At FUNimation's Saturday afternoon panel at Anime Expo, one huge question burned on the minds of the hundreds of anime fans in the room -- When is One Piece coming back?
One Piece, the adventure anime that has become a hot licensing property for Texas-based firm FUNimation, is one of the two series (the other being Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) at the center of a major debate that has taken over fan forums and Twitter conversations. Both shows bear large, rabid fanbases in the US who show their devotion through cosplay, fan art, fan fiction and even piracy. Right now, it's the latter development that has troubled both industry players and fans alike.
Since the VHS era, "fan subbing" (and it's manga cousin "scanlations") has been a crucial and controversial aspect of anime fandom. Hobbyists, oftentimes students practicing their language skills, would acquire the raw material from Japan, translate the dialog or text and distribute it through underground channels. Groups of fan subbers would essentially compete to see who could get the work done fastest and most accurately, viewers would grow excited with the prospect of getting the latest from Japan months, if not years, before the regular US population would. But while fan subbing can be credited with generating a buzz around certain titles, as it has with Black Butler recently, oftentimes the work is competing with legitimately licensed releases. Where once fan subbers had an understood code that their translations would cease once a title was in the hands of a US company, now many in the loosely structured, often anonymous distribution system hold to no rules.
FUNimation, whose best known titles include Dragon Ball Z and Afro Samurai, decided to try something new. Working with a team of translators and time coders, they were going to loosely simulcast episodes of One Piece and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood that were currently airing in Japan. Episodes of FMA: Brotherhood were set to stream on the company's website four days after premiering in Japan. With One Piece, the FUNimation broadcast would occur one hour after its original air time.
"Long story short, you have to adapt or die," said Lance Haskell, Senior Brand Manager for FUNimation, who spoke to LA Weekly at the convention. "That's what we're doing, adapting."
Fans were excited, planning viewing parties over Twitter and clamoring to the website in such great numbers that it became difficult for many to access the stream. Meanwhile, others had compromised FUNimation's video channel. Not long after the simulcasts began, the English subtitled versions of One Piece and FMA: Brotherhood were appearing on fan sub and torrent sites. Whether or not the parties involved were doing this to get the footage to people outside of the US and Canada, who could not view the stream, or just because it could be done is unclear. Regardless, FUNimation was forced to take down the video player for three weeks as its tech team increased security and made a few other non-related changes.
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At the same time, FUNimation has been trying to discourage piracy, not with threats against individuals or trite public service announcements, but by using the convention platform to explain to fans that animation in general is almost impossible to create without substantial financial backing.
"The more we protect, the more sales we have, the more art [can be created]," says Haskell.
The company's plan seems to be working, as fans across the internet have chimed in their dismay over the pirating situation. FUNimation's video channel is functioning once again and FMA: Brotherhood has resumed its broadcast, but the situation with One Piece remains unclear. At Saturday's panel, it was stressed that the anime company has not lost its license for the show and fully intends on bringing the new, sub-titled episodes back to the web. However, there is no official relaunch date at present. The news left the large crowd caught between relief and disappointment.
The kids just want their One Piece.