Aside from fansubbing for freedom, just why do people fansub? Who would commit copyright infringement of derivative work in producing a translated version of their favorite show, and do it again when they reproduce and distribute them?
I’m not sure how many people watch mainland Chinese-produced TV shows, but being able to watch some of the CCTV’s programming at my grandmother’s place via satellite, my impression was that they’re actually passibly ok. Granted sometimes it’s so obvious which segment is produced “with an agenda” and a lot of the TV stations there struggle to put content on the table, it’s not to say there are no interesting shows to watch.
But a Chinese fansub of Lost? Yeah, nothing like that. Definitely butchered Desperate Housewives just won’t fly with Chinese people in its purported ported form.
In retrospect this was almost like the case how anime took off in the US. We’ve had some anime on TV already for the longest time. Granted I wouldn’t call anime then really anything special, and anime as a form and as an industry has evolved in Japan over these decades, yet we had them in their rare dosage. Fast-forward to 2006; you can get relatively fresh anime on satellite/cable or even off the air with some regularity. Top hits like Cowboy Bebop and Naruto? Even family shows like Shin-chan? Crazy and unimaginable 10 years ago. HD anime? ZOMG.
But has anime as I know it landed on Plymouth Rock? In a lot of ways it has. Like Avatar? OEL manga? Otakon and AX? Manga sales in big-box bookstores? It has exploded, in some sense, in the mainstream of US. It’s even more pronounced in some other countries like France, where manga folds into the large print industry there like an adopted child from Asia.
Yet, in some ways it has not landed; in other words, how anime is in Japan (and indirectly so, the frame of mind behind the production thereof) has remained mostly a Japan-only situation. Partly, that’s what drives me to the internet in the first place–you could talk Pokemon and Digimon with people in real life, but not Magic Knight Rayearth. Some people knew about Evangelion, but most people didn’t really want to talk about it for the most part (lol). Best Buy may carry some of my favorite titles locally, but no one ever ask me to talk about them save once, when I worked there.
I suppose all I am doing is to suggest a new framework to examine the purpose of fansubbing. As an anime fan for a while and blogger for a short while, it struck me that while my preference is in the meta, anime fans still cannot exist without anime. That’s half of the reason why this blog exists. As such, fansubs are the fuel for fandom.
Fansub is food for thought; the carbohydrate culture where you cultivate fanboy germs.
It’s extraordinarily clear when it comes to Simoun. It’s just a huge pain in the ass to try to talk about this show: 1) It’s full of spoilers, so I can only really talk about it with people who has kept up as I did. 2) It needs subs, as the show itself is full of expository material, and hard to understand for me, and many others. 3) It needs a lot of subs, as the first bunch of episodes doesn’t really get into the show much, but rather more like an extended, no-apology extended introduction. Besides, all the juicy stuff happens later on.
Another example is FLAG. It’s a shorter series unlike Simoun, and it is very visual and visceral. However even if I can follow it raw, people just don’t pay attention to it out of lack of subs being available. At any rate, there’s a gap, imaginary or otherwise, between untranslated works and translated work. I think it’s fair to say, right now, FLAG is a show that has fallen through the fan network crack out of its poor fansub availability.
The idea that fansubs fuel fandom is predicated on a very obvious idea, I hope. If no one talks about the show, there cannot be any hype. The fan community thrives on words of mouths. People want to “take part” in the bandwagoning; the adoring and talking-it-up of a certain franchise. It’s half the reason why people hear about Fate Stay Night and Tsukihime, or even like it for some. We know hype, well, sells. But more importantly hype generates MORE hype, in the case of something genuinely interesting (and I mean that both in good and bad ways). It’s what drives fans, both people who flock to that and people who gets pissed off from hype. It’s why people bother talking about that stupid Bandai PR thing regarding Solid State Society.
But I did say Fate Stay Night, so I’ll be clear about it: yes, hype can exist in a vacuum without fansubs and anything like that. That is exactly why hype generates more hype–Fate is hyped already, and other fans feeds on top of it. Nonetheless you need something to start it off, and fansubs are one of those things. Again, look at Suzumiya Haruhi. (Inversely, hype also drives fansubbing.) And of course, the major argument today about needlessness of fansubs resides that the marketing machine is already in full swing as far as penetrating the fanbase online and the massive crowd of normal fan through more traditional outlets (TV, magazines, cons, store displays, websites that gives you the first ep for free, etc). Still, fansubs are a fairly unique way to market in which the substitutes just don’t go nearly as far. I think even today it is an important method to generate hype, if not the primary method to generate hype for titles that I am interested in.
