March 9, 2000
By Franklin Harris
That's the question coming from keyboards across North America and finding its way onto the Internet.
Now that Japanese animation has gone mainstream, at least one major anime distributor, Bandai, is suggesting that the days of subtitled anime on videotape are over.
Needless to say, anime purists, who believe that dubbing anime into English is something of a mortal sin, aren't pleased. Those who haven't yet made the transition to buying their anime on DVD may soon have to, or else simply put up with English-speaking voice actors.
Most anime released on DVD features both Japanese and English vocal tracks as well as optional subtitles.
The children who helped turn "Pokémon" and "Digimon" into megahits are buying their favorite shows on home video, but, unlike anime fans of old, they don't want to read subtitles. They want their anime dubbed into English.
Ah, the perils of success.
There was a time when most all anime available in the United States was subtitled. That was because virtually all of it was bootlegged straight from Japan.
Dedicated anime fans translated Japanese scripts into English and used primitive editing equipment to add crude subtitles to pirated videotapes.
These "fansubs" circulated among the small anime fan community during the '70s and '80s. Fans copied and re-copied them until the typical fansub sold at a science fiction convention was a fifth-generation tape.
Look around at conventions, and you'll still find fansubs of "Pokémon" and "Dragonball Z" episodes that have yet to come to America legally.
When American companies like AnimEgo, ADV and Central Park Media began releasing official, licensed anime tapes in the '90s, they started by issuing mostly -- and sometimes exclusively -- subtitled editions.
After all, it's far less expensive to subtitle a film than it is to hire an all-new cast, re-record the dialog and re-loop the new vocal track into the film.
Plus, the fact was that most anime fans at the time preferred subtitled tapes, which they viewed as better reflecting the animators' intentions. Many even attacked Streamline Pictures for releasing only dubbed tapes, which were, until recently, the only licensed versions of films like "Akira," "Wicked City" and "Vampire Hunter D" available in the States.
But as anime became more popular, hardcore fans began to make up an increasingly smaller percentage of the fan community. And the new fans didn't like having to read their movies.
Soon, American distributors could afford to dub more of their product and make money selling it at a price casual anime fans we're willing to pay, which was usually $10 to $15 less than what the hardcore fans were shelling out for subtitled tapes.
Anime is now so popular that it almost isn't worth the time and expense for American anime companies to bother releasing subtitled tapes at all. Major video retails like Suncoast can't sell subtitled tapes anymore, so they stock only a handful.
There are exceptions, of course. ADV is launching a new line of tapes that will be available subtitled only. But the line is for marginal anime series that otherwise wouldn't be released in America at all. And ADV plans to market the tapes only via its Web site, www.advfilms.com.
Ironically, ADV calls its new line "ADV Fansubs."
Plus, the number of hard-core anime fans buying videotapes is declining, as more of them switch to DVD.
Anime is more popular than ever, but subtitled anime on videotape has come full circle. Soon, it'll be reduced back to fansubs.