In a darkly lit room at the AnimeNEXT convention on Saturday, English dub voice actor Greg Ayres enters to applause from a full room of otaku. “No, it’s not my final panel for this convention,” he announces to the audience, “but it’s the only one I think is important.” The topic he is going to be discussing is fansubbing and illegal downloading of anime in America.
When he asks the audience whether or not they download fansubs illegally, a majority of them raise their hand to say yes. He assures them that it’s okay to admit to doing so, but he just wants to hear their reasons. One-by-one, fans talk about why they do it, giving reasons like “I can’t afford to buy”, “the show in unlicensed over here”, or “I don’t want the show to be spoiled by all my friends who have already watched it.” Greg listens to each one, jots it on a list, and addresses each point for as long as time will allow him. But the audience is so eager to talk the most of the points will not get covered in the two hour limit.
The only stipulation he has when it comes to audience participation is that everyone treats each other with respect and hold back any unnecessary bashing and name calling. It’s a taboo subject to be speaking about so publicly like this, and it causes some very emotional and spiteful reactions from both sides when it’s being argued about. As expected, the actor is dissected, taunted, and harshly mocked by his critics on the internet in the days that follow this panel. But for the next two hours, this audience of otaku listens to the actor’s message and feel safe enough to speak out openly about their own views and doubts on the subject. And when it’s all over, most of them leave the room vowing never to download illegally again.
I got to have a interview with Ayres prior to the panel to discuss his views on illegal downloading, the people who take part in it, and the people who are damaged by it. In attending these panels and talking to the participants, I learned just why his message has such a huge impact on the community all together, in both positive and negative ways.
An Old-School Otaku
Unlike most voice actors in the industry, Ayres grew up as a hardcore otaku. As a skater living in Houston in the early 90’s, he and his friends would become extremely bored during the summertime when the weather made it too hot to go outside. To pass the time, one of his friends introduced the others these “dirty cartoon” shows he had on VHS, complete with extreme violence, adult language, and girls with very big boobs. Teenage boys being teenage boys, the group became very interested in this new medium.
Because the options were limit prior to the internet, pirated VHS tapes were traded among the small otaku community. He distinctly remembers watching Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as just a raw video with a written translated script in hand. But since the video had been transfer to a several tapes prior to his viewing, the picture quality had been very degraded. “You couldn’t even tell if [the main female character] was wearing a skirt or shorts,” he recalls.
This lead to his interest in legally collecting anime on Laserdisc. Not only did the new format provide a much better picture and audio experience, but it was also the cheapest way of getting anime at the time. He could either pay around $70 for an entire OVA or series on high quality Laserdisc, or spend $50 on a two-episode VHS tape which ran the risk of degradation. The choice was obvious, and he and his friends would search around specialty shops for any imported anime Laserdiscs they could find. It was always a risky investment, and sometimes it never fully paid off:
“I remembered that Humanoid had a sexy robot on the cover. That was it. For 80 bucks, we were going to get that. So you can imagine the shock, horror, and disgust of six teenage boys find that there was no sexy robot anywhere within that show.”
But the occasional $80 disappointment never stopped the young otakus from buying anything and everything. Eventually, Ayres saved up enough money to buy a tricked-out Laserdisc player that would automatically flip over the disc after it was finished playing each 30-minute side. He was very serious about the medium and about his collection.
Because he grew up as such a huge anime fan, he jumped at the chance to join the anime industry. Ayres took a huge step back from his career as an IT professional to get into voice acting. He went from a stable $60k/year job to making less money than a woman who greets customers as Wal Mart – “and at least she’s got health insurance!”
Even if the anime industry survives its current slump, he knows that his lifestyle will ultimately lead him having to leave his voice acting gig for a higher paying job sooner than later. But while he still has an inside view of how the business is running, he uses his current position to spread his message on the dangers of fansubbing and illegal downloading to the current generation of otaku while he still can.
The Problem With Fansubs
“Fans in general are not buying DVDs. They haven’t been buying DVDs for the last three years.” He does acknowledge that poor executive decisions do attribute to poor DVD sales, such as the long time it takes to release a show, or a poor choice to go with one series over another. However, these issues are not the major reason why the industry has gone into a slump, as Ayres has witnessed first-hand.
