Senior Lecturer, School of Art, Media and American Studies, University of East Anglia
Fansubbing has been crucial to the spread of popular Japanese media to the world, from anime through to Japanese television, manga, film and videogames. Fansubbing is the name given to the creative work undertaken by fans who translate, subtitle and distribute media to other fans. Although fansubbing practices appear throughout the fan communities for Japanese media, it has traditionally been associated with one Japanese medium in particular: anime. As described by Ian Condry, “Fansubbing is the practice whereby groups of overseas fans of Japanese animated films and TV shows (anime), digitize, translate, add subtitles to, and make available online unauthorized copies of TV series and films” (2010, 194). Here, Condry offers a detailed outline of current fansubbing practices and takes an ambivalent stance to its legality that is quickly standardising across academic accounts of fansubbing. However, even Condry’s detailed definition fails to account for the variety, history and increasingly globalised practices included within fansubbing activities.
Firstly, it is worth noting that fansubbing is not a practice unique to the spread or globalisation of Japanese media. Fansubbing has been undertaken by fans around the world to spread their favoured media texts regardless of their points of origin. There is fansubbing for all kinds of media, from anime, to Korean television drama, British quality television, and Hollywood blockbusters. Second, it is worth noting that fansubbing pre-dates the digital era. As soon as home video became globally popular, anime fans (and others) started to exchange and spread their favoured media texts via home videocassettes. So, while fansubbing is a product of home viewing technologies, it is not inherently digital. Thirdly, there has been considerable debate about whether or not fansubbing has always been “unauthorised.” While, legally, all anime fansubbing activities infringe copyright, the early work of fansubbing groups in spreading anime has had a positive perception within the community. However, the view of fansubbing as an altruistic practice is questionable in light of the way the informal distribution markets for anime fansubs have tended to shade into bootlegging and black-market piracy. Consequently, there are questions to be asked about the extent to which fansubbing is, or ever was, exclusively a “fan” distribution method. Moreover, there are also questions for industry to answer about how and why early fansubs were essentially ignored. Therefore, fansubbing needs to be carefully contextualised and understood within differing (inter)national histories. Attention also needs to be paid to the boundaries of practice deemed appropriate by industry and fan practitioners so that the controversies that have dogged fansubbing’s existence might be better understood.
Academic accounts place the earliest references to anime fansubbing back at least as far as 1985 (Koulikov 2010, 5). At that time, fansubbing was undertaken along defined networks of fandom, in which individuals known to one another traded analogue videocassette tapes, spreading anime from Japan to other countries. The most well-mapped of these exchanges took place between Japan and the USA, with tapes of anime sourced in Japan being sent to the USA where they were translated, subtitled and duplicated through an expensive mixture of VHS and computer technologies (Leonard 2005). These tapes were then shared between fans at conventions and through mail-order arrangements (Hatcher 2007). Early fanzines from the UK show how this informal fan distribution network quickly became transnational, with English-speaking fans outside the USA also requesting tapes through this mail-order network (Denison 2015). Even in this early period though, there were alternative formal and informal technological histories of anime distribution, particularly in Asia, where Video Compact Discs (VCDs) helped to popularise anime even in places where these Japanese texts were officially still banned, censored or expensive (Davis 2003; Hu 2004).
At one time fansubs were virtually the only way that fans could watch (and understand) anime…. Without any major distributors of anime in the U.S. market, fansubbers were not competing with licensed companies, and a significant, relatively underground, market for anime began to develop.
— Jordan S. Hatcher
By contrast, in the USA, this early period of fansubbing is usually understood as a positive phenomenon that helped to grow the US fan market for anime texts (Leonard 2005). As Jordan S. Hatcher argues, “At one time fansubs were virtually the only way that fans could watch (and understand) anime…. Without any major distributors of anime in the U.S. market, fansubbers were not competing with licensed companies, and a significant, relatively underground, market for anime began to develop (2007, 5). Sean Leonard contends that this lack of distribution created a ‘cultural sink’, causing anime fans to be drawn into copyright infringement as a means to close the gap between the community’s desire for content and a lack of formal distribution from Japan (Leonard 2005). This had two significant impacts on anime consumption in the USA (and elsewhere): first, fansubbing became a sub-culture within anime fandom. It was undertaken by a comparatively skilled subset of fans, who developed their own rules and ethics of practice, but, even in its early period, the fruits of fansubbing labour were enjoyed by a far wider community of anime fansub viewers, not all of whom shared the ethical code of the fan producers. Second, laissez-faire industrial copyright enforcement from Japanese creators lulled fans into believing that industry would never care to enforce anime copyright.
