Disclaimer: We specify America in this post because a lot of the legitimate options aren’t available elsewhere. There are a lot of places in the world where people can only reasonably be expected to pirate.
Again, again, Jesus Christ, again. The anime piracy conversation is the same unbearable discussion that we’ve managed to have at least a thousand times over the last few years alone. Minds are not going to change, but can we all at least get the facts down on paper?
Ars Technica just half-heartedly attempted to engage the issue. In the wake of Funimation’s nonsensical lawsuit against downloaders of One Piece, a series which the company simulcasts in the US alongside the Japanese airing, this blog post asks three anime fans why they pirate material which is readily available to them by legitimate means and uncritically accepts their answers as fact.
Anime fans have passed the article around without any fact-checking themselves. This is unfortunate, because Ars’ three-man focus group is full of shit.
While streaming content can appear at US outlets within a week or so of airing in Japan, non-streaming material can take far longer. “For non-streaming, yeah, ask the lawyer why it took FUNimation a year to get Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22 out,” said Otaku1.
We don’t need to ask some copyright lawyer this question, because we already know the answer and it’s been spelled out a million times already. But fine, Otaku1, let’s do this for posterity. You think it’s incompetence, but the fact is that it’s market reality.
Eva 2.22 is a major theatrical release in one of the flagship franchises in Japanese animation. It is tremendously profitable to its Japanese rights-holders: far more so than it is or ever will be here. Japanese rights-holders tend to think that their properties are just as profitable in the rest of the world as they are at home — rarely the case, of course — and they set their asking prices accordingly. Do you think they’re going to give that movie up easily? These companies have to negotiate the rights, and business takes time.
Japanese home video is stupidly expensive, and Japanese companies obviously want to preserve a diehard market that is actually willing, in large numbers, to pay $100 for two episodes of K-On! They are terrified, in particular, of reverse importation: Japanese fans importing lower-priced foreign DVDs of their favorite shows. This is why the US Blu-Ray of that same show, which packs 4 episodes for $35, isn’t coming out until April of this year and Japan got their $100 Blu-Rays in 2009. The numbers speak for themselves. Of course American anime fans are second-class; they’re paying an 80% discount!
Update 4/20/11: the US Blu-Ray release of K-On treats patient fans to a DVD-quality audio track, ensuring that those pink, $100 discs are still the one to buy.
Obviously piracy is going to get you the product day one, and obviously not a lot of folks were going to wait a year to watch something as major as Eva 2.22, but in the real world there are issues that have to be dealt with that aren’t going away any time soon. These people don’t just point into the sky and yell “EVANGELION, GO” while the DVD emerges fully formed from the ether. Sorry.
Indeed, the three men in the group all had money to burn, and they had no problem spending it when they saw something of value. “Tell your lawyer this,” said Otaku1. “I have seriously considered buying a series from Japan, with English subs, on Blu-ray, for $400 versus buying the Bandai DVD copy for $80.”
The field of English-subbed, Japanese-release anime BDs is so thin that we actually know precisely what series this fellow is wrong about. It’s Kara no Kyoukai, which caused quite a stir when Aniplex opted to release an extremely limited US run of the BD box set simultaneously with the Japanese. Of course, as with the ongoing release of Gundam Unicorn, they did this at the Japanese price: $400. Both versions have English subtitles. The US version of Kara no Kyoukai sold out before Otaku1 could finish very seriously considering buying it. The $80 “Bandai DVD copy” of this series does not exist.
Update 4/20: Whoooops, as has been pointed out many times we’re completely off-base and the show being talked about was Haruhi.
And now, a cultural consideration:
“As for why I continue to pirate anime that I can get legally,” said Otaku2, “the main reason is because I strongly prefer fansubs over professional subbing. The fansub groups tend to keep more of the cultural idioms intact whereas professional subs just Americanize the sh*t out of everything.”
And what we mean is not an American or a Japanese cultural consideration. It’s something more specific than that. It’s about the subculture of American anime fans, which prefers a very particular kind of translation and presentation.
We’ve talked about this ourselves already, and so have better minds: see Matt Thorn, for one. Because of fan translation, many fans’ expected standard for anime/manga translation is unlike any professional standard for the translation of any other text. It insists upon an odd anime-fan pidgin language which is more concerned with individual minutiae than accessibility or expression. Many anime fans seem to think that a translator’s job is to make the viewer — versed as he is in honorifics, family terminology, and other “untranslatable” nuance — feel like an expert Japanophile while still translating the large swath of the language that he/she does not know.
