Greeting, fellow travelers, and welcome to my shop of curiosities! What does this shop sell, pray tell? Many, many things. Relics, artefacts, reminders of a bygone era, an age long before the one we know, where strange, alien objects were once traded back and forth between collectors of the exotic, the bizarre, and the otherwordly. Yes, good fellows, this place exists as a reminder of what came before, and a marker of how far we've come. Please, do come in, for I have many strange wares to show you...
A lot of otaku in this modern world have it easy. You can buy manga at Borders, anime at Best Buy, borrow it from the library, download it online...thanks to the explosion of shows like Pokemon and the entire Toonami experience back at the turn of the millennium, anime has gone from being a quaint subculture tied to the larger fan community into a massive juggernaut, slowly trampling past the fandoms that once supported it, and infiltrating the lives of almost every person on Earth.
But it wasn't always this way. And those times weren't exactly that far back....
A few weeks ago, I was cleaning (or at least attempting to clean) out my basement, pushing through stacks of old papers, ancient tomes and case after case of Legos, when I happened upon a most interesting find: an old box of anime. It was labeled "Japanese Stuff" in untidy scrawl, and I knew immediately what I had stumbled upon: my old collection of anime and anime-related merchandise from my first years as an otaku. Gathered from a variety of sources (not all of them legit), I had assembled what I felt was an amazing representation of my newfound fandom. Looking back on it, it really was just a collection of junk, but it was a telling reminder of what it was like to be an otaku back in 1997.
Let me give a brief overview of the time period, for those readers recent to the fandom, or who came into it after the rise of Pokemon. (I would like to take this moment to say, I am not ragging on, or underestimating the experiences of, Pokemon fans. A lot of you know how hard it was to find anime related merchandise as well, outside of the scope of the Poke-phenomenon. But the Pokemon craze came at a crucial juncture in anime exposure, and was one of the pre-eminent causes for why anime became such a force in the early years of the 21st century. As such, very few of the people who became involved in it at that time had knowledge of what life was like for an otaku before that moment in media culture. That said, I also am well aware of the difficulties faced by those who came into the fandom before me, where it was even rarer to find anime anywhere outside of a small area of the fan community. I would love to hear your stories, if you care to share one. That said, i am merely speaking from my own experiences as an otaku coming into the fandom in 1997.)
Back then, anime on television was extremely restricted. Without cable television, there were few outlets where one could "get their fix." As a boy living in New York City, my options for satisfying my visual craving were limited to: the "classic" (read: BAD) dubs of Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon, shown on WPIX (later the WB/CW) at the ungodly hour of 6 AM. Were those showtimes not an option, there was always the chance to watch an old episode of Dragonball Z on Telemundo at around 10 AM, provided you spoke, or at least understood, a bit of Espanol. Interestingly, I late found out that the Spanish dubs were actually more accurate and the episodes far less edited, though that came of little consolation to me, who barely understood enough of the language to order a taco from the Chinese Tex-Mex place. Aside from that, I was in the dark, so i tried my best to catch as many episodes of the show as I could. Fortunately, I would awaken at around 6 every morning for class, so catching the shows weren't particularly hard, and i always made sure to have my VCR set to record.
Of course, beyond the scope of television, there were also VHS tapes of episodes. Those were, unfortunately, missing from the box, but allow me to explain them a bit: some anime had already been licensed for distribution inside the US. At the time, I had managed to track down a tape of Armitage III and the first four episodes of Dragonball Z (because they were always showing the g****** Namek Saga on near endless repeat for two years). The Dragonball tape came courtesy of the local Coconuts music and video, where it was shoved into the children's section and marked at $12.99. At the time, i thought it was a good deal. it wasn't until I had the good fortune to visit another music and video store that I realized it wasn't a good deal, it was an amazing deal.
A visit to Broadway with my student government class later that year introduced me to the now-defunct Virgin Megastore. And tucked all the way in the back of the bottom floor of their Times Square flagship was a small section devoted to anime. Yes, it was even called "Anime," and it was filled with what I later realized were hentai tapes. But mixed in between titles like "La Blue Girl" and "Bondage Queen Kate" was a little, hardcased VHS for Armitage III. For those who don't know the series, it's about a police detective named Naomi Armitage, who happens to be a robot. Very similar to Ghost in the Shell at times, it was amazing back then, not so amazing now, and featured the voice talents of Elizabeth Berkley (aka Jessie from Saved by the Bell) and Kiefer Suthlerland for the dub of the movie. I had previous knowledge of this series from the Ani-Mayhem card game, so I decided to buy the tape, expecting it to run about the same as the Dragonball one, maybe less since it had just one episode on it.
The tape set me back $30. For one episode. Subtitled.
Of course, at the time there were other options available for obtaining anime that weren't just overpriced tapes from specialty stores. Living in an asian neighborhood like I do leads to meeting a lot of people your own age who have their own ways of finding anime. And sometimes it only takes a chance meeting for them to take you to their suppliers. Such was the case with a friend of mine named Jelani. We went to high school together, and he was the resident otaku. He never told me exactly where he got his tapes from, but every week I would supply him with a VHS or two and he would give me back second, or maybe even third, generation subs of any anime I wanted. That was how I discovered Gundam, Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo. The quality was horrid, the translations ranging from accurate to tetched, but I was able to feed my addiction effectively. And feed it I did. I would watch those tapes over and over and over again, commandeering the family VCR every day for hours while I sat, enamored by what I was seeing, and driving my parents up a wall.
Manga, on the other hand, wasn't that hard for me to find. Again, living in an asian neighborhood, my local comic shop thankfully had a manga section that was decently stocked. Next week, I will show some of the things I managed to find there over the years. But outside of my little enclave, some of my friends found it challenging to locate manga. Book stores rarely carried it, and if they did it would run upwards of $20 a book. And it was printed in Western format, often meaning that the panel order would be switched, or the pages "flipped", where by creating mirrored images and the occasional reverse text, all so the books could be read left to right, instead of in their native format.
As for merchandise? Well...best forget ever finding it unless you had a thriving Chinatown in close proximity. While this remains a problem even today, there will always be the chance the local FYE or Best Buy might have a trinket or two for sale. But back in 1997, the only places anyone could buy anime-related paraphernalia were from trading companies located in predominantly Chinese districts, which meant that the products most likely weren't even officially licensed, just knockoffs of popular Japanese goods by Hong Kong companies. Of course, if you were rabid enough, then even that tidbit wouldn't stop you from buying as much of it as you could.
So there it is, that was the world of otakudom I came into back in 1997. Living in my little corner of Queens, I took what I could get and consumed it endlessly, waiting for the day when I could find more and more. Those days were coming, it was only three short years before an entire new world opened up to me, a world of Canal Street, Kinokuniya Bookstore, the internet and Cartoon Network, not to mention friends from across the city who had struggled to find exactly what I had been looking for. But back then, when those days were just a dream, this was what I lived with. And this is what I plan to show over the next few weeks.
Next Session: Anime Anthropologist and the Temple of Otaku