Detective Conan’s Western Popularity Case!: Why Case Closed Hasn’t Caught On In America

The top three best-selling manga of all time are all titles you’d probably expect. Naruto comes in third, with around 235 million units sold, Dragon Ball squeezes in second with anywhere between 250-300 million units, and One Piece wins by a nautical mile with a whopping 451 million units so far. But in the top five best-selling manga of all time, coming at number four, there’s a series with 95 volumes to date, and 230 million sales so far. Higher on the list than even global mega-hits like BleachJoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Fullmetal Alchemist, and a great deal higher than series by international superstars like Rumiko Takahashi or Yoshihiro Togashi, this series has been going strong since 1994 and has no signs of slowing down.

This series is Detective Conan, or as it’s been localized in a few different territories, Case Closed, which is what I’ll be referring to it as during this write-up. Aside from the megahit manga, Case Closed has spawned one of the longest running and most profitable animated series and film franchises out there. The TV series has 932 episodes to date, and still continues to come out every week. Meanwhile, a new movie in the franchise has come out every April since 1997, with two unreleased movies already in the pipeline; with 22 movies so far, the franchise has collectively grossed well over 100 billion yen at this point, or close to one billion in American dollars.

And yet, if you were to poll a group of a hundred Western anime fans at random at where Case Closed sat in the zeitgeist of popular anime franchises, they’d easily place it below many of the lower-selling series I mentioned above. Why? Because, despite popularity in not only Japan, but throughout Southeast Asia, the Arab nation, numerous European countries and Latin America as well, Case Closed is mostly an afterthought in both the US and Canada. At this point, more Westerners are seemingly aware of it, and Crunchyroll has kept up a consistent simulcast for almost half a decade, but interest in and fandom for the franchise is still remarkably low compared to its peers. At this point, a highly niche property like Fate is more recognized and loved in Western fandom than Case Closed, which is pretty remarkable.

Like a certain pint-sized detective has taught me, however, one truth must prevail. Why is Case Closed relatively unloved in America? What contributed to its fairly notorious flop on television and DVD? And is there any chance that it could ever be the runaway success it is in other territories? Hop on your solar-powered skateboards, kids, because we’re going for a ride!

Wait, What Is Case Closed, Anyway?

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For the unindoctrinated, Case Closed follows Conan Edogawa, a seven-year-old boy who lives with failed policed officer turned detective, Kogoro Mouri, and his hot-headed teenage daughter, Ran. Only Conan isn’t actually a kid – he’s renowned high school detective Shinichi Kudo, who’s been force fed a drug that reverts him back to a younger age. Taking on the name “Conan” to conceal his identity, he helps Kogoro solve crimes as he continues his dogged pursuit for the Black Organization, the shadowy group that drugged him in the first place.

Thing is, the conspiracy bits don’t really bear heavily on the show for the most part. Because while the persistent narrative and growing cast might seem daunting from the outside looking in, Case Closed is primarily intended for audiences to be able to just jump right in and get hooked. It’s a crime procedural, in the vein of something like CSI, meaning that each episode (excluding two-parters) is a self-contained, standalone affair. To help matters, each movie opens with a surprisingly detailed set-up of who the characters are and what they’re all about, ensuring that hapless parents who take their kids won’t be totally lost, or vice versa. It’s not exactly a complicated show from an episode-to-episode standpoint, is what I’m trying to say, and it’s way easier to pick up at a random point than something like, say, One Piece.

Also worth noting is that Case Closed walks a pretty thin line between being an adult show and something more for children. There are a lot of silly gags and childish antics, but also, cases most often revolve around murder and suicide. People get strangled, stabbed, blown up, poisoned, decapitated, and just about any other way you can think a human being can die. On top of that, motives often revolve around spurned love, workplace abuse, revenge for somebody’s suicide, et cetera. There are enough goofy jokes and kids using cool gadgets to keep a child audience entertained, but there’s also a surprisingly nuanced crime thriller with morally grey antagonists who may or may not be justified in committing their crimes. Y’know – fun for the whole family!

So, in a nutshell, that’s Case Closed. It’s a violent crime procedural for kids that decides to be a conspiracy thriller on occasion, held together by mostly standalone cases and told across twenty-three years’ worth of episodes, specials, OVAs and theatrical films.

