Anime Companies and Otaku - Another Look Fasteriskhead

(Written in response to CassieR's essay "Otaku's Influence on Anime Companies." Also, thank you to everyone whom I blatantly ripped off for your "contributions" to this essay - you know who you are, and I hope you won't mind.)

Imagine that you are placed in something like the following situation. On the edge of your town there is a barber shop where citizens frequently go to get haircuts. However, this is a difficult process: it's quite a drive to get there and even after entering one frequently has to wait a very long time - let's say, often hours on end - in order to get serviced. The results from this shop, although occasionally uneven, are on the whole quite good. Moreover, along with your haircut you are always given a number of extras (candy, pins, etc.) to go away with. These extras really have nothing to do with the haircut itself, which was the main thing you were concerned with getting, but they're fairly nice to have.

Now suppose that in this same town there also live a number of freelance barbers. Let's say that most of them are either people who study hair design as a hobby or practicing students who plan on getting work elsewhere. The quality of their haircuts is usually comparable to those of the barbershop, although of course you never get any of the extras. The freelancers give you a haircut with no waiting time and no other hoops to jump through. In fact, they cut your hair for no charge - as students and enthusiasts, they simply do it either for practice or for fun. No money changes hands for the service, but everyone gains valuable experience and has a good time.

So, assuming you're given these two choices for haircuts, imagine that the barbershop begins to complain about these freelancers. To be sure, the professionals can sometimes spot the hot up-and-coming hairstyling trends from paying attention to what the freelancers do, but the professionals also claim that on the whole they're just losing too much money to the upstarts. They claim, let's say, that since they've been in town for quite awhile, the populace owes the shop their business, or that if they fail then the quality of hair design for the entire city will be affected. Perhaps they may make legal threats against the freelancers. More ideally, perhaps they recognize some of their faults (the difficulty getting in, the waiting times) and offer compromises; they propose, maybe, that if the consumer really cannot wait for a haircut then she may go to a freelance barber first, but then ought to properly go and visit the barber shop for a second, more legitimate haircut (with extras!). Despite all of these actions, though, the barber shop's business continues to diminish; most of the people in town feel rather bad about this, but at the same time they still hate waiting and often find it rather absurd to get a second haircut simply out of obligation.

What I've just described is obviously meant as an analogy. It duplicates - if I've written it in a fair way - the relationship that exists between the fans who buy or download anime, the domestic companies that license anime for release here, and the various fan communities which freely offer their own subtitled anime releases (fansubs) online. Fans demand their anime, and they're not particularly picky about who they get it from. Of course, in the past they've always bought from the domestic licensers and still maintain a certain loyalty, but more and more of them (us) are beginning to get the vast majority of our anime in the form of online fansubs. In the past this has often been made into a moral question. Aren't we breaking the law? Aren't fansub watchers just out to save a couple of bucks? Don't we have an obligation to support the anime companies? The answers to the first two are "not unless the series has already been licensed here" and "only occasionally, and so far as I've seen not as the main reason." The third question prompts another question as a response: just why exactly are we required to keep such companies afloat? Exactly what claim do they have on us? And with this in mind, I'd like to turn to a short and very nicely written essay on this topic by CassieR.

CassieR's essay is chiefly concerned with showing otaku how they can bring about change in the world of anime culture - specifically conventions and companies. She says that the former are "run by the fans and for the fans," and I see no problem with also extending this to the latter. However, then she turns to the sticky question of how we should get our anime and writes:

"It’s very easy today to simply download what you want to watch when it comes to anime. There is a certain seduction to getting something for no cost, to be able to watch it before it’s even released in America, and without taking a trip to the store. Keep in mind, though, that for every show or manga that you download instead of buy, that’s an opinion that’s not being heard."

