The times, they are a-changin’. More and more, companies that produce content are finally accepting that their business model needs to embrace the immediacy of the Internet age. Content needs to be provided to those who want it, how they want it, when they want it. Companies who fail to wrap their heads around this risk facing a hostile customer base who will resort to their own methods to get that content.
Out of the dust of the rapidly declining anime DVD market comes an apparent savior for the anime industry. Crunchyroll offers up anime in pretty much exactly the way I would have described my dream scenario a year ago. You can pay a flat fee to access high quality streams of anything on the site. If you like something, you can then buy a permanent, DRM-free copy of your very own for $2. What’s not to love?
Well, as far as the service itself — nothing. That’s exactly what I wanted. My problem is that of all the possible entities that could have arisen to provide this service, it had to be Crunchyroll. To clarify why this bothers me, let me give some background.
Fansubbers have traditionally often left notices in their work to identify it as a fansub and discourage unscrupulous behavior. In the days of VHS fansubs, these would be on pre-roll splashes or overlaid on the commercial bumpers. When digisubs came about, primarily based on TV recordings, they’d often be put in the bit after the opening credits where the show’s sponsors are thanked. Typical content of these notices would warn people that fansubs should not be rented or sold for profit. Digisubs would warn you that if you paid anything at all for it, you were ripped off. When streaming video went big, fansubbers started using these messages to plead people not to upload them to streaming video sites like YouTube. Some didn’t want such a cruddy, low resolution version of their work out there. Many were concerned about it drawing too much visibility into what is really an illegal underground practice.
At one point, I started noticing some JDrama fansubs specifically mentioning Crunchyroll as a place they did not want their stuff uploaded. Since I wasn’t familiar with the name, I went to see what it was. What I saw at that point in time made my blood boil. Here was a site that had exclusively Asian content, mostly subbed by fansubbers, all nicely indexed for your perusal. And, of all the sheer dickhead moves, they charged for a subscription. I couldn’t believe it. These people had the chrome plated balls to actually try and found a business on the backs of fansubs. There was a word for that in the VHS days — bootleggers. Nowadays, we usually them pirates. Well, not a big deal I thought. Surely anybody gaining this much attention while daring to charge for copyright infringing content will soon be sued out of existence.
Flash forward a bit and… what the hell? Some venture capital firm actually dumped four million US dollars into Crunchyroll? Are they insane? If the site didn’t have a big “SUE ME” sign on it yet, it must now. Right?
Turns out Crunchyroll had one more card to play. They were actually forming legitimate distribution deals, starting with content from Gonzo. In doing so, they began to build momentum to become a truly legit business. This feat, attempted and failed by many P2P services in the past, actually was working for them. More and more content providers jumped on board, and now Crunchyroll has an impressive selection of titles new and old.
Now that we’ve gone through that, let’s back this thing up and look at what happened here. In its original form, Crunchyroll was all about hosting illegal content. Crunchyroll’s apologists supporters will tell you that Crunchyroll did honor DMCA notices from rights holders, and would even honor a fansubber’s request to take something down. Also, once a request was made to take something down, they made sure it stayed down. That is all true, and nobody is denying that. The problem is that content would only be pulled down if somebody specifically asked for it. Crunchyroll remained as a hub for all the illegal content that wasn’t specifically requested to be removed. With that content they were able to build a brand, and an audience. This is a classic Web 2.0 model. Once they had a certain critical mass, they were able to use that momentum to obtain their VC funding, and open the door for their distribution deals.
They used the brand and audience built on illegal content to obtain four million dollars in VC funding and establish relationships with the very companies they’d been ripping off.