“Simply, my friends are all anime fans. I watched what my friends were doing. At the point where bittorrenting and filesharing for anime fans became a big deal, suddenly my friends who have these growing libraries just stopped buying things. And they’d start getting into other things, like J-rock and putting in all this money into importing Miyavi CDs, but not a single new anime title.”
He saw the trend all over. Fans could now just get their fix for free so easily on the internet. And after they stole one series, there’s no incentive to purchase the DVD and no punishment for stealing, which makes the viewer ready to just steal something else.
This community of online file sharing has even overstepped the boundaries of unlicensed material to blatantly rip official American DVD release and post that online, dubs and all. He recalls a fan complimenting him for his dub work on the show Beck, only to ruin it by mentioning how he downloaded the show off of bittorrent.
“American fans, very specifically, have a very strange sense of entitlement to anime. You’re not entitled to anything in this life, except for maybe the air you breath.”
But even beyond the series he has worked on, he feels the pain of the Japanese creators who are always effected by piracy even at just the fansub level, but are often too scared and timid to speak out about it. He talks about how Shinichi Watanabe, a highly charismatic anime director known as “Nabeshin” to many, took a huge risk at speaking up for his fellow creators, only to be criticized from the fansubbing community.
“I mean, it’s Nabeshin! Never was there a nicer guy; never was there a guy who created more funny moments in anime. And yet, very seriously, he spoke to an audience of fans and at a very uncomfortable pace for him. He was very worried that he was going to get crucified for what he did. He was very worried to speak out on his own behalf!
“And even after he did it, people still said, ‘F*** the Japanese! Screw Watanabe! I never liked his shows anyway.’ I never thought I would live to see the day that an anime fan would say, ‘F*** the Japanese!’ I mean, what kind of anime fan is that?”
His message is simple at its core: if you enjoy the work that someone has created for you, then you have to be sure that you compensate the artist for it. “I find the money for the things I like, and I had good parents who taught me not to steal.” If you can’t afford to buy it, then turn to alternative legal solutions, such as libraries, convention screening, legal streaming series (like Adult Swim video and Gonzo’s newest initiative), or just borrow shows from your friends. In those situations, having to pay the full price for something that will be shared by a few is way better than paying nothing for something that is being shared by everyone.
But there is one major point that the two of us did not agree on, and it is the reason why I have personally downloaded fansubs for the past few years. Thanks to copy protection and the DMCA, it is illegal to watch any unlicensed show in the USA, even if one purchases it with his or her own money. This was not an issue when he was a teenager. He was able to easily import Laserdiscs without breaking any copyright law.
However, Ayres saw this as a non-issue even in today’s world:
“That’s an issue that I don’t even address, because if you’re doing the footwork to getting a region-free player and you are spending money to buy [region 2 DVDs] from a legitimate source in Japan, then the money is going back to Japan and I could care less.” He tells me that for unlicensed show or shows that been canceled in America, such as Kodacha, this type of importing is the only option that you have legally watch these shows.
“But it’s not legal!” I interrupt him.
“Then it’s the only ethical way to watch these shows,” he fires back. “Look, I don’t have a problem about being above-the-law. You can take a look at me and you can tell that I’ve probably broken a number of laws in my day. It’s about doing what helps this industry out.”
So what’s the solution to the fansub problem?
According to Ayres, it’s all in education, which is why he goes to these convention and insists on hosting these panels on the subject. Along with this, he’s aware of PSA’s being put together to go out to the community and a complete documentary being produced in America and Japan. These initiatives are taking a while to get done, but he strongly feels that educating the audience on the damages of fansubbing is the critical component to fixing the problem.
And as I saw first hand at AnimeNEXT, this education actually works.
The Audience is Listening
At one of Ayres’s Voice Acting Q&A panels on the Friday of the convention, anime fan Steve gets on the mic:
“First off, Greg, I just wanted to say that because of your blog on MySpace, I have sworn off of fansubs as my New Years resolution for this year.” Steve is met with applause from the audience, and a great amount of gratitude from Ayres and the other voice actors on the stage. But Steve’s story echos that of a lot of other fans who I talked to at the convention that weekend.
“I think there are a lot of well-meaning fans who are just excited and passionate about what they watch,” explains Ayres when he talks about his audience. “I think that a lot of them, still to this day, have no idea that they are helping to destroy the thing that they say they love the most.”
