In the Beginning There Was Fansubs
Hello, and welcome to the very first transcript of Crunchyroll's new Anime in America podcast! Those in need of a different way to access and enjoy the podcast, as well as those looking to research further or simply take note of some interesting facts that were mentioned, look no further. We'll be accompanying each episode with a full text transcript just like the one below, so enjoy!
The Anime in America podcast, hosted by Yedoye Travis, is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
Disclaimer: The following program contains language not suitable for all ages. Discretion advised.
You know the problem with you kids is you all think everything is so easy. You’re all on Tik Tok enjoying your lives while millennials are busy eating cartel avocados and getting blamed for Coronavirus... somehow. How is it our fault? We’ve been here the same amount of time as anybody else.
There’s so much content out for you guys to enjoy, it’s hard to feel like it even matters sometimes. Watching anime is so easy now that there’s YouTube series about anime, music about anime, there’s anime about anime, and it’s hard to imagine the days when you had to acquiesce to an actual TV schedule just to watch Dragon Ball Z.
Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z: “I am the prince of all Saiyans once again!”
But those days definitely happened and, regardless of shifts in technology, we might not have access to our favorite shonen and shoujo in quite the same way without the dedicated fans who really pushed the industry forward in that way.
So in our first episode, we’ll be breaking down exactly how those fans took their one “unmarketable” passion and shoved it down everyone else’s throat until we got to where we are today. This is Anime in America brought to you by Crunchyroll and hosted by me, Yedoye Travis.
“I was just starting high school at the time, and there were a group of upperclassmen that were starting an anime club, and they had a couple of these weird video tapes that I knew were not legal, but seemed to be subtitled kinda on the DL by fans and just passed around. They were copies of copies of copies, so they were pretty blurry, but they were stuff you just couldn’t get anywhere. And I later had it explained to me that they were fansubs and they were made by fans for fans.”
That’s Justin Sevakis. Founder of Anime News Network, CEO of MediaOCD, which is a hard thing to say, and a former fansubber, a member of a group called Kodocha, named after Justin’s own maiden voyage into the world of fansubbing, the 1996 anime romcom “Kodomo no Omocha” or “Child’s Toy” in English.
[Opening of Kodomo no Omocha plays]
So what exactly is fansubbing? Well, it’s very complicated unless you work at computers or something like that. For those of us with regular jobs, fansubbing is a portmanteau of “fan” and “subtitle” and hopefully it’s very simple to figure out from there, but I don’t know. But anyway, it’s a practice of fans independently getting their hands on a piece of foreign language media, translating it, and subtitling it. Usually to share with others who don’t speak the original language. It’s also illegal and, despite whatever information you might have on illegal things, the people who make the original work really really really don’t like it.
So why would supposedly passionate fans of a form of media modify it without the creator’s permission and distribute bootleg copies of it, essentially committing media piracy? Well, a lot of reasons all boil down to the fact that you just couldn’t get it anywhere else.
Anime in the late 80s and early 90s was pretty scarce. It was still unproven in the American market (and all over the world but that’s another podcast), so it was being licensed by only a select few small and kinda shady companies, which we’ll get into later, and they were very selective about what they would invest in. And on top of that, a lot of anime distributors were very confused why a country like America would even be interested in their work, which is an obstacle that would take years of negotiations and increasing international VHS and DVD sales to overcome, and it still persists on some level even now. In the end, it was just a textbook case of demand outstripping the supply, so much so that fans went through all this trouble despite fansubbing being, as we’ll soon learn, a very big pain in the ass.
In the early 90s the technology for burning subtitles onto a VHS or laserdisc was prohibitively expensive, so most fansubbing groups rose out of college anime clubs because universities at the time had the highest concentration of both anime fans and expensive and incredibly specific technology.
Sevakis: “In order to make a fansub you had to have a device called a genlock which actually would pass the video signal through the computer and overlay graphics on top of it. It would like key out one of the 16 colors that the computer was displaying and that would be replaced with whatever the video signal was under it.”
