From LaserDisc to DVD; how original video animation paved way for modern consumer culture

This is a text adaptation of a presentation given at Kawacon 2012

Direct-to-video has a bad reputation these days. Back in the very late 70’s and up till mid-80’s direct-to-video productions were not regarded as lower quality production, but were seen as competently produced products. However, there is a section of direct-to-video products that have arguably always stayed as somewhat of quality products of sorts and have not really dropped into same hole as most other of their brethren; the OVA.

OVAs, or Original Video Animations are one of Japan’s unique product. They came to be because the animators and writers who worked in the major studios in 70’s wanted more freedom in the products they wanted to make, and that the 80’s Japan had a large economical boom that allowed vast amount of money be spent on such trivialities as funding animation videos.

Before we wonder any deeper to the subject and formats, we have to get clear what an OVA is. There are numerous different variations of said term;

OVA = Original Video Animation
OAV = Original Adult/Animation Video
ONA = Original ‘Net Animation
ODA = Original DVD Animation
OBA = Original BluRay Disc Animation

For all intents and purposes the most used one is Original Video Animation. OAV was coined by the fandom to separate it from “kiddie” animation. All the rest are terms that were tried to push in, but only ONA has made a small breakthrough. However, all others are either purely fanbased terms or one-use words that nobody uses.

OVAs are usually seen a hyperviolent robotsfests with lots of bare skin and filled with sex. Some of them are, and anime in was regarded like this due to the massive amount of OVAs licensed to the West. Anime in general wouldn’t be as known as it is in the west without the OVA of the 80’s, but the same boom also created home video markets in Japan and also affected same markets in the US, which also contributed to the victory of VHS over LaserDisc and BetaMAX. OVAs, as in any medium, has large variety of content; OVAs also had touching romance, historical stories and simple children’s stories. Overlooking the stigma they have is important.

In the most basic sense, OVAs are movies, or series of movies. The contents could be anything the staff wanted it to be, as OVA had no restrictions what it could and could not have unlike TV animation. As in their heart, OVAs should exhibit property of being original, as in the story and animation within is created for this product, and is not adaptation from anywhere else. Needless to say OVA soon became a way to animate obscure comics and stories that would’ve never seen daylight in other mediums otherwise. After the initial boom had started, some of the big companies like Sunrise started creating their own OVAs as well, most notables from them being the Gundam side stories 0083: Stardust Memory and 0080: War in the Pocket. Other smaller companies also did their fair share of OVAs in the 80’s, and one of the most loved and well known has to be Aim for the top! Gunbuster.


Gunbuster also got a sequel in the 00’s

After the 80’s ended and the 90’s began the economical boom that kept OVAs afloat died. Many of the projects that were meant to be OVAs were turned into TV-series of variety of length, and thus gave birth to 12-episode series. This also began the trend of having long series with nothing really happening in them, leading into pacing problems and underwhelming series, as most TV-animations do have much higher limitations what can be shown and what can’t, thou that didn’t seem to stop anyone back then. The anime we have nowadays is a bastard child of the 90’s TV and 80’s OVA, where pretty much nothing happens but there’s still unnecessary fanservice. Similarly as OVAs were targeted towards certain niche group, the TV series have nowadays do the same and this is both illogical and stupid. OVAs as well changed from original stories to direct adaptations with higher budget and extra contents or episodes. As such, the 80’s OVA can be considered dead and it has been replaced with neo-OVA of sorts, which shares the sickness and many of the modern television shows in general.

The Formats

OVAs were released across the formats, but I’ll be concentrating on three main formats in the late 70’s and 80’s. Let’s start with LaserDisc.


Look at the size of that thing!


LaserDisc’s were originally invented in the late 50’s, but were released to the public in 1978. Techwise they reside somewhere between the DVD and LP discs, and the discs are actually the same size as your normal LP but are also twice as thick. LaserDisc was the choice of audiophiles for a long time, as it produced the most clear picture and the most crisp sound money can buy.

Your normal LD disc weights around 500 grams, and were prone to break from the seams between the two sides either due to manual breakdown or due to laser rotting, where the glue that held the sides together would lose it’s strenght. Speaking of the sides, each side could hold max. 30min or 60min of video, which was problematic. In the middle of a film you had to change the sides unless you had a player that could change the side automatically via rotating the reader.