This situation changed, as Condry and others have noted, when digital technologies revolutionised the relationship between the Japanese industry, its authorised overseas distributors and fansubbing groups (Denison 2011; Lee 2010). In essence, fans were far quicker than industry to see the potential of the Internet. The major change for anime fansubbing was its transformation into digisubbing (Condry 2010). Digital files can be uploaded in Japan, and quickly taken up by geographically dispersed fansubbing groups (who need not meet in person), who then translate, encode and time subtitles using free online software. Luis Pérez González (2007) explains that this is usually a six-stage process that follows a fairly standardised pattern of creative work: from acquisition of the raw (unsubtitled) file, to its translation, after which the translated script is timed to the anime episode, followed by typesetting the subtitles, then editing and encoding them onto the raw file. The production of free specialised subtitling and other software has meant that the cost to fansubbing groups has radically decreased in the digital era, making the practice more accessible. The speed at which groups can work has also been increased by the way the Internet allows transnational communication, expansion and dispersion of fansubbing groups. For example, it is not uncommon for larger fansubbing groups to contain separate units, each working on specific anime texts. This has created a shift in meaning around the fansub: once a relative rarity, and one that decreased in quality when copied, digisubs are now far more ubiquitous, and their quality can be as good, if not better, than legitimate releases (Denison 2011). Online sharing of digisubs also allows them to be archived and endlessly redistributed, with groups of fansubbers using one another’s creative work to continue the translation process, with the potential to endlessly proliferate anime across ever more languages and cultures.
Somewhat inevitably, the proliferation of anime digisubs online has led fansubbing groups to come into conflict with industry. Formal anime distribution outside Japan, from television broadcasts to specialist home video distribution companies, gradually expanded across the 1990s, with companies like FUNimation, Madman Entertainment, Manga Entertainment, Right Stuf Anime, AD Vision and Viz all entering the global English language anime markets through legitimate means. The high point in the tensions between industry and fansubbing groups came with the rapid decline of the DVD market in the mid-2000s. By that time, it was common to see anime conventions feature fansubbing panels (Koulikov 2008), with industry specialists trying to educate fans on the damage done to industry by the creative practices of the subculture of fansubbing.
The main problem for distribution companies in the USA was that the fan practices online had outstripped the pace of the industry’s models for sourcing, translating and releasing anime. They also failed to account for the fact that fansubbing groups themselves were gaining fan followings. It is common for big groups to have their own websites, and for them to use Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels to have private discussions with their fan consumers, releasing digital fansubbed anime through those same IRC. This creates a closed network of fan reproduction and consumption, separate to the distributive channels open to industry. Even though a far larger audience was using BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer downloading technologies, it is these closed fan circuits of informal distribution that most challenged the efficacy of industrial distributive logics. This fan phenomenon has subsequently gained such strength that there are now websites dedicated to collating, archiving and discussing anime fansub groups.
However, industry has begun to find answers to the speed and ubiquity of anime digisubbing by fans. Foremost among these has been the adoption of fansubbing practices as a new industry standard. Early examples include established companies like FUNimation providing “simulcasts” of anime; producing their own subtitled episodes of popular anime that they could stream online at the same time as the anime was being broadcast in Japan (Denison 2015, 108). Crunchyroll offers an interesting example. Now a leading anime distributor, Crunchyroll began life as an informal distributor, a fan website where fansubbed anime could be posted. It subsequently sought funding and gained rights to simulcast anime from Japanese companies, and its aggressive pursuit of anime rights has now enabled Crunchyroll to become a major formal global distribution centre for anime online. In many respects, then, anime fansubbing practices (and sometimes even personnel) have been brought under the umbrella of formal distribution (Crunchyroll 2013). Likewise, simulcasting anime episodes has radically reduced the ability of fansubbing groups to claim the ethical high ground in debates about the time lag between Japanese and overseas fans’ access to anime texts. This has produced a new set of debates around anime fansubbing, with remaining groups maintaining the need for fansubs of otherwise “lost” historically important anime texts; or, arguing the case for their better or alternative approaches to translation.
The cases of fansubbing around Welcome to the Ballroom (dir. Yoshimi Itazu, 2017) offer an instructive example in these newly emergent debates. Welcome to the Ballroom is produced in Japan by famed anime company Production I.G. and follows the story of a high school student learning ballroom dancing. Gamespot’s Kallie Plagge asserts that Welcome to the Ballroom was the most anticipated show for the summer of 2017, making it a high-profile potential target for “speed subbing” groups, whose aim is to beat other fansubbing groups, and industry, to the distribution punch. By being the first, they can garner large global audiences for their work. Welcome to the Ballroom is also a good example through which to revisit the discourses around digisubbing and industrial translation, particularly the debates around cost and access. To protect the community, the analysis below has been anonymised, and so references to fansub community websites will not be included.
From an industrial perspective, Welcome to the Ballroom’s anticipated popularity was reflected in its unusual online distribution to English-speaking audiences. The show’s global premiere took place online on Twitch.tv a day before it was broadcast in Japan or released through its US distributor, countering the potential for speed subbing groups to outpace the official distribution. Twitch.tv has become a recent hub for online videogaming communities, specializing in the live streaming of user generated content, from eSports competitions to social activities like eating meals while playing videogames (Twitch.tv 2017). While seemingly independent, Twitch.tv is owned by Amazon, who had secured the English-language simulcast rights to Welcome to the Ballroom. Amazon appears to have used this free-to-access premiere as a means to test the market for Welcome to the Ballroom. Thereafter, Amazon has made the remainder of the show available to stream or download, exclusively through their new Anime Strike “channel” (Spangler 2017). This in itself is unusual, as other major distribution platforms, notably Crunchyroll, only make their content available for streaming, meaning that, while fans can watch anime, they never own a digital or physical copy of the medium. After the free premiere, therefore, Welcome to the Ballroom was placed behind multiple paywalls, requiring fans to pay for accounts on both Amazon and its Anime Strike channel, something that Plagge notes cost upwards of $150 dollars per year (Plagge 2017). In this way, Amazon was able to secure its anime content and reap financial rewards, even though they were initially offering free access to the show.
