An Essay on Anime Fans and the Industry

By: Matt Hawkins



Why are anime fans so insistent on their media?


Over the course of the past several months, I have been pondering fandom, industry, and the future of the two in the United States and around the world. These ponderings which began as a simple debate with my-self about which piece of merchandise to buy or series to watch eventually grew to deeper and more philosophical debates, again with my-self, about subs-vs.-dubs or why anime fans seem to be more direct and outspoken than other niche audiences. This rambling is an argument with my-self about the future of anime, fans, and the R1 industry in a tangible, reproducible medium that, to the delight of my co-workers, does not involve me talking to my-self.



In the beginning, there was one and the power of love wrought number two.


While the author will not pretend to know who created the first fan-sub, or made it popular, the origins of the medium are evident to those who read the title, fans. Fan-subs were for a very long time the only way for anyone who did not understand the Japanese language to enjoy the medium; it is this very fan rooted movement in which anime found its first home and has been near and dear to many of those first few fans to this very day.


This marks the first of many reasons why anime fans are so fervent about their media, they have taken ownership of the project and internalized it success in a way that is typically missing from all aspects of the lives of many of us here in the United States. As anyone who has spent much time in leadership work shops knows, developing a sense of ownership of a particular project or idea and the subsequent results can be a powerful motivator for people to do well, and has long been a trait seen in many great artisans but can turn from passion to obsession. For the sake of argument, and because it gives me a convenient excuse to insert anime puns, we shall call this the power of “love.” All jokes aside, this ‘love’ of the media helps to develop a strong connection, some of these connections have even been given distinct names such as “moe,” the benevolent admiration of a character because of a stereo-typical set of traits which allow the audience to easily sympathize and emote with the character.


Perhaps, it is this love that brings fans together, or it may in fact be the opposite, but in either case, there is a completely new level of connection past that of many of the popular fan bases.



Continuous partial attention, what was that?


I will also offer a second theory for the unique and unbridled passion of anime fans, immersion. A recent study found that while the younger generations generally used their DVRs and TiVos more than older audiences, they used them to skip commercials less than older users[2]. The study offered two suggestions for this behavior, not watching commercials seems assumed, either the younger audiences were moving their attention to other media during commercials such as text messages and the internet, or they were simply using the television programming as ‘background’ music.


Upon reading this I recalled an article I some large number of months ago about what Linda Stone called, “continuous partial attention” [3]. The concept of continuous partial attention is that while we keep the activity/meeting/ect active in the foreground we are also scanning the periphery for other things that may require attention. This can work well with most TV shows or meetings but tends to work much more poorly with anime. Many of the fans, especially those who have been active in fandom since before the primary growth of the North American anime industry, watch the works subtitled. They must pay attention to the voice as well as read the text to gain context while continuing to scan the screen for the actions associated with this dialog. Which once again brings us to a chicken or the egg argument, does the requirement on the viewer to focus much more intently on the happenings on the screen create a deeper connection with the fans, or does the medium as a whole offer all the stimuli sought in one convenient package? Usage patterns would seem to suggest that the latter rather than the former but I suspect that both are logical causations though not necessarily in equal proportion.



Enthusiasm knows no bounds, unless it meets a lawyer.


What analysis of fandom would be complete without a discussion of the legal and the associated economic ramifications of fandom on the community? The anime movement started with fans subtitling anime for other fans (also called fan subbing) at or below their personal cost for love of the medium and the desire to spread that medium to others. As computers and the internet matured, it became much easier for fans to create and acquire fan-subs. Many of the early North American anime distributors began deciding what to license by following the fan-subs and seeking licenses for those properties. As with any business based on a model responding to market demand, after the demand for a product has already peaked, the companies were not enormously profitable. As computers and internet connections became faster, the companies, unable to keep up, eventually fell further and further behind the popularity climax.


While music groups (who experienced a similar phenomenon) took legal action and sought to preserve their existing business model, those in the anime industry have sought to bring the fans what they want. This is not to say that there have not been lawyers involved; however, the community and the industry have found a certain level of civility that never developed in the music industry. Those producing fan-subs have generally stopped when ask to do so, and many have adopted policies to cease production and/or distribution upon the announcement of a license in the target region. The anime companies have been making strides to meet the community in middle as well. Bandai Visual has announced plans to begin simultaneous releases of properties in the United States and Japan. Other companies, who do not own the properties they are releasing, are working to reduce the time between the licensing announcement and the street date. Bandai Entertainment is experimenting with doing multiple releases of a property; first producing a subtitle only release, and then second release that will include an English dialog audio track within the standard production window. Funimation is experimenting with digital distribution including subtitle only previews of a series from their website.


