There was a time long, long ago when North American anime fans had to use mail-order catalogs to own episodes of their favorite series on VHS. In the early ’90s, heavy hitters like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon began to make their way to stores like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, where lucky kids could rent two episodes on tape for a small price. Back then, though, owning an anime VHS was a costly endeavor, with fans often spending $30 or $40 for a tape at mall staples like Suncoast. Despite that price barrier, the love for anime grew. That physical aspect of the medium is what the early days of anime fandom was built on. In 2024, the landscape has changed so dramatically that every streamer offers anime options from Hulu to Netflix to Paramount via Pluto, their free ad-supported TV service. That means there’s more access to anime than ever. But as one of the foremost apps, Funimation, closes down due to its merger with Crunchyroll — creating a near monopoly on anime apps — the loss of users’ digital copies of certain titles is surely making some fans nostalgic for those physical media heydays.
Along with the end of the app it was revealed that users’ digital copies of titles from the site wouldn’t carry over to Crunchyroll. The uproar has been reminiscent of when Warner Bros., Disney, and other large corporations have removed shows from streaming, essentially leading to them no longer being accessible at all. In the case of Funimation, there’s a new wrinkle as Funimation was never a service where you could buy digital copies of anime, but when you bought Funimation branded Blu-rays and DVDs they would come with a digital copy you could “redeem” on the app. It was essentially a bonus to engage audiences to commit to a physical media format in an increasingly digital-focused world. It’s not something that’s unique to the service either as many physical editions of movies come with digital versions that can be redeemed through apps including Movies Anywhere, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and the like. But in Funimation’s case it wasn’t that simple. The reality was that it just meant users were able to stream that film or series online without a premium subscription to the service. It was never a perfect service, but it is once again a great reminder that under the current system of streaming and digital media that we have, “ownership” of any digital content is a deceptively loose concept.
Luckily, though, we’re far from the days of $40 VHS tapes on the wall of Suncoast. Thanks to the massive popularity and huge influence of anime, we can walk into a big box store and buy the latest Makoto Shinkai film while picking up our groceries. Thanks to distributors like GKIDS, it’s now just easy to find copies of incredible films from the catalogs of Studio Ghibli for a relatively reasonable price — unlike the often hard to find and always high-cost now-defunct Disney license — as it is to buy a Dreamworks film. That ease of access makes it a great time for anime lovers to begin to build their own physical media collection. After all, what do us passionate fans love more than collecting the things that we love? From statues and collectibles to manga, we’re already lovers of being surrounded by our fandoms. Why shouldn’t that extend to the series and films that inspire them too? And as has been pointed out by many smart people including my colleague Amelia Emberwing, if you buy a physical version of your favorite show, a studio or its representatives can’t come to your house and take it out of your hands just because they no longer want that version or that content to be out in the world. Plus, with Crunchyroll following the industry trend of drastically raising prices post-merger, there’s even more reason to look towards owning the anime that you love.
The Biggest Anime Coming in 2024
One of the things that people often complain about when it comes to streaming is that you don’t get the extensive special features and extras that became standard with DVDs. Though older anime releases were sparse things with the episodes and not much else, that’s all changing. Thanks to specialist distributors like Shout Factory and Sentai Filmworks, as well as companies like Viz and Crunchyroll not only can you get special editions of anime with extra content and special features, but you can also get boxsets of brilliant filmmakers’ collected works or entire series in one collection. Then there’s the fact that thanks to the joys of the free market the more you support the marketplace the more choices you’ll have. The reason that we have so much great anime is because the demand is there, and by purchasing physical anime you’ll let the companies that make it know that your favorite series or film is more than just a potential background watch on streaming.
Rosie Knight is a contributing freelancer for IGN covering everything from anime to comic books to kaiju to kids movies to horror flicks. She has over half a decade of experience in entertainment journalism with bylines at Nerdist, Den of Geek, Polygon, and more.