There was also the problem that LD players could only play, not record similarly to most modern DVD players. For the time, LDs were rather difficult to use. While they were originally cheaper to produce than VHS or BetaMAX tapes, VHS tapes became much cheaper by the mid-80’s, LD players still cost more than your normal VHS players, and took more room, were noisier and all that. Because of combination of these, and the success of a rivalling format, the LaserDisc lost the format race of the 80’s. It never got popular in the US outside importers and audiophiles, but saw a limited success in Asia.

Nowadays collecting LDs is honestly something that is either really hard to do, or is borderline stupid to do. DVD remasters offer better quality than LD and is easier to get. European and American LDs tend to cost few bucks, but the shipping is just insane, and the second-hand players cost twice as much as they should. Internet auction sites and secondhand stores are your best option to purchase LDs, but you need dig some dough to be able to pay the requested prices.


The BetaMax tapes had less tape than VHS as well

The BetaMax was first developed in the 1971 and was developed by a small group of people who would split apart, and this development would lead into VHS as well. As such, both Beta and VHS are based on the same tech, but branched off from each other at some point. The Beta standard was released with full driving force of the 70’s SONY in 1975 and they sincerely tried to drive it to become the standard all film industry would use. Sure, the format had an early launch, but the machines and tapes were a bit expensive and difficult to use. The early machines could only record, which was seen as a drawback by the consumers. Because of this the Beta was somewhat difficult to use, not to mention the higher price of the tapes. LD was cheaper at that time.

By the 80’s the production of both VHS and Beta was cheaper than producing LDs, but the wider acceptance of VHS format the BetaMax became secondary format for making movies. Audiophiles wanted to use Beta because of its superior quality and ignoring its shortcomings, like that it could only hold 60min of tape, thou some later cassettes did have more time. However, Beta died in the 80’s as it was abandoned slightly earlier than LD because nobody used it. It’s still warmly remembered by fans.


GODDAMMIT WRONG BETA

I presume every single one of you who are reading this has used a VHS deck. I’ve got nothing much to add to what you already know of the format, as the major bulk of you grew with it. The VHS is the worst in quality, but it won because it became cheapest to produce by the 80’s, as producing one VHS cost one dollar, whereas one LD cost five dollars. VHS also had variety of lengths, which was part of the reason why it became so popular, not to mention it was also the easiest format to use and had more versatile functions out of all of the three formats. The maximum amount of tape a VHS can have is 420m, but the tape would be rather thin.

VHS was released 1976, and by released I mean that the first player was in Hotel Okura, and then it slowly crept around the world. While many people say that porn was the reason why VHS won, it’s really because it was the most multifunctional and easiest format to work with. OVAs drove VHS markets in Japan, as prior to that there was no home video market as we know it today. This is important, as OVAs were one of the major forces that made the home video industry realize that there is demand. Because of this demand many series saw VHS releases in the 80’s, and this effect could also be felt in the West. Movies and similar did see VHS releases as well, but before OVA came in shows like Balatack were not on VHS, unless somebody had taped them from TV.

This is how importing to the West worked back in the early 80’s. You had to have a contact in Japan to get your hands on these things on VHS. The other way was to have a store that would import them for you. Usually this means that you have a catalogue in Japanese with small 1×1 inch pictures of something. If it looked interesting, you bought it. VHS tapes cost around hundred bucks back then (taking inflation in to count, that’s around $213 for ONE VHS), and then you’d have to wait months to get something back. LDs were cheaper to import as they were around 70 bucks. Thus anime fans tended to import LDs and purchase expensive LD players. Of course, everything was in the devil’s language and very few people could translate the events on the screen for their friends.

In conventions the anime rooms had somebody explaining what was going on by pausing the tape at certain intervals. Otherwise you only had a paper that said what the story was about, or most often nothing at all. Fansubbing did not exist. In comparison I watched the live stream of Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse last night without any subs, and the subs were out this morning. The Iczer-1 LDs I purchased from Rakuten a week a go and they were delivered in five days. The times we live in are much easier, and we should be thankful for it.

