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Key art for Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories
Image: Discotek Media

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Discotek’s quest to rescue classic anime

We talk with a publisher trying to elevate the art form of releasing anime on discs

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There has never been a better time to be an anime fan. New releases get streamed to our homes within hours of their premieres. Netflix, Funimation, and Crunchyroll have cut down the costs that used to hold things back. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train is destroying box-office records, and mainstays like My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan continue to amass legions of followers.

Given the frequency, convenience, and quantity of releases available, it’s become harder and harder to justify purchasing physical versions of new releases — a format the industry was built upon.

Yet plenty of older titles remain underseen or unlicensed by streaming services. “Anime has obviously exploded in the last few years. The people that are super into it might be getting a little tired of all the current stuff,” Discotek Media’s production contractor Justin Sevakis recently told Polygon. That’s where a company like Discotek, which specializes in physical versions of anime classics and oddities, comes in.

Discotek’s catalog ranges from classic mecha titles to the latest cat-themed anime; titles that are quite a bit different from what you tend to find on Adult Swim. The company has licensed titles that underperformed during their first Western release, like Hajime no Ippo and Kodocha. Among old-school anime fans, it’s earned a reputation for bringing back hidden gems. And Discotek recently released its most ambitious Blu-ray package to date, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories, which includes a newly restored transfer, a brand new English dub, and new featurettes that examine how the project came together.

“If you’re actually going to take the effort to buy something on physical media these days […] it’s clearly something that’s really important to you,” said Sevakis. “It’s a token of your appreciation for the show, as much as it is the show itself. At the same time, if you are going to put forth the money and effort to get it physically, it should be fairly definitive.” That could be reflected in translation choices or the quality of the audio and video. Although Discotek has released a few titles on 4K UHD including the Hayao Miyazaki directed Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, Sevakis said, “Most anime are never going to look better than Blu-ray. For all of these releases, this is the best quality to ever come out. If you buy it, you shouldn’t ever have to buy it again.”

Not all films arrive at Discotek in the best condition. Sevakis talked about preparing the HD transfer of Memories in-depth on the Blu-ray. “The CG cuts were pretty jaggy, a little dimmer, and the colors didn’t quite add up,” he said. “When it was coming out on Laserdisc and VHS it looked just fine. Even on DVD it looked fine.” It wasn’t until Discotek got to the 4K transfer of Memories that it knew it had to make some corrections. That led to a step in the restoration process for Memories involving a new upscaling technology known as AstroRes that allows for a film transfer with more visible details, but not every title can justify the expense and time commitment. “We’re still figuring it out,” said Sevakis. Not every anime that comes to the studio needs upscaling from AstroRes. “AstroRes is incredible for making sharp linework out of something that’s blurry,” he said. “If we get something in native HD, it doesn’t need AstroRes. Even some things that are in standard definition [don’t need it].”

Three characters look forward on the front of this wraparound box art
The Blu-ray packaging for Memories
Image: Discotek Media

One of the biggest selling points of Western anime releases also remains the inclusion of an English dub as it makes a release more palatable to a larger audience. It’s also a big selling point for streaming companies like Funimation and Netflix, which release a majority of their titles with an English dub. As a high profile release for Discotek, Memories has a newly recorded English dub track for its Blu-ray debut, but not everything Discotek licenses can be dubbed. There are numerous obstacles to consider before the team decides if it’s worth its time. “It has to be short enough to be affordable and has to sell enough that it would [make sense],” said Sevakis. What happens with an older title that was popular, but never got a dub? Could they go back and create a new dub for that title? “There’s a big problem with shows that are older. Most of them don’t have separate M&E [music and effects] tracks,” he said. “If Japan has the M&Es ready to go in a form that we can use, then it’s worth it. Almost no other time. It’s just not worth reconstructing.”

When trying to compile a Blu-ray, Discotek sometimes has to search for better quality materials than what it’s given. Parts of the anime episodes such as the original opening and ending songs, the eyecatch (commercial bumper) animations in the middle of episodes, or even the English dub that originally aired with the anime might be missing. One of Discotek’s upcoming titles, the 1985 mech series Ninja Robots, is missing the English dub for a few episodes. This isn’t unusual because anime that aired in North America in the 80s and 90s was often edited for TV syndication. Adult Swim would remove the opening and endings from the anime that they aired like Inuyasha and Trigun, Sailor Moon, and Card Captor Sakura had dubs that altered the intentions of the show, and One Piece was edited for content so it could be aired on Saturday mornings. Fans have expectations that the home video release of their favorite anime will be exactly how they remembered it in their youth. Other instances, like with One Piece, had fans clamoring for the opportunity to watch that anime unedited for the first time.

The Ninja Robots anime was a particularly trying exercise to recover the English dub. Sevakis told Polygon, “We got the masters from the Paramount lot, which took months of wrangling to get. When they arrived, I looked at them, and they were all still in Japanese. They had English titles and opening and endings put on, but they were still in Japanese.” Instead, Discotek tried to crowdsource information about the missing episodes. Another title, the 1986 action-comedy film Project A-Ko, had its 35mm print found in Japan after an extensive restoration process had already commenced. Sometimes a restoration effort falls short and Discotek must release whatever it has by the time it’s ready to print the discs. That’s the problem with physical media; there really can’t be future fixes if the materials are found all of the sudden. It’s all about making the best version possible for home video that they can within a reasonable amount of time.

There will always be new “must-see” anime- shows that capture the attention of anime fandom and bring new fans to the medium from around the world. Once they have explored the current titles, there might be an interest to dive into the hidden gems of the anime world. “A lot of [current anime] is very similar and workmanlike,” said Sevakis. Some fans want something that is a little different and, “it turns out that Japan has been something different for decades,” he said.

Not every title is worth the increased price of admission, and given the plethora of anime available through streaming services, putting one more title on the shelf doesn’t always make sense. But for those titles that stand out among the plethora of anime released every day, some prefer having a definitive version. How else are you going to be able to own an anime about a kitten that lives inside a banana peel?