Location: Orlando, Florida
When did you discover anime? I’m sure a lot of people have the same old story of “I was watching anime before I knew it was anime” type of stories that involved shows like Voltron and Robotech. While that applies to me as well, my first encounter with something I KNEW was anime was the Tenchi Universe TV series. It was around 1997 or 1998 when my best friend borrowed the first VHS volume and had me come over and watch it. I was so enamored with it that I watched all four episodes AGAIN later that night. That opened the door for other popular series at the time like Ranma 1/2, Evangelion, Slayers, and Dragon Ball Z to consume my free time… and my wallet.
How much did anime cost back then? How did you afford it and where did you buy it? Anime VHS tapes varied depending on what you were buying. If it was a fansub on VHS, the average price was around $15-20 per tape. You’d only find these tapes at a dealer at a local convention or if you were lucky, an Asian hobby store like Florida Oriental Trading here in Orlando. Official releases varied on if you bought English dubbed or English Subtitled. Dubs tended to range from $20-25 while subs were around the $30-35 range. And sadly, you would only get two episodes of content for a TV series or an OVA.
As for money, anytime I had some extra cash it would go towards the hobby. I was fortunate to have a small, monthly allowance from my Dad. At other times, I would save lunch money for the week and use that towards a new volume of Ranma 1/2, Tenchi Muyo, Slayers, etc… Needless to say, I had a decent VHS collection at the time.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? If I had to sum it up to one thing, it had to be the barriers that it broke through that was prevalent in domestic animated series and films in the U.S. I’d rarely seen anything in animated form have stories and characters that felt three dimensional or the mature content it tackled. Once I got a taste of it I had to see more.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? If we’re talking mainstream, and I mean stuff that was on TV, it had to be DBZ or Sailor Moon. If we’re talking fans who actual bought VHS tapes my answer would have to be Evangelion.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? It was the ultimate secret club. I felt like I was apart of something underground and exclusive. If you ever met someone else who was into anime at the time and knew the “secret handshake” so-to-speak, you had the chance to make a new friend. Hell, I still have a few friends from high school like that. We bonded over anime. Started up a club after school and would watch everything from official VHS releases to a new fansub someone had acquired.
Tell me about the club! Where did you meet? Did you have a teacher supervisor? Do you still know anyone from then? My old high school anime club came around when I saw a flier posted around school. I was really excited that I would get to meet new people who shared in what felt like a small, secret fandom. I quickly bonded with most of the club and still have a few people I consider dear friends to this day. We had a few teacher sponsors who allowed us access to a classroom after school on Wednesdays. I was the VP and unofficial “tape guy.” No matter what, I always had a tape ready to go watch. In year two, I had to move away due to family issues. But it had tripled in size from the original dozen who started it. From what I was told, the club slowly evolved into a place where people would congregate to play Pokemon and YuGiOh! card games. It was almost like a bridge from ’90s anime fandom to the boom of the 2000s in that regard.
Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? Yes, even in the old dial-up internet days I consumed as much content as possible. I was a frequent visitor to the old Anime Web Turnpike and various “web rings” for all my favorite shows. Fanfiction was also a great avenue to get more of your favorite shows when you had to wait months on end in between tape purchases. Old message boards like rec.arts.anime were the norm. I even listened to old Real Audio internet radio shows. These things predated podcasts. I even still have a few on an old external hard drive. They have not aged well.
Can you tell me about Real Audio internet radio shows? What did they cover? How did you listen to them? I did NOT know about these! I was obsessed with getting as much information as I could about anime and the fandom in general in ’97-98. I would be online daily checking out the Anime Web Turnpike for webrings and anything I could find on my favorite shows. I don’t remember exactly HOW I came upon this, but I remember listening to an “internet radio show” that I’d stream through the Real Audio player simply called “Otaku Radio.” Original title, right? Hosted by guys named “Tirkiman” and “Stratos” would talk about whatever they were watching at the time. I think they had over 50+ episodes. From what I recall, they lived in Atlanta. Anime Weekend Atlanta was a common topic of conversation. I believe there was an episode dedicated to time travel differences between Dragon Ball Z and Kimagure Orange Road. But one in particular I remember was right around the debut of DBZ and Gundam Wing on Toonami. It was not kind to the rise of anime popularity with girls at all. Lots of “boys treehouse club” talk is the kindest way I would describe it. Listening to it again in 2017 was really odd.
Sounds like a time capsule! Where can I listen to it? That old show is LONG GONE from the internet. HOWEVER, I do have an old episode I converted and uploaded to my soundcloud. This episode was recorded around 2000 sometime.
Here’s the link to it:
Do you remember your first convention? I was a frequent attendee at Megacon in Orlando in the late ’90s. It was a catch all convention that had everything, including anime. My first “anime only” con had to be the first Anime Festival Orlando back in 1999 or 2000. AFO started small. Had a dealer’s room that had a ton of stuff I wanted at the time. Wendi Lee was the marquee guest. Overall, I remember it most for hanging out with friends at the time.
For you personally, what’s the biggest difference between anime fandom back then and now? The biggest difference by far is how many more casual fans there are in 2017. Back in 1996, finding someone else who liked anime was like finding a unicorn. if you found someone who liked anime you became instant friends. You had to be hardcore to like anime. You had to have the zeal to hunt down and learn as much as possible. Going to conventions that had an anime viewing room was a big deal because you may get to see something you’ve never seen before. In 2017, it’s insane how much access you have to everything. What’s nuts to me, there’s currently a fourth Tenchi Muyo OVA series being released and almost no one is talking about it. That would have blown my mind in 1997. There are so many other examples I could give. Just the idea of being able to watch almost every single new series from Japan literally an hour after it airs on TV for $7 a month has me flabbergasted. I have a lot of nostalgia for the early days of my anime fandom, but I love what it’s become today. Anime is still a minority in the world of fandom, but it’s no longer invisible like it was twenty years ago.
You mentioned you were in the army after you finished school, and I’d love to hear some stories about anime fandom in the military.
How did you meet other anime fans in the army? Meeting other anime fans in the army basically always happened by someone either seeing me watching or talking about anime. When you live on post and reside in the barracks, you end up with a duty known as “CQ” where you basically work the front desk of the building checking IDs, allowing food deliveries to go up, visitors, etc. While on said duty, you basically spend 24 hours straight watching TV and playing video games. I used this opportunity to watch anime on the government’s dime. Every so often someone would notice Cowboy Bebop or Dragon Ball Z on the TV and strike up conversation about it. That sometimes led to me recommending other shows and vice versa. One time I met an anime fan on Fort Bragg through MySpace of all things. Dude was literally half a mile from where I lived. He was really into Go Nagai and giant robot shows, which was really amazing considering that it was early to mid-2000s and I didn’t know too many people like that outside of the internet. One my favorite stories I like to tell is a guy who once asked me if I had “L.A. Blue Girl”—he pronounced it like the city and not “la.” Sadly for him I did not possess a copy. Funny side note to that, I heard a local mom and pop video store was closing down and selling old VHS. I went in to see if they had any anime. and SURE ENOUGH, a random copy of LA Blue Girl volume 4 was in the porn section. Later that week, I surprised him and presented him with it. He smiled and thanked me. I truly felt I had made a difference in someone’s life that day. Doing a little more digging online I actually found a local anime club called the East Coast Anime Society that had been around for a while. Met some more cool people who actually made fanzines from the early to mid-90s. Most of the group contributed to Animazement for many years too.
Life changes when it becomes known that you’re the “anime guy” in the unit. I’ve had numerous people knock on my door on different bases around the world, most whom I didn’t even know, asking me if I had anything from Naruto to Full Metal Panic Fumoffu. I felt like I was a local drug dealer. “Hey man, you got the animes?” was a regular question asked. I was even put on the spot by a superior to, and I’m not kidding when I say this, recite a monologue from an anime. I was given 24 hours to come up with something. I went with a few lines from one of my favorite series Giant Robo. Kenji Kurusame’s famous dub line of “I’m just an immortal kind of guy” went over very well with the good staff sergeant. I know it sounds weird, but that’s how we killed time during a deployment to Afghanistan.
During my last month in Afghanistan, I was on guard duty for our camp on Bagram Air Base. We had just started hiring local Afghan security forces to assist us working the gate. Basically I was in charge and got to stay in the shack while they handled the work outside. I had a few volumes of manga for such situations. While reading one volume of Densha Otoko aka Train Man, I had flipped to a page where the female lead was taking a shower and was clearly nude. The Afghan guard that was sitting next to me at the time noticed and his eyes widened in surprise. His interest in my reading material had increased ten fold and then asked if he could “borrow” it so he could practice reading English. He swore up and down that he’d get it back to me a week later. I politely declined knowing that had I lent it out I would never get it back, and also, if he got caught with it and got in trouble for whatever reason I KNEW it would get back to me somehow. I was so relieved when that shift ended.
How did you acquire new anime while you were in the army? This answer is going to be fun. At first I would go around Fayetteville, NC checking every brick and mortar store I could find for DVDs. FYE, Best Buy, and a few other nameless movie/CD stores were regular destinations. Believe it or not, the Babbages at the mall was notorious for breaking street dates for new anime releases. Got them five days early. Always loved getting the new volume of Yu Yu Hakusho that way. The PX on Fort Bragg was like that too sometimes. What was even better was that a lot of those mid-2000s perfect collections that ADV would release would also be on the shelf at ridiculous fire sale prices. I’m talking MSRP $60-70 would be on sale for as low as $30. But the best place by far was a little known comic shop known as Phantasy Central.
Let me tell you, I have never been so lucky in my life than to have been stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and to have discovered this lost hidden gem for anime fans…
By chance I had gotten into a conversation with someone at the aforementioned Babbages about anime I liked and went on how I wish there was some sort of place to get more anime. I was told to go to this little place in Spring Lake just outside of Fort Bragg. I hopped in a cab and headed straight over. As soon as I opened the door I was blown away by a gigantic VHS collection of anime. Dubbed, subtitled, fansubs… all for rent. I was in heaven. You name ANY anime commercially released in the US on VHS it was there. I was able to finally check out shows I only heard about. Imagine if Crunchyroll was a physical store where you could check out anime. It was that amazing. I watched all of Kimagure Orange Road over the period of a month. My worst mistake was watching the first KOR movie during my lunch break and went back to work holding back tears. I was asked if everything was OK multiple times the rest of the day. Sadly, the store had to close their doors a few years later. But that place was a regular hangout for me at the time and one I will never forget.
Was anime popular among soldiers? Why do you think that might have been? The easy answer is Dragon Ball Z. It was the hot show at the time came on TV right around when most soldiers were released for the day. It had a lot of action and over the top characters. I remember one time when deployed in Afghanistan, I brought my entire anime collection with me in about four large CD binders. When it was discovered I had Dragon Ball Z I was asked many times to borrow a few here and there. One guy even asked me to rip all 70+ DVDs and upload them to our shared media server we used to watch movies and TV shows. Needless to say, I did not have the time or the ability to accomplish such a task.
Sean can be reached on Twitter.