The Changing Tides

by Justin Sevakis,

I got some sad news this week. Thomas Video, a small mom 'n' pop video store in Clawson, Michigan, is closing up shop after 40 years in business. While a video store closing its doors is about as surprising these days as being able to get a sandwich at Subway, Thomas Video was different. It was a place to let your freak flag fly. While I was there mostly for the anime (which was one of the best VHS anime selections I'd ever seen, and even included some domestic Laserdiscs), the store had whole sections devoted to exploitation films, foreign films, cult classics, and old TV series. This was back when only the big Hollywood hits were easily available at most video stores.

For those of us growing up in the WASPy suburbs of Detroit, where not many people are into panning for pop culture gold, Thomas Video was something of a sanctuary. If you were into obscure things, places like Thomas Video and their musty, tattooed ilk were important reminders that you weren't alone, that other people were also weirdos, and that with the right friends, that could be a cool thing. Local newspaper websites from all across the country are dotted with stories like this, where some beloved final retail bastion of old media is closing its doors. It's inevitable, but still, it's sad.

Things like this tend to happen all at once. Maybe this story hit me particularly hard because I just picked up my now-20-year-old LaserActive Laserdisc player from the repair shop today. Maybe it's because the store that my family got it from, New York's famous J&R Music World, also just shut their doors. Maybe it's because a few questionable news outlets took a single line about physical media sales from Sony's quarterly earnings report and fluffed it into a story blaring the headline, "BLU-RAY IS DYING ALREADY!"

The world of media moves fast, and it's important for us all to keep up with things. But at the same time, we are dealing with art, and with that comes an emotional attachment to the means in which we enjoy it. It's irrational, but very real. I may have pristine digital copies of all of my old favorites, but there will always be a part of me that wishes he could still pop in a VHS tape of his favorite old shows like he used to.

And then I actually do it, and am horrified at how terrible everything looks.

I guess you can't go back.

Brett asks:

I recently got into Macross when the original series, now removed, was on hulu, dubbed. Not Robotech, but the original Macross tv series, with what seemed like a high quality dub, featuring some pretty stellar performances in my opinion (especially for such old animation) by modern voices like Monica Rial and Vic Mignogna, and even included the reprisal of a central role by the Japanese voice actress who performed many of the songs used in the series. In English. It just seemed like a lot of care went in to producing what seems like a very unique and well executed dub. I knew the franchise was embroiled in a legal quagmire before I started watching the show, but I didn't expect to find something so well developed and seemingly ready for a western release on hulu for what I understood to be a doomed property. Can you explain the dub? And was there ever a plan that almost went through to bring the real Macross to the west? Why would they even make a dub for something they may not have rights to sell? And is there really so little hope that I'll ever be able to pay for and own the series?

Actually, the original Macross TV series is the one piece of the franchise that is in less of a legal quagmire than the rest of the franchise. Macross II and Macross Plus are still available, but I have a feeling once those licenses expire, you might be out of luck, so if you want those, you should get those now. The company standing in the way of other companies that want to use the trademarked name "Macross" is Harmony Gold, but Harmony Gold actually still owns the US rights to the original TV series, which was recut into Robotech oh so many years ago. It's been sublicensed to American anime publishers twice: once to AnimEigo (who did their own subtitled-only DVD boxed set, which was an early restoration effort), and once to ADV Films.

The dub you're referring to is one produced by ADV Films back in 2006. The company redubbed the classic show, for the first time, faithfully and uncut, and while I haven't heard this dub myself, I've heard it's a pretty impressive dub (and even was mixed in 5.1). That said, it's also out of print. Very, very out of print. Only the first disc was released as a single volume, and then a complete set followed shortly after. [EDIT: Thanks for the corrections -- apparently the whole thing was released as singles, although some are getting hard to find.] The first disc is relatively easy to get (Amazon still has it in stock), but the collection is exceedingly rare, having been a poor seller. Used copies are going for upwards of $300 as of this writing.

When ADV Films hit the skids, Harmony Gold took their toys and went home, eventually selling the Robotech license to A&E Home Video. The original Macross series is out of print now, but Harmony Gold may yet sell it to another DVD publisher, and it could see the light of day again. You never know. When they do, hopefully it'll include ADV's faithful dub.

John asks:

Though Free! was foretold as the killing blow that would ruin Kyoto Animation it fortunately became a roaring success for them. Now, in the new anime seasons, there seems to be a rise in shows, like Free!, that are meant to be gratuitous manservice targeted at women, as opposed to more well known and muted shoujo shows like Fruits Basket or Ouran High School Host Club. I was wondering if you could, just in a general sense, talk about fujoshi, the markets that target them, and why it even took so long for these manservice shows to be produced in greater numbers despite fujoshi having always had some strong presence, such as in the productions of Legend of the Galactic heroes and Durarara! and making up large portions of the attendance at Comiket.

First of all, anybody who was honestly making the argument that Free! was going to be the death-knell for Kyoto Animation is not worth listening to. The only people spouting that nonsense were the KyoAni fanboys who were incensed that their favorite studio was making something that wasn't aimed at them. It's really amazing what sort of rage that provokes in people. It makes no sense. But go back and search the forums, and make a list. You can safely ignore those people.

