Analysis – Anime: Physical Releases, Streaming, and Fansubs

Behind the sub vs. dub debate, arguments about whether the most hyped show of the season is any good, and squabbles about who is best girl (it’s Kaiki), is the discussion of physical releases, streaming, and fansub/download releases, and how they each have an impact on the anime industry.

I’ve broken things into three categories. The first is physical releases, which refers to official DVD or blu-ray discs. Second is legal streaming, which refers to streaming available on sites such as Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Daisuki. Last is fansubs/downloads, which refers mostly to the illegal digital download options, in particular those from various fansub groups.

A lot of what I’m mentioning here is non-exclusive. For example, if you buy a blu-ray disc and rip it to your computer, many things I mentioned in the “fansub/DL” category will apply, such as editable subtitles.

I’m not even going to bother talking about illegal streaming since the quality tends to be cancerous and there are easy alternatives available.

Physical Releases – The Good

Supporting the industry – Buying official releases is without a doubt the best way for the average fan to support the anime industry. Whether you buy a localized release or one directly from Japan, it will be the quickest way for your money to reach those responsible for making the anime.

Physical copies – If you’re anything like me, you prefer to have physical copies of all your media, whether games, movies, music, or books. Add in potential bonuses grouped with the releases, such as soundtracks, art books, posters, or what-not, and the physical copy is easily better than a digital one. And what better way to show off your power level than a sexy collection?

Video/audio quality – Official blu-ray (BD) releases will offer you the highest video quality available for anime, and plenty of BD releases also include lossless audio with a 5.1 surround sound mix. Visual and aural bliss ahoy!

Some things simply deserve BD quality.
Some things simply deserve BD quality.

Dual-audio – If you prefer to watch anime with a dub, physical copies are the easiest way to go, as you won’t suffer from many of the downfalls caused by poor subtitling… most of the time. There are relatively few localized releases that only have one language or the other (such as Persona 4 The Animation, as its BD release for the US is English dub only, while the DVD includes both languages), but prior research should help you avoid these issues.

Physical Releases – The Bad

Cost – Official releases can quickly become very expensive, especially if you are paying for an import or Aniplex release.

Licensing/Imports – Adding onto the cost, most anime won’t even be licensed and released physically, and if you live somewhere other than North America, the UK, or Australia, you might not even have access to a licensed copy (I’m guessing, but I’m not that familiar with the licensing situation outside of the US). For people who don’t speak English or Japanese, this immediately limits their options on how to watch anime.

Subtitling – Subtitling for physical releases and legal streaming are about the same, and fansubs tend to stand far above in quality. One of the biggest issues with official subs is that they use a yellow font a lot of the time. Why? In addition, subtitles on DVDs tend to look very pixelated, as if they took the text and stretched it four times larger rather than just using a larger text size.

DVD vs. BD – As a bit of a quality whore, I would never willingly buy a DVD copy of something that’s also available on BD. Of course, when a company such as Funimation chooses to release something on DVD only in 2014, I have an issue with that. Especially when it’s a series that would have been a day one buy for me otherwise (A Certain Scientific Railgun S/Toaru Kagaku no Railgun S) – for whatever reason, the first season was only released on DVD as well.

Legal Streaming – The Good

Immediate access – If you want to watch something quickly, streaming is the best option. Compared to waiting for a physical copy or even waiting for a download, a stream will start up pretty much immediately, and will continue uninterrupted if your internet connection allows it.

Inexpensive – A premium subscription to a site such as Crunchyroll will give you high definition videos and cost less than $10 USD a month. Alternatively, nearly everything is available for free a week after it aired, albeit in standard definition. Also, even Hulu and Netflix have a bit of anime available, so if you already had an account for either, you could take advantage.

Supporting the industry? – This one I’m not too sure about. If companies are licensing their anime to sites for streaming, they’re obviously getting something out of it, but it’s certainly not a substantial amount of money. I imagine that the primary advantage would be greater worldwide exposure for their shows and anime as a whole.

Legal Streaming – The Bad

Internet connection – While streaming can provide immediate access to a show, it requires a stable internet connection. Unlike downloading, it shouldn’t be a matter of waiting – people expect to start the video on Crunchyroll, Hulu, Funimation, etc and have it play from beginning to end with no hiccoughs. Unfortunately, this will not always be the case.

Video quality – Check out this screen comparison from Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. The default one is from a Crunchyroll stream in 1080p (it has the Aniplex logo in the bottom right corner). The second, which appears when you hover over the image, is from a 1080p blu-ray encoding released by Doki Fansubs, and it is very easy to see that the blu-ray encoding has a much clearer image.

Limited availability – There are several factors that limit exactly how convenient a streaming service can be. For one, different countries have access to different shows, and some countries may not even be included in streaming sites’ availability. Secondly, outside of something like Netflix, anime movies and series from more than a few years ago will not be available on streaming sites. And lastly, assuming that the show you’re looking for is actually available, it may not even have an HD option – one example is Bakemonogatari, which is available only up to 480p.

Advertisements – While ads provide revenue for many streaming services, the need for a premium account to avoid them is irksome for many. Of course, you could always get the AdBlock Plus extension for Chrome or Firefox, but even then ads on sites such as Hulu will not be blocked.

Fansubs/DL – The Good

Free -The obvious advantage is that you can download nearly anything you want for free, regardless of its legality.

