OPINION: The Problem with Current Digital Distribution of Anime in North America

Monday, February 11th, 2013

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Anime Streaming

Being a fan in 2013 and the access one has to anime is far different than what it was like 15, even 10 years ago. Back in the old days there was the mailing of VHS tapes, trading, and sharing all that people could get their hands on — which at the time wasn’t that much. With the advent of the internet, fansubbed downloads and eventually DVD rips became far more common. This too was all well and great, but it wasn’t instantaneous. Especially with the slower connection speeds of a decade ago. We are now in the true age of streaming content and download to own digital distribution, but that too is not without its problems here in North America.

We literally have the ability to watch almost any anime we want wherever we are: at home on the computer, on the couch, on the bus, cross-country road trip, the list goes on. And this is all thanks to streaming services like Crunchyroll, Netflix, Hulu, and Funimation’s Elite Service in addition to other digital distribution channels like iTunes, Google Play, and so on where you can purchase individual episodes or seasons to download to any device and watch locally at a good price. And the amount of titles is ASTOUNDING compared to what could be obtained via VHS tapes or even downloaded from fansub groups. But some fans aren’t able to reap the full rewards of these services.

Anime is just that, Japanese animation, and thus was created in the Land of the Rising Sun. Point is, it’s Japanese and thus the original versions were recorded with Japanese dialogue. Here in North America, many titles also get an English dub to be watched in our native language, not to mention some titles getting Spanish dubs to be distributed in Mexico and French dubs for some sections of Canada. There are fans who enjoy each and every one of those, but they are not all being served with all the anime-watching options we have in today’s technological age.

Anime on Netflix

If you’ve ever played around with options on certain Netflix titles, you can see that you have the option of subtitles and, in rarer circumstances, audio streams. It’s hardwired into Netflix’s programming that you can have options for the title you want to stream. But with the anime that is presented by the likes of FUNimation and VIZ Media, there are zero options to choose from. It is interesting to note that those two companies specifically handle anime on Netflix differently: FUNimation only offers English dub versions of its shows while VIZ only offers Japanese with English subtitles. Some fans like it one way, others like it another. But why do we have to take it this way? If options are available with Netflix, why aren’t they being utilized?

If anyone knows me, I prefer watching anime in its native Japanese with subtitles. I feel a bit let down with so much anime on offer from FUNimation, for I don’t really have the drive to get into their series’ because it’s not presented in a way I prefer to watch. Similarly, those that prefer to watch their anime dubbed feel left out with what VIZ has up to watch.

Let’s move on to the other option for digital distribution of anime here in the US — download to own. The whole point of offering TV shows and movies for digital purchase is to be quick, convenient, and cheap enough to prompt an impulse-buy while perusing online video stores. While it may be quick to just buy and own an episode or a season of a show, in the case of anime it is in no way cheap nor convenient in comparison to a physical release. Let’s take a look at NOIR that is available both for digital distribution and a physical release. You can purchase the DVD at online shops like RightStuf.com for a good price with both language options as well as extra materials on the disc.

NOIR Rightstuf

NOIR GooglePlay

Twenty-five dollars for a 26 episode series, plus bonus extras comes in at less than $1 per episode. Certainly a good deal. And then we have the same 26 episode series up for digital purchase on Google Play, only available in English, with zero extras. And what does that look like?

So it’s now $36 for the full season — or $1.99 buying it an episode at a time — for the series, which comes in at over $1.38 per episode with only one language and no access to the extras.

Quick? You can download it right now. Convenient? No language options or extras available without buying the whole set on disc brings that to a no. Cheap? Certainly not. Even with shipping the DVD box set comes in cheaper, and you’re also paying for printing materials for the set. So why so expensive online? I can only come to the conclusion that it’s to make a quick profit off of people with zero patience to get the set in the mail. But why not offer the series with a choice of languages or two sets of the show to download so you can have your pick on the fly?

I’m all for digital distribution and legal streaming. It’s letting people have access to products that they love more easily and quickly. But when there is a lack of options, let alone the loss of extras, I don’t see the point of purchasing a product like this. Regardless, I feel this way of utilizing technology to serve fans really isn’t properly serving the fans. Things can change with very little effort or expense to North American publishers. Will it change? Maybe. When? Unfortunately it looks like time will only tell if this issue isn’t brought up and at the publisher’s attention.

What are your thoughts? Are you put off by FUNimation only posting English dubbed anime on Netflix? Or the reverse with VIZ only offering Japanese subbed anime? What’s your stance on download to own services with absurd pricing and a lack of options? Let us know in the comments.

About Randy Thompson

[Former Staff] Just a normal nerd who loves his computer, video games, anime, manga, and the like. I love to draw and graduated from the Art Institutes for animation so I could bring my drawings to life.

As an author at oprainfall, I write up news articles and such as well as review new and current anime.

I also love Dragon Ball (subbed)—it’s kind of my own pet obsession.

