Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Anime: streaming vs. torrents

I periodically get asked by an online friend of mine why I don't stream anime when American licensing companies release it in that manner.  I have a lot of thoughts on the subject (more than I could feasibly type into IRC), so I wrote this post.

Streaming anime is a relatively new thing.  Rights holders are really only beginning to embrace the internet.  Torrents have been around for a while, DCC from IRC has been around even longer, and if you want to get technical, getting VHSes in the mail (for only media+shipping costs, they made a point of never charging more than that so there would be no profit) was the original way to get anime in America.

I've watched a few episodes of anime streamed, back when Shikabane Hime was coming out and there was some confusion about sub groups since it was licensed two episodes in.  What I got paled in comparison to even the crappiest fansub.  Here's a bulleted list.
  • Video quality: I could only watch in 480p SD, vs. the 720p HD released by most sub groups these days.
  • Subtitle styling: The subs weren't really styled at all and looked extremely bland.  Most sub groups put at least some effort into making their subtitles look nice.
  • Hardsub vs. softsub: The subs were encoded directly into the video, perhaps better known as "hardsubs".  The vast majority of sub groups release softsubs, where the subtitles are encoded as their own stream alongside the video and audio, and can be turned off if you'd like to take a screenshot without them.
  • Honorifics: They were gone.  Most sub groups these days leave them in, as they tell you what kind of a relationship people have with each other.
  • Typesetting (signs, etc.): No typesetting for signs.  Even before the days of Advanced Sub Station Alpha subtitles, subbers have at least tried to indicate what signs, computer screens, etc. are saying.  This is because they're usually important.
  • Name order: The names are usually swapped in the subtitles.  Japanese name order is family name, then given name, whereas the American name order is the exact opposite.  When the subtitles say something that's clearly not what I just heard, it's wrong.
  • OP/ED karaoke: Some companies are getting better about this, but fansubs still do it better.  The most you can usually expect on an official release is english subs on odd-numbered episodes and romaji subs on even-numbered episodes.  A few companies who get it are beginning to put both on all episodes.
  • Chapter stops: not available in streaming, prevalent but not omnipresent in fansubs.  This subject seems like a non-issue, but it's very important for when you're marathonning an anime and want to skip the OP/ED/previews so you can get on with it.
  • Quality of translation: Fansubbers often have direct competition on a series, because there is no exclusivity in fansubbing.  Multiple groups can and will pick up the same series, so the translation quality issue usually determines which groups are more popular (speed plays a role too).  Official releases get exclusive distribution rights, which means they have no direct competition and thus no incentive to make their translations better.  I often hear things in the audio that never made it into the official subtitles that the sub groups did in fact pick up on.  And this is with a very small knowledge of Japanese.
  • Speed of releases: Fansubbers usually put the official releases to shame here.  Streaming was introduced to alleviate this, but then they have to deal with everything I mentioned above effectively giving them competition, where they get blown out of the water.  When the turnaround time from Japanese airing to American DVD/BD release goes down from the astronomical delay it currently is, maybe more people will get them.
  • Guarantee of release: Some really good shows never get licensed and thus never have an official US release.  With fansubs, you can usually count on someone releasing a series you're interested in.
  • The issue of blind buy vs. previewing: This is exactly what streaming anime is supposed to alleviate, but why bother when you can usually get a release that's better in overall quality from a fansub group that isn't in it just for the money since fansubbers don't make money off of their releases?
  • Version 2: when fansubbers mess up, they can re-release a single episode to fix the issue.  When official releases mess up, you're stuck with it due to production costs making a re-release not feasible.  With streaming, they can correct errors, but you don't get any indication they've done so.
  • Dependencies: When watching anime, your viewing experience is dependent on your computer's resource usage.  When watching with a dedicated program, you can generally be sure there aren't going to be any playback issues unless there's a problem with the file itself.  When streaming, the stability of your web browser and the massive resource usage and general instability of Flash gets thrown into the mix.
  • Availability: With streaming anime, they can make it disappear whenever they want, and if you want to watch it again, you're screwed.  With fansubs, once you have the file, it's not going to randomly, uncontrollably, and unpredictably disappear.  Plus, streams often have region restrictions, while fansubs don't.
  • The flipside: There are a few cases where streaming does win, but generally they're only in the area of overall convenience.  Since most decent torrent clients these days have RSS downloaders, it's less of an issue as you can just set it up to automatically get every new episode of whatever series you're watching.  Then you'll have the pleasant surprise of waking up to find that you're seeding something.
More may be added if anything else comes to mind, but that's pretty all-encompassing as-is.

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