Dean Talks Anime: The Way We Were
An opinion by Christopher Kinsey
I was told tales of the time before me. How those nerds of the 80s had to scrimp, save, and find their own reels of Japanese anime to be played on old AV equipment through the empty classrooms of college campuses. How the generation before them had to have a relative overseas to score a treasured piece of merchandise of the few Japanese entertainments redubbed and designed for American audiences. I have not felt the woe of complex mail ordering in the 70s to get some still pictures of shows like Ultraman and Gatchaman. Compared to the nerds of old who dabbled in Japanese entertainment I have fared well. But those of us who have lived through being fans in the 90s have tales of strife as well. Listen well, lest we return to the old ways.
The first obstacle to enjoying Japanimation (which is a term, I believe, outlawed after 1997) was procurement. Anime, manga and toys were either hidden in specialty shops leaps and bounds beyond your means (usually in California or New York City), traveling around with convention circuits or hidden away where other nerdy pursuits were enjoyed. This meant dealing with comic shops. These aren’t the “Please, everything is great, comics are great, how can I serve YOU better” comic shops of today. These were the days when the mini comic boom was in full swing because the collector’s bubble was in full swing. If it wasn’t a multi-variant first edition issue it didn’t take up space on a shelf at all. You rummaged, hoping for something resembling anime lines. If your shop supported small press, great! Comico and Dark Horse had your back with lots of translations coming out around that time. There were also many independents that took to the anime style of drawing and if that’s all you could get, well, so be it. If you wanted something special though, that’s where it got tricky. Trade paperbacks were a lot rarer back then, and the few that Dark Horse put out had to be special ordered. And if you wanted something special you had to be sure the typical “Comic book guy” wasn’t at the counter because then you’d just be smirked at for deviating from Marvel and DC. Only if someone canceled would you find one on the shelves, but that meant you’d be missing volumes a lot. To this day I can’t complete my set of Caravan Kidd because of this. And what made matters worse was that manga translation was a really small market until regular booksellers took the plunge, so books were canceled left and right, untranslated and lost because who’s looking for old stuff today? How much will remain lost under the juggernaut of modern manga?
On the bright side, as the decade wore on several companies started to bring over lots of nifty anime related merchandise. The specialty shops eventually expanded to other major metropolitan areas. You could usually find one squirreled away in just about every city, selling and renting copies of tapes, pencil cases of your favorite shows, and even elusive soundtracks on CD. All that money floating around meant it wasn’t long before some entertainment sellers wanted a piece of that action. Besides just serving up some anime titles, lots of movie and music stores began to carry merchandise and clothing. Virgin Megastores, Tower Records, Suncoast Motion Picture Company, even the smaller Mom and Pop chains would buy, sell and trade these rarities at a premium price. Of course, if you were in high school, premium prices usually meant you didn’t get these too often. What you could get was video rentals. As a really niche market back then you were lucky if the big chain rental store in your town had a few titles of anime to look through. A night of renting stuff at Blockbuster meant you could wonder about at the end of the kids section and notice things took a darker turn. There was no quality control. Right next to the copy of The Land Before Time your kid sister wanted to see was Ninja Scroll. Some stores eventually hid the anime in the specialty section, with the workout, sport and random sexual help tapes. That of course, did wonders for the perception that all anime was porn. And there were never anime titles at small mom and pop stores. Best I ever found was a copy of My Neighbor Totoro and trust me, once teenage you saw Ninja Scroll from a Blockbuster, you wouldn’t have the patience for something without sex and violence.
