Cyborg Dreams

An Intersection of Media, Japan, and Fandom


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Why are Anime DVDs so Expensive in Japan?

Many of us have had this experience; we are at a convention and we get really excited because we see the Japanese release of our favorite show, and our inner Otaking screams we must have it and rush towards a booth, lift the box with reverence and gaze on our prize, and then almost faint as we see the $75-$90 price tag, and that just for the first 3 episodes.

Yes, I finally have all of Battle Programmer Shirase on Japanese VHS

Yes, I finally have all of Battle Programmer Shirase on Japanese VHS

Perhaps your experience wasn’t exactly like that, maybe it was more of an online moment. Perhaps your curiosity was just piqued and you searched for it then quickly closed that browser tab and never looked back.

The fact is that anime DVDs and BDs are expensive in Japan, really expensive. To understand why you have to look at how broadcast television works for anime in Japan as opposed to America. In Japan, late night anime time slots are bought and sold in a way similar to infomercial airtime in America. First, the producer of the show gathers up like-minded people and investors that could benefit from a show and forms a Production Committee (Seisaku Iinkai for those interested in the Japanese term). This group pays the television network for the time slot, basically for the privilege of airing the anime. Some money is made back by some limited sales of ad time during the show, but for most part money is made on the back-end through DVD and BD sales. Longer, more well-known franchises also make money through other merchandise sales such as figures and model kits, but for shows that are only one or two cours (12-14 episodes) in length merchandising is not a viable option. This means that for a short run show, the few thousand copies of DVDs that are sold are the only way the production committee recoups its losses. In essence those few thousand fans pay for the entire production of an anime.

This is wildly different from how American-made television series are bought and sold. Shows are generally paid for and sponsored by the network airing them and the network recoups almost all of its money through ad sales. When the various disc formats are released, those sales are almost pure profit on a show that’s already been paid for.

This setup suggests that Japanese creators might have more control of their shows, because the people fronting the money are the creators as well as the investors they have found (the production committee). Whereas in America the creative is essentially hired by a television network to produce a series oftentimes leaving creative issues in the hands of executives, where a creator’s vision may be changed because of perceived market trends or even cancelled (Firefly anyone?).

But because of this setup many studios have to “play it safe” by producing an anime of an existing franchise with an established fan base; often times this is a manga, but more recently light novels and video games are being used. Even studios like Gainax and Trigger which are well-known for their original content will produce shows like this in order to “pay the bills” and fund their more ambitious projects.

This entire setup was much of the cause of Bandai pulling out of America in 2012. Americans in general refused to pay the kind of money for discs that the Japanese fans were. This, combined with Bandai refusing to come to terms with online streaming made them decide America was not worth it.

It is important to note that Bandai has since done a 180 on their stance on streaming. There are more Gundam shows available legally and simulcast in America than ever before.

But things finally look like they may be changing in Japan. As of September Netflix has finally arrived on their shores and streaming seems to be the inevitable endpoint for how the world consumes media. There is even anime available; Psycho-Pass 2 season 1 and both episodes of Little Witch Academia. It will be interesting to see how streaming affects the anime industry, but my opinion is that it can only be good for the creators.

For those interested in learning more about anime production, check out Justin Sevakis’ article on the Anime News Network. It is from 2012 so it’s a bit dated, especially the parts about streaming, but worth the read.

If you want to know more about the “Bandai Incident” check out the Anime World Order podcast, episode 103.


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AMV Hell What?

If you have ever attended a sizable anime convention, or one that has a heavy focus on AMVs (anime music videos) there is a chance you have witnessed this strange and exciting compilation/mix tape of anime, music, and lewd comedy. And as the convention season begins to slow down and I find myself fully recovered from Anime Week Atlanta I am reminded that last year was the first time several of my friends had seen an AMV Hell, and while many people get a good laugh out of it I wondered how many fans actually know what it is and the history behind it.

If you haven’t heard of it before it can be a bit difficult to explain, perhaps you should watch the original and come back, I should add a spoiler alert as well.

So, what is it and how does it work?

