people don’t even know stuff is there to be bought, surely I cannot expect people to know the ins and outs of the industry over there.

Here’s the real story.

Most, with an ear turned to industry, know that Aniplex USA has been shopping Rakkyo since the very beginning. It’s an ambitious and unique title and fronts a very popular otaku property in Japan, so the asking price is relatively high. The timing of it is also pretty bad, given the 7 films spanned from 2007 to 2009, the worst period of the recent global recession. This is on top of the rocky history that Nasuverse products had in America, with questionable sales from Geneon’s release of Tsukihime anime (ok sure it doesn’t exist) and Fate/Stay night. Domestic licencees have little incentive to pay big, even for a quality title, simply because they cannot afford the price of mediocre success, let alone failure.

I think this is the ultimate gap: From another perspective, one can read what I just wrote and think that the Aniplex USA release of Rakkyo was a gesture that they are finally recognizing the big spending importer. These are the people who, since the very beginning, have been doing the tough part of actually importing anime. In the LD/SVHS fansubbing days, it’s these people who provided the clean raws that would actually survive 13 generations of tape dubbing (and often times also the genlock and SVHS decks). Now all this is truly a thing of the past, when Japanese publishers are making these specific products for that crowd. This is as close to an explicit nod as it gets.

The truth is a lot more ugly, though. It’s not a secret that the R1 licensing industry is not the hottest place to be. US licensing costs has gone through a period of market adjustment, i.e., licensing revenue has dropped because demand has decreased. In other words, again, it necessarily means over-priced titles will not get licensed, in order to have the licensing cost even out. The mechanism of this probably involves Funimation leaving items on the table for smaller operations with less overhead like Zombie ADV to risk on a cheaper production for a smaller crowd. The devil is in the details here and I don’t have any, but this confluence of problems is likely why nobody has licensed Rakkyo yet.

Of course, the demand for Rakkyo is always there. And with demand of anything there’s a price curve. Everyone knows the license still has some value overseas, and when Aniplex’s stuck with this (and other) titles, they decided they will try to realize that value on their own. In order to do that, it’s pretty clear that Aniplex just gambled at it, snipping at the top of that price curve, hoping that enough will bite to make it worth their while, and meanwhile leaving the majority of the R1 market vacant for that potential licensee down the road. Because obviously if everyone had a pimpass Rakkyo box, nobody would be buying the cheaper release unless it is REAL cheap. Having a $400 box at least gives a subsequent re-release a lot of breathing space in terms of the licensee setting the price. At least in theory.

Fate/Zero? I think it’s really the same story. It is no coincidence that both are Nasuverse titles. Or that how the Kenshin releases were also high profile but is not a super hot property over in the US, not to mention the somewhat complicated licensing situation.

I’m thinking for brand new IPs, it’s unlikely we’ll see this play out because the licensing prices have definitely gone down. I’m going to guess this is also why Sentai has picked up a bunch of titles just this past month.

To go back to the original question, there’s still some room for doubt in that in a world where anime demand/supply is depressed–fewer titles get licensed, and a higher percentage of licensed new titles fall into the “cheaper, mass retail” model like FMA or Bleach, the cost of anime on average out-of-pocket of American buyers, will be lower. In that world the price of more niche titles will likely be more expensive, or it won’t exist at a localized price. But believe it or not this world is almost the present-day reality. It’s easy to see once you start looking at MSRP for today’s anime on a per-title basis between Sentai and Funi and how it is trending up, how Funimation finally got a clue and started doing what Hollywood is doing. In order to lower the price of those things, well, it is anyone’s guess as to what would be effective.

This is why I think a select handful of Aniplex titles (among all publishers) being retailed to importers is not likely to change anything in the big picture. It’s not anything novel, and it seems more like something they’re doing as a response to the present market condition than something else.


6 responses to “Is Aniplex USA’s Special Import Business a Danger to Frugal Anime Fans?

  • gaudy6523

    I would attest that the age issue plays a more prominent role than just Aniplex testing the waters. The majority of people who comment on ANN’s forums are late teenage/college-age children who have little to no expendable income, while the Lunatic Box releases are without a doubt geared towards post-grad, job/career holding young adults. I mean, when was the last time you saw an epic 1/8th scale figure of something from FMA or Bleach selling for almost $100? Likewise, look at all the nearly naked sculpts of Kan’u that just keep coming and easily retail for $150; it still astounds me that those keep selling…

    I like to think of this entire issue as more of a sign of Aniplex realizing that anime fans are growing up, and are looking to take advantage of that demographic, which is very much to the benefit of my collector impulses, albeit hard on the wallet…

  • Fencedude

    Tsukihime anime (ok sure it doesn’t exist)

    Well, obviously!

  • omo

    @gaudy
    Anime fans are segmented differently as there are anime. Your point is right on but speaking with broad strokes, the aging of the core anime demographic is just one of several reasons why the state of anime is the way it is. Even in the 90s, there were people into anime from things like Speed Racer, and people who were into anime because of the SF channel, and there’s like a 10-20 year gap there. It’s just that today, overall, way more people are into anime than there were 20 years ago.

    It doesn’t, however, explain the Kan’u figures that are on the market.

  • NegativeZero

    I’d rather Aniplex USA have a show than have to buy something titled “Stabbing Garden” or “Zero: Oh! My Saber Girl”.

  • omo

    Well, aren’t we glad that Unlimited Blade Works is already…Unlimited Blade Works.

  • Yumeka

    I bought Aniplex’s limited edition DVD set of OreImo and have started collecting their (pricey) BD boxes of Madoka. The sets come with lots of extra goodies like postcards and posters, so that certainly entices a collector like me. “Faux-import” is a good way to describe it – they’re copying the Japanese model with their releases and adding a lot of physical extras that other US companies don’t. I would import except for two major problems: 1) they’re too expensive and 2) they usually lack English subtitles. So if Aniplex continues to release their faux-imports with English subs, nice extra goodies, and the prices don’t become too ridiculous, I’ll probably keep buying from them.

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