Location: Lansing, Michigan
When did you discover anime? Share as much as you remember. My earliest was “Battle of the Planets” (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) as a elementary school kid, but I only vaguely knew it was anime at the time. When I got serious was with AnimEigo VHS rentals in 1991. Bubblegum Crisis and Urusei Yatsura had me hooked from then on. After that, I joined an anime club about an hour away, and started going to cons soon after.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? Mature and complex themes, ease of telling fantasy and science fiction stories that would otherwise never be made due to the cost of other media.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? Hard to say back then; there was very little widespread communication. The internet was not filled with easy-to-use social media at the time. But probably Bubblegum Crisis. Everyone had seen it, the music was incredible, and it was easily identifiable to western fans that loved sci-fi and Blade Runner.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? The meetings for Anime Club of Michigan were in a tiny ostracized corner of a monthly comic book convention at a VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] hall. There were about 12 chairs, a TV, and a VCR. People were free to come and go so it was a major source of new fans, but we always had a few parents sit toddlers down to “watch the cartoons”.
The shows that really floored me at the time were Record of Lodoss War and Legend of Galactic Heroes. We had strict rules about fansubs. Anyone that charged for a fansubbed VCR tape was basically scum. Our club traded recorded fansubs for blank VCR tapes (of a required quality). You could do 2-4 per month depending on demand, and pick them up the next month. The only time money changed hands was for shipping if someone couldn’t pick them up, and it was exact as possible. Once a particular show was licensed, we always stopped distribution.
Back there there was basically no translated manga other than a few 12-20 page VIZ titles that were flipped and broken up to fit normal american comic format. I also regularly hit the local Japanese bookstore. Absolutely no English titles there, and I couldn’t read them, but faithfully bought “Nakayoshi” [a shojo manga magazine] for this new CLAMP manga called Magic Knights Rayearth. When it became an anime, I repeatedly drove to this store an hour away, rented an unsubbed recorded-off-TV VCR tape, drove home, then drove back and returned it (uphill both ways, git off mah lawn). Watched the entire first season that way. Still love that show.
What kind of video store let you rent something like that? The store was a Japanese bookstore, absolutely no English materials there at all. They had cheap rentals of VCR tapes recorded directly off Japanese TV, commercials and all. This was long before YouTube even existed. It was a way for Japanese people living in the US to still see shows they loved or keep up with things.
When did you attend your first convention? Went to my first real convention, Katsucon #2, in 1996 because Katsura Masakazu (Video Girl Ai) was there. 800 attendance, it was a 500 mile drive for me, alone. I took up cosplaying after that and got more of a convention crew to go with me of friends and SO’s. I think I have always attended at least one con every year since then. I still remember saying “Sailor Moon would never be shown on American TV.” Thankfully I was proven wrong a few years later. Fandom really picked up then.
Fandom began as something solitary for you, but now your wife is an anime fan, too. How did you two meet? At the very start I had a friend that I watched rented VCR tapes with, but he wasn’t serious enough to regularly travel and make club meetings, but enjoyed watching stuff when I could manage to get my hands on a show.
My wife had a common story for many: she grew up watching Sailor Moon on US TV. She had a close friend that was highly involved in a local club and a local convention. We met through a mutual friend on IRC chat that was mainly anime and Legend of Zelda-oriented. I got involved with that group by way of a conversation about Saint Seiya.
Did you meet your wife in-person for the first time at a fandom event? Yes, but we were not long distance dating yet at that time, we were meeting mutual friends. It was at JAFAX, a smaller Michigan convention. She was very blue, cosplaying an OC character from her novel—with a leotard and elaborate face paint. She’s a very outgoing cosplayer and does not mind being seen by, as people put it then, “normies.” We ended up going to a restaurant with convention staff, most of us in cosplay, and that’s how we met.
What’s the biggest contrast between fandom when you first discovered it and fandom now? I really think the Internet has changed convention cosplay.
I’ve attended many conventions several times yearly from 1996 till now. With more and more social media and availability of convention photos, the average fan who has never gone to a convention before sees professional cosplay from all around the world. They see amazing outfits with retouched photos. When they actually get to a convention, they see normal people doing what cosplay they can with the budget and ability they have. It’s changed the feeling of cosplay over time.
There are more attendees that view cosplay as something that exists for their own entertainment, instead of the cosplayer’s. Expectations have changed, shaming became more prevalent, and there is less focus on just cosplaying a character you love, any way you could, for yourself. Things got kinda bad around the late 2000’s with harassment, hallway catcalling, guys blocking hallways insisting on hugs, cosplay shaming websites, and the like. The “Cosplay is not consent” movement has made things better in the past few years in my view. Everyone benefits when people wear whatever they want feeling comfortable and safe doing so without harassment.
On the other hand, the internet has really improved anime watching.
Back in the early ’90s there was no YouTube. There was no streaming video of any kind. Any anime on TV was very, very rare and if it was shown, it was a shadow of its former self with plot changes, and even splicing shows into one another.
Other than that you watched what you could get from fansubbers. Many times you didn’t even know a show existed at all unless you ventured into a Japanese bookstore and bought untranslated manga. Releases from AnimEigo and other companies were very rare in the early ’90s. If you wanted to see a show like Sailor Moon or Marmalade Boy, you were out of luck unless you had access to fansubs at the time. Any show targeted for women just was not licensed here at all before 1995.
Fansubbing now has a bit of a bad rap because we have alternatives, and a completely unlicensed show is very rare outside of licensing legal trouble. (Such as all Macross shows that still has no ability to be licensed outside of Japan currently.) But back then fandom, didn’t exist without it. There was a clear code with most anime clubs: Don’t distribute licensed works. Don’t sell fansubs for any profit. (Shipping and cost of VCR tape if absolutely necessary, but usually a blank tape was traded.) We tried to keep money out of the equation. Many isolated fans had no choice but to buy some fansubs from shady dealers, but they didn’t know there were alternatives.
Today, it’s hard to imagine fandom without video on computers. If you want to see a trailer or opening for a show you can, any time you want. It’s very easy to check out shows you might like.
Mark D. can be reached on Twitter.