Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Essay: Three Reasons Why Anime/Manga Fans Don't Like Licensed Titles

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

It's amazing what technology can accomplish--and what new complexities it can introduce. The anime/manga industry is one of those fields that has greatly benefited from technologies that have emerged from the past ten years. For example, there always was a schism in the anime industry because of the nature of the material (anime was in Japanese and had to be translated into English or -insert native language here-). Back in the 90's, there was no absolute solution: some people would prefer dubs and some people would prefer subtitles. And so the great dub vs sub debate began (and still exists to this day). With the introduction of DVDs, that concern was partially addressed as one could theoretically get both dubs and subs in just one format (and more importantly, at one price, instead of the dubbed VHS tapes priced cheaper than the subbed VHS titles). Here, we see technology working for fans and the industry. However, that's not always the case and emerging technologies was pretty much like opening Pandora's Box.

In the 90's, as far as manga was concerned, consumers didn't really have a lot of options. They could either purchase the original manga in some Oriental shop or they could simply rely on the few titles that actually got licensed (this was a time when Tokyopop was still Mixxzine, when magazine anthologies for the most part were still unprofitable, and when manga was still priced over $10.00). Some fans however took it upon themselves to translate the manga itself and post them up on the web. That was empowering for those who could obtain the Japanese originals as they finally had a way to understand the manga they owned. However, when broadband Internet started to become more mainstream, the fan community evolved. We still have those manga translators around but what's become more popular these days are the scanlations--fans who scan the original manga (usually still in their newsprint anthology format), clean it up, translate it, then post it up on the web for fans to download. The fan sub community pretty much evolved the same way and instead of passing around nth-generation VHS tapes, fans started uploading and downloading videos of their favorite anime.

That was easily a new era for the anime/manga community. Previously, the endless debates usually revolved whether a particular title was dubbed or subbed. Now, there was a new topic that would gain momentum and rage to this very day: licensed and unlicensed anime/manga. This revolution pretty much came about due to the "free" material circulating on the Internet such as the scanlations and fan subs that you don't need to pay for to enjoy. What used to be a hobby by enthusiasts became a cottage industry (albeit one that wasn't necessarily earning a "profit"). I won't get into the pros and cons of scanlations and fan subs--I'm sure there are other sites and opinions out there that can expand on that point. As far as I am concerned, scanlations and fan subs both have advantages and disadvantages to the industry as a whole. What I want to talk about however is the side-effect these scanlations and fan subs have brought about: the schism between those who support and don't support licensed manga/anime.

Now to those who don't belong to the fan community, you must be wondering: why would fans not support (emotionally if not financially) the anime/manga industry especially if they're "fans"? This is an oversimplification, but some "purist" fan mentality falls under one of these categories: 1) the licensed title becomes mainstream hence they feel invalidated that they're not unique anymore, 2) licensing company will butcher the title, or 3) because the title has been licensed, their scanlations and fan subs go away. Let me expound on these three points.

For number one, I am sad to admit that there are fans like this. Of course to be fair to the anime/manga industry, these type of "fans" can be found in several other hobbies. The inverse of this is that if a title hits mainstream, it gives birth to posers. Honestly, if you're this type of person, there's nothing I can say that will sway you. If you're into a particular hobby solely because it makes you unique and different, well, that's honestly a personality problem and you have things to work out for yourself. My words alone won't convince, convert, or cure you. I mean honestly, if a particular anime or manga title is so good that you actually liked it, whether other people actually like it or not should not influence you. The work hasn't changed: only peoples perception about it has. If you feel you've outgrown a particular anime or manga title, that's fine, it happens. That's also why I can't name a favorite book or anime or manga because I'm always in flux. But if you stop liking it just because it's now popular, well, you shouldn't be getting advice from me.

