Friday, May 26, 2017

Record of Fansub Wars: 90s Anime Beef That Shaped North America Fandom

Description: A cardboard box filled with home-made
copies of VHS tapes and fansubs of Dragon Ball Z.
Anime fans these days have tons of ways to get subtitled anime: buying DVDs, subscribing to the Crunchyroll streaming service, hunting through torrent sites, or poking through illegal streaming site hubs. But back in the early 90s, there was only one way for fans to get their hands on anime that hadn't yet been translated and released in North America: fansub groups distributing episodes of anime on VHS tapes.

The way most fansub groups worked was like this: First the group would watch an untranslated episode recorded from Japan, jot down translations, and using a TV-to-computer signal splitter, sync the subtitles to the feed and create a master tape. The group would then make copies of the master by using VCRs that would allow you to play one tape and copy it to a blank tape. These first generation copy owners would get requests from other distributors and end users, asking for up to three copies at a time and including both return postage and video tapes (or the price of tapes). MOst VHS tapes could fit about three or four episodes. So if there was fan demand for something like Fushigi Yuugi-- a 52 episode series-- the entire series run would require 13 VHS tapes. And if your fansub group was the only group translating a series... and you decided to just stop, well... that's were things get interesting. Writing for Vice's Motherboard section, Marc Shaw goes behind the scenes to talk about how a turf war in the '90s over fansubs would go on to shape the Ottowa anime scene:
[Ottowa's Anime Appreciation Society] which would host 20-30 person meetups in a community centre in suburban Ottawa—began watching Fushigi Yûgi, which ran from 1995 to 1996 in Japan... aimed at a teenage female audience, it was considered unlikely to succeed in North America so it wasn't initially planned for release here. 
[A] popular fansub group at the time, Tomodachi, [released] subtitles were the preferred way of watching Fushigi Yûgi because of the special care they took in their translations. 
But in early 1997, a competing group, Central Anime, allegedly made copies of Tomodachi's subs and released them under their own name. This was seen as bad form and a sort of dishonour among thieves. Tomodachi retaliated by refusing to release the show's final 20 episodes, which they had already finished subtitling, to anyone. Even though Tomodachi subs were much preferred, the club would have done anything to finish the series.

Now, I was just starting to become active in the nascent anime fandom in North America in the late 90s, and this refusal was a super big deal. Thanks to Google, we have an archive of what newsgroups of time thought of the Tomadachi debacle.

In addition to fansub demand being cited as on of the reasons Fushigi Yugi was released in North America, it was also the genesis of Ottowa's large anime enthusiast community and conventions.
The AAS put together Konan Koku- a fan gathering devoted to watching the remaining 20 episodes of Fushigi Yugi over one weekend (Konan Koku is taken from the county of the same name in FY). Along with a convention that same year in nearby Toronto, Konan Koku kickstarted the region's anime convention scene. As Shaw notes:
The Ottawa-Gatineau region now boasts its own bi-annual convention, G-Anime, the roots of which can be traced all the way back to the various anime clubs of the nineties. Anime fans of today have the scrappy warriors and fansubs of the nineties to thank.
I do want to take issue with one characterization in the article though: Central Anime was not a tape distributor. What CA was big on was sharing their translated scripts for free so that other interested fans could distribute. Tomodachi didn't want go that route, thus the argument. So Central Anime transcribed the translation, and released the script. I still think that copying Tomodachi's work thus far without permission was a jerk move, but so was Tomodachi trying to act like a de-facto distributor. Man, there's a sentence I never thought I'd being writing almost 20 years later.

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