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Veteran Creator Meets Disruptive Business Model

Captain Harlock’s recent availability on Hulu and the release of OZMA highlights the career of Leiji Matsumoto. Matsumoto had a role in seminal 70s and 80s works like Captain Harlock, Starblazers, Galaxy Express 999 and Space Battleship Yamato. With OZMA, Matsumoto returns with a work that harks back to his earlier successes. The series is short (only 6 episodes) and lacks the depth necessary for a proper sci-fi opera, but it’s a trip back to an earlier style. While I enjoyed the show, its importance for anime at large is less about it being a brilliant product and more about it being a prominent example of a new business model. It marks the start of the latest disruptive technical trend to hit the anime industry: cloud sourced anime translation.

The most striking part of OZMA itself was the retro character designs. The designs are reminiscent of anime from the 70s and 80s. The main female characters have tall, thin and narrow faces. The male characters have unkempt hair and angular faces. The side characters have wider, goofy faces faces that reminded me of Disney characters. The character design takes some getting used to, but it gives the show a unique feeling.

Old Captain

New Captain

On the story side, I enjoyed ​OZMA but felt that it’s short length hurt the show. OZMA lasted only six episodes. Its length, equivalent to the length of a motion picture, should have given it enough time to tell a full story. Although OZMA did have a complete story, it lacked depth. The early episodes set up a high stakes clash between two groups on an epic scale. The series’ end resolved the conflict, but did so at the expense of the sense of scale. The end happened so quickly, that it made the story and the conflict seem inconsequential. It was like in Star Wars, when Luke destroyed the Death Star in one shot, all of a sudden the invincible battle station looked awfully vulnerable. OZMA’s end did not involve a lucky shot, but it had the same feeling, that the characters deserved little credit for resolving the conflict. Six episodes did not provide enough time to achieve Matsumoto’s vision.

While I enjoyed OZMA, and appreciated seeing a modern product of Leiji Matsumoto, its greater impact is as a disruptive technology: crowd sourced anime subtitles. Illegal fansubs played a major role in exposing people in the West to anime, especially when the Internet made distributing fansubs easy and cheap. Fansubs have receded in importance now that sites like Crunchyroll provide cheap and immediately available simulcasts. Viki takes this a step further. It provides a platform for multiple people to translate shows into any number of languages. The site lets amateurs translate an episode, a sentence, even a single word. Other users can view, add to or correct the subtitles. All the content on the site (which includes mainstream live action shows as well as niche content like anime) comes licensed and is supported by advertising. Viki licensed OZMA, amateurs translated it and then Viki licensed it on to Crunchyroll and Hulu, and streamed it on Viki.com

Viki has the potential to disrupt the anime business outside of Japan by removing the need for anime-focused companies like Funimation. Funimation is a middle-man: it licenses anime from Japan and distributes it to the West. It incurs substantial costs to do this; it has to pay for translation, script writing and dubbing. And in order to stay profitable given those costs, it has to stay small. Funimation’s niche focus keeps it profitable, but its size limits the number of projects it can work on. Viki doesn’t face similar constraints. It doesn’t need to pay translators, directors or actors and it releases a show as quickly as fans are willing to translate it.

In the short term Funimation’s focus on physical distribution and dubs will protect it from Viki which focuses on streaming. Instead, the first casualties will be companies like Sentai that focus on subtitle-only releases. Professional translators will also see job opportunities and pay diminish. Still, in the long run, as physical media fades away, Funimation is vulnerable. It faces a similar challenge as Encarta or Encyclopedia Britannica, competing with fans willing to work for free. Right now Viki only provides streaming versions of fan translationed shows. How long before it starts selling digital copies of shows? Or even fan dubs?

Comments

Peter S says:

I wasn’t aware that Viki was doing this. Hell, I’m barely aware of Viki. So they’re not paying the translators? Are they crediting them? Do the translators have any sort of rights? If not, do they have to sign a disclaimer? There’s a difference between being a fan who likes to support a show and being a complete idiot who works on someone else’s for-profit project with no compensation whatsoever.

dengar says:

I wasn’t aware of Viki either until the ANN interview. The translators are credited when you watch OZMA on Viki (it says “Subtitles brought to you by the Space Fighters Team@viki.com) but the credit. don’t seem to appear on the Crunchyroll website. The subtitles themselves are released under a creative commons license and in order to supply subtitles you have to agree to Viki’s terms and conditions.

