Viki a Small Wonder

When anime companies finally started embracing streaming their shows on-line there is a definite transition period as they tried to figure out what worked. They knew they had to move toward digital distribution but how they would do that was anyone’s guess.  Would people pay per episode? Would they buy season passes? Would people watch commercials? How much would they pay for digital downloads? Which titles were worth streaming? What titles would still sell on physical media after being streamed? While most streaming sites focused on licensing the latest and greatest shows a few companies like Toei tried putting out older shows like Captain Harlock and Fist of the North Star on various streaming sites. While these titles hardly set the world on fire in term of streaming they were all picked up by Discotek proving there is an audience for older titles. You just have to handle your classic titles correctly. And you must have realistic expectations.

And now it seems that Viki.com has caught on to that principle as well. There is a market for streaming older titles. You just have to be clever with how you put them out and know your limits. If you expect them to get the number of hits that a Naruto or even a Kuroko’s Basketball will pull you are sadly mistaken. But if you keep your overhead low and your licenses smart there is potential for a business model.

The Viki model is two-fold. The first part is to mostly get older shows with some prestige titles like some of  more under the radar Tezuka anime and a few other rather obscure titles that you are certainly not going to get into a bidding war over. The second part is have all the subtitling done by crowdsourcing. That means that all the subs you see are done by fans. For better or for worse.

It is certainly an interesting model. There are some distinct problems that can crop up with such as system as well as some unique opportunities that a conventional system like Crunchyroll would not be able to take advantage of. The question is how does this system turn out in the end. How much does Viki capitalize on its strengths and how much does it show its weaknesses?

Viki is a site that popped up on my radar unexpectedly but I haven’t heard a lot of talk about it since then. Their model is different than other streaming sites as it looks to the fans to contribute their time and knowledge to getting a translation available for all to enjoy. But Viki goes through the process of licensing the title from Japan for streaming legally.

The site boasts a collection of mostly older, older anime titles which as far as I’m concerned is its claim to fame. These are the titles I want to see streaming because it is doubtful an actual release would work for it and that’s okay. We get so little anime from eras past that any way seems better than none at all. And Viki’s site, while not perfect, is far from the worst way to see these shows.

As I mentioned before the majority of the titles are old Tezuka titles but there are some more modern Tezuka titles as well. There are some titles that most anime fans would be familiar with like Black Jack and Kimba but then you have some shows that would only be familiar to hardcore scholars like Don Dracula and Prime Rose. They also have a few short films of Tezuka to round out their collection. While that is a majority of their  selection there are a few other shows like Penguin Musume Heart and Koutetsu Sangokushi which I had never even heard of. It is most certainly a collection of titles you will not see anywhere else. As such I sampled some titles.

I must say that Marvelous Melmo was probably the strangest piece of Tezuka anime I have seen outside of any of his hentai. It is worth watching one episode just to see how peculiar the show is especially when it is coming from the God of Manga. It has lots of awkward fan service due to the fact that Melmo can constantly change her age. That means lots of panty shots and even a fairly revealing bath scene. But the part when Melmo’s young brother reverts back to a zygote is trippy as all get out.

In contrast Tezuka’s anime shorts are almost all not in his classic Tezuka art style but feel much more like conventional short animation from the West. All the sort tend to play with animation but in ways that seem much more like Western style short animation experiments.They are Tezuka and his animators working outside the bounds of his normal storytelling and more playing with what they can do solely with the medium of animation. And they are all about 5 minutes long so they never wear out their welcome. Even the untranslated Push is simple enough to be watched without translation but can still appreciated for its artistry.

The real coup is the fact that Oniisama e… aka Dear Brother is a part of the lineup. While the ideal choice for a show by Riyoko Ikeda would have been The Rose of Versailles this is still a classic of shojo. It is pretty much what I had wanted Maria-sama ga Miteru. Both series have the social machinations of young maidens in an exclusive all girls school but one is interesting and other is not. Maria-sama ga Miteru subtle social tête-à-tête game of manners on Valium slathered with lesbian subtext.  Dear Brother has all that with shojo slapping cat fights, drug use, dark secrets, and calling people’s family porn-mongers. This is know things that are actually entertaining.

