This past week has been tremendously exciting for western anime fans, with the launch of two brand new streaming websites. Both sites have taken completely different approaches to the inherent challenges in providing legal sources of anime online, and both have left me with very mixed feelings already.
Here are my completely biased personal opinions following the launch of the Anime Sols and Daisuki services.
Anime Sols is unusual even in the world of overseas anime streaming; rather than focusing on simulcasts, it's dedicated to streaming forgotten classics. Most interestingly it combines traditional streaming with a pledge system - like the system used on Kickstarter. Fans can pledge money for the series they like the most and any series which receives enough support by the deadline will receive a US (R1) DVD release with English subtitles.
In terms of strategy, Anime Sols is an absolutely brilliant idea. Customers can try the shows before deciding to pledge, cutting out the risk of supporting something they won't like and catering for both fans of streaming physical releases. It's also completely transparent about the realities of organising a physical release for a niche title - empowering hardcore fans of particular shows to support them in a way that's never been done before. Samuel Pinansky, the fan who put Anime Sols together as a labour of love, has been extremely responsive to questions so that he can take the feedback straight to the Japanese rights holders. I have nothing but praise for the way the site is being run.
And yet, I want it to fail.
That doesn't mean I have a personal grudge against Anime Sols or old anime series in general. The site is streaming several shows I'd dearly like to own on DVD and I appreciate the effort that has gone into creating something truly innovative for the community. My problem is that only people living in the US or Canada are allowed to participate in Anime Sols. Foreigners are not only barred from watching the streaming anime at all, they can't even pledge money or earn the rewards offered as incentives. It's not all bad news; the site owner has confirmed that foreigners should at least be able to buy the DVD releases if any of the projects reach their targets - we just can't help make that happen.
I want Anime Sols to fail in its current incarnation for one reason alone: it makes me feel utterly, utterly powerless as a fan. The reasons for the blanket ban on foreign users are complicated, apparently rooted in rights issues where older series have been licensed to companies on terms which wouldn't ever be allowed today. I imagine it's similar to the infamous problems with Harmony Gold and the Macross series. This situation is the fault of the rights holders and their international partners and there's nothing overseas fans or third parties can do about it. Even knowing this, however, doesn't make me feel any better about tolerating such a rotten state of affairs. Websites which go as far as blocking international IPs to break the world up into arbitrary geographical regions make the anime industry weaker.
So please, Americans, enjoy Anime Sols and continue to sponsor physical releases for the best shows. Once again, the millions of English-speaking fans outside your region are completely dependent on your generosity - and believe me, we don't want it to be this way either. I will be the first in line to sing the site's praises if the aggressive region locking issues can be addressed in future.
I wrote a long ramble about Daisuki when the project was first announced so I've been eagerly anticipating the site's debut. The approach that the creators of Daisuki have taken seems to be to provide a legal anime portal where fans can watch anything they like without giving up and resorting to illegal sources, while supporting the series through ads and merchandise sales in the attached store. It will obviously take some time before that ambition can be fully realised, but how are they doing so far?
After a two-week delay from its original April date, Daisuki launched this morning with a quirky selection of titles: Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Sword Art Online, Lupin III, Mobile Suit Gundam Seed, Mobile Suit Z Gundam and a series of Prince of Tennis OAVs. Frustratingly only the last three titles are available in the UK. That's just half of their catalogue; disappointing for a global website which is supposed to be reducing the perceived 'need' for piracy among anime fans. Because Madoka Magica and Sword Art Online are newer and more marketable, the site's design uses these series for most of their promotional art even though foreign customers aren't allowed to see the videos.
It's a dreadful shame that Daisuki hasn't been able to solve the problem of certain series being restricted to the US market. Two of the three locked shows come from Aniplex - not Aniplex USA, but the Japanese side. It's a strange situation as the simulcast for Sword Art Online was available to the UK on Crunchyroll. I can't be sure without confirmation from users in other regions, but could it be possible that Sword Art Online has been licensed by a UK company and they've demanded exclusive streaming rights for the region too? That would certainly explain why Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not streaming to us as Manga UK licensed it for home video. If so, my feelings of disappointment extend to Manga UK as well (and to the mystery SAO licensee).
With regards to Lupin III, I don't understand what TMS has against the vast English-speaking world outside America, and I doubt I ever will.
It would be interesting (not to mention helpful) if clicking links to the unavailable shows would take foreign users to the local licensor's company website so that they can watch the series elsewhere or provide the local company with feedback about the lack of a viable streaming industry in their country. This would make Daisuki a useful resource rather than a visible reminder of how fans outside America are often overlooked.
Of the three series available to the UK, I have two of them on home video already and the third is an OAV spin-off for a television series we never got to see here. There's clearly some work to be done before Daisuki is going to be a website I visit regularly for my anime streaming needs.
Looking at things more positively, there's a lot of promise in Daisuki's website design. The video player seems to work well and I was able to watch an episode of Prince of Tennis this morning without any obvious problems. The videos come with an option to toggle the English subtitles off, and it looks as though there's room to add additional languages in future if there's enough demand. They've included a Japanese-style giveaway campaign to attract new customers (the prizes are pretty good), and there's a survey which users can fill in to vote for shows they want to watch on the site. I also like the general aesthetics of the website and the abundance of information that's available in the help section. The store doesn't seem to be online yet.
While fans in the US have been complaining that the titles available for streaming are already present on other websites, I see this as a promising step. Exclusivity is the biggest hurdle to legal streaming after region locking; in the long run, fans don't want to have to pay multiple subscription fees to be able to watch their favourite anime on a bunch of different websites with exclusive content. Getting as many series as possible onto every legal platform can only be beneficial, theoretically preventing companies like FUNimation from sitting on rights in the one region and ruining things for everyone else.
I can't help but notice that One Piece has apparently disappeared from the list of titles since the original press release, instead relegated to a 'Coming Soon' box on the Toei Animation Studio page. With Manga UK now holding the UK rights (and no doubt planning to put it on iTunes and Netflix one day in line with their glacial DVD release schedule), I'm gravely concerned that when it finally makes its appearance on Daisuki, One Piece is going to be locked away from the UK as well. The struggles of streaming - and the assumptions I make in the absence of communication - make me resent the existence of our half-hearted UK anime licensees more than ever before. I would love for there to be more engagement from the UK anime companies to stop this happening - in the absence of that, I'd prefer that Japanese licensors stopped giving UK distributors exclusive streaming rights at all. They are wasting so many opportunities to attract fans away from piracy this way.
As Daisuki does cater for the UK (in a limited way), it's earned a spot in my very exclusive list of recommended links. It's got almost as many series as the lacklustre UK streaming portal Anime On Demand, after all! Let's hope they are able to respond to user feedback swiftly and turn the site into something all anime fans can be proud to use.
Update 17/05/2013: It seems that someone at Daisuki has heard our cries, as Aniplex have unlocked both of their series for UK streaming leaving only content from TMS restricted to the US. I'd be extremely interested to know whether Aniplex's shows (Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Sword Art Online) are now available worldwide outside Japan, or whether they're still limited to certain areas.
This is a big step in the right direction and I have my fingers crossed that TMS will follow suit. More information about which shows are available in particular regions (like that provided by Crunchyroll when they announce new acquisitions) would be very helpful for those of us who travel or have friends overseas.