There are several assumptions embedded in this paragraph that I'd like to point out (there's more to the essay than this and I don't want to be unfair to it, but to keep it short I'll stick to this one bit). The first is the relatively harmless but still misleading claim that one of the major reasons that people download fansubs is because it's free. As I said above, I seriously doubt that this is the case. Anime fans, overwhelmingly, are young people coming from middle class backgrounds - this is not to say that they have a lot of disposable income, but they've often got more than enough to spend, for example, on a couple of DVDs every month. In the end I think it's fairly incidental that fansubs are free - there are a number of illegitimate sites which charge money for fansub downloads that nevertheless remain quite popular, and this only because they are more convenient than the other methods. By contrast with the money issue, I think skipping store trips and waits for American release are common reasons for getting fansubs, but CassieR doesn't spend much time on them. (I'll say more about all of this below)

The second assumption is more subtle; it's a premise that runs throughout CassieR's entire essay, but which never really gets declared. The argument goes something like this: we otaku want our anime; we can get it online or (inclusive or) from domestic licensing companies; however, if we only download it online then our demands for anime are made silent because money, which ultimately encourages more anime to get made, never exchanges hands; thus keeping entirely to downloading anime online is ultimately self-defeating; thus we must either buy anime domestically to support our downloading, or get anime only from the legitimate companies. This sounds reasonable, until we recognize the suppressed premise - which is that the domestic anime companies have no need to change their methods of business. In other words, the argument assumes that fansubbing always does one thing and the companies always do another. The companies offer us their product - usually in the form of pricey DVDs released months after the fact with extras that many of us could care less about - and that's that. Either we buy what is presented or our voices will not be heard when the next round of anime is (or isn't!) being produced. It is not the companies that should pursue our demand for good, reasonably priced anime delivered in a timely manner with their own products; rather, it is we who should be chasing those products, because our purchase of them is our only way of communicating what we really want.

My sense of this is that it gets economic right exactly upside down. At no point here is a fan - one who is willing to spend money on a quality product - allowed to say of the companies that she is not satisfied and will no longer buy from them until they improve their offerings. I find this disagreeable and totally incorrect. It's not an ethical fault of the fan if they refuse to buy shabby goods and go elsewhere for their needs; rather, it's a business fault of the producers. Given that fault, the consumer is completely justified in saying: "No, I will not buy your releases. I bought anime from your before because you were once the fastest and most convenient way - really, the only way - for me to get it. But that has changed. We now live in a far more interconnected global culture; we now have a much better idea of what's going on at the source of things. Serious anime fans no longer discuss the series that was released in America last week; instead, they're talking about the series that will be released in Japan next week. Your product simply cannot measure up to this world. You force me to wait months or years for anime available elsewhere in the market a few days after it first airs. You force me to go through middlemen, so that either I wait even longer for my purchase to ship from Amazon or I brave Best Buy in the hopes that I will not have to start watching Excel Saga starting from disc 3 because the first two were sold out. You offer me extras - trailers, dubs, fancy DVD boxes - that I might want, but which in no way make up for everything else. Look, I can now download an entire 25-episode run of a new show in a day or less without ever leaving the house - how can extras compete with this? Indeed, why should I, out of pity, wait for months and then throw money at you like a street beggar in return for something outdated and redundant? It's not that I have something against you, mind. But unless you change your methods and offer me products that are relevant to my demands, I shall not be buying anything from your business." I am not implying these companies should go under. I personally know several people who have worked for them, and many of them are far bigger anime fans than I. What I am saying is that the companies must either change their methods or perish, and that it is silly and unhelpful to blame all difficulties on the consumers and on the fansub communities who saw an opportunity where the industry did not.

