Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fansubs and Distributors' Responses to Them

Let me start by apologizing for this blog's lack of activity recently. Between school, illness, and being separated from the internet for sizable chunks of time I have not kept up with it the way I should. Hopefully regular programming will resume in January. It's one of my resolutions for the new year, so we shall see how that goes.

I am taking a break from reviews to talk about something I have been seeing more and more of which is very interesting to me: the response of domestic anime distribution companies to the phenomenon of fansubs.

Fansubs have long been a huge staple of the American anime community. Initially it was the only way to get access to many of these shows, although it also was a much more demanding process then, requiring more specialized technology and having less venues for distribution. With the huge rise of the internet, it is now quite possible to have an episode of anime fansubbed and up for download within a day or two of its airing on Japanese television. This has given an ever increasing American anime audience the ability to gain access to shows in close to real time, which was unheard of when I first got into anime as an adolescent. Even as more and more shows are being brought to the United States, fansubs remain a dominant force of the American anime community, much to the chagrin of American distributors and Japanese companies alike. The problem is that these companies have simply not risen to the challenge they put out for themselves. Fansubs are by far the quickest way to watch new shows, and even more pathetically often times the fansubs are as or more accurate than the DVD translation, sometimes even offering additional benefits--like translation notes--which the American companies fail to consider and include.

Just recently I have seen, while surfing around, a number of streaming video services designed to combat this problem. Anime News Network has streaming episodes of Gurren Lagann, which is an admirably recent show available, and at least the first episode of Kanon, being released on DVD currently. Certain distributors have taken it upon themselves to provide free streaming previews of their releases, notably Funimation with its release of Fruits Basket. However, when I consider these examples, the lack of competition with fansubs is simply absurd. Fruits Basket originally aired in 2001, and is just now being aired online by a US company. Kanon is similarly quite old, originally airing in 2002. The fansubs for these series are long circulated, and I am comfortable in saying that many, perhaps most, of the people who wanted to see these series have already done so, and are not as likely to buy the DVDs. Even though Gurren Lagann was one of the 2007 shows, its availability on ANN comes months after its completion, while fansubs were updated quite regularly mere days after their original airing. Fansubs do take away business from the American companies. People who argue that fansubs are somehow helping these companies I think are missing the picture. Certainly, there are people who got into anime through fansubs and have purchased DVDs. However, generally people will not buy DVDs of a series they did not care for that highly, and many anime fans refuse to purchase DVDs at all in the face of more convenient and completely free fansubs, especially in light of the fact that there is little to no pursuit of punishing said fansubbers or their "customers."

The announcement of the closing of Geneon USA proved to us, or at least me, that their is a problem in the American anime scene which must be remedied if the market is to remain profitable long term, aside from the blockbuster hits that are surefire successes in America. To put it simply, I think more niche titles will cease to be licensed in the US if something is not done. The steps taken by ANN and Funimation are certainly steps in the right direction, but I feel they are far too meager. In order for American companies to beat fansubbing, they need to be able to provide a service which is reasonably priced and at least close to as fast as fansubbing. Additionally, they need to take pointers from popular fansub communities and provide things like translation notes, and make sure that their translations are both timely and accurate. Although the anime crowd in America is made up mostly of younger people with little or no income, I believe that many anime fans are willing to pay for anime. The problem is the uncertainty that comes with paying 20-25$ for a single DVD of questionable quality. I personally have purchased a fair number of DVDs, as much as my unstable and meager income would allow, and have even purchased DVDs of series I knew nothing about. This has resulted in some very good surprises along with some very bad ones. I cover-bought Kino's Journey, and was treated to one of the finest anime experiences of my life. Similarly I bought the first few Eureka seveN DVDs before having ever heard of or seen the series, and though I watched most of the series fansubbed, was very glad of having purchased those DVDs, and I continue to purchase the DVDs as my income allows. However, for many people, there is no point in owning a series you have already seen. I appreciate the extras included, assuming there are any(which seems to be rarer and rarer these days), and simply enjoy having a physical item that offers better video and audio quality, but many people do not see the point in it. But if there existed a service through which, with a small monthly or episode-ly fee, new episodes of anime could be made available for streaming or preferrably download in subtitled format, I think that many more people would be willing to pay for their anime. In addition, by providing a legal alternative, the illegal activities of the fansubbing communities could be prosecuted much more thoroughly and legitimately, converting even more people to paying for their anime. Certainly, there would still be people who resisted having to pay for their anime, just as there are people who refuse to pay for American cable and instead download it, but their numbers would be much smaller and the American companies would have I think a great deal more business.

As a side note to this: I question the necessity of the dubbing of anime--and I suppose by extension of any foreign films or television shows. A great portion of the American anime community is simply not really interested in dubbed anime, and any vast number of forum wars about subs vs. dubs can attest to this. Furthermore, even assuming they enjoy watching dubbed anime, many people would not be that affected were dubbing to be ceased. Of course, not having to hire dubbing actors and rerecord the entire show would save companies a great deal of time and money, and greatly increase their ability to bring shows to America in a timely fashion. I watched the first three episodes of Fruits Basket on Funimation's site in dubbed format--which was all that was available--and then re-watched those same episodes in the original. Simply put, there is no contest between the two. As a whole, I think the original cast does a better job than the dubbing teams. Though this is not necessarily the case, nor has it always been true, generally I think it can be safely said that subs are indeed better than dubs, primarily due to a greater pool of talent to draw from and a greater primacy within the society placed on voice-acting because of anime's popularity in its native land. The American anime community seems to generally wish to view anime in a form as close to the original as possible, and dubbing and exceedingly loose translation is simply not in line with that thinking.

I have seen a number of forum or blog posts similar to this, often titled something like: "A letter to the anime industry." Ignoring for now the fact that anime fans seem very predisposed to talking about "the anime industry" for some reason, I am not so foolish as to think that somehow this post will serve as a guide to companies that could care less what I think. Instead, through this I have been able to comment on something which I find interesting and often ridiculous, and hopefully spark some sort of thought in whoever may read this.

Good-bye, and good night,