#119: Austin

Age: 23

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

When did you discover anime? Share as much as you remember. I will separate this into three discovery periods: before I knew of the term “anime,” when I first learned about the term anime, and finally my rediscovery of anime and what it can really encompass.

Until I entered high school in America, I grew up in Hong Kong. When I was still an elementary schooler, one night I was watching TV and airing on the TV was some cartoon movie that enthralled me. It was in a Cantonese dub (of which I understood basically nothing) with rough English subtitles that would appear once every couple of lines. Eventually it was past my bed time and I had to submit to my parental overlords who would have just forcibly torn me away from the TV otherwise. It killed me that I had no idea what this movie was even called (much less that it was a Japanese cartoon) and I only realized much later after I had learned of the term anime that this movie was in fact Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I went through the same experience again from half-watching Princess Mononoke, also presented with a Cantonese dub and shoddy English subtitles during those same childhood years.

A ‘Legend of the Galactic Heroes’ cel from Austin’s collection.

I did not actually learn of the term anime until a friend of mine introduced me to Naruto during my middle school years. Today this is probably one of my marks of shame from my earlier days as an anime fan, but I rewatched the original Naruto TV series including filler at least three times. It didn’t take long after Naruto to check out the other Shonen Jump fare, and then I had a phase of watching a bunch of shoujo anime after getting a bit tired of shonen fighting stuff. After that I proceeded to much of the male otaku-pandering harem series. I began to watch most of the airing series that was being fansubbed at the time as I proceeded into high school until I reached major anime burnout. The show that really broke me was K-On. I had a revelation that the shows that otaku were hyping up as the “must check out” shows or the “best anime of the season” just did not really appeal to me anymore. Even those shows aside, after being burned too many times by anime with great beginning episodes that would then be completely unable to sustain their premise for their full running length (Gonzo anyone?), I was really questioning whether or not my heart was really in anime anymore.

My re-discovery of anime I have to credit 100% to the Anime World Order podcast. I very well may not be an anime fan today if I had not found their podcast during my high school burnout. It really opened my eyes up to just how many gems there were back in the ’70s/’80s/early ’90s and to get in the habit of just trying to learn more about who is actually involved in creating the anime I watch and love. It also really opened up my eyes to the fact that anime is not just Shonen Jump adaptations or a cesspool of otaku in-jokes and tropes, but it really does have the capacity to take on a much wider diversity of fictional material. Helen McCarthy summarized this well on the AWO interview with her (at the 5:58 mark):

“Anime is an adventure playground and like any adventure playground you’re only going to get out of it what you take in with you […] if you go looking to try new things, explore new genres, and look around for challenges, then anime is going to provide that.”

The pursuit of challenges is what keeps my anime passion alive. Every time I see a side of anime I’ve never seen before, my otaku expiration date pushes back even further. My hope is that I will never hit this expiration date, so long as I remember that watching anime does not have to be limited to the titles that trend with the anime fandom at large.

What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? For my elementary school story, the main feeling I came away from having half-watched both movies was “Wow, I did not know a cartoon could portray such a compelling story.” My prior exposure to cartoons was things of the nature of some of the older Walt Disney cartoons, Tom and Jerry, CatDog, and Rocko’s Modern Life to name a few. While I enjoyed those as a kid, we can all see that these are comedic endeavors that completely unlike the aforementioned movies. Those movies imprinted upon me a much deeper, lingering feeling of fulfillment.

Although Naruto marked my initial foray into anime, I have actually fallen completely out of caring about it at all. That being said, when I first watched it I really thought it was a fresh breath of air from all the Western cartoons done in episodic format. I actually love a lot of the DCAU cartoons but I feel like there is a limit to how far or deep you can take a story when constrained by that format. The serialized nature of Naruto and other series like it grabbed my attention and I grew a much stronger attachment to characters from long running series like this. This is not to say I necessarily dislike anime that take an episodic format, but an anime series portraying a single story that runs for the length of one or more cours returns a particular feeling of immense satisfaction when done well. I can’t say the same for most of the Western cartoons I watched when I was younger. I was also fascinated by many of the cultural differences from Japan that were exhibited in some of the anime I watched during this time, and so there was definitely an appeal of adventuring into a culture very different from my mostly Western sensibilities.

A ‘Galaxy Express 999’ cel from Austin’s collection.

