Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Future of Watching Anime; a brief history of fansubbing

When I started watching anime fifteen years ago, there was a limited number of series and movies offered for sale. I quickly found the world of the fansubbers, where for a small fee to cover equipment upkeep, videotapes, and shipping, I received non-US-licensed series. The quality of the image and the subtitling varied but through them, I could get a look at relatively new series without having the uncertain filter of US commercial distributors who were unwilling to risk much on the unknown. Fast forward a few years and then an explosion of anime for sale bloomed both on TV (thanks to Cartoon Network's anime block called Toonami in 1997, featuring their runaway hit, Akira Toriyama's DragonBallZ) and video stores. Fast forward to 2007 and the sales of anime actually fell and then continued to fall all over the world.

What caused the dramatic drop? One could guess that fansubbing moved to the Internet. Fansubbers could upload a show within days (or hours) of original broadcast, and distribution became much easier, thanks to bit torrent, faster computers, and faster internet connections. So, what's an industry to do?

One fascinating development that I have been watching is the legitimization of a streaming anime site called Crunchyroll. When I first visited this site, I was amazed at the number of titles available that I could stream on my computer. Yes, many of them were licensed in the US but the site seemed to skirt this issue by only taking down those products when the license holder objected. This meant that companies had to know and actively seek them out; Crunchyroll could pretend to wash its hands about the legality of its actions. Not only that, but its actions seemed to irk some fansubbers who feared that the site was not only going to profit over their hardwork but also seemed to break their ethical code. You can read a particularly heated interview with a Crunchyroll cofounder here on the animenewsnetwork from March 2008.

In November 2008, Crunchyroll announced a partnership with TV Tokyo to stream anime straight from the source (not through fansubbers) to their audience, days or hours after the initial airing on Japanese TV. This meant that Crunchyroll would remove all unlicensed materials and drop fansubbers out of the equation. It meant higher quality video and probably higher quality subtitles (thought not necessarily). Their biggest coup was the wildly popular Naruto: Shippuden series which has become a cornerstone of their "coming out" party. (To put this in perspective for how popular this series is for non-anime viewers, the publisher Viz has been releasing the manga in the US, even going so far as to release three novels in one month. All of them hit not only bestsellers' lists for graphic novels, but also reached into overall bestsellers.)

With more and more applications done on the web, it's not surprising that Crunchyroll knew it had a moneymaking opportunity on its hands, but the question was how to do it. Despite alienating visitors to the site who wanted a return to the breadth of CR's catalog, this was a smart move. For a small membership fee, which they had offered before in order to recoup the extraordinary costs of running such a site, viewers can watch episodes quickly after they aired (non-paying members can watch them a week later).

It remains to be seen if more companies will partner with Crunchyroll and if this approach will restrain illegal distribution and even "save" anime beyond Japan.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Buying Anime

What with the economic downturn and low anime sales, many stores are offering some great sales. The big box chain Best Buy, for instance, is cutting way back on anime in stores where it does not do well. These stores are offering 50% off of in-stock titles in the month of March. You can find a list of stores here on

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Manga and the Academy

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, an article titled "A Scholarly Home for Manga" by David McNeill.

"In the Land of the Rising Sun, as elsewhere, pop culture continues its steady creep into academe.

Meiji University has announced plans to open the world's largest museum of manga and anime, the comic and animation art forms that began in post-World War II Japan and swept the planet. The shelves of a 91,000-square-foot building on the grounds of a disused Tokyo high school will groan with more than 2.5 million items, including comics, magazines, and figurines. A collection of arcade games and other artifacts from millions of misspent teenage years is also planned, along with a weekly fanzine exchange.

The museum — which will be open to students, fans, and scholars alike — is the latest sign that manga has gone mainstream, says its curator, Kaichiro Morikawa.

'The government, universities, and think tanks are increasingly supporting this culture here and abroad and trying to attract people from overseas,' says Mr. Morikawa, an associate professor in the department of global Japanese studies at Meiji, one of Tokyo's most prestigious universities.

Meiji's project follows the 2006 opening of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, a join venture between Kyoto Seika University and the city government that attracted 30,000 non-Japanese visitors in its first 12 months, one of the highest levels of foreign patronage for any museum in the country.

Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shifted emphasis from extolling traditional arts to pop culture, under the rubric of 'Cool Japan,' a response to the growing worldwide popularity of comics, anime, and Japanese music. Prime Minister Taro Aso, a famous manga fan, has raised the possibility that Japan's otaku (nerd) culture might be used to promote the nation's interests.

Anime Cake's comment: Though extolled by some academics, especially by McNeill in this article, as a long overdue recognition of an artform and a discipline, one must bear in mind the statements in the last paragraph. Japan is embracing manga and anime, not out of some sense of artistic merit, but for purely economic reasons. As scholar Kukhee Choo has argued at a PCA panel I moderated a few years ago, this might (probably) affect what is produced and marketed. Though the market, in a capital sense, does determine what anime and manga is successful, the insertion of govermental intervention could alter the artform in a different way -- as propaganda for tourism and other "interests" of the "nation," whatever they may be.

Last, as a comment on McNeill's writing which at once says "isn't this great?" while dismissing the value of pop culture: the museum will "groan" under the weight of items representing "artifacts from millions of misspent teenage years." Pop culture, instead of being a valid way of interacting with the world, is dismissed as just childish wastes of time. When will we get past such distinctions?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Anime Review: Mushi-shi

This is my first review of anime that catch my interest, both as a fan and as a scholar. This may be a bit rough until I get the handle of it.

The 26 episode anime series, Mushi-shi (official Japanese site here), started out as a manga by Urushibara Yuki (serialized in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine and published as graphic novels in the States by Del Rey). The manga series in Japan ended last year in October.

The structure of the anime series, which follows the manga very closely, is episodic rather than a cohesive narrative. Viewers follow the main character, Ginko, through a variety of unconnected, though, in some ways, related stories. He is a mushishi which is a scientist of sorts of the phenomenon of the mushi. The mushi are supranatural creatures. I purposely use "supranatural" rather than supernatural because the latter evokes the images of ghosts, spectors, or monsters. Instead, these mushi are variant creatures living beside and sometimes within humanity. They can look like amoebas or like the floating specks of dust in a sunbeam or can even mimic plant life. When they come into contact with humanity the result can be parasitic and often quite dangerous if they are fooled around with purposely or by accident. Ginko's task is to collect knowledge about these creatures, and, as a result of this knowledge, he is sometimes called upon to help people who develop strange and uncanny symptoms.

Though Ginko appears to be wearing modern clothes he travels with his wooden box on his back (like a Meiji-era peddler's tansu), through a country populated by small villages. The people he meets appear to be peasants of some "version" of a Japanese past (that is, one that never really existed).

(image from the manga)

The natural world, appropriately enough, dominates the screen. The world is lush and wild, teeming with the mushi that he seeks.

What is unusual about the series is exactly this presentation of the natural. The mushi burst through the "known" world with a vitality that runs parallel to the human, natural world. They are not sentient but only in the usual sense because the way they view the world is foreign, unknowable, and beautiful. This is quite different from other anime versions of nature, such as those found in Miyazaki Hayao's films where the forces of nature can be presented anthropomorphically -- in Mononoke Hime where most of the gods of nature speak with human voices and carry recognizable human passions within them or at least with a foreign nature that attempts to speak and make contact with the human world, such as the Shishigami and in Tonari no Totoro, where benevolent forces care and protect human children. Perhaps the closest analogue is Nausicaa where nature is threatening and mysterious. Even so, Nausicaa, herself, eventually makes that connection with the Ohmu, the most fearsome of the insect world that Miyazaki has created. I draw on these similarities because Mushi-shi shares some of the meditative lyricism of Miyazaki's film. However, the mushi live and die in a parallel world and humanity is incidental. This vision of nature seems to me as a unique one, and I strive to figure out, perhaps not in this review, what exactly this vision presents as a reflection of present attitudes toward ecology and environmentalism. Certainly, the series has been popular in Japan though it has not caught on in the States in the same way as other popular manga titles. I fear I will not be able to come to any firm conclusions as of yet.

Another facet of the series that I find interesting is how the episodes transcend generic categories. Some of the episode are downright creepy and belong to a horror category such as episode 8 "The Heavy Seed" where a married couple, wishing to have a child, give birth to something all together troubling. Other episodes focus on familial bonds such as episode 7 "Raindrops and Rainbows" where a man is driven to chase after rainbows in order to capture one and finally prove that his father was not insane or episode 19 which is heartbreaking as a man waits for a woman to come back to him after she has touched a thread hanging in the sky and disappeared.