The easiest explanation is that it is a fan-made AMV mix tape intended for comedy, a more drawn out explanation is this; AMV Hell is a compilation anime music video that relies on one of two methods to get to the punch line. Either it takes a normal song with strange lyrics and uses an anime clip to interpret the lyrics literally, or it pairs a strange song with an equally strange clip. Of course this is not always the case, especially when the clip becomes self referential.

For those interested in the full story as told by the creators, I will provide a link at the end of the article. But the succinct version is this; The original AMV Hell began in 2004 when two online friends – Zarxax and SSGWNBTD – began collaborating on humorous short clips of anime mixed with songs. From this AMV Hell and AMV Hell 2 were created simultaneously. AMV Hell 2 was for adult content and spawned its own line of offensive/sexual material, but the original was intended for convention audiences (according to the creators). It premiered at the 7th Animazement (which happens to be a local convention here in North Carolina) and from there took off.

The process of producing AMV Hell is arduous to say the least. As it became more popular the creators put calls out to other anime music video creators to contribute. The intention was to have a year long creation and vetting process for each AMV Hell that was created, but like most people, anime fans are procrastinators. According to Zarxrax submissions would not show up in force until a month before the deadline which caused no end of headaches for both creators.

Last year at Anime Weekend Atlanta 2014 was the premier of AMV Hell 7: Attack on 10 Year Anniversary. And as of May 3rd of this year Zarxrax has stated that it was very likely the final one.

Will there be more Hell?

What are your experiences with it?

A full history for those want to read it


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Is Avatar the Last Airbender anime?

Or perhaps a better question, what counts as anime?

Bias alert: I love Avatar and Korra, I think it’s one of the best series to hit American television in a long time. So this article comes with some bias, but I have done my best to be as objective as possible.

I first phrased this question in my head as – Why do anime fans hate avatar? – but I realized that maybe it wasn’t that they hated the show, but just hated that it was considered anime by so many people. As such, I revised the question especially as I dove further into researching the topic but I believe I will be tackling both to an extent. If it sounds like this question has been asked before, it is because it has. I recommend watching PBS’ Idea Channel video on the subject (LINK IN THE DOOBLY DOO). While I think this video is great at introducing the topic (as well as Chris O’Brien’s article for The Escapist) there are a some ideas I think deserve some deeper exploration; namely that of South Korea’s involvement in both the Japanese and American animation industries as well as the cross-pollination of ideas by animation producers from these countries.

The main argument that is made against Avatar is that it was not made in Japan, it is not Japanese so therefore cannot be anime. But this becomes a flimsy argument when South Korea is taken into consideration. Korea’s involvement as a subcontractor for Japanese animation dates back to the late 1960’s when Japanese company Daiichi Douga hired South Korean TV station Tongyang Bangsong to work on Ougon Batto and Youkai Ningen Bemu (Kim, Joon Yang. “South Korea and the Sub-Empire of Anime: Kinesthetics of Subcontracted Animation Production.” Mechademia 9 (2014): 90-103).

DR Movie is a name I imagine most people are not familiar with but came up often in my research. This is a South Korea based animation studio that has animated more “anime” than can be listed here, but I can list a few; Bleach, Claymore, Code Geas, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Macross, Nana, Naruto Shippuuden, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and the list goes on. They worked on key frames as well as mattes and in-between cels. Another show they worked on: Avatar the Last Airbender. Having the same studio work on both an American production and a Japanese production does not necessarily mean everything they produce is anime, but it does throw into question this idea that anime is purely Japanese.

What about productions that are animated in Japan? I think most people that were asked this question might say “Well yes, if Japan animated it, then the show must be anime. Does that mean The Legend of Korra is anime? Because parts of it were animated by Studio Pierrot, the same company that’s been animating the Naruto movies since 2004 (The show was also jointly animated by Studio Mir of South Korea and Nickelodeon’s own animation studio Ginormous Madman). Are only those episodes anime (Episodes 13-18, and 21 for the curious), but not the rest? That does seem like an odd proposition to make, but maybe there is something to support that claim?

Macross, as Robotech, is considered one of the most influential anime for Americans growing up in the 80’s. Like Star Blazers before it, Robotech was constructed from three different Japanese shows. I do not think many people would argue whether Macross/Robotech were anime but what about the 2006 production Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles? This was a joint venture between three production companies from the United States, South Korea, and Japan (Harmony Gold USA, DR Movie, and Tatsunoko respectively) and released by Funimation. There were Japanese and American and Korean producers as well. So does this mean that Macross/Robotech is anime, but the movie made as a sequel to these shows is not, just like the episodes from Korra?