With his otaku upbringing, brightly colored hair dye, childish voice, and overall crazy attitude, the young convention attendees identify themselves with the voice actor. They look at him as just another anime fan who has landed a dream job working for the industry. “I meet kids everyday who want to be voice actors, animator, producers, music people – they just always want to get involved in the industry.” Ayres has turned into a role model to to his audience, and it’s with this kind of respect and admiration that they all listens to with an open mind. This is the only type of fan that he directs his campaign to, because they are the only ones will listen.
He has already recognized that many of his biggest critics, the ones we tend to find blogging in the fansub community, are already lost causes in his campaign and makes no effort to persuade them otherwise. These folks are already so close minded about the world around them that they cannot sympathize with the industry and community behind it. He can see their introverted personality being so blatantly displayed when he goes to anime cons.
“I’m heading out to AX next week, and that’s just such a frustrating thing. It’s the big industry hubbub, and yet every corner you turn, there’s just some person with their laptop out watching some crappy fansub. It’s like, dude! You’re at the largest Expo around. You’re at the largest place anime fans can meet, and yet you’re still very anti-social and just glued to your fansub of D. Gray-man.”
These fans will never change their ideology, and become very angry and rude when the voice actor tells them that what they are doing is wrong. Ayres, as well, becomes very angry when talking about their lack of respect for him and the Japanese artists, as mentioned earlier in his story about Nabeshin.
He believes that fansubbers should be using their talents to actually get a paying gig, instead of just doing it for 15 minutes of fame on Youtube. “If you’re so good at what you do, why don’t you get a job at Viz and get paid to do translation? Why don’t you prove yourself in the professional world?” Until they can make a positive difference in the industry without leeching off of the works of others, Ayres believes that they have no right to complain about his message or the fans who listen to him.
Fortunately for him and the audience at the panel, these type of fans save their complaining and insults to the safe harbor of the internet later in the day. “The biggest wussies will always draw their swords on the internet,” he warns, and sure enough, they keep quiet during those two hours. They are well aware that they are hated minority in a room, and they use that as their excuse later on as to why their opinions were never heard that day. They call Ayres all kinds of obscenities, and accuse everyone (including myself) of being nothing more than ass-kissers to him.
It’s not ass-kissing, though. It’s respect. It’s a respect that Ayres had as a teenage boy to the folks who created the “dirty cartoons” that he enjoyed so much with his buddies. It’s a respect he has towards Japanese creators like Nabeshin, whose livelihood is currently threatened by piracy and illegal downloads. It’s a respect that the young convention goers have for Ayres because he is the one of them who made it into the industry that they also respect. And it’s a respect I have as a blogger towards a man who says what he feels is right, even though he will be severely blasted by those who have lost their respect long ago.
My work on this essay had me seriously thinking about my own reason for illegal downloading. I have made it well aware to my readers in the past that I know that people who were downloading fansubs were screwing over the industry for not buying the DVD, and that they should be ashamed of it. But I was using the reasoning of DRM and DMCA to justify downloading unlicensed series. Ayres’s immediate dismissal of the issue made me realize that my petty reason was just that – petty. I had no right to be stealing purely out of spite for unfair copyright laws. I was being completely hypocritical.
Looking at my computer, I see a queue of ToLOVEru and Kanokon episodes piled up over weeks of neglect. True, they are both great series, but I’m honestly getting sick of sitting in front of my computer to watch these heavily compressed downloads. And in order to get to just these two series, I had to check out countless others only to discover that they were not worth my time at all. I’m burnt out on this stuff.
For the past month or so, I’ve been enjoying watching everything on my big screen HDTV. Even a standard DVD looks amazing when upconverted to 1080p. Thanks to Netflix, I was getting myself acquainted with licensed shows like School Rumble, This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, and Emma: A Victorian Romance. These are all series that I have been completely overlooking because I was too busy downloading crap off of bittorrent.
That is why this fansub queue has gone unwatched for so long…
(-_-) . . .
I delete the fansub queue from my hard drive, lay down on my couch, and finish watching This Ugly Yet Beautiful World.
I will not be a hypocrite anymore. From this point on, this anime blogger is going 100% legit and legal.