When did you discover anime? Share as much as you remember. What started it all was the clearance aisle at a K-Mart in 1995. I was six years old and my grandmother agreed to buy me one toy for not being completely annoying. I originally was going to get my go-to toy, Polly Pocket, but after my grandmother corralled me into the clearance section I was immediately taken with a Sailor Moon doll. I had no idea who she was but she had to be mine. For the next year I would play with “Sailor Moon” unaware of her origin until one day, during summer vacation in 1996, I happened across the USA channel early in the morning and found that my doll fought evil by moonlight and won love by daylight. I was obsessed with the Sailor Moon anime, in part, because it was my first exposure to “cartoons” with continuity (plus female superhero!).
From Sailor Moon I eventually gravitated toward the afternoon Toonami block (Dragon Ball, Tenchi Muyo, Gundam Wing). Unfortunately when I turned 13, my super-religious parents found my Love Hina manga and banned all anime from our home. I sometimes would sneak and watch late night anime on Adult Swim (Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo) or TechTV (Silent Mobius or Akira) but anime had to take a backseat until I was able to escape the house after graduation. It’s been fun rediscovering anime in my mid to late twenties though I have a lot to catch up on.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it?
As I mentioned previously, what initially appealed to me was the concept of continuity. At the time, the concept of seasons, especially with animated shows, seemed novel. I was also drawn to anime because it featured girls with agency who had emotional arcs, character development, and—let’s face it—cute talking animals. While there were cartoons from the ’80s and ’90s that featured women (Rainbow Brite, Jem and the Holograms, etc.) I couldn’t relate to those characters like I could with the school-aged girls in anime.
In retrospect, I think what kept me hooked on anime were the values that it instilled and exposed to me. I was raised in a strict, Southern Baptist household that did not value education or thinking outside the box. Anime taught me empathy—not the Bible. Anime taught me that even a “Meatball Head” could be a leader. Anime’s emphasis on hope, the power of friendship, and other usual shonen/shojo tropes saved me from an oppressive environment and showed me that I didn’t have to be limited because of my gender. (I still remember one 4th of July standing on the back porch and watching the fireworks explode and pretending I was Relena Peacecraft watching a Gundam battle in space, worried about political ramifications.)
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? I could answer this two ways: what was most popular among my demographic or what was most popular in the Western anime fandom at the time.
For my demographic, elementary and middle school kids in the ’90s, the most popular were: Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyo, Yu Yu Hakusho, Cardcaptors [the American cut of Cardcaptor Sakura], Zoids, Digimon, Gundam Wing… basically anything that came on the Toonami block or on Saturday mornings.
In general popular anime of the era, not mentioned above, included: The Vision of Escaflowne, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Slayers, Martian Successor Nadesico, Serial Experiments Lain, Magic Knight Rayearth, Battle Angel Alita, Silent Mobius, Ghost in the Shell, Princess Mononoke, Gundam (08th MS Team, 0083: Stardust Memory, 0080: War in the Pocket), Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Cowboy Bebop. I’m leaving things out but you get the idea.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? The biggest part of my anime fandom during adolescence revolved around the playground or the lunch-table and discussing anime shows, pretending to be anime characters, or lamenting how the bus didn’t get us home in time to see if Goku had FINALLY defeated Frieza yet. As time went on, most of these conversations fell to the wayside as the majority of kids were only watching these shows because they happened to be on during times kids watched TV. By high school, only a handful of kids actively pursued anime and we were almost all emo/geek/goth. I remember, after anime was banned, getting a CD with anime openings on it from one of my friends. I got exposed to Blue Gender, Rurouni Kenshin, and the like by playing their opening songs on repeat.
That being said, before anime was banned in my household I did get a chance to attend 2001’s Anime Weekend Atlanta. It was one of the best weekends of my childhood. I saw I wasn’t alone.
I remember looking at the DVDs and VHS tapes for sale which were almost all too expensive for a 12-year-old. I also remember a man sneaking upskirt photos of a cosplayer but I was too young and surprised to intervene. The one time we wondered into a video room, with my friend’s mom, we had the unfortunate luck of strolling into a showing of Wicked City. After that, she made us leave.
Another memory I have is discovering manga in my local mall’s Waldenbooks (RIP). My first manga was Sailor Moon. As I branched out (eventually picking up Slayers, Tenchi, Cardcaptors, Pokemon, and Love Hina) I discovered that I would have to hide some of these from my parents because of onsen scenes. I will say, for a poor kid in the ’90s, manga was the best way to access new titles since VHS and DVDs were waaaay too expensive to buy. I couldn’t rent tapes from Blockbuster because I didn’t want my parents to think of anime as anything but innocent cartoons. Occasionally Waldenbooks would give VHS tapes with 2 episodes on it if you bought enough manga. These tapes were my first exposure to Revolutionary Girl Utena and my first exposure to subbed anime. I would watch them in secret.
