The Role of Fansubs in Today’s World: Food & Fuel for Fans

Canned Peaches

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.


14 Responses to “The Role of Fansubs in Today’s World: Food & Fuel for Fans”

  • jpmeyer

    I both love and hate the fansub debate. I hate it because people so rarely bring anything new to the table and constantly trot out the same tired old arguments which are both true and untrue. But I love it because it’s such a fiendishly complex issue. One of the most overlooked aspects in the fansub debate is the fact that it’s usually from an American perspective. Not everyone that uses English fansubs is American, so the argument that fansubs may no longer be “necessary” due to the growth of the anime industry in America fail to recognize the “in America” part.

    Or there’s the whole raw thing. I really don’t know how that’s supposed to work in the whole fansubs are good/bad thing. I’ve occasionally watched shows raw because they were dropped due to licensing (and before someone else picked up the subbing slack). Does that break the “rules”? What about if I Tivo the anime on Adult Swim? (which cuts out the commercials!)

    I also get confused when people say that they don’t watch fansubs. My insticintive response is to say something like “But then how do you debate the latest episode of Higurashi?” Then I wonder if they’re not as hardcore as the fansub watchers, who want to keep up with everything at the bleeding edge. But then I also have to deal with the hardcore-ness of people like the fans that drove who-knows-how-many hours to see the FMA movie last weekend.

  • omo

    All very good points. People like you is totally why I went on a tangent about people like you and me :)

    That said, I think the issue is only really nuanced if you don’t have the complete picture. I’m not saying that I do (especially the industry side of things), but I think even just understanding the legal side of things and how that meshes with how businesses make decisions make it a lot simpler and intuitive to understand. We have to remember, at all times, that we’re really dealing with something that is unsettled in law, unsettled in how businesses generally approach these issues, and unsettled as far as how society looks upon it. Yes, there are a lot of details, but that doesn’t really get in the way until you are talking in the fringes.

    The American perspective is curious in a few unique ways. It isn’t representative, as you implied, but it is unique in that it is REALLY lawful compare to the typical fan culture in Asia, Mexico/South America, and a lot of other places–they don’t even pretend what they do is legal or illegal; they just do it. The NA market (really should include Canada) is unique also in that the fan culture is very well developed. And of course, the market itself is pretty big in the US in terms of $. A big industry already, in some ways.

    IMO, there’s a lot to be learned by studying how anime does in South America. Plenty of fans down there! Too bad for poor o me that’s 1 or 2 too many languages to juggle.

    As far as the Non-American English-Fansub issue goes, I think you guys are just out of luck. Caugh up the $ to import. Start your own company. Lobby your national government for media market reform. Boycott products that are results of crappy business practices. Move to America. What else can I say? Poverty is no excuse. The state of anime in the US isn’t something that appeared out of thin air. People took real risks to make it happen.

  • DrmChsr0

    Doesn’t stop me from calling my contacts and DDoSing the resources though.

    Ironically, fansubs are needed to market certain series. especially in close-minded markets like Singapore. Sure, there’s a few titles you don’t need to look at fansubs to know it’s a winner, but unlike America (where they pretty much buy out licenses by the dozen), fansubbers have to work harder to ‘sell’ their series in Singapore. Why? Because the fans here are either *haughty fanboyish faggots or close-minded fuckcases who don’t even deserve to die by any means. Or both.

    It’s sad that the anime scene here has to rely so much on fansubs, because the distribution industry isn’t ‘good enough’ for these *elitists. (*see above) I am rather sick and tired of these pathethic excuses for pirates ruin the whole scene. If I had a choice, I’d kill them myself.

    Sigh.The entire anime scene is being ruined by elitists who think they’re so phat, but in actual fact, they’re nothing but noobs.They’re so close-minded and narrow-sighted that I actually feel the need to do something to wake them up. That means it is pushing me to the edge. And I don’t do this often.

