A continuing and undying controversy amongst mostly US (and some European) fans is, is anime really expensive? A good number of fans justify torrenting anime (regardless of license) due to this argument, while others follow the basic rule of as long as it is not officially licensed in their country. But you are here not to read that, you are here to read the answer to today’s question and see for yourself whether anime truly is expensive or not.
DVD/Blu-ray Price Comparisons
For starters, let's compare anime Blu-ray and DVD prices between America and Japan. As a foundation, I will use some DVD and Blu-ray packages of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Kai to make a comparison. For part 1 to season 1 of the first Sailor Moon anime adaptation, the US price is listed from $17 to $21 on the American Amazon site. On the Japan site, the Japanese set is sold at ¥18,800. The current exchange rate averages around ¥118 to $1 upon publication of this editorial. So in comparison to buying the Japanese set, you're saving around $140 if you buy American! Keep in mind the Japanese release is Japanese audio only, has no English subs, and will NOT be compatible with non-Japanese, or region 2 DVD players.
With Blu-ray prices, let's use Dragon Ball Kai as an example. For the Cell saga, American viewers can buy the Blu-ray off Amazon for $30 while viewers such as myself in Japan have to pay 19,500 yen!!! US fans are saving $135 if they buy local! However, the good news is if you want a Blu-ray anime that is Japan exclusive, both Japanese and American Blu-ray players (most notably PS3 and PS4 consoles) can play each other’s Blu-ray discs! So in some sense depending on what you buy, you are getting your money’s worth!
Why are anime discs expensive in Japan?
As for those astronomical Japanese prices, those have been their prices since the VHS days, and VHS copies on average (in both Japan and the US) would have two episodes! But why do Japanese DVD and Blu-rays (and VHS back in the day) charge so much? Some residents and Japanese natives will just joke because Japan is not as cheap to live in. Other people will say because fans are crazy enough to pay those prices. As a resident of Japan, I cannot deny those claims but there are distinct reasons for this. For starters, it's because the television industries between Japan and the US are run completely different, along with their differences in economical practices between both countries.
With American studios, they make a pilot/pitch of a show to a network, the network decides to test it out and if it goes well, the networks will air it and studios can get their money from the network as opposed to the reverse, which is the practice in Japan. In Japan, the studio makes a show and they pay a network to air it. Because of those respective costs, the studios need to make a profit and pricing high in DVDs, Blu-rays and other merchandise, is how the studios receive those profits, in order to make up for other miscellaneous production fees.
The benefit to this practice is that the studios have more creative freedom. In American television, networks and studios have a more hand-in-hand relationship. Because of the American practice, networks also have an influence of the creative directions of their programming. Yes, anime productions do get sponsorships but it’s not as emphasized as it is in US TV where there is more commercial time compared to Japanese broadcasts, which also contributes to the difference in costs.
Rental Markets in Japan and other outdated economic practices
Another major factor contributing to the Japanese prices is based on very outdated marketing practices to the American home video market. While video rentals have gone the way of the dinosaurs in the US thanks to cheap and convenient streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, the rental market in Japan is still relatively strong.
Despite Japan’s strong lead in technology, foreign anime fans, and Japan enthusiasts, need to remember some significant societal factors. Mainly, Japan (as with many other first world countries) has been facing a declining birthrate and in turn, their elderly population (and having one of the longest life spans in the world) has been progressively increasing the past twenty years. Because the elderly (and increasing majority) population is more used to older technologies such as fax machines (yes, they still use fax machines here) as opposed to e-mail, streaming services have slowly caught on but not enough to put the rental market out of business yet. I have seen some rental shops that still carry VHS because the elderly population in those areas is high.
When the VHS technology was first introduced around the world over 40 years ago, the initial prices could have been as high as $100 just about anywhere, and the entertainment industry did not expect it to evolve into a collector’s market. After accounting for inflation, that is pretty expensive. Home video in general started as an exclusive market and got its popularity through rentals, as did Japan. Video rental outlets are how both US and Japanese industries made their money in those days. Despite being long gone in America, as previously stated, Japan still continues this practice because the elderly population is still active in keeping this method alive. Because money is still being made through rentals, Japan can still sell Blu-rays and DVDs at prices that are meant to be affordable by rental stores.
Another factor to why Japanese prices are high is also an effect from their old economic prosperous times between the 1970s and 1980s. Japan was such a rich country in those times that citizens could waste money like water. The Japanese and Blu-ray prices also account to tell buyers they are buying a quality brand. Of course, such business practices are questionable in some countries.
US Animeconomics (is this Honey’s original?)
As some of you readers may know, when a US anime company licenses an anime, they pay a license fee to the original studio. It can cost tens of dollars per episode, and these fees are treated like revenue to the Japanese company. So in essence, the Japanese companies already made their money off the licensing fee and it is up to the foreign licensing company to figure out how they can make up for it through DVD sales. Of course, that means that US companies are within their freedom to set their own prices which is why they can sell it cheaper than the Japanese prices (and stay in range with other American DVD prices).
However, there are some Japanese companies that do have American branches. One obvious example is Bandai, the company that is in association with Sunrise, which made Code Geass and Cowboy Bebop. With VIZ Media, they are a division of Shogakukan, a publishing company that Licensed most of Takahashi Rumiko’s works from Ranma ½ and Kyoukai no Rinne, to the most recent popular series, One Punch Man. So because of this particular ownership, works by the parent Japanese companies are in essence, automatically licensed through their American branches.
Some food for thought
US fans will probably always claim that anime is expensive, but here is something to put in perspective. Maybe some of you readers are new to anime, and some of you have been following for more than twenty years such as myself. Yes, averagely, a 20-30 episode disc set on either DVD or Blu-ray can range from $20-$40. In addition, you are also getting bonus content (which can consist of behind the scenes footage, bonus footage, original OP/EDs, making of the series, commentary, etc.), and dual (or maybe even triple) lingual options with high-grade screen and sound quality.
To help further inform either rookies or younger fans of anime, let's use an oldie called Bubblegum Crisis to talk about how cheap anime in the US has become in twenty years. Back in the VHS days, when that anime was released one episode per tape, costs could range from $45 for dub to $75 for subs on average. Yes, watching subtitled anime was a novelty back then to some degree due to these differences in price. With 1 episodes per tape for an 8 episode OVA series, fans in those days paid $360-$600 for the whole series! Now try to adjust that after inflation between now and 1995. As for why the prices were that high, it goes back to when the VHS market was mostly dependent on rentals, then DVDs changed the game from the year 2000 when the technology gave fans options that were dreams. Getting Duo audio back then was a big deal and the prices to fans at the time (I remember buying a 5 episode Gundam Wing DVD for $20) was considered groundbreaking.
When looking at the DVD and Blu-ray prices for Bubblegum Crisis, the DVD set for the WHOLE series goes for $35, or $130 for the Blu-ray premium package! For the DVD set of the whole series, you are paying $10 less than a one episode VHS tape at minimum! For the Blu-ray, buyers are paying way less than half for the whole series for the VHS set during that initial release!
How Do You Feel?
With the evolution of media today, anime fans now have numerous opportunities to explore numerous titles through mainstream streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, or the anime exclusive Crunchyroll, which releases anime almost one hour after it airs in Japan. Each service costs $10 a month and you can watch on an unlimited basis (based on region licensing). Compare $10 a month and how your binge watching would have cost compared to video rental. But these services are for another future Editorial Tuesday, for another time.
For some of you non-Americans or non-Japanese fans, what are the prices and availability of anime in your respective nations of residence? For my fellow Americans, do you still think anime is still expensive? Whatever info you got, please share it in the comments!