The appeal of anime since my rediscovery of it has taken a much more fascinating turn. Prior to this point I did not really take to the cel-animated style of animation but I’ve grown exceedingly fond of it the more stuff I visit from the ’70s and ’80s. It saddens me to think that it practically a dead art at this point. (If I’m not mistaken Sazae-san was the last anime to use cel-animation and if the production for Sazae-san cannot keep it up… well nothing else can right?) The amount of artistic and narrative diversity that was possible during the ’80s due to the booming economy in Japan at the time is something that I have not really found in anime of recent times; with any luck crowdfunded anime will continue to carve out its own niche though. That aside, I also have bizarre theoretical nostalgia for the ’80s which my parents find both puzzling and amusing.

Just to clarify, even though I have primarily been focusing my attention on anime from the ’70s and ’80s since my rediscovery, I do think that currently anime is doing pretty well and when I do finally get around to watching some more recent anime it is not that hard for me to find something I would like. I am just in no rush to watch anime that everyone is talking about, and I am hesitant to watch shows as they air for fear of being let down by the end.

You grew up in Hong Kong and then Cambridge. Can you tell me how anime fandom was different in each city? I should clarify here. Until high school I grew up in Hong Kong. During high school I was in New Jersey. For undergraduate schooling onwards I was in Cambridge. So I’m not really sure I can say I “grew up” in Cambridge since I was already in college at that point.

As someone that cannot actually speak Cantonese (I can understand a very small amount), my experience is unlikely to be representative of actual fandom in Hong Kong. I also did not attempt to interact too much with fandom in Hong Kong. I think what stands out to me the most over there compared to the states are the sort of properties that were represented. I can remember walking in random malls and seeing illustrations and merchandise for Astro Boy casually in areas. Even more so for stuff like Doraemon. Doraemon would be broadcast dubbed on the Cantonese language channels. Basically you can clearly see representation of the set of anime or manga properties that are huge across East Asia but are virtually unheard of in the West. Many of these properties are popular to large audiences, not just self-proclaimed anime fans. As far as people at school (I went to a British private school taught entirely in English so again, possibly not representative), there were kids who were into those huge Shonen Jump titles like Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, and so forth. I do recall someone reading a localized (into written Chinese) Sgt. Frog manga volume. I wasn’t even aware that this was released in the states or that it had a following until checking just now. In my head I had thought of this as another “popular in East Asia but not in the West” property.

I went to a boarding high school in New Jersey and I didn’t leave campus much because I was lazy and going to town required more walking than I cared for at the time. So I can really only comment on the situation at school. I think besides what I’ve already said, it appeared to me that there wasn’t a lot of interest in an organized club setting for anime (although I feel like it could have been different if the school actually allowed for non-athletic and non-theater extra-curricular activities). There were however people with at least some kind of passing interest in anime; their presence was not very visible though so to this day I’m not entirely sure how many people actually cared about anime. This is when I really understood that there’s a whole population of people who consume anime but do not speak about it whatsoever.

College in Cambridge was a pretty huge letdown as far as anime fandom is concerned. Admittedly, if I was still the same fan I was when I was getting into this stuff I would have fit right at home. There were a lot of people to whom anime is essentially a bunch of memes. While I do actually think one great aspect about anime fandom is that people can celebrate it in so many different ways, it was a letdown for me that I had so much trouble finding people who would also want to take it seriously. I’m not gonna pretend like every anime is some kind of cinematic masterpiece, because that is not true at all. At the time it struck me as strange that anime fans had so little interest in seeking out things worthy of that kind of recognition. Stepping aside from my biases, there’s definitely a lot of that internet awareness of anime fandom that would be represented by anime fans at my school. So if you were the sort of person who was constantly on top of the zeitgeist of anime fandom, quickly jumping to one hot otaku property after the next, you would have had a great time.

A ‘Black Jack’ cel from Austin’s collection.

You spent a lot of time gravitating toward much older anime. What appealed to you about those over more modern titles? When I first saw a non-Ghibli cel animated anime, I was still in my relative infancy as an anime fan and the aesthetic did not appeal to me at the time. It’s funny that since then I now tend to gravitate much more to older titles. Probably the biggest driving force during my transition to older titles is wanting to get away from the glut of moe titles that kept getting pumped out. Before that point most of what I was watching was that moe stuff and at first I thought it was quirky and fun but later on I realized I was just lying to myself about liking that stuff anymore. There can be shows with moe elements that can still be good provided other quality aspects (plot, characterization, etc.) are there. However, the balance wasn’t really there when I was really getting sick of it. Nowadays anime seems to be doing a lot better than simply completing a checklist designed to cater only to the moe fanbase.