Fans are not cheap, only impatient and opposed to complication. Downloading fansubs is by no means an easy, convenient process - it requires technical knowledge, constant software updating, and a way of keeping track of various websites where the necessary materials can be found. All the same, assuming all one requires is a barebones, no-frills set of subtitles for one's anime, playing the bittorrent game is a far quicker and less cumbersome method than the traditional treks through Barnes and Noble DVD sections. Anime companies need to notice this if they are to survive - the problems are timing and convenience, not money. One may recall that when iTunes launched seven years ago, detractors claimed that its model would never work. After all, why would the mp3 traders suddenly start paying for something that they had previously downloaded for free? The answer is simple, and has been historically decisive: most people, all other things being equal, will be willing to pay for a product or service that they might get elsewhere for free so long as what they pay for is more convenient than the free alternative. So, in a nutshell: if the domestic anime companies wish to recover all of the business they are currently losing to fans who mostly watch fansubs, all they must do is discover a distribution method that is more convenient and use it to offer a product that is equally good. I doubt either of these goals is impossible - we're comparing the resources of large, professional companies with those of various motley groups of Japanese-fluent IRC inhabitants who know their way around video software. It should not be a serious contest.

All of this in mind, I offer the following scenario. Company X notices that in Japan a certain show, anime A, will start airing. This show is, for various reasons (the manga has been popular, etc.), practically guaranteed to be popular both there and domestically. Seeing that it can't miss, X licenses A in advance from A's Japanese production company. The first episode of A airs in Japan; a week or so later, X sells a no-frills, reasonable quality subtitled video of this first episode on its website (or through another method, perhaps a program like iTunes) for a few dollars per download. They do the same for the second episode, and so on. While some viewers give up somewhere in the middle of the series, others watch all the way through paying per episode. A few months later X releases its DVDs of A, complete with a dub and other extras. DVD sales may be slightly dented from the previous online release, but probably not to any great degree (in any case, true fans will want the DVDs even after paying for the downloads). The DVD gross must cover licensing, production, studio time, menu design, marketing, shipping across the country, etc.. The gross from the downloads only need to cover the costs of licensing, bandwidth, marketing, and whatever is needed to pay a translation team with a quick turnaround time - in other words, not much. Because it satisfies both the casual fans who just want DVDs as well as the impatient fans who want to see the show as soon as possible, X makes a killing.

Something like this scenario, starting with the most ideal cases and moving out from there, can be applied as a general model. The barber shop from above, if it's going to defeat the freelancers, must be able to do all the things they can do (only better). As a proposal - that the domestic companies should try to compete in the fansub market in the same way that iTunes did in online mp3 trading - all of this is fairly modest, and it's really the only way I can see to save an industry that is, at the moment, hopelessly dinosaurian. A few of the companies are already offering downloads of their series - but only of their back catalogs. Others have used tricks like streaming entire episodes for free - but without changing the fact that we could have easily watched those same episodes and series months ago. These aren't bad as first steps go, but in no way do they change the brute, unmoving issues of timing and convenience. Deal with them or deal with nothing.

In closing: I don't think what I'm saying is radical. It would seriously surprise (not to mention sadden) me to find that this kind of distribution model hasn't been thrown around by people far more important than I with expensive cars and many letters after their name. Assuming that's true, though, I'm at a loss as to why it hasn't been implemented. The only conceivable snags are at the level of buying the distribution rights - something that the domestic companies may be unwilling to risk, or something they may not be able to convince the Japanese producers of agreeing to so early. Here I'm speculating on something about which I really have no knowledge whatsoever - but I am quite sure that whatever snags there may be must be removed if the American anime industry is to have any chance of succeeding in a 21st century economy.

Thinking back to the opening example, we were initially caught on the question of what the populace of the town owed to its barber shop. I would lean towards saying: not only do they not owe anything, but this is altogether the wrong question to ask. What the populace wants in that example is haircuts, nothing else. Whatever can provide decent haircuts in a timely fashion will do well - even if it makes no money whatsoever. A fortiori, then, anything which cannot do so must either change its ways or close up shop. At what point, exactly, does an obligation to support such a business fall upon the consumer? At what point does the only possibility of communicating what they want rely on buying goods and services considered dubious? Likewise, we fans of anime owe precious little to the domestic licensers - we may buy from them what we think is worthwhile, but they cannot demand anything more. That being so, if they wish to be competitive with the myriad bored college student translators on IRC then they will find no ethical or legal shortcuts to doing so. They must offer us something better or leave the work for others.

Date Published
03/20/08 (Originally Created: 03/20/08)
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