Dear Aniplex, You’re Setting Puella Magi Madoka Magica Up to Fail In America and You Probably Won’t Even Know Why
The recent news concerning the demise of Bandai in the United States should sadden anime fans living in Region 1 but it was hardly unexpected news. Instead, the reason why Bandai is shutting down now is the surprising part. The Japanese puppet masters behind the American subsidiary decided that if the American consumer would not adhere to a similar model as the Japanese consumer then they would just close the American subsidiary down and try to entice the American hard-core anime fans into importing Japanese media at Japanese market prices because the alternative – anime at a reasonable price that could be reverse imported – would threaten the stability of the Japanese market.
While perusing the articles about Bandai I had a light bulb moment concerning the impending English adaptation of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Those reading can probably guess where this is heading but before I get to discussing the recently released English trailer I have to establish something first.
I am not an elitist anime fan who only watches anime subtitled since it’s the “purer”, innately “better” way to do it – I mainly watch anime subtitled because, in general, the quality of vocal acting is higher from the Japanese. That’s not say there are no good English dubs; for example: FLCL, Ghost in the Shell:SAC, all Studio Ghibli movies, Baccano, Yu Yu Hakusho all come quickly to mind. To hear what a good dub sounds like here’s a few videos.
This one’s a bit old-school
This one’s a bit NSFW
This one’s a bit violent
This one’s a bit awesome
The plan that Aniplex is using for the Region 1 (aka Canada and the United States aka R1) release of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (PM3) is three volumes of 4 episodes each in 3 different options – bare-bones DVD, bare-bones Blu-Ray, special edition DVD/Blu-Ray combo. Assuming an actual price of $25/volume, $35/volume, and $65/volume, respectively, for the three options that works out to $75, $105, $195 to purchase PM3.
From a personal standpoint it doesn’t bother me much that Aniplex is using an outdated and pricier sales plan for PM3 in view of the fact that I’ve already seen PM3 and know if there is one show that is theoretically worth paying that much more for, it’s this one. The problem comes from the personal desire to see PM3 do well over here and realizing that it probably won’t.
Oh sure, PM3 will sell well for a “niche” title (fans who watched it already through non-official means will see to that) but it’s the type of anime that could take the entire R1 anime fandom by storm and be talked about and watched in the future like Cowboy Bebop or Evangelion or FLCL are now. Which is what I mean when I say PM3 will fail in America; it will never remotely approach the impact in R1 it could have and the anime industry will have missed yet another the chance to reinvigorate and grow the market here.
The first step in this failure is the higher price point. To pretend that offering a series at a much higher cost won’t present a significant hurdle in selling PM3 to the large base of casual anime fans is to live in a fantasy world. How many people unfamiliar with PM3 will jump at the chance to pay a minimum of $75 dollars for a 12 episode series when for $8 they could buy AIR, $18 to purchase Bamboo Blade, and $35 to get both seasons of Birdy the Mighty Decode in one box set? This is just a first step; it’s still possible to overcome this pricing structure and convince the multitudes to watch and buy PM3 if Aniplex is sufficiently savvy. However, judging from the English trailer this does not seem to be the case; I count three big problems of this trailer whose job is to convince people unfamiliar with Puella Magi Madoka Magica into buying it.
The first problem is that the English dub is atrocious and will actively turn off potential viewers. How will someone who has grown up surrounded by books, magazines, television shows, movies, and music that – no matter how vapid or deep – are all well-produced react to a trailer that contains so many cringe-worthy moments? Here’s a hint, it’s not going to be rushing out to purchase PM3. I’d be surprised if these potential buyers even get to the point when they see how much it’s going to cost to buy the series and compare it what could be bought for the same price. There was one comment I saw at Anime News Network that I loved. The person wrote saying that after listening to the trailer for a third time he thought the dub sounded good. Think about that. Here’s someone who actively wants to like the dub and it still took three tries for him/her/it to succeed in drinking the kool-aid. This was an easy task to complete for this viewer and the trailer almost failed at it. Imagine a normal consumer; this dub won’t get do-overs and mulligans to convince that person into buying Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
(As an aside, the argument that the dub is good in the actual show is not a valid counter argument. If the trailer fails to convince a potential buyer into purchasing PM3 then there’s nothing to watch and discover that the “dub wasn’t that bad after-all”. )
Before moving on, I wanted to post a clip that does a much better job with it’s English dub so one could do a bit of comparing and contrasting. The clip in question is for the excellent series Bamboo Blade, another anime full of teenage girls (which normally seem like the English dubbers kryptonite).
The second problem is the reliance on the assumption that anime fandom in R1 is on a similar page as Japanese fandom. This a bad assumption to make and yet another nail in the coffin for PM3. Even in this age of streaming anime, the R1 anime fan that sticks to official sources to watch anime is still only getting a skewed, partial picture of what “anime” encompasses. In Japan PM3 proves it’s possible to successfully sell a series just by saying that Shaft will be animating, Akiyuki Shinbou will be directing, Ume Aoki will design the characters, and Gen Urobuchi will be writing the script. These names mean something over there but that’s not really the case over here (exceptions include well-informed fans and fans that pick stuff up from fansub-watching friends). For these names to mean something, numerous anime in various genres over the past decade would have needed to get licensed and dubbed first to build up the needed groups of fans to mirror their Japanese counterparts.
By relying on the star power of the staff to sell PM3 and hiding the true nature of the series, the second problem of the trailer gives rise to the third problem; namely, it does not explain, excite, and entice prospective buyers. On a fundamental level people expect a trailer to be representative of the show and the trailer of PM3 is for a completely different show then what PM3 actually is. This bait-n-switch was very similar to the Japanese trailer but does anyone at Aniplex realize that there’s a difference between tricking people who are watching a TV program and tricking people paying a not insignificant amount of money for a DVD or Blu-Ray? There are going to be people who won’t get turned off by the high prices or the bad acting and actually found the trailer convincing enough to buy Puella Magi Madoka Magica who will then feel betrayed when what looked like a cute magic-girl anime turns out to be everything but cute. Will this turn these people into bigger anime fans or will this turn them into more cautious fans? Perhaps, the types of fans that won’t mind going through not-official channels to ensure they never get duped out of their money again?
And don’t think this won’t happen. Who else is going to buy PM3 – remember, we’re not talking about those fans that have already seen it but the large number of more casual anime fans – when those who’d enjoy where the story goes have no clue that PM3 has higher aspirations? I’m not saying the trailer should spoil the series but there were several scenes early in the show that made Kyubey’s offer seem a bit suspicious and signaled to the viewers that something more was going on. These scenes would draw potential buyers in because they’d want to unravel the mystery of Kyubey and to find out what happens when you “make a contract” with Kyubey. Of course, decent acting would help; for starters, Kyubey’s English voice has none of that slightly creepy edge his Japanese voice had.
To see a trailer that successfully explains, excites, and entices check out this trailer for Jellyfish Princess.
This trailer does the near-Herculean task of getting my hyped for an anime I’ve already seen twice and has an ending I find less-then satisfying. I’m definitely buying this anime when it comes out.
Here’s another example:
I realize I’ve written near 1600 words when I could have just said the trailer “sucks” and used the hours I spent over the last week writing this to instead cover the new Winter season anime (which pretty much rocks in comparison to the Fall season) but Puella Magi Madoka Magica deserves better and the anime fans in Region 1 deserve better as well. Which leads me back to why Bandai’s demise reminded me of Aniplex’s R1 plan Puella Magi Madoka Magica – it truly does take a R1 company to understand how to sell anime to those fans living in Region 1.
Almost forget here’s a the trailer in question: