In 1985 I saw a teaser for a cartoon called Robotech, soon to be debuting on our local UHF station, KHBK (channel 44).
[Via] PSO Archive
The teaser showed a highly-stylized space opera that looked more grownup and sophisticated than standard UHF fare, and a few weeks later when the first episode aired I wasn’t disappointed. Robotech, with its giant robots, complex characters, mature themes, and interstellar intrigue, was different from anything I’d seen before. As much as I loved cartoons like GI Joe and He-Man, those shows always ended up “talking down” to the viewer, making it seem as if the material wasn’t being treated seriously enough.
Not so with Robotech. Stakes were high, allegiances shifted, there were shades of grey between the black and white of good and bad, characters died, and everything unfolded with a serial continuity that built from week to week. And it looked so cool, too! The protagonists’ jagged hairstyles, exaggerated eyes, and flamboyant jumpsuits! The sleekness of the giant robots and the impossible grace of the in-air dogfights! It was a style that blew away everything else on television.
Soon other shows with similar looks began to join Robotech in local syndication. Voltron, Starblazers, Battle of the Planets, Tranzor Z, Captain Harlock, these shows all sported the same captivating visual style, and for me this style became a tip-off that a show was going to be good, if not great.
Along the way I figured out that these shows’ similarities came by way of Japanese origins. I can’t remember exactly when I started thinking of Japanese animation as its own distinct entity, nor when it began to be referred to generally as anime, but at some point this distinction occurred, and it became my mission to delve into as much anime as I could, whenever and wherever I could find it.
Time passed, and word trickled down that the English-dubbed anime cartoons I’d become familiar with were often bastardizations of their original source material. Robotech, it was suggested, was actually comprised of several different anime features cut up and repurposed under the Robotech umbrella. Voltron, too, was the result of a mashup of two unrelated Japanese series. Absent Wikipedia, details on these rumors were scarce, but they seemed to make sense, and the promise of purer strains of anime made a young, suburban American like myself want to seek out these strains even more.
By late junior high/early high school, harder-core instances of anime began to circulate in the wild. The film Akira was released theatrically in the US and shown at my neighborhood arthouse theater. Meanwhile, my friend John and I met a guy through our local BBS community who let us borrow from his cache of VHS tapes. Here we got our first taste of Grey: The Digital Target, Bubblegum Crisis, Ranma ½, Lupin the Third, and Tenchi Muyo. We also got acquainted with just how “adult” anime could be, via certain topless scenes and the requisite VHS pause marks the tapes’ owner had left on the screen.
Around the same time, anime VHS tapes started showing up at comic book stores. Unfortunately, these tapes usually came with obscene price tags. If I remember correctly, a 25-minute episode of a show on VHS could run you upwards of $50. My friend John’s dedication to the cause was strong however, and he began gathering his coins to start a collection, but with such high prices it was slow going.
We managed to catch a break though when an anime convention was announced in nearby Oakland, CA. John drove us down there in his silver Buick to stock up on (hopefully) cheaper tapes. The trip was a success, and we arrived back home with several full-length features, including The Professional (starring the character Golgo 13 who I’d long admired by way of the Golgo 13 NES game) and Castle of Cagliostro (the Hayao Miyazaki-directed film that served as the backdrop for the Cliff Hanger arcade game).
But the fun didn’t stop there. As the availability of anime continued to evolve, local video stores started to stock anime tapes for rent, and my friends and I trolled the aisles, looking for new finds. One afternoon, John and I were in our neighborhood Hollywood Video, and we found an anime tape called Legend of the Overfiend. The cover depicted some kind of badass giant monster battle, so it was an immediate rental for us. We brought the tape back over to John’s house, popped in into the VCR and…well…to avoid going completely into NSFW territory, let’s just say the movie was not what we expected.
Yes, there were badass giant monsters and demons battling it out in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, but there was also the largest amount of gratuitous sex, violence, and sexual violence I’d seen at that point in my life. There were tentacles. Tentacles everywhere. Unspeakable tentacles. Doing unspeakable things. And we’ll leave it at that.
Back at school, John and I excitedly told everyone we knew about Legend of the Overfiend, and it soon reached mythical status in our circle. We’d already returned the tape to Hollywood Video, but we decided we should rent it again and show it to our group of interested friends. So we rented the tape, found a friends’ house where the parents were gone for the evening, assembled our morbidly curious crew, popped the tape into the VCR, and…proceeded to see the opening credits of An American Tail. Some good Samaritan, probably deciding no one should be subjected to the horrors of the Overfiend ever again, had taped over the cassette with this Don Bluth snoozefest. It was a disappointing evening, to say the least.
Years passed, and anime became more and more ubiquitous on the American pop cultural landscape. Then more years passed, and it became practically commonplace. Once the initial novelty of the import wore off, a lot of people even started to turn on the genre, as those anime tropes and memes that were endearing in short supply became irritating in abundance.
While I never fully broke with anime myself, I did grow weary after the floodgates of availability were opened. By the early 2000’s anime was no longer on my radar at all, until in 2001 the Cartoon Network started broadcasting the Shinichiro Watanabe series Cowboy Bebop during its Adult Swim programming block.
Seeing Cowboy Bebop for the first time was much like the first time I saw Robotech, except now I was in my 20’s. Just as Robotech had shown nine-year-old me a new world of possibility in the genre of animation, Cowboy Bebop showed 24-year-old me a new world of possibility in the genre of anime. And, just like Robotech had been cooler and more multi-layered than the other kids’ cartoons that came before it, Cowboy Bebop was cooler and more multi-layered than most of its anime predecessors. Where Robotech had been a proper kids’ cartoon for kids, Cowboy Bebop was a proper adult anime series for adults…and not in a cheap, Overfiendish way, either.
My love for Cowboy Bebop didn’t bring me all the way back into the anime fold, but it did remind me that the genre existed and still had life. Over the next 10 years I would watch occasional series that piqued my interest, on DVD and then eventually streaming on Netflix or elsewhere. Nowadays, in 2015, almost all of the anime I watch is from streaming sources online. From the aforementioned Netflix, to Crunchyroll, to Hulu, to Youtube, and so forth, more anime than one could ever possibly watch is available at the click of a mouse.
It’s weird though while drowning in content to think there was a time, not so long ago, when anime was hard to come by in the United States. When it was, to us Westerners without a tie to Japan, exotic. Like most of the subject matter here on the Retroist site, my first contact with anime was made memorable by its mystique. It was an artifact from my childhood that I couldn’t fully access when I was a kid, and it left its mark on me, in part, by nature of the mysteries it presented.
I think it’s pointless to debate whether the transparent world of 2015 is better or worse than the more opaque world of 1985. It’s simply different, and it’s the world we’re living in at the moment. Further, who can really complain about being able to watch the entire run of Attack on Titan or Nana on a whim? Still, I can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia for those days when my friends and I fumbled around in the dark, thankful for whatever bright crumbs of large eyes and giant robots happened to fall our way. So I’ll accept the fact that I can now watch Kids on the Slope in its entirety on Hulu, but I’ll keep one foot wistfully in the past, thinking back on the those times when it would take months of sifting through comic book stores, video stores, and the geek grapevine to even know Kids on the Slope existed. Those times aren’t coming back, but they were fun while they lasted.