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On Interpreting Anime Philosophically

I am currently in the process of writing a fairly long philosophical essay, with the aim of getting it published one of these days. The essay, as planned, will eventually focus on Utena and then - briefly at the end - ...

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On Shaming the Fans

The American automotive industry is in a crisis. Sales for GM, Ford, and Chrysler vehicles have dropped more than a quarter so far this year, and all three stand near the brink of bankruptcy. The trucks and SUVs that made them so much money a mere half-decade ago now sit unsold in dealer lots, collecting dust and increasingly desperate discount stickers. The companies' (mis-)managements and press cheerleaders have, in the meantime, rounded up their suspects as to what caused all of this. One such suspect, tucked away in the corner but still visible enough to take some of the blame, is none other than - the consumer!

Yes, the consumer! The fall of these companies is not the result of any poverty on their side, but rather due to a moral weakness on the part of American car buyers. A failure to deliver relevant products is not to blame, only the self-interested, unethical, greedy nature of the family that springs for a Fit over a Tahoe. How dare they find their transportation elsewhere! How dare they renege on supporting these companies which were making money hand over fist a few years ago and innocently forgot to adapt their business model! Oh ye customers all, for shame!

In the car world, at least, these kinds of arguments are thankfully rare and rightfully ridiculed whenever they pop up in some editorial or another. People are frequently willing to accept pastures full of scapegoats from companies trying to sell bad products, but here (in this one case, at least) it fails to work. It's been trotted out too often and with too much bad faith - and it's easy enough to recognize once you've seen it a few times. Its rejection rests upon a proposition that is, I think, generally agreeable: no one should have to buy a second-rate product solely out of a sense of obligation to the company that offers it. After all, what's more reasonable than to keep market loyalty reserved for decent products?

When it comes to cars, then, the argument can be seen for what it is and quickly falls apart. So how can it still seem reasonable when it's applied to anime?

I grant that the situation is not exactly the same. The domestic anime distributors have no Toyotas or Kias to compete with - or rather, they do, but these Toyotas and Kias are not exactly legitimate businesses in their own right. That will be enough for some - "Since the competition is illegal and immoral, only criminals and evildoers will leave the legitimate sources" - but it completely misses the point. Many debates have been held, for example, about the issue of fan translations, and they have only succeeded in confusing the issue. This is not a moral or legal problem and no one gains a thing by attempts to shift it onto those grounds, least of all the industry. The survival of a company has nothing to do with whether it's in the right; if this is taken as the main problem, the industry will be muttering about the fans' obligations and international copyright laws all the way to its grave. The only important question is: are the products offered relevant to the situation? If not, failure can only be staved off for so long. Extra money made by guilt-tripping the customer will not delay the inevitable.

All of this in mind, it's worth asking a few questions. These questions won't necessarily spur any action - everyone reading this already has some idea of what's needed - but they might provide some clarification of what's at stake. What do we mean, more exactly, when we talk about "anime fandom," and how do we draw the line between it and the "industry"? What does the one owe to the other, if anything? And, more pointedly: exactly who relies on who for survival?

In a recent essay on TheO, Rokuchan wrote a statement worth discussing. I quote: "The Anime fandom in America was started by fans, for fans. And as fans, it’s our job to keep it running if we truly appreciate it for what it is and want it to thrive."

This battlecry, soulful as it may be, makes the hidden and unargued assumption that "anime fandom" is identical with, or at least dependent on, the distribution companies. This has never been the case. In fact, the reverse is probably closer to the truth: the good old days of "swapping awful video tapes" was a direct result of the failure of the companies at the time to give fans what they wanted. For the most part one could only buy anime that fit the usual Angel Cop mold, one had to wait years after the Japanese release, and one had to be willing to kick in an extra $5-10 to get a tape with the original language (if it was even available). As a result of these inadequacies, fans at the time had to roll up their sleeves and do everything themselves. The fallout from their work has produced the industry that we have today, an industry which (up until recently, anyways) has been enormously successful. And this is by no means the end of the story (nor does it end with a hijacking by self-interested pirates). Even today fans continue to pursue their own innovations, and they do so in a way well in continuity with the tape-swapping of the past.

