How VHS Tapes and Bootleg Translations Started an Anime Fan War in the 90s


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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.

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 Y ûgi—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 Y û gi, 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.)

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