Reflections on a scene

I had a few posts last week about video encoding, mostly because I’ve been on a quest to take .mkv files with soft subtitles, which is the Current Popular Format, and crunch them into Yesterday’s Popular Format of .avi or .m4v files with burned-in subtitles, so they can be played back on the AppleTV or PS3 hooked up to our TV.

I’ve had some success in this.  Mind you, there’s an obvious quality drop because I know virtually nothing about how to encode video properly, so I’m more or less making things up as I go along, but I’ve managed to make it work.

In the process, I found out more than I wanted to know about h.264 video, and I found out that the AppleTV doesn’t display animation as well as the PS3, using the exact same files, but does seem to have the edge for live action stuff.

It’s also had the effect – since an awful lot of what I was reading was blog postings and forum posts and the like – of catching me up to date on the anime “scene”, which is one of those concepts I’d been vaguely aware of only in that I was pretty sure I wasn’t part of it and hadn’t been for at least the last decade.

Put simply: It’s ugly out there.  Well, that is, it’s ugly if you’re a western anime licensor. Firefox claims that “licensor” isn’t a word, but I think it is so I’m going to leave it in there. I digress.  Where was I?  Oh, yes, it’s ugly out there.

The advances in technology over the last few years have made it so that a program broadcast in Japan can be grabbed from Japanese P2P networks, translated, subtitled, and put up for download in the US within a day, and popular programs will have three or four different groups of translators competing to be the first ones to put up their version.

Furthermore, the old “gentleman’s agreement” to do this only with shows that hadn’t been licensed for western release has been completely tossed out the window, because it gets in the way.

Obviously, groups wouldn’t be competing to put out fansubs faster faster faster if there weren’t demand for it, and ye gods is there ever demand.

I ran into several fans claiming to watch at least a thousand episodes a year – that’s something like forty complete series.  Granted, that’s probably only a quarter to a third of the complete anime output of Japan over the same period, but it’s still a staggering amount.  I’m not sure if I’ve watched forty complete series in the last five years.

These fans tend to have blogs – and there are a lot of anime blogs – that exist solely to recount the blog owner’s day-by-day watching of the Latest Hot Shows, with Brief Commentary and Extensive Screencapping of each episode to prove that they are, in fact, keeping up with the Joneses, and also of course that they are current with the latest memes and imported-from-2ch jargon.

I do much the same with video games, I suppose, the difference in my case being that most of the games I’m playing are at least five years old, so in my case I’m carefully chronicling how far behind the bleeding edge I’ve fallen.  🙂

Anyway, lots of people trying to Keep Up With The Bleeding Edge combined with fansubbers that are competing for bragging rights and have lots of time on their hands means that the domestic distributors are in a boatload of trouble.

See, fansubs give their audience instant gratification in the form of HD-resolution video files (even if at pathetic bitrates), with soft subtitles, the day after the show airs in Japan, with no pesky copy protection, for free.  It’s hard to turn that down in favor of waiting for a DVD release, or watching a low-resolution ad-supported stream.

Moreover, the industry doesn’t seem to have any personality, so there’s no sense of community.  Back in the Good Old Days, by which I mean the days when we were paying sixty-five dollars for a laserdisc, or forty dollars for a tape with four episodes on it, there was kind of a sense that the anime companies were On Your Side, that we were all part of the same Grand Crusade to bring anime to the english-speaking world, and that actually charging money for it was just an unpleasant reality.

That was then.  Now, the smaller, fan-run or fan-centric companies seem to have gotten out of the business, leaving a few big names – Funimation, AD Vision or whatever they’re calling themselves now, Bandai – to hold the reins.  There’s no more sense that, say, bootlegging an Urusei Yatsura LD is taking money from Robert Woodhead’s pocket, now it’s that subtitling the new Full Metal Alchemist series before it can be streamed legally is putting one over on a giant, uncaring corporation.

I’m not going to hold myself up as any bright shining example of respecting copyright, mind you. I’m not deleting my fansubs and buying the DVD releases as soon as they’re announced; I got burned on THAT after I spent $70 buying the first two volumes of Welcome to the NHK and having the series get canceled.  I do replace fansubs on occasion, but I have to admit that I wait for the entire series to be released, and then I wait for it to be collected in a thinpak version; the last show I went all-out on was the limited edition Haruhi discs.

Basically, back to the thing where I said that domestic licensors were in a pile o’ trouble: yeah, they are.  I’m not going to predict The End Of The Industry here, but I think it’s fair – if sad – to say that, if every single American anime distributor went bankrupt tomorrow, it wouldn’t actually have much of an effect on the “anime scene”.

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