More on this in a moment. First, let us be perfectly clear here: what the fans now deal with in the form of the anime industry is something completely different from fandom proper. These are businesses, and as such they have to worry about sales projections, risk/benefit analyses, marketing and distribution strategy, and above all the bottom line. By definition, they are there to make money: they owe us no special obligations, nor we them. And it makes no difference whether the people running the companies are fans, either. As appealing as it may sound initially, in the end it merits no special consideration - any employee, especially a manager, would be neglecting her job if she consistently put her personal activities ahead of the balance sheet. There can be no blind idealism here: the companies must care about fans first and foremost as customers, and certainly not in the spirit of otaku solidarity. There's nothing wrong with this: businesses are allowed to make money. But the logic of these companies is completely alien to that of the fans, who from the beginning have been willing to invest thousands of hours into the worlds and ideas that they love with no hope of ever getting a return. This is the critical difference. Cosplay, fan art, fan fiction, conventions, viewing marathons, fansubs, even posting on charmingly obnoxious image boards: all of these things and more require enormous investments of time and money, none of which will be regained and all of which would be quickly dispensed with in a company budget. This extraordinary fecundity on the part of the fans, their (if I may be a little too poetic) beautiful wastefulness, is the true living heart of anime fandom - not the quarterly income of some corporation or another.

The dependence runs one and only one way: the fandom can and will outlive the individual companies that it supports. Fans are the center and distributors at the periphery, not the other way around. The businesses, whatever their moral and legal arguments, completely depend for their existence upon the wasteful logic of the otaku: the willingness to clutter up one's apartment with DVD box sets stems from the same source as the willingness to translate eroges and to send one's favorite voice actor's new albums across the internet. The industry must provide for the fans, never the fans for the industry. Now, let it be granted that these companies now produce far better products than they did fifteen years ago, or even ten years ago. But we are still a very long way indeed from fans getting "exactly what they want" from these companies, today as much as ever. DVDs still arrive in the States months or years after our friends across the pond get the same series; online distribution, in many of its current forms, amazingly takes even longer. Fans can no longer simply accept what is given to them, if they ever could: more than ever they know exactly what is available and when, and they are not willing to sit on their hands for long. Left with no real solutions, they will create their own (as they've always done). The fandom will always be smarter, faster, and more willing to experiment, and the companies - if they wish to remain viable - must follow their lead. Those willing to accompany the fans in their journeys to new shows, to new genres, and (yes) to new distribution methods will do well; despite accusations to the contrary, otaku are not cheapskates. If the companies choose instead to remain behind and stamp their feet in frustration, the fandom will simply shrug and do all the work themselves. They've done it before, they do it today, and they're willing to keep it up in the future.

And this brings us to fansubs. Once praised as "testing grounds" for new shows, they now represent everything evil and selfish about those purportedly greedy, heartless anime fans. I shall not make the usual arguments: anyone who's read this far knows them all by rote at this point, and I've already indicated that keeping the debate on moral or legal grounds won't save the companies at hand from impending doom. So why are fansubs so popular, anyways? Blaming fans' greed for everything is a nonstarter - true, there may be some who are simply out to save a buck, but they're few and far between. The larger popularity of fansubs has never been about money. This point needs to be hammered home again and again: it's not because they're free. On the contrary, fansubs are popular because they give attention to comparatively obscure shows, because they're (relatively) convenient, and more importantly because they typically appear within a week or two of the Japanese broadcast. Fans don't care that it's free - they care that it's first.

Nevertheless, the subtitlers are at a disadvantage: they have a very small infrastructure, limited resources, and all the volatility of a volunteer staff. The nature of their organization means that much of their work still has to be done piecemeal. Larger distributors, in contrast, have none of these disadvantages; it follows that, if they were able to untangle all of the rights issues, such distributors could easily beat the fansubs at their own game. Let there be no doubting this: any American distribution company which sells a no-frills, high-quality sub a day or two after the same episode airs in Japan will cut the fansubbing problem off at the knees. It's that simple. Indeed, it's the one solution that will keep the companies viable: gimmicks like streaming episodes online for free cannot help the distributors if they continue to do so months after the fact. The industry and anyone who's been paying attention already know this, and things are slowly inching in such a direction - iTunes worked for music, Steam worked for games, and this will work for anime. It may not work forever, mind, as the fandom will always be a step ahead, but it'll allow the companies to keep themselves useful for a long time. Certainly it would do more to save the industry than any flag-waving or circling the wagons 'round consumer decency.

I have no stirring words for the conclusion of this essay, nor any requests of the readers. No cheers on behalf of otakudom, no slogans to yell at those who disagree, no cheap shots at the ostensibly degenerate. The fandom will continue to do what it's always done, regardless of the opinions of myself or anyone else - what guides the fans is something utterly different from all of that. As for the distributors, the smart ones already know what's necessary to survive and have been making the appropriate plans. It's only a question, so to speak, of whether their boat of an industry can turn fast enough to avoid the iceburgs. Ultimately I have no idea what the future holds for either side - all I can say with certainty is that whatever's the case, it won't be brought about by impassioned appeals to communal spirit, nor by long debates citing legal code, nor by slapping one's target market on the wrist.

Anime Companies and Otaku - Another Look

(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.