As 80’s OVA boom was loosely a product of two things; animators and directors who wanted more freedom and change of pace, and the economical boom that Japan was under. The OVA saw certain kind of death when the economical bubble burst, and many of the OVA projects were converted into TV shows, which gave birth to 12 episode series. This also lead some shows to have somewhat limited content and plots that didn’t really go anywhere outside key episodes. As such the modern anime we have is a bastard child where nothing really happens and movie long stories are spread across 12 or 24 episodes. Then we have schlock like K-On! which has nothing happening in them.

OVA filled a certain niche in the 80’s and always targeted itself towards these niche customers. During the boom the most successful OVAs were like golden goose, but then there are many others that failed miserably and the time has forgotten them. The shows nowadays try to market themselves similarly to 80’s OVA and targets certain audience only. TV animation has gotten expensive since the 80’s and got even more expensive because of the HD standard, and thus most series are not making their money back. This is the key reason the industry is dying, not because of lack in ingenuity or the like.

OVAs also are the reason we have series released on DVD. DVD claimed VHS’ markets at the end of the 90’s, which saw larger series releases due to cheaper mass production values. As such we can either be grateful to OVAs for the VHS boom, or blame them for the same thing.

Here’s a nice piece of trivia before we go into the four first important OVAs; by 2012 VHS is still the most favoured recording format in the US due to the large number of VHS decks, and largely around the world as well. VHS has been slowly been replaced by digital recordings, but VHS is still the most common.

But now, let’s speak of OVAs themselves.

Dallos


Dallos was the first real OVA released in 1983 by Studio Pierrot. It was directed by Mamoru Oshii, who would later garner much fame with his movie adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell. It’s a four episode OVA with and extra episode, and even then the story is left unfinished. Dallos was put up by bunch of ex-Tatsunoko employees, and as such the style is clearly very 70’s, but there’s a hints of new winds, as one of the animators was none other than mr. Obari himself, who defined certain aesthetics all by himself. Well, almost.

So, what is Dallos about? Earth government oppressing people who live at the Moon surface and people there fight back at guerilla warfare until the fight for Dallos begins which is some sort of supernatural being or something. The plot’s not that interesting even if it has some potential. It conveys the same message as most of the late-70’s series, especially Mobile Suit Gundam, and it really hammers it in in the fourth episode.

Dallos isn’t bad as much it is dull. The animation is pretty mediocre except in action scenes, the colours of the world are bleached and the music isn’t anything to write home about. Most of the rips out there also suffer from bad translation. Dallos did see an English adaptation in ’86 named Battle for the Moon station Dallos, but reports say that its as like watching Warriors of the Wind over Nausicaä. Finding either of them most likely will be the exact same experience.

Sadly, Dallos also pioneered one of the bad points of OVAs, which is that it will be unfinished for all eternity. The series did get good in the fourth episode when they found their style and pace, but it was far too late at that point already. What Dallos did was that there was a market for direct-to-video animation, and launched a slow but steady start for the OVA boom. However, Dallos was soon forgotten for the time being when another OVA was released, and punched itself through like bullet.

Fight!! Iczer-One


A 1985 release, Iczer-One was Toshiki Hirano’s brainchild in the Lemon People magazine (we’ll get to that later on) and was animated by studio AIC, which also worked on bulk of the OVAs produced. Iczer-One was relatively successful and managed to pierce certain barriers about the quality of VHS and OVAs in general.

Iczer-One is one of the first OVAs in general, and at the time collected quite a lot of attention and was regarded as one of the highest quality OVA works, and Iczer-One still has a loyal group of followers. Recently Iczer-One got a spotlight of sorts for being in Super Robot Wars L for the Nintendo DS, but because of the economics in the 90’s and current disinterest in old series we’re never going to see the end of the Iczer-saga. It doesn’t help that Hirano seems to be lazy bastard who can’t end his works properly anyway, as evident by the dropped Iczer-One prequel comic.

Iczer-One is about a race called Cthulhu taking over the Earth, and only Iczer-One can stand between total annihilation of the human race, but only if one girl is willing to become her partner and give her enough strength, as well as push Iczer-Robo to its absolute limits.

Iczer-One has higher level of animation than Dallos, and the story is more coherent as well as focused. Iczer-One did receive full three episode (or short movies) and finished the story. It’s actually pretty funny to look at Dallos and Iczer-One side to side and notice how much Dallos is your low level OVA whereas Iczer-One nails every OVA trope there is; nudity, sex, ultraviolence, insanely beautiful scenes, gore, that 80’s music and story that is best not to think too much about. It’s short, it’s sweet and worth your time to be honest.

