How VHS Tapes and Bootleg Translations Started an Anime Fan War in the 90s
The little-known story of how a fight over Fushigi Yûgi subtitles built Ottawa’s anime community.
AAS members and cosplayers. Image: Katy Watts
In the nineties, before broadband modems became widely available—and before anime streaming services like Funimation and Crunchyroll—staying up-to-date on anime was an arduous process. North American fans who wanted more than televised runs of Sailor Moon had to buy expensive subtitled VHS tapes from fan groups, who translated anime tapes themselves and then redistributed them after importing them, untranslated, from contacts in Japan.
Buying anime this way meant sending money to people without distribution licenses, who were technically engaging in international copyright violation, and trusting them to send your tape in the mail. The Wild West mentality of the fansub industry led to members of the Ottawa-based Anime Appreciation Society (AAS) taking matters into their own hands after one of their favourite fansub groups, Tomodachi, refused to release its version of the final 20 episodes of the much-loved show Fushigi Yûgi—all because of its war with another fansub.
This bizarre episode, which the tight-knit Ottawa community still remembers, led to the AAS hosting one of the city's first anime conventions, and created a very active community which is consistently represented today in the region's pop culture industry.
"The process of fansubbing was so difficult back then," said Mark Legault, a web developer for a Toronto cybersecurity company, and founding member of the AAS. Fansub groups would need a device called a genlock, he explained, which would synchronize two different video signals, allowing the user to add subtitles, before recording it and sending it off to the clubs—a huge time investment.
The Fushigi Yûgi opening. Video: Alyssa marie Ranoco/YouTube
Binge-watching a show was pretty much impossible.
"You were spending twenty bucks for an illegally copied tape with only four episodes," he continued. "A lot of the time, these subtitles were not great. People took a lot of liberties."
In 1996, the AAS—which would host 20-30 person meetups in a community centre in suburban Ottawa—began watching Fushigi Yûgi, which ran from 1995 to 1996 in Japan. (For those who aren't familiar, the plot centres around two middle school students who find themselves transported to another world by a magical book when one of them finds out she's destined to gather seven celestial warriors.)
Being of the shōjo genre, aimed at a teenage female audience, it was considered unlikely to succeed in North America so it wasn't initially planned for release here. (The show's official release in 1999 is attributed, in part, to its popularity in the fansub community.)
According to Legault and an archive of fan letters, Tomodachi (a popular fansub group at the time) subtitles were the preferred way of watching Fushigi Yûgi because of the special care they took in their translations.
"You could tell that there were some groups who did it out of passion. There were others who just wanted to pump out episodes and make a little cash"
But in early 1997, a competing group, Central Anime, allegedly made copies of Tomodachi's subs and released them under their own name. This was seen as bad form and a sort of dishonour among thieves. Tomodachi retaliated by refusing to release the show's final 20 episodes, which they had already finished subtitling, to anyone. Even though Tomodachi subs were much preferred, the club would have done anything to finish the series.
"I think at the time it was just Tomodachi [who had the last episodes]. Otherwise we would've gone to someone else for the end of the series," said Legault.
Upset fans took to online message boards to vent their frustration. Central Anime responded to the allegations, attempting to justify their actions as a retaliation against the premium price being charged by Tomodachi, which was $19 USD per tape. I reached out to Todd 'Heibi' Perkins, the founder of Central Anime, for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
"You could tell that there were some groups who did it out of passion. There were others who just wanted to pump out episodes and make a little cash," recalled Katy Watts, former president of the AAS who, as a teenager, used to make copies of tapes for club meetings with the six VCRs she kept in her bedroom.
Watts said she found a California-based contact who could get the final 20 episodes of Fushigi Yûgi from Tomodachi, and put forward the idea of having a convention to show the remaining tapes. Tomodachi agreed to the showing of their subs, and granted the AAS limited distribution rights, according to Legault. The AAS couldn't send out copies, but anyone who came to the convention was 'allowed' to make one for themselves.
"When I was able to get the copies, I was very excited because the series was going to be appreciated," said Watts.
In mid-1997, around 100 members of Ottawa's anime community descended upon Tudor Hall, a conference space in Ottawa, for the Konan Koku convention, named after a country in Fushigi Yûgi. The convention started off as a way for the AAS to do something for people excited to finish the series, but it soon grew in complexity. Legault and Watts claim it was the first gathering of its kind in Ottawa, and offered fans a space to cosplay, watch anime, and set up dealers' tables to sell anime products alongside local comic book shops.
This convention was the city's first step towards building the anime community it has today. Taking place in the same year as Anime North's inaugural event in Toronto, what Konan Koku lacked in size, it made up for in passion among its attendees.
The Ottawa-Gatineau region now boasts its own bi-annual convention, G-Anime, the roots of which can be traced all the way back to the various anime clubs of the nineties. Anime fans of today have the scrappy warriors and fansubs of the nineties to thank.