Anime/Manga · Features · Retro

A History of Manga Entertainment UK (Part 1)

Manga Entertainment, as it is known today, was originally founded in 1987. It is famous, or infamous in some cases (yes, I’m looking at you, Legend of the Overfiend) for introducing Anime to the United Kingdom. As the UK’s first anime outlet, Manga has distributed and produced some of the best (and worst) the genre has to offer in years gone by. This ‘Manga Video’ brand was a name synonymous with the Anime genre throughout the 1990s, dominating the world cinema sections of HMV’s and Virgin Megastores (remember those?) across the country. The genre quickly grew to have a home of its own, as other Western-based publishers and distributers burst onto the Anime scene. The word ‘manga’ is of course the Japanese word used for comic, often of which are the source materials used to create anime series, movies and direct to video productions. Here is a brief insight into a company that has hit great highs and lows, and is now on the rise once again.

In the late 1980s, a new subsidiary of Island Records was created, withmarketing director Andy Frain placed in charge. By 1991, the company purchased the distribution rights to Akira. It was subsequently released into cinemas and was a massive success. Suddenly, a huge window of opportunity and potential opened; the western world was ready for Anime.

The Manga Video introduction present on most of its VHS catalogue, and contains footage from its very first releases.

From Akira’s success came the creation of the Manga Video label later that year. Managed by Laurence Guinness day to day, Laurence went on to become executive producer on almost every Manga Video release throughout the 90’s. Timing was everything; Manga Video acquired many of the big licenses, and the partnership with American publisher Central Park Media allowed the English dub costs to be shared. This gave Manga the tools to hit the UK market with many releases in the nineties VHS generation. By the time Manga’s first collector’s catalogue was published for its club members in 1995, there were 74 titles logged within it, with many more on the horizon. Retail success came from monthly OVA episode releases (e.g. The Guyver, Giant Robo), collections that were made very affordable due to the even cost spread of around £5.99 – £9.99 per volume.

Single-VHS episodes proved very popular for Manga’s sales

As the catalogue grew and grew, Akira had continued success in the home market, as it remained at the forefront of the Manga Video label. It came at a time when dark science fiction (Robocop, Aliens, and Escape from New York) was at its peak in Hollywood. Early releases such as Venus Wars, Lensman and Doomed Megalopolis gave Manga a clear target audience, that being young men, and quickly became the label’s marketing strategy. Manga’s regular release schedule of edgy, dark and often very violent productions soon became the bulk of its catalogue.

An early Manga Video advertisement, published in Super Play magazine

The English dub tracks were often scripted to include extra, and often unnecessary, profanity to increase the age rating classification (a process known as ‘fifteening’) to keep in line with this target demographic. Some releases had their soundtrack compositions completely replaced, with mixed results (Cyber City Oedo is a prime example of both methods). Over time however, the lack of subtitled releases, which would not arrive until the DVD line materialised, would be a constant source of complaint from the growing UK Anime fan-base.

A prime source of ‘fifteening’, with profanity deliberately included to give certain productions a more adult approach

Despite Manga Video’s VHS success, the success of Akira could never be replicated. Seeing potential in a new feature, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Andy Frain was instilled as co-executive producer. This allowed Manga to release the movie on a worldwide scale. This ultimately led to a US-relationship, expanding the Manga Video catalogue even further. When Ghost in the Shell arrived in 1995, it performed well, but not to the levels Akira reached, with many of its new direct-to-video releases faring better for sales. The direct investment into GitS did not lead to a return in profits, and led to Andy Frain stepping down. And thus began troubling times for the label that began so well….

Join me next time as I explore what becomes a difficult, transitional period for Manga Video, as it aims to carry its legacy into the DVD market under a new, US-led leadership. Ta ta for now!

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