If you didn’t have convenient access to a Commodore Amiga and a Genlock, the two would put you back somewhere to the tune of $3,000.00 the equivalent of about $5,500.00 in 2019 dollars. So it was a very difficult hobby to get into unless you worked in the audio visual industry, were attending a well-funded college, or had fuck you money and a lot of free time, which not many people had.
Fortunately the software was free. The industry standard was called JACOsub, and obviously JACO stands for Japanese Animation Club of Orlando. [laugh] That’s obvious, duh. Because it was developed by anime fans for the specific purpose of fansubbing anime. Because who would’ve thought that nerds also knew their way around computers?
Now assuming you could get your hands on the hardware AND that obscure bit of software you still needed to get the anime itself and, usually, somebody willing to translate it for you. The groups that distributed the fansubs weren’t necessarily the same people translating them, and sourcing the anime itself was its own struggle. So a lot of groups just made copies from hobbyists who translated the anime and either had connections in Japan, maybe a member of the US military stationed in Japan who taped the anime as it appeared on television, or, if you wanted the high quality stuff, they ordered official laserdiscs from services like CDJapan, personally swallowing the cost of $80 per disc plus expensive international shipping before sending it downstream.
From there the group would burn the subtitles onto the video using the aforementioned equipment and using JACOsub, one poor soul would timestamp each line individually by just hitting the spacebar every time a character started talking. That whole process created the Master Copy, which would go into a VCR that networked to a daisy chain of VHS decks that would copy the subtitled anime en masse for distribution, which is a lot.
So how did your average anime fan get their hands on one of those bootleg tapes?
Well, you would send a letter. Which, if you don’t know what a letter is, a letter is kind of like an email, that you would send to your wife during wartime. It could take days or even weeks to arrive, and this is not important, but your wife would ultimately reveal that she had found a new lover. But I digress.
Before the internet became widely available, anime piracy existed entirely in-person or through the US postal service. There were two popular methods for requesting videos. One was mailing in a hand written letter to a fansub group’s PO Box with your requested series along with a money order to the tune of $6 dollars per VHS at 4 episodes per tape, which when you do the math is… how much is that? I don’t even, you guys have calculators, you can do it.
As nice as that sounds for the distributors, that $6 really only covered the costs of the tape itself and return postage. Ultimately, they were kinda doing it for themselves and distribution duty just came by virtue of being the only ones with access. Alternatively you could mail in your own VHS via self-addressed stamped envelope to cover the cost of the media and postage but a lot of groups weren’t really fans of that method… because it sucked. It sucked a lot.
Sevakis: “Those were a nightmare, because people would send in cheap and used tapes that would gum up the VCRs, they would eat the tapes. If tapes got mixed up, it was a disaster. There wouldn’t be a backlog because you couldn’t run them in tandem, you had to run off each copy one at a time.”
Despite the obstacles, some of these groups developed sophisticated distribution networks, even stockpiling popular series like Escaflowne in anticipation of multiple orders.
[“Vision of Escaflowne,” opening of Escaflowne, plays]
But even with all these organized efforts, there were so few people in the industry and such high demand, that fulfilling orders sometimes took up to a year. Because you could just do that. Imagine mailing out a nicely written letter along with $6 per tape and waiting a fucking YEAR for one show to come in the mail. ONE show.
As time went on, fansubbing networks continued to grow more sophisticated, connecting with cheap wholesale distributors to lighten their load, copying tapes, and even finding unique branding opportunities...
Sevakis: “Kodacha tapes were well known because- I was in Detroit at the time and not too far from us was a custom tape manufacturer that would custom spool VHS tapes for us, really high quality stuff, and they would do a foil stamp of our logo on the shutter of the tape. Also, they had a cancelled order of these purple tapes that were supposed to be used for Barney and Friends. So they were purple, and we’re just like ‘actually, these are really durable, we’ll take them!’ And that became known as the Purple Barney Tapes, and that became synonymous with Kodacha Anime.”
All of this still took a lot of time. One group could be working on several anime at once and the process took a few hours per episode, and that’s assuming they already had a translation ready. Combine that with the release schedule of most of the anime they were working on and you’re looking at a part-time job running projects that take literal years to complete. It’s one of those things that make you think maybe anime wasn’t worth it. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe we fucked up. I don’t know.