Amazon’s experimental distribution practices have met with somewhat predictable responses. One fan community website that provides statistics on its users suggests that the majority of those who stopped watching the show, stopped after seeing the free first episode. On Amazon’s own website, the reviews of Welcome to the Ballroom are glowing, but on Crunchyroll, one of Amazon’s major anime distribution competitors, the Welcome to the Ballroom forum members responded with literal “despair” when the announcement about its distribution was made. The Crunchyroll fan community’s response, however, was less on the grounds of expense, and more to do with perceived delays in distribution on Amazon’s Anime Strike channel, and Amazon’s lack of professionalism in subtitling. In this way, the debates around legitimate distribution mirror those about which fansubbing groups are deemed best (Cubbison 2005).
Displaying a kind of anticipatory fandom for a show they could not yet watch, these fans offer a company and community centred view of anime. Some of them overtly criticised Amazon for entering the anime distribution market, arguing that Amazon was a William Gibson-style megacorporation, borrowing the concept from Gibson’s dystopic science fiction worlds. For example, one fan warns “We [will] be pledging allegiance to The United States of Amazon! Be forewarned! And I always laughed at the Acme Co in Road Runner Cartoons. Or the Megacorporation in Wall-E. The great sci fi writer William Gibson used the term a lot.” In these ways, anime is presented as a niche concern under threat by a major conglomerate that, for this platform-specific fan community, should remain outside the purview of mainstream distribution.
Given the range of fan responses to Amazon’s handling of Welcome to the Ballroom, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that fansubs of the show quickly came into circulation. There is an anonymous English language website specifically created to house episodes of Welcome to the Ballroom, there is a French fansub website featuring the show on its front page and official and unofficial clips appear regularly on YouTube. Within English the general fansubbing community, one major website has begun archiving information about Welcome to the Ballroom’s fansubs. They list one group providing raw files, a further three performing Japanese to English fansubs and yet another fansub group undertaking Japanese to Turkish translations. Of those translating from Japanese into English, one has no formal web presence, another provides a simple user interface, while the third is a major fansubbing group that is very active.
This larger fansubbing group, which is organised around a number of fansubbing subgroups working on specific projects simultaneously, has a rather aggressive stance towards their own users and community. For example, they tell their audiences that “We will not change our font, so quit whining and change your own font.” They also tell other fansub groups that they should “Feel free to re-translate the subtitles into whatever shitty language you speak.” Unsurprisingly, this group have become caught up in a new authenticity debate that has emerged since the rise of simulcasting. Their own website contains crossed out text asserting that they repackage rips of official subtitles from websites, rather than doing their own translations and subtitling. This has led the group to state overtly that “We do not rip our shows from Crunchyroll or the likes.” The Crunchyroll fan forum reports this story differently, however, with fans complaining that the group was re-posting Crunchyroll content, while getting into a semi-public feud with Crunchyroll’s main web administrator, who is known as Shinji. Whether this was an attempt by the legitimate distributor to discredit this large fansubbing group, or an attempt by the group to co-opt the texts of authorised distributors, remains unclear. What the incident reveals is a shift in approach on both sides, and a new point of contention between industry and digital fansubbing groups.
The group’s fansubs of Welcome to the Ballroom are digisubs, and have been generally well-received by the fan community, but the debate about the originality and, hence, authenticity of their creative work persists. For example, while the user comments give them ten out of ten for translation and typesetting, and another user declares theirs to be “The best fansub you can find so far,” another user declares that “Guys this group rips their releases, they don’t sub anything. This is basically official subs, which is what makes them pretty good.” Part of what is happening in this instance is that the fansubbing group makes less effort than many others to differentiate their work from that of professional translators. For example, their website declares that they do not do the ‘karaoke’ often provided on digisubs, wherein the opening and closing theme songs are given spinning, dancing Romanised subtitles. Therefore, even if this group is doing their own translation and subtitling, their work does not fall into the wider aesthetic frameworks afforded to amateur anime fansubbing groups. This makes their creative work less overt, and brings the group into closer proximity to the work of professionals, which in turn makes it easier to assert that they are stealing the work of professionals.
Things like unusual fonts, editorial notes and karaoke, therefore, are becoming vital hallmarks of authenticity in the digisubbing age, especially now that fansubbing groups are often producing work in the wake of industrial distribution (Schules 2014). These signs of aesthetic difference between fansubs and formal anime translations are fast becoming a new ground upon which fans can claim legitimacy for their creative work. Along with a rising set of newer audio-visual fan practices, like Anime Music Videos and re-edited “abridged” versions of anime, fansubbing is having to find new ways to signal its difference from formal distribution and is doing so on the grounds of community and aesthetics.
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