#116: Cthellis

Age: 42

Location: New Jersey

When did you discover anime? Share as much as you remember.
I certainly remember watching broadcasts of shows like Voltron and Speed Racer and G-Force and (particularly) Star Blazers on TV when I was a kid. But some I was too young during some of them to differentiate them from Hanna Barbara or Herculoids, and others came about later but melded into Transformers and Thundercats and other shows as well. I don’t really count US broadcast dubs as “discovering anime” or as part of my “otaku origin.”

Robotech, I half-count. I think because I got into this show DEEP, discovered it right as it was hitting our shores, and followed it avidly the whole way. Also because it contained more elements “more stereotypically and uniquely anime” than the earlier broadcast dubs, and hit me at the right age to prime me for the rest. Transforming fighter jets that even a dink like Rick Hunter could learn to pilot hit my 10-year-old boy brain pretty damn hard, and developing a crush on Minmei just seemed to make perfect sense. Interestingly it wasn’t the animation itself which really dug me in, but the novelizations that started to drop when I was 12. I read feverishly at the time, and I had no enjoyment limitations (broadcast schedule, TV availability) with the novels like I did with the show, the story mapped out further, and it introduced more maturity to the overall story by End of the Circle than I ever got from the show. (Or that eventually watching the anime sources Robotech was based on would deliver.) I could share them, get other friends into them, and that played the largest part in priming me for “official anime” which would come to me in high school.

I’d started collecting comics only a few years before, so my comics habit introduced me to a few upperclassmen pretty quickly, to find the better comics store option they used. It also introduced me to someone who collected raw Japanese anime that was getting passed around in a college club he had access to. I’d hand him VHS tapes, and he would return them packed to the gills with anime.

This was the very best deal.

One of the tapes in Cthellis’ early collection.

So I can tell exactly what my first “otaku exposure” was for me, since I still have my “Japanese Animation #1” VHS, carefully labeled and timecoded for ease of quickly advancing to the show I wanted to rewatch. The front label is getting sun-bleached to the point of illegibility now (as many others are fully) but the top label has always been protected by the case, so…

Bubblegum Crisis #1-2 (0-1230)
Grey Digital Target (1283-2630)
Dirty Pair: Project Eden (2631-3810)
Megazone 23: Part 1 (3811-4800)

“Konya wa Hurricane” [the Bubblegum Crisis theme] haunts my soul to this day, because I consider it my very first “otaku exposure.”

I probably had about 6 “packed with random” tapes that I rewatched continuously. I don’t have the exact order of everything else, but I know Tape 2 had Dangiaoh, Dragon’s Heaven, Gunbuster (1-2), and Venus Wars. Project A-Ko and Devil Hunter Yohko would enter my life shortly. Vampire Hunter D and Demon City Shinjuku and Wind Ninja Chronicles would light up my supernaturalism and horror appreciation. Kimagure Orange Road would be my first introduction to “TV series anime,” and I Ayukawa Madoka became my first serious waifu before waifus were waifus, even though I only had episodes 5-8 to watch over and over again. (Though Minmei from Do You Remember Love was probably my first inkling of it.)

Another of Cthellis’ tapes.

It would actually take me a few years to start getting any anime, subbed or dubbed. Prior to that I was rewatching the raw Japanese and getting everything I could from tone and scene context. It linked me pretty close to how the Japanese language sounds, even if I never committed to learning it. If I was lucky I could find translated scripts on BBSs [Bulletin Board Systems] and read those. When I DID get access to my first “modern dub” is was Warriors of the Wind, on the same tape as Nausicaa in raw Japanese. Eventually I would watch both to compare the vocals and scene edits, and would come out on the other side concluding that the English dub’s acting sucked horribly, and I disagreed vehemently with all the editing they did (something I did not know they were prone to, prior). As well on the same tape I gained access to my first official subtitled anime in MADOX-01. “Wait, so I can get the original work, without editing and horrible acting, and I just read the dialogue in English? SOLD!”

