Chicks On Anime
Fansubs (Pt 1)

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Feb 3rd 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

The fansub debate has been raging for almost as long as digital fansubbing has been around. Just about everyone has an opinion, and most have allied themselves to one particular side of the fence. As the industry has grown and changed, though, it's found new ways of keeping up with the front line of fansubbing. Joining us to talk about the changes in the industry and the continued demand for fansubs is "getfresh," founder of Freelance Fansubs. The conversation was fairly lengthy, so we've split it into two discussions, saving the last half for next week.

As always, thanks for reading, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts in the forums!


Bamboo: One of the biggest news items that has come out in recent times is the announcement that Crunchyroll is going all-legit. They've still got some fansubbed titles there, but for the most part, they've made a radical departure from their previous user-uploaded content system. What they've got now is essentially YouTube for anime—anime that's free, that's readily available, and anime that's shown almost the same time as the Japanese broadcast. So the question is.... is fansubbing obsolete now?
getfresh: I kind of doubt that it will become obsolete, since of course, there is a massive archive of past shows that have never seen the light of day in English language versions. Also many shows get passed over. Take for instance the more underground production ones, or OVA's. Also, fansubbing is not limited to English language versions. From what I have come to understand is that there are far more other language fansubs now than English.
Casey: Even for new shows, I don't think it's obsolete quite yet. I'm sure that not every title out there is being released near-simultaneously with subtitles in the language of your choice. Will we get to that point eventually? Quite possibly. Some of it depends upon infrastructure and the speed with which companies can find the necessarily human capital.
Sara: I agree with getfresh on the subject of forgotten or more obscure content. There is a vast amount of anime out there—it has been produced for well over 50 years now and that leaves a TON of anime to translate and expose to new audiences. There will always be a place for fansubbing in this context, I believe. Even if the newest and most popular anime series turn to streaming as the new trend in internet distribution.
Bamboo: See, I thought fansubbing was obsolete several years ago. When we had that bubble back in the early 2000s where we had tons of anime companies releasing titles left in right, I thought there would be no more use for fansubbers. But the argument remained, "Well, I can't afford anime" or "Well, I want my anime now." But that's finally happened. And it's not just Crunchyroll—several companies are offering free anime on the web. Not just American distributors, but also Japanese studios. Even we here at Anime News Network have a selection of free titles. So what's the point anymore?

getfresh, you said that there are shows from the past that will never see the light of day. That's understandable. There are fans who think that Legend of Galactic Heroes will never be released, barring the end of the Earth. But even your circle, Freelance Fansubs, is subbing new stuff like Maria-sama ga Miteru. TRSI has already released the first two seasons. Surely they'll release the fourth one. And there are countless other fansubbers who are still subbing other new shows. But my point is that the fansubbing community has kind of run out of excuses to sub new shows. The fans got what they wanted—fast, free anime.

I could understand subbing old anime as a labor of love, but fansubbing the newest episodes of Naruto just seem like a waste of time to me.

