Location: Midwest United States
When did you discover anime? In 1993, an older friend took me to see a screening of Akira in town. He then introduced me to his large pirated tape collection. Once it started to appear in Blockbuster and other rental places we would rent as many as we could and spend the entire weekend copying them onto 6-hour VHS tapes. A few years later a man, who would become a good friend, opened a store specializing in anime and other Japanese imports. Through him I got involved in the fansub tape trading circles.
At the time, how and why did people justify tape-copying? Were there any other ways to get anime? There was no justification for copying tapes we rented; everyone understood it as piracy. I guess as long as it was for private home use and no one was trying to pass them off for sale as the real thing no one thought it was a crime to worry about. I started to think about that too and how the world of tapes (audio and video) in the ’80s really changed the perception of and made piracy a mass market thing. Up until the early ’90s a lot of VHS tapes were still being priced for the rental market. When a release was first available it could cost upwards of a hundred dollars to buy the VHS. Then after a while it would drop down to standard mass sale pricing.
Aside from the outright pirate copying of tapes we rented from video stores, fansubs were an entirely different thing. All of the fansubs we had were things that weren’t licensed in the United States. Its the old idea of no harm due to none of the distribution companies in America losing money. A lot of the stuff was recorded directly off of TV in Japan, commercials and all. We made the excuse that if we were in Japan we would be watching it on TV for free anyways. I still have ‘nightmares’ about the mid ’90s Japanese Ronald McDonald. Some brand recognition was born out of it though, I’ve had a fondness for Glico products for decades now!
The first trip I took to Japan, May of 1998, I dropped close to $150 on VHS tapes. The first two tapes of the Nuku Nuku TV series and a strange Eva tape called Genesis 0:0 In The Beginning. I still have them, too.
The best fansub memory is getting a copy of Princess Mononoke in ’98. The first version we got our hands on was copied onto too short of a tape and it cut out right as San and Ashitaka were trying to give the forest god his head back. When it hit the theaters in town in ’99 everyone from the anime store (of which the fansub copies of the tape were procured from) all went to see it. The fansubs of Evangelion Death and Rebirth were particularly memorable too, as Rebirth ends right as Asuka is about to fight the mass production units… talk about a cliff hanger.
I’d love to hear more about fansub tape-trading circles. How long did it take for an exchange to happen? How did you meet people to trade with? Being a teenager in the mid ’90s of course I’m out and about town more on my own, hanging out at coffee shops, record stores, underground parties and all-ages dance clubs. So meeting new people would always bring up the topic of anime among them. You make friends with people, compare what shows you have and what other people have. We would either swap tapes for a while to watch and/or copy them or make copies to hand of to other people. At my friends store some of us would pitch in a $20 here and there to help him get tapes from the various fansub groups. I never bought directly from a fansub group so I can’t speak on that experience. It would usually be a few months from when something was broadcast and it got into our hands. Sometimes a year. At this point we weren’t too aware of what was being aired in Japan and when unless we looked at Japanese issues of Newtype magazine.
Once the millennium turned and fansubs started to become a digital thing my friend who ran the store was on top of all the groups releases. He would pull them as soon as possible, put them to VHS and have them at the store as quick as he could. There was always a whiteboard at the store with the release dates of videos. One side was commercial the other side was fansub. I started watching Naruto in 2003 through his store and by the time it started to hit the States on Cartoon Network I was so far ahead, keeping up with the Japanese release schedule at this point, I decided there wasn’t any point in stopping. I think I finally got annoyed enough with the show about episode 140 or so of Shippudden. So yeah, I suffered through the legendary 80-some odd episodes of Naruto filler… waiting each week to see if we would actually have new story, falling into the rampant internet hype and rumor mill.
My friend’s store closed down in 2004 and I took it upon myself to be the source for hot new anime with all of my friends, hosting intimate weekly viewings at my house and filling DVDs and external hard drives with the latest shows I had pulled. I did some dabbling in hard encoding as well when Sgt. Frog started to air. No one was picking it up and I was enjoying it. So I started working on my own translations, using my own knowledge a friend who was way more fluent than I and whatever translation files I could find on the net. I was also re-encoding files at this time too. MKVs started to show up and my system had a hard time handling them. I had a few programs that would convert the files to AVI files and allow me to rework or add in my own sub files. This was all in 2004 through 2006. I stopped because it was time consuming and my computer wasn’t powerful enough. It would take hours to re-encode a 24 minute episode.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? As I think pretty much everyone can relate to, it was different. I was used to Disney and Hannah Barbara. Obviously I had watched localized anime since I could remember, Robotech, Battle of the Planets, the weirdly hypnotic Grimms Fairy Tale Classics on Nickelodeon. But of course the stuff aimed at adults, which was the most available in the beginning of the ’90s was way different and more gritty. The ’80s had a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in America so it seemed a lot of the Japanese origins were hidden on purpose.
Why do you think this was? What kind of stuff was hidden, for example? The ’80s was a pretty down period economically and Japan was doing really well. At that time I was living in a small rural Wisconsin town and everyone was pretty much anti anything foreign. But the Japanese were buying up a lot of land and buying into a lot of companies in America at that time. Hell there is even a weird artifact movie/TV show about that called Gung Ho.
A great example of really hiding the Japanese origin, as we kindly call it, localizing, from that time period would be Robotech. You would only really see the Japanese names scroll by really fast in the end credits… if at all. I’m sure producers and advertisers and whoever else in boardrooms was nervous that if something was widely known to be foreign to the public would reject it outright for whatever reason. I think its still somewhat true today and probably universal in most countries really. Look at The Office… NBC was pretty quiet about that being a direct copy of a British show.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? I don’t think there really was one, this was right before anime became a hot thing and was known more widespread in the mid ’90s. We watched whatever we could get our hands on.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? It was exciting, it was subversive in many ways, and it was exclusive. We could only get tapes and manga from the local hole-in-the-wall comic book stores.