I officially had the sub/dub war on one VHS, and decided the victor, before I knew there was a war or a place to fight online.

I wouldn’t find TOO many people to convert to anime-appreciation in my early years, so mainly chatted with the upperclassman who introduced me to it and kept me fed, and otherwise… I rewatched. I stuck my stereo up to the TV’s mono speaker and recorded music for my own mix tapes. I rewatched some more.

I’d like to hear more about your older otaku friends. I was a freshman in high school, so 14 at the time. Started high school in ’89 and had been collecting comics for a couple years; wiki tells me Transformers #25 was February 1987, and it was “Megatron’s Last Stand!” that first got me to pay attention and start collecting.  I’d mainly been picking comics off the newstand at grocery stores and book stores at the mall up until high school.  I met a junior named Terry in choir who went to a specialty comic store a few towns over (older people who can drive!), and through him a sophomore named Tim who had a job working weekends at a local Diamond distribution warehouse.  (Basically, they fed the comics TO the stores.)  It was Tim who started getting me the anime tapes, after we started chatting about Robotech.  I think his brother was at a local community college, and it was there that anime was making the club rounds. Terry was more of a general comic book enthusiast, and older enough that we didn’t hang out much outside of chatting before and after choir.  With Tim I found the anime specialty, but also a fellow geek and gamer about other things, as over the high school years he would run Robotech RPG games (as would I), played a bunch of Games Workshop stuff with his friends, and such.  (Tim also held back a quality Macross Super Veritech VF-1S for me that was sitting in the warehouse, but $25 was a lot for me back then, and I never snagged it. A decision I regret to this day.)

Terry I only knew for the two years we shared in high school, and Tim as well, though I’d still see him at various fine arts events my senior year and some years afterward.  (I think he was the only one who knew how to properly use their ancient stage lighting board.)  And while I tried out anime among some of my friends during high school, it didn’t really stick.  Even with Tim we’d mainly chat about things after the fact, since he had already watched whatever he passed copied for me, and hanging out in a group was mainly for gaming rather than anime.  So by and large ’89 to ’95 was much more of a “me doing my own thing” with anime, and would only come to change after college and new friends and convention-going.  Some of them I am friends with to this day, go to Otakon with, and anime even reconnected me more strongly with my oldest-running friend (my grade, who I met in pre-school when we were four).

What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? I’d like to say “maturity,” but in truth probably all manner of “otherness” appealed to me first, of which mature story and action were just a part. Japan at the time was fascinating, and had an aura of “nerd cool.” I knew things I particularly loved—Transformers and Robotech—originally CAME from Japan, even if I wasn’t fully on the process. So Japan was apparently pretty awesome, and this still was PURE Japan! I mean, they were speaking Japanese and ONLY Japanese!

It delivered animation that certainly was far and away more involved than American fare. Bloody, violent, grotesque, action-packed, and R-rated in all that represents. (Yes, I mean boobs. To a 14-15 year-old four-eyed geek, Priss was extremely risqué right from the first shots of her, appealing, and Mackie got to “sneak a peek” here and there at the whole gang. Grey Digital Target had a shower scene, casual toplessness, AND sex scenes! Gunbuster had casual and comedic toplessness of epic memorability. Ha… get it? “TOPless!” Look if Diebuster can make that joke, so can I.)

But it would eventually introduce me to “wait, THAT can be animated?” as well. Kimagure Orange Road was just… a high school romance? (Admittedly with a sci-fi twist.) They Were Eleven was a compelling sci-fi/adventure/mystery/romance? Can you even combine all those things?! Apparently, because it was great! I Can Hear the Sea was just… well, a sweet romance. No kung-fu, no laser beams, no psychic powers, no nothing. In a cartoon? No shit?

No shit.

As much as I suppose I also cared about having my own special nerdiness to appreciate that most others knew nothing about or did not, and as much as “otherness” is attractive but usually doesn’t last long, it would be anime’s sheer depth and scope that would keep me tuned in for the next…

Wait, how many years? 1, 2, 3… 28?!?

