My anime exposure started early in life. Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, I was raised on KTSF (the window to your world) cartoons like Star Blazers, Voltron, Saber Riders, Captain Harlock, and The Queen of a Thousand Years. (I think any animated series that comes in half-hour segments on weekday afternoons are cartoons. Being anime does not exclude the possibility of it being a cartoon.) Then in fifth or sixth grade, Robotech came along and swept America's youth. But enough about silly moving pictures.
I started building plastic models in first grade. This was before I could read the warning label on the carcinogenic toxic glue tube telling me that if I inhaled this stuff I would be impotent and brain dead (i.e. hooked on anime). My first model was not a US battleship or British WWII fighter plane; it was the Space Cruiser Yamato. (The Argo for us die-hard Americans who still say Robotech: New Generation instead of Genesis Climber Mospeada.) I feel that the 3-D representation of the anime culture is an often-overlooked side of the anime invasion. Models and toys from anime/manga have been in the US just as long as the more popular cartoons.
BEFORE Robotech the TV series, there was Robotech the plastic model line. (I think it was owned by Revell.) I've completely forgotten the names the models went by, but there were three transformable ??/Valkyries/Veritech fighters and a bunch of mecha models from God knows where. The other models were only to be found later in FASA's Battledroids role playing game, which later became Battletech. Battletech gave American names for these huge robots, like Scorpion, Griffin, Pheonix Hawk, Battlemaster, and Thunderbolt. (Battletech also incorporated the complete line of Macross mecha as Locust, Wasp, Warhammer, Rifleman, Marauder, and Archer.) I remember browsing the hobby shop and being amazed that these models were totally awesome. Unlike normal models, these had moving parts other than wheels and propellers. More importantly though, these models were completely fictitious, unlike the vast majority which consisted of actual things like the Model T, USS Constitution, and the Pinto. Mecha models got me started as a model builder, and even though I didn't know it at the time, these models also introduced me to Japanese culture. It was my recognition of the Veritech fighter that got me interested in Robotech the TV series, thus starting the collapse of my mental stability (not an otaku yet).
Mecha models were so drastically different than any western counterpart. It was like Japan grabbed the US's idea of making models and just took off with it to heights the West couldn't even fathom. I think this is the same thing Japan did with US animation. Parallels can be drawn between anime and its 3-D counterparts when it comes to the Westernizing of them. There is a huge number of anime fans who look down on Carl Macek and Harmony Gold because of what they did to Macross/Southern Cross/Mospeada. The same fans might be inclined to look down on the fact that the paint jobs on the models were no longer true to their Macross or other animated counterparts. Also, the models had no story behind them like they did in Japan.
OK, here is where I give my support for Harmony Gold. Without them I wouldn't be the person I am today. There was something about Captain Harlock and Robotech that made them stand out above all the other cartoons. People died, and there was all that love triangle stuff that the West never tried to portray in half-hour segments on weekday afternoons. Isn't that what the point of anime is? To show that animation is a limitless media? The same applies to models. Japan proved that models don't need to only express history. Before mecha, the highest-tech thing in the hobby shop was the Titan IV, which was just a couple of cylinders painted black and white. In some ways the models came overseas with fewer blemishes than their animated counterparts. Harmony Gold could completely change the plot of a series, but how could a model's mold be changed?
When Robotech the TV show came, the models sold like crazy, and many more Valkyries were added to the line. (But the new ones were all tiny and sucked balls.) Then for some reason when the TV show went away, ALL of the Robotech models went away too. It is now impossible to find the original models when I go to my favorite hobby store back home. All it has now are Gundams and Space Cruiser Yamatos. I have no idea why Revell stopped, but all I know is that any mecha model I find now does not have English building instructions.
Unlike the current trend of commercially subtitled anime tapes, there just are no more translated models. Unfortunately this means fairly expensive model kits. On the other hand, the hobby shops that specialize in anime-related models have grown and expanded enormously. I remember going to a shop a few years ago in San Francisco which was basically some guy's basement. Last year they moved, and they now have a full-fledged store with security cameras!