The Net, Copyright, and Japanese Cinema and Anime History

One of the problems for those of us interested in Japanese films or anime is access. Only a fraction of what was produced—even if it still exits in celluloid form—is readily available on DVD or some other form. Some of my students still don't understand that. Especially the young ones interested in American film think that everything is available either on DVD or on Netflix, when it is not, even in the case of the USA. Films from certain nations are more available, but that only enhances the illusion that those countries are the core of film history. Access is crucial not only for scholars, but for narrating the world heritage of film history.

In the case of Japan, it doesn't help that Japanese archives are expensive, hard to use, and themselves not easily accessible. Even professional scholars have a hard time viewing prints of films that definitely exist. (For more on that, check out our Research Guide.)

So I am sure many of us are thrilled when we see some rare Japanese film or anime uploaded on YouTube or some other site. We now have access! But for a long time I have warned my students about the backside of this illusion of access, a problem that has recently hit home.

As some of you know, my wife's business—which she operates all by herself—is Zakka Films, a tiny operation that makes and distributes DVDs of rare Japanese and Asian films. It's mostly a labor of love because she deals in great but mostly unknown films and barely makes enough money to cover her expenditures, let alone her own labor. But she's managed to put out some things that would never have been put out otherwise, especially with English subtitles.

Her most successful DVD so far has been The Roots of Japanese Anime, a nice collection of eight pre-war animated works, the jewel of which is Seo Mitsuyo's 1943 film, Momotaro's Sea Eagle. It's a somewhat legendary film (billed at the time as the first feature-length Japanese animate film, even at 37 minutes), but for some reason or other, it's only come out on DVD in Japan in a rather big and expensive set from Kinokuniya. My wife, with help from Yasui Yoshio of the Kobe Planet Film Archive, which owns a print, is the only one to put in the time and money to produce subtitles and create a quality DVD available at a reasonable price. 

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who are taking her DVD, ripping it, and putting Momotaro on the net. My wife thus has to spend a lot time searching the net for these uploads. In one recent and egregious case, one woman in Tochigi has uploaded it onto YouTube, and when my wife asked YouTube to take it down, has protested, saying the film "belongs to Japan" and is in the public domain. (In such cases when the uploader protests, YouTube keeps the video up and just lets the parties figure it out in court, a stance which I think is irresponsible.) Her stance is groundless. First, the subtitled version is clearly in copyright and she has no right to upload it anywhere. Second, especially after Toho's court case over Kurosawa Akira's films, the legal precedent in Japan is now that films made under the old copyright law (in effect until 1970) remain in copyright for 32 years after the death of the director. Since Seo died in 2010, one would probably win a court case arguing that Momotaro's Sea Eagle is still in copyright. I was never a fan of that court decision, especially of how it might be abused, but those uploading films to the net should be aware of what the legal opinion is. My wife is now faced with having to either give up or hire a lawyer using a lot of money her business does not have. She is literally losing sleep over this.

The result of this is that she has declared she does not want to put out any more old Japanese anime, which she was actually thinking of doing. And that's the problem. Someone who thinks they are improving access--as well as all those celebrating the uploading of that film onto YouTube--are in the long run actually hurting access because distributors like my wife, who were bringing out the films no one else would, are going to give up putting out those films.

One argument against films on the net was that the quality was bad. Why watch films on YouTube when you should support small distributors who are making quality DVDs?  Well, the quality of net streaming has improved, so that argument itself is not as easy to make. But just remember: where does the quality digital copy of the film on the net come from? Unless the uploader has backroom access to an archive or studio, it comes from the quality DVD produced for commercial purposes by someone putting out the money to make that DVD. 

In an ideal world, an institution like the National Film Center should be putting out rare works like that, somewhat in the manner the Korean Film Archive has been doing, for instance. But knowing how the NFC runs and how the Japanese industry/government defines copyright, that is not going to happen anytime soon, and it will never cover all films. Fans of Japanese film and anime will have to rely on dedicated individuals and companies to create access. And if they undermine the ability of those people to do that, those films will not become available. 

Fans of Japanese anime and cinema, who are either illegally uploading the films or watching them, are thus shooting themselves in the foot. I have a hard time understanding how such people could really be fans or serious scholars if they are acting so illogically.

This is not something I feel because my wife is in the business--this has been my opinion from long before she started her company. I just know how the system works and illegal uploading and downloading is detrimental to access given the way the system works. We can all complain about the system, and I will join in those complaints. But thinking you're striking a blow for freedom and access by beating down small producers who are doing their best to make rare films available—using the same logic used for piracy against the Hollywood conglomerates—is just stupid and counterproductive at this time.

I myself do not watch Japanese films on YouTube or anywhere else that I know are commercially available on DVD. It is detrimental to the cinema I love. I hope you do that too.

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