I first became seriously interested in anime in the mid-1990′s, when the Sci-Fi Channel showed their week-long festivals of anime. Those started in 1993, so I’ve been an anime fan for roughly 20 years.
What’s changed? Let’s look at the anime market as of the mid-1990′s.
If you wanted to watch anime, there were only two places you could go: television or VHS. A smattering of anime series played on TV at the time: reruns of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, and occasionally even older shows like Voltron or Robotech. A few of the more daring cable networks occasionally broadcast a movie like Akira or Ghost in the Shell.
VHS tapes were even harder to find. The only place in my area that sold anime was Sam Goody (a record store), which had a wall of tapes. As I recall, mine had the following titles: Akira, about 10 tapes of Dragon Ball Z, 5 of Sailor Moon, 3 or 4 Ranma 1/2 tapes, and 1 or 2 Tenchi Muyo! tapes. That was it.
Mail order catalogs existed, but you had to stumble on them. They weren’t just sitting around. You had to read ads in anime magazines (of which there was only 1 or 2, and very rare) or hear about them from fans.
This is what was most different about fandom back then. Information was so hard to find.
How much would you pay for anime? About $25 per tape, which would contain 2–3 episodes of a show. Worse, it was either subbed or dubbed; you couldn’t get both.
And that was the price wherever you went. There were no deep discounters. The few mail-order or online sellers required you to pay for shipping, and S&H charges almost always ate up any discounts.
There was little in the way of organized fandom. The only anime magazines I remember seeing were Animerica and Protoculture Addicts. I remember hearing rumors of conventions like Anime Expo, but even that had just launched in 1992.
The web provided tantalizing hints. Back then, each anime website was an independent project by individual fans. The vast majority of sites lived on shared web hosts like GeoCities or Tripod, or on a college web account that would disappear after a year or two. Most sites were “shrines” to individual characters or shows. We’re talking 5 or 6 pages per site.
Sites were organized into “web rings,” or hopefully listed on the Anime Web Turnpike, which was the only major directory of anime sites. There were no news sites. There was precious little news. What was there to write about? New releases. Nobody was in Japan talking about the industry there.
As for Wikipedia: I actually wrote several Wikipedia articles about anime back when it had only a dozen or so anime articles. (I think I wrote most of the Tenchi Muyo! article.)
As college students saw Akira and Ghost in the Shell and fueled the big anime push of the 1990′s, tapes became easier to find. Sub/dub wars sprouted on forums, because you had to choose.
Then came DVD. This mostly ended the sub/dub wars, but DVDs were more expensive for more content: $30 per disc for 3–4 episodes per disc. The Tenchi Muyo! Perfect Collection, which contained OVAs 1 and 2 plus a single-episode side OVA, cost $120.
Streaming wouldn’t be viable for over a decade. I vividly remember the first anime streaming site I found, around the year 2000. It streamed The Wings of Honneamise in a window literally the size of a postage stamp at about 1 frame per second. I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what I was seeing.
Fansubs had to be made on professional video production machinery that cost tens of thousands of dollars (meaning that students stole time on them in off-hours to subtitle Castle in the Sky). Desktop computers simply couldn’t handle video editing or subtitling until around 2000.
Because there was so little information, you didn’t know what you were buying until you saw it on store shelves. And then, you only knew what was shown on the packaging. Maybe if you searched for it online–Google didn’t launch until 1997, then took a few years to catch on–you’d find a page with a few paragraphs about the show. But of course, you didn’t have a cell phone, and your home internet connection was dial-up, so it’s not like you were checking up on a show in the store.
So you still had basically two choices in consuming anime. A bricks-and-mortar store like Suncoast sold at full retail price: $30 per disc for 3–4 episodes per disc. Or you could go to an online retailer (like the new Amazon.com) which, after shipping costs, would amount to the same price and might take a week to ship to you (unless you wanted to triple your shipping costs for 2-day shipping; no Amazon Prime yet).
Were these better times? No. They were worse in almost every conceivable way. We live in a golden age for anime fans, with massive amounts of choice. Heck, the free and legal streaming options are vast.
May we never forget how hard it used to be.