State of the Japanimation: Do we still need pirates? / by shadebug

Misleading header image is misleading

Misleading header image is misleading

Just before Christmas my newsfeed was saturated by classic anime as Crunchyroll decided it was time kids these days knew a little of what they were missing by giving us entire series of gem after gem, day after day.

I was elated until I actually thought through what that meant because the world of anime in English was a very different place when those shows came out.

The shows in question were the likes of Yakitate!! Japan, which is one of the original standard bearers for the idea that anything is amazing once you turn it into a tournament; Tenjho Tenge, which, from the first episode, has one of the greatest fight scenes in anime history and Samurai Pizza Cats which Samurai. Pizza. Cats.

Seriously, Samurai flippin' Pizza Cats.

And all of that is just scratching the surface. Week after week these have been coming through but they all have the same problem.

Back when I started writing here (for newcomers, I used to write here. The management are as surprised as anybody that this is getting posted) I used to watch everything that came out because, who needs free time? And I made a particular point of downloading stuff that wasn't available in the UK for whatever reason. I conveniently tagged those with "Keep circulating the tapes" as a throwback to a time when watching anime was a labour of love. And as long as you don't demand actual tapes be involved, that was still happening very recently.

Just roll back not much more than five years ago and Netflix was a mail order DVD rental company, Crunchyroll was effectively a place to share SD rips of anime, Animax was a Japanese TV channel and Daisuki was a word for giants making out. Anime was floundering and downloading illegally was your only hope to watch some great shows that just would never see the light of day on these shores.

Roll back to the late 90s and you had the likes of 4kids sanitising everything to remove guns, riceballs and lesbians.

Roll back to the 80s and you enter the realm of the Macekre where no cartoon is safe from the prying hands of the evil kids TV studios.

So why is this a problem now? Because Crunchyroll is no longer the mess of illegal shows that it once was, it does things by the numbers and makes sure it has legitimate rights to use what it is showing. And the legitimate versions of all of those classic shows were all subbed/dubbed/otherwise mutilated whenever they were originally brought over. That means that some of these shows are only available as a dub, whereas others are only available as a hasty translation of dubious quality and all of them are only available in DVD quality.

Oddly, Samurai Pizza Cats is saved from this because it's one of the few examples of a show being torn to shreds but the end result still being really good. It's the rarest of beasts where people will actually recommend that you watch it twice so that you can see both the sub and the dub because they're completely different and both fantastic. Problem is that you'll only find the dub on Crunchyroll so you'll not get to find out how good the original also was.

So what does that have to do with circulating the tapes?

Well, the thing about the tapes is that they weren't just pirated copies of the English versions of shows. They were fansubs of things that weren't available. Way back when people used to go to ridiculous lengths to time hard subs onto VHS. Getting that right on digital is hard enough, doing it onto physical tapes is just torturing yourself. But the people that did it would often go to great lengths to make sure that their effort wasn't going to waste on shoddy translations and would make sure you understood the language and the context that the creators of the show were trying to get across.

Except when they didn't and it was also terrible, but let's ignore that for the moment.

That quality from the fansubbers that actually cared lasted well into the digital era and is only now being eroded because the fansubbers can't keep up with the likes of crunchyroll and daisuki bringing you decent subs at the same time as the show airs in Japan. Don't get me wrong, their are still some groups fighting the good fight but they're waning.

But what's the problem? Surely if we can now get them legally then there's no need.

Well, assuming we could get everything legally, there might still be a need and I'm going to use Yakitate!! Japan to illustrate that. See, crunchyroll and their ilk have to crank this stuff out. They have contracts to keep to and casts to simul with so they can't faff. This is why they just put up the DVD versions of shows instead of going through and subbing them again and it's why sometimes you'll find a show on crunchyroll that clearly has substandard translators working on it. Yakitate needs better than that.

For the uninitiated, Yakitate!! Japan is the story of a young baker on his quest to find a bread that Japan can be proud to call its own. At least that's what it probably says on the DVD cover. What it really is is a masterclass in how to pack as many puns as humanly possible into one TV show (outside of a Mako speech from Kill la Kill). The problem is that Japanese puns are labyrinthine in nature and you really need to understand Japanese both as a language and a culture to hope to unpack them. Yakitate was actually one of the first shows I watched when I started getting seriously into the medium and I have fond memories of watching it with my finger over the pause button, ready to read a translator's note explaining whatever joke got made and still finding it hilarious.

But the DVD doesn't have that. The DVD is made for people that will watch it without pausing, like this:

There's nothing wrong with the DVD version. I'm sure it's still a great show with that semi localised sort of sub but it loses the soul that made the show truly great. This is what we lose by relying on the likes of crunchyroll to bring us our subs. I remember watching Kill la Kill and wishing I had walls of text all over Mako's monologues but that's not something you'll ever see on netflix.

So absolutely, even if the legal streaming sites were picking up everything, there would still be room for fansubs to school them in how to really bring a show to life.

But that's not the end of the story.

You may have noticed that I've not been linking any of these cartoons like I normally would. The reason for that is that you wouldn't be able to follow the links because none of these shows are available for crunchyroll users in the UK. So even if you've paid for it, you still can't see it.

Now, we can't blame crunchyroll for that, they've done the best they can and I would never suggest that they haven't done a lot. Hell, they've got Go Lion. That's dedication. But the industry won't let them spread the shows as far as they want to. The industry will insist that licences be negotiated with worldwide distributors and sometimes those distributors just won't want to play nice. I'm guessing they're the distributors that were charging me over £100 for the Yakitate box set. I realise that I would pay far more than that if I were to buy it in Japan but I don't much care.

So even watching it through the legal channels means that you have to engage in some casual piracy.

I try to believe in the streaming sites but it gets hard. A few months back I got an email from Animax saying that my credit card had expired and if I didn't update my details I would lose my subscription and I really had trouble caring. Sure Shomin Sample was ridiculous fun but Daisuki was managing to get One Punch Man up over a day earlier and free and Overlord was being released a full week after Funimation were releasing it in the US, so it gets hard to argue that my money wouldn't be better spent paying for a VPN to a country that has the anime somewhat near the time it airs. That and the interface is dire (whereas watching stuff on Daisuki is a joy. Everything's so pretty).

I guess that's it then. As long as teams of people are willing to do, for free, a better job than the people we pay to do it and as long as we pay for things and people around the world get to see them but we don't, the piracy will continue and I, for one, will welcome it with open arms. I'll still keep paying for the legal version but, much like my shrinkwrapped copy of Kuragehime, I may well not actually watch the legal version.

(But don't buy pirated DVDs, kids. That's just a bad idea and funds organised crime)

So I'll leave you all circulating those tapes. I'm off to see what else is on.