Living Legit – A Month Without Fansubs

A month ago, I wrote in my controversial essay that I was going to give up on downloading illegal fansubs. In a way, it really wasn’t that hard of a decision for me to make at the time. I had burnt myself out with covering the spring season on my Twitter account. What started off as a dozen new shows in the first week quickly filtered to only two shows the next week, and I even lost interest in those shows not long after that.

Instead of watching fansubs for the rest of that season, I was discovering many older shows through my Netflix account. I was watching them on my big screen HDTV, so I felt a lot more relaxed sitting on my couch than sitting in front of a computer at my desk. And for the most part, they were all turning out to be good series because I was only renting shows I recalled hearing good things about through out the years.

So when I was working on the Ayres piece, I had to deal with the fansub debate head on and really reevaluate why I was continuing to download things illegally. I’ve been saying for years that people who were watching fansubs were not buying DVDs, and this in turn was creating problems for the industry in both America and Japan. But knowing this, I went on for years using the reasoning of, “I’ll buy the DVD when it comes out,” as my justification for downloading fansubs.

But I never bought the DVD. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who regularly bought anime DVDs anymore. They all stopped when they discovered fansubs.

So instead of being a hypocrite and never fulfilling on my promises, I decided to give up on the whole thing all together. It didn’t really sound that difficult to do. Working on the Ayres piece just convinced me to go all the way.

Not surprisingly, coming to this kind of realization and going public with it didn’t go so well with my readers. I was met with a lot of hostility from everyone starting with my very first tweet, and the criticism hasn’t stopped since then.

People told me that they had to download anime illegally in order to “sample” the show and determine if they were going to like it or not. I was thrown the argument of anime being too expensive, and that anime fans can’t afford to watch anime legally anymore. I was also given the argument that legit anime was too limiting. Anime fans had to turn to fansubs in order to stay up-to-date on the latest from Japan.

According to everyone, it would be completely impossible for American anime fans to go legit and live without fansubs in this day and age. I was an idiot for even suggesting it.

But was it really that impossible?

After all, I somehow managed to go through most of the spring season without them, and I also started off my first few years of being otaku never having download a single fansub.

What was so impossible about it? Why did I not see a problem in giving up fansubs?

For the entire month of July, I kept a record of all my otaku activities, the amount of material I was able to consume, and the total cost of everything I was doing. Thanks to this month-long experiment, I now have some actual numbers and statistics to show just why I was able to live legit for that month.

Legal Consumption

My main source of anime came out of my Netflix subscription. I have a 3 DVD-at-a-time subscription plan that costs me a little under $20 every month. For the month of July, I was able to rent 16 DVDs from Netflix with 9 of them being anime DVDs or live-action Japanese films based on anime, like the Honey and Clover movie. I was able to watch the entire first seasons of Emma: A Victorian Romance and School Rumble during that time. I also watched the first DVD of the series Human Crossing, but I didn’t really like the show that much so I didn’t watch any more of it.

In a way, the Netflix experience was very similar to the “sample” justification to fansubs. I had never seen any of these shows before, and there was absolutely no guarantee that I was going to like them. As it turns out, I really enjoyed Emma and School Rumble, so I continued to watch them both to the very end. Human Crossing, on the other hand, was dropped very quickly from my queue. I was safe to check out anything I wanted because there was absolutely no commitment to buy the DVDs. Just watch them once and return it for something new.

But unlike downloading illegally, I was actually paying for the opportunity to sample anime using this method instead of getting it all for free. But how much was I actually paying?

When you count all the episodes on those anime DVDs and break the movies into 25-minute blocks, I watched a total of 33 episodes from just Netflx last month. Since I only paid $20 all month, that translates to only 60¢ per episode. Not to mention that I also rented 7 other DVDs on Netflix that weren’t anime-related. If I had only rented anime DVDs, I probably could have brought the cost down to 30¢ or 40¢ per episode.

When I’m paying such a small amount of money, I don’t even feel like I’m wasting cash when I rent anime. If I don’t end up liking the show, so what? Losing a small amount of cash on a bad DVD is nothing when it comes with paying so little on watching good DVDs.

This micro-payment system is completely legit, and I’m sure the industry would much rather you pay them a small amount of cash to sample their product rather than paying nothing when you download it illegally. A lot of little payments end up becoming a huge profit over time. After all, the movie rental business has been a huge source of revenue for Hollywood ever since the early days of VHS. Why not make it profitable for the niche market of anime with Netfilx as well?

Moving beyond Netflix, my second largest source of anime was legally purchased shows from iTunes and BOST TV. The anime blogging community is probably already well aware of Strike Witches and Gonzo’s story. Because of this, Strike Witches is the only “new” anime I’m watching this season, and fortunately for me, it’s targeted towards my moé loving needs. So I bought and downloaded 4 episodes of the show during the month of my experiment.

But the launch of the 3G iPhone was the major reason for me watching so much off of the iTunes store. Last September, I used an iTunes gift card and bought the entire series of Tsukoyumi ~Moon Phase~. I watched the show for about a week, and enjoyed it so much that I ended up naming my newly adopted kitten Nekomimi because of the show’s theme song. But then the fall fansub season started, and I ended up dropping Tsukuyomi at episode 8 to watch all the new “fresh” shows from Japan at that time.

When I bought my new 3G iPhone, I upgraded from the 8-gig model to the 16-gig model and now had a lot of empty space to fill on it. So I decided to put my Tsukuyomi episodes on the phone and finish watching the 18 remaining episodes. I watched the episodes on my bus rides to New York during the month, and in bed on nights that I was having trouble going to sleep.

I ended up really loving the series, and I will be writing a post on Studio Shaft for this website sometime later this month. I also caught the last 10 episodes of Avatar on iTunes the same way which, as I wrote in last week’s post, I also consider to be anime as well.