Of course, things have not always been pretty, cease and desist letters have been sent to numerous fan-subbing groups by anime production and licensing companies, and Japan has recently had their first convictions for people uploading copies of shows frequently used as the source footage for fan groups engaged in subtitling activities. “Boot-legers” have also been a problem and will remain problematic for the foreseeable future, as these groups do not restrict them-selves only to anime but music, video, and even merchandise produced worldwide. These groups, when taken in context of the anime industry, have generally tried to profit by taking fan-subs and packaging them in something that appears to be a legally legitimate packaging and selling their products to those fans who either do not know any better or are simply indifferent toward the purchasing officially licensed merchandise.


The industry in North America has also seen the loss of Geneon Entertainment as a production facility; while they have not completely closed, they are no longer producing media for sale. There has been little public comment as to what is happening with their properties, but the impact of their largely unexpected exit has impacted fans; there is little public information regarding how fans as a whole have reacted though the moves by major licensing and distribution companies have made moves toward faster releases and providing a larger number of complete collections; however, this change may be driven by factors outside of the reaction of the market to the loss of Geneon.


One of the largest difficulties facing anime licensors, especially in the United States market, is the sudden abundance of TV shows on DVD. The extremely low production costs to sell United States audiences their TV shows again on DVD has led to a significant drive to reduce the cost of the shows. When single season of a local television show is boxed and placed on the shelf of a local store for between $30 and $50 and a single season of an anime series and box priced at $200 or more, the consumer is forced to reevaluate purchasing decisions. When coupled with other forces associated with the anime industry, including the desires of the original licensor, it becomes difficult to satiate the different cultural and economic systems while maintaining a viable profit margin and positive relations with both sides. In effect, anime companies have become a cultural and economic negotiator for businesses between the United States and Japan in a manner unique other segments of commerce.



Purity vs. Profit. Round one. FIGHT!


They say all is fair in love and war, but love is more perilous than any war; and any singer facing a galaxy wide armada can attest to this fact. Complaints that companies who license and produce anime for the United States market are destroying anime and not providing translations at the same quality from fan-based sources are rife throughout the community. This argument’s beginnings are English language audio tracks and editing for television where many companies make the assumption that animated shows are only for kids and must be impossible to recognize from any locally produced offering.


Series such as Speed Racer had little more than a very rough translation and the original Japanese audio. Numerous visual edits to adapt the translation to its intended audience and since only the licensed episodes were available to the writers, it was not possible to keep the dub one-hundred percent true to the original series. Sweat drops used to indicate stress and snot bubbles indicative of sleep were removed, and cohesion was lost resulting in impromptu explanations regarding the sudden appearance of a character which may have been subtlety introduced in the original dialogue. Sailor Moon also had character name changes, music changes, the backgrounds were reversed so cars drove on the right-hand side of the road, and many episodes were edited, combined, removed, and otherwise changed. The localization effort stalled after the fourth season when the amount of editing required to bring the final season inline with the image created for the United States’ viewing audience would have been paramount to reanimating the season. Other series that have suffered from over zealous cultural adoption more recently include: Cardcaptor Sakura, the Dragon Ball universe (all three series), One Piece, and Tokyo Mew Mew. Each of these shows received heavy editing; to quote 4Kids CEO Al Kahn[1] in relation to their plans for the adaptation of Tokyo Mew Mew for the United States audiences, "By the time we localize the programs kids don't even know they're from Japan any more." This attitude has driven these self-proclaimed purists to shun commercially translated anime in favor of the illegitimate, fan-supported translations. Many have neglected to note that many of these shows receive an un-cut, un-edited, un-censored, or some other market jargon synonym for a release which contains the fewest possible deviations from the original work possible while maintaining coherency in the targeted market.


While some edits to shows for television distribution are understandable, such edits must be proportional and consistent with the expectations of the target audience. Young children are instantly turned off by anything in a language that they do not understand while cultural discrepancies may play a small but measurable role. This likely means that characters will receive names common to the new language’s locale, the signs translated, and the dialogue altered to comply with the regional culture. Very few instances justify plot or message alteration. Older children into their early teens will receive a similar treatment though more pop culture may be introduced into the dialogue. Older teens to young adults begin to make-up the early age range of the distinct anime fans and is the transition zone into more advanced titles, fewer pop-culture references are localized and the names are typically unaltered. Finally, we come to the mid-teen and up group that typically wants the work as unaltered as possible while translated into the English language.


