A cache of 00-era manga made its way to my house the other day, and as I read these old Tokyo Pop releases, I’m having another bout of nostalgia, so today I’m going to tell you what it was like to be an anime fan from the late nineties to the mid-2000s.
Before the internet, most anime fans sort of stumbled into each other through a kind of kismet or happenstance. Anime was hard to find and extremely expensive, and most of what was localized were either theatrical length movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, or OVAs like Devilman, Bubblegum Crisis and Angel Cop. VHSes could easily be 30 or more dollars for maybe two episodes (and this was in 80’s dollars) so more commonly, people would either record stuff and bootleg it, or make copies. Some anime made it to TV, either appearing on the Sci-Fi channel (before it was spelt SyFy) or heavily edited cartoons for kids like Dragonball/Z and Sailor Moon. Manga was usually released chapter-an-issue in floppies like super hero comics, with the art flipped left to right to make it easier for Western readers and often colored over the screen tones. And the best way to hear about new titles was either through word of mouth, or from the few niche anime magazines like Animerica.
My familiarity with anime was different. My mom regularly took me to Poland, and Polish-overdubbed Italian dubbed anime was one of the most common forms of children’s entertainment, even if the cartoons weren’t necessarily for kids. This was how I got my first introduction to Yatterman, Majoko Meg-chan and Sailor Moon years before they made it stateside. Even though overdubbing makes 90s era anime look like Shakespeare, watching these cartoons enchanted me, but it would be years before I would consider myself an ‘anime fan’, largely because I had no idea what the hell anime was.
Like many kids of the era, my first English experience with anime was Sailor Moon, but I loathed the screechy voice actresses compared to the much cuter Japanese original VAs, and the dolls were beyond ugly.
But in the late 90s, the landscape for myself and many other anime fans began to change. First, the Internet was becoming more and more common. This allowed people to post pictures, songs, episode descriptions and primitive torrenting of episode clips across dial-up. Second, Pokemon was about to sweep the world. I definitely became a Pokemon fan. I liked the cartoon a lot as much as any other kid. It was the only way to see the largely abstracted world of the games to seem more life-like, and as I’ve said, Pokemon made me a gamer. But I still didn’t really think of it as a Japanese show. Obviously I knew it was from Japan, but it never really made me curious about other cartoons from Japan. But that would change.
Because Pokemon was so successful, many other networks began localizing animes or creating their own pseudo-anime styled cartoons. Code Lyoko from France, W.I.T.C.H. and Winx Club from Italy and Totally Spies made it onto Cartoon Network and Disney Channel, and on network TV (which was all I had, I never grew up with cable) Fox and the WB went to war with importing as many Japanese cartoons as possible. Digimon, Monster Rancher, Flint the Time Detective, Mon Colle Knights and Vision of Escaflowne ended up on Fox while Warner Brothers reigned with Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Yugi-Oh! And my gateway drug, Cardcaptors. Cardcaptors was the coolest show I ever saw. It featured a sweet, clever girl with magical powers and lots of friends. Unlike whiny, moronic Serena and her cabal of bickering, undermining Sailor Scouts, Sakura’s friends were loyal, supportive and constantly by her side. As a middle school girl with no friends and almost no similar interests to my school mates, Cardcaptors was my ultimate power fantasy. There was even an on-demand cable network that ran nothing but anime dubbed by A.D.V, the company that originally imported Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Eventually, as the 90s rolled into the new Millennium, the golden age of anime had arrived. Both network and cable channels were stuffed with the latest and greatest shows from Japan with both Toonami introducing Yu Yu Hakusho and Tenchi, Adult Swim featured some of the most sophisticated series from the decade such as FLCL, Wolf’s Rain, Samurai Champloo and Full Metal Alchemist. Additionally, it was the era of fan sites. Fans like me ran websites that showcased our love for our favorite shows and regularly affiliated with other sites, exposing fans to new series, and faster internet speeds and ability to pause downloads made torrenting and pirating even easier, and occasionally necessary. With the exception of cable shows, anime featured on network TV was HEAVILY censored. Violence was toned down, queer characters were rewritten as relatives or recast as opposite genders, and romance would be downplayed or eliminated to appeal more to male (the main market) tastes. These edited versions would often be the only way to get certain series on DVD, though more and more anime made their way from specialty shops like Media Play and Best Buy, and more into mainstream stores such as Target. Manga also went from simply being hard to find even in comic book stores to having their own entire section in Barnes and Noble. While some publishers continued to ‘flip’ their titles or keep the dub names on their scripts, more and more publishers were giving their customers authentic translations in their original right to left presentations, and manga magazines like Shonen Jump were available on almost any newsstand.
Anime wasn’t just prevalent, it was cool. Cosmopolitan and other fashion magazines started reviewing shoujo series, Gwen Stephanie and her ripped off Harajuku look was topping the charts. I already started college when this happened in the mid 2000s, but it was funny to see girls a year or two younger than me who looked at me like I was a space alien when I’d read my Inu Yasha books from the library squealing excitedly over the next volume of Naruto.
But this peak also signaled anime’s decline.
Because anime was so cheap to localize versus produce a new cartoon, Warner Brother and Fox stopped airing their own series such as Batman Beyond and The Big Guy and Rusty and instead starting relying on dubbed anime, particularly from 4Kids. But Japan was catching on too, starting to charge more for licensing and starting to look into printing and importing their works themselves. 4Kids Entertainment, the original importer for Pokemon and Yugi-Oh, lost their Pokemon license and tried to get their hands on any licenses they could get, including One Piece and Tokyo Mew Mew, much to the ire and dismay of fans of these series, and people were getting fatigued not just by 4Kids’ hack jobs, but the fact that they had taken over both the CW (turning it into CW4KIDs) and Fox (4KidsTV) often airing the same show at the same time, and often the same episode on two separate network channels. There were also less quality animes showing up on cable as well, as decades of jewels that became Western classics petered out and were then replaced with lesser shows that weren’t even all that popular in Japan.
Japanese tastes were changing too. Otaku were veering away from sci fi and fantasy series with great action and high stakes in favor of moe blob series featuring younger and younger looking schoolgirls. And after a stabbing in Akihabara, being a geek stopped being cool and Otaku once again because an insult. Fan-subs and Scanalations forced companies to translate faster to stay ahead of piracy and instead of on TV, Crunchyroll because the main destination for anime. Networks stopped airing cartoons entirely, including Western ones, and book stores, struggling to compete against Amazon, cut back their manga sections to only the most popular series, the Romance Section eating up the space.
Many fans grew out of their Otaku phase and moved on.
The good news is a second golden age is upon us. Japanese companies are beginning to work with the stateside distributors before production begins to be able to simulcast the most popular series. Streaming means almost anyone can watch anime anywhere. Classic series are being rereleased in uncut collections, with new merchandise that is finally making its way stateside without necessarily breaking the bank. And new classics continue to be created. And those anime fans of old are making their mark as well as Western comic companies become more open to the idea of publishing anime influenced stories along side their chiseled jawed classics.