The Invisible Labor Economy Behind Pirated Japanese Comics
Between publishers and manga pirates, who stands on higher ground?
EvilGenius's scanlation of Berserk, which Mune personally translated from Japanese into English. Image courtesy Mune.
Against the backdrop of shrieking demons rallying for battle against human forces, Mune entered text into the comic's empty speech bubbles. "Originally they were but men," he wrote. "By virtue of uncommon tenacity were they reborn through causality."
No one turns piracy into poetry quite like Mune. Eight years of rendering the blockbuster manga Berserk's Japanese dialogue into English has lent Mune respect in the underground digital landscape of otaku, the Japanese term for a manga and anime fanatic. His prose, admirers say, is vivid yet linguistically accurate. He can translate florid, archaic kanji into lyrical English dialogue. The digital Berserk pages bearing his words are clean with deep, black lines.
Mune, 26, is a scanlator, an underground manga-lover who scans, translates, edits, and disseminates Japanese comics to overseas audiences, unofficially and without publishers' consent. His brand of piracy is more time-consuming than most; immediately after a Berserk chapter's release, he and his team of five scanlators begin to slave hours away over Photoshop with a Japanese dictionary. Scanlating one manga chapter can take them over 30 hours. In the past, Mune, who heads up the EvilGenius scanlation group, has stayed up for the duration of a project. He has never been paid for this work. Also, it's illegal.
Since the mid-90s, when manga was just entering Westerners' consciousness, factions of scanlators have been illicitly editing and circulating Japanese manga abroad. Manga's epic storylines, ranging from cavity-sweet to torture porn, appealed to freaks, art geeks, and literature lovers alike. Tight-knit fan communities formed around manga, an exotic cultural pocket whose occasional godless gore and panty shots would make any suburban mom queasy. But since few series were released in English, Americans had no pipeline to the goods.
The painstaking art of scanlation rose out of the desire for American fans to read Japanese manga without waiting—possibly forever—for publishers to release official translations of their favorite comics.
Now, since more manga series are being released to US audiences, scanlators produce their bootleg translations in part to compensate for what are, in their belief, the flawed translations publishing companies produce. Scanlators, out of their die-hard love for manga, hold tight to the belief that scanlation can be good for the manga economy—how else will grass-fed Americans discover affinities for manga artifacts like tentacle monsters and cherry-blossomed love stories? Scanlations, scanlators like Mune argue, grow the fan base, which eventually inspire fans to buy the licensed books and merchandise.
Publishers and creators, on the other hand, argue that scanlation has no redeeming qualities, that scanlations undercut the quality and even the viability of these comics.
Between publishers and manga pirates, who stands on higher ground?*****
Over the last decade, the relationship between manga publishers and scanlators has grown increasingly tense. In 2010, the manga artist Rei Hiroe, best known for his series Black Lagoon, told his Twitter followers that he wanted the otaku who pirated his manga to "contract pancreatic cancer" after he discovered that someone "smugly" posted his art online in a ZIP file. In reply, the creator of the famous Hellsing manga, Kouta Hirano, added that he hoped the pirates would catch a disease so unheard of and incurable that doctors would "shit themselves laughing" about the poor sod's death.
The MAG (Manga-Anime Guardians) project of Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry reported that over 50 percent of manga and anime fans in America are consuming pirated material. The estimated cost of damage from online piracy, they said, is approximately $20 billion dollars. MAG did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Creators and artists in Japan are crippled as scanlation sways consumers away from official merchandise. The time-consuming and meticulous process of creating manga is not compensated by millions of fans who can effortlessly access the material online. The worst-case scenario is that this monetary deficit causes a series to be cancelled, and its creator left penniless. Nobody wins.
But then there's "Gum," a scanlation historian of sorts, who believes that scanlation helped spread awareness of manga to the English-speaking world. In 2009, he meticulously documented the fraught history of scanlation on his site InsideScanlation.com.
According to his account, one of the first major scanlation projects took place in 1996, three years after Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½ (published by Viz, owned by Shueisha) was released in English at what fans perceived as a frustratingly leisurely pace. To appease English-speaking otaku, a man named Jason Satoru Doyama pioneered a translation project called "The Ranma ½ Project." Soon, more projects appeared to address fans' demand for manga that was either slowly translated or, some thought, never to be translated.
Primitive sites like GeoCities and AngelFire hosted Americanized versions of the first widely-translated manga, the classics Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Love Hina. Fans would edit the original comics using Microsoft Paint and release their scanlations over IRCs like #MangaScans. But the quality of the scans and translations, so coveted and beloved by otaku around the world, was extremely poor. Fine lines depicting throbbing muscles would blur into each other. A lover's first kiss would be offset by gaping blank space once populated with Japanese text.
"I want to maintain a level of quality, especially since I'm working on something I'm personally a fan of."
Enter Mune, who began spearheading Berserk's scanlation because he loathed the poor quality of both scanlation and official translation efforts. It was, in his opinion, a disservice to the original work. A card-carrying otaku, Mune now champions some of the highest "industry standards" in the underground manga translation world.
