Once upon a time, there was a boy who watched cartoons, before going to kindergarten and throughout the afternoon. He hadn't yet discovered books, only heard the radio in the car. But he loved what he saw. And one show, aired at 6:30 A.M., thrilled him above all others. A fat young man, good-natured and shrouded in green, and a thin, bitter young man in blue. An android in yellow, and a woman in pink, yo-yo flashing as she defended the world from evil. And the leader, cloaked in plumage of white and bearing the same name as the watcher, voiced by the very demigod who orchestrated the Weekly Top Forty every Sunday at 9.
The year was 1979, a time of awakening giants. Rising star Miyazaki Hayao's directorial debut (Future Boy Conan) had just completed its first run on Japanese TV, and the curtain was about to rise on Tomino Yoshiyuki's era-forming Mobile Suit Gundam. It was two years before the opening animation for a sci-fi convention would catapult the name of Gainax toward national ubiquity, and another year before the 36-episode Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross would guarantee the careers of Artland's staff for the next two decades. It was also the height of the Cold War, former actor Ronald Reagan and former CIA head George Bush riding a wave of nuclear anxiety and economic reform toward the upcoming election against Carter. Those wise to the ways of the world could have predicted that a new age was in the offing.
The young boy knew none of this. What his eyes saw was art that was fresh, appealing. A story that, despite interjections by the poorly drawn 7-Zark-7, was gripping and whose characters he could care about, even if he was not yet four. How could he have known that the Japanese, whose identity in the U.S. was a mishmash of Pearl Harbor rhetoric and samurai drama, had been practicing the craft of animation since before 1968? Indeed, how could he have known that the show was Japanese at all, when the entirety of the credits were in English? He could not have known that American servicemen and scholars, in contact with Japanese society, were already well aware of its growing "manga" industry. It was a situation not entirely unlike the one Japanese animation faces today.
In the very early days of U.S. anime fandom, only a small, elite group of fans even knew what was being shown in Japan, much less understood Japanese. Overseas friends would record from TV using bulky, finicky VCRs and mail the tapes stateside. Assuming those tapes ever arrived, the small cabals would gather in ill-kempt dorm rooms and pay homage to the fruit of the Japanese animators' labors. Their numbers grew barely at all, and celebrating their fandom in public was as unthinkable as the average citizen believing that cartoons could hold value for adults. To be sure, there were exceptions: Streamline Pictures (and its leader, "affectionately" known as Uncle Carl), Saban, and a few other companies were buying the rights to a small number of anime and transplanting them to the U.S. But the general consciousness about "Japanese animation" was nil. At best, cult classics like Akira (released in Japan in 1988) and Urotsukidoji afforded the U.S. audience a vague impression of visually-stunning but morally-repugnant works that made it all too clear that the only proper sort of animation was what Disney produced.
The situation began to change around 1992, another watershed year for animation in Japan. Two of the mightiest 13-part OVA* series, 0083: Stardust Memories (the latest installment of Gundam) and Record of Lodoss War (based on the popular novels by Mizuno Ryo) had just finished their runs, and a new crop of OVAs based on popular manga series such as Video Girl Ai were just hitting the shelves. Studio Ghibli was in full swing, with well over a half a dozen movies to its credit since its inception, and films like Patlabor 2 were continuing to win accolades with the Japanese audience. In the U.S., the fan-subtitling efforts of Operation X and Canada-based Arctic Animation were finally beginning to see more widespread dissemination, making it possible to introduce anime to fans who spoke no Japanese. While schools like Cornell had their own clubs already, the majority of universities had to wait for the fansub wave to wash over them.
By 1994, when the young boy who had watched G-Force finally discovered the wider world of Japanese animation, most noteworthy universities had anime clubs. Vaguely shadowy networks of fans generated and trafficked in fansubs, some private collections reaching into the hundreds of tapes or more. The number of titles on Japanese television was on the rise, OVAs were emerging at a steady pace, and even the cinematic future looked bright. Then, in 1995, two things happened to cause the newly-solidified paradigm to shift yet again. The first was the announcement at Anime Expo 1995 that Pioneer would translate and market in the U.S. all of its Japanese titles, including the perennially popular Tenchi Muyo!. This marketing success was the impetus for other major translation houses to kick their efforts into high gear, resulting in translated tapes becoming a familiar site in video stores nationwide. The other pivotal event was the broadcast of Neon Genesis Evangelion, unquestionably the most talked-about and controversial anime in recent memory. Pundits on the Internet who still remembered the mid-'70s likened the hysteria to the great shows of old (such as superstar Matsumoto Leiji's Galaxy Express 999). Whether the audience liked or loathed director Anno Hideaki's complex work, the bar for TV-series quality had been raised, and anime's viability in a faltering Japanese economy was established for good. The flock of TV series that have followed in its wake (among them Shoujo Kakumei Utena, Cowboy Bebop, and Tomino's Brain Powerd) are all attempts by the industry to embody quality in the resulting new era of revitalized fans.
Sadly, the popularity of shows like Eva may be indirectly responsible for a loss of contact between the U.S. and Japanese markets. In early 1997, the Housou Bangumi Kyoukai (the Broadcast Producers Association, a consortium of large production companies and television networks) decreed that all tapes recorded from Japanese television were prohibited from use by U.S. rental stores. Up until that point, literally dozens of Japanese television series could be seen within a month of their air dates. This was the foremost mechanism for the vanguard of U.S. fans to inspect and accept new material from Japan. It was not unheard of for clubs to show entire series unsubtitled, from Japanese TV, full years before the fansubs (much less commercial translations) became available. The ban, enforced by tape seizures and vetting by local Japanese trade agencies, abruptly severed most of the connections the fans had with "current" anime, leaving a several-year-long gap that the commercial translators were only sporadically closing. Perhaps a half-dozen television shows every season in Japan go untranslated by commercial firms, and with the ban, it has become that much harder for fan efforts to take up the slack. To make matters even worse, with the commercial release of such wildly popular titles as Eva in the U.S., many of the fans have been deluded into thinking that the commercial menu of titles is all there is.
Today, U.S. anime fandom is at a crossroads. The efforts of Bandai Entertainment to drastically cut the time to market for translations of its titles may become the dominant paradigm for Japanese anime firms into the next millennium. However, the anime industry itself continually delivers more titles than even the Japanese can keep up with easily. And the U.S., where families still zealously guard their children against "indecent" animation, is not yet prepared to demand more. The truly hard-core fans who once huddled together to partake of the precious trickle of current material from Japan are reduced to doing so again, their lifeline squeezed by the very material that they once struggled so hard to obtain.
Whether or not anime fandom can repair this schism and reunite the mainstream and the otaku remains an open question.
* [Editor's Note: For those unfamiliar with the acronym, "OVA" stands for "Original Video Animation". OVAs (also commonly called OAVs) are direct-to-video releases, neither broadcast on TV nor shown in theaters initially.]