The Little-Known History Behind How Anime Was Brought to U.S. Shores

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Whenever a viewer watches a good foreign subtitled film, the text is always succinct because the translator knows text carries weight on the overall visual story.  It is a herculean task, and US anime fans from pre-2008 knew–because they translated over hundreds of thousands of anime shows. They were called fansubbers, a group of nameless individuals who brought shows from Japan and distributed them online with translated subtitled before the dawn of simulcasts. However, fansubbers were often met with controversy because their efforts weren’t exactly legal. Eventually, though, US licensors drove the practice away in place of a legitimate market today.

But it wasn’t always like this.

There was a time when fansubbers faced less scrutiny, and licensors accepted fan translations as intel on where to expand their market. For the fandom, it was the dark ages–but also a cross-cultural exchange–where fans had no market and rallied themselves to create a demographic. Hours of work went into promoting shows and fan translations were ways to spread unlicensed shows. Fansubbers were one of the key groups that paved the way for what would be the US anime market today.

 

‘Cowboy Bebop’ (directed by Shinichiro Watanabe) was part of the anime boom in the 90s.

 

 

Anime Fandom: The Dark Ages

Anime fan-translation goes way back to the mid 1980’s where there was little to no market for the medium. That’s not to say that weren’t any licensors–but a majority of shows were outsourced by US companies and Americanized for western audiences. Companies would gut specific scenes or combine multiple shows into one series (ie: Robot Tech). The resulting hodgepodge shows encouraged a few curious viewers to look beyond and realized their favorite shows were ripoffs of anime in Japan.

Early anime fans grabbed whatever shows they could find. Viewers bought unedited VHS tapes and began holding private screenings. Everyone would crowd around a 12-inch screen and listen to the interpreter translate the episode. Small screenings like these inspired viewers to subtitle their favorite series. US anime communities across the states transferred fan-subtitled VHS tapes to one another, and it the sparked a yearning for unedited anime shows. Arctic Animation (founded by William Chow) were among the leading groups that spearheaded the movement. Despite their limited resources, anime fans pitched in and created a volunteerism that encouraged activism. They took it upon themselves to create a market where anime series were accessible, untainted by US edits, and had official distribution. It was the anime fan’s dream, a dream would take more than two decades.

 

Original VHS Fan-subtitled tapes

 

Fansubbers carry an evolving code of ethics, but one rule remains clear: when a series or a film is licensed, translator groups will remove the digital links, VHS tapes, and DVDs in order to support US sales.

On every episode, a disclaimer is titled:

“This is a fansub not for sale, auction, or rent.” and “Please support the official license.”

It was the fansubbers’ way of differentiating themselves from pirates. Their line of principles would carry into the bitTorrent Era, where fansubbers downloaded episodes and translation programs were more accessible than the 1985 Sub Station Alpha (VHS subtitling program). Anyone in the anime community could translate a TV series, and soon the number of shows and fans skyrocketed. From the 90s onwards, fansubbers played a major role in bringing unlicensed shows into the spotlight.

US anime fans petitioned to request an official Japanese audio for DVD release of ‘Princess Mononoke’.

Unlike Hollywood’s condemnation of illegal distribution, fansubbers had less scrutiny because US licensors indirectly relied on the show’s popularity among the fans who were watching them illegally. US license companies, like Funimation or Manga Entertainment had an oversight on which titles were popular and would acquire the distribution rights. Translator groups would then remove the links and encourage their viewers to buy the official release.

Fansubbers may have expanded Anime’s fanbase in the US, but the anime market still suffers the same piracy woes of mainstream entertainment, and indirectly drove the US anime market to the brink of collapse. Traditionally, licensing and anime companies follow the DVD/Blu Ray sales to break even. However, in 2004, the steady sales rate of 5.7 million copies sold each year was in decline. Media Factory tried to tackle piracy by asking AnimeSuki (fan distribution site) to remove their intellectual property (raw files) from the forums, and the site admin agreed to the terms. Of course, this eventually backfired as most of the main fansubbers avoided translations and US licensors–now accustomed to an audience that relied on fan-translated episodes–didn’t buy the rights to new series due to the lack of buzz.

Although a majority of translator groups took down links, US licensors couldn’t compete against fansubbers. Major US licensor, A.D. Vision had to split into five companies in 2008 and lesser companies filed bankruptcy. On the same year, Otakon hosted an industry panel titled “Industry vs. Fansub” that addressed fansubbing and how it was indirectly hurting the market. The panel brought fansubbers and US licensors together at the roundtable to discuss ways to improve relations and find a viable solution to save the anime market.

The panelists acknowledged that a large influx of fansub groups, thanks to the internet, created a whole new streaming platform that traditional licensors couldn’t win. Fansub groups tried to outcompete themselves by delivering translations at breakneck speeds (a.k.a speedsubbing), and episodes from Japan could be downloaded in less than few hours after their release. The anime fandom community couldn’t control their fansub distribution. Fansub copies were re-uploaded on third-party websites. An anime streaming site had an average of six million viewers per week. In order to save the US anime market, licensors had no choice but were forced to compete against fansubbers.

 

The Dawn of Anime Simulcasts

‘Terror in Resonance’ is one of the many titles that were Simulcasted

Instead of a traditional Hollywood crackdown on fansites, Japan’s anime industry and licensing companies went a different route and partnered with streaming sites like Crunchyroll (once an illegal domain for fansub groups) to simulcast current anime lineups. Official translated episodes are up one hour after they are aired in Japan. The solution swiftly ended the fansubber’s role. Fan translators were replaced by official licensors who have managed to distribute and translate at a level on par with the groups.

Crunchyroll currently has 1 million paid subscribers and 20 million users. The former fansubber website and Funimation also established a cross-license that bridges simulcasts, English dubbing, and DVD sales in one package. Amazon Prime even launching a paid subscription which will include over 1,000 titles targeted at mature audiences.

While one may presume that fansubbing had a negative impact on the anime market, US licensors benefitted from the fansubbers by improving their official distributions and translations. Anime simulcasts effectively ended the fansub practice in the US, and the role of the fan translator dwindled back to obscurity.

During their brief run, fan translations were a core facet of anime culture. The first fans who watched Macross would have never imagined anime’s widespread accessibility today. It took decades to reach this kind of magnitude, and it required a large-scale effort. Nowadays, a few anime fans continue the practice, but they focus on translating unknown titles and retro shows, while a new wave of simulcast viewers are shaping the anime community. No fandom has had as major of an impact on the anime industry than the fansubber. 

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