Sunday, September 28, 2008

Musings on Subbing, Dubbing, and the Future of America's Anime Habit

Keeping up with your favorite series in a legally-sound fashion is damned expensive, and damn frustrating if you don't want to wait about a year before you get your first taste of something that looks genuinely interesting. A single DVD containing less than five episodes will bust your wallet to the tune of at least twenty dollars. These purchases are often made 'sight unseen' in the case of series not aired of the SciFi Channel or Cartoon Network. To people without parents to chunk money at them to finance their hobbies, this is kind of a kick to the face. The argument could be (and has been) made that American viewers really have no right to complain, since Japanese consumers pay about 150% of that price for their DVDs, and in much greater numbers than our pirating asses. Are we ungrateful? Is Japan so driven by consumerism that this difference in buying habits is cultural? Well, maybe it's all that and a lot more.

Let's go back to the 'sight unseen' concept. A great amount of anime released in Japan is aired on television before the DVDs are released, and many that aren't are OVA spinoffs of television series or PC games. Much of the DVD sales are from collectors or fans who were unable to catch up with the TV airings. It's more or less impossible for an American fan to get this sort of preview legally without dropping $25 on the first DVD, or $10 on a magazine that includes a preview and review of the first episode. Of course, the dubbed versions of some series are aired on channels like Cartoon Network and the SciFi channel, but this really doesn't make up for the number of $25 impulse buys people make. This also used to be the case with VHS. You'd plunk down $20 for about five episodes or a single film worth of content, either dubbed, or subtitled and uncut. Perplexingly, the subtitled versions were often sold at a slightly inflated price, despite costing less to produce.

I think anyone would agree with me when I say that the popularization of digital media changed everything in respect to how the market for anime works. The advent of faster internet connections and person-to-person sharing networks revolutionized how we, the consumer, consume things without having to pay. DVDs and digital editing streamlined the fansubbing process to the point where a team of a few people (all working for NOTHING) can adapt an episode that aired in Japan on Sunday to a fully subtitled, annotated version that viewers in English-speaking countries can watch on Friday. That is fucking progress, my friend.

Of course, this means that fansubs are no longer so inconvenient as they once were. They're accurate, they're lovingly crafted, and they're free. To someone who doesn't want to pay for the extra audio track, the choice is kind of obvious: we want the fansubs.

So, who's the villain in all this? Is it the fansubbers for doing all the work for nothing and giving it up for free, or is it the fault of the distributors for sticking to a business model that's been rendered obsolete? In my opinion, neither party is entirely in the wrong. However, I also believe that the companies are going about addressing the issue of tanking sales poorly in that their recent methods may only alienate fans. Rather than demonizing fansubbers, they may find better success through updating their mode of distribution.

First of all, stop dubbing shit that hasn't been on American TV. If you're selling it because it went over well in Japan and you know otaku will buy it, don't bother. Dubbing is a labor intensive and expensive process that drags down release dates and inflates price. On top of that, most fans just bitch about the dub anyway. Dubbing really doesn't have a great reputation among otaku, a fact that becomes all too obvious on message boards and mailing lists full of moaning and bitching whenever something is licensed.

Secondly, consider delving into the deep, strange world of pay downloads similar to iTunes. A couple bucks for an episode that took a week to subtitle seems much more tempting than $25 for four episodes of something you may not even like. Of course, the downloads would have to be of a slightly less than perfect video quality so that people with the collecting fetish will go out and buy the shiny boxsets when the season/series is through.

As American consumers, we often feel just a little cheated in the way our fix comes to us. We get little on TV, we get next to no cool merch besides the occasional wall scroll or action figures (NARUTO YAY OTL), and we have a history of having to nance around legalities in order to watch anime that isn't massacred. And we can't even make doujinshi for all our trouble!

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