The Subtitle Underground
Strange obsession of the fansubbers

They're overblown and oversexed, but they're not over here. Japanese cartoon features can be so hard to find in translation that anime has spawned its own underground. They call themselves fansubbers -- fans who create and trade grassroots subtitled videos.

See also...
... by Annalee Newitz
... in the Scope section
... from September 22, 1999

Fansubbers all over the country lift images from Japanese laserdiscs, sub them with a genlock overlay device, and dupe them onto videocassette for distribution. Using amateur translators (usually Japanese foreign exchange students) and their own money for equipment, clubs like Rodney Caston's have produced literally hundreds of anime titles that open with the proclamation "Subtitled by fans for fans."

The most popular fansub titles -- like space warrior epic Dragon Ball Z, transgender sex comedy Ranma 1/2, and body-splitting mecha gorefest Gundam -- are prime-time TV in Japan, spanning hundreds of episodes. But to the American eye, they contain adult situations. Although the sexiest titles are eaten up by money-hungry distributors like ADV Films, that doesn't matter to fansubbers. They scorn the big timers, who've been known to swipe fansubbers translations or buy a title just to sit on it for years. Instead they meet online or at anime conventions such as A-Kon, where they trade fansubbed copies of Japanese movies and TV episodes.

This may or may not be legal under current international copyright law. Kyle Jaranson, keeper of the exhaustive Fansub Database, explains, "Some people think it depends whether a domestic company has the rights to the title." Caston, too, is careful not to endorse illegal tapes, pointing out, "What makes legal is that we send out scripts and fans use them to make their own fansubs. That falls under fair use -- and it's legal."

According to Kotus, creator of fansubbers' favorite freeware PC subbing program, Sub Station Alpha, there's much more to fansubbing than anime. Dementedly creative people can use his program for all kinds of eccentric personal subtitling projects. "I know people who subtitle live-action dramas, add titles and MTV-style logos to their home videos, and make subtitles that are not simply translations of what you hear on the video," Kotus says.

So while you're waiting for your next dose of space opera or mecha combat, don't just lurk by the mailbox -- dial into daytime TV and make up some raunch of your own. And why not? That's how Woody Allen got his start.

Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer who occasionally uses her Ph.D. to stand at the front of classrooms and talk about pop culture.