As for whether the fans working on this are complete idiots, that’s open for debate. But, as I note in my reply to kuromitsu below, this wouldn’t be the first time a for-profit took advantage of crowd sourcing. Huffington Post is probably the best known example web example, although offline plenty of businesses use unpaid interns to do work they’d otherwise have to pay for.

Peter S says:

Exploitative is exploitative. I wouldn’t compare this business model to unpaid interns, because the latter are often people desperate for experience to pad their resume and willing to take anything they can get, and many people decry the practice and urge people not to intern without monetary compensation. As for the Huffington Post, the only purpose in that business that I can see is to make Arianna richer.

kuromitsu says:

Ugh, Viki. I’ve read an interview with the owner(?) at Anime News Network, and all the time there was one thought in my mind: “you can sugarcoat it all you want, but you’re basing your business on blatant exploitation.” I mean, yes, the people who agree to translate for them are idiots, too, but there are so many young/inexperienced fans who simply enjoy doing something out of love and don’t even notice that they’re being exploited. (When I worked as a translator even I did some ridiculously cheap jobs to help people out or because I loved working on a movie/show, but even then I didn’t do it pro bono. If you earn money from something that I’m so crucially involved with you’d better pay me for it.)

What Viki is doing is not a “disruptive” model, it’s exploitation, plain and simple. Make fans feel involved and important -> have them do translation for free -> sell the translation -> profit! I can’t even begin to imagine the cynism behind it. For fans by fans? Yeah, and in the meanwhile the middleman earns lots of money but let’s not care about that.

To say nothing of the joys of “cloud based translation. So basically it’s dozens of people with various levels of fluency in both languages involved working on the same project at the same time? And there’s no quality check? And they’re serious about this? Maybe as someone who used to be a pro translator (still am, at times) I find this more offensive than most people, but this model is just ridiculous. For example, if they have more than one possible translations for a sentence, how do they decide on which one to use? They vote or what? What if the translation the majority would prefer is not the right one? What if personal biases come into the picture? What if most of the episode was translated by people who barely know any Japanese, and no-one bothered to check because there’s no QC? Oh man.

And as for fandubs, oh please don’t. Any idiot can translate subtitles (let’s not get into quality, or the fact that subtitling is not just throwing words on the screen aarrrgh), but writing a dub is not something that you can do without any previous experience and learning. And taking into account the amount of effort (and money) that goes into producing dubs, it would be downright ridiculous to even try to do it with their current model if they want to achieve even a minimum level of quality.

Argh. Fansubbing is fine because it’s done by hobbyists for free. What Viki is doing, though? It makes me want to slap everyone involved with it. It’s not the way of the future, at least it shouldn’t be.

dengar says:

I’d agree that Viki is exploiting fan translators for profit, but I stand by my statement it represents a disruptive business model. The site can release content for far less than anyone else in the industry. The translations may not be professional, but that limitation hasn’t stopped crowd sourced content at Wikipedia or Huffington Post.

Getting beyond the issue of whether the site is exploitative, the more difficult question, and the one without a perfect answer, is whether the site is good for the industry. I’d say the answer to that question is yes for all the people who don’t speak English or Japanese and want to watch anime. Episode 1 of OZMA is currently available on Viki.com in English, Turkish, French and Indonesian. 99% of the episode is available translated in Chinese, Romania and Spanish and 97% of the episode is available translated in Russian. That’s pretty amazing for a recently released show.

For the English speaking world, Viki is not as valuable, except perhaps for fansubbers that want legitimacy. That may change if more anime companies (particularly Sentai) drop out of the business. The one area it may do good is for shows too unpopular to justify a professional quality release.