Sub quality – In my experience, fansubs are not only more pleasing to the eye with font choice and color, but sometimes avoid excessive localization and provide a more natural reading experience. Obviously, tons of the sub groups out there put out garbage translations, but you at least have a lot of options in most cases.

Typesetting – Typesetting refers to text on screen outside of your normal subtitles, and is normally used for signs, phone displays, and whatever other Japanese text there may be. For the below example, in the ANE fansub group’s release of Bakemonogatari, the “typesetting” is the English text added into the video to translate the onscreen Japanese text. The second example, below it, is from Aniplex’s official release of the series in the US (I apologize that I had to take a picture of my TV, but I obviously can’t screencap with my blu-ray player). In a show such as this, proper typesetting is a necessity, and Aniplex’s half-assed attempt is not only representative of the standard, but it’s just plain ugly.

Bakemonogatari - ANE
ANE release
Official Aniplex release

Editable subs – Even if you have OCD, it’s pretty easy to edit subs for something on your computer, while it’s impossible to edit the subs on a DVD or BD. For example, if you prefer Japanese name order to be used, you could always switch it. Or you could be like me and change every instance of “Kyuubey” to “Hellspawn.” Even if you rip a BD to your computer to edit the subtitles in your ripped file(s), the subs on the disc itself cannot be changed.

Video/Audio quality – Basically, BD quality fansub/DL releases have the same advantages of actual blu-ray discs, although the audio is commonly limited to stereo.

Dual-audio – Just like physical releases, you can commonly download dual-audio versions of anime that have dubs, although they are far less common than Japanese-only.

Readily available – After downloading to your hard drive, you can watch downloaded anime whenever you want. You don’t need an internet connection, you don’t need some physical media, you just watch when you want. This also gives you the advantage of putting anime on whatever device is most convenient for you.

Fansubs/DL – The Bad

Blatantly illegal – Quite obviously, fansub/DL releases are illegal. If groups merely released subtitle tracks, that would be one thing, but that’s not the case. Whether raws from TV airings or official streaming, or DVD/BD rips, they are quite obviously infringing on copyright law. Of course, since most anime don’t receive localizations, the line can get a bit blurry.

Size on hard drive – If you choose to download all of your anime instead of streaming or buying physical copies, you may find that your hard drive will quickly fill up. To give you an idea, an episode from HorribleSubs, a group that directly rips video and subtitles from Crunchyroll, is normally about 300MB at 720p quality. If a single 12 episode series is going to take up at least 3GB of space (and not even at blu-ray quality), imagine how quickly someone’s hard drive can be filled to capacity if they archive everything they watch.

Internet load – If you aren’t downloading 1080p BD releases, streaming and downloading will put about the same load on your internet. However, if you have a bandwidth cap, downloading high quality anime can quickly become an issue.

When I asked someone how large his anime collection was, he sent me this screenshot.

Overall, I would say it is impossible to decide on a single method of watching anime to be best. While downloading allows the convenience of access at any time after downloading, it is illegal and nets no benefit for the producers. While streaming provides instant access, it is marred by a plethora of limitations and issues. And while physical copies are the most ideal, as they include a physical copy and allow you to rip to your computer to manage your videos just as if you had downloaded them, they can easily be very expensive.

I’m inevitably missing plenty of important details, but I think this is a good summary of all of the pros and cons. If necessary, I’ll update this with more information.

Is there anything in particular that causes you to choose one method over the others? Or do you mix and match to get the best of all situations? Or is there some point I didn’t mention about one of these that seems like a critical oversight?

The featured image and first screenshot in the post are both from Madoka Magica Rebellion.

5 thoughts on “Analysis – Anime: Physical Releases, Streaming, and Fansubs

  1. A very informative and excellently written piece. I tend to (cough, cough) watch anime online via “other means” and if I like the show I then buy the DVDs. I have a big anime collection so I’d like to think that I am supporting the industry, whilst at the same time trying to avoid blowing cash on clunkers.
    Most people watch shows on TV and then buy the DVDs, but that’s not an option for anime as it gets no TV coverage over here.
    I would love to legally pay to stream new shows, but aside from Daisuki all the major sites block their content to me due to my region. I want to give them my money, but they just won’t take it.

    1. I don’t have a very substantial collection, but I’m slowly working on changing that. It’s a bit depressing that many shows I’d be interested in buying BDs for are overpriced (courtesy of Aniplex’s ridiculous prices) or simply not released outside of Japan. Fortunately, since I live in the US, Crunchyroll is an easy option for watching nearly every airing show I’m interested in, and is far more convenient than downloading episode by episode.

  2. The situation is more interesting for the people outside the States. When I watch anime, I want English subs or dub, but there are no such releases here. I recently started purchasing local releases in Russian, but I do that only to support the industry, as I am not going to watch them. And importing stuff from Japan or US is a bit too much trouble for what its worth.

    I think for new TV series legal streaming is the way to go. With movies and OVAs, as well as older shows, I think you can still sell disks. Though that is not something most people are interested in.

    1. I imagined the situation would be something like that outside of English-speaking countries, but I wasn’t sure about how prevalent licensing was in other languages (for physical releases or otherwise).

      1. Well in the store where I’ve been last time they had lots of Miyazaki movies and a box set for Haruhi TV series. There probably were a few other items, but that was about it. And that was a pretty big store. To make a comparison, some random game store I stumbled upon in Germany had half a dozen shelves full of the stuff, not to mention abundance of manga.

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