Friday, 7 June 2013

Blu-ray: Destroying the market for anime on home video

This entire post is a rant. Please skip to the next blog post if you don't like reading this kind of thing.

As the title is ambiguous I want to make it clear that this post is nothing to do with the way that splitting anime releases across two competing formats (DVD and Blu-ray) eats into anime sales. That's something the distributors have to deal with for themselves.

What I'm upset about is something completely avoidable which is killing my desire to buy new anime releases. As a collector, I find it disturbing to find myself skipping series I'd have collected a few years ago. It's not because of lack of interest on my part, nor is it due to streaming, piracy or cost. It's the fact that the anime industry as a whole has become so obsessed with controlling its audience that it's intent on making it as difficult as possible to support anime. The quirks of the Blu-ray format make it a powerful weapon in the anime home video industry's rush to self-destruction.

The problem

I'll explain the background briefly for the benefit of those who don't know. Anime in Japan is very expensive when it arrives on home video; you can expect to pay the equivalent of over £300 for a series which costs £30 when it's released in the US or the UK. It also tends to be released in single volumes rather than the box sets we've adopted overseas, though this is gradually changing. A successful series in Japan will sell a few thousand copies of each volume; big hits will sell tens of thousands of copies. The buyers tend to be hardcore fans with disposable income rather than the younger geeks targeted by companies in English-speaking territories.

In many cases, the sales of the Japanese home video release makes anime profitable and pave the way to a show receiving a sequel. Even if the Blu-rays sell poorly, a few titles make their money through merchandise or from people buying the original manga/light novel/game; however, it's important to remember that there are plenty of excellent series which don't have any alternative source of revenue to support poor sales.

Home video sales are critical, and buying the Japanese DVD/BD releases directly helps the anime industry.

When a series is licensed for overseas distribution, there's an erroneous belief in fan circles that it will make a fortune and justify the fact that US/UK fans are paying a fraction of what the Japanese audience does. This is not true. With a few exceptions such as titles which air on national television, anime sells horribly overseas even at its low prices - in most industries, this would mean the prices should be higher to compensate for the low sales. Understandably, there's a lot of resistance to this.

Because the western market won't budge on its desire for low prices, Japanese fans have worked out that they can wait a little longer than usual and buy the US version of their favourite anime. The cost of an entire series is so low that this is a ridiculously attractive offer even with international shipping involved, and marketplace websites like Amazon and Rakuten make it easy to buy foreign releases. As awareness spreads and importing becomes easier, the anime industry is gravely concerned that their main source of direct funding is going to dry up. This would be a disaster for fans of the medium.

Blu-ray has made this situation worse due to a quirk in the region coding used. With DVD, Japan and the US were in different regions to one another so theoretically a customer in Japan wouldn't be able to play an American disc and vice versa. The UK was in the same region as Japan but here most DVDs are converted to the PAL format, making them less attractive due to compatibility issues with foreign players. Although anyone with a computer can watch a DVD from a different region without having to buy anything extra, anime companies were able to reconcile that it was unlikely most people would bother going to the trouble of learning to play discs from another territory. This allowed the unfair pricing differences between regions to become more exaggerated than they had been back in the days of VHS tapes, where the only reason most people had to import foreign anime back into Japan was to collect the English language edition.

Unfortunately, Blu-ray's territorial lockouts put Japan in the same region as the US. This means anyone in Japan can go to Amazon and buy a US anime release and watch it on their normal player without any adjustments. The Japanese anime industry's worst fears about 'reverse importation' catching on are coming true.

The solutions

Since anime first started its move to the Blu-ray disc format, western fans have been the guinea pigs for all kinds of strange experiments as companies struggled to balance the clamour for low prices with the contradictory goal of making the US discs less desirable. It turns out that there's a delicate line between making something that Japanese audiences don't want to buy and still being able to appeal to the western market. Here's a list of some of the things the industry has tried so far.

