Ask John: Is One Piece Now Doomed in America?

Someone was able to enter Funimation’s website and download episode 403 of One Piece and later spread it as a bittorrent. Funimation’s recent press release about the issue states that fans will be “deprived” of One Piece for the “immediate future.” What worries me is the talk of contract breaching and how this will effect the relationship that Funimation has with Toei and the possible end to the One Piece anime franchise in America if Toei decides to repeal its contract with Funimation. When someone pulls a boneheaded stunt like this, it ruins it for everyone. Yet if Toei decides to repeal their contract with Funimation, it may be a bad decision to them since most of their anime rarely become big hits in America. What is John’s opinion on this matter.

I only know the details about the leak of One Piece episode 403 that are publicly known. Countless American fans have shared their opinion on the situation, and I don’t believe that I have a particularly unique approach that makes my thoughts different from those already stated elsewhere. There’s no point in my assigning blame, as doing so won’t resolve the problem. So instead I’ll narrowly focus on the topic of this question, which is whether the unauthorized public distribution of One Piece episode 403 will jeopardize the future availability of One Piece anime in America.

There’s an old saying. “No on f*cks up anime like the Japanese.” That statement refers to the historical tendency of Japanese distributors to attempt American distribution of anime without an understanding of the demands and necessities of the American market. Bandai Visual is a recent example of this adage. The company failed in America after pricing its releases well above the average cost of similar American anime DVDs, and attempting to equate the Japanese and American markets. Bandai Visual attempted simultaneous Japanese and American promotion and sales, resulting in attempts at American distribution of shows like Wings of Rean and Galaxy Angelrune that weren’t viable in the American market. Toei Animation has a conspicuous history of misunderstanding the nature of the American market dating back to its 1978 establishment of a short-lived American distribution office in Los Angeles. Contemporary fans may remember Toei’s unsuccessful 2005 attempt to launch an American DVD distribution effort. The recent disappearance of streaming One Piece episodes in America may be Toei Animation’s latest mis-step in American distribution.

I’ve read a lot of venomous criticism of the individual responsible for the unauthorized distribution of One Piece episode 403. Without question, the action was unethical and criminal. But it was also foreseeable. And evidently Toei Animation’s reaction may have been excessive. The world in which everyone acts responsibly and ethically and prioritizes doing whatever serves the long term best interest of the larger community is a world populated exclusively by robots. It’s pure human nature to be self-serving. And when something desirable is dangled like a carrot before a horse, it’s natural instinctive human behavior to reach for it. People have been sneaking a peek at their Christmas gifts for a millennium, and that’s never before caused Santa Claus to keep his presents to himself. I’m aware that an analogy between Christmas gifts and commercial distribution isn’t literally equivalent, but the analogy does serve to suggest that Toei’s seeming reaction to the leak may have been irrationally overblown. Rather than temporarily halting FUNimation’s One Piece streaming to enable the implementation of additional security, Toei seems to have demanded an immediate halt to all One Piece streaming in America, affecting distributors like Hulu and Joost that were totally unrelated to the episode 403 leak. I believe that it’s safe to assume that Toei was more concerned with the episode being accessible online to Japanese viewers prior to its official Japanese premiere than concerned about Americans getting it hours early. One Piece is a tremendously more significant and profitable franchise in Japan than it is in America.

Judging by Toei Animation’s past decisions, there’s precedent for and against One Piece reappearing online for American viewers. Air Master, Fist of the North Star, and Slam Dunk – Toei Animation titles that have previously had incomplete American DVD releases – are now available to Americans for free online. While FUNimation’s digital distribution of One Piece has been placed on hiatus, its DVD distribution appears to continue unabated. However, on the other hand, certain Toei Animation titles including St. Seiya, Sailor Moon, Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Beet the Vandel Buster, Ojamajo Doremi, and Marmalade Boy that have had one American release have not gotten a second chance. There’s no doubt that FUNimation enabling the leak of Toei Animation property will cause some strife between the two companies. However, considering that the result was free public availability of a single weekly anime episode 24 hours before it was scheduled for free public availability, this seems like a poor reason to justify the termination of a potentially lucrative distribution arrangement revolving around one of Toei’s flagship properties. I’m not trying to excuse the crime that was committed, but in practical effect the unauthorized distribution of One Piece episode 403 is little different from the unauthorized distribution of hundreds of other anime episodes thousands of times every day all around the world. Latching onto this particular instance out of countless similar instances and using it as the catalyst to terminate a major international partnership lasting years and generating millions seems especially short-sighted and anti-productive to me. Logically new security measures should be implemented, and the distribution partnership relaunched. This incident ought to be perceived as a bump in the road, not a sudden precipice. I want to believe that, but Toei Animation has made many inexplicable and seemingly counter-productive decisions related to American anime distribution in the past. I’m loathe to use the adjective “boneheaded” in any circumstance, but in the sense that it can describe thoughtlessly obstinate decisions, Toei Animation does have a historical tendency to make boneheaded decisions about American anime distribution. There’s little reason to believe that commerical distribution of One Piece anime is going to entirely evaporate in America. But if free online distribution of One Piece anime doesn’t resume, we can cite that as another example of Toei’s treatment of the American market as a second class supplemental revenue source (as long as it doesn’t compromise Japanese sales) rather than a discriminating and receptive consumer audience located outside of Japan.


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