As of this writing, the only legal way to own a copy of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s 26-episode run is to make an expensive roll of the dice. As of June 21, anime fans won’t need to worry about it if they have a Netflix account, but if you’re still in the market for physical media, options are limited. Amazon lists two different editions of the Platinum Collection — a complete DVD edition minus the End of Evangelion and Death and Rebirth films — sold by third parties. Priced at around $100 when released in 2005, the sets now run at least $250.
Even at this prohibitive price, this is just one in a cavalcade of Evangelion bootlegs that have littered online markets over the past two decades. The majority of those listed on eBay seem to be bootlegs. This is the state of the market for the most influential anime of the past quarter-century.
Those tricked into buying one of these bogus copies shouldn’t worry: Many others were as well. A common pastime on the Evangelion subreddit is some schmo, hoping they got a deal, presenting their dubious purchase to the audience. In most cases, someone brings the bad news: “The clear cases are a dead giveaway.” “It only has 3 discs, so it’s probably really compressed.” “It’s the exact same as [mine]. I never thought it was a bootleg since the menu, music, quality and episodes all work well.” The poster is often disappointed but not necessarily surprised.
Not everyone cares about legitimacy. The original show has been out of print for so long that many justify buying bootlegs or using streaming sites, as long as they are high-quality reproductions. Some vocal Redditors are proud of the strange bootlegs they find. (“It was totally worth the $20 I spent on it lol. I’m just happy that I have the show and I can watch it whenever I want.”) Some worry over the ethics of watching the show on an illegal site like Kissanime, a strange, adorable quandary in this era of amoral, ubiquitous streaming.
There isn’t anything in anime like Evangelion, nothing that has been so popular but has made itself so scarce. Gainax, the anime studio that created it and other iconic series, is now a shell of its former self after key staff left to found Khara and Studio Trigger years ago. Illustrious shows from the same era that have smaller but similarly mythic nostalgias about them — Serial Experiments Lain and Revolutionary Girl Utena come to mind — have found their way onto streaming platforms and high-profile Blu-ray releases, but the easy money from the Eva license remains on the table. Aaron Clark of the fansite Eva Monkey couldn’t think of any comparison either. “Eva is, like, that unicorn,” he says. Bootlegs are the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Eva fans have had to do to watch the revered show in the last ten years.
This wasn’t always the case. Early on, the home video prospects were promising for someone who wanted to check out the show. American Evangelion releases were even ahead of the Japanese ones, the final episodes refined after the show finished airing in 1996. American distributor ADV Films simply dropped their VHS copies into the market as soon as they had them and finished releasing tapes in 1998 before the Japanese ones. The ADV tapes cost $35 or $30, depending on whether you wanted it subbed or dubbed. Only two episodes were on each tape, making the complete show a daunting investment. Nevertheless, people bought them, and, hey, at least they released the whole series in the format, which you cannot say for the doomed, rotting LaserDiscs.
The availability problems began when the theatrical film End of Evangelion and the Frankensteinian re-edit Death and Rebirth languished for a few years. ADV Films shuffled its feet and then declined to license the movies, leaving a company called Manga Entertainment to snatch up the license for $2 million in 1999. (For comparison, ADV paid around $400,000 for the TV show license in 1996.) Manga would also cobble together its own dub by directly contacting the original American voice cast one by one, which may have contributed to the delays of the movies. In 2001, Manga announced that it would forgo a wide release for End of Evangelion. A year later, the movie trickled out onto VHS and a DVD version so terribly transferred that people were concerned that their discs were defective. Manga’s planned American release of the better versions, which had been released in Japan, never transpired. In the meantime, bootlegs filled the gap, and a bad legal release didn’t stop them. Clark says that these shady releases “are pretty much on par” with Manga’s, and in some cases the subtitle translations are “interestingly better.”
Through the 2000s, ADV plugged along with endless DVD releases of the TV show. It began with the Perfect Collection (now a paradox; the Platinum Collection was remastered and less jittery) in 2000, which was re-released in 2002. The Platinum Collection installments were rationed out in 2004 and 2005, which got sold together in one big box set in 2005, and then in a tin box in 2007, and then in a new holiday box in 2008. Sales numbers of these DVDs are hard to come by (Clark notes that the director’s cuts of the final episodes “would jump to number seven [on the American DVD charts] for the week it was released and then drop off”), but it is clear that the well ran dry for ADV, which eventually gave up on publishing the DVD sets.
