Location: Vermont. (But my recollections take place in the Deep South.)
When did you discover anime? Share as much as you remember. This is a little tough to answer, because during the ’80s and early ’90s it was pretty common to get introduced to Japanese animation through localized dubs on local TV or video store rentals. Additionally, Japanese studios were deeply involved in a lot of properties we assume to be American productions.
For the sake of brevity, I’d say proooobably 1989 or so? I remember being very, very small and watching stuff like Robotech and Star Blazers in the time after I got a baby brother but before we had a Nintendo, so it had to be sometime before Christmas 1989. Yeah, 1989. I didn’t know where the shows came from or anything, naturally.
As far as knowing where the shows came from and understanding that I could follow sources for more of this thing that was so appealing to me, I think I was like. Eight. So 1994-1995. This was around the same time I was getting into Japanese monster movies and Chinese martial arts films, so I was at this point asking probing questions of video store people and running into tapes with subtitles instead of people yelling really fast in English and going ~AH~
So: 1989 or 1994, depending on whether you need me to have known it was a separate kind of thing from cartoons and not just cartoons I liked better that kind of looked alike.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? PEOPLE WITH THE PROPORTIONS OF HUMAN BEINGS. I know a lot of people will write that they were struck very hard by the art, and it’s no different for me. I was really drawn in by the expressive faces and the reasonable proportions of the human characters.
I realize now that I was also drawn to the approach to animation and direction even if I didn’t have the language for that yet. I liked the economy of it, I liked the sense of wider space and tolerance for quiet establishing moments even in localizations cut and dubbed to try and match the constant noise and movement of American cartoons.
I liked that they didn’t always have to be funny.
Overall, even localized all to Hell, Japanese animation had a sensibility that appealed to me in a way the majority of American animation still doesn’t.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? I could not tell you. I just couldn’t. I know Robotech was still enjoying a lot of attention/circulation toward the end of the ’80s, I know Dragon Ball Z started getting very popular sometime after 1995. For the most part, though, lack of internet access and being literally raised in the woods without going to school kept me pretty ignorant of what the nerd world at large was into.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? I didn’t have many fans to interact with, or that much drive to do so.
As far as being into it was concerned?
Weird. It was, looking back, very weird and desperate. It wasn’t stuff you could buy in Wal-Mart at the time, not really, so if you wanted to get something specific you needed access to niche physical sources like a comic shop or a good circle of people with connections. You COULD get catalogs, but those were where? At comic book stores, usually. Or in video stores, sometimes.
I found most of my best stuff in flea markets, either because the vendors had deals with bootleggers or because moms were cleaning out their college-bound kids’ collections. I would go on literal pilgrimages to a particular market that I knew to be an especially choice and ever-refreshing source. It was 40 miles away.
I am not kidding.
How much did flea market tapes cost? I’d put the average at around $15, the median at $25, and the tippy top at $40. Remember, VHS were still fairly contemporary things at the time. Depending on where I went and what I bought, it would fluctuate. If a vendor knew that what they had was abnormal and desirable, or had attractive tapes in boxes and so on, it would always cost more. If it was a big place with shelves and shelves of tapes that people just dumped off regardless of box presence or bootleg status, it tended to be cheaper. Now, when you look at figures like an average of $15, understand that this was for around 90 minutes of footage. Mmmmaybe 120 minutes. Except! Sometimes you’d get swindled and it would be as little as 60 minutes! That works out to like $7.50 an episode, which is BONKERS by today’s standards.
Yeah, that’s right, sometimes (A LOT OF TIMES…) you’d plunk down tens of dollars and not be that sure what you were even getting. If you were buying something out of a catalog, it could be a total crap shoot because you bought sight unseen in a market that was still full of opportunists. Some vendors kept Exotic Foreign Tapes in the same sad sterile glass counter cases as the Game Boy games and other stuff kids might steal, so you couldn’t even touch them without making it clear you were going to buy something before you even read the back of the box. It was a goddamn wasteland.
When did you get internet? Can you tell me about participating in anime fandom online at that time? Hah. As in solid internet at the house? That had to be 1998 or early 1999. Yeah, definitely. Our first internet-connected computer (’cause they had to be hooked up to a phone jack and use the house phone line, and not every room had that) was in our kitchen. I had my own hand-me-down PC in my room, but that was for games and tinkering.
