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Manga Before Flowers — Fanworks and How the Fan works

by  in Comic News Comment
Manga Before Flowers — Fanworks and How the Fan works

This week I really wanted to discuss two anime series that started up this spring in Japan which I’ve been following week-to-week thanks to the efforts of two fansub groups who subtitle episodes of each series in English within days of their release in Japan. (My justification for discussing anime on a comic book blog was that both anime series I’m watching are based on manga originals and we often discuss film or animated adaptations of comic books. Turnabout is fair play, right?) But I stopped when I felt it was a little dodgy, ethically speaking, to discuss material only available in fansubs — since wouldn’t I be encouraging, you know, the complete and total disintegration of the anime market in the U.S.?

Even though I clearly am participating in that ethically dodgy behavior.

Oh dear. This is going to get…icky isn’t it?

In case folks don’t know, there are hundreds (if not thousands now) groups of fans who work to edit, translate and distribute manga and anime on-line. In the case of anime, groups release video files with English subtitles of anime series known as “subs” or “fansubs,” and in the case of manga they release scans of manga series, edited with English text in place of the original Japanese, called “scanlations.” In spite of the fact these are not “original” creations by fangroups, the groups feel a sense of pride in the work they do(sometimes even entitlement about the series they work on, which can be problematic), since they work to bring other fans a better understanding of (or simply access to) Japanese creative works through practices of translation & through various distribution networks.

I believe these practices, at least, in the U.S. are very, very illegal. (I’m reminded of the ice-skating coach from The Cutting Edge: “Legano…Illegano…is grey area!”) My, probably misguided, understanding of copyright law that in Japan it is not illegal to download copyrighted material for personal use but it is illegal to mass distribute copies of it. If anyone wants to correct my very fairly nonexistent basic understanding of international / domestic copyright here, I would be quite grateful.

Fangroups often distinguish between works that are licensed for the U.S. market and works that are not. Meaning, they will translate and distribute titles so long as no U.S. company has bought the rights to distribute it in the U.S. However, some groups DO NOT make such distinctions and continue to translate licensed series. For example, there are something like 5 billion groups (I exaggerate. sort of.) who continue to translate current chapters of Naruto even though Viz has clearly cornered the market on everything even vaguely related to that franchise in the U.S. and is not shy about bringing us as much Naruto as humanly possible (seriously, 12 manga volumes in 4 months. We will never not have enough Naruto in this country).

Some various perspectives on these practices (please do not mistake my stating each perspective for my endorsement of each perspective, I’ll get to my opinion later, trust me.):

1) It is NEVER okay to create fansubs. Whether or not an anime or series is licensed for the U.S. market does not matter — by creating these amateur translations fans are *hurting* these industries by stealing from the original creators and damaging the later sales potential of these media should they ever be licensed for the U.S. market.

2) It is okay to translate & distribute works which are not licensed for the U.S. market. There are a few rationales behind this reasoning:

a) Certain works will never ever be licensed for the U.S. market. For instance, Glass Mask, a shojo manga which started in the 1970’s and STILL continues to this day (42 volumes and thousands of pages still not collected in tankobon format because the creator now wants to change certain developments) will never be licensed (this is the consensus of most fans and I pretty much agree with them). The art is old-school shojo, it is so damn looooooong, the confusion of what will happen to the series after volume 42….and so on.

b) English subs and scanlations can demonstrate to U.S. companies what unlicensed titles fans are interested in. In other words, by scanlating certain titles, fans can actively show U.S. companies that certain genres and / or specific titles are viable / worth licensing for the U.S. market. For instance, yaoi. While certain titles were probably always going to be licensed for the U.S. market (Naruto, Fruits Basket, Vampire Knight etc), once the U.S. (manga) market stabilized in certain ways (post-2003) it is possible that without the strong yaoi-fandom fostered by many fangroups translating and distributing yaoi titles, U.S. companies might not have realized the potential yaoi had in the market (a more realistic view — from a business perspective — of yaoi’s success in the U.S. may simply be that Tokyopop’s FAKE sold really well. You be the judge).

