I wrote a Chronicle article about this before, but thought it might be good to get the full out explanation from someone who was once in the extinct anime club.
From the email correspondents with a Duke alum whom I connected with on MAL:
Clubs like this can rise and fall on the leadership of just a few people and the friendship of a small group. You too may be able to build your own Genshiken.
The one year I was in Duke Anime Club changed my life, and sitting in my dorm room watching Crunchyroll would never had done that. (That’s not an exaggeration; a year-long romantic relationship after university came out of the club, as did my first trip to Japan, and several friendships that I still hold on to today).
There were cosplay contests and group trips to conventions. And, by the way, Duke Student Government used to give us grants to cover travel expenses as part of our budget. Student Life will give you money if you can get a quorum together and start regular meetings. I have the old club constitution hanging around.
One major cause of the collapse in membership from 2005 to 2006 was that about 70% of the members were also in Psi Upsilon co-ed fraternity (I was not one of them). I don’t know what its reputation is now, but in the mid-2000s it was a deeply nerdy place to be to the point of social awkwardness sometimes.
Another cause was a lack of a charismatic president, honestly, and I say that about someone I’m still friends with.
In the years after that, a few people tried different strategies to revive the club. I think in 2007 or 08 it switched from regular Friday night meetings to Saturday afternoons for a little while, and it was renamed the Japanese Culture Club one year, but things never really took hold. I think I have contact info for people through about 2010 but I can’t find it right now.
And sometimes things just die. I was the last president of DULUG, the university Linux Users’ Group.
I think for you, too, it seems like your demographics are different. I am a decidedly old-school American anime fan, of the generation that demanded obsessiveness — you had to work hard to be a fan; this stuff was not easy to find and consume. We were all pretty into the industry and the makers, beyond just watching the stuff. It was a very active thing to be a fan.
At some other universities, I’ve also heard that the political climate has harmed anime clubs. I’m aware of one university club that basically had to ban shows with any fanservice, or something like that. I can’t imagine what screening something like Elfen Lied or AMV Hell could provoke.
The relationship we had with licensed DVDs vs. digital fansubs vs. VHS fansubs (in the really old days!) is a bit more complex than you paint it, but that’s another story.
Anyway, I’m still out there helping run a web forum (https://www.evageeks.org/) and attending / presenting at Otakon. Sometimes it’s a hobby for life.
Of course I also went through the times when there were people who had only seen InuYasha… then had only seen Naruto… then had only seen Bleach… the industry is a big place. But for the most dedicated people in our group, I think we could all watch Genshiken or Otaku no Video or Blue Blazes and understand what those shows are about. It was something I looked forward to every Friday night. If we had a club room like Genshiken or MIT’s club, I wonder if it would help bring in people.
By the way, I wouldn’t make any assumptions about what’s going to happen in your life in the next decade. To trace the path I’ve taken from my tweedy boys’ private school to all seven continents and back home to Baltimore can only be done in retrospect; I never could have anticipated it back then. High school was definitely not the end for me.
I have to say it’s interesting to me that Crunchyroll isn’t more popular — as long as you live in America and you want subtitles in English, it’s never been easier to watch anime legitimately.
It’s really interesting to me that they’re called illegal streaming sites now and I think that actually shows a lot more awareness than in the past, but also a very different landscape out there. Copyright law and the future of how creative industry is paid for has been an interest of mine for a long time. I started writing the below and realized that maybe it’s something I should turn into a blog post once my blog is back up, so here’s a beta of sorts.
Here’s what I mean about a different landscape. I don’t know how much of this is old news to you, but this is how I experienced things and what I’ve heard from my elders.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, there were very few direct anime releases in America. You might have heard about the Macross/Robotech/Harmony Gold disaster, which is pretty typical. A company called Harmony Gold licensed Macross and some completely unrelated anime, then wrote a new story and script, re-cut all the animation, dubbed it, and marketed it as “Robotech.” So now it’s unlikely that any Macross series will ever get a legitimate release in America because of the licensing mess they created.
