A minor calamity hit my corner of the anime world this past week. Studio 4°C, the folks behind Mind Game, Princess Arete, Tweeny Witches, and the Genius Party anthologies, had been hosting all of those diverse and remarkable works on Netflix for the past year. Now the licenses for those titles have expired, leaving people curious about them with little recourse but to scour Amazon.com or gamble on finding an illegal stream or torrent somewhere. This is fast turning into the new normal for the way a niche cultural commodity like anime is consumed: Now you see it and now you don't. But this here-and-gone quality is not the biggest issue. It's that its impact on little players like Studio 4°C, and their fans, is so disproportionate.
Studio 4°C's roster of titles have been traditionally tough to come by in the West. But those who know them, know they produce quality work that's worth tracking down and experiencing — animation that gives us, as Albert Camus once put it, "things other than forgetfulness and entertainment."
Mind Game, animator Masaaki Yuasa's opus, was once considered for U.S. distribution by DreamWorks, but the deal ended up in limbo. For a long time the only way to see the movie was to import the Japanese DVD which by some stroke of luck had English subtitles, or by way of its appearance on Netflix. Tweeny Witches — my go-to case study for an example of an fine show camouflaged behind a wretched English-language title — was licensed by Media Blasters for a time, but has also lapsed. The Genius Party short-film anthologies were never licensed domestically; you'll have to import them from either Australia or Japan. And the wealth of brain-bending, eye-opening shorts created by the studio for various venues (e.g., "Noiseman Sound Insect") have been hard to come by inside Japan itself, let alone outside of it. (Who's to say how, if at all, we might be able to come by their latest short?)
This kind of marginal availability would be bad for the products of most any studio. It's all the worse for someone like Studio 4°C, whose works have tended to be that much more on the maverick and creative side. People grumble constantly about Aniplex and the premium-plus pricing they apply to the titles they keep close to the chest (Gurren Lagann, Kill La Kill), but I suspect a big part of why they can get away with it is because those titles are well-known, in-demand, and will not fail to command a large enough slice of potential buyers. Studio 4°C, on the other hand, is only known by name to a really devoted segment of fans, and thus exists in a niche of a niche.
The shift away from physical media and towards streaming means projects of Studio 4°C's ilk have a harder time finding physical enshrinement, and thus a lasting audience. One of the upsides of a disc is that it's permanent. I can bring it over and show it at movie night. I can loan it to a friend and let him watch it (and then kick myself for never getting it back when he moves out of the state). Copies can find their ways into public libraries. Left-of-center properties of all kinds need this sort of preservation. Physical carriers give them half a chance of staying alive in the consciousness of a public that's constantly bombarded with invitations to experience the next big thing.
This isn't primary a matter of streaming being cheap and "those silly plastic beer mats", as an acquaintance of mine once called DVDs, being expensive. Streaming media has a marginal cost; you still have to pay for licensing, localization, hosting, bandwidth, and all the other things the consumer never sees or cares to know about. What's different is how the ubiquity of streaming media has made physical media all the more a collector's medium rather than a consumer's medium. Casual access through streaming means there's that much less demand for discs, because streaming has allowed people to rediscover they're okay with seeing something once and never owning it. Before home video, there was TV and the revival theaters; you caught a movie when you could, however you could. Now we've drifting back into that state, and one of the side effects is your experiences with media are programmed that much more by the stream-providers and that much less by following your own stars.
I'd be lying if I said streaming's sea change hadn't altered my own taste-making. The number of titles I would actually want to own has dwindled drastically as it becomes easier to experience them as a stream. But the few that I want to own, I really, really want to own. Most of them are titles that stand out by dint of being that much less commercial — and by that token, have that much less of a chance of ever showing up domestically, or in a format I can consume properly (i.e., no English).
Of Studio 4°C's titles, most everything I've seen by them I would be happy to keep a copy of, both for myself and others. Tweeny Witches isn't too hard to come by, and so one of these days I'll finally shell out the dough for it and give it the discussion it deserves. Mind Game, I found at Book-Off in New York City. But good luck finding any of the rest. The market for such a thing is ... well, a niche of a niche, at best. So where's a guy like me supposed to go once the stream dries up?
One, I can petition one of the existing outfits that deals in niche titles, and hope there are enough other folks as enthusiastic as I am for them to be convinced it's worth the risk. Discotek Media, for instance, have made a fine little industry out of dusting off older titles with niche fandoms and bringing them back into print, typically in far better shape than they ever were to begin with. But they've focused on resurrections that have some name recognition: perennials (Vampire Hunter D); titles derived from game franchises (Street Fighter, Fatal Fury, Darkstalkers); titles with nostalgia value (Sea Price and Fire Child, Samurai Pizza Cats). Experimental, eccentric work isn't really their milieu.
Option #2 is Kickstarter. Not in the sense that I could start one, since I haven't the expertise. But in the sense that someone who is sufficiently clued-in and fearless could stump for backing to bring these titles into print, however briefly. It's exactly the sort of project suited to Kickstarter, but again it all relies on someone with the know-how and the connections being willing to step up. Maybe the folks at AnimEigo: they have plenty of experience with all aspects of getting a niche product to its relevant market (and making it snazzy, to boot). But again, they focus mainly on titles that they have either already distributed in some form or which they think they can make a good argument for based on the company they keep.
The third option is piracy, which I'm not about to indulge in, tempting as it might be. What an absolute irony: here we are in a time where we have unprecedented, near-instant access to a staggering palette of media, and some of the few things I most want access to can only be had by theft. Well, for a time, that wasn't true; all I had to do was fire up Netflix. But I had no way of knowing the contract to keep Studio 4°C's work on that service would expire after a year. More the fool me for not pouncing sooner, I suppose. Now you see it, and now you don't. And maybe now you never will.