Are you fucking kidding me? How can this be? When they begin negotiations with a rights holder, do they open up with “Hey, we have an audience of X million uniques a month that we gained by stealing your shit. Want to sign a deal with us?” Are these companies so out of touch that they don’t see this? Aren’t they researching Crunchyroll before entering into deals with them? I honestly cannot fathom how Crunchyroll is rewarded for being a den of piracy. They get funding and cozy deals from the content industry, while the Pirate Bay guys get hauled into court and fined for more than they’ll make in their lifetimes? And this all because Crunchyroll, in their vast sense of honor, obeyed DMCA takedowns instead of flaunting them?
Somebody please explain to me how the hell that works.
The worst part of this is, I probably will wind up using Crunchyroll, despite my protests. The new Fall season is showing definite signs of fansubs beginning to fall away in the face of this new model. Getting good quality fansubs of shows that are on Crunchyroll is getting harder and harder as well-meaning fansubbers step aside for the “legitimate” solution. In addition, we have self righteous cocksuckers like Mark Ishikawa and his BayTSP out there actively going after the users of popular BitTorrent trackers, so I may have no choice but to use Crunchyroll in an effort to keep my nose clean.
I love anime and JDrama, and I’m more than happy to pay for content. I spend more on content every month than anybody else I know. I have a large collection of DVDs, most of which was built based on watching fansubs then later buying the DVDs. A large portion of those DVDs have never even been watched, they were bought just to do my part to support the creators. I am not some punk kid who thinks he should get everything for free. However, whenever I reach a point where I’m about to throw down my credit card for Crunchyroll, my teeth grind as I recall what I felt the first time I saw them. I just really have a problem giving my money over to “reformed” pirates.
October 3, 2009
This summer season has been fairly busy for me. I’ve had a lot of things taking up my time. As a result, my viewing of new Japanese TV goodies was pretty light. One show I did make time for, however, was “Buzzer Beat”.
Initially, I wasn’t sure I was going to watch it. When I pulled up its info on the D-Addicts Wiki, what leapt out at me is that this was a show about a basketball team with neon pink uniforms. Since I have little interest in basketball, especially in such an obnoxious color scheme, I thought I might take a pass on it. On closer inspection though, there were three reasons why I decided I had to see this show, which I will now enumerate:
1. Yamashita Tomohisa
2. Kitagawa Keiko
3. Aibu Saki
Yamashita Tomohisa was one of the first actors I noticed when I began watching JDramas. While he’s unlikely to show up on any lists of the greatest 21st century actors, he has a sort of subtle goofiness about him that makes his characters very entertaining. In 2007’s “Proposal Daisakusen”, he played a character who was completely clueless in how to deal with women. His performance must have been good, as I was simultaneously rooting for him, and falling off the sofa yelling at him for being such a blockhead. He brings a similar sort of aloof cluelessness to “Buzzer Beat” in its lead character Kamiya Naoki.
Kitagawa Keiko dates back with me even farther than Yamashita. Kitagawa had a main role in the very first live action Japanese TV series I ever watched: Pretty Guardian Sailormoon. “PGSM” as it’s commonly called was a 2003 adaptation of the 90’s manga and anime classic “Bishoujo Senshi Sailormoon”, successfully blending elements of the manga, the anime and original material into a pretty compelling story. Unfortunately, it was plagued by some middling to bad acting on the part of the central five actresses — with one exception. Kitagawa Keiko turned in a surprisingly competent performance as Sailor Mars, despite just having been plucked from the ranks of gravure idols (as were the other four). In a surprisingly wise move among idols, Keiko decided to attend college after the completion of the series rather than immediately pursue a celebrity career. Recently, she has returned to acting, doing a few movies before returning to TV with “Mop Girl” for which she won an award. In “Buzzer Beat”, she plays Shirakawa Riko.
Aibu Saki I first encountered in 2006’s “Attention Please” where she played a supporting role as the main character’s friend. Since then, I’ve seen her move up into larger roles and recently landing some leads in shows like “Zettai Kareshi” and “Utahime”. Saki typically plays very pure and innocent characters. However, in “Buzzer Beat”, her role as Nanami Natsuki allows her to play a woman who, while outwardly poised and well liked, secretly is spiteful and even vicious toward those she believes have wronged her. Saki handles the duality well, successfully acting like a good, upstanding person while simultaneously using subtle facial expressions to indicate her character’s true nature to the audience.
