AI Is Here, But Who Is It Helping? – This Week in Anime

Following Crunchyroll president Rahul Purini‘s confirmation that the company is already testing generative A.I. uses on subtitling and closed captioning, Chris and Lucas discuss where the technology could benefit more broadly and management’s misjudgment on how to implement it.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.

One Piece, 16bit Sensation: Another Layer, Uma Musume Pretty Derby, and The Yuzuki Family’s Four Sons are streaming on Crunchyroll. PLUTO and Kakegurui are streaming on Netflix. GARO: Heir to Steel Armor is streaming on YouTube, and Kamen Rider Agito is available on Toku via Amazon. Beowulf is roughly 1,000 years old and thus in the public domain.


Lucas, I’m happy to have you as part of our show. I hope a couple of sessions with Steve were enough to get you acclimated to how we do things. Now it’s time to tackle another time-honored TWIA tradition: discourse that won’t die.


I’d be happy to stop shoving AI into the dirt, but it keeps getting back up!

And thank you, Chris. I’m as thrilled as ever to be here and excited to tackle a hot-button issue with you this week!
It’s so hot that it feels like we referenced it in a conversation about translation, localization, and the parallel controversies a couple of months ago! But like endless waves of enemy automatons, the possibility of AI interference in the anime pipeline keeps popping up. And it’s hard to ignore it when the one invoking the possibility of AI-assisted anime subtitles is the Jolly Orange Giant themselves.

Haha, I love how we’re only four messages deep in this chat and you’ve already given me a chance to bring up one of the most frustrating elements of AI discourse: the strawman argument that AI isn’t going to turn into Skynet, therefore totally fine to develop and incorporate into currently existing systems/processes. I’ve worked on and off in the tech space for a while now, and I’ve sat through at least three presentations where the host assured people that the AI they’re working on isn’t going to kill them.

It’s an easy, low-hanging fruit of an assuagement to make, but come on. We’re several years deep into this technological takeover. We’ve all seen the stupid automated art and the cheaply generated listicles; we know there are way more immediate things to be concerned about with this tech.

Absolutely. I don’t know about you, but I feel there are already fewer entry-level writing gigs now that companies that don’t care about the quality of their product and experience can have ChatGPT spin up some copy. Those listicle and freelance copywriting gigs that I picked up when I was in college to make some fun money and pad out my portfolio just aren’t around as much anymore, and that sucks for younger writers!

Sadly, that will always be the expected way for things to go anytime some top-level executives catch wind of new automation techniques that spell dollar signs to them. It’s the sort of thing that’s an issue in any industry but especially sucks in ostensibly creative fields. And like those writing gigs, companies like Crunchyroll eyeing AI as an alternative to human-handed subtitling will make it even harder for new entrants in an industry where workers are barely scraping by.

And it’s even more egregious in this specific arena since machine translation has been a known, terrible quantity in anime and manga circles for decades. Trying to embrace it just because the tech’s gotten a bit of a lift and a PR boost feels like an industry leaping before it looks. Again.
And their brazenness about exploring or adopting the technology is pretty suspect to me. Despite what some of the loudest voices in the room say, I don’t think using AI to translate a series is a broadly popular decision. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but I heard more discourse lamenting the Ancient Magus Bride AI translation of the manga than I have discussions on whether the newly released chapters are any good.

I know AI is an SEO-getter right now, so even companies adjacent to the tech space need to talk about it to appease investors, board members, etc., but it seems like a bizarre thing to stake a claim on for licensors, considering how much it can impact their final product. Not to mention how critical readers and watchers can be of the localization process.

Editor’s note: Polling shows that only 35% of Americans trust AI tech
That’s part of the poisoned well that is this discourse, after all, and was the instigator when Steve and I went over this subject at the beginning of the year—that particular corner of anti-localization anime consumers presuming that having AI translate the material will render it more “accurate” and sidestep any perceived problematic changes.

The thing is, when you keep up with this material instead of just complaining about it (I’m a critic; I do both!), you become aware of the follies of these sorts of moves. Not only is machine translation just as prone (if not more) to odd linguistic misunderstandings as human translators, but it’s also incapable of adapting for context and tone. Truly, it’s the worst of both worlds.
Haha, maybe this is anecdotal, but while researching for this discussion, I googled “anime AI translations,” and the top result was a Fox News article talking about how AI might eliminate “wokeness” inserted into translations of Japanese art. And once people start throwing around the word “woke,” it’s clear to me that there’s no winning in this debate because, at this point, people on the other end of it are just looking to be mad about something.

