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When Piracy Becomes Promotion

The underground subtitling and circulation of Japanese anime helped to open the American market to Asian cultural imports.
August 10, 2004

Anime is everywhere. The global sales of Japanese animation and character goods, an astonishing 9 trillion yen ($80 billion) has grown to 10 times what it was a decade ago. In his 2003 opening speech to the Japanese Diet, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi praised Spirited Away (the first non-American release to win the Academy Award for best animated feature) and anime more generally as the savior of Japanese culture.

Much of that growth has occurred in North America and Western Europe, where young people have embraced this distinctive style of popular culture, one which extends well beyond the wide-eyed beauties, cute animals, and giant robot battles anime represents for the most casual consumers.

Disney has purchased the American rights to Spirited Away and the other films of its creator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Kikis Delivery Service), redubbing these films with the voices of American film stars. The Cartoon Network features a wide array of anime series as part of its late night Adult Swim programming. ADV Films, a major importer of anime series for the American market, has launched a 24 hours Anime Network. TOKYOPOP, a Los Angeles-based company, will publish 400 volumes of translated manga (Japanese comics) for U.S. consumption this year. One can find whole shelves of manga in many Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstores, where they frequently outsell American-produced graphic novels.

Japanese anime has won worldwide success in part because Japanese media companies were tolerant of the kinds of grassroots activities that American media companies seem so determined to shut down. Much of the risks of entering Western markets and many of the costs of experimentation and promotion were born by dedicated consumers. A symbiotic relationship existed between fans and producers that warrants closer consideration as we watch American media companies take a scorched earth attitude toward their most dedicated followers.

Two decades ago, the U.S. market was totally shut to these Japanese imports. Today, the sky is the limit, with many of the most successful childrens series, from Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh!, coming directly from Japanese production houses. The shift occurred not through some concerted push by Japanese media companies, but rather in response to the pull of American fans who used every technology at their disposal to expand the community that knew and loved this content. Subsequent commercial efforts built on the infrastructure these fans developed over the intervening years. In this essay, I am drawing heavily on a detailed chronicle of the early history of American anime fandom developed by the former President of the MIT Anime Club, Sean Leonard.

Japanese animation was exported into the western market as early as the 1960s, when Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Gigantor made it onto American television primarily through local syndication. By the late 1960s, however, reform efforts, such as Action for Childrens Television, had used threats of boycott and federal regulation to push back against content they saw as inappropriate for American children. The next wave of Japanese content aimed at adults in its country of origin, often dealt with more mature themes and was a particular target of the backlash. Discouraged Japanese distributors retreated from the U.S. market, dumping their cartoons on Japanese language cable channels in cities with large Asian populations.

The rise of videotape recorders significantly changed this picture. American fans could dub shows off the Japanese language channels and share them with their friends in other regions. Soon, fans were seeking contacts in Japan‑both local youth and American G.I.s with access to newer series. Both Japan and the United States used the same NTSC video format, easing the flow of content across national borders. American fan clubs emerged to support the archiving and circulation of Japanese animation. The clubs, such as the MIT Anime Club, functioned as lending libraries and dubbing centers as well as holding marathon screenings to attract new members.

In most cases, the content was shown without translation. I remember attending some screenings in the late 1970s. Much like attending an opera, someone would stand up and tell us the plot and then we would watch without understanding anything said. We didnt know what we were watching but it was pretty damned interesting any way.

Japanese distributors winked at these screenings. They didnt have permission from their mother companies to charge these fans or provide the material but they were interested to see how much interest the shows attracted.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of fansubbing, the amateur translation and subtitling of Japanese anime. What enabled such efforts was the introduction of a devicecalled a genlock, for generator lockingthat allowed a television set to accept two signals simultaneously and that synchronized an incoming video signal with computer output. Time-synchronized VHS and S-VHS systems made it possible to dub the tapes so that they retained accurate alignment of text and image. The high costs of the earliest machines meant that fansubbing would remain a collective effort: clubs pooled time and resources to insure their favorite series reached a wider viewership. As costs lowered, fansubbing spread outward, with clubs using the Internet to coordinate their activities, divvying up what series to sub and tapping a broader community for would-be translators.

Beginning in the early 1990s, large-scale anime conventions brought artists and distributors from Japan, who were astonished to see a thriving culture surrounding content they had never actually marketed here and who went back home motivated to try to commercially tap this interest. Some key players in the Japanese animation industry had been among those who had aided and abetted U.S. grassroots distribution a decade earlier.

The first niche companies to distribute Anime on DVD and videotape emerged as fan clubs simply went pro, acquiring the distribution rights from re-engaged Japanese media companies. The first material to be distributed already had an enthusiastic fan following. Interested in exposing their members to the full range of content available in Japan, the fan clubs had often taken risks that no commercial distributor would have confronted, testing the market for new genres, producers, and series and commercial companies followed their path where-ever they found popularity.

The fansubbed videos often ran an advisory urging users to cease distribution when licensed. The clubs were not trying to profit from anime distribution but rather to expand the market; they pulled back from circulating any title that had found a commercial distributor. In any case, the commercial copies were higher quality than their multi-generation dubs.

The first commercially available copies were often dubbed and re-edited as part of an effort to expand their potential interest to casual consumers. Japanese cultural critic Koichi Iwabuchi used the term, deodorizing, to refer to the ways that Japanese soft goods are stripped of signs of their national origins to open them for global circulation. Anime and manga now rank at the top of these cultural exports. In Japan, manga constitute 40 percent of all books and magazines published and more than half of all movie tickets sold are to animated films. More than 200 animation programs are aired each week on Japanese television and about 1700 animated films (short or feature length) are produced for theatrical or straight-to-video distribution each year. Japanese media producers had created a complex set of tie-ins between comics, animated films, television series, toys, and games that allowed them to capitalize quickly on successful content. They are increasingly eager to export this whole apparatus internationally. In this context, the grassroots fan community still plays an important role, helping to educate American viewers to the cultural references and genre traditions defining these products through their websites and newsletters. The fan clubs continue to explore potential niche products that over time can emerge as mainstream successes.

Many U.S. media companies might have regarded all of this underground circulation as piracy and shut it down before it reached critical mass. The Japanese media companys tolerance of these fan efforts is consistent with their similar treatment of fan communities in their local market. As Temple University law professor Salil K. Mehra notes, the underground sale of fan-made manga, often highly derivative of the commercial product, occurs on a massive scale in Japan, with some comics markets attracting 150,000 visitors per day; such markets are held almost every week in some parts of the country. Rarely taking legal action, the commercial producers sponsor such events, using them to publicize their releases, to recruit potential new talent, and to monitor shifts in audience tastes. In any case, they fear the wrath of their consumers if they took action against such a well-entrenched cultural practice and the Japanese legal structure would provide for fairly small legal penalties if they did pursue infringers.

More generally, as Yuichi Washida, a research director at Hakuhodo, Japans second largest advertising and marketing firm, has argued, Japanese corporations have sought to collaborate with fan clubs, subcultures, and other consumption communities, seeing them as important allies in developing compelling new content or broadening markets. In courting such fans, the companies helped to construct a moral economy that aligned their interests in reaching a market with the American fans desires to access more content.

Many have argued that cultural rather than legal, technological, or economic solutions are crucial in resolving the bootlegging crisis hitting American media companies. Rather than suing their fan base, perhaps they should study how their Japanese counterparts profited from this first wave of underground circulation, seeing it as promotion rather than piracy.

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