*Captain Gloval gruble* Bozhe moi…

I don’t think fans today realize that back then fans had no translations at all sometimes. Can you talk more about this? Why wasn’t it boring to watch a show when you didn’t understand the dialogue? About what year or age do you recall first getting dubbed and subbed shows? As to “why wasn’t it boring,” I think this fed into the “otherness” I mentioned to begin with.  It was…  special.  I mean, it was something you really couldn’t get any other way.  (At least to my knowledge.  And to any level of convenience.)  I was learning where this stuff came from, including Robotech‘s source itself.  And if that required a bit of effort, well…  It was effort well worth giving!  In many ways, it made it less boring.  You could get a lot out of just the visuals and sound by itself, and piece together “what they’re saying” even when you don’t strictly-speaking know what’s being said.  It added a tinge of…  mystery to things, somehow.  And it certainly made things amusingly to learn about later, when actually seeing the dialogue!  I’d get the occasional scripts and synopses downloaded from BBSs, but that was infrequently enough as well.  But you would be surprised how much continues to sink in just from repeat viewings!

The tape I mentioned with Warriors of the Wind and MADOX-01 on it were my first official sub and dub exposures, which was probably in ’92.  But that didn’t mean “and after that, subs were broadly available!”  Those were two of a very small number of exceptions throughout high school.  In college that changed, but in a different way.  It suddenly became easier for me to collect localized manga.  Starting with Ranma 1/2 and picking up pretty much anything they or Dark Horse did, I finally got acclimated to translated works, but anime was expensive and my college clubs weren’t anime-related. Magic: the Gathering started to take up all my time and money, at that point.

It really wouldn’t be until the Sailor Moon DiC broadcasts that I picked up anything more commonplace (and even that would serve to cement my dislike of dubs).  Anime East ’95 got me a “duffel bag of Ranma” that would be passed around among us (old school friends, new Magic: The Gathering friends, new college RPG friends), so even at that stage it was still access to raw Japanese content (this time full broadcasts, with commercials!) which was getting people into the habit.  It was maybe not their first exposure, but it would prove to be the strongest exposure for them, too.

“Common access to subs” would probably come in ’96 and beyond.  That comic shop I’d been going to since ’89 started expanding into anime, so I could rent quite a lot there. (And specifically he got subtitled tapes, whereas Blockbuster would only have a smattering of dubs.) And from there we would start making trips into NYC Chinatown, which was the bootlegger/importer’s paradise! Anime-wise that meant rampant distribution of fansubber’s content. $5/tape or cheaper when you bought enough.  I really couldn’t afford the “two episodes for $35-40” which was still commonplace at that time.  So I’d rent, or bootleg.

Did anime inspire you to be interested in Japan in other ways? Like, did you ever visit or study the language?  It couldn’t help but to!  I did take classes in college, but not too many.  Much moreso, it made me interested in cultural aspects in general.  And even more, it certainly affected my culinary exposure!  Sometime in ’95 or ’96 I started going with that aforementioned pre-school friend (brought into vogue by the Duffel Bag of Ranma and the other friends it grabbed) to Yaohan supermarket in Edgewater, NJ (now a Mitsuwa Marketplace) where I would become somewhat permanently addicted to Japanese food of all sorts.  Initially of course it was to pick up anything recognizable (Nuku Nuku loves eating taiyaki, give me some of that!), but that quickly turns into trying anything and everything.  (Including regret when the taikayi/obanyaki vendor downsizes and no longer offers takoyaki or okonomiyaki.  I still lack good okonomiyaki options, and it makes me sad.)  I had only experimented with sushi prior to my otaku origin, but that became a lifeblood. Chopsticks turned from curiosity to requirement at any meal that offered them. Lately I’ve been burning through history podcasts in general, and Japan among them.  Some art and literature collection outside of the anime-adjacent.

Visiting I desperately want to do, but have not had the opportunity–or rather the wherewithal–to do so.  So on that front I continue to live vicariously through anime, and @Surwill.