getfresh: Well on the subject of Maria-sama, it was more of a translator brought it to me wanting to do that show. My group's main focus is on subtitling older series, but I will not turn down a request by a friend to do a series that is not yet licensed or distributed in legal format. I do believe, however, that fansubbing serves a purpose and when that purpose is fulfilled I will stop.
Sara: : What is the purpose, exactly? Is it different from the scenario posed by Bamboo?
getfresh: The purpose is to get anime or foreign media in general, of interest into the light of the mainstream. I do not believe that anime in general has reached that point. The first steps are being taken, but it is still baby steps, and until it has a solid foundation to the point where I feel it is safe to move on, I will continue with my work.
Bamboo: You don't think that anime is mainstream? Really? I see it everywhere I go. I wish it would go underground again. Then I'd feel all good about myself for liking this sweet underground art form. But once American bands are using anime in their videos, or once it's all over TV, or once it wins an Oscar... I feel like that crabby hipster who's ranting and raving because Of Montreal isn't scene anymore, or something.
Sara: : Tangentially, fansubs appeal to a very specific slice of anime fandom—these aren't the people typically watching anime casually on television; they are much more hardcore. How do fansubs bring anime into the mainstream, if it's not already there?
getfresh: It is mainstream to a point, but the fact of the matter is that most of the series that get people into fansubbing are not getting the attention they deserve. Also there is no attention being given directly to older series. I kind of feel more like this has the stability of any "fad" in that it could crumble at any given time.
Bamboo: But that's not how marketing really works. Underground marketing only brings underground products to light. People who already watch fansubs are going to be the people downloading Minami-ke: Okaeri. That won't make it more mainstream. Making something mainstream is like going to Al Khan and saying, "Hey, could you air more anime for kids?" or asking Adult Swim to air different series.
Casey: Mind if I interject something? I think it's important to remember that most viewers in anime's original Japanese context always experienced anime "for free." It's ad-supported broadcast, or possibly even government-subsidized, and the show exists "merely" to attract eyeballs for those advertisements. Even if you've got cable or satellite television, technically you're paying for the service, not the content.
Bamboo: Right, but now we're getting to that point here. We have ad-supported anime online, now, and on TV.
Casey: Exactly. It's fundamentally an issue of platform.
getfresh: You make a good point on that. The issue I see currently is that the mainstream promotional faction is not meeting the needs or wants of the hardcore community. Yes, CR is a great first step, but they have yet to start airing subtitled anime on broadcast television. As the President of Media Blasters said at one point, the market is very small. Until the market opens up, we will still hit road blocks, and until the licensers come to grips with what the fans really want content wise the situation will not change.
Sara: : But the situation is changing already, isn't it? With CR, Hulu and ANN, I already have vastly more choices for watching anime online for free right now than I did this time last year.
Casey: Of course, if we're talking broadcast television in the United States, then it's not about what the fans want. It's about what the "non-fans" want. Those do not necessarily coincide, and that is the rub.
Bamboo: getfresh—what is your ideal scenario? Like, you wake up one day and discover that your dream has been realized. What does that look like?
getfresh: My dream, in a nut shell, is joint production and release via broadcast stations. Also having station like "TV Land" doing classic shows.
Bamboo: As far as TV goes, we already have the FUNimation Channel and The Anime Network. Not to mention the Internet. But these only appeal to anime fans. Your average American isn't going to wake up in the morning and think, "My God, I can't wait to watch the premiere of Magical Nyan-nyan Chan." The hardcore community isn't "the mainstream." They're a niche market. And frankly, they're not worth much money. When anime companies pander to the hardcore market, they lose money. Look at the state of the anime industry now, versus even three years ago.
Casey: Personally, I imagine a future where anime has become utterly naturalized—and by naturalized I mean that American viewers cease to recognize a difference between "American" content and "Japanese" content. In the way that hamburgers and pizza become "American food," anime will just become a part of the fabric of "American television."
getfresh: Well, the fact of the matter is you need to appeal to both groups. Funimation, in my opinion, does not really appeal to anime fans as they get reamed on a daily basis. The same can be said for Tokyopop, which is now a running joke in the community. Our questions are "Why can they not keep the content pure?", or "Why do they not have the ability to properly present it without a massive number of errors?" Granted there are errors in fansubs as well as scanlations, but there are far less and we do it for free on faster time tables.
Bamboo: You're right about that, at least. I've seen some really shoddy Tokyopop releases in my day, and I think when that happens, they let down the community. But there are a lot of really good releases, too. I'll be honest—I admire your group for fansubbing old Macross stuff. AnimEigo used to say they'd release this and that, but they're not going to.
Sara: I also appreciate the work that fansubbers do for older series and I fully support their work on titles like Bobby's in Deep and the older World Masterpiece Theater series. I was a big fan of the work Jolly Roger did.

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