Let’s talk about what “Americanization” really is. Americanization is when Brock’s riceball is referred to as a donut. Americanization is renaming the main character of Detective Conan “Jimmy”. Americanization is when Working Designs would date 1990s Japanese role-playing games with jokes about Monica Lewinsky. It’s not when a translator attempts to translate meaning and intent rather than transliterate words directly, or when they don’t match the subtitles to the hair color of the speaker, or when they somehow resist the urge to add animated magic sprinkles, stardust, explosions and platinum chains to the subtitle track of the opening theme song. The absence of a “TL note” about every possible Japanese cultural detail is not “Americanization”.
Americanization really doesn’t happen much in professional anime translations anymore, and the odds are that probably isn’t happening (or didn’t happen) with your favorite show. Yet, if we look at the comments on the Ars article, the myth is alive and well.
Commercial translations can, and do, rename characters, remove episodes, alter the art, recut and/or rewrite episodes, alter character relationships, give characters sex changes and more. FUNimation has a reputation for being one of the worst offenders.
This hasn’t been the case for years — a few of these date back to Sailor Moon! — and yet it persists. Anime fans used to be hawks about censorship, and it was with good reason back then. For years, with major titles like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, a version censored for kids’ TV was the only legitimate option. These days, a censored-only home video release of an anime is an extreme rarity, even for the shows that do make it onto kids’ TV. The vast majority of anime is released to US home video unmolested.
As industry conditions have changed over the years, we’ve still continued to hear these exact same lines, mostly from people who’ve never so much as walked in the vicinity of a legitimate anime release in their lives. It’s convenient! It’s a pillar of the Evil Gaijin, Glorious Nippon narrative of which many anime fans are so fond.
Can we get to the real reasons that people pirate the anime they love without the moralizing? We’ll list them.
- While owning tangible physical media is a nice consumerist feeling, digital copies are far more convenient.
- Downloaded media is usually ripped from the highest-quality video sources (HDTV and those expensive Japanese Blu-Rays) and look better than any DVD or online stream. While US anime pickings on Blu-Ray remain slim (because Japanese companies really want to protect the high prices of shows on the new format), this is a major concern.
- There are titles that are extremely unlikely/unprofitable for US licensing (particularly the old ones, the long ones, the ones for girls, the ones with robots, and the ones for old people), which their niche fandoms cannot buy: unless, of course, they pay the ludicrous costs of Japanese home video.
- It’s free.
It’s purely self-interest. Pirating anime will always be the best deal around, provided you don’t mind that you’re screwing the artists, and not screwing the artist is the only advantage of buying anime. Unfortunately, many of these problems — especially the bizarre state of Japanese home video — are presently beyond the reach of any legitimate business on Earth, and as the simulcasters will tell you, there’s no great reward in trying to solve them.
We’re not saying American anime companies have spotless records, that they are saints, or that we’d ever fund the continued production of America’s Greatest Otaku by buying a Tokyopop product, but they all took direct fan input and listened to it as far as was reasonable.
(Update 4/20: Stu Levy shut down Tokyopop so he could make more things like America’s Greatest Otaku. There’s no winning in this world.)
Today those businesses are all dead, and meanwhile American anime fans are wondering why Funimation won’t just give them 1080p copies of the latest episode of The Big New Anime (which just aired an hour ago) for free.
Anyway, anime fan focus group, let’s fix the problem. Throw a solution at us!
As for what businesses like FUNimation can do to lure in the pirates, one focus group member had a thought. “I’ve always wondered why they don’t just hire the fansubbers,” he said.
We’re grinding our teeth over here. This is what they do. Who do you think is doing translation work for all those Crunchyroll shows now? Who do you think will translate a show that fast for peanuts? Who do you think put an entirely called-for “mass naked child event” joke in Panty and Stocking? Ex-fansubbers.
So who is really to blame here? Is it really Funimation or the ex-cons over at Crunchyroll for bending over backwards to give fans exactly what they say they want: English simulcasts hours after anime airs in Japan? Is it the Japanese animation business for protecting their only (albeit insane) source of income? Is it the fans, for stubbornly refusing to support the shows they purport to love unless every unreasonable expectation is somehow magically fulfilled? You tell us.