Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Current State of Animation in the US and Where Fansubs Fit (a personal view)

So much for attempting a one-article-a-week habit. But to be honest, I'd run out of material to write on pretty quick.

Anyway, onto the main thrust of this entry.

For most of my life, animation in the United States has not been reguarded highly as media outside the child demography for the last twenty-some years. Animation production has reflected a this focus in that a majority of animation produced are aimed at children in the form of after-school and Saturday morning cartoons. And most of those cartoons are mostly about over-the-top superheroes or randomly humanized animals. Animated shows like these are always limited to a few genres that have been done and done again to death. Generally in the superhero department.

Admittedly, there are a few animated works that are aimed at adults, like FOX's The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Futurama, Family Guy, and American Dad, but they are all more sitcoms, which basically means stagnant character development, single-episode arcs, and instant gratification. On top of that, the production value of these types of programs have severely fallen off in recent years. The almighty Simpsons is in its 18th season, but the humor has since fallen away to mostly random acts of randomness on routine gags. Futurama has been cancelled. Don't get me started with Family Guy and American Dad. But let's just say this: the cast of American Dad is a ripoff of the cast from Family Guy with a severe helping of post-9/11 nationalism and Family Guy attempts to take the Simpsons' randomness to a level that doesn't help a society that is already concerned with AD[H]D. King of the Hill is actually decent, but it does get annoying at times with its brand of Southern humor. If you want a real story with animation, the American mainstream media is not a place to look. Even Cartoon Network fails to produce anything significant with the Boondocks, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, etc. (Yes, there is the rest of the programming on Adult Swim, but hold on, if you will, since AS will be discussed in a little bit.)

The movie theaters have not been good with animation either. The blame falls mostly with Disney, in my opinion. If anyone a decade ago were to be asked what company they would associate with animated movies, Disney would be high on the list, then perhaps followed by Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, the animated movies Disney produced was almost always geared toward children the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, The Lion King (although it was a significantly darker movie), and Peter Pan. The recent movies produced solely from Disney have not changed audiences either. Fantasia is an exception to their production, but it's mostly about animation put to music, so (though it was marketed as animation for adults) it doesn't really qualify as true animation geared for adults in the conventional sense. Pixar, before being acquired by Disney, was a deviation from from all of that. It addressed more mature topics like lonliness (Toy Story) and it had significant character development (Monsters Inc.). Dreamworks had a nice adult-oriented parody of fairy tales on top of an entertaining storyline for children with Shrek.

Unfortunately, the advances in animated film is severely limited in what animation can be, especially if the analogy between live action movies compared to live action series is used. As a gross oversimplification, movies (or at least /good/ movies) barely have room for a storyline in the 90-180 minutes it runs for. There is hardly any way to delve into a world any more without making a sequel or a spinoff series. For animation, neither is really possible. Sequels are generally straight-to-video, and very rarely are series made for both live action and animated works. Not all hope in animation series has been lost, though.

Enter Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. For the last several years, CN has had long-running series (around 20+ episodes per series) that has done just that: dive into worlds of animation that could only be dreamed of or be done with huge budgets. And it targets the right audience. Not the children, but the adults who are still interested in animation. Actually, it's been noted fairly consistently that it captures the 18-34 age range that television media has highly coveted for years on end. There have been one note and two outstanding problems with CN's AS, though. The first note is that almost all of the series on AS are imported anime with English dubs. And that causes problems, at least to a guy like me, who has been a fairly avid fansub watcher/fansubber. The first problem is that all of the decent animation is imported. The other junk on adult swim are typical of the lagging and low standards of animation series of the US. The second problem is the anime CN has chosen to air are generally historically popular (Cowboy Bebop, Trigun) or are generally appealing to a wide fanbase (Naruto, Bleach -- both also popular in Japan). The series aired are not great by any means, at least to the most loyal fanbase, but it does have wide appeal. At least wide enough to at least give anime a more mainstream appeal that was not made retarded from the yesteryear Pokemon and Dragonball Z days. Perhaps a day when CN decides to show Haruhi will be a day when anime is not considered to be a fringe subculture. I'm fairly satisfied for now that Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex 2nd GIG has been aired, though. But that brings me to the last problem with animation: voice acting. This is problem primarily lies with dubbed anime. No matter what series it is, the voice acting is always flat and always lacks any sense of real character that was conveyed from the original Japanese audio. It seriously sounds like they're just reading the dialogue off a script for the very first time.

