It’s been twenty years since Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira changed the way the UK watched Japanese cartoons. After 1991, a Japanese origin became something to be trumpeted: a selling point. But could that all be about to change again?
My usual haunts aren’t there any more; old-fashioned browsing is becoming a thing of the past. Tower Records has gone. The Virgin megastores have gone. The HMV-Waterstones-Fopp conglomerate is now practically a UK monopoly, and still struggling. Fearing the worst, some video companies are losing the art of finding out what their audience wants. Or rather, they still have an audience. But it isn’t me any more.
Perhaps we have passed a tipping point. Some of the new blurbs can’t be bothered to tell me about directors I might like, or actors I follow. Far better, it seems, to come up with a new, zappy title, hide the word “subtitled”, and hope it shifts from the bargain shelves in Sainsbury’s. Bang Rajan 2 has been retitled Blood of Warriors: Sacred Ground, because that way it doesn’t sound like a Thai sequel. Pacific Battleship Yamato has sneaked out in the UK with the “Yamato” part rendered in smaller type, as if afraid of scaring people off. R-Point has just been re-released as Ghosts of War, with its Korean origins carefully shunted into the shadows. It seems that it really is more profitable to take a DVD downmarket to appeal to impulse buyers in the supermarkets.
This brutally realist approach essentially gives up on specialist audiences. Terrifyingly, it even seems to make sound business sense. The sales figures for these films compare very favourably with those for bespoke, arty editions targeted at “fans”. The number of customers who will actively seek out a Kong Su-chang film, or ask for R-Point by name is greatly outweighed by the number of passing shoppers who will say: “Cool! Zombie Soldiers!” (Even if there aren’t any zombies in R-Point). The nature of the sales pitch has been reframed from cognoscenti to ignoramuses: less marketing, more downmarketing.
Japanese animation has been here before. Anime pre-Akira endured thirty years with rewritten soundtracks, altered storylines and dumbed-down titles. That was the age of the Hidden Imports, when you could see anime on TV, but only shoved unceremoniously in the kiddie cartoon slots. If companies stop caring about consumers who care, then they stop advertising in specialist magazines. If they start categorising not by directors and stars, but by nothing but broad genres (“WAR!”, “GHOSTS!”), we could lose the kind of tagging data that makes it possible for Amazon to know you might like a particular movie. They could give up on DVD extras, because the new audience won’t want a commentary or a making-of.
Look to live-action for a scary glimpse of anime’s possible future. Are we on the brink of a new Dark Age? Back to the bargain bins…?
Considering how anime itself was targeted at mainstream audiences for a good 10 years in the UK (Gore! Explosions! Tentacles! Breasts! More Gore!), this may not represent a regression in how Asian works are sold to the British public so much as it does a continuation.
That said, I’m not sure that the general dumbing down of how asian cinema is sold here reflects on the publishers as it does they license. Chanbara Striptease and Big Tits Zombie, anyone?
Those two titles were licensed for the UK because they looked like guaranteed money-makers, so they could pay for the expensive stuff that sells in small amounts to fans who clamor for their release, but then never buy them. BTZ sold very well for the label in question, as if you look at their small but very well-chosen catalogue they simply never release titles like that – but it should have done much better still. The important thing was that it could pay off the costs of the older titles and hopefully have some left for newer acquisitions.
Both labels have bought better licenses to release in the UK at much greater expense, and the same amount or much less still have turned out to buy those as bought Chanbara or Big. You want the good stuff released, gotta release some garbage to cover the cost of them – that’s how it works.
No change there then. ¬_¬