Animeraider, a well known musician and one of the those who have been around to experience the origins of the anime industry and the growth of fansubbing first hand since it’s inception talks about the emergence of fansubbing and it’s effect on the fresh anime industry at the time.
In response to a question asking:
The promotion and popularization of anime in the United States during the mid-to-late 80′s, much before it became a profitable business, was only the labor of love of just a handful of crazy anime fans who used to fansub anything they could get their hand on in VHS format.
In fact, it is said that one of these proto-fansubbers was Justin Sevakis, the founder of ANN and former editor in chief of CPM, who now is, ironically, a staunch adversary of anime fansubs. So I’d like to ask if you can confirm or vitiate these rumors, and perhaps tell me a few things about how things were back then, and how you were involved in popularizing anime in the USA.
Animeraider gave us this detailed response on the origins of fansubbing. All the writing below is a quote from Animeraider.
Yes, it was mostly we handful of crazies. We all knew each other – or at least we knew each other by our handles (mine hasn’t changed). We subbed them ourselves and traded what we had done for VHS tapes of what others had done. I still have a few hundred of those. The most prolific was Arctic Anime, which ran out of a rental shop and introduced some great shows to us.
I got involved early on because of Maison Ikkoku – which VIZ botched horribly in the 1980s by releasing episodes out of order, leaving episodes out of the sequence, and even claiming that the series was shorter than it was. They also had Ranma but had only released a handful of episodes. There was also AnimEigo, which had the rights to Urusei Yatsura and Kimagure Orange Road, but not enough money to release much.
At about the same time some people I know started noticing Shoujo and how it wasn’t represented in the US at all, and they started subbing a few great magical girl shows – specifically Hime-chan no Ribon. There were groups who put out things fast, like Arctic (the Horrible-subs of their day) and those who took their time to be sure they got everything right, like Tomodachi and TechnoGirls. There was a code back then as well – if a show got licensed you stopped subbing. We wanted to support the industry.
I think that’s what has happened with Mr. Sevakis – the fansubbers of today don’t follow the code. He wanted to support the American companies who paid a lot of money for the rights to their shows (and they don’t come cheap – $5K per episode was the launching point 10 years ago). Now I don’t know Sevakis and have never met him, but I imagine that this is where he’s coming from. I myself stopped collecting subs years ago for this very reason. It also helps to speak the language, but hey…
At any rate, the real turning point was two separate events, one of which I’m partially responsible for and one I played a bit part in. The bit part was Kimagure Orange Road. We all knew that AnimEigo had the rights, and we all wanted to see an official release of a great show but the money wasn’t right for a company that at the time was strapped for cash. Well, their people showed up at a convention and some of us asked what it was going to take to make it happen. They replied, get us 1,500 confirmed orders for the complete series on Laser Disc and we’ll move forward. I don’t think they expected a response to that.
Instead, we all got together and placed the orders. Once it became apparent to AnimEigo that we were going to pull it off, they took over the list and made it official. The pre-orders got placed, and Laser Discs came out – everyone was happy. Other companies saw that they were marketing anime wrong and realized that they could re-brand it as a niche market and make a ton of money, and a few started to do so. Viz, which was started in a guy’s garage, sold themselves to a Japanese animation company and promptly went after the children’s market – launching what was once called Pocket Monsters and turning it into Pokemon.
Now back at the end of the 1990s I was getting out of TV and back into music when I was approached to do something crazy by a guy with a lot of money. I had already been involved with the successful launch of 2 cable networks and had intimate knowledge of how television worked, and I have friends in the animation business both in the US and in Japan. Would I be willing to go to Japan and try to land a show? My answer – hell yes.
I won’t give all the details of my time in Japan – some things I’m contractually not allowed to discuss, even now. But let me put it to you this way – I spent considerable effort convincing several producers that their product would fly on American television and putting them in contact with the right people. Within a few weeks, Fox picked up a major show, and then a number of others followed suit. Previously released material suddenly started becoming available, and what had been a trickle was suddenly a flood. I made some good money, and got out of the business completely.
Alas, the show I was after all along (Minky Momo) never developed, thanks in part to a very complicated licensing issue involving Hong Kong. I still have right of first refusal to a great Magical Girl anime – but I no longer have the money to make it happen and so would happily surrender that right should someone else pick it up.
Tonikaku – the whole point is that we crazies back in the 1980s supported the industry when it didn’t even exist, creating the fan base that has been built up and exploded since our time. Not one of the original fansubbers is still doing it. As I said, we had a code – only do unlicensed material, which at the time was almost everything. These days almost everything gets licensed – and the fansubbers are taking business away instead of supporting the businesses. My own last fansub was Cat’s Eye, which I stopped at episode 19 after it was licensed. We wanted to build something and although almost none of us ever made a penny, build something we did.
Speaking for myself – I have shared a lot over the years, but only raws and unlicensed material (and I got away from subs altogether years ago). I’m not interested in taking anything away from the companies trying to make a buck off the Oatku. I just like to help expose others to things they might not ever otherwise see – and help spread the word of those shows that deserve more attention. That’s been my goal ever since my mom – an animator herself and I’d bet you money you’ve seen her work – introduced me to Jungle Taitei back when I was a little kid.
(Many thanks to Animeraider for sharing this info with us.)