By Nick Benefield / December 24th, 2018
On a quiet night in the early spring of 2010, I watched Ghost in the Shell for the first time. Prior to hunting down the necessary files and watching it, I hadn’t delved too deep into the expansive world of anime. As a teenager in the late 00s, I’d watched some of the more mainstream releases on Toonami, but my interest in the medium had only been surface-level. While I didn’t start branching out right away, Ghost in the Shell served as the catalyst for me to begin exploring other titles. It set me on a path to broaden my interests and explore new content. To this day, it remains at the top of my list as not just the best anime, but also one of the greatest films of all time.
You’ve no doubt asked by now “what relevance does this story have to LaserDiscs?”. Well, a few years later (after entering college), I had the strange impulse arise to collect every North American copy of the that movie. From VHS, to Movie CD, to DVD and Blu-Ray, I tracked down each and every copy (including the multiple variations on each format). The releases that stood out to me the most though were the two on LaserDisc. Once I picked up those copies and watched them, I realized that it wasn’t just the movie that infatuated me at that point; it was the format itself. Something about those giant, metallic discs and the gorgeous artwork used on the sleeves gave me a great sense of satisfaction.
When I talk with people about LaserDisc, the first question they inevitably have for me is “what is it?”. LaserDisc was a home video format first introduced to the public by Magnavox back in the late 1970s. At the time, its direct competitor was JVC’s VHS format. The advantages of LaserDisc over VHS include higher resolution, the ability to skip to different chapters on demand (similar to DVD), and the ability to playback still-frames without tons of noise. The main disadvantages of the format are the limited storage-capacity of the discs, the need to flip them (unless you have a machine that can play both sides), and the physical size of them. To give you an example of how massive these discs are, take a look at the comparison below.
With the exception of a few 7” releases, most LaserDiscs are exactly 12” in diameter. They closely resemble a standard 12” audio record, but use an optical laser to read information. Make no mistake though- LaserDiscs store video in an analog format. This is rather unique as most other disc-based media (CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays) store information digitally. The drives that read information from these formats do so bit-by-bit and then interpret the that information to produce images,sounds,etc. By comparison, LaserDiscs store images in a raw, analog format, similar to how VHSs store them. The audio tracks can either be stored as analog or digital, depending on which track on the disc is used. Most releases (especially those with multiple languages) include both an analog and a digital track. In cases like this, one might find English on the digital track and Japanese on the analog track. Closed-caption subtitles were also supported on the format, though these can only be viewed if you directly use the analog video signal (using a digital converter or scaler will remove these captions).
What makes LaserDisc such a magical format for anime releases is its ability to store and play back still-frames of animation. Unlike VHS where pausing a tape causes noisy static that obscures the on-screen image, pausing a LaserDisc results in a perfect, still-frame. Even more impressive, using the still/step feature (sometimes controlled w/ a jog-wheel) allows you to freely skip back and forth, frame-by-frame at whatever speed you desire. It should be noted that only CAV (constant angular velocity) releases can do this. The standard CLV (constant linear velocity) releases do not store individual frames and thus can not display each frame one-by-one. You can differentiate the two by looking at the back of most sleeves or by observing the counter on the front of your player.
That last detail is important because some releases on the format did not support this frame-by-frame (CAV) feature. However, many releases (including many of the bigger anime titles) had at least the last side or disc stored in CAV format. For example, Kimagure Orange Road: I Want to Return to That Day was released on a single, two-sided disc. Side A was in CLV mode and contained the first 45 minutes or so. The remainder of the movie was on side B and was stored in CAV format. A lot of releases did this because it allowed the most important, climactic scenes to be examined frame-by-frame while conserving space on side A for the less important ones. Other releases (like Green Legend: Ran) are stored entirely in CAV format. Storing an entire title this way generally means using multiple discs, but the result is a movie that can be inspected frame-by-frame. This is a real treat for animated titles, especially during intense action scenes. You’ll generally find that these all-CAV releases are specific to special editions, shorter movies, and select OVAs.
Let’s say that 50% of the enjoyment factor comes from the titles themselves. If that’s assumed, then the other 50% definitely comes from the awesome packaging. As I alluded to above, LaserDiscs were packaged in much the same way as vinyl records. The single disc releases (i.e. OVAs and short movies) came in single sleeves while 2-3 disc releases generally came in gatefold sleeves. Some special or full series releases came packaged in giant box sets, often filled with other goodies. For example, the Kimagure Orange Road series box set came with an enamel pin and a thick booklet of liner notes. The artwork on many of these sleeves (especially the gatefold ones) is something to behold. Even without popping the discs into a player and watching them, simply pulling them off the shelf and observing the packaging is really enjoyable.
To wrap things up, I’ll give a brief rundown of the various anime distribution companies that embraced the format. Of all the North American publishers, two of the biggest were AnimEigo and Central Park Media (under the name US Manga Corps.). Central Park Media released such titles as Dominion Tank Police and the Project A-ko OVAs. Other publishers included A.D.Vision (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Blue Seed, Gunsmith Cats), Image Entertainment (Area 88, Gall Force, Fist of the North Star), and Manga Entertainment (Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus). There were also some Pioneer releases of noticeably higher quality. Some of these included Akira and the Tenchi Muyo! Series. The majority of the disks in my collection were produced by AnimEigo. Of all their releases, my favorites include the Bubblegum Crisis OVAs and the Urusei Yatsura movies. What makes the releases from this company so exceptional is all the extras and special details associated with them. Each release included a sheet of special liner notes. Some describe the colloquial meaning behind certain translations and some describe the process of putting the release together. One of my favorites sets of liner notes comes from the limited edition Urusei Yatsura: Volumes 1-10 release. This unique, 10 disc release came with a full booklet of liner notes (seen in the image below).
It’s the little things like the liner notes, the special packaging, and the personal touches that make these LaserDisc releases so fun to watch and collect. Modern Blu-ray and DVD releases often come with just a disc and a thin little Amaray case (if you’re lucky). Sometimes these cases are so thin that they arrive to the store with dents in them. We’ve gotten to the point now where consumers really are just paying for the content itself. Physical media is beginning to feel sterile and is often used for the sole purpose of delivering the content, not for being enjoyed in its own right. There are notable exceptions like SteelBook and collector’s editions, but even these seem to be a dying breed. With anime LD releases though, you can tell right away that the translations, packaging, and extras are all fan-made with attention to detail. Simply reading the back of the sleeves shows that the people involved with producing them had fun doing so. The LD format may have ended back in 2001, but these extraordinary anime releases continue to stand the test of time. Collecting these can become a bit expensive, but the prices are well worth it in my opinion. For those wishing to amass their own collections, I’d recommend the LaserDisc Database as a starting point. They have an extensive catalog of every release on the format and a dedicated forum. If you enjoy older anime, appreciate fan-made merchandise, and like to collect neat looking media, give these anime releases a look. You’d be surprised how many are out there.
A.D. VisionanimeAnimEigoCentral Park MediaImage EntertainmentLaserDiscManga EntertainmentU.S. Manga Corps