How do you watch anime? In 2019, you most likely watch it through a streaming site, legal or otherwise. Some of you may still torrent your anime, and I have no doubt that there are still some die-hards pirating their shows on IRC. But streaming is definitely king.
When I started as an anime fan in the mid-1990s, digital piracy was in its infancy, and most anime was still coming out on VHS. I was fortunate to live in an area with a huge concentration of Asian Americans, so my local library had some anime. I watched Akira this way and wasn’t able to make much sense of it; also snagged an assortment of Tenchi Muyo and Bubblegum Crisis. I even rented tapes at my local video rental shop; I vaguely recall seeing a random two episodes of All-Purpose Catgirl Nuku Nuku by way of rental. And you had little to no control over whether you got a dubbed or subbed tape, whatever the shop/library/etc had is what you got. Even pirating anime meant sending someone a blank VHS tape (or money, and no, we didn’t have PayPal yet so you sent a check!) and hoping they’d mail you back a copy of a copy of a copy of the last few episodes of Sailor Moon or whatnot. College kids with access to video subtitling equipment and classmates who spoke Japanese were the kings and queens of this era, followed by anyone who managed to amass a tape collection.
But digital piracy was starting to pick up. The first anime I can remember watching digitally was Magic Knight Rayearth, in the long-since-deprecated “RealVideo” format. I think episodes were about 50-100mb, which took forever to download on a 28.8k or even 56.6k modem, and they were a resolution so tiny it was hard to read the subtitles…but they existed! You downloaded them via file servers on IRC, which is basically like today’s Slack/Discord, but less user-friendly. Fansubbers started to collect on IRC and output episodes via Direct Client Connection (DCC)— you were taking the file right off their computer. If you wanted the new episode of a show, you haunted that channel like a ghost until it came out, and then got in line behind everyone else; because DCC sucked the server’s bandwidth right up there were limitations on how many downloads they would offer at a time, as well as how many an individual could have going at once. Between waiting and download speeds, grabbing a popular episode (or a show off a popular file server) was easily an all-night affair.
Later in ’99, Napster launched, and with it came P2P, and it wasn’t long before BitTorrent was the way to get your anime. It was faster, didn’t rely solely on one person (and one server/Internet connection), and you could spread episodes widely…but in 2005, YouTube launched, so by 2009 streaming was gaining ground on Torrent, especially once Crunchyroll cracked the nugget of legal simulcasts. Their first was Tower of Druaga, but the more important get was Naruto Shippuden, whose legal availability on an easy streaming platform was nothing short of a miracle to us oldies. Everyone was getting in on the streaming game as quickly as they could, even though all those views weren’t necessarily translating into real-world dollars…
And here we are in 2019: streaming is all-encompassing. In my house, nearly all of our video content comes to us from streams. I barely even have a physical anime collection anymore, just a few particularly meaningful titles and box sets I worked on and that sort of thing. Even gaming is moving towards streaming! Truly we live in an age of wonders…
And streaming has brought anime to the attention of big companies in an entirely different way than before. Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are all in the anime game now (to varying degrees) and the money they have to spend to compete for streaming audiences and their subscription dollars can eclipse anime companies like VIZ, FUNimation, and maybe even Crunchyroll at times…though there’s a trade-off; once you get outside your big “mass” titles, you need an anime audience to sell home video to, and if they haven’t watched your show because they don’t subscribe to Hulu, that extra up-front money may start to feel like a ripoff when no one licenses home video rights. But that’s a piece for another day.
Check out part 1: Quantity & Quality and stay tuned for part 3: Fandom!