The Hubris of Western Anime Publishers

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The mid-aughts anime industry was a wild time to be alive. Anime that was far from mainstream, like Banner of the Stars, Paranoia Agent and Serial Experiments Lain, found its way onto American television. Channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon were pumping out anime-influenced shows that were mostly bad, outside of Avatar and Megas XLR. There were even numerous magazines and manga compilations on the market, from Anime Insider to Newtype USA to Raijin Comics. For a time, everybody knew what anime was, and seemingly everybody was into it in some capacity.

At this time, companies like ADV, Funimation, Pioneer (later Geneon,) and a lot of smaller ones that don’t exist anymore were throwing around money left and right to snatch up whatever shows they could get their hands on. Now, most companies are pretty tight-lipped about how much money they spend on licenses, but a brief glimpse into this era of seemingly drug-fueled hubris was given to us in 2012, when an ugly court battle forced ADV to reveal exactly how much money they’d spent on some properties. Some of the numbers unearthed were staggering when taking into consideration that many of the shows listed were niche at best, completely unsellable to a Western audience at worst.  Welcome to the NHK is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest things ever put into production, but spending a quarter of a million dollars to put it out in North America was a fool-hearty idea. Now, granted, a lot of this was on the Japanese licensors overcharging by gross amounts, but the fact remains that American companies continued to be taken for a ride in the hopes of finding the next hit.

The way that anime was published also didn’t help. Copying the Japanese release model in the worst way possible, anime was put out in individual volumes, containing anywhere between three to five episodes per disc. These discs cost thirty to forty dollars, much more if you were buying one of the many, many, many collector’s editions that were being pumped out at the time. This meant you’d be spending anywhere between $90 to $140 over the course of several months for a twelve-to-thirteen episode series, or twice those figures for a 24-26 episode series. And if you were following something like, say, Dragon Ball Z, you were better off throwing your money in a hole for how many different versions of DVDs were put by different publishers across four years.

Don’t get me wrong – I hold a great deal of nostalgia for these days. It’s when I got into anime. It’s when I got into collecting, as a hobby. It’s when I was introduced to myriad weird, quirky series that I would’ve never found otherwise. There was something special about finding the hidden anime corner of a video store, or becoming overwhelmed at the sheer volume of selection at a Best Buy or FYE. I felt like such a cool, hip kid when I watched anime at stupid hours on TechTV, or snuck downstairs to watch InuYasha and Fullmetal Alchemist. And modern collecting can never get close to how special it felt to gradually fill out my chipboard Lucky Star box, to find a copy of Galaxy Angel in a Wal-Mart, to pull a dog-eared Ranma 1/2 VHS from the Blockbuster bargain bin in rural Georgia. Being a fan felt meaningful, and that feeling will likely never be back thanks to the advent of the internet making everything available at once.

Rob Bricken, former Anime Insider writer and lifelong inspiration to me, gave the most concise recap of the whole mess over on iO9.

But the flip side to all of this is that every single choice the anime industry made in those days was the wrong one. They spent the wrong amount of money on the wrong shows, then marketed those shows in the wrong places to the wrong people. Here’s a test – next time Right Stuf has a sale, take a look at the lowest-priced DVDs you can find. Chances are, you’ll find odd standalone volumes of niche shows that never had a chance in hell of succeeding without serious marketing pushes. That’s because almost every company printed too many discs of too many shows that were never going to sell, leaving distributors with a surplus of junk that they’re still trying to get rid of for pennies over a decade later. Sure, it’s a time I look back fondly on, but as an adult, it’s impossible to not see how much the foundation holding everything up was rotted.

And like all structures with rotted foundations, the anime industry collapsed. Numerous anime and manga companies shuttered. TV stations stopped airing as much anime, with many relegating it to obscure corners of On-Demand hell. All but one anime magazine shut down, leaving a huge cultural and communication gap between the industry and Western fans. The fanbase moved to the internet and to the cluttered, dingy halls of convention centers. Just like that, it seemed like the whole enterprise was finished for a few years there. Obviously, and thankfully, that wound up not being the case, as companies eventually started to embrace the internet and made sensible decisions. Now, anime is more popular than it ever was back then, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Hurray! Recovery!

But what does any of this have to with Case Closed?

