Anime · Omnibus

Why the anime bubble burst, part 3

I suppose it’s time I finished my trilogy, before the anime industry makes a complete comeback. Parts one and two can be found here and here. In this post, I will focus on the local distributors who over saturated the market. I am reluctant to pick on them, but their impulsiveness caused their own demise, win which I mean bankruptcy.

Ten years ago, the two biggest anime distributors were Pioneer Entertainment and A.D. Vision (ADV). The biggest boon to the anime industry in the U.S. was the advent of the DVD. It rendered moot the biggest debate amongst fandom: sub vs dub. For, unlike the VHS format, the DVD was able to provide both subtitles, and an English dub.  As the DVD sections of your local record or video store (e.g.: Sam Goody; Suncoast; Blockbuster) grew, so did the anime sections of these stores. Add to the mix the creation of the adult swim network, and the growth of anime conventions across the country (e.g.: Anime Expo, Otakon), it seemed that anime in America was ready to make to the jump from niche to mainstream.  With that in mind,the distributors went on a feeding frenzy, licensing and dubbing every popular and semi-popular anime title currently airing in Japan. It’s easy to point out the miscalculations and missteps in hindsight. So I’ll summarize in two sentences why the two biggest distributors went belly up by 2008: (1) marketing that works over in Japan may not be quite as successful across the Pacific; and (2) whatever is popular amongst the hard-core fandom may not necessarily be popular amongst the mainstream. This is why fans and/or foreigners may not be the best candidates to run a domestic anime distribution company. If I could summarize this overconfidence in one word, it would be shoujo. Shoujo is the category that is targeted for young females, or tweens. Looking back at the success of other titles aimed to ward that demographic: Sailor Moon, the Spice Girls, the Powerpuff Girls, Kim Possible, one can see why executives were optimistic. It was not to be. While fanboys of shōnen, aka: the “hot-blooded anime” would use a Dragon Ball Z or a Ninja Scroll as a gateway to a Cowboy Bebop, fangirls did not flock toward shows like Revolutionary Girl Utena, Fruits Basket, or Cardcaptor Sakura.  Instead, fangirls either went to shōnen shows like InuYasha or Fullmetal Alchemist, or they purchased shoujo manga instead. I also need to point out that fanboys also chose manga over anime. The number one reason: manga is much, much cheaper than anime.

It is very easy to pinpoint the moment when the kangaroo men showed up at Pioneer Entertainment USA – the day they announced the name change to the made-up word Geneon. When it comers to ADV, it is not so easy. It’s obvious to see that they overextended too soon, but what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? The Anime Network? Newtype USA magazine? The proposed live-action Neon Genesis Evangelion movie? How about this: the first time ADV officials bragged about passing on the rights to the movie End of Evangelion due to the high asking price, and stating that at that price they could license ten other anime titles. Which ten you ask? It doesn’t matter! You can’t expect me to believe that the sales of ten semi-obscure, barely popular anime shows outgrossed the most controversial, and one the most significant anime movies of all time. This isn’t sports! Moneyball is not applicable here (one may argue it’s barely applicable in baseball either). When your market barely has any disposable income at all, you do not flood the market with ten average and/or mediocre titles when you can instead release a title that is widely regarded as a must-watch for any casual or new fan, and a must-have for every self-called otaku.

It pains me to bury these two companies. To this day, Pioneer has provided the best English dubs of anime ever. And after 15 years, ADV had finally gotten competent at dubbing. But I am still upset that these companies went out of business before they could finish some of my favorite anime titles of 2008. (For Geneon, it was When They Cry, and for ADV is was Kanon, Pumpkin Scissors, and Red Garden, although the last two were average at best. But it’s the principle of completeness.) To be just, some of the blame also belongs to other distributors. Some have come and gone, and some like Bandai and FUNimation are still around. And a good portion of the blame belongs to the The Musicland Group, Inc. for its part in inflating the anime bubble.

I want to end on a positive note. It does look like that the anime industry is about to end its half-decade long decline. Thanks to globalization, cross-promotions, and corporate synergy, anime fandom has been assimilated into the sci-fi, comic book, and fantasy role-playing cliques. Perhaps the industry can slowly regrow by drawing from fans of Marvel and DC comics, Trekkers, and those that have finished reading Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings. We are finally getting long-awaited releases such as a the rebuild of Evangelion movies, a Trigun movie, a second season of Berserk, so now might be the best time to become an anime fan.

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10 thoughts on “Why the anime bubble burst, part 3

  1. That was a fantastic read, it’s 2016 and anime has arguably done a triumphant return, perhaps even exceeding the bar set for it before the bubble burst with the prevalence of more convenient services taking the reigns of getting mass-market appeal, such as CrunchyRoll, Netflix, and even Funimation; even still, I’d found and discussed this analysis with a few friends and it’s generally both an entertaining and informative read.

    I wonder if you’ve since seen the AX panel ‘A Deeply Biased History of American Manga Publishing’? It approaches a similar topic, discussing what it was that had led to the North American Anime/Manga bubble bursting, but from a more manga-centric view.

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  2. This was a great post, but I don’t entirely agree with you. I believe that anime is suffering a decline in popularity as a result of poorly done dubs by 4Kids and other companies. The poor voice-acting and dialogue of these dubs (especially the dubs of shows that people, especially non-otaku, relate with anime) has given anime a reputation as being for geeks only.

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    1. Yet, poor dubbing and censorship of anime had been around since the 1960’s. Even after the TV fiascoes of Escaflowne, Cardcaptors and Rurouni Kenshin, anime was still on the upswing the US. Yes, 4Kids treatment of YuGi-Oh and One Piece were dreadful. Maybe you are correct, and time will tell if 4Kids had turned off a generation of potential fans.

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