For the sake of argument, let’s use a fallacy and move the goalposts here. Anime doesn’t have to be animated in Japan, or produced in Japan, but it definitely needs to be developed or thought up by Japan, right? I have not met a single fan who claims The Transformers is an anime, but it was developed by Toei Animation and based on Japanese toy lines Diaclone and Microman. The toy lines were eventually sold to Hasbro, who combined the two to make the Transformers toys. When The Transformers eventually stopped airing in the United States, Toei continued to make a sequel series as well as a manga adaptation (Once again leaving us with the odd question of whether a show can be a part-time anime).

We could keep jumping around, finding ways in which a show is not Japanese. Maybe it has to be written by Japanese people, or directed, or any number of things. But what is there to gain from this kind of exclusion? Why would fans want to exclude people who might be interested in their hobbies just because they call Avatar, or Korra, or Transformers anime? Perhaps it has to do with social capital amongst peers (Which I wrote about here), but it seems like a self defeating way to approach the thing you love. My answer is this:

Anime is a sort of metaphysical term, a social construct that we use to categorize a set of aesthetic, stylistic, and trope choices used in animation. It has nothing to do with the country of origin.

 

Torkaizer is an anime from the Middle East, compare it  to Gurren Lagann

Torkaizer is an anime from the Middle East, compare it to Gurren Lagann

 

 

Look at all this anime

Look at all this anime

 

Japan has intentionally promoted anime as something to be exported and shared with the world, so much so that the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry established a Creative Industries Promotion Office in 2010 just for the purpose of exporting “Cool Japan,” which includes; anime, pop culture, idols, and gourmet. Because of this there has been a cross-pollination of ideas from all over the world that have come together to make this “genre” a more rich and rewarding hobby for people from many countries. I propose we stop arguing and start watching, because if someone is excluding an amazing show because it is not “Japanese” then they are missing out.

If you are not convinced though I will leave you with this; If I buy beef raised in the United States and cut it thin, and buy rice grown in California, and Dashi powder imported from Japan, with onions grown in Mexico and cook that up into Gyūdon, are you going to tell me I’m not eating Japanese food?


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Can You Teach Yourself Japanese?

I should make a disclaimer that I am only speaking from my own experience here. If this does not work for you, then by all means find another way. As long as you are learning that’s what matters.

I am writing this because as someone who studies Japan, it seems obvious that I need to speak the language. I have encountered a lot of people who are “experts” on a variety of subjects from other countries, but their only exposure is through the English language. This seems absurd; there are a number of subtleties, idioms, puns, and sometimes actual words that are lost in translation. For example; it is important to know why a female protagonist may become flustered or embarrassed if a male she is unfamiliar with refers to her using “kimi” instead of “anata,” otherwise a scene may just seem out of place. Language is an essential part of understanding a culture. Language determines how we think, how we view the world, and how we interact with others. Without an understanding of a culture’s language, we are just viewing it with our own prejudices and assumptions.

Like many people my age  my first introduction to anime, and subsequently Japan, came from Toonami. There were other instances earlier in my life, but Toonami caught my attention and had me hooked. Back in 2005 I made my first attempt to learn Japanese at university. It wasn’t quite a disaster, but it was definitely a failure. With a full class load and a teacher that insisted we study every minute we were not in class, including in the bathroom…well it was destined for failure. I dropped the class.

My next attempt came with the ever poplar Rosetta Stone, which was followed closely by the Pimsleur language series. I kept at these pretty faithfully for several months. Eventually though, near the end of the first 30 part lesson, my head was swimming with phrases; many I could not remember. I had no idea how to express what I was thinking, I was just a parrot (And a poor one at that). Additionally I was not learning to read at all, so I had nothing to keep my very visual mind occupied. Again I walked away having learned very little. I was at a loss. I assumed I was just bad at learning languages.