Related rationale: Fangroups are pre-advertising on behalf of U.S. companies! In other words, U.S. Company X recently announced license of title B! The fangroup that released two or three volumes of that title might encourage fans to download chapters of it for a limited amount of time (sometimes not even for an entire week) so that they can introduce fans to the title and encourage them to buy it once it is released in the U.S.

c) It’s not licensed yet so English-language fans are free to translate / distribute these objects. So. Yeah. This one’s probably self-explanatory. (I suppose this isn’t a rationale but it probably explains something like 70% of current fandom sub and scanlation practices — “we enjoy this practice, you enjoy this practice, so we’ll do it until we have a specific reason not to.”)

And, finally, the third perspective (and please remember I’m ventriloquizing fandom points-of-view here, NOT endorsing them):

3) It is okay to translate material licensed for the U.S. market.

Why?

a) “The U.S. company in question has bungled the translation, the release, the price, etc. of my favorite series!” Yes, sometimes U.S. companies make questionable decisions in their translation / distribution practices. Sometimes they nix honorifics (Viz), localize and place the worst and most painful American slang ever in the mouths of Japanese characters (also Viz), fail to translate sound effects (Tokyopop), fail to legally release their books (BeBeautiful), fail to release at all (ADV), sometimes even price their media according to their mood that day (DarkHorse), and, finally, the dub just sucks (Insert U.S. anime company of your choice here)!

Occasionally, but very rarely, a company screws up a title so badly that sales *will* be hurt (CMX with Tenjho Tenge edits, and 4-kids Entertainment with the One Piece anime, and the morons who originally changed “Cardcaptor Sakura” to “Cardcaptors” and edited the protagonist-heroine out of her own maho shojo anime). Usually such colossal misfires with such popular material will self-correct since there is money to be had in producing versions the fans judge to be more faithful to the original (although with the One Piece anime it took *years* for this to happen).

However, the majority of decisions made by a U.S. company are final as re-editing (re-printing, re-releasing) these objects is too costly a process and to be honest there are always reasons (usually cost related) why companies make certain translation decisions in the first place (i.e. the notion that nixing honorifics makes a work more accessible to an American audience is a smart business decision — and “right” or “wrong” U.S. companies usually have practical reasons for what they do even if the fans disagree with those reasons and their results). Fans who reject the validity of U.S. media editors’ decisions then justify the decision to scanlate and / or download these materials since they often claim that fan-made translations are closer to the “original intentions” of the creator. While I have some sympathy for fan frustration with certain decisions made by U.S. manga / anime companies (there is, after all, a reason I “named names” two paragraphs above) I’m pretty sure it was the original intention of the creators to *get paid*.

b) “But I can’t wait 45 seconds!” (Quote courtesy of Homer Simpson). Okay, yes, it takes longer than 45 seconds for an anime series or a manga title to first be released in Japan, to build up some kind of reputation (either because of good sales in Japan or good “word of mouth” in fandom, perhaps due to popularity of early fan translations), to be licensed and then to finally be translated and released in the states. A few years can often take place between the debut of a series in Japan and its eventual sale in the U.S. — case in point, Funimation has licensed the Ouran High School Host Club anime (maybe a year ago?) and still hasn’t released any of it. The show originally aired in Japan from April to September of 2006. Two years now and the only excuse I can think of is that they’ve sold it to AdultSwim or something and are waiting to announce this wonderful development (because seriously, do you know how much money they’d make by releasing that gem? Well, c’est la vie, I suppose.)

Related rationale: “U.S. company A releases its titles too slowly! I want my anime / manga now!”

c) It’s there. Pretty self-explanatory. (“I like this show / this manga and want to know what happens next!”)

4) Finally, there are also people who seem to feel differently about fansubs versus scanlations since these are very different media that we experience very differently. A digital copy of manga (i.e. a scan) is not quite the same thing as a digital copy of an animated show. Probably because comics have a materiality that anime does not there is the assumption that fansubbing is more hurtful to the U.S. anime industry than scanlation is to the U.S. manga industry (for the record, there is some evidence to back up this assumption, since anime sales are declining while manga sales are (still) rising in the U.S. — see basic data here). In other words, fans might not feel the need to have “hard copies” of anime if they have computer files they can burn to DVD, but will probably still want physical copies of manga even if they have scans on their computer hard-drive. But that is a big “probably” right there, isn’t it?