But people heard about this stuff, and with the aid of the early Internet, which was mostly available at universities, you started seeing people with access to video editing equipment importing Laserdiscs from Japan and fansubbing them… or sometimes just copying them out on VHS without subs at all. Then, they’d go on Usenet and connect with fans at other universities, get mailing addresses, and mail stuff to each other. Really early American fanzines used to have episode recaps in them so that you could try to figure out what was going on without subs!
By the mid- to late-90s you had companies like ADV Films (now Sentai Filmworks) that were licensing a few shows and selling legitimate tapes. Dubs were generally cheaper and more popular than subs, and you had to choose which one to buy since VHS didn’t have concepts like multiple audio tracks.
This is the big difference between back then and today: most shows weren’t licensed until after they had aired in Japan, so there could be delays of several years before stuff became legitimately available in the US.
In this sense, fansubs were technically illegal, but because the Japanese companies had no business presence in America or licensees in America, there was no-one to enforce copyright and really no money lost. Fansubs also served some important purposes: they would serve as advertising for shows and create buzz, so that when the legitimate releases became available a year or two later, way more people would have heard about them and be ready to buy. Remember that it was really hard to get fansubs if you didn’t have connections to the informal distribution network.
These days, anime conventions rarely show fansubs, but that’s a very recent change. It used to be that that was one of the big reasons to go, to get a taste of what was becoming available or what to seek out.
In 2002, I was a freshman at Duke, and watched my first anime, Evangelion. I saw it on some copies of copies of copies of what had originally been a legitimate Singaporean release on VCD (a predecessor to DVD). It wasn’t long before I figured out that Eva was licensed and also that a lot of cool stuff wasn’t.
2002 was a VERY interesting year to become an anime fan in the US, because two really important things happened.
In 2002, the first digital fansubs appeared. Love Hina was the first show to be fansubbed and distributed over the Internet, rather than through the mail. Not coincidentally, Love Hina was the second or third show that I watched.
But the explosion of digital fansubs also happened because universities were giving huge numbers of people access to broadband for the first time. BitTorrent was invented in late 2001 and enabled people with broadband connections to help distribute fansubs.
At this point you still pretty much had to be at a university and have some technical acumen to be involved with fansubs. True story, one of the old Anime Club presidents just about killed himself in 2003 when he arrived on campus and discovered he could easily access so much anime — he tried to watch every show that was airing in Japan and stopped sleeping!
I also have an older co-worker who helped run a website around this same time that provided only subtitle files. What you would do is import the R2 DVDs directly from Japan and combine them with the subtitle files. This sounds great until you realize that Japanese DVD releases can cost upwards of $30 per half-hour episode — it was something that a small coeterie of adult fans with jobs and money were doing around 2000-2005.
(Incidentally, most Japanese fans never bought DVDs — video rental was, and is, still very popular over there).
Most of the fansubbing groups were, at least publicly, adamant about observing some ethical rules. Every fansub I have from the mid-2000s has a message asking people to stop distributing and buy legitimate copies when they became available in their country. They also told people that if they had paid for the fansubs they were getting ripped off. They wanted to be very clear that they weren’t profiting from this work and that it was being done out of love for the original work.
Crunchyroll started out as one of the first illegal streaming sites in 2006. Remember that YouTube dates back to about 2006 as well; before that time, streaming was not technically feasible for a lot of reasons.
There was a lot of bad blood between Crunchyroll and the fansubbers. Crunchy basically took fansubbers’ work without permission and made money off of it, none of which went back to either the creators or the fansubbers. And of course they didn’t care whether another company had already licensed the same shows in the US.
That was another really significant moment in the industry. Up to that point, fansubbing could be considered advertising for the legitimate release. Really dedicated fans would watch them and talk about shows, which would help drive sales of DVDs, on-demand cable TV, etc. once the licensors caught up. But streaming sites made it easy for anyone with no technical skills to get involved and watch stuff for free. And the streaming sites generally didn’t take down their videos when a legitimate US licensor appeared: there were many fansubbing groups that removed their work from the Internet as soon as it was licensed.