The craziest thing was this growing network run by passionate fans turned amateur translators, AV techs, and distributors operated essentially on word of mouth. Most fansubbers got into the “industry” through high school or college anime clubs and their… technically I guess you can call them customers? Were friends and then friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends. You just had to know a guy who knew a guy. That’s kinda how it works.
Then, like most things, the internet changed that. By a lot. In the late 90s webrings, which are groups of websites that mutually linked to one another, before Google started collecting all of our personal information, began to form which changed the game when it came to visibility. Where before you could only look for rare anime publications or go by word of mouth to discover new shows, it became a lot easier to just find fansites with a ton of recommendations and it usually wasn’t much harder to find someone who could get those anime to you. Between those and mailing lists, soon requesting your VHS anime became a digital affair and anime communities started to grow around these sources of illicit videos. Maybe illicit isn’t the right word. I guess technically some are illicit. I don’t know, but I think Illegal maybe is the word I’m looking for. But that’s not the point.
As the internet became a greater part of the fansubbing scene, pretty much exactly what you think would happen, happened. There was a lot of drama. This was a unique period in fansub history where the complexity of distribution and fan communities were becoming decentralized but lone, anonymous individuals could still have a huge impact on the community. And one of these people was Karen, who’s sole operator of a fansubbing group called Tomodachi anime, and perhaps the person who single-handedly popularized shoujo anime in America.
For the uninitiated, shoujo is a Japanese word that literally translates to “girl,” specifically young women usually between the ages of 7-18. It’s also the term for that targeted demographic in manga and anime marketing speak. Unfortunately, they’re not that creative on the marketing side. I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell you.
In the mid-90s anime was starting to gain traction in the US but almost exclusively the shonen, or “young boy,” and “seinen,” or older male, variety. To say anime’s audience of young women was underserved during this period (and still kinda now) is a huge understatement.
And before the shoujo audience was being served by literally anyone in the US, Tomodachi made a name for itself with Marmalade Boy, a romantic comedy based on a manga in Sueisha’s Ribon magazine.
[Marmalade Boy opening plays]
It follows the budding love between Miki Koishikawa and Yuu Matsura, two high school students whose parents, each unhappy with their marriages, agree to swap spouses. Which… maybe sounds familiar. There’s a show called “Wife Swap” in America. Okay. The comedy-heavy series had huge cross audience appeal among the fansub audience, while another shoujo manga turned anime titled Fushigi Yuugi, may have been the first true isekai mega-hit.
[Fushigi Yuugi opening plays]
And if you don’t know, “isekai” is another Japanese term that translates literally to “another world,” and it’s become one of the leading genres in anime, second only to shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z, My Hero Academia, and Naruto. In the present day it serves as a genre for escapism or male power fantasy for its predominantly male audience, but its origins, like Fushigi Yuugi have much more sophisticated roots in stories written by and for women marking important coming of age moments or serving as allegory for, or escapism from, the extremely restrictive roles women are expected to play in Japanese society.
Anyway, Fushigi Yuugi blew up, the show had a rabid following, but Karen was what you might call an auteur fansubber, who personally sat down with her translator to discuss lines and used a variety of subtitle fonts made possible by recent advances in subtitling technology. And they maybe looked nice, but a lot of fans complained that they were hard to read. It’s a reasonable complaint.
But In the surrounding drama another group picked up Karen’s translations and made their own copies in a more standardized font. But Karen was upset that her work was being changed without her permission, and her objections turned into a massive discourse about creative ownership over uh, stolen property. So you can see how it was complicated. This would ultimately lead to Karen retiring from the scene entirely. Just imagine how terrible you have to be as a fandom to not only force the one woman out of the job of fansubbing, but to push women out of a genre entirely. How did they even do that? It just seems… hard.
Technology continued to improve, like it does, and a freeware application called Substation alpha, the precursor to the software Aegissub that is still used to this day by fansubbers, became available and hugely simplified the process of subtitling anime. But these new powerful computers could not only edit better than the old genlock systems, they could also produce videos in an entirely different format: digital files that were roughly the same quality as VHS tapes.
