My Life as a Late-90s Otaku: How Being an Anime Fan in America Used to Be Very, Very Different

Anime in the United States isn’t anything new. If you look at the history, Japanese Animation has been on TV almost as long as television itself. Shows like Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Speed Racer blasted through those old black and white tubes in the 1960s. And since it was the 60s, no one cared if any hints of Japanese culture were completely erased from these early airings and depictions, because post-war blissful Pleasantville Americana, man.

Today’s blog post is not a History of Anime. I’m not at liberty to discuss such a grandiose topic, and besides, you have Wikipedia to teach you those things. No- I wasn’t born until 1985, I didn’t have much actual exposure to early anime, prior to well…the 1980s. And while I would absolutely adore to hear stories about anime fandom from someone who was a teenager or adult in the 1980s, that’s just not the perspective I can provide.

However, us kids who were cresting into their teenage years in the late 1990s and early 2000s have a unique experience in anime fandom. It was a transitional period, one where analogue life was dying, but the digital age was in its infancy. This meant fans had to be clever and resourceful, much like anime fans prior to 1995. The only difference is that we had the internet, and we got to be creepy-anime-hunting-hermit people. Which meant that we were able to locate and see almost everything we wanted without ever having to speak to a single living person.

I know, I’m painting a very attractive picture here, aren’t I? Just stick with me, because today, I’m sharing my experiences as a Turn-of-the-Century Anime Dork!

Ugh, Turn-of-the-Century Anime Dork. Those words hurt to write.

Getting ‘em While They’re Young

To this day, I can’t help but wonder if part of my attraction to anime can be traced back to my early Nick Jr. days when I was but a wee baby-sponge. Back when Nickelodeon was a fresh channel figuring out its content, the brand-new Nick Jr. preschool block was a combination of Canadian live-action shows and imported cartoons from Japan.

In addition to the charming aesthetic of these shows, the stories contained actual, arching narratives. Which meant they were bright, cute, and easy for me to follow, but complex enough to keep me engaged. Some of my favorites were Belle and Sabastian (which I can’t remember anything about, other than a boy and two dogs), The Little KoalaThe Noozles (Which was a total head-trip about a little girl whose father disappeared into an alternate koala universe. Koalas must have been a thing in Japan in the 1980s) The Lil’ BitsMaya the Bee, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

However, once Nickelodeon started creating more of their own content, like Eureka’s Castle and their 1990s Nick Toons, these charming old animes got bumped from the airwaves, disappearing into obscurity. But they were engrained in my memories.

70s - Mermaid

Another method of early anime-viewing came after a Disney movie was released onto video. Parents would scramble to the video rental place, and of course, every copy of the newest movie was gone. I was often subjected to the bummer versions of movies, such as the heart-breaking version 1975 Japanese version of the Little Mermaid (which I already discussed in a previous blog post) and some whacked-off version of Aladdin and His Magic Lamp.

Additionally, when I spent three years living in Israel as a kid from 1994-1997, my exposure to early anime grew. The Moomins was incredibly popular in Israel, and was broadcast regularly in both English and Hebrew, and the old Little Women cartoon sparked my interest in early colonial literature and Louisa May Alcott in general.

The Obsession Begins and the Rabbit Hole Opens

90s - Sailor Moon.png

But it wasn’t until I was about thirteen years old and my family finally got Cartoon Network that my life-long obsession with anime would take flight. Many of us remember the mid-day Toonami block, and that was the exposure that made my Otaku mind explode.

Which by the way, since I didn’t explain the word earlier, Otaku is a Japanese word referring to severe fandom. From my understanding of the connotation, the word is not exactly positive. A new word weeaboo has since popped up that’s in circulation today, and that one specifically refers to someone obsessed with anything from Japan. We all have that friend- the one who argues that everything from Japan is better, but the word Otaku refers more to pop-culture fandom.

But if there’s a word for a sushi obsessed fool, I’ll assign that one to myself too, please and thank you.