"We want to do justice to the source material," he told me. "I want to maintain a level of quality, especially since I'm working on something I'm personally a fan of."
During high school in his native Sweden, Mune started taking Japanese classes after discovering an affinity for Japanese video games. He soon reached a passable level of proficiency and picked up a Japanese copy of Naruto, a long-running manga about a young, blonde ninja.
"Wow," he thought, skimming through its script, "this is really easy."
In 2004, Mune found online his first "raw copy"—scanlator speak for untranslated digital manga pages—and convened with other students in his Japanese class over MSN chat. His friends opened up the pages in Photoshop, fiddled with the black levels, "cleaned" the manga (the low-quality paper is "basically toilet paper that's been recycled 15 times," he said) and deleted the Japanese text.
Meanwhile, Mune deciphered the Japanese and rendered it into intelligible English. He then relayed his translations over MSN messenger. His friends typed them into the empty speech bubbles on the digital pages. They posted it on NarutoFan.com's forums, and celebrated a job well done.
Eight years after Mune took ownership of Berserk's scanlation, he's become widely respected for his better-than-official scanlations. The mark of EvilGenius's mastery, a fan told me, is the group's "redrawing" efforts: Because Japanese reads right-to-left and top-to-bottom, scanlators adjust speech bubbles to accommodate English prose, which reads basically the opposite way. But reformatting speech bubbles leaves blank space on the page. So Mune's team of five hardcore Berserk scanlators "redraw" the comics, completing severed arms and background scenery in the style of the original manga artist (they even fill in blank space where a scanned comic's binding would be), like so:
Despite Mune's and other scanlators' drive to sacrifice hours in the name of perfection, the publishing community argues that scanlation creates an environment where the material is perceived to have no value. Scanlation, in their opinion, sets a low bar for the quality of comics. Scanners can be decades-old. Deep, black lines often evaporate into gray. Worse, publishers argue, the translations are pitifully novice.
Kurt Hassler, the editorial director of the American manga publishing company Yen Press, has been battling scanlators for 15 years. (In a past life, Hassler was the manga buyer at the now-defunct Borders Books.) In addition to encouraging low-quality content, he told told me, scanlators "co-opt [the] creators' intentions for the quality and production of their material."
Until a few years ago, scanlations couldn't hold a candle to the quality of print comics. Some scanlation text today is still absolute drivel, overborne by low-resolution images. But every scanlator interviewed for this story attested that they continue scanlating partly because they don't appreciate the low-quality or interpretative efforts of publishers' official translations. They complain that official translations will often Americanize artifacts of Japanese culture to make their product palatable. "Ramen" morphs into "spaghetti" while American publishers will localize Japanese names to bland "Dereks" and "Serenas." Other times, flagrant sexuality or illicit drug use are censored entirely. Mune complained that publishers' redrawing efforts are sloppy.
In 2007, Jessica Wolf, the operator of scanlation site Freelance-Manga, wrote to Viz, the publisher behind sword-and-sorcery "feudal fairy tale" Inuyasha, demanding that they "stop treating the series like crap." She detailed her disappointment with Viz's official translations in two e-mails compiled after she polled Inuyasha fans.
"A vast majority of individuals cited the practice of flipping pages to read left to right as the biggest turn-off to Viz manga . . . [it] changes the original art and does a disservice to both Rumiko Takahashis work and the fans," Wolf wrote. "Many people would like to see the use of more traditional Japanese speech instituted in the Inuyasha manga." She also called out Viz's decision to leave out Japanese honorifics, which, in her opinion, compromised the manga's integrity. She closed her e-mail with a list of over 22 instances of translation errors compiled by members of the Inuyasha fan community.
In an emailed response, Viz's Ian Robertson, the former supervising editor for Inuyasha, reportedly told Wolf that he "talked to the editor of the Inuyasha profiles book and we will be correcting the errors you mentioned for our second printing. I will be doing the same for the manga." A Viz representative told me that they are always looking to improve their manga franchises, but did not disclose how often they do so at the behest of pirates.*****
Viz's interaction with Freelance-Manga is out of the ordinary, considering that publishers usually communicate with scanlation site webmasters through cease-and-desist notices. Antagonism, rather than cooperation, mars the relationship between scanlators and publishers.
Hassler pinpointed 2006 as the turning point in publishers' relationship with scanlators. Prior to that, he said, scanlators were mostly harmless groups of nerds sharing their favorite titles with fellow otaku. But when scanlation aggregators like MangaHelpers.com cropped up in the mid-2000s, "scanlations started having a direct and significant impact on the manga publishing industry as a whole."
Around 2007, when scanlation aggregators skyrocketed in popularity, over-the-table manga had reached its peak market value in America at about $200 million a year. Gum estimates that there was a 100 percent increase in scanlation efforts after this point, with 50 manga releases a day swelling to 100. Manga's market value then declined until 2013, when it's believed the manga Attack on Titan, with its 15 tedious volumes of naked giants snacking on humans, raised it.