This is a shame because, despite all the discourse, translations are supposed to be fun! Or at least interesting to analyze. This reveals how much of a nerd I am, but when the Chainsaw Man manga was first released, I’d read both the official release and a popular scanlation to see how the different translations changed the tone and impact of the work.

IDK, I think that stuff is neat, and folks need to lighten up.

Compared to culture-war conspiracy theories, companies looking to pivot to AI for subtitling are technically a “lighter” subject. Especially since the reason they’re doing so is undoubtedly a bottom-line middleman cutout and has nothing to do with supposed liberties taken with the localizations. But it’s still almost as frustrating in how it undercuts the enthusiasm for this medium.

For instance, recently, the latest entry in the GARO tokusatsu series, Heir to Steel Armor, has been officially uploaded to YouTube for fans to watch, with English subtitles provided! That should have been a clean-cut cool moment, except by all indications, they went with machine translation, leaving the result a stiff mess littered with jank.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, machine/AI translations can have practical uses. I went on a trip to Mexico City last year, and translation programs helped me use appliances and interpret street signs. But they don’t work for creative works or anything with any level of nuance. And the idea that this awkward robo-speak is somehow closer to the author’s intended meaning of the work is farcical.

Oh yeah, as with so much technology, there are practical use cases. I’m guilty of using Google Translate’s camera function when I’m just trying to get the gist of some cute fanart comic that I’m about to repost. But that’s a far cry from using it as a component of an official release of a product. We just had a whole dust-up last year when people noticed how jank the translation on Titan manga’s Kamen Rider Kuuga release was.

Don’t even get me started on Mill Creek’s release of Gridman: The Hyper Agent or the TOKU streaming subs of Kamen Rider series. Why does this seem to keep happening to my beloved tokusatsu properties specifically?

You can complain about Western slang or memes inserted into official subtitles all you want, but I’ll still take that over cruft like this every time.
Okay, the bad-faith fixation on slang is how I know that the people complaining about translations are looking for an axe to grind more than they are genuinely mad about translation choices. In college, I read the pretty traditional Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf for a class, and then a bit after I graduated, I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation that leaned into the modern English lexicon, and it WHIPPED!

Translating a work fundamentally changes it, and that’s just a facet of how language and culture work. I’d much rather localizers acknowledge that fact, accept it, and perhaps even give us a wealth of translations to pick and choose from rather than try to hide behind AI or machine translations that make cult favorites nearly insufferable.
It’s enough to make me ponder the possibility of AI dying a death similar to previous tech trends like NFTs. But for now, it seems like it’s going to keep getting pushed in all industries, anime and manga included, in areas alongside the translation aspect that Crunchyroll is exploring.

“Comic CoPilot” seems like an interesting tool for manga authors as a side editor. But then I think about the future possibility of reading an AI translation of a manga that was itself partly composed by AI, and I make myself sad.

These “AI Assistants” are one of this fad’s most frustrating new permeations, especially since simple chatbots are now branded as such and are somehow worse at answering basic questions about a program or service.

Would Microsoft brand Clippy as AI if they released that infamous virtual assistant today?

We spent years closing Clippy down every time he manifested from the abyss in Microsoft Word, and then they turned around and kept foisting their Cortanas and Alexas on us in modern times. We have learned nothing.

Clippy is looking up at us from Hell and feels nothing but vindication. Perhaps if we had accepted him, we could have prevented this future…

But Comic Copilot feels like it is trying to solve problems that aren’t real or aren’t better addressed by talking to other, more experienced creatives. Getting text to fit into word bubbles can be hashed out by workshopping dialogue with peers. AI isn’t going to help someone come up with a better, more descriptive title for their manga. Maybe an AI could suggest more SEO-friendly titles, but then you’re talking about how to make a work more popular instead of the best version of itself.

That idea circles back to the point that these experiments are motivated by dollar (or yen) signs more than any interest in the creative process. Sure, you could theoretically synthesize an SEO-optimized series using generative AI. Still, it wouldn’t be any expression of ideas beyond a list of things that were popular at the moment.