Free! was successful not just because it showed off the assets of a group of attractive, buff guys, but because it was actually a good show. It was consistently well-animated, reasonably well-written, and compelling. (I mean, it's not Shakespeare, but few anime are.) I could say the same about most of the memorable shows from KyoAni. People are attached to the studio because they consistently do good work.

It's quite obvious that in recent years, female fans have played a bigger and bigger role in anime fandom. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the upswing happened, but I think a major landmark was when, in the late 90s, Shonen Jump decided to proactively make their series more female-friendly, thereby courting not just their typical young male audience, but both genders. Soon, shonen action heroes didn't just look like the cast of Dragonball or Fist of the North Star, but were as pretty as shoujo manga love interests. That's where you get protagonists like Light from Death Note, or pretty much the whole ensemble from Prince of Tennis.

The effort was hugely successful, and boosted Shonen Jump to new levels of ubiquity. Fangirls went nuts for these stories, and spawned countless slash doujinshi, crossplay costumes, and everything else that now comes with a popular franchise. But the idea of making content for girls, specifically using shonen manga tropes, didn't really take hold until the visual novel boom of the late 00s. That's when girls proved their buying power with yaoi-heavy games that, aside from the boy-on-boy action, were really quite heavy with REGULAR action as well.

So now we're at a point where, just like the guys, girls also get fanservice-heavy pandering shows that are kind of dumb but ultimately fun to watch if you're a hormonal teenager (or just like seeing the opposite sex doing cute, borderline sexual things). Occasionally they get good stuff like Free!, sometimes it's garbage like Meganebu! I wouldn't say both genders are getting equal treatment just yet, but it's getting closer, especially when you consider that many shows are designed to be at least gender neutral in appeal these days. Considering how super-masculine shonen shows ruled the airwaves for decades, with comparatively few shojo franchises being animated, I'd say it's a pretty major improvement.

Liana asks:

Why is it that using Google to look for streaming anime almost always points you to piracy sites, even when a legal stream is available? I'm not entirely sure how Google determines the order of its search results, but it seems very weird that fansub sites tend to take the top spot while Crunchyroll and Funimation are four or five spaces down, or not on the first page at all.

I'm sure we've all Googled "___favorite anime show title___ streaming" as a shortcut to finding our favorite show online, and then quickly become disappointed at how many of the search results are clearly janky, illegal streaming sites. How Google's search results work is a closely guarded secret. A large part of me thinks, "surely not THAT many more people are going to these sites than are going to Hulu and Crunchyroll, right?" But then again, there are an awful lot of those sites, and those sites definitely make money. The traffic they get, and the money they can make, are anyone's guess.

I have a theory about this. First of all, SEO, or search engine optimization, are methods that people have devised to get more attention from Google's automated web crawlers and consequently get the site ranked higher on Google searches. Most are gigantic pains in the butt, some are at least a little unethical and will eventually get your site banned. I have a VERY strong feeling that the pirate sites pay more attention to things like this than the legal ones do (since legal sites are usually distracted doing things like, you know, licensing and translating a show).

The anime companies have recently been petitioning Google to remove known pirate sites from their search results, and indeed, many have been removed. But trying to stay on top of all of them is basically like playing Whack-A-Mole: all the site owner needs to do is reskin their site and buy a new domain name, and suddenly they're back in business. It's a big problem, and as of yet, nobody has come up with a solution.

In the mean time, stay off those sites. The quality usually sucks anyway.

KidaYuki asks:

I really love the opening and closing theme songs of anime. Back when most of the anime online seemed to be through Fansubs alot of them (or at least the ones I liked) would have their songs subtitled. Usually a Japanese karaoke on top and an English translation on bottom. Now adays going through what I'm watching on Crunchyroll very, very few of them have the alternating English and Japanese subs. Is it a labor of love vs a labor of labor thing?

It's not so much a matter of the labor involved as the logistics. Simulcast rights are signed right up 'till the last possible moment -- sometimes after -- a show begins airing. The songs that are included in an anime don't need to be negotiated separately, because each streaming service pays a blanket royalty to ASCAP or a similar performing arts organization that authorizes them to play virtually any professionally published song from around the world. At the end of each month that company reports what got played, the organization tracks down the song publishers, and everyone gets paid their tiny royalty.

But once the streaming company (say, Crunchyroll or Funimation) starts transcribing and translating the song lyrics, THAT'S something that is not covered by ASCAP. The right to do that has to come separately from the original music publisher. Often the anime licensor can help facilitate that, but it can be a long process. By the time the anime itself is signed, the show is often already airing (or is about to), and there's simply no time left to negotiate another set of licenses or permissions. Home video comes much later, so it doesn't have that problem.

The (sometimes ridiculous) karaoke effects that fansubs have are not really possible with streaming video, where most subtitles are added to the video by the Flash-based software that's run on the user's computer. You're definitely not alone in wishing that the song lyrics got translated in some way. But such things are luxuries, and unfortunately doing things the "right" way make it very difficult to have them on streaming sites.

But hey, if it's any consolation, nearly all fansubs of current shows try and translate the songs by ear, which, as anyone who knows Japanese can tell you, is something of a fool's errand, especially when there's Engrish involved. (Official lyric sheets don't get released until there's a CD single, which often doesn't happen to an OP/ED theme until it's been airing for a few weeks.) A good percentage of those translations are just flat-out wrong.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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