    I’m not siding with the industry, nor the fansubbers. I just want people to realize this is all a fruitless debate, and if I have to waste a few people to do it, all the better. There’s no use convincing either side they need each other, because humanity can’t even agree to disagree.

    My suggesstion for a show of actual force (violence) might seem a little… … …overboard, but it’s necessary, since both sides will continue attacking each other for a very long time. And you can’t kill someone on the Internet. And I’m not for goading someone to kill himself.

  • Tobias

    Before I got broadband (2004, rather late) I was actually a happier fan. Finding DVDs in the mail is just bigger than noticing that a download finished. The big TV with the comfy couch drew you in, the computer distracts you. But I had no one to talk about it. People who spend this much money are rare, and even if interests overlapped they had their own schedule for when to buy a show. Fans in general were so few it was hard to get together for watching something.
    Now I’m addicted to feeling the hype. I watch the brand new stuff because it’s easiest and the most fun to talk about. I still buy as much as I can, but don’t watch the discs anymore ’cause I already know the content. There are more fans in my area now, but I have probably less contact with them as availabilty diversified our tastes.
    If I stopped using fansubs my community would be reduced to the people I call friends. Not a bad thing, but since we’re all hard working by now it would mean least talk ever. So I can only hope for simultaneous releases in Japan and the west (preferrably Germany) or eradication of the fansub scene by lawsuit.

  • omo

    I have huge piles of anime DVDs still shrinkwrapped, too. In fact I think my friends watched more of my collection than I do.

    That’s sort of the gist of what I’m trying to point out: fansubbing is a social thing, and we fansub because it’s fun. No matter it’s done out of ego or for the enjoyment of those who fansubs. The traditional reason why we fansub is a secondary goal.

    >> Especially in close-minded markets like Singapore.

    I think you guys are just screwed. And it may very well be because the market cannot sustain that sort of an operation. You can blame it on crappy fans or elitism or all the piracy, but people need to respect the bottom line.

  • jpmeyer

    The fact aside that it really is not feasible in some cases for people to import (when I asked readers about this, they frequently would point out that combined with heavy markups or shipping costs, their currency or standard of living is weak compared to the dollar or to America that it was a big event when they could buy an American DVD or manga), there’s another confounding question: import from where exactly? What are you hoping to accomplish by buying (and again, from who?), rather than downloading a show when you live in say, Eastern Europe or South America? If you live in say, Denmark, do you buy the American version or the German version of an anime? If you live in Peru, do you buy the American, Spanish, Mexican, or Argentinian version of a manga? Why?

  • omo

    I think it’s still fair to boil down an argument against importing “because it is too expensive” as “we’re too poor/cheap to buy it.” It’s a fair excuse, don’t get me wrong, but the way to overcome this problem is different than the way to overcome the problem of “we want to watch anime translated in English.”

    And that isn’t something fansubbing can really help solve, IMO. I certainly could be wrong about that (and everything else I’m saying), but a problem like that is only really indicative of two things:
    1. The market is unable to support an industry like that. Obviously it’d be foolish to start a company trying to sell anime localized in Mozambique. Just how far away from Mozambique is Singapore in terms of becoming like the US when it comes to feasibility of importing niche foreign works to a standard model of marketing home videos and selling them? Or marketing these works as a franchise? My opinion is that “it is feasible, but it is not profitable.”
    2. Is there someone, anyone, with enough vigor, vision, and vaults of $$$ to be willing to take up this risky venture? For every success story like Tokyopop there is probably a handful of failures we never hear. It’s not just that they’re willing to take risks, but they are pioneers in an unfamiliar realm. In other words, people need to come up with a solution, and put $ behind it: it might be a new way to market goods in competition with pirated anime. Or a new way to tap into the fansub community in Singapore, or what have you.

    The law is, for the most part, irrelevant, when it comes to actually solving problems. All it does is to remind us that anime doesn’t exist in a vacuum like an self-inserted fanfiction. It takes $$$ to make, $$$ to market, and it is a commercial interest in that only with more $$$ it can continue to exist. If people are willing to pay $ for their favorite show, well, let’s all put our heads together and figure out a way to make that happen.