Cashing In The Goku Bucks

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In this licensing fervor, Funimation was in a unique position where they could snatch up a lot of shows and barely experience the consequences that would eventually be felt by their peers. Why? Because of their perpetual cash cow, Dragon Ball Z. Due to their fortuitous choice to get on board early, Funimation was instrumental in spreading the global popularity of the shonen classic, and would eventually find themselves intrinsically connected with the franchise in a way that no other Western anime publisher has ever been. They’re synonymous with Toriyama’s classic, and in a way, the opposite is also true. Point being, it’s because of this that Funimation was not only able to survive the industry crash, but make the same high-risk investments and still turn out just fine.

One such investment, in 2004, was Case Closed. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first time Case Closed had been courted by a US company – Fox Kids actually put together a test pilot in the early 2000’s, and it apparently aired in some markets. That never caught on, due to the aforementioned violent content, and was eventually doomed to sit along other failed adaptations like Team Angel and that other weird Sailor Moon thing. There was somewhat of an internal attempt to fight for it, along with Ranma 1/2, but those plans fell through, as this Google Groups discussion from 2000 details. So, for all intents and purposes, Funimation’s license was the first earnest attempt at bringing Conan to America.

The way Gen Fukunaga and company went about this was licensing the first 104 episodes, along with the first six movies, and following the traditional model of Western anime releases. That is to say, 3-4 episodes per volume, with each volume costing somewhere in the ballpark of twenty to thirty bucks – collector’s editions notwithstanding. On top of that, the show was split apart by arbitrary “seasons” that Funimation came up with, meaning that there were actually four “season starter set” collector’s editions. This is silly because Case Closed is a single-cour show in Japan, meaning that there are no actual seasons. Brief delays aside, the whole thing has aired in perpetuity since 1996. See, Funimation has a bad habit of trying to apply the Western concept of television seasons to shows where that concept doesn’t apply, like this, Dragon Ball Z and One Piece.

However, these DVDs weren’t the only way Case Closed was brought over. Funimation cut a deal with Adult Swim to air the show four nights a week at midnight EST, or in other words, smack-dab in the middle of a programming block aimed towards adults and older teens. For frame of reference, other anime that aired on 2004 Adult Swim included Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Paranoia Agent, and Samurai Champloo. Even their younger-skewing shows like InuYasha and Fullmetal Alchemist were for tweens, at the least – far from a show that’s treated as family programming in its country of origin.

Oh, they also tried to market it with a trading card game. Like every anime of the era, really.

Point being, Funimation brought over Case Closed in a way that, on paper, seemed ill-advised. Splitting an ongoing, multi-hundred episode crime procedural for children into paltry DVDs, while airing it at a time most children (except for me, clearly) would be asleep? That’s a strategy that only the mid-aughts anime industry could have cooked up, and rivals the Shaman King localization for “most questionable method of distributing a kids’ anime in North America.” How did it turn out, though?

I don’t think it takes Conan to figure that one out.

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To say Case Closed was a complete flop would be putting it lightly. Fifty of the initial 104 episodes were broadcast before Adult Swim pulled the plug, due to low ratings. It’s definitely not the swiftest cancellation of an anime I’ve seen, a dubious distinction that either belongs to Escaflowne or Astro Boy, but it’s definitely up there. And while Funimation hasn’t ever released exact numbers from what I can find, the fact that Right Stuf still has a small cache of standalone volumes from its initial print run says a lot. You can still find plenty of stray volumes floating around con halls, too, marked down to high hell in the hopes that somebody will buy them.

Of course, I’m not an expert, or an industry insider by any stretch. I’m just a fangirl. Maybe some of those volumes did really well. Who can say? Gen Fukunaga certainly never will. The point is, Case Closed wallowed in obscurity in North America. Despite an attempt to license around thirty more episodes, as well as releasing the series in much more sensible box sets, they eventually made the decision to pull the plug on bringing over any more. They sat on the license for several years, copyright striking translation attempts in the meantime because Funimation is gonna Funimation, before letting it lapse in 2018. At this time, the only legally available pieces of physical Case Closed media in America are the two Lupin III crossover films and the ongoing manga series, which Viz has published since 2004. That said, Crunchyroll does simulcast the show, and there is a standalone batch of episodes available on Netflix.

It should be a little clearer why I went on that masturbatory tangent about the mid-aughts anime industry now, though, aside from it just being something that I like to talk about. Case Closed‘s failure in North America is intrinsically tied to the way that anime was marketed at the time. It could never succeed within the confines of expensive, serialized releases and late-night airings, due to both its long-running nature and its mixed audience. Funimation didn’t know how to market it, and audiences didn’t know who it was for.

