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The World's Biggest Animation Home Video Market?

It is no secret that Japan consumes a massive amount of animated entertainment, but just how big is the home video market? Fred Patten puts it all in perspective.

The Whole Toon Catalog sells hundreds of anime titles imported from Japan for U.S. audiences. Cover image © Hanna-Barbera. Visit the Whole Toon web site in AWN!

The home video market for animation in America has basically grown out of nowhere during the last ten years. It started largely with cheaply produced videos of minor television cartoons and old, public-domain theatrical shorts. Today, virtually all of the best animated features ever made in America are available on video, with an increasing number of high-quality features being produced especially for video release by Disney and other top studios.

However, the Japanese animation video market is rumored to eclipse America's. The latest issue (Summer 1996) of The Whole Toon Catalog, which purports to include every commercial animation video currently in print in America, includes 51 pages of mostly American animation, mixed with a few American releases of British, Italian, Hungarian, and other international animations. This is followed by a separate 33 page section of "Japanimation," American editions of Japanese animation videos. These are just the Japanese titles which have been bought for American release! How large is the complete animation video market in Japan?

A Look into Anime V

It is big! Japan, with a population of approximately 126 million to the U.S.' 266 million, has almost three times as many video stores. Video sales and rentals are dominated by live-action titles, but the animation market is big enough that there are specialty magazines dedicated to animation video buyers alone. The oldest and most informative of these is Anime V (for Animation Video), which has been published since 1985 and currently averages 140 pages per month. Much of this is advertising, but there is a very informative log of animation video releases each month, divided into five categories.

Anime V, the monthly Japanese magazine devoted to the home video market.

According to Anime V's two most recent logs, for July and August 1997, there were 13 releases in July and 8 in August, of animation titles produced for direct-to-video sales for general audiences. There were three releases in July and three in August, in a catch-all category combining videos of Japanese animated theatrical films, television special movies, and Japanese releases of foreign animation. This latter category included Pixar's Tiny Toy Stories in August. There were 22 releases in July and 26 in August of videos of Japanese half-hour television cartoon episodes. Adult direct-to-video animation accounted for five releases in July, and ten in August. ("Adult" means explicit pornography, including the notorious "tentacle rape" horror fantasies. Japanese social customs allow mildly erotic humor, including brief nude shower scenes, in television cartoons and general-audience videos designed for adolescents. This is why so many of the "anime" videos currently appearing in America for the teen super-hero/science-fiction market carry a warning label, "Contains violence and nudity. Parental guidance suggested."). The final category, another catch-all for animated music videos, videos of live concerts by voice actresses singing animation theme songs, and "the making of" specials on the production of major animated features, included two releases in July and two more in August.

Anime V publishes an annual catalog each February of all the new direct-to-video animation releases of the past year. This year's catalog for the 1996 releases lists 233 videos. These include only 122 different titles; many were popular series running to a half-dozen or more video volumes. The catalog also keys these to a variety of subject categories, including "science fiction" (outer space adventure), "mecha" (giant robots), "action" (sports, detective dramas), "military drama," "fantasy," "rebellious youth" (teen gangs), "TV adaptations" (sequels to popular television cartoons), "literary adaptations" (animation based upon either classic novels or comic books), "games" (dramatizations of video games), "adult" and more.

A young woman is engulfed by a tentacled monster in Lady Blue. © Central Park Media.

Distribution Channels

A scan of the distributors' labels is similarly informative. Bandai Visual covers the broadest range, including approximately equal numbers of animated direct-to-video titles, movies, and television series. King Records, Pioneer LDC, VAP, and Star Child also distribute across this range, but in smaller quantities. Toei Video, a branch of Toei Animation, the largest animation studio in Japan, distributes a similar mixture. Virtually all of its videos, whether direct-to-video titles, movies, or television cartoons, are of in-house animation; in comparison to other distributors' videos which are produced by a large number of animation studios. Pink Pineapple concentrates on the distribution of adult animation, both produced by its own studio or by one or two similar specialty animation houses. K.S.S. specializes in direct-to-video animation, both for its own distribution and for other distributors.