The story primarily follows Kamiya Naoki (Yamashita), a player for a Japanese pro basketball team called the JC ARCS. As the series begins, Naoki loses his cell phone on the bus, which is found by a young violinist named Shirakawa Riko (Kitagawa). The ARCS’ head coach, Kawasaki Tomoya (Ito Hideaki) comes to retrieve the phone, and also winds up arranging for a date with Riko. Naoki, meanwhile, asks his girlfriend and the ARCS’ head cheerleader Natsuki (Aibu) to marry him if they win the championship. However, the ARCS are quickly eliminated from the playoffs, where Naoki made a less than stellar performance.
As the off-season begins, Naoki is fully depressed. He heads to a local park to practice, where he finds a girl practicing her violin on the court. As it turns out, this is Riko, whose apartment neighbors the park. Riko is unaware that Naoki is the owner of the cell phone she had found earlier, but they have a pleasant conversation and begin a sort of friendship. Later, when Kawasaki brings Riko to one of the ARCS’ practices, she notices Naoki’s poor performance on the court. Without thinking, she disrupts the practice by yelling out to him, calling him an idiot. The unusual encouragement from Riko seems to rejuvenate Naoki, and he starts to play better. As they continue to encounter each other in the park, Naoki and Riko promise to chase their respective dreams of winning the championship and becoming a professional violinist.
Meanwhile, one of the ARCS’ new players, Yoyogi Ren (Kaneko Nobuaki), has his eye on Natsuki. He begins to appeal to a “bad” side he says he can see in her, and soon they begin an affair. After Naoki discovers them in the locker room, he breaks things off with Natsuki. Natsuki begins to show more and more of her vindictive side as she continues and on again/off again relationship with Yoyogi while also going out of her way to make Naoki more miserable. As Naoki and Riko begin to grow closer, things become more complicated when Natsuki begins to notice their relationship, as does Kawasaki who was quite in love with Riko despite her never feeling much spark for him.
“Buzzer Beat”, thankfully, manages to build its drama on character development with basketball merely as a background. This is good for me because the basketball is the least interesting aspect. What basketball scenes that do show up are well executed and exciting. However, the bulk of the story regards the evolution of the characters’ various relationships, the obstacles in the way of their various romances, and the sacrifices they have to make in order to chase their dreams. This is supported well by strong performances from the cast all around. I can’t really find fault with any of the actors. Some of the plot devices used were a little forced, but I can forgive that, as this is primarily a character driven story.
One thing I found interesting is that the show presents pro basketball in Japan as a very nascent industry, with pretty low attendance. They don’t even get their games broadcast on TV. Finding this odd, I checked, and indeed pro basketball in Japan is a relatively new thing. The unfortunately named BJ-League was formed only in 2005, currently featuring 13 teams, with 3 more to be added next year, and planned expansion to 24 by 2014. None of the teams are named the JC ARCS, however, and the real teams do get their games broadcast, albeit on satellite stations.
“Buzzer Beat” is overall a very good example of JDrama. It features a number of currently significant actors, and serves well to introduce someone to the overall structure and tone of its genre. Specifically, it’s a “renai renzoku” or “romance serial”, a very common format. Don’t let the word romance scare you off though, these shows feature typically strong writing, multiple types of plotlines and a good sense of humor that differentiate “renai renzoku” from the interminable soap operas your mother has been watching for 30 years. Also, Japanese prime time dramas (with a few exceptions) only last for one 13-week TV season, with the final episode count typically around 10-12. That makes the barrier for entry very low, since you never have to jump in halfway through a very long series. If you’re curious about modern JDrama, “Buzzer Beat” would not be a bad place to start.