My Dream for the Future for Japanese Animation

I’ve written about four or five posts on fansubbing and licensing of anime, but never written something complete enough and structured enough to post. Each unfinished post was drastically unlike the others I wrote, as is the case with this one. I think the reason this one has reached the “ready to post” stage is because I’m focusing more on the animation companies and less on the fansubbers and downloaders of fansubs. This removes a lot of “ethics” focus from the post.

The Internet and Ease of Access

With the Internet, and Internet connection speeds getting faster and faster, with hard drives getting cheaper and cheaper (450 gigabytes for US$100, anyone?), and discs getting cheaper for holding more (50 single-layer, one-time writable DVDs? US$15, please.), the desire to download episodes of Japanese animation will only increase. It’s not like there wasn’t a desire to obtain more back in the days of VHS distribution, but now one group’s fansub can expect to be watched by thousands of people within an hour of putting it online.

When using StumbleUpon, I find about 60% to 80% of the “anime” sites I get are streaming sites, including for series which have current American releases for a decent price. I do realize North America isn’t the world, but when English-speaking European countries and Australia have the same releases, releases with dubs and English subtitles, what excuse is there to download? “I can’t afford this series,” I suppose.

There will always be leechers who won’t pay a single cent. Pre-teens and younger teenagers will have a hard time paying for a DVD. College students will never have their priorities straight. This is why the iTunes model never worked, and completely bankrupted Apple, right?

Instant Gratification

Companies must realize there is a strong desire for instant gratification. There are two parts to this, neither of which the DVD fulfills. In fact, the DVD hinders them.

The first part is wanting to see something immediately once it is available (watching it in its raw, or non-subtitled, form), or once it is available in ones own language (fansubbed).

The second part is the community aspect, being able to have a conversation with others. Humans are typically social by nature, and even introverted people may wish to take part in online conversations. It’s always easier to post when hiding behind a name such as “Sephiroth82″, so no one need be left out.

For an example of the latter, consider Lucky Star. I don’t know if I’d have any interest in this series, especially since I’ve seen so many people write “it’s a Haruhi infomercial”, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya didn’t look all that interesting to me when I watched an episode of it at Comic-Con. Putting aside my questioning whether I’d get anything out of a series full of references to series I’ve never seen, it seemed like everyone and their cat was blogging about Lucky Star. (Now there’s an idea, having an entire anime commentary web site in lolcat format.) Of course, this was also my first look into anime blogs (after having spent a long time searching for blogs with commentary on the series’ I watch, and finding nothing), so the ruckus over Lucky Star may be common.

I have no doubt animation companies can make an episode available online just as they can make it available on television. This is half of the equation. The other half is subtitles, which can either be handled by hiring translators, or using a fansub model and hiring vetters.

Releasing Online

If iTunes can sell over one billion songs, why can’t the model work for Japanese animation as well?

I would imagine a majority of viewers will watch a series once, then not watch it again, moving on to the next series. This would be better represented as a subscription service. Others may wish to watch episodes or series multiple times, and here is where a download-to-own service comes into play.

From what I’ve read on forum posts on the subject of subscription versus pay-per-episode, subscription looks to be the more desired choice. Personally, I find this the better of the two for the viewer, and the worse of the two for the companies creating the content.

Being able to pay a flat subscription fee means one can, if they were so inclined, download every piece of content available from a service within a month’s time, then watch it at their leisure over the year. This only benefits the customer who wants to spend as little as possible. Of course, if you’re going to go that route, why not just download the series via BitTorrent? Even if a company releases DVD quality episodes at a US$10.00 for a 26 episode series, you’ll still see it on BitTorrent with hundreds or thousands of downloaders.

Contrast this with paying per episode. The more you consume, the more you pay. Also, what you consume can be tracked. While that may suddenly raise privacy concerns, keep in mind that this kind of information may be what tells a company whether to release “Lucky Star series two”, to release an unrelated slice-of-life series, or to release something completely different altogether (say, an action detective harem mecha comedy drama following a female detective and 10 different-personality robot-piloting male police all with a thing for her). If you want a company to release more of what you like, then speaking with your wallet is a good way to do it. 1,000 people buying only one to five episodes says just as much as 1,000 people buying all 13 episodes in a series.