As for participating, I have to say I didn’t do much of that for a very long time. At least not by today’s standards. Most of what was around for my interests consisted of disconnected sites managed by single people or small teams. You could use programs to get into chat rooms, but I didn’t do too much of that. There were mailing lists, which I guess I could describe briefly as “those marketing newsletters but sourced to everyone subscribing, and also usually about what sci-fi characters you wanted to bone/see naked.” Not a lot of mailing lists for what I was interested in, at least not that I managed to find at the time. I mostly used the internet as a fact-gathering tool to determine what was coming out, how to get it, and whether it was worth my time.
It’s funny. For being so isolated, I didn’t experience the common drive to find and befriend everyone who was into my particular interests. It wasn’t until things got especially bad at home, around 2001, when my physically present friends thinned out because being around me got too intense, that I got desperate for online friends.
Tell me about your first time interacting with other fans. Do you still know them today? In person, specifically for fan-related things? That’d probably be my first job, when I was 15. I worked at a comic/game/video shop from 15-17, and we ran something of a viewing/gaming group on Saturday evenings. It was held in this dingy little back room we called The Gulag, and it was a cut-rate circus if ever I did see one. We’d sit around a table made of plywood and saw horses in plastic deck chairs from Wal-Mart, watch a single tape or disc, and then play tabletop games until… whenever. I guess it was kind of like an anime club, but it never received any specific definition. We all liked anime, so that was what we watched. It must have helped that the owner got a whole bunch of feedback on newly-arrived titles that he could then turn around and parrot to customers.
I do (technically) still know some of these guys! Some of them have families which is… terrifying, because I remember getting in back alley sword fight re-enactments with them, but ultimately positive. That having been said, I absolutely avoid them whenever I’m back down south. Mistakes of one’s youth and all that. [Cai is loosely quoting Char from Mobile Suit Gundam here.]
Tell me about your first fan event. When was it and what was it like? I was twenty one years old, and it was the dang worst. As it turns out, when you’re not old enough to drink and you run pretty cold on nerds to begin with, being immersed in nerds set loose in an environment that encourages them to be all the things you can’t hang with, conventions are a nightmare. No one in my group had warned me, for instance, that people will just grab you. I have no idea if that still flies, but it was totally a thing then and it was absolutely intolerable to me. The first night, I got invited to a room party that culminated in me being shoved forcefully toward a “cuddle pile” and then bailing out of sheer terror. It felt like an inescapable, boozeless, sexless orgy of screaming and cackling for three days and I had no fun at all. Also, everything was overpriced.
I know a lot of people have fun at anime cons, but there’s a dark side, too, so you have to be careful. Lots of people you meet online (and at cons, increasingly) are in fandom out of a very human desperation for contact and validation. That makes it a rich, ever-renewing feeding ground for predators and abusers.
Today you’re still really into Captain Harlock. How has your interest in that show changed over time? I think the biggest thing that’s changed is perspective. I have a perspective and a vocabulary now that let me understand and articulate what I owe to a fictional universe and its creators. I can acknowledge now that I might not have felt even remotely confident ditching a terrible home situation—by train with no plan and next to no money—if I hadn’t been wrapping myself up in daydreams about throwing everything away to live freely since I was 12 years old. That a set of stories affected me so profoundly and for so long is probably why I can’t stop telling stories. Hell, the first novel-length thing I ever finished was Harlock fanfiction I never showed anybody. It wasn’t a self-insert story, but… it might as well have been.
Something else that’s changed is my… self awareness? Regarding it? Like, I’ve made peace with and embraced how much queer theory I can apply to it and how those parts definitely appealed to my issues and fantasies as a weird little queer in the South. Seriously: Name me a better barely-coded gay daydream than uprooting yourself from a society that hates you to go play cowboys and pirates and skinny dip with your best friend forever. You can’t.
Have you always been really into anime? Or did you take a break from fandom for a while? A break from the collective activity of fandom? Yes. A break from individual interest? No.
What’s the biggest contrast between anime fandom when you got into it and now? I can’t be sure because I was so, so isolated early on and not too keen on reaching out based on interest alone. I could say it’s way more social now, but what if that’s always been the case? One thing I can say with confidence is that it’s way, way, way easier to get everything. Cheaper, too. Damn kids.
Cai can be reached on Twitter.