Anime: From Cult Following to Pop Culture Phenomenon

By Samantha Nicole Inëz Chambers
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/3 |


Fansubbing is the practice of taking the original Japanese anime and translating it word-for-word in fan-made subtitles. This can be time consuming for a person partaking in fansubbing and is generally carried out by amateurs who have to learn the language. But in fansubbing, there is no American studio middleman as there was in the 1960s to cut out any content deemed culturally inappropriate, therefore fans are given access to more accurate content.

Fansubbing has quickly grown into one of the most influential amateur subtitling movements of the modern era, with many of these anime fansubbers receiving little to no compensation for their work except for the personal satisfaction of receiving and distributing authentic translations of content. With fansubbed media, anime fans get the exact translation every time, provided the person translating them is fluent in Japanese. This can prove difficult, since some words do not have direct English translations, which is why fansubbed versions of anime occasionally have slight variations within the text. Many fansubbers will note this discrepancy in the margins of the subtitles in order to authenticate their works.

With fansubbing, however, there are legal repercussions. Back in the 1990s, the Otaku turned to fansubbing because there was no other way to obtain the material. When American distributors did not sell anime titles during that time, anime fans obtained the Japanese titles for individual translation, and then distributed free copies to other fans (Gonzáles, 2006).

However, with the digital age now in full swing and the abundance of anime distributors vying for consumers in the United States, the practice of fansubbing is more heavily frowned upon. Fansubbing and distributing free copies of anime works has always been considered a form of piracy, but now that anime is more readily available through legal means in the United States, the practice of fansubbing has less of a purpose for being used.

Many fans who still practice fansubbing and receive fansubbed copies of work argue that American companies still act as a barrier between authentic work and consumers by cutting out important translations in lieu of translations that are easier to understand, but not as true to the original text (Lee, 2011). Cost is also a factor in the fansubbing dilemma, as many people who obtain fansubbed material choose piracy in order to forgo buying pricey anime from American retailers (Sugimoto, 2011).

Overall, there is a split in opinions among Japanese creators and producers of anime. Some feel that international consumers of fansubbed material should pay for intellectual property just as any other consumer would, but others argue that fansubbing is the reason their material experienced international stardom in the first place and that they should be more lenient towards the practice.

Soft Power and the Anime Image

The fansubbing dilemma, to most, seems as though it is irrelevant in the scope of American cinema. Many believe that anime is just a small portion of the cinema industry in America and that fans of anime "tend to be on the edges of society, resolutely nonmainstream" (Lunning, 2007). Others argue that anime has a larger fan base than most people think, since when most people think of anime fans, they only think of the Otaku. In reality, there may be people who enjoy anime who are not rabid fans, but casual consumers of anime, just as there are people who enjoy Alfred Hitchcock films but are not diehard fans of his works.

There is also a lot of speculation about how much power anime wields over the average American consumer. Soft power, or the ability to exercise influence over another individual or community by means of attraction and fascination instead of force and coercion, is commonplace in the 21st century because so many products are of foreign origin and have impacts upon their consumers. Soft power through the dissemination of culture is "seen as a means of public relations and a method of strengthening a country's influence" (Otmazgin, 2008). American consumers are attracted to products of other countries just as other countries are fascinated by American imports (Ladd, 2009). This same theory can just as easily be applied to film. American film has huge leverage over culture in other countries, so it is just as feasible that Japanese film could impact the cultural values of American viewers.

The hypotheses of this study are

1) Even though Americans have been exposed to a lot of television media with heavy Japanese influence, most people are not aware of how anime came to the United States and its influence on them, and

2) People are still operating under the dated stereotype that anime is inappropriate as a whole. This study also investigated the use of soft power in media such as anime and how people are subjected to this influence.

III. Methods

To identify the scope of influence that Japanese pop culture, specifically anime, had on Americans born in the '80s and '90s, this study relied on secondary research and a survey.

The researcher reviewed books published between 1990 and present to gain insight into what was occurring during the anime boom of the early '90s and how the Otaku were perceived. The researcher also conducted a survey to gauge the size of the modern anime fandom and its influences on American culture.

Through the survey, data was collected regarding anime, how modern-day American consumers receive the anime film medium, and how anime made its way into the United States. To garner honest responses about the piracy practices of those involved, the survey was implemented anonymously.

In the online survey, a convenience sample of 107 students and young adults was asked a series of 18 questions. These questions contained both multiple choice and short answer types. The survey asked how people obtained their media, whether through fansubbing or other means, legal or illegal. It asked how influenced people felt Japanese animation and media are. It also asked people how much they are aware of specific titles that were prevalent during the '80s and '90s to see how much people actually know about Japanese animation and television. Questions were also asked about piracy, the main way anime made its way into the United States, in order to see if there was a correlation between those watching anime and their preferences for obtaining material.

The survey participants, whose ages ranged between 18 and 32, were selected among those who attended college at one point, since college campuses were where most anime titles were first introduced to the United States. The survey was used to confirm what secondary research suggested in journals and other scholarly materials: the influences of anime on American audiences.

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