Digital Media Preservation: Why the Interspecies Reviewers Controversy Matters

Anime has come so far from the days of having to watch subbed episodes of Evangelion on bootleg video tapes and trying to find any anime streaming site worth its salt that just wasn’t clustered with ads. One thing that I appreciate about modern anime streaming services and availability is being able to just sit down and watch a series when I want to without having to go through the hassle of worrying about where I’m going to find the episode or when the next episode will be subbed and released before I can watch it. It’s something that only now I can appreciate, looking back upon what I would have considered the “golden days” of anime (and I’m sure many others consider it those as well in certain regards).

There’s no question about it; the anime streaming industry has become such an integral staple of everyone’s watching and consumption of anime these days. Crunchyroll, Funimation, and many others (yes, even Netflix…) have created their own sort of anime accessibility bubble that burst when these sites became popular. They’ve popularized a lot of shows that may have been considered “niche” years ago and allowed everyone to enjoy great shows that lots of people had never heard of before, which is fantastic for the medium at large.

Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! is a recent example of this, although there are many other great examples as well.

That’s not to say that this is a perfect business model, though, as throughout the recent months we’ve discovered plenty of issues with these streaming services, especially given how the licensing of anime is handled by these sites. While we do have a lot of shows that are licensed in many countries now (still an issue, although is much better off than before), it also puts anime in this state of where shows becomes “flavor of the month”, where once an anime is licensed, the license only persists for a few years and then either transfers to another streaming service where they will continue this cycle, or the license will straight up disappear into the ether.

This is problematic for the most obvious of reasons, considering that puts many series back into the same position that they were almost a decade ago, having people continuously searching for anime in hopes that they will find a way to watch the series that they want to. Perhaps this is just part of living in an age where digital media and DRM is common among media, or perhaps this is some capitalistic venture that anime marketers are using to try to market physical products more easily to sell, as these physical disks could eventually be one of the last ways to access series’ that become unlicensed in the future.

One of the reasons that I began thinking about this topic to begin with was the concept of Interspecies Reviewers being licensed by Funimation for 2-3 episodes and then having it suddenly pulled in America and Japan due to content regulations. While we won’t debate the reasoning behind that here, the fact that licensors have that much control over what series will be watchable by the general public is pretty scary, as that means that shows that showcase particular aspects can completely go unlicensed for years. That’s also not to mention scenarios where shows can stay licensed after the pulling of the production and put it into a “jail” of sorts until some later date where any of the hype behind the show disappears like pulling the rug out from under them, as we’ve seen from several shows Netflixs has licensed recently.

While Interspecies Reviewers is sort of a unique example due to its content, we have to consider these types of questions now that it’s been confirmed pulled from multiple Japanese TV stations. This not only means that the show isn’t available for us to view in English, but there may, at some point in the future, be absolutely no way to consume this show. Despite any sorts of feelings you may have about the show, it’s important to reflect on the fact that there were plenty of animators and individuals that have worked on a show like this and their work is not being shared with others due to stipulations out of their control. It really made me think “Will this show be watchable 10 years from now?” and while there’s no way for me to answer that, with the highly volatile state that the medium is in at the moment, it really makes me wish I would have purchased more physical copies of media if shows can just disappear in a mere instant.

Maybe not multiple copies like Kai suggests though…

This isn’t an unrealistic scenario either; media preservation within anime is starting to become an issue, but not just because of the streaming services themselves, although they’ve certainly re-created the breeding grounds for the same issues that we thought we had dealt with years ago. Part of the issue on losing licenses is visibility, as when a license goes out from a streaming service such as Crunchyroll, no official announcements are often made and nobody can even viably prepare for when a series might not be available. This is a huge problem, and only has been mitigated by the community banding together and publicizing other ways to obtain media before it goes out of license, even if that means buying the last copies of physical media available to anime retailers.

This goes beyond streaming services as well, as we’ve had situations in the past with even large anime pirating sites losing content without any notice and really begin to make you wonder “If my favorite series was unlicensed on a service, would I still be able to show it to my friends?” or “If I don’t buy this blu-ray set of this show now, will I never be able to obtain a physical copy of this show, and thus, potentially lose access to it forever?”. This seems like something that may be unreasonable and unrealistic as there will always be some way to obtain a series, even if it’s in poor quality, but having a show in bad quality is similar to having no show at all at times, as proven by some of the bad cam rips of shows and movies that are floating around out there.

And to think, this is one of the “better” ones, shaky cam and all.

The scope even extends beyond anime as well, as light novels and manga have experienced a similar deal in the past, with series getting licensed by a company, having one or two volumes translated, and then the company indefinitely holding on to the license but not publishing any more work because it either wasn’t popular enough or some other logistical reason had put the series on hold indefinitely. While I would like to think that many manga/light novel publishing companies nowadays have moved beyond that and some have even attempted “rescuing” these series in hopes to save them from this “licensing hell”, it’s something that could happen again at any time given how the market is. It’s really frightening how much faith the anime industry has put within digital media as a service with no way to reliably own the product in several cases.

None of this is to say that the digital anime industry should disappear or shouldn’t exist in any right though, as streaming is a major convenience and is the only real plausible way to get as many of the seasonal shows we have subbed and translated in the timeframes imaginable to an accessible global demographic. However, I do think that we as the anime community should be looking for solutions beyond that as well, allow people to easily buy the media afterwards without having to go “Hey, you have to watch it on Crunchyroll, I can’t buy a blu-ray because it’s not been released as of yet, even though it’s been 3 years since the anime released”.

Remember when this popular anime had no English released blu-rays for 6 years after airing? Yeah…

Having to rely on the streaming services to be able to recommend other people shows to watch with the alternative being “pirate it” or “stream it on KissAnime” is just not something we need to be promoting as a community if we want the availability and barrier of entry for anime to lower in general. I’m sure everyone just wants to be able to go to their friends/family and easily share a show with them that they personally, but may be unable to do so in the current scenario. 

There are steps we can take a community to try and promote services that do also support these DRM-free solutions to streaming and consuming anime media. Services such as Wakanim in France/Europe that allow individual episode purchasing and J-Novel Club in the light novel industry that allows ebook downloads by chapter are two good examples of how digital media is done properly, and are majorly supported by the community because of their business models. We should be not only supporting these services though, but also trying to support other streaming services that pick shows up when they go out of license from larger services as well.

While there are plenty of benefits to streaming, it’s clear that the industry is still experiencing some growing pains with the anime streaming boom in recent years. That’s not to say that everything about it has been bad, however when it comes to licensing series and maintaining ways to access those series over time, there can be some major improvement to these services or other services/sites to be introduced in order to be able to maintain a concurrent way to view your favorite shows and share them with others. This is one of the main ways we can allow the anime community to continue to grow, and as the digital age continues, this becomes an important step in doing so.

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