Banning exports

This is the preferred method employed by Aniplex of America. It only works for smaller anime companies with limited distribution; any major release which lands in mainstream retail channels will end up scattered across the globe before long. As I frequently post photographs on this very blog showing all of the 'banned' items I've acquired from overseas, I think it's safe to say that blocking exports isn't very effective. Fans have no qualms helping their friends overseas get hold of what they're missing out on when the system is so inherently unfair.


It's also a poor solution since when it works, it also means that English-speaking people who live in countries without viable anime industries cannot support the industry. Until the day that all Japanese Blu-ray releases come with English subtitles to appeal to the full English-speaking market, banning exports will remain a short-sighted solution.

Poor video quality

This is the most bizarre idea to date. Sentai Filmworks is the main culprit here; they have a system where certain releases are singled out to have reduced video quality on Blu-ray to discourage the Japanese audience. The video is provided as 1080i rather than the superior 1080p format which customers prefer. In the worst examples, this can contribute to appalling distortion in otherwise-beautiful shows such as Mawaru Penguindrum.

It's obvious that making the Blu-ray versions of anime titles look terrible will damage sales and faith in the medium in the long term. Sentai Filmworks are asking customers to pay a premium for anime on Blu-ray then providing the poorest quality discs on the market. This makes no sense: the only reason for most customers to adopt Blu-ray to begin with is because they want to watch in the highest quality available.

Poor audio quality

This has happened unintentionally a number of times, most recently with a rash of Sentai Filmworks discs which weren't properly checked. It's also common for theatrical releases to have multiple Japanese audio tracks but only one when they reach the US. But there was one occasion where low quality sound was included on purpose: Bandai Entertainment's K-On! was presented with a lossy audio track rather than the superior one from the original Japanese discs. Needless to say, the decision attracted a lot of complaints.

No Japanese audio

Sentai Filmworks and Bandai Entertainment have both dabbled in this solution with the shows Persona 4 and Kurokami respectively. The Persona 4 situation was so annoying that I wrote an entire rant about it before; it had been originally announced as a normal dual-language Blu-ray before being switched to dub-only at the last minute under pressure from the Japanese licensor. I don't watch English-dubbed anime. The same licensor had failed to include any English subtitles on their full-priced Japanese Blu-rays, leaving fans in the US with some tough decisions to make about supporting the show.

Perhaps controversially, I actually have no problem with companies using this release pattern so long as the Japanese edition is region free and subtitled and there's a legal worldwide stream available for fans who can't afford Japanese disc prices. Anything less is unacceptable. If compromises need to be made for the future of the anime industry, why not open the most expensive version up to a wider audience?

Delays

FUNimation seem fond of releasing a DVD version first then the Blu-ray later on when there are fears of reverse importation. If something has to give, this is one of the better options in the list - except it only works a few times before people realise the Blu-ray is coming later and feel tricked. They can't announce that the Blu-ray has been delayed as the Japanese fans will find out, leading to a strange pantomime of denials until it's time to reveal the better version later on. Still, so long as the series is made available worldwide via streaming, it's not a big problem to have to wait a little longer in order to save money. Frustratingly the process broke down when FUNimation stopped streaming their titles outside the US and left foreigners who didn't want to wait with no options other than buying the most expensive version blind from Japan.

Locked subtitles

I don't feel as passionately about this issue as a lot of people. Implemented properly, locked subtitles only harm fans who want to watch the Japanese version of the show without paying Japanese prices, or mildly inconvenience people who want to switch the subtitles off to soak up a particularly pretty scene. The unpopular truth is that nothing is stopping them buying the Japanese release except for a rather unfair desire to pay less than Japanese customers.

The main problem with locked subtitles is that they're rarely implemented well. It's not unusual for people to want to watch the English dub with subtitles switched on, for example, and that isn't always possible when discs are locked down in this way. Locking the subtitles can upset people on both sides of the sub/dub debate.