But relying upon Anime V alone would result in a highly distorted picture of the Japanese animation video market. The magazine is slanted for the direct-to-video market, which is geared toward action-adventure usually involving science-fictional or super-hero dramatics which would require prohibitive special-effects budgets in live-action. Many of these are produced for a niche market and have comparatively small sales.

Disney! Disney! Disney!

A visit to a major Japanese video store presents quite a different picture. Disney! Disney! Disney! Disney is barely mentioned in Anime V, but every video store catering to the general public features flats and display stands in eye-catching positions for Disney videos. Disney claimed in a 1996 press release that it controls 65% of the Japanese market for childrens' videotapes. This presumably includes Disney's live-action videos as well.

Disney has also just begun its distribution of the feature films of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's most beloved and highest-grossing theatrical animation director. Disney obtained the worldwide video rights to Miyazaki's features produced by Studio Ghibli (i.e., his movies of the past dozen years) in a highly publicized acquisition in July 1996. Miyazaki's animated movies have heretofore been available on video only at rental prices (usually ¥16,000/$140). The new Disney distribution makes Miyazaki available in the ¥3,000/$25 sell-through price range for the first time.

As elsewhere, the primary audiences for animation videos in Japan are the family-oriented viewers. MGM's Tom and Jerry cartoons are moving briskly in a current video marketing campaign. Warner Bros. also has its own video distribution for Japanese releases of its American titles, which includes much of its animation backlist. The Japanese spend their yen on these and the domestic animation titles which are similarly family- and child-oriented. The television cartoons Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball (both Toei Animation titles), were picked up for American and other international television outlets a couple of years ago because of their tremendous popularity in Japan, both on television and in video sales.

Robot Trooper Votoms, a title in the

Inside a Video Store

Video stores in Japan have "anime" sections as well, but they are much larger since they include many titles which have not been sold to international markets. The average video store bases its orders on the expected popularity of each title, but there is usually a standard minimum order for 100 units of every animation title. Unless a title is unusually popular, it is not re-ordered. There are enough new animation releases each month to keep the shelves filled. Therefore most general video stores have a constant turnover and only the newest animation videos can be found. Shoppers who want older titles or a wider range of selections can find animation specialty video shops in most cities. These are similar to comic-book shops in America, catering to the older teens and "young salarymen" who are the market for the action/adventure direct-to-video titles. In addition to the videos, animation fans can find all of the associated merchandise such as animation magazines, reference books, posters, animation-character telephone cards, action figures and toys, and usually a bin of cheap original production cels from the latest releases.

Sell-through prices for the mass-marketed family titles, such as Disney's, are in the ¥3,000/$25 range. A major television cartoon series may offer four half-hour episodes (about 100 minutes) for ¥7,000/$60 on its initial release, while the series is still topping the television popularity charts. Video re-releases a few years later drop to the ¥3,000 level. New direct-to-video releases (known as OAV titles, for "original animation video"), usually in the half-hour to 45-minute range, cost ¥5,000/$45 to ¥6,000/$55. Up to now, Japanese video releases of major theatrical animated features such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell or Miyazaki's movies have been limited to rental prices in the ¥10,000/$85 to ¥16,000/$140 range. It will be interesting to see how Disney's marketing of Miyazaki's features will affect the entire range of theatrical animated feature videos.

One of Japan's popular

For the public which prefers to rent rather than own, overnight rentals of videos (live and animation) are comparable to American prices; ¥200/$1.75 to ¥300/$2.50. ¥500/$4.25 is standard for a two-night rental of a popular new title.

The animation video market in Japan is large because the Japanese video market in general is huge. In addition, the Japanes public does not share the American preconception that "animation is just for kids," so there is no loss of face for teens or adults to buy or rent cartoon videos for themselves. The American video market is just experimenting with animation for any section besides children. As the popularity of Japanese animation videos for teen and adult viewers increases in America, and is joined by video releases of theatrical features like Heavy Metal and Beavis & Butt-head Do America, direct-to-video titles like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and video releases of the more mature television productions such as Spawn, Spicy City, Aeon Flux and The Simpsons, the American animation home-video market should expand in size and respectability until it can support original production just as the theatrical and television markets do. Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He currently writes a regular anime column for Animation Magazine.