What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? I couldn’t even tell you. For years all I could judge by was the stuff my friend obtained for me, so it all mixed together. Everyone else were people I got into it myself.

I suppose the first inking I got from “outside” dudes I didn’t know were those who knew Fist of the North Star, Akira, Vampire Hunter D, and nothing else.

Well, maybe Ninja Scroll.

I would attend my first anime con in 1995, so at that point I started to get a view of the wider community in the US. But by that point I had a cadre of friends who all largely came to it through me, and otherwise came in from the Sailor Moon/DiC direction.

I did make a new friend who met someone at that con who had all of Ranma 1/2 broadcast dubs from Japan. So that become one of my larger “popular” assumptions. Those tapes would also become a huge entry point for a larger second wave of otaku friends.

Interested in your role as a member of an earlier wave of fandom introducing a younger generation to anime. Did you feel like a mentor? How did you introduce people to anime? That is an interesting thing to ponder.  I don’t suppose I ever felt like a “mentor” to most of the folk I watched anime with, for a long time. That’s probably because my gaming and general geeky proclivities always made me search out above and below my age for anyone who’s interested, and can play with.  I started BBSing in ’86 or so, and that was mostly an older-boys kind of activity, so when I would make friends with a sysp[ and was invited to their MERP/Rolemaster group…  I was a 13-year-old hanging with high-schoolers and being GM’ed by a 30-year-old.  So when it got to the point where I was 20+ and hanging with some 15-year-olds to play Magic…  it didn’t feel out of place.  Older or younger, if you’re always fighting to maintain a small group of friends to play what you enjoy, they’re all peers.  Yes, peers who may not be able to drive yet, but…  you’re getting them into games in hopes of all having fun and skilling up together.  You’re role-playing with each other constantly as elfin wizards or hundred-year-old vampires…  You’re all taking turns running games and playing in games, and shifting from one activity to another…  It’s pretty much an equalizer.

So in that regard, while I had a lot more exposure for a lot longer than some, they’re “skilling up” the same way, at the same time. We’re all watching shows we newly gained access to together. I didn’t really feel like I was “mentoring” anyone, because a lot of us were exposed at the same time (phrasing!) to all the Tenchi rentals, all the Chinatown trips leading to Kenshin and Gundam Wing weekend marathons… “Thank Eru, more people to play Magic with!” turned into “Thank Eru, more people to buy tapes as well, which we can all watch!”  Starting in ’89 vs starting in ’95 is small beans at that point.  They may not have watched Gunbuster raw dozens of times, but they DID watch and love it when I picked up the legit tapes!  But we were already all in the midst of so much other stuff. No mentor feelings in particular, just new friends to ride the waves with. Also they’d mostly had some original exposure on their own (Sailor Moon, Ghibli films) because anime started becoming more popular and nerd-adjacent. Our enthusiasm fed off each other, and went to more places.

I suppose the first genuine time I ever felt like a “mentor” was with my nephew. I was his source of the eclectic and weird, especially the Japanese, so I had fun trying out which movies to gift him and when… And while he still watches occasionally, he never felt the same kind of bite. (Not with anime, not with Magic. So rude.)

I felt a bit more with a friend I met on forums, who’s younger than me but got started early on a litany of kids. (I tried to name some, but sadly no takers on “Archimedes” or “Elanor.”) The forum was run by that pre-school friend.  I’d actually been out of the anime habit for a while  (’01 I stopped staffing at Otakon, through ’06) and he and a simple schoolgirl named Haruhi pulled me back in, more enthusiastic than ever. My eventually-having-six-kids friend had some Ghibli exposure, but I would eventually get her and her crew into watching a lot more. Cross-country mentoring, but…  it stirs the heart to know that a 4-year-old can stare with rapt fascination at Nanba Mutta’s face along with the entire family.

But I suppose my MOST mentoring experience would be… with my mom.