Sure, this is where I could make an obvious joke about all the light-novel-based isekai chaff we have nowadays that already feels like that. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I have infinitely more respect for a nerd typing out their own indulgent, derivative, slave-harem alternate-world self-insert fantasy than I do anything spat out by a chatbot because at least the former still reflects something conceptualized and expressed by another human being.

OMG, AI could NEVER create the kind of reactionary isekai that I love to hate-read and watch! Because even those series ultimately reflect the creator’s politics, or at least what they think the audience it panders to wants to read. Most things spat out by AI are bland and uninspired outside the occasional nightmare-fuel generative image.

And I guess those uncanny images aren’t even as scary as the fact that the AI that made them stole the foundational artwork from actual human beings who likely didn’t consent to having their work used to improve a technology they don’t profit from.

Huh, I can’t believe we made it this far into a conversation about AI without bringing up how the LLM version of the technology that’s inspired this wave of discourse could not be feasible without rampant theft. Even then, it is so expensive in its current form that it can’t be worked into any company’s business model outside of a speculative basis. LOL.

That’s the funny trick that aligns with your earlier point about the collaborative nature of the creative process and lays bare the inherent flaws in using this technology this way. Translation and localization, like other art forms, are built on artists continuing to iterate and play off of each other’s work. And not for nothing, but their nature makes for an interesting ongoing case study into the evolution of vernacular itself. Machine translation, from its amalgamated genesis to its guesswork adaptational sensibilities, is wholly a worse version of how real translation already works, practical only predicated on the possibility that it might one day be 100% cost-free to all the executives hoping to utilize it.

Or, for a more direct, clear example: Think about all the trouble Crunchyroll made for themselves having to deal with the fallout and replacement of those original cruddy subtitles for The Yuzuki Family’s Four Sons.

Translation work is one of the worst applications of AI they could have gone with. Drawing again from my tech background, there are many solid AI applications that a company like Crunchyroll could have gone with instead! AI is a handy tool in platform moderation and can be trained to automatically flag and delete uploads of grossly offensive images so humans don’t have to experience that trauma. They’re also great at scouring large amounts of data for insights, which would be super helpful in analyzing who’s watching what and why as the amount of content under Crunchyroll‘s umbrella grows bigger with every season.

But trying to replace a role deeply rooted in the human experience and condition with a machine just has me like…

Exactly, it’s turning art into content that only exists for people to mindlessly gobble up and not engage with on any meaningful level. Like those TikToks where a colorful mobile game plays in the corner of the screen while a text-to-voice narrator explains what’s happening in an out-of-context movie scene. Under this mindset, stuff doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be good enough that people are willing to pay some money for it.

As with all things, I’m sure some viewers will uncritically watch whatever synthesized cyber-subtitles Crunchyroll experiments with blurting onto its shows. I have tolerated some rough fansub jobs in my younger fandom days. However, the difference then is that I didn’t have other options; I wasn’t paying subscription service money to TVN for subs of Shinkenger, and they weren’t an arm of the massive multi-headed Sony hydra with funds to burn on star-studded annual awards shows.

I wish I knew where to attribute this quote to, but the talking point around piracy that always stuck with me is, “To beat piracy, you have to make your service better than free.” And, for the most part, anime streaming platforms have been pretty good about that. I can watch most of the anime I want each season on Crunchyroll in great video quality, with solid translations and a rock-solid release schedule for a low monthly cost. I’m not super familiar with the modern fansub scene. Still, if it’s anything like the scanlation space for manga that isn’t legally available in the US, there is a wealth of free alternatives that anime fans will flock to if AI makes the quality of these official releases dip.

Maybe we’re overanalyzing an interview answer that is more of a soundbite than a path forward for the company, but I don’t see why you would take that risk when it feels like most anime fans are looking for any excuse to not pay for the art they’re experiencing.

As you said at the beginning, AI translation is one of those subjects you’ve got to whack-a-mole down each time it pops up. I don’t know that some guys making cracks in a column can amount to an effective counter-action. But at least we can put our thoughts down here to be recorded as saying, “I told you so,” if they do go through with this and it turns out badly.
Because trust me, I’ve seen how it can go badly.

Hold on! I have to take back every bit of concern and skepticism I’ve expressed in this conversation. “My magma gets fucked!!” is one of the rawest lines any human or robot has ever published, and we need more!

Perhaps there’s still hope yet. Or not.

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