Bait & Switch

This month’s fun anime news – the removal of the Japanese language track from the American release of Persona 4. The reason can be found by anyone if they start poking around the sales figures for Japanese animation in its home market. The first episode of Persona 4 sold over 40,000 copies in Japan, but after that, sales settled down. Reading between the statistics, Persona 4 has about 6,000 Japanese fans who bought the whole set on DVD, and another 10,000 fans who bought it on Blu-ray. But owning the complete Japanese set of the first season would set you back £420 in Japan. That makes the English-language release about 80% cheaper, and puts the producers in deep fear of reverse-importing.

So far, there has been no indicator that the British release of Persona 4 will be similarly affected. Territorial lockout, once a bugbear for British fans, might turn out to be a saviour on this occasion, as UK Blu-rays are no longer in the same region as Japanese ones. However, if this becomes a general trend, the Japanese animation business risks shooting itself repeatedly in the foot.

There are several possible answers to this problem, none of which you are going to like. One would be to make everybody pay Japanese prices, which would kill off the UK Blu-ray business. Another would be to bring Japanese prices down to foreign levels, which would kill off many niche-interest anime serials. Leaving the Japanese language track off the foreign release, however, is not a solution, either. A sizeable chunk of foreign fandom likes anime because it is Japanese. For ten years, the dual audio tracks of DVDs have largely obscured this subset of fandom, but I, for one, have never bought a dubbed anime, except when the dub comes attached to a DVD I’m buying anyway.

Removing the Japanese-ness from a foreign anime release will scare off many buyers, but surely the Japanese already know this? Which leads me to suspect that foreign rights, in general, for some companies have become little more than a bait-and-switch con, designed not to sell the product, but to keep a studio’s “foreign rights” department looking busy. Japanese producers: say it isn’t so!

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #103, 2012.