She straight up HATED “those squeaky-voiced, huge-eyed kids” (her description of Star Blazers) when I watched any of that as a kid. She bought me Robotech novels, but that was alongside Tolkien and McCaffrey and the host of books she’d get me into, so I think that was more of a curiosity. And she’d occasionally peek in to check out some of the stuff I’d watch when I was older (alternately fascinated by the style and grossed out by the content of Vampire Hunter D, for instance), but outside of the usual “good Ghibli stuff” and some things that would escape our corner of the world to get some mainstream and critical attention (Millennium Actress, for instance), nothing in particular stuck. I brought a stuffed Ryo-Ohki back from a convention, which she likes. But that’s cheating, Ryo-Ohki is adorable.

But that changed after I became “a seasonal.”  I’ve been a Crunchyroll member since 2010, and used it to rewatch old stuff, keep up with new and interesting stuff…  It slowly picked up steam until the past few years turned into 10-20 titles minimum per season, and one show in particular I recommended to her while it was running.  After Kaori’s performance in Your Lie in April #2, I found a YouTube video of it put up quickly and said “hey, watch this.”  She wanted to know where it was from, so I gave her the Crunchyroll account as well.  And we stated watching that show cross-country as well, texting about it after we’d watch.  We kept that up the whole way through.  And then after Erased #1, I again said “holy shit you need to watch this now” and THAT became its own simulwatch as well.  Erased would prove to open the floodgates to seasonal watching as well.   Last season she turned 76, and was watching 10 shows to completion!  (Dropping a couple halfway through, and trialing a bunch more.)

I mean, it’s not ALL great news.  She’ll rule out whole genres like mecha, doesn’t believe in giving shows three episodes, Midousuji [from Yowamushi Pedal] creeps her out, and she doesn’t think Space Brothers is the finest series ever created…  (it’s probably closer to 4th).  But her favorite show is probably Rakugo, she fangirls over Majime from The Great Passage, and got to love watching karuta, so…  she’s a successful pupil!

What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? My high-school years were pretty insular, just me and a friend to start, and a few underclassmen I got into it years later. I wouldn’t process it as anything approaching “fandom” in those days. Even on BBSs, I never found people to chat about anime with. I might pick up some scripts, but that was it. After it led to my first convention, message boards and MUD/MUCK/MUSEs and the internet… that’s when I could count anything as “anime fandom.”

I basically watched Anime Web Turnpike get created, and pursued that often to find these newfangled “websites” getting created which had cool low-res pictures which I would print out in black and white to appreciate at home! Oh, and lyrics! I still listened to a ton of anime songs, and wanted to sing them official-like. So I’d seek out lyric pages, print those, and learn to sing as many as I could. I discovered Hitoshi Doi’s seiyuu database early, and through that learned a whole bunch of names and got exposed to a whole bunch of series I hadn’t heard of.

Other than at cons, anime “fandom” still wasn’t very conversational for me. It was largely slow-moving websites. And occasionally an anime-themed MUCK where I’d role-play, map out “abcb” and attempt to create Megazone 23 underneath it that people could discover and explore.

So I’d watch new things with friends at home, but otherwise we were playing a lot of games. It was more of a personal/insular fandom, with occasional wide exposures by hitting a few conventions.

Do you remember your first convention? What was it, and what was it like?
Anime East 1995. My friend “who converted me” knew one of the con staff, and became staff himself. So I also attended the con, as security, with one of my other friends. For a while Jackie Chan was rumored to be attending, so we fantasized a lot about “running security” for him. 😉

I didn’t get much of a feel for “what a con was about” because my first experience was staffing and being available for the higher-ups. So I had no feeling for the community or events. I thought I would do so by remaining staff in later years, but…! After 1995 it detonated and disappeared forever.

