Location: Newport News, VA, USA
When did you discover anime? Anime has always been part of my life in some form—I watched Unico as a kid and a little bit of Sailor Moon when it boomed—but I really became interested in college, after a high school friend had spent ages telling me how great Slayers was.
I joined my college’s anime club, the William & Mary Anime Society (WMAS), sight unseen, with no knowledge of it whatsoever. I enjoyed our viewings of Revolutionary Girl Utena and The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, but it was a viewing of Castle of Cagliostro that finally roped me in and made me fall in love with anime as an art form.
It’s incredible that you joined “sight unseen.” Did you have any preconceived notions about what anime was going into it that made you want to join a club? So I was born in ’81 and had cable, which means I got a steady diet of anime-I-didn’t-know-was-anime in my childhood. Mostly that was Unico and the Grimms’ Fairy Tale series with the little green-haired girl in the opening. (You know. “Hey, come along and join the fun!”) I still had no context for “anime” until Sailor Moon got big, and then my only knowledge of it was Dave Barry writing an article about how he didn’t understand it. So my exposure was more limited and biased than nonexistent. Really, I just knew I had a friend who was into it and I kind of dug the art, so I wanted to see what it was beyond the look.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? At first, it was a whole new source of animation I’d yet to discover. But when I made friends with the local anime geezers who loaded me up on things like Macross and Bubblegum Crisis, I started getting a better idea of how much the animators cared. With the shows I tended to gravitate toward, there was an obvious love for the product that went into it: detailed backgrounds you only saw for the space of a few seconds, mechanical designs that invoked realism when I was more than happy to suspend my disbelief, things like that.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? Right when I was getting face-first into anime, Utena and Cowboy Bebop were still relatively fresh. In that span of college years when I made my way from knowing nothing to being relatively versed, the “gateway drugs” were Bebop and Fruits Basket. The live-action Sailor Moon also ran its course, so the entire fandom sort of had its toe in tokusatsu without really realizing it.
What was the first fandom you got really invested in? How did you express your fandom? I have two slightly different answers to this. The first anime I was ever REALLY a fan of was Unico, but I didn’t know what anime was, so it’s hard to call that “anime fandom.” But I did make myself a little cardboard cutout Unico I’d take places with me because I liked to imagine he was my friend and I’d go on adventures with him.
I think my first anime fandom, KNOWING what anime was, was Utena. I did some cosplay much further down the road, but while I was still in WMAS I headed up a parody dub of episode 3 called “Utena: Dance Dance Revolution.” I thought I was really quite funny and launching off things like “Voltron: Hell-Bent for Leather” and “Dirty Pair Does Dishes” and that whole scene. We had a good group, though. Shannon Granville (still a friend I see occasionally) was a very deadpan Utena, I did Anthy a la Molly in the original Sailor Moon dub… we had people’s roommates coming in and doing voices. I think one character spoke in fake Klingon. Something tells me it’s not aged well in a lot of ways, and there were a lot of club in-jokes, but I’ll bet people can find it if they dig around enough.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? Anime cons were still relatively small, and clubs and conventions were where you went to see things. So there was a camaraderie there that was more than just cosplay meet-ups. (Not to put down cosplay meet-ups—I still love them!) But like, we were just at the end of the sub vs. dub era when you had to choose which to buy. You couldn’t get pocky at World Market. It was sort of the “last hurrah” of anime as a subculture [as opposed to popular culture], which I don’t consider a “hurrah” at all because I like it being easily accessible. It was strange, jumping on in a time when it was gathering steam and getting big, but I kind of feel like I ended up being a product of two generations of fandom. Which means I love both generations, honestly.
Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? If yes, how? If no, how did you connect with other fans? We were JUST on the edge of going digital. Like my first junior year of college (I took a medical withdrawal for a year), I distinctly remember both sending out for Lupin III fansubs on green VHS tapes AND downloading Neighborhood Story and Mahoromatic fansubs on Limewire.
