Earlier this week, Sentai Filmworks announced that they acquired the DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital distribution rights to the Persona 4 anime. The series, which is based on the PlayStation 2 game of the same name, features concept design by Kazuma Kaneko, character designs by Shigenori Soejima, and music by Persona 3 & 4 “composer” Shoji Meguro. The series will begin airing in Japan on October 6, while Sentai will release via digital outlets at an unspecified future date.

On the surface, this is a huge win for Sentai. The announcement alone will prove interesting to to a number of people in both the anime and gaming communities. This is especially relevant to those who didn’t find Persona 4 to be an infuriatingly dull mess of a game. If one digs a bit deeper, though, it’s easy to see that this revelation holds a far larger significance than it seems.

Sentai Filmworks is one of five companies that rose from the ashes of the fallen ADV Films. The company came to the public eye on September 1, 2009, when ADV closed its doors and revealed that the company was liquidating its assets to five companies:

  • AEsir Holdings
  • Section23 Films
  • Sentai Filmworks
  • Seraphim Digital Studios
  • Valkyrie Media Partners

The company was originally formed in 2008 though, to license and distribute former Geneon properties – the first of which being Mahoromatic. After ADV closed up shop, the company continued to acquire smaller titles, beginning with a license rescue of Daphne in the Brilliant Blue. Sentai would go on to release similar license rescues like Popotan, Sakura Wars, and Lunar Legend Tsukihime. As funding became available, they would acquire smaller, cheaper titles that catered to specific niches, like You’re Under Arrest! Season 2, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, and Hidamari Sketch. Early titles didn’t feature dubs, and were priced cheaply.

The company had formed its own identity within six months of its greater emergence. Sentai’s announcement policies were refreshingly different than that of the greater industry, as a majority of their acquisitions would hit market within six months of their reveal. Due to the shorter times, the comapny was able to maintain excitement and drive purchases, which would be vital for the company’s growth.

In 2010, the company revealed that would begin dubbing larger titles, starting with their earlier release of Clannad. To maintain built-up goodwill, they arranged a trade-in program for the show’s original customers. As the revenues continued to roll in, Sentai continued to build their library and expand distribution, as they began to offer Blu-Ray releases of shows (Legends of the Dark King being their first). Through 2010, the number of English dubs grew, as the names on the titles began to grow brighter. Headliners like High School of the Dead, Angel Beats!, and Gintama dot 2011’s calendar, with new titles being added by the week. The company is seeing titles that crack Amazon’s top 100, and top Right Stuf’s hottest seller lists.

In short, Sentai Filmworks is the most ideal outcome of a lean startup. They began with almost no capital, and quickly carved marketshare and mindshare out of an industry that companies were fleeing en masse. Through smart investments, limited risks, and a continual increase in improvement, the company managed to grow and prosper, even as the anime industry sputtered through its slowest years.

Persona 4 marks the next major milestone for the company. Persona 4 is a huge title, in both potential for sales and name recognition. The show’s audience is pre-baked, and clearly willing to buy, according to initial reactions. It’s a valuable property, and clearly one that didn’t go cheaply in the bidding wars. While it’s impossible to know the full breadth of the company’s fiscal situation, it’s clear that they are doing far better than they were in 2010.

I have to admit that Sentai has proven to be interesting to watch. The company has clearly learned the difficult lessons of the past, and benefits from a large amount of talent that had migrated from ADV. They know the missteps of the former empire, and know well enough to not repeat said mistakes. However, as a company grows, they do have a tendency to forget these important principles. It will be interesting to see whether Sentai will continue to follow the wisdom of companies past as time grows on. If they can maintain their current principles of staying within their means and worrying about smart acquisitions over sheer quantity, they will continue to reap the goodwill and market they see today. If not, well… we saw what happened in that case two years ago.