I give you some taste of the series in the hope that others will search out this fascinating series.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Comic Book sales up, but Manga down

According to, manga sales have fallen 10% in the last year: "After years of growth, manga sales actually contracted in 2008, dropping from $210 million in 2007 to $175 million (roughly 2005 numbers), with larger declines in the bookstores than in the comic shops." That's quite a drop from the highs of a few years ago. The site goes on to speculate that the drop of anime series on the Cartoon Network, coupled with a rise in interest of the Twilight series kept new manga titles off readers' radar (and perhaps out of their pocketbooks).

I believe that the market has been saturated and is now leveling off. This is not a death-knell for manga in bookstores though I can imagine that publishers and stores are leery of their sales.

When I attended the NYComicon this past weekend, I heard from a Vertical publisher that they had cut back on the number of titles they are putting out this year because of shaky financial backing. I would imagine that their high-quality books (which are lovely) will also not be in demand as much as the inexpensive omnibus editions that other publishers are putting out.

But, why, may you ask did comics do so well in 2008? Two words: Watchmen and Batman.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

United States vs. Christopher S. Handley

For my first official post, I give you a heavy-duty one that should be of concern to advocates of free speech and manga fans.

In May 2006, Christopher S. Handley received a shipment of books from Japan which included some yaoi titles. Unknown to Mr. Handley, the Postal Inspector alerted the authorities that the package included material that was objectionable. He was pulled over and agents followed him to his home and seized the entire contents of his collection. According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, "Handley, 38, faces penalties under the PROTECT Act (18 U.S.C. Section 1466A) for allegedly possessing manga that the government claims to be obscene. The government alleges that the material includes drawings that they claim appear to be depictions of minors engaging in sexual conduct. No photographic content is at issue in Handley's case."

Though the trial was set for December and then February, it has now been postponed until sometime in late March.

In the meantime, judges seems to pressing forward that a person owning pictures of children engaged in sexual acts can be prosecuted. See this article from (quoted in full below) from December 2008.

"A three judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Dwight Whorley on child pornography charges last week, and ruled that there is no necessity that an actual child be involved for a conviction, according to the Associated Press. Whorley had argued in his appeal that the 20 anime he'd received on his work computer, which reportedly depicted young girls being forced to have sex with men, were protected speech; two of the three judges on the panel rejected that argument.

In the majority opinion, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer stated that under the PROTECT Act of 2003, under which Whorley was convicted, 'it is not a required element of any offense under this section that the minor depicted actually exists.'

Whorley is currently serving 20 years in prison; he was convicted of 74 counts of child pornography and obscenity charges, including receiving photos of real children having sex.

Christopher Handley, who did not possess any photos of real children, is currently facing charges under the PROTECT Act for possession of manga (see “Yaoi Titles in Manga Child Porn Case”). That case goes to trial in early January. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is assisting in the defense. "

My comment: though Whorley was rightly convicted for possessing photos of real children who have been traumatized and victimized, including drawn pictures of "children" under this statute is highly problematic. For instance, what determines a character's age? There are numerous anime where a child-like figure is older than his or her looks. In fact, this can be seen as a trope of various genres, especially science fiction and fantasy, where the character might not even be human (such as a robot or a god).

But this is besides the point. These are not children, period. No child has been traumatized by these texts, and unless these are actively shared with children which would be child molestation in context, owners should not be prosecuted.

As comic-book writer, Neil Gaiman, says in this article: "He’s been arrested for having some drawings of rude things in manga. I’m sorry, but if you went through my comic collection, you could arrest me if you’re going to start doing that. It’s just wrong." Indeed, I would guess that any manga reader would have something that would fall under these very wide parameters.

I'll keep you posted to any new developments.


I have decided to start a new blog dedicated to my observations of anime and manga (the odd American comic comment might also slip in). I need a repository for all the information I've collected.

Expect to find information about anime and manga industries in America as well as reviews of primary and secondary literature.

Why is it called Anime Cake? Everybody likes cake, right? I'd like to thank Elena Steier for the shoujo inspired drawing above. It's super-sweet.