  • dm

    Figuring out a business plan is pretty hard — people are still trying to come up with the right formula for music, though mostly that amounts to tweaks on the iTunes model.

    There are lots of potential business plans, but most of them run into the rocks of the rights holders’ desire to squeeze every last penny out of their property coupled with complete ignorance (on all sides) of how to achieve that. There’s the whole digital copying thing, of course, but it also applies to material goods — will your profits be higher if you make one and sell it for $100 or make four and sell them for $26 apiece?

    Sometimes I think we should just go back to the old days where works of art were commissioned by patrons. The whole entertainment industry, for all its visibility, could be wrapped up as loss-leaders to market the products of the consumer electronics industries, for example.

    As to all those shrink-wrapped DVDs? A lot of the time I buy a DVD for the specific purpose of loaning it to my friends to introduce them to a series. That’s how most of my DVDs get watched, in fact.

  • omo

    I think we can talk on and on about emerging technology and new media formats and how that changes the landscape of copyright model of doing business. With anime, however, there’s even more to it than that. For one, the business practices that made American anime companies successful may not (and sometimes does not) work in Singapore, or Australia, or even in the UK. It’s to the extent that different region and people groups need to pioneer their own formulation to capitalize on the fanbase; to grow and market it. Japan, sadly, also doesn’t help with making exportation of their cultural goods easy. Even before we can worry about copyright of stuff on the internet we still haven’t cleared the hurdle of traditional business models in an international setting when you don’t have Hollywood behind your back.

    I mean, just think about it. American and European media are really the only type of media that has penetrated globally to any great degree. East Asia is up next, but it hasn’t quite happened yet.

  • Tobias

    If we argue that anime is a social thing, doesn’t that mean it only works as long as it’s very cheap? As in TV (Japan) or pirated (fansub) cheap? DVDs are just for collecting!

    I think fansubs are made to replicate the Japanese “way of anime”, that is watch it on TV at roughly the same time as everybody else, talk about it, buy merchandise. Maybe buy DVDs half a year later for archiving. This might be worth replicating as it is the peak of 30 years of co-evolution of producers and consumers.

    Maybe this gets me to omo’s fuel thing. Understanding his posts always takes a little effort ;-)

  • jpmeyer

    What about when the market is so small that it’s not even worth making fansubs in the language, much less investing the money in licensing material? This is the case in Hungary, IIRC.

  • omo

    You’re right. It’s exactly what I mean by that, at least the first half. The only thing I’d add is that how you or I follow fansubs might be the same as how a poor Japanese 2ch-er would watch his anime via TIVO because he always go to bed early for his morning commute to work. But that’s where the similarity ends.

    Put it in another way, for DVDs of TV anime in Japan, almost no one buys them if they don’t already know they like them. It’s prohibitively expensive. What other purpose does it serve but for archival and to satisfy the collector’s instincts? It also helps to explain why DVD comes with omake–to induce people who saw the show already, and offer them something more.

    And yeah, I’m sorry, but I write like how a 5-legged spider walks.

  • omo

    >> What about when the market is so small that it’s not even worth making fansubs in the language, much less investing the money in licensing material? This is the case in Hungary, IIRC.

    Yep, it certainly could be the case. It’s not like how certain Christian missionaries that would venture into the middle of the Amazon jungle and translate the Gospel of John into some strange language that only 150 people speaks. Now that’s some hardcore Jesus otaku right there.

  • calaggie

    All the talk about fansubbing and underfansubbed titles over the past couple weeks has made me want to start my own independent licensing company, like how three Funi execs formed Illumitoon back in January. Until I realize that I don’t have any money, I have no marketing experience and I’ve got no leverage in the industry. *sigh* Maybe sometime in the future, when I win my millions in the lottery…

    BTW, “you’re welcome” on the Times article. ^L^

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