Ask John: Where Did All the OVAs Go?
Where did OVAs disappear in the 00′s? In the 80′s and 90′s there was lots of gorgeous and peculiars one shot stories and just thinking what we got in 00′s is that most of them are different TV series sequels. Did those animation productions died just before the millennium or what?
The OVA (or OAV) format – anime produced for direct to home video sale – launched on December 12, 1983 with the debut of Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi drama series Dallos. The format was initially a popular outlet for animators to create esoteric works. The OVA format served as an outlet for productions that weren’t long enough or didn’t have the commercial and audience potential to be either theatrical films or television series. Early OVAs including Machikado no Meruhen (July 1984), Greed (January 1985), Genmu Senki Leda (March 1985), Megazone 23 (March 1985), and Karuizawa Syndrome (July 1985) all fall fall into this category. However, even in the infancy of the OVA format, animators recognized home video as a means of extending television series. Creamy Mami got its first OVA in October 1984. The Vifam, Goshogun, Minky Momo, Votoms, and Dirty Pair television series all spun off OVAs in 1985. The mid 80s were the height of Japan’s economic bubble, VCRs and laserdisc players were affordable and commonplace, and anime was in its “golden period” when creativity and experimentation was at a peak. However, times changed and the OVA format both evolved and diminished with changes largely caused by the Japanese economy.
During Japan’s boom economy, producers had plenty of spare cash to invest in anime production, so animators were largely given free reign to develop countless anime that had limited audience potential. Beyond especially esoteric and artistic OVAs like Angel’s Egg, The Chocolate Picture Panic Show, Machikado no Meruhen, and Okubyo na Venus, animators created short series and one-shots like Iczer-One, Fandora, Bavi-Stock, Cool Cool Bye, and M.D. Geist simply because they could. As the 80s ended, Japan entered a lengthy economic recession. The number of Japanese anime fans didn’t decrease, but the funds available to invest in speculative anime productions did. And many OVA productions were speculative. Countless series like Dragon Half, Ninja Mono, Idol Project, RG Veda, Tokyo Babylon, Dangaioh, Gaiarth, and Gunnm only got a few episodes because they weren’t especially successful. On the other hand, certain OVA series including Patlabor, Tenchi Muyo, Maze Bakunetsu Jiku, Lodoss War, and Nuku-Nuku became major hits that spawned TV series and movies. In the mid 1990s, as the OVA format was increasingly turning into a testing ground for new franchises instead of an outlet for unconventional productions, producers discovered that late night TV broadcast served the same function as straight-to-video release yet reached a wider audience. With their high cost, OVAs were typically only purchased by the most hardcore fans. (Today’s anime fans used to relatively inexpensive DVDs may not realize that during the 1980s and early 90s a single anime OVA could retail for as much as $150! When Vampire Hunter D hit VHS in December 1985, it retailed at 12,800 yen.) Free late night TV broadcast provided access to otaku-oriented anime without forcing viewers to purchase expensive VHS tapes. Certain anime had been broadcast late at night as far back as the late 1960s, but series including Those Who Hunt Elves (1996) and Eat-Man (1997) signified the beginning of the transition from straight-to-video otaku anime to otaku anime broadcast on TV after midnight. Instead of producing expensive OVAs that had to recoup their costs from consumer purchases, sponsors commissioned anime studios to create cheap, short TV series which would serve as advertisements for archival home video releases and associated merchandise.
The OVA format increasingly evolved from an outlet for unconventional anime into a marketing tool. We now commonly see home video exclusive episodes of popular TV series. While these releases would, at one time, have been separate OVA releases, now they serve as additional incentive for consumers to collect television series on DVD. The “OAD” format (Original Anime DVD) has arisen as another variation of the traditional OVA. Instead of existing as an independent OVA release, OADs are packaged with manga, serving as additional incentive for consumers to buy manga books. Unusual productions like the monthly Figure 17 and Katanagatari television series and the short OVA-like Mnemosyne television series are now made for TV broadcast instead of straight-to-video release because TV broadcast serves as its own advertising, encouraging far more viewing and awareness than straight-to-video release alone. Progresses in internet technology have also partially superseded the traditional OVA format. Productions like Penguin Musume, Eve no Jikan, Candy Boy, and Ontama that might have been produced as OVAs had they been made in 80s or early 90s are now produced as web anime series instead.
The OVA format certainly hasn’t entirely expired. But its height of prominence during the decade from roughly 1985 through 1995 was supported by the unique circumstances of the time: the Japanese economy allowed the uninhibited production of OVAs, and the anime distribution industry was still experimenting with the format, trying to find the best way of marketing these anime productions that weren’t conventional TV series or movies. The existence of OVA series including FLCL, Arcade Gamer Fubuki, Yukikaze, Submarine 707R, Karas, Rayca, Detroit Metal City, Yurumates, and Kemono to Chat serve as evidence that the OVA format isn’t dead; it’s just not as prolific or prominent as it once was.