  • I’m the rare person that really has no preference between dub or sub. My sister refuses to watch anything subbed. That said, the digital distribution problem isn’t limited to only anime, although it has more problems than most. Look at the cost of renting movies through Google Play. 5 dollars. The cost of running to the local red box? A buck. For the cost of an HD rental a month, I almost have enough for a Crunchyroll or Netflix or Hulu+ or whatever floats my boat. Anime has an even bigger problem. Illegal streaming of anime is common in the community, and there’s very little quality difference between fansubs and real subs, most of the time. The way to compete with that, which would be slashing prices, hasn’t happened. Instead, the reverse is true. Anime is more expensive, most of the time, than similar American TV shows, by an almost 100% premium…

    • i am one of those “illegal” streamers, though if it is released in america and i can watch it on funimation netflix or whatever i will, just… i don’t want to pay, actually i need to restate i can’t pay, i wish funi got rid of that membership service, i don’t mind having to view commercials to fund my viewing. i only mind being locked from content from a streaming website. also i have another thing, if it ain’t licensed in america it be legal, what i mean by that is that not all anime makes it state side so obviously they do not want my money anyways, so…. yo…ho…ho…

  • I honestly prefer Japanese than English voice actors. I feel like Japanese voice actors are better at emotion through their voice… also I find that you get more of the story and whatnot with Subtitles than English Dubbed. I have some English voice actors that I like so I’ll watch Anime Dubbed with the Japanese subtitles.

  • John Ellis

    I have a crunchyroll account but apart from that I don’t pay for digital media ie films and Anime. I buy some Anime on DVD and Blue Ray. that way I can watch them take them to peoples houses, view extras and on rare occasions change the language if the dub isn’t very good. I would never pay to download an Anime. It seems so pointless.

  • Dai10zin

    “Are you put off by FUNimation only posting English dubbed anime on Netflix?”
    Yes. This is why I have a Crunchyroll account and not a Netflix account.
    And to any who say you can’t tell the difference – yes, you can.
    You can tell the difference between an individual in a studio by him- or herself, reciting translated lines in response to someone else’s pre-recorded dialogue while being directed by someone who translated the script, compared with a group of individuals reading the lines together while being directed by the actual producer/writer/director.

    • this really depends on the anime, one that is well done and well acted can be better in english than in japanese, i say this a lot on forums and what not, but it’s true. you see sometimes the japanese voice isn’t appropriate for that character, take Yuko from XXXholic, in japanese she doesn’t quite have the same air about her, she needs to feel like high nobility, the english version of her does just that, or Ryohko from Tenchi Muyo, she needs to sound like a maniacal

    • Dai10zin

      I’ll give you Tenchi Muyo (have to agree on the point of Ryoko sounding much better and Ayeka slightly more tolerable). But examples like these are typically uncommon. Especially for Funimation that constantly uses the same voice actor union to do all their work. So you continuously hear a derivative of a derivative as actors do similar characters across similar stories with little to no variation in their voiceovers. It becomes old and trite.

  • Streaming dubbed anime on Netflix has been helpful for me in the past. I can legally watch shows I couldn’t find anywhere else in English, and it’s helped me dictate my DVD purchases for said shows. I can always go back and see it in Japanese, and it’s a win-win scenario for myself and the distributors. I can agree there’s difficulty for those who want options for streaming services, but do understand that digital services are supposed to ultimately lead people into buying retail DVDs. And charging $1.99 per episode without dual-audio is ludicrous.

    If anime distributors want to play their cards right in digital distribution for viewers’ permanent ownerships, they may want to treat their products like video games on Steam. Just a thought.

  • Bob.

    I have a very simple convention when it comes to subs and dubs: if the setting is in Japan or with Japanese people, I listen to the Japanese. If it’s an English speaking setting (America, Baccano or Amestris, FMA) I go with the dubs. I don’t watch too many fantasy ones, but with those I can go either way.

  • I don’t like watching subbed anime. I have trouble focusing on reading the subtitles and watching the show at the same time. With dubs, my eyes only have to focus on watching it.

    • Bob.

      That is a good point. With dubs I find myself appreciating the animation and art a lot more. FMA:B was a gorgeous looking anime, and I fully appreciated it because I was watching subs.

  • I don’t watched dubbed anime, I just refuse; 90% of it is horrific, voice actors either don’t take it seriously or take it TOO seriously, so the lines sound cheesy. Then they try to match the mouth flaps, so you have to word things in unnatural ways to get it to match up. It’s terrible.

    And yes, pay-per-episode is too expensive. $1 an episode or it’s just too much.

  • NinjaApe

    I’m not put off by Funimation only putting up English dub on Netflix. I am put off by Funimation when they remove their shows from Netflix, like they did with FMA Brotherhood! yeah I know brotherhood is all on youtube and hulu in japanese, but i prefer this show in english. Vic Mignogna is a boss!

    • Even crueler is pulling Clannad… but leaving Clannad After Story on.

  • i understand that you like to watch japanese only, which is a shame as i’ve heard of some spectacular dubs of anime that captures the character better that its japanese counter part, ryohko and washu from tenchi, yuko from XXXholix, spike from CB, and others. though i do think that some are better in japanese and i do watch subtitled anime most of the time. i’m just say try branching out and trying some dubbed anime, you may be surprised.

    • Randy_Thompson

      I generally prefer my anime in it’s original Japanese flavor, but that doesn’t mean I discount all dubs. I too actually watch Tenchi Muyo! in English far, FAR more than I do in Japanese (Except OVA 3. While Mona Marshall does a fantastic job as Ryoko, she’s just no Petrea Burchard), same with Cowboy Bebop. Some of the best dubs I enjoy would be, above, as well as FLCL, Death Note, and One Piece’s FUNi dub before I dropped the anime and picked up the manga instead.

  • SecretX

    i can’t enjoy anime anymore. i just read the manga is just better in my head than the voice actors 😛

  • versatility and customization is the magic key, just like games.

  • Here’s a good idea. Use a certain subscription service like Crunchyroll and watch any anime you can there. And for what you can’t, try to purchase it on blu-ray or DVD. That should work out well!