Friday, April 26, 2013

Reverse Importation and How It Affects the NA Anime Industry

During my post about the Puella Magi Madoka Magica movies' import release, I talked a bit about reverse importation, the practice of Japanese anime fans' importing US releases of anime in order to save on the cost of buying anime Blu-rays, which are oftentimes ridiculously expensive. As an example, the average 12-episode anime will require you to buy 6 individual volumes that have an MSRP of US $80 each!) Needless to say, it's much cheaper to wait for the US's $70 release of that same show in its entirety, ask your overseas friend to buy it and ship it to you, then just pay him the cost plus shipping and in the end pay probably about a sixth of what you'd normally pay.

It should be noted that this problem even goes back to the days of DVD, where anime DVDs in Japan were also rather expensive and it would be much cheaper to buy a Region 1 compatible DVD player and import US releases. But with Blu-rays making the US and Japan share a region, it's just that much easier to reverse-import for any penny-pinching Japanese anime fan. Unfortunately for the producers of the anime, this means much less revenue for them, which is a Bad Thing, and of course, in their minds, they need to do whatever they can to make sure as many people buy their own domestic releases as possible, which makes sense.

That said, without any solid sales numbers, it's hard to say just how much of an impact reverse importation has on the Japanese industry. It's possible the problem isn't that bad and the companies are just being paranoid. One good indicator that it is something to be concerned over, though, is that if you search for various anime on the Japanese Amazon site, oftentimes the US release will be near the top as one of the more popular items.

In the end, though, the Japanese are concerned about it, and as such, it affects how anime gets released here in North America. In this post, I will go over the various ways which reverse importation affects these releases.

1. Delay of US releases

The most common way of curbing reverse importation, and the way that's been around since pretty much forever, is to simply keep US companies from being able to sell their releases until Japan's releases have been on the shelves for a while. This way, they can at least grab some people who prefer not to wait. On average, a US company is allowed to release a show 6-8 months after the last Japanese release; this typically means there's a space of a year, plus or minus a couple of months, between when a show airs and when the US DVD/Blu-ray release comes out.

2. Lack of extras

A second method is to simply limit the extras available on a US release, oftentimes to just the clean opening and ending and maybe some promos. It's ultimately up to the Japanese licensor which materials for extras they provide to US companies (though they may be able to negotiate during licensing); while there may be many reasons why they don't provide certain extras to the US, trying to keep the domestic releases as valuable as possible is one possible reason.

3. Locked subtitles

This one is an unusual one. Basically, for these releases, you choose an audio option on the main menu--either Japanese or English--and you will either get the Japanese language with full subtitles or the English dub with song/sign translations. It is impossible to change the language while the show is playing, and it is also impossible to change the subtitle track. Basically, it becomes impossible to set things so the Japanese track is playing with no subtitles, the "pure" form that any potential Japanese reverse-importers are looking for.

Alternatively, for releases that have no dub track, there simply is no option to turn off subtitles, either on the main menu or from your remote.

It should be noted that this only affects Blu-rays; DVDs in Blu-ray/DVD combo packs or DVD versions of the show do not have this feature.

I imagine that for most people, this is not a concern. However, there are some for whom this can be an annoyance, such as those who know Japanese and want to watch the show in its "pure" form, or those who just want to enjoy the visuals of a show without those subtitles getting in the way (moreso for shows without an English track).

This thread on The Fandom Post keeps track of all the US Blu-ray releases with locked subtitles, if this is of any interest to you.

4. 1080i Releases

This one's come up somewhat recently with a couple of titles, most notably Bodacious Space Pirates and Penguindrum. Basically, the US licensor is provided with the masters encoded in 1080i instead of 1080p. What's the difference? Well, only a real videophile can tell. But if you are one, be warned that many have complained that the resulting video has a fair number of problems, particularly in very busy scenes. Whether this is a problem with bad encoding on the Japanese side or on the US side, I have no idea. But this is something that's happening and perhaps worth knowing about.

5. Dub-only releases

These are rare: a Blu-ray release stripped entirely of the original Japanese audio track. I only know of two major cases of this: Kurokami the Animation and Persona 4 the Animation. Note that for both, they also have DVD versions that contain both audio tracks. Also, in the case of Persona 4 the Animation, the US release was incredibly close to the Japanese release, delayed only a month after the last release (I believe it was to coincide with the release of certain Persona games), and that definitely was a factor in this unusual situation. Generally speaking, I wouldn't worry about seeing too much of these.

6?. No Blu-ray release

Of course, there's always the option of not allowing the US to produce Blu-rays of the title in question, since those are currently the primary target of reverse importation. That said, I can't say for sure that any particular release that is DVD-only is so because the Japanese licensors forbade a Blu-ray release. Maybe a couple of Aniplex of America releases like the Garden of Sinners DVD set were affected? It's a possibility, but that's as much as I can say for it.

7-ish: Import releases

This isn't really a solution for reverse importation so much as it is a way for a show to be released in North America without the normal delay. Aniplex of America isn't the only company doing this; Bandai Visual (not to be confused with Bandai Entertainment) is also doing this for the Gundam Unicorn series. As I talked about in my post about import releases, expect these to be ridiculously expensive.

Again, though, this does not necessarily mean that shows released as import releases won't get a proper domestic release once the standard delay time is over.


There you have it, reverse importation and the effects it has on anime in North America. Presuming that the "take an 8th option" of none of the above isn't an option, I'm sure most people would rather that, for most releases, only #1 applies. If another one had to apply, I'd say locked subs are the least of these evils, while I would hate for a show to end up being dub-only, being a sub fan myself.

Which method of controlling reverse importation do you think are fine, and which would you rather the Japanese companies stop doing?

1 comment:

  1. Why don't the Japanese companies just charge a reasonable price? That would fix their problems.