Last time I was in a convention dealer's room, looking over the anime box sets, a friendly stranger turned to me and recommended Squid Girl. Then, as she paid for a few other series and put them into two packed plastic bags, she sighed.
“You know, I was trying not to buy anything. But here I am... $400 later...”
Now I can't afford to spend quite so much on anime stuff in a day-- my favorite otaku store is Book-Off, after all-- but I know how that can feel. I didn't plan to spend anything either, that weekend, and I had just dropped $60 on a figure I saw and thought “I won't be able to find this again.”
As we talked for a moment about our weak otaku wills, I thought about those plastic bags she was carrying. I assumed, from the size of it, that maybe there really were $400 in anime DVD/BD box sets in them right there. Putting aside the recent Aniplex USA releases, an American-release anime box set tends to cost about $35 and contain 13 episodes.
Then I thought about how much anime you could buy with $400 in Japan. I figured, “Thirteen episodes.”
So yes, foreign video releases of Japanese anime are sold at a great discount, usually a tenth of what Japanese pay. But there are a lot of catches involved in that. We wait two years, we don't get fancy boxes or physical extras (anymore), and often the video and audio are of inferior quality to Japanese releases despite being official goods.
To put it simply, foreign video prices are such a good deal that the bosses in Japan are constantly worried that you there in Japan will buy the American version instead. We call this “reverse importation.”
When Mobile Suit Gundam failed on TV here, Bandai was still getting ready to put the show out on DVD. There was only one problem: Japan didn't have Gundam on DVD yet.
Releasing DVDs with the original Japanese language audio (which American fans always want) would have been unthinkable, because naturally Japanese would import these DVDs in huge numbers for around $200 for the whole series.
So Bandai's US arm lied to the American fans, saying that the audio materials for Mobile Suit Gundam were somehow “lost”. DVDs of Gundam were released with only the English dub, and the fans passed. Of course, those materials weren't really lost: the Japanese DVD box sets came out a few years later for about $800 total, if I recall. As of late last year, you can finally buy Mobile Suit Gundam, with Japanese and English audio, in America for around $80. It was one of the last releases the long-lived Bandai Entertainment subsidiary made before shutting down.
Many US video releases just happen to have little problems that make them inferior to the Japanese version. In many cases, there's a superior Japanese master. The K-On! Blu-Rays have the same video as the Japanese disc... but 2-channel stereo audio rather than surround. With Zeta Gundam, the first buyers (myself among them) were treated to a nasty surprise: Bandai, unwilling to pay Neil Sedaka for the OP and ED theme songs he wrote, removed them all instead!
I do my research before I buy any American-release anime, just in case there's a problem. Many American fans have learned to do so.
Because Japan and the US are in the same region for Blu-Ray, anime companies have been very reluctant to do US releases at all. Very recently, Kadokawa decided that US distributors were no longer allowed to release Blu-Rays of its titles. Americans will have to make do with DVD. As American anime fans have seen over and over again, many Japanese companies are so afraid of reverse importation that they're willing to lose business two years after their shows went on sale in Japan. Well, I'd been waiting to buy Panty and Stocking on Blu-Ray... but if the bosses don't want my money, I won't be giving it to them.