So older anime had a lot less moe stuff crammed into it. On the other hand, there’s a ton more mecha stuff there which I previously did not care for. I no longer have any resistance to mecha shows now and do enjoy greatly the ones that I have seen. I still don’t think I would call myself a huge mecha person though. I do really like the level of detail you see with some illustrations of robots. It is a shame that the animators who can actually animate robots in 2D are dwindling out.

The hand-crafted feel of cel animation versus the technically cleaner aspects of digital animation is something that I enjoy greatly. It’s really great whenever some window shatters or a building gets demolished and you can see the individual bits of debris and rubble. People spent weeks painting cels for something that amounts to a gorgeous second long shot. Whenever the camera perspective switches I’m blown away because everything in the shot has to be redrawn each frame. The warmer color palette gives a different vibe than that of modern titles. In any case, for many of these aspects there’s not necessarily a technical reason you couldn’t do these things in digital animation. However, there is one thing that was certainly different in the ’80s and that was the economy in Japan.

The amount of money that got pumped into the anime industry as a consequence of the ’80s bubble economy would allow for these super detailed and time-intensive shots. Not all old anime is like this of course, but at least the possibility was there. Besides that, the crazy amounts of money that would get thrown around would enable the production of strange, extremely non-merchandisable titles such as Angel’s Egg, To-Y, and Bobby’s Girl. Success or not, there is something fascinating about creative output in anime unrestrained by commercial considerations. If you wanted to pick a single decade to look for as much anime that is unlike anime you’ve seen before, unquestionably the ’80s is the place to go.

Putting aside my preference for the aesthetics or the experimental stuff of the time, if I were to try and sell someone on the concept of going back and checking older anime it would be that titles that have withstood the test of time are worth checking out. It’s hard to identify if an anime title is going to have any staying power at the height of its popularity. So the only reasonable way to unbiasedly test this I think is to simply wait and see. Especially nowadays, fans move rapidly from one show to the next. Here’s are modern examples of things I don’t think pass the test of time. How many people honestly care about The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya anymore (well, they weren’t doing themselves any favors with that second season)? How about Lucky Star? On the other hand, people will still bring up Akira as one of these cinematic masterpieces. Somehow fandom over Legend of the Galactic Heroes has persisted for all this time despite only very recently getting an official release for the first time. Old school fans still talk about Bubblegum Crisis. A couple of years back Carl Gustav Horn cared enough to assemble writers and put together a gorgeous 25th anniversary fanzine for Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise. To me, that is a strong signal that those particular titles are at least worth checking out. An argument could certainly be made that since so much less stuff made it to English speaking audiences back then, it was easier for fandom as a whole to rally and concentrate around a small subset of shows compared to now. But hey, people still care about this stuff more than 25 years later. Why not find out what all the fuss is about?

Austin at Otakon 2017, getting his ‘Bobby’s Girl’ cel signed by creator Masao Maruyama

What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? I did not really try to connect with anime fans until high school. There did not seem to be a whole lot of interest in anime at my school when I tried asking around, and so I eventually started an anime club in hopes of finding other fans. Unfortunately basically any extracurricular activity that was not sports or theater was shafted because there were credit requirements related to these and so even though a bunch of people expressed interest in an anime club at my first administrative meeting, very few people could actually come to showings I held after school. To be honest I did not really have a good sense of direction for what I wanted to do with the club until I was a senior and had experienced my rediscovery of anime. It was also during this time I began nurturing my love of old anime. The goal I set that year was to try and break people’s preconceived notions of anime with every showing I did and try and make it a little educational by talking about some of the background details of how the titles came to be. So I would show titles like Royal Space Force, Project A-ko, Angel’s Egg, Gunbuster, and the early ’90s Black Jack OAVs to name a few. That being said, the anime club was really just one guy I had not met before I started it, and my friends most of whom were not really anime fans. The people that attended did tell me later after I had graduated that I showed them some really interesting stuff that they would never have associated with anime normally, so I guess I did achieve my goal in the end. I think there might have been more anime fans than I was originally led to believe but perhaps none of them were interested in going to an anime club. I say this because at a completely unrelated event I was talking to a friend about the unfortunate passing of Satoshi Kon and why this was a big deal, and someone I barely knew chimed in and said “Oh yeah I heard about that too!” I was shocked that someone else in my high school would even know of the name Satoshi Kon.