Could you tell me about one of these stores that you went to a bunch? What was it like? How much did tapes and manga cost? I worked a telemarketing job in a trendy university part of town, having lived in the suburbs. In the same building was a comic book store that myself and a friend I worked with would go to every payday. I remember paying $25 for the Streamline subtitled copy of Akira. The only reason it was $25 instead of $40 was because I was buying the copy the store rented out. But it wasn’t unusual to pay $30 to $40 dollars for a tape. Black Magic M-66 was $35 I think, Appleseed was about the same. Back then Gen Con was still in Milwaukee and at the end of the ’90s you saw a more visible anime presence in the dealer room. I would go crazy when ADV would sell off stock for dirt cheap. I was scooping up copies of anime I had been watching to death on pirated cassettes for $10. Here is Greenwood, Patlabor, Dominion Tank Police.
One thing I regret never getting around to buying though was a collectors DVD set of Lain that came in a metal lunch box. I think that thing ran like $120 or so. The first purchase I made from my friends anime store (prior to me knowing him) was the first season box set of Ranma 1/2 for $200. I had to special order it and put half the money down before hand, that was in late 96 I believe. I still have almost all of my commercial VHS tapes, I tossed the hentai ones I had collected before I got married 8-). Just under 60 of them in my collection. I make sure I always have a working VCR.
Before I moved into the house I bought I made sure I got rid of the nearly 200 pirated/fansub tapes I had in my collection. I had decided it was time to get rid of them and bundled them up in a few yard bags and tossed them in some random business dumpster in the dark of night.
I wasn’t buying manga at this time. The same friend I worked with ended up getting a job at a different comic book store and he ordered a lot of stuff that I would borrow and read at the time. But I didn’t start buying manga myself until about 5 years ago. Pretty much the manga that was available was through Dark Horse at this time and it was typical American comic book release pricing and schedule. One 20ish page book for around $3 every month or two months or so. Tankoubon weren’t a thing and neither was right hand reading. Everything was transposed and flipped for left hand reading. The first manga I ever saw, but didn’t know it was manga, was Lone Wolf and Cub in ’93. A friend of mine had it and I was blown away by the violence. AT this time I was reading X-Men comics pretty heavy and the commercial comic industry was pretty tame at that point, just mildly racy.
Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? If yes, how? If no, how did you connect with other fans? Not yet, I got into it right around the time AOL exploded and everyone got sucked into the web. There were BBS communities obviously but I was unaware of them at the time and didn’t actually get involved in online anime groups until later in the ’90s when I started to live in IRC.
When did that happen? I got into IRC once I was no longer able to go on AOL due to the prohibitive monthly membership fee. I got access through an older friends university log in to the school remote network and logged into IRC from there, as a replacement for AOL chat groups. It was really just a place to meet people and discuss anime and role play, typical chat room stuff. I ended up being friends with a girl in the main chat room I hung out with that lived in the area, which opened up access to different anime. She was the one who introduced me to Gundam through copies she had of Gundam X and 0083, this was in 99 and I was already out of school and living on my own with roommates. So at this point anime was on TV 24/7…and video games. Beyond this the internet was used to hit up Anime Turnpike to look at fan art and learn about other series’. But it wasn’t a big part of my existence at that point. Being a broke ‘should be in college’ kid internet access wasn’t always reliable and I liked to party too much with my IRL friends and roommates.
Do you remember your first convention? I actually didn’t hit any anime conventions until I was an adult and went to it for my children to experience it. As a teenager and young adult the only con I ever went to was Gen-Con, which had a good industry and grassroots anime presence. It was primarily a tabletop gaming con. I watched a lot of anime at the con, the fansub of Escaflowne being quite memorable due to the excellent soundtrack on a massive surround system.
You mentioned taking your kids to anime cons. Do they like anime? What do they watch and when did you introduce them? Does your partner like anime? My kids love anime. I’ve raised them on it. My 13-year-old daughter told me a few months ago when she borrowed some Chi’s Sweet Home manga from the library that one of the earliest cartoons she remembers watching is the fansubs of the original Chi series. I tried to find a lot of anime for them where they were younger, always looking for NHK programs, whether they were in English or not. I had a lot of episodes of Pythagoras Switch and Nanami-chan. All the old Pokemon too. Of course all the Studio Ghibli stuff. I try to take them to as much anime when it hits the theaters as possible. The last one we went to was a late night subbed showing of Your Name.
My kids like the con experience too. Sadly the local con doesn’t have much. Hopefully next year I can put the funds and time together to hit ACEN for a proper con experience. My daughter has been feverishly drawing and working on her own manga-type style. Most of the manga I buy nowadays, I buy with the intention of letting them read it as well. There are always shows on Crunchyroll and Netflix/Hulu that we watch on a weekly basis as well. My son goes along for the ride, enjoying it, but my daughter consumes a lot of it. Between manga she buys or gets from the library and the shows she watches on her own on CR… like Fairy Tail. I can’t stand it personally but she loves it. Her group of friends are also into anime at various levels so she has that part of her life to nerd out in on her own.
My wife on the other hand… tolerates it to an extent. When we were dating she watched some anime with me but she got tired of it eventually and now I try not to watch it around her! She has her own nerding that she does that I’m not into so we are nerds of different flavors. She runs a store at our nearby Renaissance faire so she’s neck deep into that passion.
Steve can be reached on Twitter.