Digital Rights Management

Yes, it’s the D-word. Abbreviated to DRM, digital rights management is that thing which tells you “you paid to be able to watch this for 24 hours or three viewings, whichever comes first”. It’s that thing which means video on demand services over the Internet require buying the Microsoft Windows operating system to be able to watch them (without removing the DRM from the file). It’s what keeps me from buying from the iTunes store more often than once (as I cannot play iTunes music in my media player of choice, Amarok, again, without removing the DRM from the file).

There’s a saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Just as fermenting sweets will attract a fly, being able to download an episode without limitations is one requirement toward getting the largest number of buyers possible (the other being cost).

The argument against DRM on episodes would be no different from the argument against DRM on music: if I buy a CD, I have high quality music which I can listen to any number of times, can copy to my computer and put in any format, and can listen to on my home computer, my laptop computer, my handheld audio player device, etc. Without the cost of production of the CD (or DVD), packaging, and shipping, should the price not go down?

People are going to “steal” episodes no matter what. Give the people willing to pay and support a means to do so, and they will. People who would never pay to begin with will continue to be leeches for life. There’s an argument here of “Why should I pay when the leeches won’t?”, but if people had a way of being assured their paying for Petite Princess Yucie went directly to Gainax (and to ADV if I optionally pay for the dub, something I would want to pay extra for with Petite Princess Yucie, but maybe not so much for Super GALS!), I imagine this would get even more buyers. (Just look at the number of fans of a series who believe buying figures will directly support the creators of the anime they watch.)

DRM and Me

When I tried watching Janggeum’s Dream, series two, via MBC’s VOD (video on demand) service, I encountered one problem after another. My final solution, after many hours taking me long into the night and toward the following morning, was to download the whole series from their site, use my 24 hour VOD subscription to get the keys for each episode, and strip the DRM.

Accepting that these 26 total 586 minutes in length, or under ten hours, then it’s very possible that I could have watched the whole series within the 24 hour timeframe. In fact, if I could have actually watched the episodes without DRM constantly causing trouble, I could have watched the entire 26 episodes in the timeframe it took me just to be able to start watching the first! It’s not unreasonable to that extent for me to have downloaded the episodes, then removed the DRM all in one go. All downloading and key-gathering was done within my 24 hour VOD subscription, and these are real-time streaming downloads (30 minutes to download a 30 minute episode, downloading one episode at a time).

Unfortunately, if I wanted to, I could have downloaded 10 days worth of non-stop content, and used a 24 hour (US$4.00) subscription to remove the DRM from all of them. What I take from this is a VOD service should look more to allowing one to pay per episode (with discounts if one buys the whole series, including if they buy the whole series one episode at a time). As a side-note, I did put another $16.00 into MBC, simply because I walked away with a whole series. Now if only English subtitles were available, more people would surely be interested. Add to this a way for MBC to know which items are being downloaded (pay per episode; per series), and they’ll know what’s selling.

Reaching a Larger Crowd


If Janggeum’s Dream can be released with Korean, Japanese, and English subtitles, there’s no reason Japanese animation cannot be as well. However, the English subtitles for Janggeum’s Dream were meager at worst and passable at best. They’d need to either get someone fluent in Japanese and another language, or get someone native in the translated language (with good experience in Japanese) to give the script a final overview. (Note that with Janggeum’s Dream, this would be Korean rather than Japanese.)

Another possibility is to allow multiple groups to subtitle a series, hiring only someone to vet the translations for content and accuracy. This brings up situations such as a fansubber subtitling the first few episodes, then not having the time or interest to continue, which is something a company running such a service would want to avoid, so such an option might only be open to companies able to be contracted to provide subtitles within a day of an episode’s release.

The best part about subtitles for streaming video is the ability to fix typos, clarify dialogue, etc. Additionally, they can be released as small text file updates for people who’ve downloaded episodes, without requiring a whole episode re-download as many (most?) fansubs do.


Consider the following: You’re faced with buying episodes of Janggeum’s Dream for a reasonable price. They’re in Korean, the native language for this series, but there are free subtitles in many languages, including your own native language (let’s say Japanese). For the same fee, you may choose to get the series in Japanese instead of Korean. Or, for a small fee extra (a completely reasonable amount), you can download the episode in Korean and get a Japanese dubbed track as an option when playing the video.

Additionally, what I would like to see open up is the option for multiple companies to dub a series. (This would be separate dubs, not one single dub.) This might backfire, resulting in 20 dubs of Lucky Star, but only the top dubs would see every episode bought dubbed, and the lower-quality dubbers would find out real quick that a mediocre dub won’t make it when you don’t have overpriced DVDs to cover the cost.