Cream Lemon


Cream Lemon wasn’t the first adult erotica OVA in 1984, as it was preceded by Lolita Anime by some months. However, unlike Lolita Anime Cream Lemon actually has some quality.

Cream Lemon stories are based on Lemon People magazine’s stories, which span between all genres from sci-fi to cyberpunk to fantasy to complete comedy and so on. In spirit it could be compared to the Heavy Metal magazine, except it’s even more explicit, but more harmless and concentrating on the cute side of sexiness rather than crude blackness. As such only handful of Cream Lemon stories have an ongoing plot from part to part.

Cream Lemon most likely encouraged Lemon People stories to be turned into OVAs, as happened with Iczer-1. Because of this such series as Project A-ko was also developed, but at one point of the project it was decided to that it should exist as its own product outside Cream Lemon. There are notable elements in the first OVA where Cream Lemon themes exist or is directly referenced at.

Cream Lemon was rather successful series and gained numerous sequels, and ultimately outlived its parent magazine. While some of the stories are lacklustre and downright bad, there are numerous gems and points of interest that still hold up to this day. However, I can’t but wonder why Pop Chaser is one of the most popular of the bunch.

MegaZone 23

Without much doubt it was MegaZone 23 that ultimately kicked the OVA boom into full flower in 1985. MegaZone 23 was created in the same vain and spirit as Macross and was meant to be a sequel to Mospeada, but the main investor withdrew the last possible second, leaving the staff with almost complete plot and many animated sequences. Thus it was decided to turn the series into an OVA and the rest is history.

MegaZone 23 is your standard high-class OVA filled with gorgeous animation filled with plotholes and explicit sex scene amidst everything else. It was popular and still stays popular in otaku culture. MegaZone 23 is a product of its time, showcasing the best and worst of 80’s Japan and rather interesting light. I recommend listening to ADV’s dub on it, because it really adds more 80’s feeling to it. [Suomalaisille lukijoille sanottakoon, että ADV’n dubbi vetää niin syvässä kasarihengessä, että allekirjoittanutta melkein sattuu muutamassa kohdassa nauramiselle.]

MegaZone 23 received two sequels; a two part OVA called Part II and one OVA movie in the early 90’s called Part III. The story in the first part is about people living their normal lives without knowing that they were aboard a spaceship, and all is controlled by a computer. Only high ranking high-ranking military officials were aware of this, until a motorcycle known as Bahamoud falls into the main character’s hands, and then he finds out that his world is a charade, and the computer controlling is also a superidol known as EVE. The first part ends where the main character loses.

The US importers found MegaZone 23 extremely exciting. It sort of launched massive amounts of imports, which also lead into localization of such series as Dirty Pair, which found more audience in the West than in Japan. It can be argued that MegaZone 23’s release was at the time when people were looking for something
and found OVAs to be that one thing; it was for a niche that wasn’t really a niche, but a large customer base.

The OVAs we have nowadays are a far cry from their ancestors. Majority of them are special slapped on discs or almost direct adaptations from novels and comics. The Originality does not exist any more. All that was once in the OVAs is now poured into TV animation where it doesn’t belong. Because of this the anime industry is dying, not because we haven’t had the Second Evangelion.

The 2000’s anime boom was partly because of bulk of licensed OVAs of varying quality. There is rather recent phenomena of reviewing what people call shit OVAs. I’ve got no problem with these, as bulk of them truly are nothing but crap. Well animated, but crap nevertheless. Movies like the Crimson Wolf (Hon Ran) and Spirit Warrior are prime examples of this kind of shows.

There’s one OVA that I’d consider to be one of the last of its kind; Mazinkaiser SKL.


While Mazinkaiser SKL is very loosely based on GO Nagai’s Mazinger saga, it is truly it’s own production and is far more original than any other OVA produced during the last five to ten years.

To put it short, OVAs were a phenomena that was partially reason of the victory of VHS and showed the way of Home Video in Japan. The current consumer culture where we have loads of series loaded on the store shelves can be traced back to shows like Iczer-One and to their success.

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