Believe It: Anime Sells More Copies In The U.S. Than It Does In Japan
Recently anime fans have become more vocal about the delay between the release dates of DVD/BD anime series in Japan and in the U.S. Except for a couple known examples anime is always distributed first in Japan and only later (sometimes much later) in the U.S. and Europe. The most common reason for these delays are the much higher prices of DVD/BD products in Japan, which allow the production committee and studio behind an anime to at least regain their investment in the series, if not make a profit. Because a series that is sold for 200$ in Japan is usually sold for around 50$ in the U.S. the owners of the show in Japan are reluctant to have it released in the U.S. before the Japanese audience have all but bought their copy of it, for fear of reverse-importing. The common belief (that is not always correct) is that Japanese studios don’t really take the Western audience into consideration while making a show, focusing instead on maximizing the sales of that show in Japan. The Japanese market is the one that fuels the anime economy. That’s a fact. But what will you say if I told you that even though the anime industry is firmly based around the Japanese consumer more people buy copies of anime series in the West than in Japan?
It all goes back to the way in which profit is derived from anime, and the fact that profitability from anime doesn’t always correlate to the amount of people watching it. To explain why this happens let’s widen our view a bit and go beyond the realms of anime. If, for example, you are a game company making the best mobile poker games you will obviously be making most of your profits from the games you created. However, you may want to sell the games at a low price and include in-game updates or upgrades your customer can buy. In this way, you will strive to have as many people as possible buy your poker games, because out of these people some might be willing to pay a premium for the full experience. However, the strategies behind anime are different from the strategies for poker games. Because anime is so expensive to make and copies of it are sold at such an expensive price most of the time the anime is not made in the expectations that it will be profitable on its own. Basically anime is usually made to promote the manga/visual novel/light novel that spawned it. There are some series and movies that are completely original, but even those are usually followed by a plethora of related goods. What is the first thing that springs to your head when someone mentions Neon Genesis Evangelion? If you live in Japan the answer is probably Pachinko, since more people are exposed daily to Pachinko parlors with Neon Genesis Evangelion themed slot machines than are exposed to the actual anime. Not all series manage to become cash-cows, but those that do are milked to the ground. The best example is probably Pokemon, which is a cash-cow in the U.S. almost as much as it is in Japan. If you’re shopping for food in Japan most chances you’ll come across Pokemon curry. If you go with your children to the amusement park you can buy them a Pokemon balloon. In your local ice cream shop they just made a new “Pikachu flavor” and you got a set of those rotating yellow Pokemon toothbrushes as a gift last year. Of course Pokemon is not the only one out there: Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto, Precure, Doraemon – any mainstream franchise that made it big is using the anime only as a mean to attract more people to buy related products. If you are a fan who watches all the late night shows you can expect to buy more expensive goods suited for the mediocre to “hardcore” anime collectors such as clothes, drama CDs, wall scrolls, limited edition cookies and basically anything that can be branded.
“any mainstream franchise that made it big is using the anime only as a mean to attract more people to buy related products.”
In the picture: a Fate/Stay Night T-shirt, a Dragon Ball hat and a Dragon Ball orange soft drink, a pokemon themed
Ramune and a Precure themed curry.
As most of the big money comes from related products the production committee doesn’t really do much to maximize the sales of the anime series itself. You can expect to see commercials for a series main theme song CD, a card game based on the series or even food brands based on it. But I have never heard of a company in Japan that lowered the price of a series so that more people will have access to it. Most of the time they make a limited edition, sell it at 300-400$ and when it’s out of stock it’s gone for good. Some series receive new life when a second season comes around, prompting a small-scoped rerelease of the original series. But these are far and few between. Meanwhile in the U.S. things work differently. Sure, there are a lot of people who buy (and sometimes import) goods related to their beloved series, but there are still considerably more people who consume the anime itself and consider themselves anime collectors. These people collect anime as a medium. Their money is spent mostly on acquiring new series to watch. U.S. distributors are releasing new series and budget bundles of old series left and right. The new series go for about a fourth of their Japanese price, while the budget releases can go as low as 10$ for a complete series. Most of the times U.S. distributors don’t bother, or just can’t, release related goods to series and most of their income come directly from selling series – the opposite of what’s happening in Japan.
Now, in all honesty I don’t really have the figures to prove that anime sells more copies in the U.S. than it does in Japan, but it’s easy enough to grasp it when you take the time to think about it. For example, all my Japanese friends treat Dragon Ball Z as an inseparable part of their childhood and culture. There’s almost an unwritten rule that if you are going to a karaoke hall with friends you’ll be singing Shala Head Shala. But ask any of your Japanese friends if they own a copy of the Dragon Ball Z anime. If your friends are not crazy otaku than most chances are they don’t, because Dragon Ball Z was released on 49 DVDs in Japan and each of these had a retail price of 3,990 Yen. They could have waited and bought the complete series, released as a couple of DVD box sets, but if you bought all of these Japanese DVD boxes you still had to shell out more than 600$. And that’s a series that ended at 291 episodes. More recent series, like Naruto and One Piece, have more than double the amount of episodes and are still on the air. It makes more sense for the Dragon Ball Z fan in Japan to buy the manga, the figures or the video games made for the franchise than to buy the anime DVDs. Japanese who love anime does have a cheaper option though. They can always buy the bundles FUNimation and Viz are offering, which Amazon Japan is all but happy to sell. If you live in Japan and want a copy of Dragon Ball Kai most chances are you’ll reverse-import the U.S. version, because it just makes sense money-wise.
At the end of the day the multimedia economy within Japan is still limiting the ability of fans to acquire anime series legally without reverse-importing. In the meantime prices of anime in the U.S. have plunged and fans can now own most of their series at reasonable prices. What does this ultimately means? In essence it means that while people in the U.S. (and indeed the rest of the West) are not the supporting pillar of the anime industry they are the ones consuming it the most. They buy more physical copies of anime series than the run-of-the-mill Japanese otaku can, because they can afford it. It’s a strange situation in which the Western consumer is not supposed to be targeted by the medium and yet s/he is in a position to own it while the Japanese consumer can at times only own small parts of it. It’s true that when a series hits the air the best place to be to enjoy it and consume its products is Japan. But if you are looking for the most impressive and encompassing anime collection out there most chances are you’ll find it in some American university anime club, not in the land of the rising sun.