Then after that was college. Even though I went to a very nerdy college, I really did not connect much at all with anime fans I met there. It honestly was a really hard time for me as an anime fan to have to come to terms with the fact that I had so little in common with other anime fans in my age group. I am aware that what I am saying would probably anger some of the older fans who may have had to endure bullying for being into anime and would have killed to find any other anime fans. With the exception of one person (Hi Steve!), I basically did not meet any anime fans who really cared much about both old anime and the people who worked on them. Even putting aside old anime, people who went to the anime club in college were not particularly interested in having serious discussions about anime either. Apparently the club used to be open to the public but from what I hear, too many old folks being around turned off students from the showings so it was closed off by a previous club president who had graduated by the time I was attending. While I am sure this was done with good intentions for the students, I was pretty bummed out that had I only attended a few years earlier I would have been able to meet a bunch of older anime fans. The one time during those years I felt a really strong connection with other people about anime was during a summer internship in Tokyo when I was 20 years old; basically all the actual employees in my team were middle aged software engineers. That same summer I was again reminded how out of place I was and still am; I was cel shopping in Nakano Broadway and I realized that the only people that ever walked into the cel shops (I spent hours upon hours just looking at cels) that were younger than me were the kids of couples that were much older than me. It is not easy for me to be reminded frequently about my interests are quite out of place with other fans in my age group. I would love to meet other fans in-person that are into old anime regardless of their age but I do not really know of a way to do so easily. I think most people tend to socialize within their age groups so I am not sure there is an easy way.

Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? It was, but I did not really use the internet to try and find other fans during middle and high school. These days I follow a bunch of the Anitwitter folks though. I mostly gave up trying to connect with other fans in real life circles. Some of my college friends who watch anime have tried to appeal to me by claiming to me things of the nature “Miyazaki seems like he thinks he’s the only one who can save anime” or “I can see how Hunter x Hunter was influenced by Naruto.” When I respond “Oh that’s interesting I never heard of that” and then ask them for a citation source or how they know any of this eventually they admit that they were bullshitting me which I do not take kindly to at all. Experiences like this deter me from wanting trying to discuss anime seriously with the anime fans I currently know in person. As a result I now sort of just silently follow the tweetings of (to name a few) the Mike Toole, Dawn / Usamimi and 80s_anime folks of the world. My small (maybe dumb) hope is that perhaps writing all of this may help open up some avenues to connect with other anime fans into older anime.

Austin at Otakon 2017, getting his ‘Bubblegum Crisis’ cel cel signed by Hidenori Matsubara.

Do you remember your first convention? What was it, and what was it like? My first anime convention was actually only a little over a year ago, at Anime Boston 2016. Prior to that my entire knowledge of what actually happens at anime conventions was pretty much based the AWO podcast coverage of them. I only went on Sunday and I mostly just spent time in the dealers’ room, especially at the only vendor that was selling cels. Instead of cels, at that booth I ended up buying two Galaxy Express 999 posters, a Royal Space Force poster, and a Macross Do You Remember Love poster. I’m kind of kicking myself for not going for the whole weekend because Masao Maruyama was a guest that year.

Tell me how you got a summer internship in Tokyo. Where was it? Did you speak Japanese? So I actually did three summer internships in a row in Japan. The first in Hyogo Prefecture (near Osaka), the second in Tokyo, and the third in Tokyo. These were all arranged through my school which had a program that you where you could do summer internships abroad. All of these internships were software development related (I majored in Computer Science).

The first internship was for a startup which excluding me and another intern from my school, consisted of literally just my French boss and a Japanese student working there. At lunch sometimes we would use Japanese but for work stuff I would just speak to him in English.