That’s when I friend of mine recommended TextFugu. A website, forum, and blog that posted the first section for free. I had nothing to lose so I tried it.

wow

It is radically different and humorous. Not dry like textbooks; nor is it as boring as staring at the audio bar on iTunes. TextFugu is a mix of motivational speech, videos, flash cards, and short blog-like explanations. I was and am completely hooked. So how is it different?

  • First and most importantly is that it is entertaining. I am an academic at heart, but slogging through boring instructions still isn’t my ideal learning situation.
  • Second, TextFugu starts with the basics; hiragana kana. By learning the “alphabet” first, you are set up from the beginning to start expressing your own thoughts; to actually think in Japanese.
  • Each lesson builds on the last. This means that you are only learning new ideas aroudn 30-50% of the time. The rest is using previous knowledge in a different way.
  • Anki: A comprehensive flash card software that is also available for Android and iOS
  • Finally: it is difficult. TextFugu never claims to be easy or that you will know a language in thirty days.

Many times language learning software or classes claim that something magical will happen and suddenly you will be fluent. But learning to think and read and speak a language is difficult. Even as children we go through years of learning and experience before we are any good at communicating. Why would it be any easier now?

So will it work for you? I have no idea, but if you’re interested check out these resources:

TextFugu

WaniKani

Anki


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Nostalgia is a Drug for Geeks

Nostalgia from the Greek words nostos and algos, return and suffering. Literally, the suffering caused by the yearning to return to one’s place of origin.

After hearing neuro-anthropologist Dr. Daniel Lende give a lecture on how he was studying drug addiction and the culture and reasons behind it, I had the realization that much of what he was describing was exactly what I go through when I feel nostalgic. According to his study the basic breakdown of what is happening in the brain is this:

  • A shift in attention, paying attention to cues that let addicts know it is time to use
  • Feeling a desire, usually one that consumes their thoughts
  • Urges that happen beyond conscious control

Inevitably the things I find nostalgic are geeky; NES, Ninja Turtles, old D&D games, Megaman, the first time I watched Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z. And this led me to wonder; is nostalgia the geek’s drug of choice? While most people experience nostalgia, it seems to be especially prevalent among geeky/nerdy people. It is something we actively seek out; in a world with PS4’s and Xbox One’s we still seek out and recreate the 8-bit experiences of our childhood. Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and JoJo’s Bizarre adventure are all getting remakes and new seasons while new and popular anime wait patiently for the next round. (Will Shinjeki no Kyojin resurge when I’m 50?)

Of course capitalism has something to do with that, childhoods are easy sells. But the geek childhood we see repackaged more often than most, markets thrive on our nostalgia. I haven’t seen a modern remake of Happy Days or I Love Lucy, but TMNT is on its fifth television incarnation, has had six comic series, and three live-action movies with a fourth just released. (I know I’m leaving some out, but you get the idea) Funimation releases Dragon Ball Z in some new and premium boxed set every, what, three years? And now there is Dragon Ball Kai.

So it’s profitable, and I think that’s because we seek it out more than any other sub-culture or age group.

Why?

A study titled “Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (91, 975-993) suggests that nostalgia is often onset by sad or negative feelings. Additionally, in a majority of those studied nostalgia acted as a cure or relief from those feelings. My theory is that because many of us grew up isolated from our peers and were shunned for our interests. The games and media we participated in brought us solace and a sense of community with other like-minded individuals.

If those activities helped us cope with the hardships of growing up as outsiders, or with the difficulties of growing up in general, then it would make sense that we would draw strength from those memories. But we do more than draw strength, we surround ourselves with it. Sing songs about it, plaster it all over our homes, purchase and repurchase original and reproductions of our childhood loves. We never tire of exploring Hyrule or of throwing a spirit bomb at Frieza.

I have found myself more than once watching re-runs of anime I grew up with when I was feeling down. Sometimes I think of it as “anime junk food” but what is actually happening here is that I am seeking relief from feeling depressed or worried. And it is not feelings of exclusion (I have grown up to have many friends in many circles) but the worries of the adult world; jobs, rent, bills, etc. And in those moments I have a sense of comfort brought about by reliving my childhood experiences.

Perhaps in a world where we “millenials” are often lost, underemployed, and in debt (read Sarah Kendzior’s great article about this) we seek to comfort ourselves by filling our lives with memories of a life less full of worry. Who needs narcotics and anti-depressants when you have Duo Maxwell?


