"One Piece" — Viz vs. FUNimation

Once upon a time, there was an infamous Japanese production company named Toei who decided to create an anime adaptation of the manga known as One Piece. They created a very popular anime title which now has 317 episodes as of this posting and rising. As was bound to happen, fansub groups in the U.S. brought their unofficial translation of the anime to fans in the U.S. (and other places) and an American fanbase was created.

As was bound to happen, Toei licensed the anime to a U.S. company, this time the notorious anime butchers called 4Kids. U.S. fans howled in protest, but 4Kids ignored all that and proceeded to do what they do best to anime — modify it. There would be no unedited version in English or Japanese and there would only be an edited English dub.

To put this edited version on DVD, Viz was given the exclusive rights to do this. What is unknown is if the license came directly from Toei or if it was a sublicense granted by 4Kids. To date, Viz has released 9 volumes on DVD with volume 10 slated for an August release.

For reasons officially known only to Toei and 4Kids, Toei pulled the exclusive license from 4Kids and gave the license (including the 143 episodes 4Kids had done) to FUNimation. Among fandom, there was much rejoicing as a company that understands the anime market now had the title and promised to do it well. In addition to getting the license to produce an official English dub and an official English subtitle for the entire series, FUNimation scored the license to be the exclusive distributor of the series on DVD.

However, and Anime Expo 2007, it was revealed that FUNimation would be unable to release the first two seasons (at minimum) on DVD because Viz had those. They magnanimously asked fans to support the brand and go ahead and buy the Viz crap. Yeah, like hardcore fans of the series will be doing that.

So what happened? Whether Viz obtained their license to distribute the 4Kids episodes on DVD from Toei or via a sublicense of 4Kids, they have a contract and could make things very messy for FUNimation should FUNi press the issue. Viz, no doubt, is not happy about this situation at all. After all, FUNimation is kicking everyone’s rear (and until Viz learns why this the case, they will remain eating dust) and Viz has the manga release of One Piece. No doubt Viz would have liked to have had the complete license.

Also, Viz has invested money in the title and as I mentioned, they have a new DVD in the pipe. They wish to make money from the title (understandable) and have to do whatever it takes to block FUNimation from releasing the superior version of the early seasons. No doubt, they hope to cash in on FUNimation’s superior releases of 144+ by catching folks not paying attention to buy the substandard product.

For its part, FUNimation has decided not to challenge Viz on this. Rumor has it that Viz’s license will run out in 2009. So it would be cheaper for FUNimation to just let Viz continue to distribute the 4Kids crap unchallenged rather than take this into court where it could get very messy and cost FUNimation a ton (besides, if Viz has a license, there’s not much chance of FUNimation winning anything). FUNimation won’t score as many sales from those waiting to buy the series from scratch, but undoubtedly there will be plenty of fans who will buy FUNimation’s releases, whatever episode they decide to start from.

FUNimation has been doing a lot to score titles it believes will be profitable and certainly help its FUNimation channel lineup. However, they are learning that such “license rescues” are coming with prices they hadn’t foreseen.

Update (03 February 2008): FUNimation for the win! They just announced on the 1st of February that they will be selling One Piece Season 1 Part 1 set on May 27, 2008.

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