If you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time, you’ve undoubtedly seen the “Is this a pigeon?” meme. Clearly taken from an anime, the meme pictures a nerdy-looking man holding a book, gesturing to a butterfly while asking “Is this a pigeon?” despite it, you know, clearly being a butterfly. So what’s the deal? Why does this guy think bugs are birds?
In a recent essay on her personal site, anime journalist Kara Dennison reveals the truth. The image comes from a relatively obscure anime series called The Brave Fighter of the Sun FighBird. (Anime shows always have weird titles if you haven’t noticed.) That was the second series in the Brave franchise; a ’90s attempt to cash in on Transformers. Though there were 10 Brave series, plus a novel series and spinoff, very little of it came over to America. Only the spinoff and the 1997 series were officially licensed in America; nothing else was licensed outside of Asia.
While now there’s more anime legally available in America than you could watch in a thousand lifetimes, anime fans didn’t always have such a variety. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, there was a network of fansubbers, which, you might have figured out from the name, is when anime fans would get bootleg tapes of the original airings on Japanese TV, and then translate and subtitle episodes themselves. The fansubs would generally be copied and distributed at anime conventions and, eventually through the internet.
This is where Dennison comes in. Back in the day, she was a fansubber. One of the series she worked on was The Brave Fighter of the Sun FighBird. She described the series as a “serviceable little show” and added “I enjoyed it, but generally if it has a robot, I’ll enjoy it.”
The man in the meme is Katori, the series protagonist. Katori’s a space alien who could possess an android body to interact with humans. Dennison explains, “He loved the Earth and wanted to protect it, but didn’t really comprehend it very well. So it fell to the young audience association characters to keep him in line.”
She continues. “The infamous scene takes place when Katori is trying to act human in front of a detective, while wearing his very science-y human disguise. He also goes on to ask if a row of tulips are violets.”
As these things go, Dennison’s work on The Brave Fighter of Sun FighBird went more-or-less forgotten until the past couple years when the “Is This a Pigeon” meme first was posted to Tumblr. It eventually caught fire and became, well, everywhere. (After all, it does capture a perfect feeling of when someone’s just… bafflingly wrong.)
The story has a happy ending, too. Dennison says that the team that put together this particular fansub are still friends, even if they don’t do fansubs anymore. But, one reason they don’t do fansubs is because most of them, including Dennison, were hired by legitimate anime companies. Dennison works for Crunchyroll, one of the foremost streaming platforms for subtitled anime.
What’s your favorite mutation of the “Is this a pigeon?” meme? Let us know in the comments. And be sure to go read Kara Dennison’s full essay — it’s excellent.