Here’s a guest post by my old friend DeTroyes, who co-founded TSHS with me in the mid-1980s. He started out writing this in the comments section, but it got a bit long for a comment, as he has accumulated quite a bit of interesting information to on the subject over the years.
DeTroyes also asked me to add this disclaimer: all of the opinions expressed here are his, and he takes responsibility for any errors or omissions.
Some perspective about why the Lensman anime is so rare, and why its not likely you’ll ever see it released anywhere until 2040 at least. Much of this story comes from Frederick Pohl, who was a close friend of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s family and who talked about this situation at SF/F conventions numerous times as a cautionary tale for writers about guarding their property rights. Also, some information from several SF/F convention panels on copyright that I’ve attended over the years, including one that had a lawyer who had represented Smith’s family in some of these matters.
When E.E. “Doc” Smith died in 1965, the control of his literary estate passed over to his wife Jeanne and his daughter Vera (the latter of whom became Literary Executor; her son Kim is the current Literary Executor). Among the rights they inherited where the media rights, including movie and television rights. While Smith and later his estate had tried numerous times to get Lensman or one of his other properties adapted by Hollywood, it wasn’t until late in the 1970s – with the success of Star Wars – that any of these attempts began to gain any traction.
According to Frederick Pohl, after years of lobbying and proposals a major studio bit and decided it was going to produce a series of big-budgeted Lensman films. Deals were made, contracts were written, millions of dollars were going to be invested – and the Smith family stood to profit greatly from the entire endeavor.
Then, a video tape showed up on the Smith family doorstep.
Back up. Up until the 1980s, Japan (and much of Asia) worked on a different system of copyright and licensing rights than the Western world; if a Japanese publisher bought the publishing rights to something, under Japanese law they bought the rights to EVERYTHING – including the rights to exploit that property in movies, tv, comics, or whatever. This is one of the reasons why you ended up with things like Batman manga, two different adaptations of Captain Future, etc. Western publishers knew this but worked with it anyway, reasoning that even if someplace like Japan made a TV or movie adaptation of a property it was highly unlikely that copies of it would make their way back to the west, and even if they did, who would want to watch them anyway? (Remember, this was all before the advent of the VCR, and the subsequent tape trading/collecting culture of SF/F media fandom). So when Japanese publisher Kodansha bought the rights to publish E.E. Doc Smith in Japanese in the 1960s, they considered themselves the owners of all the Japanese rights to Smith’s oeuvre. Meaning, they could make TV series or movies of any of it if they chose to, so long as it stayed in Japan.
Also worth noting, Literary Executor is different from publisher. Literary Executor is the person who has the authority to make decisions about a literary estate, but as a practical matter they usually sign over some of their rights to the publisher. In this case, the publisher (who I believe was Ballantine, but I could be wrong) held the rights to publish the books themselves, as well as the license to sell those rights in overseas markets. This is a generally common arrangement for publishers and authors, even to this day. In the case of this discussion, Kodansha bought the publishing rights for Lensman directly from the US publisher on a license set to last a standard number of years, usually 20-25. This set up a potentially troublesome situation – Smith’s family believed they owned the exclusive worldwide media rights to Lensman, but under Japanese copyright law they didn’t entirely; within Japan, Kodansha owned a license as well. And they decided to use it.
Here’s where the story gets a little murky. Kodansha evidently had always been interested in adapting Lensman in some form, but for whatever reason it didn’t start coming together until the late 1970s/early 1980s. When the decision was made to try to make an animated adaptation, Kodansha says they did inform the US publisher, which is probably true. However, it appears no one bothered to pass that information further along – not to the people who were negotiating with Hollywood, nor (most importantly) to E.E. Doc Smith’s family and literary executor. So just when it looked like a big Hollywood deal was about to be made, along comes a video tape from Kodansha with early animation of the in-production film, which had been sent to the Smith family as a courtesy. And shit hit the fan.
Hollywood immediately backed off. The very existence of an animated version being produced elsewhere was a big problem, because the studio in question wanted complete control of the property. Also there was the fact that the production, well, didn’t look half bad (by the standards of that time), and that meant it had the potential to be a competitor to the big-budget series they were envisioning. The deal collapsed, and Doc Smith’s widow was furious.
Being unable to stop Kodansha’s production, Smith’s family did reluctantly decide to try to make the best of a bad situation and work with them on at least letting the production finish unmolested, and see what the final result was. When it finally came, they were not impressed. The movie was “disappointing”, and the changes made to the story in the TV series adaptation killed any interest they might have had in rescuing the production. At first they thought they could wait it out, and try again with Hollywood in a few years. But by then the video revolution was in full bloom: video copies of the movie and TV series started floating around and showing up at US conventions, and word of its existence started to spread. Then someone at Kodansha (probably without the publishing arm’s knowledge) turned around and sold the North American rights for the movie and TV series to Carl Macek’s Streamline Productions, again without Doc Smith’s family’s knowledge. At this point Doc Smith’s widow put her foot down: with Streamline Productions trying to market a US release of the Lensman anime and copies starting to float around and appearing at conventions, she feared they were losing control of Lensman. Smith’s family sued Streamline, Kodansha, and everyone else they could in order to re-assert their control.