Once the Toonami block hit TV, there was an explosion of new anime fans, myself included in them. The two heavy hitters were Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. Pre-Toonami OG fans of the show have anecdotal stories about waking up at whatever-the-hell o’clock and watching episodes while the sun was still flipping them off and telling them to go back to sleep.

Personally, I’d seen Sailor Moon once before in 1996 and was thoroughly unimpressed because my Power Rangers boner was just too mighty at the time. But along came Toonami and I was sucked in, catching every single episode of Sailor Moon with my girlfriends. Our time between episodes involved drawing fan art, writing fan fiction, and me writing/drawing comics where I imposed myself and my friends as faux Sailor Scouts and the guys we hated as the enemies. No, I will never show them on the internet.

But as both Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z fans remember, the network only had access to a limited number of episodes that seemed to play on an endless loop, probably about sixty episodes of each show out of the two hundred total that each of them have, probably more for DBZ.

I wanted to know, what other fascinating Japanese animation was out there? What could I locally and easily get my hands on? Remember, part of my experience is that I’m a Los Angeles native. And part of living in a bigger city means that a lot of things, even obscure ones, are fairly accessible.

I did a little spin on Netscape to see what other anime fans were watching, and a list of titles popped up, mostly direct-to-video titles and anime movies. Some were aired late-night on the Sci-Fi Channel, and I recorded whatever I could catch from start-to-finish. (And no, I never did watch M.D Geist again.) But remember- at this point in our story, I’m no older than thirteen or fourteen. Those Sci-Fi Channel movies came on way past my bedtime, because I was a big dumb baby. No, I needed a solution that involved me watching anime at my convenience. Did my local Blockbuster Video or Hollywood Video have anime sections? There was only one way to find out.

90s - Devil Hunter Yohko

Now, let me stop and say this, and I think this is a sentiment that many anime fans at the time shared. Didn’t it seem like no one monitored the content of the videos creeping into the video stores? We all know that a lot of anime is has adult oriented or racy content. But then there was the time I rented Devil Hunter Yohko and watched it…with my mom. About ten minutes into the movie, there’s an animated sex scene, my first exposure to any kind of hentai scene (hentai is the Japanese word for pervert and has since been assigned to any sort of cartoon pornography.)

Watching it with my mom, I had to keep my cool and pretend I totally knew the scene was coming, taking the attitude of “Yeah Mom, these cartoons are super mature and stuff. What, you’re not adult enough to handle this awesomely bodacious cartoon boobie scene? Because you know…I am.” All while sitting on my hands while my hormone ridden thirteen-year-old body was trying not to have the best kind of heart attack.

All the Merch in the Effing Room

I’m going to carve out some time to talk about merchandise. Because as we know from anyone obsessed with any sort of fandom or franchise, we want the toys, damn it. But for a long time, there just wasn’t very much. We anime fans had to get creative with the sort of stuff we collected. Even in my major city, much of the merchandise was limited to very expensive video tapes, running about $30 for four episodes of a show.

We had some ugly, ill-fitting Hanes shirts with random clipart or scenes from animes I’d never even seen (I wore my Bubblegum Crisis and Gunsmith Cats shirts until they fell apart.) There were bootleg CDs available, which I collected. We had posters, which splattered my walls, and prismatic sticker cards/playing cards, which I stuffed into protective sleeve sheets. To this day, I have my anime card collection in a binder, which I keep in my bedside table next to my grown-up lady toys. They’re very precious to me.

As for free merchandise, I collected anything that would chew up my family’s 4GB hard drive computer. Things like Windows 95 Desktop themes that changed the background, colors, and sounds on your computer and drove your parents crazy.

WINAMP SKIN
It really whipped the llama’s ass

I also collected an arsenal of Winamp skins, an early MP3 player that you could customize, as well as a bunch of terrible quality 40 second Real Player and AVI clips from rare animes that took hours to download and looked like garbage.