So in total, I watched 32 episodes of legally downloaded anime, averaging at $1.69 per episode. Not quite as low as the rate of renting anime over Netflix was, but at least I was able to keep all the episodes to watch again sometime in the future.

My third source of anime was from the traditional method – store-bought DVDs. I bought Paprika on Blu-Ray, Lucky Star vol. 2, and the first two-disc set of Gurren Lagann. Even though I got some pretty sweet discounts on these DVDs, these 17 episodes worth of anime still cost me $2.70 per episode. This is probably what my readers were complaining about with anime being too expensive, and I agree, it was . But again, I didn’t have to buy these DVDs, I could have just rented them on Netflix for only 60¢ a pop. I just wanted to have a copy to own for my personal collection, so I paid that premium for it.

To make up for that, I was also able to watch 12 episodes of anime streaming online for absolutely free. This came from watching Death Note, Code Geass, and Shin-chan on Adult Swim’s free video service. FUNimation also had a sample episode of Bacconno when they announced the license for it last month.

However, FUNimation really blew me away when I discovered their Youtube shows on the very last day of my experiment. At that time, they had the first 4 episodes of Peach Girl, Slayers, Blue Gender, and Kiddy Grade ready and available for free. Because I had only discovered it during the final few hours of July, I was only able to watch 5 free episodes that night. But since then, I’ve watched plenty more shows for free thanks to this service. FUNimation is really going in great directions right now.

So if you haven’t realized it by now, I watched a freaking lot of anime in July. It ended up being 94 episodes in total, or at least 3 episodes for every day of the month. So to say that my options were limited by going legit was completely untrue. Even if I had cut out the paid downloads and purchased DVDs, I would have still watched 45 episodes of anime on just the Netflix and free streaming alone. That would be the same as watching the weekly fansubs of 10 different series at the same time. Do anime fans really follow more than 10 different anime shows every season?

I think it’s reasonable to say that for only $20 a month, you can watch just as much anime legally as you normally do illegally. And $20 is not really that much money. It’s less then the cost of one normal anime DVD. And in the grand scheme of them, my total amount of money I spent on my otaku hobby (with manga included) was only $104 in July. When you compare that to all my other expenses for the month – rent, food, car payments, iPhone,  utilities, etc. – anime and manga ended up being less than 5% of my total spending for the month. It was really not that expensive.

Keeping it “Fresh”

So now I come to the argument that, “yeah, but you didn’t watch brand new shows from Japan. All the stuff you saw was old.” That is completely true. With the exception of Strike Witches, the newest show I watched, Gurren Lagann, was a year old and the oldest show I saw, Tsukuyomi, came out four years ago.

However, I was watching all of these “old” shows for the first time ever, so I never felt that they were actually old or stale. Gurren Lagann was just as awesome to watch for the first time last month as it would have been to watch for the first time a year ago. Tsukuyomi was just as awesome to watch for the first time last month as it would have been in 2004. And actually, it was probably better to watch Tsukuyomi for the first time in 2008 because I can now watch it on my iPhone while traveling!

I really see no problems with watching older shows for the first time like this, but clearly my readers and the fansubbing community does. So just what does it mean to have “fresh” anime from Japan and why does the fansub community crave it so dearly?

If you think about it, that answer comes from simple greed and the hope for 15 minutes of internet fame.

A show that airs in Japan for the first time is guaranteed not to have been fansub before it airs. So all fansubbers will circle around every new show like vultures waiting for that “raw” meat to finally hit the web. When it does, they strike and pick it apart as quickly as possible so that they can be the first release their own subtitle version under their own name.

The most downloads will go to the group that finishes first. So the hype and attention to fresh new shows from Japan comes from the competition between all the fansubbing groups. After they have picked all the meat off of the carcass of a show for one season, they circle around the new meat of the next season’s shows.

The same applies to anime bloggers as well. Most blogs have nothing more to offer to the community than talking about fansubs and taking screen caps of the stuff they can steal for free off the internet. Again, many other bloggers are also writing the exact same post on the exact same show. So there’s still a little feeling of competition to be the first to blog about a new episode. Some bloggers even make it their gimmick to blog about “raw” anime episodes, because they’ll have the exclusive scoop of the episode before other bloggers get to watch the fansub. They’re trying to generate the most traffic because of this exclusivity.

This whole “I want to watch new shows from Japan” is just a facade to mask the greed, freeloading, and peer pressure of the fansubbing and blogging community. This kind of pressure was killing me by overloading me with a ton of “new” shows to watch every season, the stress of keeping “up-to-date” with everyone every week, and limited my choices to only the “here and now.”

By giving up fansubs, not only was I relieving myself of this stress, but I was also expanding my window of opportunity to all those older shows that have come out over the years that had managed to fly under my radar this whole time. It was actually a very liberating experience.

Living Legit

So in my month without fansubs, I found out that I was able to watch over 90 episodes of anime using only completely legal methods, and I didn’t even end up poor because of it. With so many free and affordable options available, I never felt the need to go back to downloading fansubs. In fact, I found the experience to be personally liberating by relieving myself of the stresses created by the fansubbing community and exploring so many great shows of years past.

But most of all, I was no longer being hypocritical by saying I was going to make up for downloading a fansub by buying the DVD, and then never following through on that promise. By always making my initial viewing supported by either micro-paying DVD rentals, paying less for legal downloads, or simply watching an ad-supported free video over the internet, I was always supporting the artists and the industry even without buying an expensive DVD at full price.

So is it really impossible to be an American anime fan and go completely legit in today’s world?

Well, my dear readers, you’ll never really know until you give it a try yourself. 😉

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