Of course, the other reason I don't mind locked subtitles is that it's accomplished in the player's software and as Blu-ray adoption increases, tools to remove the 'locked' content will become more widespread. You can't add more detail back to a ruined video encode, but you can enjoy the full version of a 'locked' product as soon as you break the restriction. Locked subtitles are a nuisance more than anything else; they're not even much of a disincentive to Japanese customers looking to reverse import.

Missing content

Fans in the US and UK are often amazed to see how much bonus material Japanese buyers get in their Blu-ray sets, both on-disc and in the box. Exclusive episodes, soundtracks, commentary tracks, music videos and interviews; cutting out these extras is a good way to control how desirable a product appears to picky anime buyers. There have been times where I've bought the same series more than once to ensure I'm not missing out.

There's also content which was originally only given away as an incentive for an extra purchase (such as the bonus episodes bundled with some volumes of manga). It's not entirely fair to make this kind of material readily available overseas. This is a difficult balancing act - the fact that people understand why extra content is sometimes missing doesn't make it any less disappointing. I've heard some fans say that they'd be happy to miss out on the better packaging used in Japan in return for lower prices, but very few make the same offer to drop the more enticing bonus content.

There were a few occasions back in the DVD era when the US received the inferior television footage from a series instead of the improved home video edition (this was most noticeable in titles which added extra fan service for the home video release). I don't think that this has happened yet with Blu-ray anime, but it's only a matter of time before production companies realise it's a good way to make foreign releases less desirable with minimal effort.

Price

Another contentious one. Some companies have been taking a more positive approach to the unfairness between regions by raising the prices of the overseas editions, simultaneously making reverse importation less of a temptation and mitigating the damage done when it takes place. There's a lot of resistance to higher prices since they make collecting anime more expensive. In spite of this, the premium sets seem to sell reasonably well.

Although Aniplex of America takes the most heat for its expensive anime discs, observant fans have spotted that FUNimation, Sentai Filmworks and NISA have all been experimenting with premium sets, a slow increase in RRPs and a reduction in cut-priced reissues. It's especially noticeable with geeky series which sold well in Japan. Shows which won't attract much reverse importation are still being given cheap box sets, as are huge hits like Naruto which sell in high enough volumes to justify their low cost.

At the moment, price increases often seem to go hand in hand with other unpopular solutions from my list. I'd like to see a move away from that over time; if I can support the anime industry and have a decent Blu-ray of my favourite show, I'd like to avoid being treated like a criminal at the same time.

Hidden region locking

This seems to be the most recent development in the war against reverse importation. I was directed to a forum thread on the subject of region locks, introducing a system where the US anime company (Sentai Filmworks) creates a disc for region A that doesn't actually play across all of region A.

Solely for the US and Canada

In other words, the region compatibility logo printed on the BD case is irrelevant: discs are now being sold which contain invisible lists of acceptable regions in which they can be used. It sucks for people who travel as it means the home video release cannot be relied on to get around the pain of region-locked streaming websites. While the affected discs only seem to specifically lock out Japan for the time being, how long will it be before someone decides to produce them the other way around, restricting them so they only work in their country of origin? And how long until a UK distributor asks them to specifically lock out the UK to force the customers here to buy the eventual DVD-only UK release instead?

This technology has also been used to secretly lock certain functionality from specific regions. For example, playing FUNimation's BD of the Heaven's Lost Property movie in Japan makes it impossible to select the Japanese soundtrack, forcing customers to watch the English-language dub. Many customers in the US are clamouring for this kind of trick to be used more often to allow them to enjoy a monopoly on cheap, English-subtitled anime Blu-rays.

The one ray of sunshine is that the lock isn't actually based on your geographical location at the time of playing the disc; it's based on the zone your player is set to. Given the state of the UK anime industry I have no qualms with keeping all of my equipment thinking that it's sitting in some convenient region A country for as long as I can avoid purchasing a less configurable player.

I believe that it's extremely dangerous to further disable already-locked products in this way without being completely transparent about it. Having seen NIS America's new listing for their upcoming Yuruyuri (Happy Go Lily) box set, it looks as though this misguided abuse of technology might be catching on - the disclaimer text at the bottom looks very similar to the feckless warning Sentai Filmworks have started printing on their Blu-ray packaging.