But the real show-stopping piece in my anime collection was my arsenal of Fan Subbed VHS. I’ll explain really quick what that is. Anime fans, typically college students with access to video equipment, would purchase raw anime Laser Disc. Using some sort insane magic, they translated anime, created subtitles, timed them with the show, and slapped the whole thing onto a video cassette tape. The best quality videos always came from Canada, but they were more expensive. If you could afford the Canadian Fan Subs, it was like getting to do the best and highest quality drugs. A multitude of Fan Sub websites existed, with sellers offering VHS copies of their VHS copies, anywhere from $5-$15 per video.

To this day I have a copy of the infamous Pokemon Seizure Episode that I purchased in raw Japanese for $9.

Now, some sellers had integrity and refused to sell any video tapes once a series had been licensed by a legitimate anime distributer, such as Viz, Manga, ADV, or Pioneer. Other sellers gave zero fucks, and would continue selling their video tapes despite the licensing. That’s how I got the entire Fushigi Yuugi series, all 52 episodes in shitty B- quality VHS for under $30 well after Pioneer purchased the rights.

And once I saw artwork of Eternal Sailor Moon with the wings, and the Sailor Starlight characters from the final season of Sailor Moon? Forget it- I needed to watch those NOW.

DBZ fans, don’t you remember the feeling you got once you learned there was more to life than the Frieza saga? It was like that.

Gundam_Wing_Pilots
So…you guys gonna start kissing yet, or what?

Or once I learned there were other Gundam series past Wing, the soap opera in disguise about five pretty teenage dudes that propelled dirty fan-fiction and Rule 34 to the extent that the badass robots were upstaged.

Anime Access Today

I remember all the funny old rumors I’d read about different shows that were supposedly coming to American TV. There was a rumor about Ranma ½ on Toonami (which was already way old and cancelled by the year 2000.) There was a Neon Genesis Evangelion rumor. There was an Revolutionary Girl Utena rumor, which would have been an excellent introduction to LGBT anime on American TV.

However, none of these ever happened.

During the time when Pokemon mania was at its peak, there were shows that managed to sneak onto American television. Fans of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z tell horror stories about the chopping and splicing that happened during the shows’ western facelift. But at least the integrity was left in place.

Do you remember what happened to Card Captor Sakura? The show was renamed Card Captors, given that weird “Network TV Anime Gloss”. I don’t know the technical term, but Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh both got the same paint slapped on it. It was rewritten to focus on the male character, Li, and chopped down to like, half of its regular episode count.

Shows like The Vision of Escaflowne, while one of my favorite fantasy-romance-giant robot epics, just didn’t have a place on Fox Saturday morning. It was a huge flop and was quickly pulled.

Tenchi Muyo found a home on Cartoon Network, but it was a weird choice too, because not only was Ryoko the Space Pirate a raging alcoholic who was often naked, but the show also had the creepy lust gaze for the little girl, Princess Sasami.

(Although Ronin Warriors and Yu-Yu Hakusho seemed to do all right?)

cowboy-bebop-slice

It was all a mess. Though on the flip side, shows like Cowboy Beebop (noted by the AV Club as a “gateway to the medium as a whole”) found its raging fanbase in the US and outperformed Japan.

Anime today is more easily accessible than ever. Faster internet speeds have opened the flood gates for streaming services to provide a multitude of series, both old and new. New series are aired simultaneously with Japan, a phenomenon that my teenage ears ever would have believed. Services like Hulu, Amazon, Crunchy-Roll, and Netflix are absolutely mind blowing. And Netflix paying for original anime made in Japan? Plus, walking into Barnes and Noble and seeing top notch anime toys for sale? Are you kidding me? It’s incredible.

Ironically, the older I get, the more interest in new series wanes. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Many anime fans in my age group have kept up with One Piece, Gurren-Lagan, Kill La Kill, Attack on Titans, One-Punch Man, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures. Meanwhile, Hikaru no Go and Excel Saga are still new in my head. Sometimes we fall behind, and that’s okay. Because as we know from internet reality, the best you that you can be is the one that keeps those nostalgia goggles firmly glued to your head. So don’t throw out those out-of-print VHS and Fan Subs quite yet. You never know when they’re going to come in handy.

Kodomo no Omocha, Flame of Recca, or Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, anyone?

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