A Candle Against the Dark

November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Fair warning that this post discusses the creation, distribution, and preservation of fansubbed media works, so if you are personally critical about the ethics of any of those things, I recommend you take a pass on this blog until next week, when I’ll probably be talking about Record of Lodoss War or something.

A certain torrent site that I frequent has an “anime of the fortnight” feature, wherein a once popular but now forgotten series is highlighted for download. These last two weeks, it’s been the three seasons of Hell Girl that ran from 2005 to 2009. I’d never seen them, but I knew from a little looking that two of the three had been subtitled by amateur fansubbing group Shinsen Subs, a past favorite of mine, so I thought I’d download it…

Only, the version by Shinsen Subs wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere, actually. A dozen empty trackers are all that remain of a long-running series by a talented group, and it hasn’t even been a decade since its release. It left me thinking, is this what the death of a subculture looks like?

I’ll be the first to admit, I used to watch fansubs because they were free and easy, although the vague immorality of them was also attractive to me as a young man of college age. With the sudden ubiquity of Bittorrent in the mid-2000s, there was no need to download tiny .avi files piecemeal from FTP servers anymore. You’d just find a tracker, boot up your client, and have the entire series in less than twenty-four hours. Who could resist that power? It made all of those Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri quotes from Commissioner Pravin Lal about the free flow of information seem more truth than fiction.

Of course, being thoughtful to a fault, I soon developed preferences for this free thing over that free thing. The fact of the matter is, some groups managed to produce fansubs that even surpassed the retail releases for which they purported to be a stopgap. The first one to really impress me was Shinsen Subs’ version of Ergo Proxy. The show itself has experienced something of a backlash in recent years, being pilloried for its pretension and obscurity, but I wonder if those people would feel the same after watching these specific fansubs. In addition to a very careful translation, which has become more valuable to me in and of itself the more languages I learn for my work, they created multiple screens of end notes explaining the dense network of references that characterized the anime’s writing. When I bought the box set, which was quite rare for a while, I deleted Shinsen’s version, but I soon downloaded it again. In the end, the box set merely justified my preservation of the fansubs.

There are several other examples like this. In fact, the version of Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei done by a.f.k. is probably going to be the only one ever created, because the sheer amount of onscreen text to translate makes it terribly inefficient as a product even of amateurs. Notoriously, a.f.k. self-destructed after doing three episodes of the second season, leaving the remaining seasons and OVAs to be translated by others here and there with much less love.

Still, for me, it’s not just about fansubs being superb instances of translation and explication. In addition to the ADV Films box set, I have the version of Azumanga Daioh done by The Triad, which is good work but not spectacular. I keep it for the same reason that several torrent sites have it archived despite notably inferior video and audio quality, which is just about the only standard by which fansubs are judged these days. The number of puns and references in the show required that three smaller groups (NewLifeAnime Fansubs, Inshin Digital Anime, and Anime-Fansubs) team up in order to handle it all, creating The Triad in the process — one of the oldest, largest, and most prolific fansubbing groups on the internet. Without it existing, a large percentage of popular shows in the mid- and late-2000s would never have reached English-speaking audiences, possibly meaning that they’d never be noticed, let alone licensed, by American companies at all.

This is the subculture that’s currently in decline. There are a lot of reasons why it’s happening, including:

  • The rise of same-day and next-day streaming services like CrunchyRoll have displaced “speedsub” groups, which used to be a training ground for the future members of higher-quality fansubbing groups.
  • The increased size of individual media files has made shows more bandwidth-intensive to download and more hard drive-intensive to archive.
  • The triumph first of the .mkv container and then of the 10-bit color profile for the H.264 codec has alienated a large percentage of casual users that used to help preserve older shows on trackers, in addition to making subtitles easier to distribute between groups.
  • The implosion of direct-download services following the US government shutdown and seizure of Megaupload has gutted many of the means by which fansubs have been stored long-term.

Essentially, all of these things have combined to create an “extinction event” at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century for independent fansubs with superior translations, now almost impossible to find for shows past or present. They have been almost entirely replaced by professional streaming services, as well as the groups that copy and distribute the scripts from those services with higher-quality TV rips. It looks virtually the same to outsiders, being that video files of anime with English subtitles are still being downloaded off the internet, but it’s a fundamental change in the nature of subculture that is hard not to see as a manner of death.

So when I set out to track down Shinsen Subs’ version of Hell Girl and Hell Girl: Second Cage, what did I think I was doing? Does it really matter whose translation of the show I watch, in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, no. Was it just stubbornness, an attempt to keep alive my loyalty to a group that no longer exists and is barely remembered by the internet now? In part, I’m sure. However, I also have an inkling (or maybe just a hope) that there will be an interest over the next few decades in the output of fansubbing groups, at least academic if not popular in kind. Whatever DMCA takedowns have been and still are being issued against them, these groups’ versions of shows are transformative works of translation and commentary, too. They haven’t been preserved very well, which is a hardship upon the people who’d watch them right now, but it means that anyone who’d be willing to hunt them down on forgotten trackers and DDL sites in Eastern Europe might find genuine pieces of cultural history from the early years of this century, known to only a handful of people now.

You’re saying to yourself, these are the delusions of grandeur from a historian who fancies everything to be history. Yeah, I can’t deny that, but everything is history, you know? About a year ago, I found a version of Samurai 7 among some DVDs I’d burned in college. It appeared to be the only one still around that was translated independently, without any influence from the FUNimation subtitles that were done by professionals shortly afterward. Using CRC checks and forum threads, I was able to identify the different contributors, four in number, to this brief flourishing of amateur interest in what is frankly a mediocre show from the anime bubble of the mid-2000s. There were at least four separate groups of people who were all passionate enough to obtain digital copies of every episode, make their own translation of them, and distribute them on the internet, under legal threats that were becoming more pervasive by the day. Isn’t that worth documenting in some way? I think so, although when I uploaded it to that certain torrent site that I frequent, there seemed to be only two or three people who agreed with me.

I know what I do is still considered piracy by most. I don’t really try to argue it anymore, I just buy anime whenever I have the money and hope for the best. I sincerely doubt that historians of the fansubbing subculture, if they ever come into existence, are going to be reconstructing old torrents and uploading them to share with the public again, like what I have done. If anything, that’s the business of a librarian or archivist, the twenty first-century equivalent to a medieval monk making copies of Aristotle and Cicero to send to other monasteries. In the profession of history, we study the monk and his copies, but what we do with our studies of both would be utterly unfamiliar to him. I wonder, what study of anime and the fansubs of them will be utterly unfamiliar to me someday?

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§ One Response to A Candle Against the Dark

  • Ben says:

    As an addendum, I don’t mean to say that there’s no cultural memory in the fansub community. There is, in fact, and it’s my dearest hope, albeit with many reservations. Fansubbing groups love to talk about each other, but that talk is framed as and limited by the typical rivalries between internet-based groups of people mostly in secondary and post-secondary education. That is to say, it all looks a lot like this.

    Warning, there’s a lot of offensive content behind that link, but it’s also a list of every high-level group still active in mid-2010. I can’t even imagine the psychic toll of having to read posts like that every day for research, but the resulting dissertation would certainly be something…

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