I remember the dealer’s room being miserable. MISERABLE! I was looking for T-shirts and music CDs. There were a smattering of Bubblegum Crisis T-shirts, of fairly poor quality, that were really expensive. Bootlegs had not invaded the show floor, so the official merch was sparse, unimaginative, and expensive. On the last day I remember learning about “Room 303” where someone was selling things… This hotel room was STUFFED TO THE GILLS with exactly what I wanted! I learned all about bootleg iron-on T-shirts this day, and went home with like eight of them. Also I picked up the KOR Sound Color 1-3 albums, which were amazingly cheaper than the CDs on the show floor! (It would take me until Chinatown runs to learn that SonMay was bootleg as well). Which I play first, every time I go to an anime convention, to this day. (I skip the last track on #3. It’s jarringly out-of-context, and a bad way to end it. “One More Yesterday” is the perfect clincher.)

I’m also pretty sure I signed up to pre-order AnimEigo’s KOR laserdiscs here.

Finally, for you what’s the biggest shift between your anime fandom back then and anime fandom today? I suppose it is two things.  But two things that are largely everything born of and fostered by The Internet Age, which I preceded-but-anticipated (BBSing since ’86, and a permanent feature of computer labs in ’93).

The first:  Access. My origin story involves “anything I count get” and that “anything” was raw Japanese and not at all of my own personal selection. (Not that I wouldn’t have, but that I literally had no choices.) Personally, I think very fondly of these days, and it’s quite possible that without the quirky nature of my exposure, I may not have ever picked it up to the degree I quickly immersed myself in, and continued for as long as I have. If I watched Pokemon as a kid, had friends who talked about the last episode of Naruto or Hunter x Hunter on Crunchyroll…? I don’t know whether I would have thought of it anywhere near as special, or as uniquely interesting to me. I still occasionally try to put myself in the mindset of 15 year-old-me but with access to dozens of shows, translated, and in my lap the day after they air in Japan… and I WAS getting them quicker by getting them raw!  It is utterly mind-blowing. There are positives and negatives to how “fandom” and “access” interact with each other today, but it is certainly the most mind-blowing change.

The second: Community. Anime for me was a relentlessly insular thing for me when I started. As much as I got them from my friend, we didn’t watch together.  We didn’t chat about it terribly much (since I was the only younger friend of his who was watching). I watched and I rewatched and I recorded music to listen to on my Walkman and I took special pleasure in random personal things like knowing just how to take a run in Ski Club so that “Over the Top” from the Dirty Pair movie would be timed perfectly.  While _I_ was a fan, it certainly wasn’t a “fandom.” And while this would change majorly in the future, it was much of my first six years.

After my first convention, I could finally see what “fandom” was, including with my friends. The Duffel Bag of Ranma got more of my old school friends into it, and new Magic: The Gathering friends increased their habit alongside.  Anime very much became a community thing for me. We’d play Street Fighter and Soulcalibur together.  We’d play Magic together. We’d all jump down a Legend of the Five Rings hole together.  We’d take trips to Chinatown together.  We’d buy out series after series, go to someone’s house, and watch everything we just bought for the rest of the weekend.  And that was the main reason I got out of the habit for a few years… Friends moved, or moved on. I restarted because an old-friend-still-hooked got a bunch of us on a forum to start watching together and chatting about it.

And today, we are part of a community that extends to Japan as well. While language and culture barriers are still there, we are watching the same shows ALL OVER THE WORLD together. We post snarky comments and and create instant memes of episodes broadcast the same week. We forum and we podcast and we Discord and we live-chat. I’d text with my mother about YLiA.  I’d wake up at exactly the right time to watch Space Brothers the moment it started airing on Crunchyroll with a friend living in Japan. I’ll watch the same show with my friend in California and her kids later in the day from watching it with friends from three timezones. I have a Discord server with every damn airing show anyone wants to chat about in it, so we can spoil the shit out of it with each other which we can’t do on Twitter. Communities within communities, with the ability to build communities to make up for limitations in the other.

And while that TOO can have its downsides, it’s a staggering leap further down the road from “occasionally saw a fanzine.”

Some of us use it to compile stories of even the most long-winded dorks.  😉

It’s nice to be reminded that it’s a goddamn beautiful thing.

Cthellis can be reached on Twitter

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