A Brief History of an Anime Fan

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I have often been asked why I am so interested in animation, and in anime specifically. What I think it comes down to is genre—what I’m really into is SFF, and as a teenager growing up in the 90s, at least in terms of television, animation was the best place to get it. Every so often a live-action show would break through (Babylon 5 played a big role in my formative years) but in animation virtually every show had an SF or fantasy element.

In the early 90s, a few U.S. TV companies had gotten the idea that mining the booming Japanese animation industry could serve as a cheap source of cartoons for the American market. Respect for the source material was low to non-existent—the idea was that the footage, which cost next to nothing to license, could be sliced up as needed and combined with dubbing to create shows. The grandfather of this trend was of course Carl Macek’s Robotech, which splices together three Japanese shows (Macross, Mospeada, and Southern Cross) into a single extended continuity. (Which almost worked, visually, since the ultra-successful Macross‘ style had been widely copied.) That was before my time, though I saw it eventually, but at age twelve or thirteen I had Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball.

Perhaps most influentially among me and my friends, we watched Teknoman, the U.S. adaptation of the series Tekkaman Blade. I’m not actually sure at what point I really understood that this was originally from Japan, but we knew fairly early on that it was different; dark, weird (Tekkaman starts with most of Earth being destroyed), with a plot that continued from episode to episode and a willingness to kill characters and bring in new ones. This gave it pride of place over the U.S. cartoons that were in endless syndication (think G.I. Joe, He-Man, and so on) with their episodic, tame stories and toy-lineup casts.

The next step was into anime proper, courtesy of the SciFi Channel (as it was then spelled) and its Saturday Anime block. This started in 1995, and showed, in retrospect, an astonishing variety of stuff. It had everything we’d liked about Tekkaman and more—it was dark, story-driven, and weird. SciFi was running these on the cheap, even by the standards of anime adaptations at the time, which made things even stranger. They would often have some episodes of a series but not others, and rather than recut or censor the casual nudity that was such of feature of anime at the time they would simply drop whole chunks of a show with no explanation. The dubs were, to put it mildly, sub-par, with the same team doing so many shows that we got to recognize them. And yet we were hooked. We wanted more!

I honestly forget who it was that first showed us around Chinatown in NYC. It is probably a succinct description of my suburban upbringing to say that taking the subway down to Canal Street felt slightly daring. There was a mall there, full of strange products with incomprehensible labels, and in the basement of this mall there was a guy who sold anime. This was an extremely shady sort of operation, with shelves that could be swung closed and packed into the back of a van at a moment’s notice. But in terms of price and selection, it blew away anything you could find at the record store. (Anime was for some reason sold at record stores? Does anyone else remember that?) Home we came, backpacks bursting with Nth-generation tapes.

This was the first time I really considered myself an anime fan. Instead of just watching what was on TV, we made special trips to acquire our favorites, and even knew (through third-hand translations of BBS posts) when new stuff was coming out. Not coincidentally, this period also saw the release of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was one of those era-defining classics that forever divides a genre into “before” and “after.”

That single show encapsulates both the highs and lows of anime for U.S. fans. It had parts that were spectacularly good, so that setting them beside something like He-Man seemed like a joke. It had parts that were incredibly strange or incomprehensible, which brought with them endless debates about whether the translators were doing a good job and whether there was some bit of Japanese culture we were missing that would explain things. It was more R-rated then anything U.S. media would sanction for fifteen-year-olds, sometimes in completely baffling ways. And it was unquestionably brilliant but, ultimately, unsatisfying. (Inasmuch as the ending is more of a chronicle of the director’s descent into depression and madness than a coherent story.)

When I left for college, in 1999, it was in the post-Eva world. My viewing had declined somewhat from the glory days of our runs to Chinatown, but I thought I was more or less keeping up with the times. When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, I was happy to see that two doors down from me in our freshman dorm someone had already hung an anime poster on his door. Something to talk about! I said hello.

“Have you seen Neon Genesis Evangelion?” I said, very impressed with myself.

The guy, whose name was Konstantin, said he had. Then he showed me his anime collection. I was expecting something like mine, a double handful of tapes; instead, Konstantin had a cardboard box of perhaps two cubic meters in volume, full literally to bursting with VHS cassettes. I couldn’t even lift it.

That was when I went from a mere fan to a lost cause. Konstantin and I watched through all the classic 90s series that I’d missed—Slayers, Rurouni Kenshin, Card Captor Sakura, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and on and on. Sometimes they were on copied tapes that were so bad they’d fritz out and become unwatchable, so we’d have to piece together stories like archaeologists working from incomplete texts. We joined (and later ran) Vermillion, the CMU anime club, which was plugged in to a cross-country network of fansubbers who mailed one another amateur translations of new shows.

Getting my tapes from Chinatown turned out to be fortuitous, because it meant I’d been watching subtitled shows instead of dubs. The 90s and early 2000s were the heyday of the format wars, fought between the (evil, untrustworthy) side that favored English dubs and the (righteous, correct) side that preferred subtitles. This was a big issue because tapes could only have one or the other, and the whole conflict went away after the switch to DVDs, which could hold both. Ironically, this was also about the time dubs went from “three guys in the producer’s basement” to real, professional productions I could actually watch. [Nowadays I even have friends in the dubbing industry, like Apphia Yu (also a Vermillion member!) and Cassandra Lee Morris, who narrates my Forbidden Library audiobooks!] It just goes to show that even the most gruesome conflicts fade away with time.

The next big change was the internet, obviously. Napster arrived in 2000, and with it the idea of peer-to-peer file-sharing. CMU had a fast internal network, so sending video around was practical long before that became possible more broadly. A number of networks came and went, squashed by IT or by legal challenges, and anime clubs and fansub groups started running their own invitation-only FTP servers, with logins jealously guarded to preserve precious bandwidth. A bunch of fellow computer science students and I set up a massive (for the time, which meant something like six HUNDRED gigabytes!) server and made ourselves popular in those circles, although not with campus IT. (It was called Bloodgod, after Warhammer 40,000’s Khorne; this is why bloodgod.com still goes to my website! Its shorter-lived partner was called Skullthrone.)

Finally, BitTorrent blew all that wide open. It’s hard to overstate the effect this had on the social scene; anime groups had been insular, jealously hording their stashes and doling them out to privileged followers. With BitTorrent, the more people who shared something, the faster it went—overnight, the social landscape became open and sharing. It was the end of the anime club’s special position, but I wasn’t sorry to see it go.

That brings us roughly to the modern era. (Sort of. There’s the rise of streaming, but that’s another article.) I still watch anime with Konstantin (whose meticulously-detailed collection can be seen here) and even blogged about it for a while at SF Signal. And it’s filtered into my writing in interesting ways. In my series The Forbidden Library, for example, the image of an endless library of worlds owes a lot to the anime Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito (literally Travelers in Darkness with Book and Hat, or something similar), while the magic system, where Readers must subdue magical creatures and can later use their powers, was inspired by of Card Captor Sakura with a dash of Pokemon.

TV is getting a lot better than it once was for SFF fans, and nobody is more excited about it than I am. Even today, though, anime lives and breathes the genre in a way few live-action shows do. I’m a fan, and I don’t plan to stop watching!

P.S. Go watch Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. Trust me. You won’t be sorry.

Top image from Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth.

Django Wexler is a self-proclaimed computer/fantasy/sci-fi geek. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Forbidden Library series, as well as the adult fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns. He lives near Seattle, Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @DjangoWexler.

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