The transition from analog to digital marked a huge shift in fansubbing. As noted, practitioners had been early adopters of the internet, participating in anime focused webrings and mailing lists to coordinate distribution, but once internet speeds and computer technology advanced to the point where anime could be distributed entirely online, things changed, a lot, because the medium of VHS was inexorably linked to the fansubbers “code of honor.”
Sevakis: “Ah, yeah, the code of honor. So the number one thing was that this was by fans and for fans, so nobody was supposed to make a profit off of these. That was first and foremost. Fansubs were meant to supplement what was available legally, they were not meant to replace what was available legally. And everyone was supposed to support, ideally, everyone who had the fansubs, if a show came out commercially, they were supposed to delete their fansubs or record over them or trash the tapes or whatever and buy the legal copies. Some people did that, some people didn’t, and to be honest the commercial subtitled releases weren’t really that much better in that era. In fact, some of them were demonstrably worse. So I don’t know how often that happened, but people worked really hard to not make a profit at that point, which you know, it’s really easy to not make a profit in the anime business anyway. That was number one; number two was to do everything you could to keep these tapes out of the hands of people who did sell them for profit. And there was a huge problem back then with what we called ‘grey area fansubbers’ and these were known as- the worst one was known as SBaldRick, and he went by a couple of other names. These were fansubs that were basically meant to be copied and sold at conventions. ComicCons often had this one creepy guy with a booth and a bunch of tapes in clam shell cases with really badly colored Xerox’d labels, and so we actually put on the video ‘by fans, for fans, not for sale or rent,’ and we did whatever else we could without screwing up the video too much, because ultimate there was nothing we could do if someone wanted to sell one of these for profit except we’d try very hard not to let them get our tapes.”
By the end of the VHS era, even turning zero profit and often losing money on these ventures, a lot of fansubbing groups were already becoming uncomfortable with the scale of their distribution. But they held on to one fact about the medium they worked with.
Sevakis: “But digital fansubbing was a whole nother ball of wax. That’s when we lost a LOT of VHS era fansubbers, a lot of them just bowed out right then and there.”
Every time they copied a fansub it degraded the quality of the product. Really, every time you watched a VHS tape, it would degrade the recording. The products they were making wouldn’t last very long, which gave sort of an ephemeral quality to the work they were producing, but that fact started to break down in the digital era. Video files could withstand the test of time, which you may know if you’ve ever posted anything on the internet, and were more easily duplicated and impossible to keep out of the hands of bad actors. Once a fansub was in circulation, not even its creators could stop it from being shared forever.
Along with the shift in technology that maybe not a lot of the old guard wanted to adopt, most of the early fansubbers hung up their hats and basically disappeared as a new younger “digi-subber” generation rose to replace them.
Justin was among the many who stepped back, but later became one of the rare cases who returned to find legitimate work in the anime industry on some realy “Catch Me If You Can” shit. Taking the expertise he developed from his fansubbing days, he now remasters classic anime with Discotek, sometimes working officially on the same anime he was illegally fansubbing over 20 years ago.”
Considering the size of the anime industry in the US today, it’s really surprising that so few people made it into the proper industry. Anime was booming in the early 2000s, and with it a growing need for passionate translators, editors, and typesetters. And this is speculation, but it may have been because so many of them already had established careers. Fansubbing wasn’t cheap and translating projects could last years, so maybe some of them took it as a sign to step back and join the rest of the fandom when they started to second guess their hobby.
Justin even speaks to a certain sense of intimacy in the fandom that was lost in this age...
Sevakis: “Even though you might never meet someone in the flesh in distribution, you got a handwritten letter, you had to get a hand filled out money order, people had to take the time to put a stamp on an envelope. Once it became something that you could request from a bot on IRC, you were just a number. It wasn’t the same thing.”
Whether you liked it or not, IRC and Kazaa represented a golden age of accessibility for anime fans, but the added anonymity would bring with it a lot of new problems that would foreshadow what became known as the dark ages of fansubbing. The era of Anime Junkies.
Emerging in the IRC era as a monolith that controlled a huge majority of the fansub market, Anime Junkies was almost the singular group that most people looked to to get their fansubs, and that type of absolute power was destined to corrupt absolutely. As you have seen on T-Shirts.