"It really isn't a coincidence that manga sales in the US plummeted after aggregator sites started popping up and garnering so much traffic," Hassler said. "Prior to that, manga sales had been on a steep incline, frankly unlike anything that was going on in publishing at the time."
"But then you had a whole new wave of readers whose first introduction was through scanlation, and the industry suffered appreciably," he continued. "You saw any number of manga publishers in the US folding, and Japanese publishers found their international licensing revenue severely impacted. It has taken years for the industry to start to rebound, but even now, it remains a fraction of what it was prior to the establishment of the aggregator sites."
(Publishing industry analyst and ICv2 CEO Milton Griep estimated that the quantity of manga volumes published in North America plummeted from 1,500 in 2007 to 695 in 2011. While it's difficult to prove definitively that the upsurge in aggregators directly caused the collapse of American manga, one of the 1,000 most accessed sites in the late 2000s was, in fact, the scanlation aggregator Onemanga.com.)
MangaHelpers.com, formerly one of the largest scanlation aggregators, had since 2005 unlawfully facilitated the scanning, translation and dissemination of those pages for English audiences. They were a sort of all-in-one resource for both scanlators and readers. Their forums were full of raws ready to be edited and translated by scanlation groups that met and coordinated over their interface. After the scanlations were complete, MangaHelpers.com hosted them on the site's reader.
"NJT," the 31-year-old founder of MangaHelpers.com, birthed the aggregator to make scanlations accessible to people who weren't about to go on a backwoods IRC to get their manga fix.
"It's all about a battle over who provides the better service," NJT told me. "Who can provide the fastest, highest quality service? It's a matter of making content as pleasing to the user as possible."
NJT's effort to spread a love for manga was thwarted in 2009 with a cease-and-desist letter from Kondasha Comics. MangaHelpers, which facilitates translations to this day, subsequently took down its content. A year later, panicked over a newly-formed coalition of 36 angry manga publishers, MangaHelpers announced that it would no longer host pirated scans of manga pages. Today, they're still the major resource for the translated text populating speech bubbles in other sites' scanlations.
A decade of facilitating underground scanlation efforts has changed NJT's approach to piracy. He said he wants to go white—that is, scanlate manga in the light of day. NJT now aspires to broker quality manga translation under the auspices of publishing companies. MangaHelpers, he believes, has the potential to act as a sort of otaku Napster, innovating the publishing scene by making content as accessible and fan-centered as possible. In a few years, he had hoped, it would develop into an otaku Spotify.
"Getting the blessing from the publishers to do what we enjoy while it also benefits them would certainly be one step closer to bridging the gap between fans and publishers," NJT told Gum in an interview, "ultimately creating more opportunities and better relationships and thus making everyone happy. The future of MH is trying to make it one where scanlations aren't frowned upon, and where the publishers can openly work with fans to make a better (manga)reading experience for everyone."
"We've been pirating your material to a lot of people… How's it going?"
One fall morning in Tokyo, NJT came out from behind his keyboard in an effort to realize MangaHelpers' potential as an otaku Napster. His goal? Bridge the gap between publisher and pirate.
Donning a suit and carrying a briefcase, NJT nervously exited Tokyo's Jimbocho subway station and entered the eight-story building housing the offices of Shueisha, the publishing company that reportedly owns 30 percent of Japan's manga market. The pages of staples like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece had been assembled in their offices. (According to NJT, MangaHelpers welcomed 6.5 million visitors a month in 2010; that same year, Shueisha reported its first annual loss: around $49 million dollars.) NJT and a colleague at MangaHelpers had memorized a point-by-point presentation that he hoped would convince Shueisha to partner with their unlawful enterprise. It would be a tense meeting.
"We already put our heads into a guillotine," NJT recalled. "That's how strongly we felt about this."
Over a dozen Shueisha employees assembled to hear out NJT, whose ambitious presentation proposed a combined effort to indirectly address the grievances—timing lags and errors in official publishing—that fuel scanlators' craft. His aim was to abolish the need for his illegal digital manga economy. In this new arrangement, scanlators would be contractors and the site would block scanlations of manga that had been translated "officially." MangaHelpers would herald the decline of Japanese comic piracy.
"Here we are, a couple of pirates, going to the Shueisha office to say, 'We've been pirating your material to a lot of people… How's it going?'" NJT joked uncomfortably.
In the end, Shueisha turned him down. The publisher didn't want to work with a "black" business, citing MangaHelpers' long history as pirates. Today, MangaHelpers still thrives underground, subsisting off a digital labor economy of gleefully unpaid fans. NJT is now pessimistic about joint ventures.
But Mune and other scanlators insist that scanlation is still growing the manga fan base, paving the way for otaku to spend more money on publishers' franchises. Mune said he's discovered a trove of manga from scanlation sites. His Berserk fandom moved him to purchase the volumes—what scanlators say is a win-win for publishers and pirates.
Today, the official English translations of Berserk rest on Mune's shelf, still lovingly untouched in shrink wrap. When I asked how his translation matches up, he paused and replied, "I haven't actually checked."