Anime and the internet: the impact of fansubbing

by Alicia Wurm

While Japanese anime has experienced a boom in recent decades, its history is longer than you might think. The anime industry flourished in Japan in the late 1910’s with pieces such as Kitayama Seitaro’s short Momotaro (1918) and Chikara To Onna No Yononaka (1932), influenced by Disney shorts and the increasingly explosive and animated nature of Japanese manga (illustrated books). While anime itself grew more popular than ever domestically, and began to achieve international fame through collaboration with Disney in the mid 1950’s, there were many televised anime series that never would have made it overseas if it hadn’t been for dedicated fan communities. In order to address the current gap in extant scholarship on animated film, this article will present a comprehensive account of fan involvement in bringing Japanese anime to wider audiences.

A fansubber is generally an anime fan, or otaku, who spends a vast amount of time and effort putting translated subtitles onto anime episodes and then making them available to the general public, mostly through use of p2p (peer to peer) programs. Fansubbers advertise their work on forums or their own websites created especially for the purpose. In the past, fansubbing was a grueling process that involved a lot of expensive equipment, and a dedication that bordered obsessive behaviour. A fansubber would edit VCR copies of anime, and due to the reduced quality of said copies, only 4 or 5 at a time were really viable. They would then be physically mailed to waiting fans around the world. Often a shipping fee was charged through PayPal or some other such online service, but apart from this fee fansubbing was nearly always a free service, done for the love of the series and the desire to spread it to other fans.It was also common to have a standing arrangement where episodes would be swapped, an episode of Star Trek, say, in exchange for one of a popular anime series from Japan.

Fansubbing is a lengthy and involved process even now with the advent of DVDs, which make the amount of copies possible infinite, and the equipment required to edit the episodes digitalized and reduced to software. While fansubbing can be done by just one person, this is unusual;more often than not there will be a team of many people. Their roles are as follows;

A raw copy provider; this is someone with access to a ripped version of a DVD in the original Japanese, who submits the material to the team to be subtitled. The copy is checked for video and audio quality, and then handed to the translator. The translator produces a translated script, which is then passed on to a timer who will place the script into a program which matches the subtitles to the dialogue.

The translator is often a Japanese fan whose first language is not English. This requires the use of an editor, who will go over the translations for spelling or grammatical errors. A typesetter will decide on the placement, font, colour and sizes of the subtitles. As fan subs often have notes to explain cultural references or historical background, a scene can often be crowded with subtitles.  So as not to confuse the viewer, subtitles are laid out and

Fig. 1; Smile Precure
Fig. 1; Smile Precure

differentiated so as to be legible and logical. The typesetter will sometimes take creative decisions such as the use of separate fonts or colours for different characters’ speech. An additional editor known as a Karaokeman will set the lyrics of a song in furigana (Japanese syllabary), Japanese, and English, and add an effect that fills in the word as it is being sung so viewers may sing along too. This is a detailed and difficult job, so usually a Karaokeman will dedicate themselves just to this stage of fansubbing (see fig. 1). Encoders take the finished file and convert it into something small, easy to host and easy to download, but still high quality. The file is then hosted, advertised, and distributed to an eagerly awaiting fan base.

Of course, this practice raises copyright issues. Does fansubbing count as piracy? It is unmistakably technically illegal, but fabsubbers often articulate their work in terms of a certain moral high ground. Dedicated fansubbers will often stop working on anime series which have been licensed worldwide, and will tag their fansubs with messages such as “Buy a copy of this if you enjoyed it”, encouraging users to buy the DVDs once they come out in English officially. Because DVDs are often much higher quality and contain extras that the fansubbers will not have had access to, the system seems self-perpetuating, and many a series has been kept alive and achieved increased popularity due to fans being able to watch versions of their favourite shows with thorough and enthusiastic subtitles. Some even argue that the online community kept the Star Wars franchise alive during the long wait between Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999).