Once our household got the internet, and before it was banned because Jesus, I also remember perusing the countless anime fan sites (what I fondly remember as the Angelfire/Geocities era of the internet). I partly taught myself how to use a computer and how to use the internet by going to anime fan sites, looking at pictures, and listening to midi files of anime theme songs. I lost my mind when I realized you could right click and save jpegs. By the time I was 12, I joined my first forum and honed my internet conversation skills by talking about Tenchi Muyo. At the time I didn’t fully recognize the border between “irl” friends and forum friends. When anime, and therefore the internet, was banned, I basically lost almost all my friends since I was an introverted kid. I still wonder what happened to them. I think I’m going to go look for that forum now to see if it still exists.
I am sure it was painful to share about anime being banned in your house, so thank you. Did you get right back into anime as soon as you moved out? You’re welcome.
Honestly, an anime ban was just a portion of the joys that surrounded growing up in that house. I moved out immediately after graduating high school, in part, to escape that level of control. The other reasons are a little personal but I couldn’t physically stay safe living there. I did not immediately get back into anime after moving out. Most of my late teens and early twenties were concentrated on working two jobs and going to college full time. I also couldn’t afford the internet at the time so that was a large hurdle.
I eventually got back into anime by taking my best friend to Anime Weekend Atlanta 2012 as part of her bachelorette party. Being there reminded me while I originally fell in love with anime in the first place. I started by re-buying some of the series and manga that my parents threw in the garbage. Shortly after, I was able to afford the internet again and began to watch whatever was on Netflix. I didn’t start to watch seasonal anime until 2014. Since then I’ve been balancing following 3-4 shows a season while trying to catch up on all that I had missed from 2002 to 2014. I’m still playing catchup to be honest.
Do your parents know you are back to your old anime ways, and if so what do they think?
So you are no longer religious? I am agnostic. Religion was used as an excuse to isolate me from my hobbies, my belongings, and my friends. I no longer feel hostile towards religion and have taken care to study different religions in college but, ultimately, it isn’t for me.
If I had to choose a religion I would probably go with Zen Buddhism. Also, thank you for reminding me that I need to track down the Saint Young Men OVA and movie. Please look that up if you don’t know what that anime is about.
Would love to hear more about the con! I’ll share that I took a disposable camera and convinced a friend to get the film developed since I couldn’t risk my parents seeing the cosplay pictures I took. I kept the photos hidden in my closet and would stare at them from time to time until they were discovered and thrown out. I particularly remember a Utena cosplayer I took a picture of. I still have a draw towards Revolutionary Girl Utena, in part because it was the first anime I saw subbed and because that cosplay was the tangible reminder I had that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t a freak.
Here is a picture of myself (left) and my friend, Kara, that I went to AWA 2002 with. We were 13. I made a Washu (from Tenchi Muyo) shirt out of fabric paint since I could not buy an anime shirt. My friend is cosplaying as Saint Tail from the anime Saint Tail. She was my best friend in elementary school but moved to Atlanta when were in 6th grade. If she did not live there I would not have been able to attend the con. I kept it a secret from my parents. I am guessing that Kara’s mother did not tell my parents about the con. I’ve been told as an adult by some friends’ parents that it was sort of understood that my parents were extreme.
Finally, what’s the biggest contrast between anime as a kid and anime fandom now? The biggest difference in anime fandom has to be access; both in regards to anime and anime fandom. Once upon a time you had to scour stores for anime and hope they had what you are looking for. With streaming services this hunt is mostly gone, but with the loss of the hunt comes the loss of the euphoria that surrounded finally finding what you were looking for. The internet has also introduced an era of fans easily being able to access each other. We can view cosplay photos from cons we can’t go to, and discuss anime with others we would have otherwise had no access to.
I joined anitwitter late last year and have been blown away by the personalities, opinion pieces, and websites I’ve discovered. While it’s been a joy to follow fellow otaku and to discover sites like Anime Feminist, taking part in anitwitter also makes me feel more obligated to watch current shows. With the constant stream of anime I can’t help but feel less emotionally attached to shows that would have made a bigger impression on me otherwise. I believe that sometimes our fandom goes too fast and can lead to burnout. I wonder if that burnout contributes to the fandom starting to skew younger or if it’s a combination of responsibilities that accompany aging? That being said I would not go back to the way things were if given the choice. Oh brave new world that has such moe living in it.
Chelsea can be reached on Twitter.