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Interview With The Fansubber
Page 2

by Zac Bertschy,
You mentioned notoriety. How important is notoriety – or I guess “fame”, or “glory”, as odd as that may seem  - how important is that to fansubbers as a general goal?

The thing about that… historically speaking, with fansub groups, even some of the largest and most popular fansub groups… let's say you're releasing a show and someone else starts releasing it before you, and the fans shift their attention to that group. Or let's say someone else shows up and starts doing a much better job than you're doing. If you don't have that attention, if they're not downloading your shows and chatting about it and coming into your IRC channel or posting about it on your webforum, what happens is people lose interest. There has to be that attention that comes their way.

There are a handful of people that will subtitle shows, and even if nobody's watching they keep going anyway, and they're just subtitling them for themselves, but the fact of the matter is, the way that groups behave is that if nobody's downloading their shows anymore they lose interest. There has to be that feedback, that positive reinforcement. They want the attention from fans. If you're talking on an IRC channel and it's a ghost channel where nobody's talking, it gets to be not much fun.

Okay, so this kind of ties into a larger theme. In other words, it sounds like this isn't really about anime. There's a meme that floats around that a lot of people adhere to that states that fansubbers do what they do because they love anime so much and they want to get the shows out there to the world, and it's all about anime and their love for these shows. But what you're saying is that it's not about that – you're saying it's about the notoriety, the fame and the name recognition you get for producing something that people want.

Well, now that holds true for new content, new shows and popular shows. There are some groups that do shows from the 70's and the 80's, obscure stuff that would never get released everywhere. Those are usually about the anime, and those people are usually subbing those shows because they want to get those shows out to the world.

But based on what you're saying, those people are entirely the exception to the rule.

Yeah. I'd say so. They're the exception. If you look at what's being subtitled, 90 percent of them will be all new, popular shows.

And it's kind of a race to see who can be the fastest and the best.

For the new stuff, yes.

Attention and name recognition… let's call it the currency of the game.

So knowing that – knowing that it's about that – what are your personal ethics in regard to what you do, how do you feel about being a fansubber in 2008?

I've subtitled a lot of obscure shows and a lot of popular shows, things everyone knows will get licensed. A lot of times it becomes an afterthought of whether or not I'm going to do this title, just because if it's a popular show, it will be subtitled. Inevitably. Whether or not I do it or not, it'll happen. It's like, I know this group will do it, and so will this one, and it'd be fun to compete with those guys and try to scramble to beat them.

To extend  the MMORPG metaphor, you're "griefing" other groups?

Yeah, we like to compete on that level. Especially with the larger groups, it's fun to beat them at their own game. I'll give you one example of that.

We subtitled Wolf's Rain. 11 or 12 groups were subtitling it. At the time, the group we really wanted to mess with was AnimeJunkies, because they were doing terrible things in the scene and genuinely giving fansubbers a bad name for a variety of reasons. That was an extreme, and it wasn't indicative of the fansub movement, so we thought it'd be fun to one-up them on this title. So we started doing really high quality subs faster than they could do it, and more and more groups started doing that, and eventually they just collapsed under their own weight. Everyone just realized that they didn't have to be the only game in town and we just chipped at them enough, and sure enough they disappeared.

So whether or not we're going to harm sales or the show is inevitably coming to America becomes an afterthought because you know someone else is going to do it. My personal ethics have always been that if a show becomes licensed in the States, you drop it. That's how old-fashioned groups operate, it just seems to make sense.

Based on what you're saying, it sounds to me that it started out with a certain level of ethicality to it. You drop a show when it gets licensed, you don't really leap on shows that you know are going to be licensed, to the point where it's become increasingly unethical and it's been pushed to the point where everything is fair game.
The thing I'll say to that is that going back to the old days, shows that were inevitably going to be licensed have always been fansubbed. Even back to the VHS days, everything popular was fansubbed. In the early days of digisubbing, they were mostly shows that would inevitably be licensed. Love Hina was one of the first shows digisubbed, and that was certainly going to be licensed. There were multiple groups doing Love Hina. The first show to really be over-subbed was probably Noir. You can look at one minute of Noir and you knew it'd be licensed here.

It just got to the point where every major title, every slightly popular title will get subtitled. Technology has made it easier, more people have broadband connections, more people are studying Japanese and making finding a translator easier, there's a boom in interest toward Japanese culture, and more people are interested in anime. Also, the raw files are really easy to get. All of these factors mean more people are involved in fansubbing. There's almost nothing that doesn't get fansubbed. Sometimes there's an anomaly where something just doesn't get subbed, but that isn't a regular occurrence.

I wouldn't say increasingly unethical, but the volume involved has increased whatever impact it has.

How closely do fansubbers follow the health and general status of the R1 and Japanese anime industries?

It kind of depends on how long someone's been an anime fan, but I'd say your average fansubbers are otaku. They're very in to it. They tend to track these things. It's the fansub viewers by and large I think that are ignorant of those things. They're a little more detached from it – they just log into their favorite bittorrent site, download it and forget about it. As far as they know it's just magically created by someone somewhere.  The actual fansubbers as a core group are very knowledgeable and they live and breathe this stuff.

Also, there's a sizable contingent of people who are European who fansub, people in Asia who fansub, it's a global phenomenon.

So based on what we've all seen – and we've all seen this, it's not a myth or a baseless opinion – the anime industry appears to be in trouble. It might be on the brink.


Knowing that what you're doing... would you be willing to say that what you're doing doesn't have any real net positive effect on the business of anime?

Net total, for fansubbers in general, it's having a negative effect. As far as the business side goes,  as far as potential profit they could be recouping, yes, it's having a negative effect.

We subtitle plenty of shows that won't be licensed any time soon, for a variety of reasons, so we are doing good things in terms of increasing awareness . But in terms of the latest and greatest titles, it's certainly not helping sales, absolutely not.

So why do you continue to do what you do knowing that it's having a negative impact on the people who create the anime you like?

That's a tough question. It's one of those things where the technology has allowed it to happen. I can't think of any entertainment medium that hasn't had to deal with this – let's take it back to the late 90's and early 2000's with Napster and MP3s -

Well, hang on there, I'm going to cut you off for a second, I apologize. There is no comparison here to the music industry because musicians can still make money with live performances if their product is being passed around gratis. Anime companies can't. It's not really the same problem.

Well, you're right, but there is a value to be added as far as the subtitles are concerned, and the companies are adding value to the product. But I understand your point where the fansub scene is hurting that, and it's basically that old habits die hard and one fansub group bowing out isn't going to make a bit of difference and everyone knows that.

Historically speaking, if any group drops a title, in a very short amount of time whether it's licensed or not, someone's going to come along and pick it up, and it's going to go up online. This has happened to every major title I can think of in the last 8 years. So from a fansubbers’ standpoint, this stuff doesn't even cross their mind.

Basically then the genie's out of the bottle? Even if you as someone who tries to follow the ethics of the old days stops, it doesn't matter. So you may as well keep enjoying the community aspect of it and you stopping isn't going to change anything?

Yeah. When you put it like that it doesn't sound that great but yeah.
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