The Changing Tides

by Justin Sevakis,

Thanks to everyone who sent in a question last week! I'm now buried in 'em, but if you think of more, by all means, keep 'em coming!

Michael asks:

I was recently listening to the first ever Supernerds ANNCast, which discussed the state of anime piracy, and ideas of ways that we could decrease it. This was four or five years ago and a lot has changed in the industry since then. My question is, have the changes made a large impact on anime piracy? Are torrents and fansubs still relevant and causing havoc, or have we gotten to a point now where they don't really matter anymore?

The changes in the fansub scene over the last five years have been, frankly, transformative. It used to be that any fan who wanted to keep up with the current shows on Japanese TV were utterly dependent on fansubs, but thanks to legitimate streaming, most fans don't even bother with torrents anymore. Pirate traffic is way, way down. It used to be that a popular fansubbed series would see download numbers well into the hundreds of thousands per episode, but now most fansubs are lucky to limp across the 10,000 mark. Most of those downloaders, I'm guessing, are living in countries where legal streams aren't yet available.

More than that, the fansub scene as a whole has largely fallen apart. Many of the best fansub editors and translators have "gone pro" and now assist with the simulcast subtitles that you see on sites like Crunchyroll. There are shockingly few fansubs that can actually be called "fansubs" anymore -- where fans have created an original translation for a show. Most of the scene now deals in subtitles that have been ripped from the legitimate streams, and then matched up to higher bitrate raw files. These rips are lifeblood to fans that live in areas that can't stream legally (and convenient for the handful of Western fans that still insist on stockpiling files).

Unfortunately, those "rip-and-resync" fansubs are also the lifeblood of myriad pirate streaming sites, who pop up everywhere and suck valuable, paying viewers from the legitimate sites. Trying to take down these pirate sites is like playing whack-a-mole: one site goes down, and another, eerily similar site pops up a few minutes later. It's nearly impossible to tell how much damage these sites inflict, but anecdotal evidence suggest it's significant: pirate streaming sites still populate Google search results, and many newbie fans make frequent use of them. Notably, pirate streaming sites are also a major problem for the Hollywood studios, and even with as deep of pockets as they have, it seems like nobody has yet figured out how to bring them under control.

But the good news is that a lot of people use -- and in some cases, pay for -- the legal streaming sites, to the point where they contribute as significant a chunk of revenue to the US market as DVD sales do. And that's good news for everybody.

Kyle asks:

How come some English dubbed anime only get released straight to DVD here in the US and never air on American TV? I know that a handful of them do air on Anime-only channels, such as the FUNimation Channel and Neon Alley, and also on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and Toonami programming blocks. However, there are some, such as Sgt. Frog, Di Gi Charat, Squid Girl, and Doki Doki School Hours, that have never aired on American TV at all. Why is that? I find it weird how some English anime dubbing companies drop a series due to "low DVD sales" when they could have just aired it on American TV first, then that way their dub could reach a wider audience and have better DVD sales.

Well, that's the problem -- no, they couldn't air it on TV first. In order to air something on TV, you have to find a network that will take it. And that's always been the issue: most of them won't.

Back in the days of the 2000s anime bubble, the American anime publishers spent a lot of money chasing television exposure. The biggest anime of the day -- your Cowboy Bebops, your Escaflownes, your Cardcaptor Sakuras -- all had some sort of TV exposure that brought in the non-otaku, so of course the logic was that to make an anime a hit, you needed to get it broadcast. Geneon and ADV hired TV salespeople to try and get the networks to pay attention, and while Bandai forged a strong relationship with Cartoon Network. But of all the major cable channels, Cartoon Network was ultimately the only one that would regularly take a chance on anime programming. A few other channels experimented with a couple of series, but found that the audience never came.

American TV network executives never really "got" anime. The ones I spoke to understood that the fan base was out there, but they didn't understand the appeal. American TV networks are big enough that they're used to calling the shots with new programming. Anime was unappealing for two business reasons: first, that they couldn't control the content of a show that's already been made. They couldn't focus-test new characters, they couldn't avoid topics that were controversial in the US -- they might be able to make small alterations with editing, but anime series are already made, and largely have to be taken as-is. Secondly, if they dedicated a decent time-slot and an expensive marketing campaign to an anime, and that anime became huge, the network wouldn't get a piece of the action. Sure, they might seem some nice ratings, but without any ownership stake in the show, they wouldn't get any extra revenue from home video sales or sale into international markets. And so, the endeavor pretty much never went anywhere.

As it turned out, the market for anime on television really never was all that prominent. Toonami brought in a ton of new fans, and while it was a hit for a while, it never set the world on fire. Adult Swim pulls in respectable ratings, and is still a good place to get broader exposure for a show, but most anime fans with internet access have already seen the shows that air there. And now, with online streaming (and the new simul-dubs initiative) it seems like there's less need for TV broadcast than ever. Hulu and Netflix are bringing in new fans. The already-addicted know where to go. TV is less and less of a thing, particularly for the teenage and young adult audiences that anime counts as its base. They live on laptops and tablets and smartphones, not in front of a television. The internet is a much better place for anime, in that way.

