At the time of writing this, the anime film Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero sits above the blockbuster Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and the smash hit Top Gun: Maverick for most popular Blu-ray releases on Amazon. It all points to a larger phenomenon: In 2023, as so many studios and companies have pivoted to streaming services, home video releases of anime, namely DVD, Blu-ray, and box sets, are thriving.
It’s not hard to see why so many companies have pivoted to the streaming model. In the last decade, streaming service subscriptions have seen massive growth. Meanwhile, home video sales have steadily dropped — DVD and Blu-ray purchases declined almost 20% from 2020 to 2021. Even shows with massive fan bases that seem ripe for collectors, like The Mandalorian, remain disc-less in the United States. But anime home video appears to be bucking this trend, as fans and avid collectors still seem intent on taking home hard copies of their favorites.
Calculating anime home video sales is complicated. The market for it in Japan has been declining almost yearly for the past decade — coinciding with the worldwide move to digital platforms — but specific releases, like the first Demon Slayer film, can inspire greater interest. That movie has both the highest box office in Japanese history, and sold over a million copies on Blu-ray and DVD within the first three days of its release. To put that kind of success in perspective, only three American blockbuster films in 2022 sold more than a million copies throughout the entire year.
But the hunger for anime has only grown in the U.S., to the extent that in August 2022, Sony acquired Right Stuf Anime, a distributor established in 1987 that expanded into selling anime, live-action releases, toys, manga, and all manner of collectibles. (Sony also owns Crunchyroll, an anime streaming service.) In an era where anime home video was far from ubiquitous — one might find an ad in the back of a magazine here, a vendor with a massive collection at a convention there, and a smattering of opportunities among message boards — Right Stuf’s mission was to give the anime consumer “everything in one place” and a trusted system of delivering it to them. It was a fruitful operation. At this point, Right Stuf says it’s the largest online seller of anime in North America.
Over the years, Right Stuf co-founder Shawne Kleckner has watched anime home video rise in popularity: “It started out as more of an enthusiast, tape-trading, underground thing in the ’80s, to being a full-fledged industry today.” As anime became more available overseas, the interest in home video also grew. “It was not difficult to find passion for the product,” Kleckner says. “It was more of just making sure that that passion was served.” And while other companies have diminished their capacity for home video, Right Stuf worked in reverse. “A lot of companies don’t invest in their infrastructure,” Kleckner says. “I made sure that we invested in our infrastructure every year.”
Fans have a “pent-up demand for those products,” Kleckner said. They’re a group that “treats home video product[s] as a collectible, not as a consumable.” Streaming services allow for consumption, but make collecting impossible. And fans of anime physical media want the highest quality possible for visuals and audio, along with a range of special features and solid packaging that makes it just as good-looking on the shelf as it is in the Blu-ray player.
How to get it there, though? American anime home video has often been lamented for its tendency toward sparseness and bare-bones releases meant to capitalize on a show’s popularity and not do much else. Companies like Discotek and Anime Limited seek to change this. The latter, working out of Glasgow, Scotland, recently released three separate editions of Neon Genesis Evangelion, a series that, along with Cowboy Bebop, is considered one of the major pillars of the medium. And yet, licensing rights issues had prevented it from being released on Blu-ray outside of Japan.
With standard, collector’s, and ultimate editions to choose from — each with progressively more elaborate packaging and a wider array of special features — the sets brought Evangelion back in style. The pricey ultimate edition even sold out in twelve hours. Demand was just as intense in the U.S. — when distributor GKids released a limited ultimate set of Evangelion in North America, pre-orders sold out in the first day.
Discotek, on the other hand, hasn’t worked to release anything as high-profile as Evangelion in the U.S., but its catalog and success has proven that anime is anything but a niche experience. Discotek’s array of anime and live action titles, ones often “rescued” from lapsed licensing deals or seeming too obscure for a bigger company to take a chance on, has endeared the company to home video enthusiasts. Discotek occupies five of the top 10 spots in the current list of the top 10 bestselling anime Blu-rays on Right Stuf.
“Sometimes we can do more and make it look nicer, sound better, stuff it with extras,” Marc Levy, a quality control manager and producer who has worked with Discotek, says. “But at the very least, people know we’re gonna do our best and they’ll get something that maybe they didn’t see coming, or know existed.”
It especially comes across in the recent release of the first season of Digimon: Digital Monsters, a cornerstone of the millennial Saturday morning experience and yet one that’s often been, according to Levy, “thrown on discs and that was about it.” With a digital remaster and a visual upscaling, Discotek’s version is the best the show has ever looked in the United States. “It was important to me that the thought and effort be put into it, in places people would notice, and even places people might not notice,” Levy says.
For many of the people involved in this work, this care isn’t just mandated by the job, it’s the pinnacle of a lifetime of being anime fans themselves. Justin Sevakis is the owner of MediaOCD, a company that has brought its post-production services to both Discotek and Anime Limited, and one that developed from an intense hobby to a full-time career. As a young adult that was dissatisfied with American anime releases, he’d splice together his own from different countries and combine the features he wanted most, eventually Frankensteining together the ultimate disc.
“I think what makes sense these days for people is to just buy your favorites,” Sevakis says, “but the thing that makes anime special is that fans have a lot of favorites. They’re very passionate and they know it’s not going to be around forever.” Streaming services tend to play games of hot potato with shows, and licensing buyouts can occur in ways that fans didn’t expect. Bleach, the mega-popular series, was on Crunchyroll’s platform for years before Disney bought the rights to it and began airing its long-awaited follow-up on Hulu. Fans had to choose between buying a whole new subscription, missing out on the show, or downloading it illegally.
With home video, anime fans don’t have to worry about watching their favorites slip out of reach thanks to licensing deals out of their control. “What we’re releasing should be the last time you ever need to buy an anime,” Sevakis says. “If the disc itself is capable of handling the best quality that a show could ever possibly be presented in, we should do that.” It’s dedication like this that allows anime home video, and especially boutique publishers like Discotek and Anime Limited, to thrive in a world that imagines physical media as an ancient practice.
“If we can help dust that stuff off and make it something that people will happily watch and share with their friends,” Sevakis muses, “then what could be better than that?”