Moving Pictures
Mar 07, 2024, 06:27AM

Cartoon Archeology

Preserving animation history on physical media.

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It’s a strange time for the physical media market: while major chains like Best Buy and Target slowly downsize their DVD shelves, and streaming-only films get no physical release whatsoever, there’s been an explosion of boutique distribution labels in the past decade. Many obscure films are finally getting a proper physical release, including one important area: animation.

During the VHS boom of the 1980s, video stores were desperate for stock. Along with horror movies, kid’s films were in high demand, and since Disney was slow in opening up the vault, video retailers had to look elsewhere. Any animated film that could be promoted as “kid friendly” in any way was an easy sell, and as long as it was dubbed into English, it didn’t matter what country it came from. Films from Japan, Hungary, Croatia, and more were brought to America via dubbed VHS tapes—official releases, “gray market” tapes, and outright bootlegs. Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was shortened and re-titled Warriors of the Wind while foreign television shows were condensed into a single TV movie. None of that was ideal, but at least some of the material was available.

But far more films never got a VHS release, either due to rights issues, or the fact that they were too violent, sexual, or “mature” for children. Who else would want to watch cartoons? For decades, there films were only available on out-of-print international DVDs and bad rips on YouTube. But now there’s a growing catalogue of overlooked animated classics available on Blu-Ray thanks to the efforts of a number of distribution companies.

Since 2005, Discotek Media has specialized in restoring and releasing classic anime titles, from underrated gems like Robot Carnival and Night on the Galactic Railroad to hard-to-find TV shows like Dear Brother and Kimagure Orange Road. They commission new English dubs for the subtitle-averse.

Deaf Crocodile is new, but has already established itself as a beacon of hope for movies never properly released in the United States, including many European animated films. Hungarian epic Heroic Times won the 1985 Annecy Film Festival, but Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-Ray release is the first chance for Americans to watch and own it. Also coming to the United States for the first time are the Czechoslovakian stop-motion film The Pied Piper and the Danish kid’s film Bennys Bathtub.

Hungarian folktale masterpiece Son of the White Mare was impossible to see for so long, but it’s received a beautiful release from Arbelos Films; the groundbreaking Japanese erotic tragedy Belladonna of Sadness was first released on Blu-Ray by Cinelicous Pics, and now Discotek is putting it out on 4K.

The Criterion Collection has also released several animated films, including Watership Down and René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, but they could be doing a lot more—like putting out Laloux’s other animated works, Time Masters and Gandahar.

Animation deserves the same respect and recognition that any live-action work receives, and it’s heartening to see so many home video labels preserving these hand-drawn (and hand-puppeted) works of art. I hope Gwen, or the Book of Sand and Angels Egg, will be released by someone soon.



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