Fansubbers even have a code of ethics, which can be found on the Anime News Network:

  1.    The main purpose of fansubs is to allow English-language fans access to obscure anime they would never see otherwise.
  2. A secondary purpose of fansubs is to give fans an advance taste of anime that may someday be licensed.
  3. Fansubs are not to be considered a substitute for owning a legal, English-language copy.
  4. Fansubbers should operate in a manner which minimizes impact on the commercial interests of anime-producing companies as it is in the best interests of anime fandom that these companies be healthy and create more anime.
  5. We have an interest in the way other fans behave because it affects the reputation of all fandom.
  6. You make fansubs voluntarily, out of your own free time, because you are a fan. Never for personal profit or recognition. If at any time you feel you should be compensated for the work you’ve done then you’re probably doing this for all the wrong reasons.(http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/feature/2003-06-08/2, 05/2014)

Despite or perhaps because of this, some production companies use the activities of fansubbers to advertise their legal products, using p2p programs to promote their new releases to people who they know will be interested. ADV films, for example, put packages on BitTorrent (a popular p2p program) to advertise its new series Goddanar and Gilgamesh. When this seemed successful, they turned to BitTorrent again and to promote a trailer for Madlax. Advertisers drew on the popularity of the trailer by putting together packages for Gilgamesh and Goddanar which included character biographies, images, clips, and links to online reviews. Although this practice cannot exactly be described as common amongst film companies, it is a sign that a few have intelligently grasped the potential problems of fansubbing activities and turned the practice to their advantage.

The world of fansubbing is an incredibly passionate and obsessive one; rival fansubbing groups will sometimes put out the same episodes, and so inevitable comparisons crop up. Supplementary information may be deemed unnecessary by a rival fansubbing group, or the meaning of a line hotly disputed; it is without a doubt a fiery industry. There is a huge amount of demand for good fansubbers, who will often retire early, as they do the work purely for their love of the genre and for the audience, and so do not get paid for the huge amount of time they spend on fansubbing projects. They instead end up being ‘paid’ in acclaim and good reputation amongst fans and viewers.

The ways in which the fansubbing subculture have affected Japanese cinema are manifest in the sudden increase in popularity experienced by animated Japanese film; global sales reached $40 million in 2004. Because of the Japanese animation industry’s laid back approach to fansubbing, the popularity of fansubbed animation series has been allowed to grow underground until the demand for high quality DVDs and releases with professional subtitling peak. At this stage the companies responded accordingly, releasing the requested content to fans worldwide. Indeed some anime creators actively encourage the act of fansubbing on the grounds that that they wish their anime to be viewed by as many people as possible by any means possible; Hideyuki Kurata, creator of many popular series such as R.O.D, Bamboo Blade and Tokyo Ravens has expressed similar feelings.

Internet fan networks have had the wider effect of delaying the process of Japanese anime becoming ‘mainstream’. Many Japanese animation series were removed from American screens  due to a perception that they were overly violent and sexual (cartoons being predominantly a children’s entertainment medium in Western film and television programming), and so the only way to get ‘adult’ content was through a fan network, over the internet.

The image of Japanese animation overseas was therefore Othered, and anime fans were seen as strange or even deviant in some way. This has in the past had little detrimental effect on the industry, as the fan base was limited to begin with, but as anime has slowly become more mainstream I believe it has served to give the genre a strange reputation. Apart from the dominant cultural view that cartoons are for children only, there is also a feeling that ‘only otakus (Japanese nerds or geeks) on the internet watch anime’. Anime released on television during prime time slots, and on channels such as Cartoon Network, often dubbed instead of subtitled, are seen as and family entertainment, and titles such as Pokemon or Dragon Ball Z are accepted into households. However an aura of nerdiness remains cloaked around the popular image of anime.

Around 2005 the series Densha Otaku came out to great success in Japan, leading to an openness and a kind of empowerment of otaku identity, and a new freedom in making anime specifically tailored to otakus. However the worldwide image of the otaku protagonist was that he was too creepy, and unmarketable to a Western audience. Anime directed towards otakus was increasingly of the moe (cute) type, in which youth and girlishness are attributes prized in women. These women are also often ‘damaged goods’, and have serious father complexes; helpless, big eyed damsels in distress (fig. 2). These

Fig. 2; Hotaru Tomoe from Sailor Moon, often cited as the original 'moe' character.
Fig. 2; Hotaru Tomoe from Sailor Moon, often cited as the original ‘moe’ character.

themes and stylistic leanings proved to be less popular with Western audiences, and in 2008-9, the first signs of decline began in the anime industry. The impacts of the internet on anime also played a part in its decline, as the industry made huge sacrifices in quality in order to quickly keep up with increasing international demand. Much new anime was firmly aimed towards teenagers, and the industry churned out products as quickly as they could, products which were often sloppy and niche, and made in terrible working conditions. There were reports of outsourcing unglamorous animation work to save money, and of Japanese animators doing the grunt work of filling in action sequences between frames, making just under ¥1 million a year (under $10,000).