It is worth nothing that some of the women in this series look remarkably like beautiful men would in 70’s shojo. The only reason I knew Rei Asaka was a woman was because the eventually opened her mouth. Pretty much the opposite instance of the classic misunderstanding about gender in shojo.

Finding the site and finding shows is a rather trial and error a lot of the time.

First, knowing the site exists is nearly impossible. No one is going to be searching Google for “viki,” but nothing else seems to get results either, not “streaming anime” nor “streaming korean drama/k-drama” (which the site has the most of). Of course plenty of legal and illegal options do show up in these searches. On a positive note, both Crunchyroll and Funimation show up in the top 10 results for “streaming anime.”

The best way I found to search for Viki was to look up a specific show and add “watch” to whatever the title was. Honestly, how many people are searching for somewhere to watch Ambassador Magma though? And it doesn’t work for shows with more normal sounding titles like Black Jack. Still if you are looking to watch a series, it might just pop up.

On the site itself, browsing anime is fairly easy with quick drop downs to shows from Japan. But if you want to search more specifically, it is a bit inconsistent. If you use the “Most Popular” tab you get a decent amount of options from genre and its popularity ranking. Using the “New Shows” tab results in no such options. Series aren’t tagged with dates or length either nor does anything indicate if a series has been completed on the site. An advanced search option is definitely needed as is more thorough tagging. I’m a bit surprised with all the contributions allowed that adding tags isn’t part of that.

The site asks you in your account settings if you want to block explicit content but it isn’t clear whether it is referring to videos or contributors comments (both? something else?). And there was no search for 18+ material, nor any warnings for any when I had the option turned on or off. Penguin Musume Heart is risque but yielded no warning despite me not entering a date of birth on the profile page.

The main problem with Viki is that there is absolutely no quality control. It is a real crap shoot on what you get. Sometimes the translations are from a script from an already existing fansub so it is mostly just a matter of someone taking what exists and throwing it on the legally licensed video. Other times the translation is thankfully better than a Hong Kong bootleg but clearly still very clunky. Sometimes it feels like someone speed subbed the show as they watched it but other times it is clear that a team translated, timed, and edited the subs. While the better known the show is the more likely it is to have more professional subs it is never guaranteed. Somethings are not even subbed at all.

Also a lot of the subs really need someone to go through and edit them for typos and grammatical errors. I am hardly the living avatar of the the Associated Press Stylebook so if I am noticing these typos and grammatical mistakes then they are sometimes pretty blatant. I know we cleaned up several lines of simple typos and clear grammatical errors for this review.  Anyone can go in an edit the subs so theoretically all you need is someone who just has a firm grasp of editing to sit down and clean things up. But like anything else of the site it is all the chance that someone has the time, skill, and interest to do it. Some anime will get that without breaking a sweat and others will never get that in a million years.

The subs on Koutetsu Sangokushi are some of the strangest of all. The translation from Japanese to English for the most part is fairly competent. The odd thing is that all the characters in this Three Kingdoms story are referred to by their Korean names. You would normally expect either  the Japanese or Chinese names for everyone to be used but the Korean names just come out of left field. The subber clearly knows Japanese and English so it was clearly a personal choice. It is really the only way you would usually get such a happenstance on a legally licensed series. It does not make the show unwatchable but it is just peculiar. As a side note: Am I the only person who is slightly shocked that they never licensed a shonen ai Three Kingdom anime? It seems like a fairly easy sell when you get down to the brass tacks.

As someone who is still old enough to remember a time of watching some poorly subbed bootlegs I can suffer through quite a lot to get something I am interested in. But anyone who is pathological about their shows reading properly will probably have a heart attack after about the 5th episode.

The subtitle editor is really the big special feature of Viki, or at least it makes it different than other legal streaming sites. You can actually contribute translations and add captions or do smaller things like fix typos and grammar or make a line sound more smooth. This crowd-sourcing of subtitles is a bit different from traditional fan-subbing, too. I, myself fixed a couple of little typos in the course of my viewing. As I don’t speak Japanese, I can’t really help on the actual translation end.

The subtitle editor runs along side the content, but by default it is off. When you turn it on during a video, Viki refreshes to load with the new layout box and then asks you to wait 30 seconds to reload again so the subs will actually show up on the show. This is obviously silly and counter-intuitive, if Viki has already reloaded the page why not just do it all at once? Or at the very least Viki should just automatically reload it once the subtitles have buffered. It was also inconsistent in holding your place if you turn on the subtitle editor while in the middle of a video.

