Answerman – Why Did Saint Seiya Bomb In North America?

Geoff asks:

Saint Seiya is one of the most popular anime of all time worldwide, especially in Europe and Latin America, even bigger than Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. It is a Shonen fighting series, the most successful anime genre in the US, it’s only barely older than DBZ, and it was even on Cartoon Network at the height of DBZ‘s popularity, with a huge push from DiC and Bandai. So… what happened? To this day, the show has TWO failed dubs, the second half has never even been subbed, the manga volumes are long out-of-print, and even Discotek says their recent DVDs of the movies kinda bombed for them. Is this series cursed here or what?

It’s truly bizarre to see just how huge Saint Seiya is in Latin and South America, and yet be more or less completely unknown here in North America. It’s always hard to lock in on a reason why things like that happen. The reasons usually involve some combination of bad timing and cultural incompatibilities, and I believe that to be the case here as well.

Saint Seiya is a shonen fighting series, it’s true. But what differentiates it from the Dragonballs and Narutos of the world is the fact that it’s a TEAM fighting show — a sentai series that plays towards high concept fantasy and mythology rather than science fiction tropes. It largely takes place in a far flung fantasy world, and its warriors wear really big, shiny, spiky costumes. Rather than martial arts, it seems to be inspired by pro-wrestling and 70s glam rock.

It’s hard for me to imagine any part of that combination working well with an American audience. While Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers proved that Americans aren’t COMPLETELY against the idea of a sentai team, it’s the exception rather than the rule: all of the big hit fighting series have emphasized one-on-one battles with fantasy martial arts rather than fighting by teams. We had the similar-looking Ronin Warriors, but that was not a hit either — it had a small cult following but not much more. I wonder if all that teamwork is compatible with American individualism.

A bigger problem is that, by the time the show got past the gatekeepers of the American market, it was simply too old. The original TV series ran in Japan from 1986 to 1989. While TV broadcasters in other markets picked it up and adapted it to great success, American interests never took the bait. Perhaps they considered it too bloody, or too visually out-there.

By the time DiC and ADV released their versions to North America in 2003 (DiC clearly was looking for anime franchises specifically by that point), the show was already nearly twenty years old — and looked it. The designs were already retro looking, even when it came out — manga artist Masami Kurumada has a very distinctly 70s art style, and American anime fans have never really warmed to the art of that era. Kids weren’t interested in DiC’s adapted version, and slow-moving, long-running shonen TV series were a poor fit for the single volume format most anime DVDs were released in back then.

Older anime tends to be a very hard sell in the American market. If the show was previously available in some form — be it in the VHS era or on television — there’s a chance an older show can be a hit, but most fans are too preoccupied with newer shows to bother looking at old stuff unless there’s some sort of nostalgia hook, or a large mass of existing fans are telling them to check it out. 2003 was simply too late to market this show towards American fans. It was past its sell-by date.

Could the show find an audience here in the future? I doubt it. The show’s existing American fanbase is minuscule, and the show has only gotten older looking as years have gone by. Newer installments aren’t exactly approachable to fans who haven’t seen the old series. I think this is one of those shows where the opportunity to introduce the show to this market has simply been missed.


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Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.