As the biggest name in the fansubbing game, Anime Junkies were free to take a lot of liberties with every part of their process. They started tossing inside jokes and bizarre translator notes into their subtitles, and soon they started blurring out the credits in anime openings and endings to include their team handles and the individual fansubbing tasks they performed, which is kinda fucked up. Then they just started outright mistranslating dialogue, most notoriously rewriting a line in Ghost in The Shell Stand Alone Complex describing recent kidnappings as “Mass Naked Child Events.” I- [sigh] Maybe this is just me, but I personally would not want those words on my hands, at all. Just saying them here feels kinda fucked up. I don’t know if I would add that to a thing that I was working on, necessarily.
But anyway, remember that whole thing about pulling anime once they were officially licensed? Well most companies in the industry were aware of that practice, and one such distributor called Urban Vision wrote a very politely worded email to Anime Junkies claiming they had acquired licenses to Ninja Scroll and asking them to stop hosting downloads of the anime, because that’s just kind of how the early 2000s anime industry worked. Anime Junkies replied with the following, which I will do in my best impression of them and what they sound like:
Quote: “Leave fansubs to fans or do it for free yourselves. All you’re doing is getting rich off a series we helped make popular.” Cool.
Quote: “Who the fuck are you anyways to buy a series we were doing?” Seems like a lot. Seems very intense.
Another quote: “You knew we were subbing, you know people fansub... So why the fuck did you start a DVD company?” Because people start companies?
And final quote: “Rot in Hell” That one just seems unnecessary.
Depending on where you stand in the debate on the ethics of fansubs, those words may or may not resonate with you, but a lot of the community did not approve of that attack on Urban Vision, and just about anyone who interacted with Anime Junkies was kind of tired of their bullshit at this point. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back came when they started ransoming episodes of anime, refusing to release them until arbitrary numbers of new IRC members were met.
Increasing drama surrounding Anime Junkies eventually lead to a new fracturing of fansubbing groups as individuals with the means either splintered off from Anime Junkies or formed new groups entirely to compete with the infamous organization. That, along with even more decentralized hosting resulting from the rise of Bittorrent in 2003 meant it was even more difficult for one single group to control the content.
Nowadays a lot of the groups that rose from that fracture are still in operation but, despite the prevalence of pirated anime in the present, fansubbing itself has been on the decline ever since. The 2000s saw a lot of tension between fan communities and distributors, as Dragonball Z and especially the Pokemon boom made anime seem profitable again.
Anime licenses were getting bought up and fansubs were being made less out of necessity, but either in response to low quality subs released by distributors, or poor adherence to release schedules. Quite simply fansubbers put anime out faster… or at the very least they weren’t replacing Sanji’s cigarette with lollipops and all the surprising number of guns in Yu-Gi-Oh! With pointing fingers. There’s a LOT of guns in Yu-Gi-Oh!, did you know that? I had no idea.
Then in 2006 came Crunchyroll, which at the time was a… it was not what it is today, I will say that. It essentially served as an illegal anime YouTube, having hosted illegal fansubs for at least the first three years of its existence. That image started to dissolve when it received an investment of $4 million from a venture capital firm, and a year later legitimate licenses to host anime including Naruto, which marked Crunchyroll’s transition into the AT&T owned, legitimate anime licenser and publisher it is today. Its big accomplishment was proving to Japanese licensors the importance of simulcasting anime and driving the entire industry (at least until about 2 years ago) toward closing the window between the Japanese release and the US release of anime.
Now, with anime streaming services putting out anime within an hour of the original Japanese airing time and with the industry’s standards having shifted toward direct translation over localization, the need for fansubs had effectively dried up. Availability, speed, and quality had all outpaced fansubbers private efforts, and only certain niche series or anime from platforms that push back release dates still offer opportunities for fansubs to provide any real service. Pirates continue their technological advancement to offer their own aggregator streaming sites, but these days most of them source their anime directly from the official licensor rather than from fansubbing sites, often leaving the service’s branded bumper untouched, so is it really illegal? Yeah... yeah, it is.
