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The People's History of Fansubs

Antonizoon edited this page Dec 18, 2016 · 1 revision

Note: This project is still in progress. Check out the BA Fansub Evolution Kanban Board to see a preliminary draft.

Fansubbing refers to the process through which a Japanese manga is edited or anime is subtitled to become understandable to viewers outside of Japan. This history is going to focus on fansubbing in the English speaking world, but it is critical to remember that there are other places in the world, such as France or the Middle East, that enjoy manga and anime and also have translation groups.

Before Fansubs

To have an accurate view of fansubbing, it is important to know two things: Why anime and manga are popular, and why the Japanese studios didn't provide subs. Anime had been widespread in Japan since before WWII, and manga for much longer than that, but the first popular anime outside of Japan was Astro Boy in the early 80's. Because of initial popularity, Japanese animation companies tried to set up operations in America, but pulled out when it didn't seem profitable. American film companies tried their hand at making subbed and dubbed versions of anime, but too often the translations would be over-localized and so were extremely unprofitable. A major example of this is the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind movie made by Studio Ghibli. The localization was so severe that Studio Ghibli declared they would never again allow international licenses of their films. Many Japanese companies followed suit, and thus any legal means of acquiring subbed anime were gone. During the same time, another great crisis rocked the video game industry: the infamous North American video game crash of 1983. After Atari lost millions on their poorly made ET game, they were forced to declare bankruptcy, which sent massive waves through other console makers. This created a hole in the market for consoles, which Nintendo was more than happy to fill. As an entire generation of children were influenced by Japanese media, the stage would be set for the massive boom that would occur in the 90's.

Humble Beginnings

After anime studios refused to license anime in America, the only way for Western audiences to watch anime was by passing around low quality VHS tapes. These VHS tapes had to be recorded in Japan and sent to America. They then had to have subtitles hard-coded onto the the tape, which required very rare machinery, and the result were usually ugly, yellow subtitles. As the process required, at least, a raw provider, translator, and hard-coder, there were very little, if any, one-man teams. During the 80's, the only way to do this was through BBS message boards accessed through phone line internet. As for distribution, anime clubs were formed so that members could have wider access to people who would potentially have new VHS tapes.

The 90's

It is important to remember that in the 80's and early 90's, a very high proportion of anime was mecha. This is why Hideki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion, a deconstruction of the genre, was so groundbreaking and revolutionary. Cowboy Bebop then paved the way for other non-mecha anime. Anime like Pokemon would continue the tradition of influencing children with Japanese media, which would lead to the anime boom seen today. With this new flood of genres, anime became even more popular in the United States. More important than that, however, was the defining invention of the 90's: the PC. The internet sped up almost every facet of fansubbing. Coordination through IRC was more efficient than through BBS, allowing bigger teams that included editors and quality control and split up the previous core jobs into smaller parts. The Amiga, and later Windows 95 and XP, allowed subs to be made at breakneck speeds on DVDs when compared to VHS tapes. Because of bandwidth and speed limitations, video could not be sent over the internet yet, but this would change in the early 2000's.

The Dark Ages

With these new tools came new groups, with one particularly interesting case that stands out: AnimeJunkies. They were the ones who gave speedsubs a bad reputation during this time, as they would often have low quality, mistranslated, badly timed releases. In addition, they were egotistic and would do things such as blurring out the original credits and instead adding their own names, or holding an episode hostage until they had a certain number of people on IRC. Hardsubs were the standard, as that would prevent other groups from "stealing" their translations or releases. There was little choice among fansubs as well, since almost all the groups were similar to AnimeJunkies. Even with the small range of choices for fansubs, it was a nightmare trying to find every video codec for every varied encoding format the groups would use. The group eventually died in 2004, and with them out of the way, the community underwent massive reform.

The New Millenium

The first decade of the 21st century ushered in new tools that further simplified things. The biggest is probably torrents, which allowed large video files to be spread to many downloaders at once without compromising the distributor's servers. Cheap websites and file hosting allowed websites like to form that provided easy access for fansubbers and viewers alike. Anime continued to become more and more popular, with the diversification of anime fully taking root.

The Golden Age

After undergoing reforms, the anime community became a streamlined and efficient machine. With the egotism out of the way, hardsubs gave way to softsubs and .mkv. Translations could be changed much more quickly without needing an entire new encode, and required less effort to typeset and time, leading to higher quality work. Hardsubs have since been relegated for use when subtitle files wouldn't be displayed properly on a device. The varied encoding formats of the 90's also gave way to CCCP by Commie subs, a simple and agreed upon standard for encoding that almost every group adheres to today. gg subs arguably created the most important contribution to fansubs since torrents. They created a production line method of getting subs out. Whereas before it would have taken days for an episode to be subbed, gg did it by coordinating their team well (doing translation and timing at the same time) and by going at ridiculous speeds to get the episode out mere hours after it aired in Japan.

Sources to steal from:

Bibliotheca Anonoma

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