After years of litigation, a settlement was made whereby Streamline was allowed a VHS release of the anime in exchange for paying a (very) limited license. That license expired in the late 90’s, and Doc Smith’s family flat-out refused to renew or re-issue it. Kodansha’s Japanese license to E.E. Doc Smith’s works also came up for renewal sometime in the early 1990s, and Smith’s Family made sure that media rights were not included. Thus, Kodansha has been unable to release either the film or TV series since then.
(ADDENDUM: A comic book spinoff based on the anime film appeared in the US in the 1990s, but it was restricted by Doc Smith’s family to only concepts and ideas that came from the anime film and could not reference any of the original books. This license also eventually expired and was not renewed).
Doc Smith’s widow died in the mid 90s, but apparently she set the official policy that the E.E. Doc Smith Literary Estate now follows in regards to the anime: So long as Doc Smith’s copyright and intellectual property rights continue to hold sway, the anime is never to be licensed in any form. Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith died on August 31, 1965; according to the current laws governing US copyrights and intellectual property (at the moment, basically the 1978 Berne treaty), the rights of an author’s literary estate extend to life of author plus 75 years. This means that, barring any changes between now and then (read: Disney gets their way), the rights of E.E. Doc Smith’s literary estate will fully expired on August 31, 2040 and all of his works will enter the Public Domain. Unless Doc Smith’s Literary Estate has a change of heart, this is the earliest date I would expect any release of the Lensman anime in any form can be made.
As an aside, in theory Kodansha could re-release both the Lensman film and the TV series at any time; they just can’t call it Lensman. If they remove all the names and anything else that could be associated with the story and concepts of E.E. Doc Smith’s original novels, they could release the anime with a rewritten story and a new dub. I’m not sure how practical this would actually be to accomplish, but its worth pointing out. Even if Kodansha has lost the right to market a Lensman adaptation, the animation they produced is still a separate intellectual property as a distinct work in of itself, and they certainly retain the right to use it however they want. But while I expect Kodansha is well aware of this, I also think it is likely that they feel a little bit of guilt about how things transpired. Consider this: Japanese publishing culture takes the opinions of its authors and how their works are utilized very seriously. The fact that the Literary Estate of an author they otherwise admired enough to translate was so dissatisfied with their production that they forbade its subsequent dissemination is probably bad enough; but since the problem was compounded by a series of events which kept putting Smith’s family in the dark – including attempting to sell something they probably didn’t have the rights to sell (the anime’s US rights to Streamline) – they may feel a little shame over the whole matter. All of this possibly carries a degree of weight with Kodansha. Thus, it is quite possible that a proper release of the Lensman movie and TV series might never be made, and the fansubs currently making the rounds might very well be the best quality we will ever see.
Which is a shame, because for all of its problems, I think both the Lensman movie and its subsequent TV series are actually quite a fun little gem. Its 1980s anime space opera, silly sometimes but not overly so, action oriented but not violently so. Yes, it veers substantially from its source material; so do a lot of movie and TV productions (I mean, have you actually READ Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner). But I don’t think it does so to its source material’s detriment, and I certainly think it’s worth a watch in its own right. While I can understand the Smith Family position and even sympathize with their frustrations, the fact remains that its now 35+ years since the original dispute metastasized. Maybe its time to give this particular grudge match a rest, and maybe raise the profile again on what was once the most popular space opera ever written.
Thanks to DeTroyes for filling in so many details of a story I was only vaguely familiar with. As an addendum, it’s worth mentioning the abortive attempt by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski to adapt a Lensman movie for Universal Pictures/Imagine Entertainment in the mid-to-late 2000s. He actually completed at least two drafts of the script before Universal got cold feet about the $130 million budget, and the rights ended up reverting back to Smith’s estate.
Dave Merrill wrote an article about Lensman on his entertaining and edifying Let’s Anime site. Definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen it already, you can find that here. Any fans of Showa era anime (i.e. made before 1990) should check out this site, it’s sort of the online equivalent of the fanzines we older fans used to read in the “before times.”
And here’s an overly optimistic (I don’t mean that in a bad way, I was also very excited about this news at the time) article about the JMS adaptation from Cinemablend in 2009. The brief article also links to a podcast where JMS discusses the current status of the project. Check it out here.