But that’s just part of the story. The real solution to this mystery is a tad more complicated, and unfortunately, it’s not something fans will want to hear. However, as Conan has taught me, one truth must prevail.

The Ugly Truth

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I’ll state this in the plainest terms – Case Closed is a completely unmarketable show in North America.

Yes, Funimation’s release was woeful, and their decision to air it on Adult Swim highly questionable – not to mention that weird card game. But it should be pointed out that they did try other things. They released the season sets. They put out six standalone films. They put episodes on On Demand in 2008 or so, which was how I got into it back in high school. It’s true that they barely marketed the series, which resulted in its slow and painful decline into irrelevance in the Western fanbase, but it wasn’t like they completely gave up on the enterprise when the industry crashed. In fact, the last set they released came out in 2013.

But while I’ll stop at nothing to take the piss out of Funimation at every possible chance, I don’t think they’re entirely to blame. Because, in my mind, Case Closed is a show that has a very particular audience. And when I say that, it’s a very nice way of saying, “Japan has different cultural standards than America and there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that American children’s television would air this show.”

This video by Saberspark gives a decent enough explanation of Action For Children’s Television, an organization that made serious attempts to curb violence and predatory capitalistic enterprises in children’s television between the 60’s and 90’s. The standards they lobbied for became commonplace over the years, and from those standards eventually arose fairly stringent guidelines that dictated how one ought to regulate programming for kids. In 1996, the TV Parental Guidelines were established by the US Congress and FCC, meaning that shows now had to clearly notate the intended age demographic for their programming – along with signifiers that clued audiences into what kind of content to expect. Yes, despite what your sad friend from high school says on Facebook, content warnings are not newfangled feminist propaganda.

These warnings, however, prove to be a huge problem when localizing something like Case Closed. One look at the tone, art style, and morality of the series makes it pretty clear that it’s a show for children – especially the movies, which are far less violent that the TV show and even feature little in-movie “riddles” for kids to solve. However, the aforementioned violence complicates things a bit. None of the ratings for children’s programming in America would allow for the amount of bloody and violent murder present in Case Closed. Indeed, from what I can find, the show was slapped with a TV-14 when it originally aired, and that’s also the rating that it currently has on Netflix. This means that, in America, Case Closed is given the same Parental Guideline grade as Riverdale, and that it’s viewed as less family-friendly than a sexually charged TV series like Friends.

When all is said and done, this puts Case Closed in a very precarious situation. It’s a children’s show that, for cultural reasons, could not feasibly be aired on American children’s television without kids being exposed to far more violent things they’re used to. On the same token, it’s a show with adult themes and content that most adult audiences would balk at, because most of the major characters are kids and the whole tone of the series is definitely skewed towards a younger audience. This means that, in America, Case Closed is a logistical nightmare to market. Kids can’t easily watch it, and adults would view the series as too childish for their tastes.

In other words, Case Closed is not commercially viable and, for all intents and purposes, will likely never get the widespread attention that it has in other territories. And because it would probably never make back a return on what is likely a very costly investment, most distributors don’t want to take a chance on it.

Case Closed?

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That said, I don’t think getting the rest of this show released in America is an impossible endeavor. Companies like Discotek have done a great job of licensing pretty high-profile things and marketing them to the right audiences, with seemingly no signs of slowing down. They’ve even helped to make Lupin III, also a notorious flop in North America, something that contemporary fans know about and even like! Case Closed isn’t doomed to a half-complete simulcast forever, is what I’m trying to say. There’s a chance we’ll see more DVDs someday. There’s a chance we’ll get the rest of the series translated. There’s a chance anything could happen with this franchise, because if there’s one thing this industry never fails to do, it’s to surprise me.

But in the meantime, it’s not like you can’t watch Case Closed. Thanks to the tireless efforts of a dedicated community, one that dates back to even before Funimation had licensed the show, every single episode, special, OVA and movie is available in English online. There’s a love in English-speaking territories for this series, albeit a smaller one than in Japan, and it’s been burning for well over a decade at this point. Even if we never get the rest of the show through legal means, the Case Closed community will continue to keep it alive until it goes off the air – long after cockroaches inherit the earth, probably.

 

 

 

 

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