Some will argue that the fan-based translations are more accurate because they are translating for the love of the media and not for a profit. A simple analysis will show arguments of this nature simply do not work for the majority of shows. Evidence that there is a lucrative commercial outlet for both extremely localized and unedited translations are plainly evident in series such as Dragon Ball Z which has received numerous re-edits on TV as well as un-edited DVD releases while another series, One Piece, has not only been re-released in an unedited DVD format but received a whole new script and voice cast.


Another aspect of translations which is frequently discounted is the nature of the translator, most people go to a licensed doctor, not their best friend for medication; translators are no different. While one may get some helpful tips occasionally, consistently better results are found when seeking the services of a professional provider. With this, it should be noted that more liner or translator’s notes should be included with DVDs, either as extras on the disk or as an insert into the case; this would satisfy those looking for the ‘more accurate’ translation as well as those who may be confused by the cultural and contextual confusion caused by translation of language and location.


Other changes which have taken place to anime titles includes extras which were not a part of the original production, yet have been mostly overlooked by those arguing that fan-based translations are more true to the original and that commercial companies are re-editing of the components of the show. One notable example is Cowboy Bebop remix; the original Cowboy Bebop show with its sound track re-edited into a surround-sound format but drew little criticism; this is certainly not in the original.  Another example is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzamiya that received a release in both chronological order and broadcast order that was not released in the Japanese DVD market, yet caused these self-proclaimed purists to cheer. However, since few of these purists are fluent in the Japanese language, whether or not they watch a fan-based translation or a commercially produced translation they are not experiencing the original product but an interpretation of the original. This interpretation, either in the form of subtitles or in a local language version will be unique to the production group involved in the creation and implementation of this interpretation. The different implementation may be more appealing to some but these arguments are marginal at best. Spoken language dialog may be further interpreted than a subtitled version of the same show due to the addition of the voice actor to the translator; however, there is very little doubt that the original creator did not intend for text to be displayed across the work of their animators and character designs which further detracts from the viewing experience by requiring the viewers eyes to dwell on the text instead of the visual content of the title. The second primary drawback to the purity argument involves the problems with the understanding of the original spoken language track; only those who understand the Japanese language track can evaluate the quality of the track. The United States audience may complain about the vocals used in the English language audio track, but cannot be compared directly since there are fans whom have learned Japanese and have been disillusioned by the original work after being able to directly evaluate its quality.



It takes a village.


There are few things in this world more harmful to children than parental indifference toward the activities of their children while attempting to prevent their exposure to undesirable content in the name of their well-being. The problem of over-protective yet under-involved parents is rampant in all aspects of media in the United States; from movies, video games, and music, to other seemingly benign experiences such as swimming pools and amusement parks. Much of this problem stems from a lack of parental involvement in the activities of their children effectively causing them to attempt to shield their child from all the evils of the world through censorship and obfuscation rather than dialogue and education. An excellent example of parental dramatization is the Cartoon Network adaptation of Tenchi Muyo! in which there is a scene of the main characters passing by a casino in which the editors missed a single Star of David, which while being on screen for only a few frames, literally flooded Cartoon Network with irate communications from parents. Japanese parents clogged the Tokyo switchboards when the second to last episode of Sailor Moon season 1, aired in Japan after four of the five main characters ended up ‘dead,’ causing temporary loss of emergency services to some areas because it isn’t fair to kill off the main characters; the irony being that anyone familiar with the Sailor Moon series now knows that dead main characters, followed by their subsequent resurrection, is a common place occurrence.


Parents, please take the time to be involved with your children and teach them how to make positive decisions instead of simply stopping them from making decisions that you do not approve. The author does not advocate the free reign of the choices a child is entitled to make but does hope that the possible choices will grow with the age and maturity of the child and that anime in its various forms and levels of editing will be included in those choices; anime as with any other medium such as games, and movies, has material suitable for audience of various ages and age ranges, and has some basic guidelines outlined on the packaging. Please read these guidelines provided by the distributor and if ever in doubt please ask the community; if there is one thing the community will do freely, sometime too much so, it is lend summary and opinion on a title.



Quick, give me something snazzy to go out on…


The fans and the industry will need to continue to work with each other to produce titles for the market. This is easier said than done as the licensors for the United States and other markets around the world have a very difficult task as acting as the translator between the corporate reasoning in the different cultures and markets. It will require a unification of understanding between companies, fans, resellers in order to provide a profitable product to markets outside of Japan while respecting the rights of the original content creators, the needs of the market, and the desires of the purchasers.