So what is fansubbing even good for anymore? I don’t know!
Sevakis: “Back in the 80s, Suntory, the Japanese whiskey and beer company, they had a cute Sanrio-esque blue penguin mascot. And they made somebody and some point, I wish I knew the full story of this, decided ‘hey, let’s make a movie fo the cute, blue Suntory penguin. But wait a minute, our audience is middle-aged guys, so what do we do with this?’ Somebody made a movie with these little, cute, blue penguins and it is a deadly serious tale about the Vietnam war and PTSD. The first 20 minutes actually takes place in the Vietnam war and the rest is like a badly shell shocked soldier coming back and trying to adjust to American life.
[“A Tale of Happiness,” from A Penguin’s Memory plays]
Sevakis: “Except EVERYONE is a little, blue penguin! So the fact that this movie even exists is insane. I was looking at it and I was like ‘god, can we- maybe Discotek can license this?’ I passed it along to Selby at Discotek, and he was just like ‘the owner of this is Suntory? The whiskey company? Who would I even talk to at a whiskey company?’ So… what do you do with that? A fansub group restored it. It’s available online! Somebody uploaded it to YouTube, and now it lives again.There is no possible way that movie could’ve lived again a legal way.”
Sevakis: “The only fansubs I really take any interest in are of the really, really obscure stuff. And a lot of really old anime, nobody even knows who owns them anymore. And even if a company like Discotek was to go in and try to license something, we’ve been told, quite regularly, ‘we don’t know who owns that, sorry. We can’t help you.’ And so those shows are just in limbo, forever, and unless somebody preserves them, they’re just lost to the sands of time. I still have all the respect in the world for the fansub groups that are preserving those shows, because it’s simply not going to happen any other way. There is no right way of fixing those, because the right way of making those available just doesn’t exist. So what are we supposed to do? Let them die? Let them fade away? That’s not a good option. And I think those fansubs are in that old school spirit of nerds helping nerds, and that’s something I can get behind.”
The 80s was a tumultuous time in Japan with companies rising, falling, and restructuring daily. Even companies that survived mostly intact have completely lost track of who exactly owns the licenses to series they worked on. So these anime exist in a limbo where it’s impossible to tell who, if anyone, owns the license and established contracts predate even the idea of streaming media. So basically no one knows who owns them. Maybe nobody owns them anymore, I don’t know. They exist in a void where there is no one to license them from, so they’re just kind of fair game? Maybe? Or maybe not. If you’re familiar with a similar controversy around emulation in gaming, there is an entire history that stands to be lost if no efforts are made to preserve the medium and fracturing licenses can present a real obstacle toward that task. For these pieces in particular, there’s nowhere to turn for an English (or sometimes even Japanese) speaking audience except for unofficial sources.
Legally it’s about as hairy as a subject can get, but at its heart fansubbing has always been a labor of love.
Passionate fans spending their valuable time and often their own money to make sure that others can enjoy the entertainment that’s so meaningful to them. Their contributions to popularizing anime in the 80s and 90s is pretty undisputable, regardless of the legality, and for that they deserve their due respect. The direct influence they had on anime’s presence in this country drove the industry in a very clear way that could never have happened organically, especially if American distributors were left entirely unchecked over the years. It’s hard to imagine what anime on Netflix would even look like if we had continued to allow American producers to impose their own will on Japanese products without really knowing what they were working with, which brings us to the subject of our next episode: Why does everyone seem to hate Harmony Gold so much?
Thank you for listening to Anime In America, presented by Crunchyroll. If you enjoyed this, please check out Crunchyroll.com/animeinamerica to watch the shows mentioned. The best part is you can do so, for free, with ads. Wow. Free anime.
Special thanks to Justin Sevakis from Discotek for sharing his stories, and you’ve heard it before, but please leave us a review and rate us so more people can discover the show, or just share it with a friend.
This episode is hosted by me, Yedoye Travis, and you can find me on social media at ProfessorDoye on Instagram and @YedoyeOT on Twitter. This episode was researched and written by Peter Fobian, edited by Chris Lightbody, and produced by me, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian, and Jesse Gouldsbury.
Their Letter to Urban Vision