If you’re interested in further reading check out these links:

Dr. Daniel Lende’s neuro-anthropology blog

Nostaliga: Content, Triggers, Functions

Sarah Kendzior’s blog


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Why Does Fansubbing Continue to Exist?

This will be the first in a series of articles exploring the fansub community, for those unfamiliar, please read The Anime News Network’s definition of a fansub.

 

The anime fansub community is something I have been involved with off and on for many years. My participation really only started once anime became readily available online (the early 2000’s), so I was not a part of what I like to call “the first generation” of fansubbers. Those veterans would do everything by hand using VHS recordings, collaborate through the mail, and all gather around static ridden copies of copies of copies to watch their favorite shows once every month or more. These days fansubbers have a much more sophisticated array of tools that allows for high quality and fast turn around time; the question I want to ask is “why.” In light of instant streaming services like Crunchyroll.com and Netflix, that have a comparable turn around times and cheap or free access, why do fansubbers continue working and why are the fans still downloading them?


 

My theory is that fan translators are taking what companies have traditionally placed a monetary value on and turning it into social capital. Additionally, these fans have gone a step further and added both value and content to a product where licencors and media companies have neglected to meet the desires of the fan base.

The law is clear between Japan and America; fansubbing is illegal. But both proponents and critics of the practice (within the fan community) have eschewed arguments of law in favor of arguments focused on social and ethical practices. The question is often when and why is it allowable instead of is it legal. Jordan Hatcher, and intellectual property lawyer states in his paper Of Otaku and Fansubs that American licencors of anime are less litigious than most media companies, often sending informal letters to fansub groups or sending representatives to anime conventions to comment on the practice.

Fansub groups do not seem to care about money in so far as selling their products; the driving factor seems to be recognition for their hard work by their peers. Peers in this case are not necessarily the fans of anime, but other fansub groups (This can be seen in the contempt many groups show for fans in their FAQs or in their responses to fan criticism). The value here is not economic but social; recognition as experts in their field by others pursuing the same craft. At the same time, this reach for perfection has also subtly redefined what “normal fans” (Those who participate in the culture in different ways other than translation) value in their anime experience.

For example, many sub groups go out of their way to explain Japanese cultural nuances that many media companies either ignore, or gloss over by localizing a particular pun or reference, i.e., purposefully mistranslating dialogue in order for jokes and puns to “be more American” (At least in my case). These explanations are commonly known as translator’s notes, and over the years have become a valuable addition for many fans that seek a more authentic and genuine understanding of Japanese culture. As Professor Ian Condry of MIT points out in his book The Soul of Anime, the fansub group AnimeForever went through the trouble to provide extensive translator notes for the 2005 release of Samurai Champloo. They clarified uses of words, explained the hiragana syllabary so that an entire episode would make sense to American audiences, and gave short history lessons that put certain scenes into context. There were four other groups subbing the show at the time and Professor Condry expects they were in competition with each other. And none of this was for money, but social capital; a different value system.

Director Hiroki Hayashi apologies to overseas fans for prematurely ending the series.

Director Hiroki Hayashi apologies to overseas fans for prematurely ending the series.

Even some creators of anime in Japan have recognized and seem to appreciate the trouble fansubbers go through so that overseas audiences may see their creations. In 2004 director Hiroki Hayashi (surname last) apologized to fans, including those “outside the broadcast area who took special measures…and to everybody that watched it subtitled overseas without permission” for ending the show Battle Programmer Shirase early and not continuing with the second and third seasons.

What does this mean?

It seems clear that fansubbing is not going away any time soon, and while Netflix and Crunchyroll’s anime selection continues to surge, fan translators have carved a niche for themselves within a niche community. Not only are they not going away, but they have increased their value to a certain segment of the fan population (namely those that seek a more “authentic” Japanese experience). In addition to redefining the value landscape fan translators can bring certain series overseas that would never be released here; whether from red tape, licensing issues, or monetary shortfalls. This in turn leads to an increase in demand that fosters a sense of competition between groups seeking to be the best and have recognition from their (fansubbing) peers.

So what do you think, why do fansubs continue to exist?