Location: United States
When did you discover anime? S Depends on the definition of “discover,” as I was exposed to Voltron, Battle of the Planets, Speed Racer, and others so early on they are formative memories. I thought about them in the same way that I thought about Transformers, G.I. Joe, Looney Tunes, or anything else on television—cartoons that I liked.
It wasn’t until I caught Demon City Shinjuku on Sci Fi Channel’s Saturday Anime (I was, what, 8? Maybe 9?) that I became aware of these things as a separate category of animation. It was a feeling similar to when you think, “Oh, I guess I haven’t eaten,” and then you realize you are famished. I began taping Saturday Anime religiously, scouring my grandparents’ TV Guide and newspaper for any sign of airings at strange hours, and renting out everything my local Blockbuster stocked.
Did you live with your grandparents? What did they think about your interest in anime? I was raised by a single mother so I often spent nights, weekends, or entire summers with my grandparents. They took no interest in my anime watching habits as they set up a spare TV for me to watch when I was over. This meant I had free reign, so I took every opportunity to ingest anime, kaiju movies, martial arts movies, and anything else I could find. There was a very real, tactile joy to poring over newspapers and/or Reader’s Digest and trying to find this stuff to watch and record later.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? Anime was playing with a completely different toolbox of genre tropes than I was used to, had a cinematic visual language unlike anything I had seen in American animation, and the level of detail communicated to me that these creators cared as much about animation as I did.
And, well, let’s be real—it had blood and kewl robots and lasers and did you see that dude’s head explode?!
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? In a word: all. It was incredibly difficult to find, and finding other fans was similarly difficult. After a few failed initial attempts at getting some friends into it, I realized that what I thought was mana from heaven was apparently bizarre to some others. So when I did find other anime fans, we mostly just sat around watching each others’ collections and freaking out about it.
We saw anime as a monolithic pillar, and we loved all of it. Certain titles came up more often than others due to access (like Blockbuster) but until Toonami hit we didn’t really think in those terms. Anime still felt small, whether it really was or we were just dispersed.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? Like being in a cult. Or, maybe like being in a cult inside of a cult, since even finding other “general” nerds was tough back then. Geek was not chic in those days—it would be decades before spandex-clad heroes would rake in billions at the box office.
Still, we loved it, it was like having a secret language. We could communicate in a way that no one else really “got” (whether they cared to was another matter).
Since people were quiet about liking anime, how did you find fellow fans? A careful mixture of tactics. The most obvious was asking others if they were fans outright or trying to bring it up casually in conversation (which was not at all casual given my social awkwardness at the time). This may seem strange, but a safe route was keeping my eyes peeled for people who drew a lot. Anime seemed to attract people who either could draw or desperately wished they could (I was/am in the latter category). But often people doodled in class or had art on their trapper keepers (if they were brave enough) and if it was in the “anime” style that was one way to spot new potential friends. Another route was attempting to show people anime that meshed well with existing fandoms like sci fi or fantasy; Bubblegum Crisis and Record of Lodoss War were great litmus tests in this regard. But overall I did anything I could to find new fans without sliding even further down the social ladder.
Where did you mostly hang out with these people? Did you introduce them to shows, or did they introduce you? The schoolyard mostly, and then later at one another’s houses if our parents would let us. We were too nervous to risk bringing tapes to school, so sleepover nights became mad dashes to show all of your favorites to one another and make copies if you had spare tapes. So it was a healthy mixture of both once that initial hurdle had been leapt.
You also mentioned failed attempts to get friends into it. Did you lose friends because of anime? I wouldn’t say I ever lost friends over anime, but my fandom certainly made me drift apart from others that either did not like it or lost interest over time. Though now that I think about it I may have subconsciously shut someone out at one point. I recall a former friend who I never really spent much time with after I showed him the Area 88 OVA and he bad-mouthed it the entire time.
Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? If yes, how? If no, how did you connect with other fans? No, not until much later. Even when the internet appeared, it took a while for enough of us to have home computers and internet access to really even consider searching out fandom online.
Word of mouth, mainly.
Tell me about those early days after you finally did log on. A lot of Geocities and Angelfire, and a lot of shrines [fan sites to specific anime or characters]. I used to pore over episode and film descriptions, having no clue whether it was accurate or not. I had become pretty skeptical of random nerd information at this point (such as video game rumors about ‘hidden levels’ or ‘secret moves’ that you spent hours trying to uncover, only to find they were a schoolyard lie… it hardens a child), so I was always reading with one eyebrow perched. Still, I voraciously consumed anything and everything I could find, much of it little more than a few words and some still images.
Mostly it started with Robotech, Battle for the Planets/G Force, Star Blazers, Voltron, and Japanese Transformers episodes, but soon it spiraled outwards into whatever else I would come across. I knew of many shows and films by reputation but never really ventured into trying to download entire episodes, and I’m not sure if such a concept even crossed my mind until late high school/college. Forums also helped a lot (I missed the usenet days entirely), but even there information could get dodgy. It was all very hodgepodge, often embellished or fabricated for the sake of making the speaker appear to be king/queen nerd. A lot of this information gathering was fun, but it required a lot of effort. Because of this I often spent a lot of time re-watching my favorite shows over and over while digging deeper into those specific fandoms. It was a safer return on my time investment than trying to find new things, a habit I am still trying to break decades later.
For you, what’s the biggest difference between fandom then and fandom now? It feels like we won the war in a way. It’s all here now—we can access basically every single bit of anime that is (and nearly all that was). Anime fandom feels like less of a struggle to get/see the shows, and more like a struggle to sift through the mounds of content and find what is worthwhile. It is not just a problem for young fans, either. I once worked an entire summer to save up the $150+tax for the complete set of six Record of Lodoss War tapes, but these days even I perk a brow at a $10 subscription fee for streaming content including hundreds of titles. Times change but the times also change us, I suppose.
Grant can be reached on Twitter.