Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rise of the Fansubs and How the Anime Industry is Adapting


The dot com boom in the late 1990's led America to times of great growth. When the bubble burst in early 2000's it left America in a short economic mess. There were some positives that came from the dot com bubble, an over-investment in internet which led to the internet age we know now. As the internet became more of a utility, intent speed increased through broadband internet. The rise of broadband internet fundamentally changed markets forever. One industry that felt this sea change was the Anime industry with the rise of digisubs. I will examine the history of fansubs and explore how they got popular. I will also explore how the Anime Industry is responding to fansubs.

Anime is fairly well known, and the younger generation of anime fans will not even bat an eye at the extensive amount of anime available since it is so ubiquitous. When anime was first starting to become known in the 70's, 80's, and 90's it was separated into two classes, anime that would be released in the USA but be heavily sanitized and edited or anime that would never see the light of day in the states. In the early days of anime, the number of anime that would never be released in the states heavily outnumbered the stuff that was localized. American fans of anime had to go through quite a bit. To get anime, many of them had to become a member of a club. This club would show anime in Japanese with no subtitles. As they would watch the anime, they would have a translated script. A person would sit near the VCR and would have to pause it every once it a while so people don't get lost following the script and to explain the scene in terms of Japanese culture. This type of anime viewing persisted for quite a while, even in the early days of Anime Expo, they would hand out a translated script for people to follow. Anime back then were rarely released, but the people who had the chance to see this anime got to experience a unique aspect of anime fandom.

The first sea change was the first fansubs released in the USA. Instead of handing out to each club member of convention attendee a screenplay so they could follow it word for word, people started manually adding subtitles of direct dialog in the tape. The fansub was very difficult to get and its difficulty meant that its use was tolerated by burgeoning anime companies. Typically a master copy would be made by someone in an anime club in a University. To get this fansub, you had to know someone who was in possession of a fansub and then physically send the tape over the mail to the person who had the fansub. The person with the fansub would then make a copy, and then physically mail it back to the person requesting it. Due to the nature of the video cassette recorder, a copy was an inferior copy and there was heavy quality loss transferring data from one tape to another. With the popularization of anime in the mid to late 90's like Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Pokemon, and Dragonball, more and more anime started to get licensed and released in the USA. Fansubs were on the way out since their original purpose was to showcase the anime that would never see light in the USA.

This big change occurred with advent of broadband internet and the rise of digital fansubs (aka digisubs). It changed the industry forever because it was devastating in how it worked. Instead of having an anime fansub go through the process of sending tapes back and forth to get a copy, all they had to do was to click a button and download it. The instant gratification granted by fansubs was devastating since it changed the expectations of the market. It used to be that licensing an anime 6 months after it originally aired was very fast for the market. The advent of digisubs meant that a community could get an anime a couple of days after it came out on the market, and by the time that an anime was licensed it was already considered old news. The biggest issue was that there was no degradation through duplication. Each copy was a perfect copy, sometimes even being better quality than the original VHS and DVD. The digital fansub community devastated the anime industry, and we are still feeling the effects from it now.

Anime companies were stuck in quite a situation since consumers started demanding a faster timetable release to be equivalent to the instant gratification they got from digisubs. Encumbered by an esoteric licensing system they had to change things or else they would become irrelevant. Many of them started using streaming sites to move anime legally to the USA and doing simulcast releases.

Here are some great sites to get legal streams in the USA:
The companies are still trying to play catchup, but the evolution of fansubs have forced them to evolve to be in synch with the market. At first fansubs were not even fansubs, but heavy scripts for everyone to read and examine. As they first became fansubs, it was hard to move them from place to place and the copy quality was horrible. The advent of the digital fansub changed everything since it created a culture of instant gratification and there was no degradation of quality when creating a copy. It forced companies to change things, and they are starting to adjust to the changing dynamics of the market. As long as they service the instant gratification that is desired by modern anime fans, the anime companies can continue to prosper in the volatile anime market.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Again, a great read.

But is the streaming model the future of anime? Is it a lucrative business? And what of Manga? There scanlation problem is growing worse over time.

In truth I do worry about the future of the industry when the mainstream appeal of anime is shrinking into pay or add supported "specialty" sites. With Funimation's recent sale to private investors, and the closure of Tokyopop, it makes me wonder if this is the direction to take.

I hope to hear more on the subject,
and again a great read.