Chase asks:

Rewatching ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA, I was reminded that you got to work with Ikuhara on the dub (along with the interview with him that's on the site). Knowing what we know about you, what was the experience like, and how on earth did that happen (if you are aware of the know hows)? Barring Ghibli and projects like The Animatrix (and others), are there any other dubs where the creative staff themselves were involved in some matter?

I wasn't overly involved with the dubbing process when I worked at Central Park Media, so my interaction with Ikuhara was limited. I did have a meeting with him at one point, where I interviewed him with a bunch of fan-solicited questions, to which he gave the same quirky non-answers that he always gave fans at anime conventions, which he was attending frequently at the time. Digital Manga had a travel blog for him at the time, and afterwards he remarked on there that he thought I was attractive. I took a lot of ribbing for that at the office...

Ikuhara had basically seen the dubbed VHS release of the first season of the TV series, and was appalled not only by the dubbing, but by CPM's weak attempt at designing a package. Since he was already in the States, he came to New York to sit in on recording sessions, but from what I was told, there really wasn't a whole lot for him to do. The ADR director of the first 13 episodes of the TV series, Jim Malone, had moved on from anime dubbing, and replacing him was the truly talented Anthony Salerno, who had earlier turned the Slayers dub from somewhat passable to a fan favorite. Keeping the same cast from the TV series, Salerno maintained the balance of seriousness and light comedy that made the Utena movie what it was.

Ikuhara mostly just watched politely. Occasionally they asked him a question about a scene or a character, but as Ikuhara's English was fairly non-existant, he really couldn't contribute much to the dub. He had already insisted we use his choice of translator (who happened to be anime convention veteran Takayuki Karahashi -- great choice, frankly), so between a solid translation and a capable ADR director, things pretty much fell into place.

Ikuhara later involved himself with the release of later TV episodes, which had been delayed for years due to a contentous relationship with the licensing middleman Enoki Films. He INSISTED that we change the packaging to look more like the Japanese releases -- which were, frankly, gorgeous -- and got us actual good character artwork to use. I'm sure he made life difficult for other staff at CPM, but I was delighted.

While it's pretty rare for anime creators to directly supervise a dub (the only other example I can think of at the moment is Yoshiyuki Tomino supervising the dub of the original Mobile Suit Gundam movies -- I'm told that he was fairly high maintenance and insisted on outright wrong and gibberish translations for certain terms), many original creators now have direct input on things like packaging and casting choices. Some of them are very difficult to please, and have been known to cause releases to get delayed.

Adam asks:

I have always been curious about the stereotypical portrayal of gay, specifically male, characters in anime, such as Fairy Tail, Gurren Lagann, or One Piece. While there are exceptions, they are often depicted as extremely effeminate, dressing absurdly, and/or acting somewhat flirtatiously towards other male characters. In contrast, particularly masculine characters (again, I think of Fairy Tail and Gurren Lagann) exhibit an exaggerated degree of literal homophobia in the presence of these individuals. I've always found this caricature of gay men annoying, but the overreactions of straight men comical because I find them so overplayed, but maybe that's just me coming from a different culture. Where does this stock character for gay/trans men come from, does Japan have a lot of homophobia, and how do my perception of these portrayals (stereotype = peeving; homophobia = humorous) differ from those of the intended viewership in Japan?

It might come as a surprise to many yaoi fans, but Japan is not exactly a mecha Mecca of LGBT tolerance. Don't get me wrong, it's way, way, way better than Russia, and quite a bit better than China and Singapore. But like a lot of Asian countries, Japanese society places a great deal of pressure on people to fulfill their role in society, and that means getting married and having kids, no matter how miserable that makes you. Same-sex relationships are often seen as youthful dalliances; something to be outgrown rather than indulged. Not being able to fulfill that duty can mean shame for a family, and crushing guilt for the individual. Just like in America, that can vary depending on how traditional or conservative the family is.

Gay is different, and different is not always welcomed. Kids who have spent time overseas are often bullied once they come back, for example. The act of "coming out" is often seen as shameful, as it implies putting your own needs above the needs of your family and community. And as often used to be the case in previous generations of American society, the different often make for easy jokes in pop culture like anime. It's the gay equivalent to a racist sight-gag in an old Tex Avery cartoon. We can choose to take offense to it, or we can write it off as relatively harmless fun. A case can be made for either route.

But you know what? We might have slapstick gay characters and ludicrously effeminate villains in many anime, but there are a shocking number of sensitively-portrayed, fantastic gay characters too. We have Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus from Sailor Moon, Isabella from Paradise Kiss, Kei from Moyashimon, and bucketloads of sympathetic (if not always realistic) gay men and women from yaoi and yuri-themed stuff. In manga, things don't get any more realistic than Fumi Yoshinaga's work: her series What Did You Eat Yesterday? should be mandatory reading.

While Japan is not exactly progressive in LGBT matters by American standards, there has been significant progress there in recent years. Just last week Shibuya in Tokyo became the first place in the country to recognize same-sex marriage. But it's still a very difficult place to be LGBT, and they have a very long way to go.

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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