I have yet to see a series that has done a decent job with voice acting. Ironically, the voice acting in American animation is significantly better. I find it amusing, since the character in anime is already given to the voice actors, yet they still do a bang-up job. They really don't seem to have much enthusiasm for characters (or studio soundproofing in quiet neighborhoods). Rarely do voices rise above a shout even under hurricane conditions and voice inflections are rarely there. But even a recent dub of Kumou no Mokou: Yakusoku no Basho (Beyond the Clouds: the promised place) I got ahold of sounded absolutely artificial and hardly nostalgic, perfect material for a relative lack of inflection. The emotion just wasn't there. A lot of fansub enthusiasts have expressed their reservations about the English dubs and quite a few have labeled them as blasphemous. I just prefer my subtitles with japanese audio. The voice acting for animation still has a long way to go before I'll watch it dubbed.

A second issue with imported anime is that some do not get the rightful treatment it deserves. The prime example I can come up with is Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke) and Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). These Miyazaki masterpieces are naturally deep and stunningly beautiful, but it seemed that Disney, who licensed the titles, couldn't keep their grubby hands off the work and absolutely Disneyfied to the point where they impact of the movies are completely lost. This is a smaller reservation, mostly blunted by the existence of subtitles, which partly avoids this problem.

Despite my personal reservations with dubbed/imported anime, it's becoming more and more mainstream. The local Best Buy has about one full aisle of anime. Not bad, considering it has one or two aisles for individual genres for live action movies and television series. I have recently learned, though, that anime still has a stigmata attached to still to a large public. I can fully understand how it's so, since even I was one who saw the very stigmata before I was fully exposed to anime. Just to clarify: ANIME IS NOT PORN IN ANIMATED FORM. It's media as valid and versatile as any other live action media. Yes, anime can be porn (which is called hentai), but so can live-action stuff you can find just about anywhere on the inernet. Unfortunately, a discussion with purple_mo from the other day said that the very mention of him watching anime got him funny looks and free-associations with such negative connotations like pervert to just outright immaturity. Shows can be as immature as Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel and Rizelmine or it can be action-packed as 24 or the X-Files and Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. The creativity can be used or abused. Animation is just a means to express it.

So... where does fansubbing fall in? Well, it falls in where the American animation industry has failed. In my opinion, it has failed mightily. Especially since so many fansubs are being released to fill in the gap of the lack of quality animation in the US geared towards the adolescent and adult crowds. Fansubbing is fairly complex network (to be discussed in a later entry.. probably the next one) and it basically brings in animation currently airing from abroad (usually from Japan) and translating it for the English-speaking (or English-familiar) masses, though some fansubs do exist for languages other than English (though it seems to be in significantly smaller numbers). The number of people who watch anime is not insignificant. Some of the most popular subs, like Naruto, drew hundreds of thousands of downloads just through torrents just for one sub group, AnimeONE and/or Dattebayo, generally whichever episode comes out first. Then imagine the secondary downloads through local university networks and other filesharing programs like E-mule.

Fansubbing is basically rebroadcasting across borders. Yes, it's a huge grey area involving copyright protections and international laws. However, over the years, fansubbers and the companies have developed a mutual understanding/symbiotic relationship of non-intervention. Recently, Bandai Visual Entertainment was reported to have released a trailer/promotional video of Haruhi thanking the fansubbers and fansub community for making the series popular--it was initially overlooked by American companies for licensing. Generally, if a series is licensed in the US, the fansubs who worked and released the series stop all future work and distribution. The companies that distribute the anime don't crack down on fansubs. This is a huge contrast to what the MPAA and RIAA are doing these days. However, there are always parties that don't like these gentleman's rules. The classic AnimeJunkies letter to Urban Vision was one example. Another has been ADV who had been very iron-fisted with their enforcement of copyright through C&D (Cease and Desist) letters to torrent trackers and fansub groups (though lately, I haven't heard much from them). MFI (Media Factory Inc., a Japanese production studio) sent a letter to animesuki.com to stop linking to MFI works and fansubs, which caused a fairly big initial uproar, but has since died off.

Over the years, fansubbing has been fairly been quiet with a few blips. However several fansubbing veterans have expressed concerns that the real spirit of fansubbing (making fansubs because people like the show, not for internet popularty) has been disappearing. While there probably won't be a discussion on this anytime soon, the latest surge in the type of groups (and English subbing groups based outside the US) may prove to be a testing ground for future fansub/distribution studio relations.

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