At this point, you could pick from the glut of legal original series DVDs, never knowing which one had more special features or higher quality video, and hold your nose for an old End of Evangelion DVD, if you could find it. Bootlegs remained the only place for a complete set of Evangelion video content, and you could pick your favorite among them. Some look like an anime Dr. Bronner’s label. Some go beyond the rote exactitude of a counterfeiter, approaching artistic design. Some are collages made by people who never watched the show. As their true provenance has been entirely effaced in favor of Gainax and ADV logos, it’s perhaps impossible to say where these came from, let alone how many were made. Nevertheless, these were the only media printed and sold outside of Japan after 2008.
When official Evangelion discs production fizzled out, the American anime bubble had burst. Little-known properties were licensed at premiums — the thinking was that anything could be the next big thing — but didn’t sell. Big-box retailers were going under in general as well, sending their unsold DVDs back to the distributor. Smaller companies, even those of moderate prominence like ADV, could not survive. It dissolved in 2009.
Clark says that around 2011 fans began to notice that the Evangelion license had moved from Gainax back to creator Hideaki Anno and his new company Khara. Their licensor, Star Child, was primarily responsible for making new American releases, but none came. The Evangelion license sat at an unfortunate crux of fandom: popular enough to command a premium, but not current enough to justify that premium. “There aren’t any really good, hard numbers as to what the cost would be to license it,” Clark said, “but I have heard some people in the industry casually throw the number around, like $3 million.” Further dampening demand for the original series, the Rebuild of Evangelion movies began arriving in the U.S. in 2009 and became the focus of the fandom. (Little did anyone know that the trilogy would be delayed, expanded, and then delayed again to the point that the fourth installment is still yet to be released.)
In the time since the final Platinum Collection releases — and even the first three Rebuild films — Western anime fandom also changed. Content is abundant, both legally and illegally, and the availability devalues a series’ legacy. The conversation on current releases moves quickly from season to season. Otherwise, people find what they want in the back catalog however they can, watch it, and move on: another lost DVD sale, another lost chance to engage with the wider viewership.
This dynamic would draw the Western audience closer to the Japanese fandom, where current shows dominate the online conversation. The difference is that Japanese fans buy merchandise, and Americans largely do not. Eva-related content extended well beyond the Eva show and manga and games. In the past year, more than half a decade since the premiere of the latest Rebuild movie, we’ve seen LCL bath salts, Eva-branded dictionaries, and an EVA vs. Godzilla 4D attraction at Universal Studios Japan. These promotions keep Evangelion in the Japanese zeitgeist, but none of it reaches the States. It’s a negative feedback loop: This ancillary content doesn’t cross the Pacific except among a small group importing it for themselves at a prohibitive price, and the fandom stays dormant and small because of a lack of news and excitement. The potential U.S. audience is unengaged, making the exhaustive 10-disc Blu-ray edition of Evangelion released in 2015 for ¥38,000 further out of reach.
If the Blu-rays could have been released, they would have had to contend with the license, pay the fee, and then get a limited premium box set. It would have to be something on par with the Sentai Filmworks release of the entire 162-episode run of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which was given a 1,000-copy run for $800 a pop. (In case you’re in the market, these still haven’t sold out.) To compensate for the licensing fee and production costs, any Evangelion set at the Japanese box-set price would have to sell at least 10,000 copies.
Last year, Clark ran a poll on the Eva subreddit, finding that most fans — big fans, mind you, ones that would frequent an Evangelion subreddit — would buy the whole kit and caboodle for $50-100. Needless to say, such a venture would likely not be profitable. From this standpoint, it seems inevitable that the only release would be through a streaming giant.
In December, former Funimation head Gen Fukunaga furiously denounced the Netflix deal, saying that the streaming giant wouldn’t know what to do with the property, and, since it paid untold millions for the license, the going rate of all licenses would balloon, hurting the industry in the long run. Though some fans will begrudge the fact that their community will suddenly be broken open to an audience of millions, the consumer side could not be more opposed. Clark describes it like a breakthrough: “Eva will be available to the largest audience for the lowest price point and the best quality” that has ever been seen for the property.
A few did not wait for their perfect viewing experience. They created their own, like those who shelled out to import the Blu-ray set (or got lucky on eBay, like this person) and added their own subtitles to the DVD. Clark did the same for End of Evangelion, adding his favorite commentary tracks. “They never gave me my DVD, so I made one myself.”
All is not lost for a home version for the rest of us. We don’t have to buy a bogus Platinum Collection for hundreds of dollars. We have the public library.
Max Genecov is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @maxgenecov.
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