The subtitle editor has a guide that shows you which line is current and the time, but that is pretty easy to tell anyway as you can read the subtitles on the video itself. You have free reign to click into any sentence and change it. You can also add a caption to any line as well, I would assume this is for translation notes like explanations of puns/etc. Once you’ve changed it your username appears next to it.

So far there didn’t seem to be any weird abuse of this power to change sentences. Translations, as always, vary from title to title. The first episode of Ambassador Magma was a bit stilted, but not too distracting. The names in episode one of Koutetsu Sangokushi seem to be translated into Korean for some reason? Everything else I sampled didn’t stand out too much as far as the subtitle choices went.

The site is fairly decently laid out. As the site is not primarily an anime site it takes a few clicks to get to the anime but it is easy to hit either TV or movies and then click genre search to get all of the anime listed. Also the search option is pretty good but there are quite a few shows on the site from various places in the world. If you don’t type in the exact name of the show you might have to do a little digging.

You can favored show for later viewing but a queue that updates itself and is persistent on every page would be more efficient. Right now you have to go into your profile and then go to your favored shows. I think the new queue in Crunchyroll has me spoiled but it is so useful. It is even more useful with a site that has so many shows like this one. The ability for me to hop right to Dear Brother would be very nice.

The player itself is utilitarian but effective. I never had any major problems with it. I do wish it would remember where you were last watching if you go away but that is hardly a major concern. You only have to watch one commercial whenever you watch a show. Compared to legion of ads on Hulu it is nice to see a streaming service that does not overwhelm you with commercials. Truth be told if they pumped up the number of ads to three per episode like Crunchyoll or Funimation I don’t think I would mind.

Viki’s site has some kinks to work out but it also generally functions well enough to stream shows without much frustration and that is the most important part of this endeavor. The translations are amateur, but that is sort of the idea.

This is an interesting idea to bring together the greater fan-sub community with the actual anime they are translating from a company. Viki does so without making either obsolete. And the cost, at least currently, is free to view.

Viki has a very unique position. It is in many ways sloppy now. There are a good deal of rough edges. But it is legal. And that makes a big difference. It is an interesting platform for fansubbers as it is a way for them to work in the light as opposed to the shadows. I am sure there are some people who would never touch a translation job on a fansub due to their ethics that might work on something like this especially if it is an anime they are particularity excited about. I think it mostly comes down to growing a community. Theoretically if enough people start using Viki it might grow groups of people who translate and edit all the anime on the site to respectable levels. The rough edges will always be there with a project like this but it might get to the point where it has more of an artisan feel than an amateur one.

My only big worries are two-fold. Not enough interest or too much interest. If not enough people are interested then site might simply die out due to not enough people working on things. That could easily leave the anime section a ghost town. The other is too many cooks spoiling the pot. Fansubers are hardly immune to petty bickering and politicking that any fan community generates. With something as subjective as translation it is very easy to get into long protracted arguments over minor technical points or matters of style. With the ability for people to edit what ever they want it can easily devolve into rival factions sniping their enemie’s translations turning the site into a war zone that Wikipedia veterans would fear. I think that some sort of fair community policing with a little company supported back up needs to form before the first nasty fights break out. Right now everything is small enough that I don’t know of any problems but as the site grows there are more chances for such things to happen.

Still this is an excellent site for shows that might have no other way of ever coming out. Discotek picks up older licenses for physical media releases but you will notice they only pick up titles with long-standing fan communities in the US. They have yet to pick up many older shows that do not have a fanbase already trained to buy that title on disc. This business model with its lower overhead might be a method of getting shows will small but devoted fan bases. Especially shows that are part of the academic lexicon but are too old to be popular with the mainstream. The amount of Tezuka on the site is testament to that. And that reason alone might be why the site is worth using despite any other flaws it might have.

5 thoughts on “Viki a Small Wonder

  1. kadian1364 says:

    The subtitling “process” and the sketchy video quality makes it feel like Viki currently resides in the ghettos of the streaming services community. Having old shows it nice, but the still-in-beta appearance and unreliability is unattractive.

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