NISA's warning is very similar
In summary, the restrictions I've listed are ineffective and do little more than provide an excuse for viewers to avoid purchasing a show. Japanese customers can figure out how to get around each restriction other than price or missing content without breaking a sweat. Making the Blu-ray format so unattractive with all of these inconvenient workarounds is not helping anybody in the long run.

The future

The reason I don't buy locally is very simple: there's no market for most of the items I import in my own country, so what I want doesn't exist here. I understand the industry's fears about reverse importation. But they're going about it the wrong way by blocking people who would have chosen to import the more expensive versions in the first place if they'd been catered for properly. The digital distribution world is already a non-starter when it comes to manga and a lot of anime because of the obsessive price fixing conspiracies between  regions.

If the Japanese industry wants to control the appeal of western releases, I am absolutely fine with it so long as they release a product, somewhere, which is suitable for purchase. Locking foreigners out without giving them an alternative amounts to throwing sales away. When there can't be a decent US version because of reverse importation fears, surely the show can still be streamed overseas so customers can see what they're missing. It doesn't cost much more to put the same subtitles on the Japanese discs afterwards - and that's the reason I have both full-priced Fate/Zero box sets on my shelf right now.

From my perspective, Blu-ray represents a premium home video format which is slowly damaging the global market for home video products forever. For once the people who are doing it aren't even the people pirating the products; instead, the entertainment industry has become actively obsessed with poisoning its own customer base.

The home video industry needs to wise up before they drive the most passionate collectors away from the market for good.

7 comments:

  1. I'm glad someone is finally speaking out over this. Far too often western Anime fandom, predominantly American, glosses over these problems on the grounds that it doesn't affect them so why should they care? Speaking as a self confessed slave to resolution who lives outside the US I always want more fidelity in my pictures and more quality in my releases, this means I will always try and buy BluRay wherever possible and am willing to pay more for premium quality offerings. Inferior quality local licenses will not get a purchase from me if I know that there is a high quality US version out there; I will simply give up on owning the title and watch it for free on CrunchyRoll. The new trend of restricting playback on devices not by their region code, but by their arbitrary physical location is an extension of embargoing. I purchased a Region1 BluRay player to allow me to watch Anime released in America, but because I am physically not in the US the discs may not play even though my player's region is valid. Is that a risk I am willing to take? Can I afford to just throw money away on a disc that might not even work? In order to ensure my purchase is viable I am forced to used PC based software players which strip out protection, but that in itself is a bad thing, you are encouraging your customers to (in the eyes of the law, rather than in a practical moral sense) steal your product. What happens when their morals get too tired of all the faff and they decide that if they have to half steal it by ripping the protection out anyway, they might as well just go whole hog and torrent it. Gabe Newell made the best statement I have seen on this front. "Piracy is a service problem." If you make it too difficult for fans to purchase what they want from you, they will simply find some other way to obtain it, and that will not benefit you in sales. I do not advocate piracy and torrenting, but streaming is free and the world is full of other hobbies that I can spend my money on which don't scorn their customers (one fewer now that gaming has the Xbone).

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    1. On one hand, a delightful rare post from Phoe!

      On the other, my blog now includes content about Gabe Newell and the Xbone ヽ(;´д`)ノ

      You're even more screwed than I am, since if countries end up being whitelisted rather than blacklisted with the new hidden region locking I know one country which is going to be forgotten pretty quickly.

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  2. While waiting for Famitsu's SB4 poll to leak I decided to pole around your blog and came across this post. As someone who eagerly supports the US anime industry (in fact, I pretty much use my spending money on only anime, video games and related merch, with the occassional art commission) I have to admit that there is a bit of a problem in simply increasing the price of EITHER DVD releases OR BRs. There is no denying that most supporters just don't have nearly as much disposable income as their Japanese counterparts. For instance, I notice Aniplex sells releases like PMMM for a premium akin to Japanese prices. I was at a con at the time had to go with the DVD release as I had no way to afford it lest I give up buying anything else at the con, which was a non-option as I wanted to support other series.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that the industry would be cannibalizing sales by increasing costs stateside, it would mean fans would have to pick and choose which series they enjoy most, with only those or similar series proceeding to be sold in the US, leaving others to rot with illegal fansubs- which just hurts the anime industry as a whole.

