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Geneon USA: A Tribute

Geneon booth from Otakon 2005.

I am sad to see the passing of Geneon USA. This is despite the fact that the majority of my DVDs are from ADV and Bandai, the two remaining big boys left along with Funimation–a company which barely existed when Geneon, aka Pioneer, was at its height. But that’s only because the shows I happen to like are released by those companies, though I’ve owned a good number of Geneon/Pioneer titles in my time too. Now the company that brought Americans Serial Experiments: Lain, Tenchi Muyo, Akira, Ai Yori Aoshi and more recently Higurashi is no more.

Here is, for what it’s worth, a tribute. (Apologies for the photo quality–these are all pictures I took myself or grabbed from my own video diary.)

[Ray’s Edit: Click here for a Geneon Satisfaction Survey, hosted by ANN ]

Like many of you, I remember when Geneon was Pioneer LDC. They were the first to release not only anime DVDs, but deluxe box sets–of Tenchi Muyo, of Fushigi Yugi. They were pricey and they were nicely packaged, a combination that made their products both coveted and rare–a symbol of how special and niche anime was in those days. Now, of course, we know that it was merely the vanguard of the boom in anime here in the United States, but back then, when I was living on a college budget with little money for DVDs, they were the objects of desire because they were unaffordable. Later, I was able to afford money to buy individual discs of Lain. But nobody did box sets like them. When I found work I immediately snapped up the Akira box set, the one in the tin. I loved my purchases.

When I started going to cons in 2003, the Pioneer booth was among the biggest and plushest. Their booth had carpeting and their display panels were made of glass. They gave away big bags which even my mother found useful and took to work. The staff was friendly, and, in later years as Geneon, The Indigo would give performances at the booth during the afternoons. I bought their singles CD, which I am listening to now as I write this. Their music was sunny, pleasant, and warm, leaving an impression that the towering Bandai booth and the frequently gaudy and tawdry ADV booth (they were throwing free panties out one year in conjunction with Najica) didn’t give.

I remember feeling puzzled when Pioneer LDC decided to change its name to Geneon. Pioneer was a good word, after all–it had a real English meaning and had a familiar pedigree, known to most people as the maker of reliable DVD and laserdisc players. (My parents still own a working Pioneer DVD player that is almost 8 years old.) I supposed it was the same corporate trend that came up with names like Verizon, things that almost sounded like real words, suggested real words, but weren’t. Perhaps, in a way, that was a sign of things to come.

As late as this year’s Anime Expo, there was not even a hint that anything was going wrong with Geneon. Their booth was just as big and comfortable. I liveblogged their panel , after all, where they announced their acquisition of Hellsing Ultimate and Zero no Tsukaima. They also handed out surveys asking us what kind of DVD packaging we would prefer for future box sets, and even showed us examples of proposed box set designs. Who knew that a mere three months later, they would cease producing DVDs altogether? I always assumed, like people used to with the Soviet Union, that Geneon would last forever because it was so big; it was founded on the fortunes of a big Japanese company and carried some of the most well-known titles in all of anime: Akira and Tenchi Muyo, which along with Ghost in the Shell helped create modern American fandom. The sinking of Central Park Media, Synch-Point, and others was less of a surprise. But Geneon was one of the big boys. But even big boys can fall.

The immediate catalyst is of course the botched deal with ADV. There was clearly some bad decisionmaking, particularly in the premature layoffs of the sales and marketing staff. That much is well-known. But the larger picture is the decline of the American anime industry in recent years, which has also been widely documented–the number of licenses has decreased markedly in recent years. Even ADV, once notorious for snapping up dozens of shows and sitting on them, is no longer acquiring at nearly the same rate. Many in the industry blame digital fansubbers, and it’s to be admitted that the old fansubber compact–cease distribution once licensed–is much easier to circumvent than before. Many Japanese companies in particular are worried about fansubs, and their worries are legitimate to a real extent. However, another likely cause is simply that the anime market in America has reached saturation. There are only so many shows you can bring over every year and still remain profitable. People are no longer simply going to pick something up because it’s animated in Japan; the novelty value has faded. Perhaps this is a necessary shakedown, like the bursting of the tech bubble of the late 1990s. Now we will see the real value of the hundreds of titles which have made it over here.

The anime industry outside Japan is in a very unique position–it was an industry largely created by and through actions which have always been technically piracy. Pioneer, though, understood early on with its deluxe DVD releases that they had to offer something in addition to just the show in decent video quality; they had to add value that made those of us who bought their discs feel special. Eventually the other anime companies have caught up; I’m a happy owner of Bandai’s deluxe Escaflowne the Movie box set and ADV’s Evangelion Platinum Edition. Others are packing T-shirts, soundtracks, storyboards, and other goodies.

But Pioneer lived up to its name. They were there first. And perhaps it is the destiny of pioneers to perish first, too. Geneon leaves behind many stranded series–Higurashi will remain unfinished on DVD, as will Hellsing Ultimate, a show for which I heard so many fangirl squeals at the panel this year. Nobody knows what will happen to their properties from now on; probably, Geneon USA will become a holding company like Kadokawa Pictures USA, and farm out their properties to the remaining anime distributors. But whatever happens, it probably means no more plush booths and Indigo concerts at future cons.

Farewell, Geneon/Pioneer. You’ll be missed. I leave you with one of the more regrettable casualties of its demise. She is probably surprised to be the one being killed rather than killing.

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