Now that we’ve gotten ALL THAT out of the way, I suppose it is time to go over what I actually think (and actually *practice*) in relation to these attitudes and perspectives.

1) I don’t download licensed anime. In fact I haven’t downloaded any kind of anime in a few years….the exception being the two series I started following this spring. Should those series ever become licensed I plan to buy them — considering the state of anime in the U.S. the only way I can morally justify watching any kind of fansub beyond an episode for “taste” is if I make the commitment to myself to buy if they ever become licensed in the states. (Of the two anime I’m following this year, one *might* be licensed, while it is doubtful the other ever would be. —-> If people want to have a little fun they might try guessing which titles I’m following. Or well. It would be fun for me!)

2) I rent instead of buy. I often feel anime is too expensive for me to buy outright (particularly in comparison to the cost of most U.S. shows / films on DVD), so I rent via netflix (which, happily is very legal in the U.S.). In other words, yes, I have a very familar fandom (perhaps even entitled?) attitude about anime released for the U.S. market, but I still use legal means if I’m interested in watching a (licensed) animated series. Now, I’d be happy to hear any objections to netflixing anime instead of buying it (I don’t know of any), but to be perfectly honest, manga is where it is at for me so that is where most of my entertainment budget goes.

3) I read scanlations. Of both licensed and unlicensed series. However, checking my conscience I can honestly say I do NOT read on-going scanlations of licensed series unless I’m actively buying that title. In other words, I’m completely caught up on the Japanese NANA chapters (they’re at volume 19 I believe) but I’m also completely caught up with buying Viz’s releases of the title as well (volume 10 released earlier this month).

I’m also an avid reader of scanlations of unlicensed titles. For instance, I read all 11 volumes of Love Mode before the BLU manga imprint even existed. YET, as of today I own all 9 volumes currently released by BLU in the U.S. (and plan to finish purchasing that series). I love manga enough so that if I have read more than a volume of something via scanlation that I *will* buy it if it ever is released in the U.S.

However, does this justify my reading scanlations? Eh, I honestly don’t know. For the record, there are a lot of titles out there I probably never would have bought if it weren’t for scanlations (for instance High School Debut) but intellectually I know that the “taste test” argument really doesn’t stand up…not everyone is willing to buy the manga they read scanlated or rent/buy the anime they download.

There is no doubt, though, that holding the manga in my hand? Very, very important to me. I care less and less for scanlation the longer I buy and read manga (I’m going on three years now since I became a fan of manga) and more and more I want to have these delightful books on my shelf. I’m not sure if most (on-line) fans feel like I do — this obsessive need to have the books in our hot little hands! — but probably quite a few do (it also should be noted most of the prominent manga bloggers I frequent don’t do scanlations and don’t want to).

4) I also think fangroups, in general, should be proud of their activity. When I think about the time and effort they devote to translating & distributing manga and anime out of love and devotion (and yes, sometimes a strong sense of ego or entitlement), I’m astounded by their energy. While I wouldn’t go so far to say that they “created the overseas manga industry,” as I’ve seen one scanlator claim, they certainly have fostered an active and engaged community of folks who take their interest in Japanese anime and manga very seriously. I know that there are certain individuals (official translators, editors, and taste-makers if you will) and corporations who can take a generous portion of credit for the U.S. market for manga and anime, but they’d be dead in the water without people willing to devote their time, energy and love to Japanese popular culture. And we probably shouldn’t forget that many of those “official folks” started out as fans in the first place, some even as scanlators / fansubbers.

5) In the end, the practice of scanlations helped orient me to manga — I don’t think I would be so savvy about what I like and *might* like if fangroups hadn’t helped me sort a lot of things out.

On the other hand, I read my first chapter of NANA in Viz’s first release of its SHOJO BEAT magazine in the summer of 2005.

Which means I have both fans and U.S. media companies to thank for making me the fan I am today.

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