Ask John: Which Unlicensed Anime Are Potential Hits?

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What are some anime titles you are surprised haven’t made it to America yet? They are titles that have been out in Japan for quite some time and exhibit many traits found in the most popular selling anime titles in the U.S. Titles that would be an almost sure-fire success if they were sold in the U.S.

Before I begin an answer, I should state that my own perspective may differ from the typical American otaku perspective. Or perhaps, if I may say so without sounding egotistical, the mainstream American anime community has largely begun to catch up to the perspective I had a number of years ago. In the early 2000s I was a primary force in bringing Studio A.P.P.P.’s Risky Safety and Group TAC’s Miami Guns television series to American DVD. Both titles encountered much less consumer interest than I’d anticipated upon their domestic DVD release, but in recent years both titles have enjoyed some revised opinion and greater respect within the American fan community. So maybe now the American fan community would be more receptive to my picks. But these days nearly every current anime gets licensed for some degree of official American distribution, so speculation over unlicensed titles is far less relevant today.

Among the literally thousands of anime titles that exist in Japan that have never received any sort of official American distribution, some remain that were major hits in their native country, including GeGeGe no Kitaro, Magical Princess Minky Momo and Gear Fighter Dendoh, but I don’t believe that there are any remaining unlicensed anime titles that have American blockbuster potential. There are no remaining anime titles in Japan that could become America’s next Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Dragon Ball Z, Evangelion, Sailor Moon, or Cowboy Bebop. Furthermore, similarity is no guarantee of success. Shows including Tokyo Mew Mew and Wedding Peach copied Sailor Moon’s formula but didn’t become big hits in America. Metal Armor Dragonar may have significant similarities to the Gundam franchise, but Dragonar will never become a big hit in America. Wangan Midnight makes some attempt to emulate Initial D but comes up lacking. Moreover, the question inquires about what unlicensed anime titles have great American market potential, not necessarily which titles are outstanding yet haven’t yet been licensed. Select anime series such as Madhouse’s 2008 series Kaiba, Studio Hibari’s 2007 OVA series Hoshi no Umi no Amuri, Studio Deen’s 2007 Shion no Ou and 1996 Hameln no Violin Hiki TV series, and Production I.G’s 2004 TV series Fuujin Monogatari and 1994 OVA series Bakuen Campus Guardress are great shows that have practically no chance of ever becoming profitable on American home video. Similarly, Madhouse’s 2006 Tokyo Tribes 2 television series is one that seems consciously intended for supplemental American release, although it now seems destined to never get an official American release. Director Sunao Katabuchi’s Mai Mai Miracle has been licensed for domestic home video release, yet his equally, if not more beautiful earlier family-oriented fantasy film Arete Hime has not been licensed for domestic release. However “Princess Arete” has practically no American commercial home video market potential.

Considering the recent global success of the wildly eclectic Kill la Kill and the positive American fan reaction to director Masaaki Yuasa’s experimental 2010 television series Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, I remain surprised that director’s 2004 psychotropic film Mind Game hasn’t been licensed for domestic release, especially since the Japanese DVD contains English subtitles, and the film has been released on Australian DVD by Madman Entertainment. The movie is unique, creative, and simply fun enough to appeal to an audience of American otaku along with mainstream American cinephiles. Yet despite the movie being already tailored for US release, it’s never been licensed.

Like Mind Game, the 1985 feature film Tenshi no Tamago (Angel’s Egg) has an intrinsic potential to interest both hardcore anime otaku and mainstream cinephiles. The movie is exceptional art-house fare from fan-favorite creators director Mamoru Oshii and visualist Yoshitaka Amano. The movie’s timeless narrative and exceptional visual design make it fascinating and intriguing for both hardcore anime fans and mainstream American art-film viewers. Furthermore, the movie’s minimal spoken dialogue make localization a cinch. The movie is even already available on Japanese Blu-ray, making it easy to prepare for American release. While the film is too esoteric to ever become a breakout mainstream smash hit, it has enough pedigree and integrity to become a successful and highly anticipated domestic home video release.

The Arashi no Yoru ni anime franchise seems specifically designed for ancillary American release, yet neither its 2005 feature film nor 2012 TV series have been licensed for domestic release. The 2005 family film from Street Fighter II movie director Gisaburo Sugii is a very nicely animated and charming movie that’s already available with English subtitles on licensed Hong Kong Region 3 DVD. And an English language dub of the film officially sanctioned by the Tokyo Broadcasting System actually exists exclusively on YouTube. The 2012 “Himitsu no Tomodachi” (Stormy Night: Secret Friends) television series was actually CG animated around its English language audio track. Yet despite this franchise having no identifiable Japanese characters, a non-Japanese setting, and a production specifically conducive to American release, it’s never actually been licensed for American home video.

Given the contemporary international name recognition of director Hayao Miyazaki, countless fans wonder why his 1978 television series Mirai Shounen Conan (“Future Boy Conan”) remains unlicensed for American release. The 26-episode show is widely considered a modern anime classic and has been dubbed into numerous languages including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, French, and Arabic for broadcast in numerous countries around the world. Yet despite the show’s international distribution, it’s never been licensed for American release. Considering the popularity of Miyazaki’s animation here in America and the home video viability of other vintage anime television programs including Cutey Honey, Mazinger Z, Gatchaman, and Casshan, an American release of “Conan” seems like an obvious option. Fan speculation has pondered the possibility that the estate of American author Alexander Key, upon who’s writing the TV series was based, may be preventing an American release, but with the existence of an English dub and the series’ history of international distribution, a more likely explanation is that the series has simply proven difficult to acquire from Bandai Visual, its Japanese home video distributor.

Gainax and Group TAC’s 1999 TV production Oruchuban Ebichu is one of anime’s great “gotta see it to believe it” titles. The bawdy sex comedy revolves around a talking hamster that obsessively and incisively critique’s her short-tempered human owner’s sex life, frequently eliciting violent and emotional reactions from said human master. The show is embarrassingly frank about sexuality, and as a result, conspicuously hilarious. The show’s 24 mini episodes were broadcast as part of the Ai no Awa Awa Hour anime program that also included two other Gainax produced anime short series, Ai no Wakakusayama Monogatari & Koume-chan ga Iku, which have zero American market potential. The affiliation of Ebichu to the other two Ai no Awa Awa Hour series may be the obstacle that has prevented Ebichu alone from coming to American home video.

The 2007 Dennou Coil TV series from Madhouse, and the 2008 Nijuu Menso no Musume TV series from BONES and RD Sennou Chousashitsu TV series from Production I.G are all cult hit titles that deserve American release due to their exceptional quality yet have uncertain commercial potential for exactly the same reason. Dennou Coil is a multi-award winning production and a fantastically emotive and uniquely visionary production. “The Daughter of Twenty Faces” is an engrossing and unpredictable historical adventure. “Real Drive” is far and away the better of creator Masamune Shirow’s two original story collaborations with Production I.G. The weaker of the two productions, Shinrei Gari ~ Ghost Hound, did receive an American DVD release. Dennou Coil has been released on Australian DVD by Madman Entertainment. Existing fans and die-hard anime enthusiasts will eagerly snap up these exceptional shows upon their domestic release. But because these three shows are so unique, distinctive, and creative, they actually might not appeal to viewers that gravitate toward more lightweight, easily digestible, conventional and cliche productions.


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