Is Aggressive Localization Sustainable for Anime? – Part 1

(Cross-post from Iyashikei)

Localization and its cousin, censorship, are contentious issues within the anime community. In many ways, the subculture is still smarting from the hackjob localizations of the past, which were often poorly translated, poorly dubbed, had content cut for the Western release, or some combination of the three.

As the community grew and the gap between East and West closed, a growing contingent of Western fans of anime and otaku media began demanding more accuracy and purer releases, out of a desire to get as close to the original experience as possible.

For many, this involved disengaging from the established anime market as it existed in the West, and joining fansubbing communities and the like.

In some ways, however, the community has begun to push back against the purist stance. With the rise of Crunchyroll, people began to question whether or not fansubbers still had a purpose. Fansubbers cited accuracy and quality, while those calling them into question asserted that the product put out by companies like Crunchyroll was good enough and released same-day to boot.

The anime fandom has an interesting relationship with business. Back in the old days of the Western anime fandom, tape trading was still one of the primary ways of obtaining anime. Large anime clubs would distribute VHS tapes of recorded anime from Japan to fans. That is, if they were nearby.

Other fans often had to resort to buying from people selling those tapes at sci-fi conventions, a practice frowned-upon by the big anime clubs.

Fast-forward into the 1980s and small companies, some of the first anime licensing firms, would license Japanese anime, only to edit them heavily and rebrand them as children’s cartoon movies.

This isn’t a coincidence.

Where the tape traders of old got it wrong was they had failed to reconcile their desire to spread anime with their desire to keep it freely available. They begrudged people for selling tapes, but failed to realize that, as anime grew in popularity, someone was eventually going to sell tapes, and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been them establishing the norms of that business practice.

Establishing core principles is important to a business. These are the things a business will not compromise on, even if greater profit can be had by doing so. Quite clearly, the early licensing firms that were okay with cutting up Japanese anime and re-marketing them as cartoons for American kids did not have authenticity and purity of anime as their core principles.

Further, the entire anime market in the West was not established on core principles of authenticity, accuracy, or purity of artistic intent. It was established on getting anime to market by any means necessary. If that meant Macross would need to be spliced together with two unrelated shows, just to get it on American TV, then so be it. If that meant we’d have to have Battle of the Planets and G-Force before getting Gatchaman, then so be it.

As a result, it’s easy to see why some in today’s anime community defend localizations that remove content or change context from the original. Very seldom has the marketing surrounding the Western anime industry focused on accuracy or purity of artistic intent. Releases by Aniplex of America or Pony Canyon USA come with a tacit promise of accuracy and purity, but only because they’re offshoots of Japanese distributors.

Meanwhile, Funimation sees fit to change their translation scripts seemingly on a whim, inserting needless political commentary into the dubs. And Crunchyroll, in their first foray into mobile game localization and publishing, released their first game with its skinship minigame fully removed, having deemed it “not appropriate for English audiences.”

There is an argument to be made that changing content in this way, even as far as having localizers embedded in the creation process on the Japanese side, help secure more sales on the Western side, which is necessary to keep production companies afloat.

It’s a noble endgame, but it ignores fundamental truths about the market for otaku media in the West.

Continued in part 2.