The long held fear by Japanese conglomerates involved in animation has reared its head once again, as Sentai Filmworks has been forced to remove the Japanese dub track from its forthcoming release of Persona 4: The Animation. Since the last (and 10th!) volume is going to be released this month in Japan and the complete collection is being released in the middle of next month, they were forced to remove the track due to a “licensor request”.
While this is nothing new judging by previous behavior (Bandai’s Kurokami Blu-Ray release has been frequently cited as an identical example of the practice), the fact that it came so late in the pre-order cycle means that one of the production committee members just recently noticed the release solicitation plans and put a stop to the Blu-Ray release including the Japanese dub. Who exactly put a stop to it isn’t known and it’s likely it will never be known, but this underscores a growing and likely long-term trend for anime licensing going forward.
As the US market represents a shrinking revenue base for Japanese animation home video sales, rather than work on constructive ways to improve revenue generation models or even finding ways of improving licensing terms on both sides in order for license holders to make more money, Japanese companies are clearly showing signs of active hostility towards the US market in order to protect their shrinking domestic market while simultaneously growing their pan-Asian reach, with little care for improving things. This is where the Japanese often forget that many fans can and will retaliate by downloading episodes for free without caring for the consequences, but another issue that really made itself known during the beginning of the situation serves to frame the ever present paranoia that has always been suspected, but never really understood until now.
The Amazon Conundrum
Amazon.com has a massive presence, both in Japan and the US. Both carry hundreds of anime titles at varying prices and Amazon Japan goes a step further, by carrying retailer exclusive editions of popular series along with related merchandise. What most people are just now starting to realize and has actually been present for many years is that there is a growing market for the grey imports of US anime DVDs through Amazon Marketplace dealers, most of it driven by a growing contingent of Japanese anime fans that are frustrated by the substantially lower pricing on US anime DVDs and Blu-Ray titles compared to the domestic version. This ties into the Persona 4 debacle because of the following images:
Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, the Sentai Filmworks release of Persona 4 is indeed the first listing when searching for Persona 4 on Amazon Japan and to make matters more interesting, the listing for the collection states that Amazon Japan is directly fulfilling orders for the Blu-Ray collection, rather than the usual custom of having Marketplace sellers fulfill such orders. No wonder the production committee was so paranoid!
It’s one thing to block international Blu-Ray releases for a length of time, but to actively have a show based on one of the biggest video game properties actively undercut the domestic release underscores just how much of an impact Amazon Japan has regarding reverse importation. It’s not so much that the fanbase is actively importing copies in lieu of buying the more expensive releases, it’s the fact that they’re even available to begin with and so prominently listed above the domestic version that has anime committee members losing sleep at night.
It also doesn’t help that the anime is also serving as a tie-in to two new Persona 4 games being released in the next two months in Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4 Golden, with the cross-promotional opportunities serving as a catalyst to speed up the release, for better or worse. Despite all of that and regardless of my feelings on both the series and the company itself, the exclusion of the Japanese dub on the Blu-Ray still sets a bad precedent for both sides, since committee member Aniplex has obvious interests to protect (more now that they also have a direct US presence on top of its standard master license business) and for Sentai since it’s being put in a markedly unfair position, one it can’t easily manuver around without losing money one way or the other.
Sure, David Williams did say that DVD still made up the majority of Sentai’s sales volume, but with many cancelling their Blu-Ray pre-orders because of the perception of an incomplete release, they have to be taking a bath on the Blu-Ray version and that’s pretty expensive, whether or not the English dub is considered “more familiar” to the audience that has played the game before. I’m still buying the DVD collection because it still has both the Japanese and English dub, but I can’t bring myself to buy an English dub-only Blu-Ray. I got burned on Kurokami and I’m not making that mistake again, especially considering the current attitude of Japanese executives towards the US is akin to “Fuck you, you’re broke”.
As far as boycotting the Sentai release, that really doesn’t help anyone, nor does downloading rips. You really want to piss off Aniplex USA and JP, you buy a cheap multi-region BD player and buy KAZE UK’s release of the show since their Blu-Ray still has the Japanese dub. It’s what I’m doing and I’m willing to import from multiple regions in order to get my BD fix, Japanese committee idiocy be damned. One way or another, Japanese companies going to figure out that the limitations that were common just a decade ago just don’t exist anymore, and that should scare them more than simple reverse importation. People are going to get what they want in one way or another and if their goal is to force it as the only option, I’m sorry to say that just isn’t the case, not anymore.
I realize that for many of you the above isn’t exactly cheap, and you don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t a cheap hobby. What I am saying is that unlike what the Japanese companies want people to believe, you do have choices. You can buy what’s offered to you or you can simply not buy it if it doesn’t meet your standards. They want to act as if you have no alternative whatsoever other than buying an incomplete release and are doing their damnedest to force the issue, without considering the consequences of their increasingly hostile actions. It’s behavior like this that’s driving people to drop out of the hobby and if the Kadokawa situation is any indication, it’ll only get worse from here, not better.
Can we fix it? Not unless we’re willing to become a mirror image of the Japanese fanbase that mindlessly spends money on every first run release, which is the goal of the Japanese industry. Unfortunately, even their own typically captive audience is getting fed up with the way things are done and its only a matter of time before they get pushed to their own breaking point, if the myriad of 2ch threads and matome blogs dedicated to anime purchases are anything to go by. If that happens, it’s not going to be pretty.