If I had to say why, it would be because the historic nature of development of the anime fan scene has evolved in a way that is dependent on fansubs. Think of it as bonsai. See the next section for an alternative take on the effects of fansubbing on anime fandom.
While it isn’t conclusive or a solid indicator, you can get a feel as to popularity of currently-ongoing shows by just how widely available as fansubs that they are. Take Aria the Natural for instance (one slacking in being subbed), and compare it with Zero no Tsukaima (one that is right on top).
From another perspective, this role fansubs take on is just an extension of what they originally were for: to promote awareness of something wholly unavailable in one isolated demographic. However, that fansubbing is still alive and well today goes to show that the mission is not complete from some perspectives. Anime has yet to fully land on Plymouth Rock. The commercial infrastructure may be available, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Alternatively, what are fans to do when faced with this artificial chasm between the Japan scene and their local scene? News travel just as fast as these copyrightable “food for fans” and not even taking money into account, a fan will do what a fan has to do.
As fuel, fansubs sustain the internet fan infrastructure, and fans wear this badge in honor of the internet’s nature as a massive, unstoppable copyright infringement machine.
In essence, this is a description of fansubbing’s role in the meta. Just like the natural ecosystem which arranges the organisms in a food chain, the entire enterprise of fansubbing–from raw hunting to production to distribution to consumption to even talking about fansubs–affects the way how some fans perceive anime. In fact, given how anime companies outside of Japan are often run by people who at one point are a fan of the works because of fansubs or what have you, fansubbing historically may have left some mark in the way people look at anime as a business.
The reality is, though, that fansubbing is hard work. People do it because they like the material, because they like the process, and/or because they like the result. The flow of content from providers to consumers generates an imbalance. There is little apperciation for the fans (as they bitch about fansubs and don’t buy the local release) and little accountability for fansubbers (as they do things fansubbers shouldn’t to do).
And that’s not all. The amount of time fans spent talking and arguing about fansubs as if it is important alone is shocking :-) The legally-grey nature of fansubs only makes it all that much more the fuel for the fire. Fans treasure what feeds them, after all, so we would feel defensive about it naturally. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift especially from a fan’s way of thinking, stepping in the shoes of the corporate?
The historical basis is undeniable. Just like how we have workshops on fansubbing at cons and the now-defunct elaborate fansub trading networks of the 80s and early 90s, it was what it meant to be a fan for many back then. It’s the actual stuff you do besides talking about it with your friends or on Usenet. That shaped how fansubbing has lodged itself squarely in the heart of fandom, even if fans and fansubbers today are a different breed than how they were 10 years ago.
More seriously, I suppose what I am trying to get at is that unless you subscribe to some hardcore variant of the free culture idea, fansubbing and English-language anime fandom relate mostly on a historic basis. It is not going to go away until the gap between domestic commerical services of anime catches up with Japan’s level of service to the extent that it becomes easier for people like me to rely on the domestic labor (and pay them appropriately) to feed the inner fanboy.
One caveat I should raise is that while my premises are based on a generality, in reality no one owns a license to distribute anime in the US or any other country. Rather, they have a bunch of licenses to distribute specific shows in very specific capacities. So while one person can fairly proclaim that fansubs are unneeded/needed today, it’s only true for titles on his radar. Odds are there are still shows out there that could use the magical powers fansubs have demonstrated to have in the earlier days of English-language anime fandom. That said, it’s a whole different question as if the magic still works for those titles off our radars.
On the same basis, one should realize that fansubbing is a divisive topic and even the different R1 distributors have different opinions on the matter if you dig deep enough. It’s ultimately a decision that individual copyright holders and licensees have to decide individually in order to pursuit whatever course of action they think is best. I’m not going to speculate what that may be, but please do realize that these courses of action can be different.
Lastly I thank DarkMirage‘s little blurp slamming people bitching about Bandai’s threatening PR; and doubly thanks for calagie for the NYT article link.