    Perhaps there should be a movement to equalize prices in the West and Japan, make it so that the prices in both regions dequal but less than Japan's current prices... but I doubt Japanese suits would be willing to meet people like me halfway... by the same coin I doubt that many supporters in the states would buy more expensive anime even if it is less than 110 dollars for 2 movies. It... it's a difficult balancing act, but for the good of all a balanced does have to be found at some point.

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    1. Sorry about my grammar btw, on my phone right now.

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    2. And now that I'm back home I realize I left out some very important key words or phrases. Here, I'll just retype the sentences that need attention:

      *"As someone who eagerly supports the US anime industry (in fact, I pretty much use my spending money on only anime, video games of Japanese origin, and related merch, with the occassional art commission)[...]"
      *"There is no denying that most Western supporters just don't have nearly as much disposable income as their Japanese counterparts."
      *" I was at a con at the time had to go with the DVD release as I had no way to afford the Blu-Ray lest[...]"
      *"While I wouldn't go so far as to say[...]"

      Phew, there. Still some run-on sentences and such in there but I think you get the basic idea better now. :)

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    3. Oh, and "[...]make it so that the prices in both regions are equal[...]" >< I really need to use the preview function.

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    4. Ah, one of my embarrassing rants is revived! :)

      You make good points, and I think my ideal compromise would be a 'worldwide' Japanese release (with English subtitles and even a dub if the series can support it, like with Space Dandy) at a premium (but not disgusting) price, and then a priced-down US release later on which is actually advertised to everyone can set reasonable expectations. I see the Aniplex USA sets as (hopefully) paving the way for that model, with the eye-wateringly expensive first editions eventually selling out and allowing for a later version with better localisation (e.g. dubs when the title can support the cost) and a price more suitable to attracting a wider audience.

      Japan has been dabbling in bargain prices too from time to time and I really like that trend; I wouldn't have picked up a bunch of the Pokemon movies at their normal prices but the priced-down English-subtitled editions they released a while back were much more appealing. On the pricier side, Tiger & Bunny seemed like a very good strategy to me; English subtitles on the Japanese discs along with CDs of the Japanese cast being sweet, then a decent US release following on later for those who are less obsessed with listening to Morita Masakazu talking and just want the show itself. No doubt there will be a priced-down reissue for that in a few years too, so everyone should be able to buy the show in the format they most like without sacrificing so much when it comes to core features like language tracks or picture quality.

      I just wish they didn't obsess so much about controlling the market and trying to force everyone to buy the 'correct' version for their region. If US customers with high disposable income were encouraged to buy the Japanese versions and casual Japanese buyers who don't want to buy a nine-volume BD release for their favourite show were allowed to buy the US editions, everyone would be so much better off. Premium editions already tend to outsell basic ones within Japan, so why can't they make the cheaper, basic editions the 'worldwide' versions and sell them globally in mid-priced box sets for a wider audience?

      My perspective is probably not quite the same since I'm lucky enough to be able to be able to afford most of what I want now after years of struggling - I have to import either way with the UK market in its current state and with exchange rates having been reasonably good over the last decade, I've been very fortunate. Now that legal streaming is finally worthwhile I'm almost relieved about having to pass on the 'average' stuff in order to pick up the best versions of my favourites, but as you say, they're shutting large groups of fans out completely with the current system too. The entertainment industry really does make it difficult for people to give it their money sometimes.

      (Sorry, I rambled quite a lot...;_; )

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I'm really sorry that I had to switch on authentication for comments. The blog had started to receive dozens of spam comments each week. I hope that this new setting will help!