But yeah, you’re broke and this whole streaming thing is about 20 years away, so where is the anime on TV at? First off, lower your expectations to the basement, Sparky. Something had to fill the hours at 5-6-7am in the morning and you know what we’re going to fill it with? Dragonball and Sailor Moon. This is not a bad thing, but that timeslot just put the largest anime series to air on American television into a doomsday spiral. What’s even worse was that was the “Kid’s Stuff.” You’ve tasted blood, and you want more. Even if it’s cut to hell TBS style, you wanted something that reflected (what you think are) your adult tastes. The first time I can even recall seeing something anime related on American TV beyond translated shows in the 80s was a viewing of Lensman on the Sci-Fi channel. It wasn’t long after that my father returned from a business trip with that same tape and I was entranced. Not too long after I discovered Suncoast and ate some of my allowance by getting a few tapes here and there. But one night in 1995 Cartoon Network aired something late at night, the “Saturday Japanime”. It was a block of three anime movies, cut up a bit of course. The features were Robot Carnival, Vampire Hunter D and Twilight of the Cockroaches. This was huge to me and I had hoped they would continue to bring over more. No such luck. But Sci-Fi channel picked the ball up and ran with it. After a weeklong anime feature series they began running “Saturday Anime”. Every week before MST3K you could sit down and watch cartoons in the morning like you were a kid again. Thrilled with features such as Odin Starlight Mutiny, Lily C.A.T, MD Geist, MD Geist II, Demon City Shinjuku, and Psychic Wars. Truly only the finest pieces of animation were selected. I’m kidding, there was some good stuff too. Well, good to me. Look we didn’t have much choice and it warped us a little, OK?
So no one’s really looking out for you besides the specialist stores, young 90s anime fan. But there is one place, uncharted territory that can get you a taste, a glimpse, of the wonders from the east. You are one phone line away from the anime internet of the 1990s! Please do not panic! Don’t touch any stray gifs, keep away from the dancing babies, and bring a book because a picture about the size of a postage stamp will take fifteen minutes to load. Anime on the internet was a strange place. Partly because search engines weren’t nearly as powerful as they are today, and there were a lot more of them. Another part was most anime fans only had the most basic website building areas to fool around with. Angelfire was the simplest and a great many sites were there, trying desperately to attract attention. Many sites dealt with one particular character and where sparse amounts of internet content gave out the creators took to making fanart, stories, poetry and the like. Webrings flourished in a kind of jousting match to see whose webring could lay claim to the most of a particular subject. Webrings made it really easy to find other sites that were along the lines of what you were interested in, but the closer you got to something specific the more someone seemed to want to claim dominance over that subject. There were several “Anime Webrings” that hosted sites, but when you boiled it down to individual shows; that’s when the real internet drama started. Webring masters would demand alterations and control over others’ content to be included in their popular webring. To show you were part of a webring you would usually stamp it with a clickable picture saying you were part of that webring, or even make your own. But many webring owners would really raise a ruckus if you deviated from set pictures, links, or even joining more than one ring.
But there was a silver lining. There were many sites that simply cataloged news about anime, and these were good, if crude for the time. Anime Web Turnpike was pretty much the place on the internet to find information about releases, where every importer had a website, who sold what, voice actor lists and websites, where to find content, a database of series, the list went on. It was pretty much the source for anime until much slicker sites took the helm and search engines made it easier for you to find the companies you needed. It lasted from 1995 to 2014. If you go to the website today you are left at the entry screen, but no link works at all. It was destined to happen of course, but it was nice to have a one stop shop for everything you ever wanted to see; or didn’t want to see if you delved into the section that linked you to the crude hentai and lemon fanfic sites.
But I think that’s enough for today. My bones creak and ache with the pains from before. I will now settle in with the classics of that golden age, the anime that made it all worth it. Struggling to be good consumers, we made it possible for the great titles of the late 90s and early 00s to find a foothold. When demand swelled with the ground roots movement we eventually heralded in Toonami, the continuation of Dragonball Z and the rise and fall of the great distributors. But those are tales for another day. For now, to watch!
Dean The Adequate would stick it to the man at Blockbuster by rewinding his tapes… but only to the start of the feature! Really sticking it to those fat cats at ADV Films, Streamline, Pioneer. Oh. Oh no. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I have to go back, back to make things right. Funimation must have a true competitor or we all will suffer til the end of days!!!