Really, Crunchyroll’s pivot to legitimacy was about the best thing that could happen. I think the Japanese companies finally saw that they would have to change their business model. Their model used to be that they would release a product in Japan, make money off of it in Japan, and then license it in the US after it had already declined in the Japanese market. Now we all get simulcasts at the same time.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that US DVD releases are much later than Japanese DVD releases. This is to stop something called reverse importation. If you search on Amazon Japan for older anime, you’ll see the US releases for sale, usually for about half the cost of the Japanese release. DVDs are much, much cheaper here and Japanese people have figured that out. Some really top-tier titles like the Cardcaptor Sakura Blu-rays have actually been hardcoded so you can’t turn off the English subtitles, in order to discourage this.
I can see how today you might talk about illegal streaming sites, since there really are legitimate avenues to support the creators, and they’re super cheap! We often never had that. In the old days, I generally didn’t think about fansubbing as illegal, so much as it was walking a very fine line in an imperfect international system. Although the federal government could have chosen to enforce criminal copyright laws against fansubbers, they didn’t — and the Japanese companies had no business presence in the US, so there were no civil lawsuits, either.
So, we were no saints.
To me it’s always been important to do what I can to support creative work. If someone asks me for a small amount of money in exchange for a lot of enjoyment, I think that’s fair. But without fansubs I never would’ve had an anime community to be part of, either. I tend to be much more conservative about this issue than many, and it used to bring me into conflict with others. I’d like to say that it’s because my livelihood (software engineering) also depends on copyright, but clearly there’s a wide variety of opinions in my industry, too. I generally align with Larry Lessig on copyright; I’m really glad that I read his books in college.
It was always a mixed bag. Let’s look at what we watched at Anime Club in 2005-06:
- Kaleido Star: licensed, we used the DVDs
- School Rumble: not licensed until years later, we used fansubs
- Stellvia: licensed, we used DVDs
- Samurai Champloo, we used DVDs
- Wildcard slot: almost always fansubs
The university paid for us to buy the DVDs out of our club money, actually, and some of the licensors like Funimation also had “anime club” programs where they would send us free promotional materials. It’s not that university students were buying a lot of DVDs.
In fact, at around this same time a student created a fileserver on the Duke network that served pirated movies; this became so famous that he was later elected student body president. I was in apparently a small minority that found this unethical.
I still use Bittorrent to get unlicensed or unavailable stuff from time to time, but these days I’m really enjoying a lot of the remasters and releases of old stuff that some of the niche licensors like Animeigo and Right Stuf are putting out. Every once in a while I still share a USB drive with someone — sharing videos over sneakernet!
With the exception of Attack on Titan I haven’t watched anything as it aired in years, and I like the fact that when I buy a DVD I get to keep something in exchange for my money. To be honest I’ve never seen one of these “illegal streaming sites” and I really have no desire to. Video quality is generally lower than on Bittorrent releases and I’d rather not expose my computer to the seedier parts of the Web.
I’ve never been a figure collector and aside from some cel art and vintage posters I don’t really have any other anime goods, so buying discs is how I support the industry.
My impression is that most of the other folks my age are in the same boat. Most people I talk to use Crunchyroll, although I haven’t been on there in a year or two. Most people with jobs and money also seem to have wound up with a modest DVD collection… I wound up with over 300 discs. I guess having lived through the bad old days, we’re just happy that it’s gotten much simpler.
I think maybe we’re also very used to distinguishing between legitimate and unlicensed sources. I noticed that at least some of your interviewees were from China, which of course is a very different situation. In fact China’s lack of respect for foreign copyright pretty much mirrors what the US was doing to British copyright in about 1860; authors like Charles Dickens were very well-known in America, but missed out on any royalties because US printers were pirating their stuff like crazy.