Number two is usually associated with number three but they aren't mutually exclusive. The mentality that a company will butcher a particular anime/manga title comes from purists, the hard-core fans, those who are more or less acquainted with the industry. Sometimes their fears are justified. I mean honestly, not every company is going to do a good job. On the other hand, what a "good job" is varies from person to person. For some fans, no matter how good a translation and adaptation a commercial company does, it'll never match up. What they fail to realize is that there's no way of avoiding that. That's the concept of translations after all: they're like parabolas, approaching but never quite reaching the target. Honestly, if you want a "perfect" translation, the best way to go about it is to familiarize yourself with Japanese language and culture and read it in their native language. Why settle for third party translations? (Of course to the credit of some hardcore fans, they do just that.) The moment you're reading Japanese manga in English, something has already been lost in translation. Having said that, there are degrees of faithfulness and error. Some translators might meet the standards of some fans. Other translators, on the opposite extreme, might translate the very opposite of what the original authors wanted to convey. Of course the second assumption fans who fall under this bracket are making is that fan subs and scanlations don't suffer the same fate. Both commercial and fan translators are equally prone to making mistakes. Fans however are usually more forgiving of the latter than the former. Sure, it might be because you're paying the former, but then again, the former is also more motivated to fix things if the errors are brought to their attention because of the very fact that they're depending on it for their income. My caveat here is that one thing that licensed anime/manga does well is that it introduces the title to the masses, irregardless of how faithful or unfaithful the translation is. And hopefully, some of those people that do get interested in the series gets acquainted with the original. Just look at many "classic" anime such as Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, and Robotech. I wouldn't call them faithful translations by any stretch of the word. There were lots of name changes and censorship in those titles and in the case of Battle of the Planets, a heavily modified story and concept. Yet for several people, that's what got them acquainted with anime in the first place. And some people from that market are aware of titles like Mach Go Go Go and Gachaman and Macross/Southern Cross/Mospeada. (Now I'm not saying that you should support a badly translated title but rather, I'm saying that a licensed title does serve a purpose and don't always equate good translations = scanlations/fan subs--the scanlation and fan sub groups are very much like the professional companies with their own identity and while some do a good translation job, others don't. Also, please reserve judgment when the actual product comes out, not before--a company with a bad reputation might come out with something good and a company with a good reputation might actually screw things up.)

The third point arises from the legalities of the industry. Many scanlations and fan subs out there are for titles that haven't been licensed in the US, which just means that no one will press charges against them. When a particular title gets licensed, the licensee has the legal rights to it. Some scanlators and fan subbers, they cease their translations of the series, whether because they don't want to get sued or because they want to support the licensee. That's not always the case though. Sometimes, the licensee doesn't press charges. But when they do, some scanlators and fan subbers might not desist and take their work underground. Now when this causes one of the scanlators and fan subbers to stop churning out their translated material, some fans get angry. Is their anger justified? Personally, for me, no. I mean first off, if you were truly a benevolent fan, you'd support the licensee because a) they're bringing your title to a wider audience, and b) you're paying the local as well as the original publisher for a product that you enjoy. If you're the type that says "Down with Capitalism!" then I can't help you (the same goes if you're the type who doesn't want their favorite title to become popular). Some fans however don't share that mentality and instead feel incensed that "their title" has been "taken away from them". Which isn't really the case: they just have to a) wait until the translations have been officially and legally released and b) pay for it. I'd be a hypocrite if I said I didn't download scanlations or fan subs. But when a licensee starts notifying scanlators and fan sub groups, I don't get angry: it's all within their right after all. And for the titles that I really really like I do buy the licensed products (as evidenced by my small manga collection) to support them. But not every fan takes this stance and sometimes blames the licensee company. Then throw in supporters of the second point (usually touting that the fan sub or scanlators did a better job at the translation than the licensee company ever could) and you have these message board rants that are dozens of pages long.

In the next few years, I'm expecting things to heat up between companies who own licenses to titles and the fan-subbing groups. Legitimate translated anime is slowly making the transition to the online video format (strangely enough, a late adopter) and they could very well perceive that the online fan-subs is infringing on their territory. Manga, on the other hand, is still safe for now. No major publisher--at least one that I'm aware of--has been releasing manga online (previews, yes, entire volumes, no). The most I've seen are samples but I don't see them eager to sell their product as PDFs or archived JPEGs. Still, I doubt if this will be the last instance when fans will clash with the corporations and vice versa.

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