The second internship was for a more traditional Japanese company called Secom, and took place at their research lab in Mitaka city (the same city where the Ghibli museum is located). They asked me what language I preferred to communicate with and I insisted on Japanese because I was trying to get more comfortable speaking it. They seemed relieved and happy to accommodate that request, although we would have once a week English lunch table events which I would go to so they could practice English. Those lunch tables were the only time I spoke English at the company. In the present day my spoken Japanese has atrophied very hard, although I’m still practicing reading and listening. As I mentioned earlier, most of the people in my team were essentially folks in their 40s to 50s who majored in Computer Science back in the day. In other words, the demographic of people who would likely enjoy the same kind of anime that I do. This was exactly the case. I could talk about how great Galaxy Express 999 is and people would respond with pleasant agreement instead of a blank face, wow! Forgive me for tooting my horn a little, but those guys were continually surprised by just how much I knew about older anime properties; actually I feel like I actually don’t know that much compared to the super fans that I follow online. For a presentation I did in front of an audience comprised of people from a bunch of different teams, I showcased some of the cels I bought that summer and invited people to stop by my desk if they wanted to take a look at the rest. One guy who came by was talking about Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and referred to Hideaki Anno as the director. I gave him a weird look and corrected him, pointing out that the director was in fact Hiroyuki Yamaga. He still wasn’t quite convinced but my supervisor had my back and said “he actually knows a lot about anime.” Most of the people in my team weren’t necessarily hardcore anime fans so much as people who enjoyed anime when they were younger. It just so happens those anime titles were exactly what I was into. As a half-joke I would tell friends in the states that I was finally with my kind of people. It was the first (of very few) major experiences I’ve had offline where I felt like I really had an overlapping anime interest with another group of people.

The third internship was not an internship so much as a summer research experience I did at Tokyo University. I think most students (all of them were graduate students) in the lab could read English decently, which was probably a requirement given that most academia is published in English, but they were no one spoke it at all. It was kind of unfortunate since my Japanese speaking had gotten a lot worse at this point so it was hard to actually engage in conversations about stuff. During my introduction to the lab I did mention (in Japanese) “Hmmm, as far as hobbies I’m into ’80s anime in particular.” After processing what I had said, one of the students responded “… wait we weren’t even born then.”

This reminded me of an amusing experience during my first summer in Japan before my first internship started, where I was in a language exchange thing that was happening at Tokyo University with my Japanese class from school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but apparently my bizarre interest in older anime left an impression on some people there. At the end of this language exchange thing, there was a closing event where on a whim they were someone should do karaoke. Prior to this I had used the opening to Gatchaman in a presentation for my Japanese class so everyone from my class wanted me to go sing the opening in front of a bunch of Tokyo University engineering staff and graduate students, which I did. I’m not even sure the graduate students knew what this was, and it must have been weird for some of the staff to get a flashback to their childhoods.

Was your interest in anime a contributing factor to you taking an internship in Tokyo? Maybe somewhat but honestly I don’t think it was that big of a factor prior to accepting the internship. Completely unrelated to my anime interest, I had read up a lot about lifestyle differences or social issues in Japan. So I was well aware that it isn’t some fantasy land where people casually walk down the street rocking Naruto headbands. Especially coming from Hong Kong and then living in the states, the culture shock wasn’t that big for me by the time I spent my first summer in Japan.

I also didn’t really have this anime fan obsession with Akihabara being the holy land nor did I feel like I absolutely had to make a pilgrimage over there to complete my anime fan journey. I did go a couple of times and at first it was a little overwhelming but honestly overall it was pretty boring for me. If you are down with all the hot anime merchandise and have tons of money, then they will very willingly accommodate that fan interest. But for someone like me whose mind was flooded with obsession over older anime, there wasn’t a lot that catered to me from there. Nakano Broadway on the other hand, THAT is where the old school anime fan stuff is at.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest contrast between anime fandom today and anime fandom when you first got into it? This is a pretty boring answer because it could apply to anyone besides people that became fans after the rise of streaming as a anime delivery mechanism, but it has to be just the sheer amount of anime that is available via legal means. More accessibility is great but ironically the problem of legal accessibility being solved has lead to the problem of too much anime being available. The latter is not actually a problem because it’s as simple as choosing not to watch everything, but I think any long term fans can probably name a person or two that tried to watch everything available every season and burned out really fast. As far as how this relates to fandom specifically, I think an obsession with always trying to stay up to date has lead to overall anime fandom having a very short term memory. To be honest not long after I was getting into anime I think this was already starting to happen, but now it seems even worse. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t really see the modern equivalent of extreme concentrated pockets of fandom for older properties (whether that’s stuff from when I was getting into anime, or before). It would be a shame to lose that level of fan dedication. That being said, I’m still pretty optimistic that dedicated fandom will still thrive in some form.

Austin can be reached on Twitter and his blog.

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