No matter how many companies are able to dub a series, dub licensing would have to see a change. Providing anime to buy and download online means no worries about DVDs going out of print. Likewise, a dub shouldn’t be pulled from downloading just because a license’s ten years are up, or else the dub will just show up more commonly on BitTorrent, the “black market” here.

Transfer of Money

Buying Japanese-dubbed episodes of Janggeum’s Dream in this kind of system, you should be told in advance where your money will go: perhaps most of your money will go to MBC, the producers of the show, and the extra amount will go to NHK, the Japanese dubbers, because it would state directly on the page “this is where the money you’re paying goes”. If Amazon can have a site in multiple languages, if MagnaTune can do a pay-to-buy model, if services like PayPal can convert money between currencies, then there’s no reason these things cannot be combined for releasing Japanese animation to the world.

Video Format

I mentioned the desired ability to choose ones audio language and subtitle language when buying an episode to download. If my understanding of the Ogg format is correct, it should be trivial to generate files with the requested video and audio put together.

Because the Ogg format has no software patents encumbering it, there would be no cost of licensing added on, and passed to the consumer. Furthermore, one can play Ogg format videos on probably any operating system, so there would be no “requires Microsoft Windows, Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer, and Active X” limitations to viewing. There could even be a section on how to download and install the VLC media player, but I imagine if Ogg became widely used enough, and because it doesn’t have any patents to worry about infringing on or licencing fees to pay to support the format, even Microsoft and Apple would implement support in their players. Just try and tell me Steve Jobs wouldn’t drool at the thought of selling a new iPod Video to all his current customers.

Video Quality

This is the big one for some people, and not an issue for others. Can you tell which image below is from an official download and which is from an official DVD?

Comparison screenshots of Janggeum's Dream downloaded file versus DVD.

Here’s a hint: the DVD release has brighter colors. Some video players have options for correcting this, but who wants to change those every time? The reason I mention the saturation of colors and contrast is because this is simply one download versus DVD comparison. This should be not taken to suggest all downloads would compare with DVD quality this way.

The actual negative points against the download here are 1) compression artifacts while playing the video (not seen in the comparison screenshot above), and different resolutions. Compare the download’s size versus the DVD’s size.

Size is not an issue for me. Either I watch full screen, or I watch in less than a quarter of my screen, depending on if I’m doing something alongside watching. The only issue for me here is how it looks in full screen. This isn’t the dark ages of trading super-low quality VHS fansubs around. I’ll understand that a 150 to 200MB file will not be the same quality as an episode on DVD. Because there will always be people willing to watch a 50MB file and there will always be purists who want nothing smaller than a 500MB file, there’s always releasing in different qualities.

Try It Before You Buy It

I think ADVFilms may have something like this, or perhaps IGN, but it’s hard to know when their services are not as available for one running the Linux operating system, the Opera web browser, and with Javascript disabled.

The general idea here is to let the first episode be free for anyone to download. Depending on the length of the series, I would go so far as to put the first three episodes for free. On top of this, they should be available in any audio language available with all subtitle options available. This would not only attract dub-viewers, but people who want to try out a series in its original language. It also gives the opportunity to compare the original and dub, to determine which to pay for, or if one wants to get both.

From the Fansubbers

The more people realize they can simply download and watch shows without paying for them, the less money there will be going to DVDs, and in the end going to the companies which produce shows. Naturally a company will fight to stay alive, but what happens when it cannot afford to? If companies are no longer able to make money, and close down, what happens next? Do fans simply continue downloading fansub releases of any series produced by the remaining companies?

If there was such a buy-to-download service, what would fansubbers do? Would they continue to release the episodes with fansubs, or would they switch to the less-artistic method of providing text subtitle files?

Final Thoughts

The animation companies seriously need to look at ways to get content to potential buyers rather than worrying over leechers. Additionally, they need a way to know which of their products are selling, and need to be able to make a decent profit from it. This money goes into new releases, after all. With an online store, not only can they reach an ever-growing market, but their releases can be available indefinitely.

Unfortunately, the ones to contact with ideas for change all speak Japanese.

Are there any flaws in my views or reasoning? Have I missed anything? Just no comments on why I should watch Haruhi or Lucky Star, please; my to-watch list is long enough as it is!

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