The biggest reason: Anime has to pay to get airtime in Japan. Think about it for a moment. The reason we can get $30-$50 season box sets of American TV programming right off the bat is because TV stations normally pay for productions. If the production is in-house, advertising revenue goes towards the bottom line. Can you remember the last time any production in America had to pay to get TV air time? Besides infomercials. I can — ECW, which went out of business as WCW and (then) WWF raided the talent they couldn’t pay very well.
I doubt that raises anyone’s respect for anime, but it should. The companies involved are putting a fuck-ton of money up-front. It’s bad enough for any production company to fund a few clunkers that can find outside funding from multiple sources. But when you consolidate that funding, that just puts a bigger burden on the few entities left that are willing to do it. American production companies should be ashamed of themselves — the Japanese can turn a profit from this money pit and manage to not alienate their customer base while doing so. (Well, except for Bandai, but that’s outside of the scope of this article.)
Another fact to consider is that while Americans might complain about $30 DVDs that have as little as 3 episodes, the Japanese market pays $50. Do the anime companies honestly expect everyone to pay that amount? No, just a few. The few that are really crazy about anime in general, or perhaps a specific genre, or maybe just this one anime. They’re not doing it to gouge everyone. They’re just taking advantage of the collector mentality — the fact that some people will spend more, sometime exorbitantly more, to be the first to have something. Once the individual DVD sales hit bottom and enough time has passed, the box set is released at more-sane (though possibly still-exorbitant) price. Once the box set is released, you can usually find the remainder of the single-sell DVDs for “normal” ($3 – $7) prices. Give enough time (a year or two) and that box set will be reasonably-priced as well.
By the way, don’t think that aforementioned price difference doesn’t go unnoticed. Anime companies are increasingly battling with their native Japanese customers importing American R1 DVDs. It’s a strange predicament to be in. Normally products for America are all-English and products for Japan are all-Japanese, and there wouldn’t be any cross-demand because one market doesn’t understand the other’s language. However, enough Americans adopt a “artist’s original vision” mantra to warrant most foreign productions (not just anime) to including the original voice acting with sub titles along with an English dub. Price is usually the sole prohibiting factor at this point, but the anime companies are actually making a concession to the American market which has never paid such high prices for DVDs. On one hand you feel the pain, but on the other hand you realize that propping up regionalization by the DVD standard is a foolish way to go, and that the anime companies would have found some way to address the “pay TV stations to air our shows” problem.