This vicious cycle was occasionally perpetuated by unscrupulous fansubbers who went against the code of ethics mentioned above. Some websites charge subscribers a small monthly fee for access to hundreds of pirated and fansubbed anime titles. Anime is expensive and time-consuming to produce legitimately, and as the animators get paid terribly small amounts for their work they often quit, leaving the industry more depleted of talent by the year.

If the average citizen knew that the animators who support the highly respected art of ‘Japanimation’ were forced to live in extreme poverty at 50,000 yen a month ($500), television stations, advertising agencies, and publishers would be forced to change the way they do business, and animators…. would be hired as full employees and have stable lifestyles. ….Animators in their 20s and 30s are quitting in droves. (http://www.cnngo.com/​tokyo/​play/​decade-​anime-​682165, 05/01/2014)

However, both film and anime are in a constant cycle of renewal, and though things may look dark in the anime industry now, with big powerhouse companies such as Studio Ghibli still firmly in the public eye and still making profits from their work, anime is unlikely to die away completely. There does need to be a reform in the way in which anime is created, and perhaps the internet may be instrumental in this next step also, as it feels like a safe place in which people can make their voices heard. Internet fan networks will always be a place in which anime’s most staunch supporters can be found.

Bibliography

Anime News Network. 2014. Tokyo Anime Center Posts “Stop! Fan-Subtitle” Notice (Updated). [online] Available at: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2008-03-29/tokyo-anime-center-posts-stop-fan-subtitle-notice [Accessed: 5 Jan 2014].

Belton, J. 2006. Digital cinema: a false revolution. MIT Press.

CNN Travel. 2014. Anime decade: From ‘Japan Cool’ to ‘cooling off’. [online] Available at: http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/play/decade-anime-682165 [Accessed: 6 Jan 2014].

Corneredangel.com. 2014. A Brief History of Anime. [online] Available at: http://www.corneredangel.com/amwess/papers/history.html [Accessed: 5 Jan 2014].

Jenkins, H. 2006. When Piracy Becomes Promotion. [online] Available at: http://reason.com/archives/2006/11/17/when-piracy-becomes-promotion [Accessed: 5 Jan 2014].

Nytimes.com. 2014. Log In – The New York Times. [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/arts/21solo.html?ex=1282276800&en=91a6bf6f3813c78f&ei=5090&partner=geartest&emc=rss&_r=0 [Accessed: 5 Jan 2014].

Web.archive.org. 2014. The Economics of Movie Downloads in the Film Industry – Yale Economic Review. [online] Available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20071011231757/http://yaleeconomicreview.com/issues/fall2005/downloads.php [Accessed: 5 Jan 2014].

White, R. 2009. Heaven Knows We’re Digital Now. Film Quarterly, 62 (4), pp. 4–5.

Www2.law.ed.ac.uk. 2014. Of Otakus and Fansubs. [online] Available at: http://www2.law.ed.ac.uk/ahrc/script-ed/vol2-4/hatcher.asp#sdendnote175anc [Accessed: 5 Jan 2014].

alicia faceAlicia is currently in her final year of a BA Japanese degree at SOAS. She had an interest in film and theater from an early age, including a spell in the National Youth Theater in her early teens, and is currently working on her bachelor’s thesis, focusing on the theory of gender as performance in film. She can usually be found under a duvet (or table) and is generally a nocturnal and party-ready creature.

One thought on “Anime and the internet: the impact of fansubbing

  1. Alicia, this was fascinating to read. I’m not that much into anime personally, but I’ve always wondered about the practices of fan-subbing (also with J or K drama). In an increasingly profit-driven (some might say: ‘dependant’) world, who finds the time and energy to dedidacte themselves to such a demanding task for almost no money? I think you put the finger right on the spot when you talk about the community experience in the internet as something of a haven for all sorts of people who find personal (digital?) connection in a community of interests. And here is where the industry seems to come in as well. Thank you for elucidating the seemingly paradoxical reactions by an industry who normally doesn’t think twice before suing people over copyright issues! Profit and advertising are powerful incentives, indeed. I was left with the feeling that working in this ‘grey area’ as a community, with the somewhat unreal thrill of subversiveness, also accounts for the attraction of fan subbing, both on the creating and the receiving end. Thanks for this thought-provoking article; I just love how it got my brain working at 7 am :-)

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