The year or so I was on medical leave was when torrenting really became a thing, so it’s sort of like my college career is split into two chapters, and right along that chapter split is where the fandom started to become what it is today. Legal streaming was still several years away—even after I graduated, I was still working with fansub groups on obscure stuff (which you can now watch legally on Hulu). So I came in during the shift from “You can find maybe half of anything but you have to work for it” to “You can find things right after they come out but not legally.”
Did you participate in early internet fandom? Were there particular sites or forums you visited? I was actually into the late ’90s/early ’00s fandub community more than anything else: a bunch of people dubbing ten-second clips from SailorStars and whatever else, and sometimes doing actual audio dramas. I did a few longer-form projects (which shall remain nameless since, you know, that was copyright infringement). I did cross paths with a lot of people who ended up going pro, though—Cristina Vee notable among them. I had this sort of wild fifth-dimensional moment during the Crunchyroll Awards, doing live news updates while she was on camera and sort of mentally interposing that over our stuff 15 years ago.
The voice acting community was rough sometimes, as any online community can be, but it was some of the best stuff I ever did. I met a lot of friends and collaborators I still work with (like Mike Dent and Aron Toman), and I still do some voice acting (Toman’s Chronicles of Oz). It helped improve my range, too. And it gave us this whole crop of ready-to-go voice actors.
[Editor’s note: Kara is one of the professionals I interviewed for a Forbes article about transitioning from the piracy era to the legal anime industry. To read more about her story in this context, check here.]
Do you remember your first convention? What was it, and what was it like? My first con wasn’t an anime con, but my first anime con was only like a month after. It was Katsucon 6 and I went with WMAS (my anime club). My memories of it are extremely blurry, but I remember we were in the cosplay and we did “Anime Family Feud” with the Ikaris (Evangelion) vs. the Mishimas (Cat Girl Nuku-Nuku) hosted by Captain Tylor. I’d seen zero Eva, they just spray-painted my hair blue and said to act emotionless. I did get the biggest laugh of the night, though:
“So, Rei, how are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
Funnily enough, apparently WMAS got REALLY known for its skits after that because we did ridiculous parodies. A River Song cosplayer I met more than a decade later (who’s now a good friend) actually recognized me for those skits. Wild.
Would you mind sharing a photo of this cosplay, or any photos you have from Katsucon 6? Sadly, those photos are lost to the sands of time. I checked back on my college anime club’s site and a few other places but no joy. I can describe it, though. It was all closet cosplay with bits chopped up: Peter Pan collar shirt, a light blue dress I’d just cut chunks out of to imitate the shape of the front, and a frayed red ribbon for the collar. From onstage it looked fine. Up close it was a hot mess.
Today you are a professional in an anime-related field. How did your early anime fandom experience shape your career today? One of the most valuable things about my early fandom is I had friends of all ages: college friends, yes, but also older friends who had been into the anime scene literal DECADES longer than any of us. That was great because it brought us insight into the fandom before our time and encouraged us to watch older shows, but it was also a matter of leading by example.
Everyone has their “obnoxious time” as a new fan, especially if you’re a teen when you get into it. It’s just part of the maturing process. I was fortunate that I had older friends that understood it, guided me through it (occasionally with “tough love”), but didn’t write me off just because I was an annoying newbie who didn’t know as much as they did. They saw that as an opportunity to share what they loved and watch someone be enchanted by it for the first time.
If it weren’t for those people, I would have fled the fandom, rather than digging deeper into it to the point that I ended up working in multiple facets of the industry. Specific people like Mike Griffith, Rob Lantz, the late Dan Taraschke, are all people who were (and in some cases still are) my positive examples. And I work with more positive examples daily. Preserving the history of our fandom is such a big deal, but not to the point of keeping it “pure” or whatever. I hope in some way, what I do can help another new fan digging in for the first time feel welcome.