Over the last couple of years, a slew of anime that might normally be released as OVAs or as a TV series have been created and packaged as feature films. In a previous generation, productions like Berserk, Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, and the forthcoming Initial D movie would have been released directly to video or TV itself. But now they're hitting theaters first, as a way to put that much more revenue back into the pockets of the creators in an age of diminishing returns. And what I find fascinating about this process is how it's creating its own variety of long-form storytelling, one driven as much by the demands of the marketplace as the need to tell stories that demand some stretch-out time.
The economic side of the picture isn't all that hard to parse. Anime budgets have tightened; the average season of TV has dipped from 26 to 13 or even 11 episodes; the OVA market has turned into the ONA market, or vanished entirely. But a good, wide theatrical release for a given title — as long as you can fit it into two hours or so — can win back a lot of money quickly, especially if you're talking about a title that demands the kinds of production values not possible on a TV budget.
That in turn explains why some of the most notable titles that have received the direct-to-theater treatment are franchises with previous, TV-level treatments which could have deserved some further expansion. I'm thinking specifically of Berserk, whose abortive TV series is at the same time one of anime's greatest and most frustrating achievements. The greatness is all there on the surface, but the frustration comes from the way it ends right as we're led into the actual heart of the story — one that's run for many more volumes since the production of the TV series. After all this time, it wouldn't have made much sense to boot up a successor series, one whose digital-era production values would have clashed badly with the original's analog-cel look. Better instead to start completely from scratch.
But that clear-the-decks approach has brought with it risks of its own. Even in its incomplete original form, Berserk had a kind of lightning-in-a-bottle power that's been hard to duplicate. The remake looks far superior — how could anything by Production I.G not look at least competent, if not outstanding? — but some of the gory, messy heart of the original has been lost along the way. Consider it a tradeoff: what we lose in some of the substance or end-to-end completeness of detail, we gain back in terms of fidelity and totality of storytelling. If it means less storytelling, but more story, it's a fair deal.
Another, more recent direct-to-theaters anime film series is also a remake: Initial D, which enjoyed several seasons' worth of TV. Its storytelling and core appeal were strong enough to allow it to survive one botched Tokyopop English-language release, later corrected by FUNimation. But at first glance it might not seem like a real candidate for a movie-scale remake: the original story was lean, minimal, stripped-down, focused, and employed visuals that fit neatly within the parameters of a TV budget. So why give it a movie-size remake? There, the answer doesn't lie in any defect in the original, but rather the fact that Initial D has one of the biggest audiences across all of Asia for any anime/manga property ever. So much so, in fact, that a live-action version of the material was filmed back in 2005 — no, not in Japan, but in Hong Kong, where the street-rally / drift-racer mystique of the story has major pull.
And sometimes a theatrical version of a property is put together for the sake of allowing a property to have any presence at all. Consider Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, the newest installment in a franchise that has spanned various manga incarnations, two full-length motion pictures, two TV shows, an OVA, and a whole miscellany of other products. As I understand it, the vast majority of the audience for the Shell franchise — and its main source of monetization — has been outside of Japan, and so whether or not a successor to the Stand Alone Complex TV productions could be lined up relied on how well it could be sold in those markets. Instead, ARISE comes in the form of hour-long productions released first to cinemas and then to video — a sort of boutique packaging designed to draw in, and derive revenue from, the core audience for the material. For the truly hard-core fans, there's the theatrical release; for the devoted fans, the limited-edition import Blu-ray; and further on down the line, for the casually curious, the conventional DVD and perhaps also TV-broadcast editions.
For me, though, what's most special about the direct-to-theater form factor (for lack of a better label to apply to it) is how it makes possible a variety of storytelling that combines aspects of conventional one-off films, TV, and OVAs. From the movies, there's the prestige of a theatrical, big-screen experience, one that can be enjoyed communally; from TV, there's the promise of a long-form story being told in installments; and from OVAs (and again movies), the promise of higher production values. Out of all that comes a flavor of experience not quite paralleled by any of those three things, and one I'm curious to see more of as future projects, for properties new and old like, are delivered that way.