Clearly quality-wise Viki is a risky proposition. Professional translators certainly add a lot of value to anime. Still, I didn’t notice any quality issues while I was watching OZMA on crunchyroll. At that time I didn’t even know that fans had translated OZMA. I don’t know if that says more about Viki or about me, but I found the translation acceptable.

kuromitsu says:

I can only echo what Peter said above – exploitative is exploitative, and just because other websites earn money from user content submitted for free doesn’t make this particular business any less immoral. (And I think a comparison with Wikipedia is a case of comparing apples and oranges…) Viki is basically doing what fansubbers already do, except it inserts itself as a middleman, reaps in the profit and keeps the money without any compensation for the people who actually worked for that money, and don’t even credit them for the work they’d done.

Yes, the site can afford to be significantly cheaper than its rivals – because they don’t pay translators and have only a minimal staff. How is this any good for the industry? Here’s a player who brings down prices to a level other where companies can’t compete unless they start significantly lowering their standards (never mind actually releasing stuff for fans to buy); and for this low price Viki offers questionable quality and a cynical, blatantly exploitative business model. I work in an industry that operates on this model (though at least we pay our translators!) and from what I can see, everyone suffers from it.

As for non-English speaking fans – I can only speak for my country (small Central European one with a tiny anime/manga market) but local fansubbers already translate anime to our language. (Sure, they’re working from English fansubs, but what is the guarantee that Viki’s subbers don’t?) I haven’t looked for a long while but I think most of the currently airing shows are being translated. I don’t know about Ozma, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were local subs available for the entire series.

And as for the English speaking world, well, in my opinion Viki is not valuable at all, at least not in its current form. It essentially does what Crunchyroll did before it went legit, except when Crunchyroll went legit it actually started paying for people’s work. Viki doesn’t bother with that. Yes, it offers fansubbers legitimacy, but at what price (or rather, lack thereof)? And as for unpopular shows, well – I think there’s no show whose lack of popularity justifies a nonprofessional, low quality release. For one, if you already work on something you might as well do a good job on it. And two, well – what popularity and where?

And as for translation quality, well, Ozma had 6 episodes. Imagine this “cloud based translation” going on for 26 eps. Or 52. Or hell, hundreds, with people dropping out and new people getting in, etc. Imagine this happening to a show with a strong character where an inner translation logic is crucial. Or something wordy and complex like LoGH. Or something hugely popular that hundreds of people want to be associated with. Or something controversial where dozens of people argue about their interpretation. And then imagine all this with deadlines.

dengar says:

There are two separate issues here, (1) the morality of Viki’s business model, and (2) the quality of anime produced by that model.

My comment about Wikipedia pertained mostly to the later. Volunteers created the content on Wikipedia and the public has chosen to use it. In fact, Wikipedia has been so successful that other professional encyclopedia’s have gone out of business. Most people don’t require professional quality anime translation. Anime, like encyclopedia articles, only need to be good enough.

As for the morality of Viki’s business model, I don’t dispute that Viki is exploitative. My point was that the model is already in use and the industry may (and to a certain degree has) embraced it. Maybe the model isn’t good for the public at large, anime fans, or amateur translators. Certainly it isn’t good for professional translators. The industry may still find it appealing. Take your country for example. The fans might be satisfied by fansubs. The industry is not. Viki may not be the release mechanism the industry would ideally have, but it provides some revenue even for shows that wouldn’t make enough money to justify a professional translation. All else being equal, the industry would prefer some money over no money.

Getting back to the issue of quality, it’s up to the Japanese owners to decide the quality of a licensed release. Maybe the licencor will allow a release below what you or I would find acceptable. If the release quality is low I suspect fansubbers will continue to provide an alternative viewing option.

Peter S says:

(Whew, this is getting really narrow!)

The argument here has never been about the merits of crowdsourcing. Yes, Wikipedia is an example of a hugely successful crowdsourcing effort, but they are not cynically licensing their content for profit. Neither have they driven all other encyclopedias out of business. Nor would they want to.

Kuromitsu has it right when he says all Viki is doing is taking the fansubber model and inserting themselves as a profit-taking middleman. Since fansub viewers don’t particularily care where they get their shows, I don’t think this “legal,” money-making business model will change anything.

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