Saturday, January 25, 2020

the persistence of the vision of anime info packets

BROTHERS and SISTERS, FRIENDS of the REVOLUTION, I come before you today to TESTIFY! We have COME THROUGH THE VALLEY of the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY, my friends! We have SCREEN-CAPPED and we have PHOTOSHOPPED and we have even MEMED, my friends, we've been adopted into today's digital world where our LIVES are turned into JPEGs and PDFs and GIFs and put onto CD-ROMs and emailed as ATTACHMENTS, my brethren, we've been TWEETED AT and FACEBOOKED and INSTAGRAMMED until Impact Fonts and Hazy Sunset Filters are part of our DAILY LIVES! They're INESCAPABLE, my friends, we carry 'em in our POCKETS and on our TVs and in our CARS and we act like it's always been this way and it's gonna be this way FOREVER, AMEN. Well I am here to TESTIFY that all our DIGITAL EVERYTHING is just DIGITS IN THE WIND, dear friends. They're PHANTOMS that COME AND GO with the breeze! Dearly beloved, that server gonna CRASH! That streaming service gonna go BANKRUPT! That hard drive gonna give you the CLICK O' DEATH, can I get an AMEN? Photobucket and Flickr and Imgur will one day go the way of the DINOSAURS and you'll NEVER get those photos back! Twitter will FAILWHALE and Facebook gonna get DDOS'd and Tumblr gonna STUMBLE, brothers and sisters. And I ask you WHERE WILL YOU BE? WHERE WILL YOU BE ON THAT DAY?

My friends I'll TELL you where you gonna be on that day. You gonna be looking at something PRINTED on PAPER because, my friends, PRINT IS KING. That's right! No power outage gonna erase that paperback book! Ain't no batteries in your daily newspaper! Nobody gonna be DRM'ing your Rand McNally Atlas you keep in the trunk of your car just in case! Do this for me, friends, get a SHOVEL and go on down to the TOWN DUMP and start DIGGIN' brothers and sisters, and what are you gonna find? You're gonna find PRINT, is what you're gonna find. Newspapers, magazines, TPS reports, grocery lists, Sears catalogs, junk mail, and books, books, books, because when you LAY something down on PAPER that SOMETHING is gonna STAY THERE until somebody SETS FIRE TO IT or puts it through an INDUSTRIAL SHREDDER, and ain't many of those around, and nobody got time for that anyways. 

Let me assure you, dear friends, I'm DEADLY SERIOUS about this, print is gonna last. Don't take MY word for it! Oh no. I have proof and everything, and that proof is the sheer weight of paper that the North American anime nerds of the 1980s had to generate just to keep themselves informed on what the hell it was they were watching! Sure, everybody knows there was a big secret network of hidden "tape traders" copying Japanese cartoons onto glitchy 1980s VHS tape and swapping them with friends and strangers across the land. And everybody knows that most of those cartoons were in regular old Japanese without so much as a subtitle or a bad American dub. But what might not be apparent to the interested parties thirty and forty years later is that alongside those Scotch and TDK brand VHS and Beta cassettes, alongside that magnetic tape was good old fashioned print on paper explaining these TV cartoons and movies for viewers who might not speak Japanese. Yes, these copy paper Rosetta Stones were circulated amongst the faithful, copied, re-copied, and re-re-re-copied just like the VHS tapes themselves, sourced from fanzines and APAs and round-robin letters and the occasional industry publication or newspaper, collated and packaged and mailed out to keep America's anime nerds reasonably informed about who was killing whom in the giant robot epic they were currently confusing anime-club audiences with. 

Many of these synopses were reprinted right out of the anime club newsletters, that tiny dot-matrix print blurring into something resembling readability. One of the most common handouts would be overviews of entire anime TV series covering broad plot points, characters, key pieces of machinery, air dates, and if you were lucky, some vintage fan artwork, as in this Pat Munson-Siter Science Ninja Team Gatchaman piece hijacked from the C/FO San Antonio newsletter.

Here Brother Steve Harrison walks us through the characters of the Captain Harlock TV series Eternal Orbit (or, as we were calling it, "Endless Road") SSX, complete with illustrations of the characters cut and pasted from the gospel of My Anime Endless Road SSX Preview Dec.'82. With data like this, an anime fan could (and would!) watch an entire TV series and be kinda sorta able to follow the story reasonably well, even without Japanese language skills.

A simple list of film release dates, as seen here, proved invaluable when writing about anime theatrical releases. The run times were absolutely vital when trying to figure out if Mobile Suit Gundam II was going to fit on a T-120 VHS tape (not at SP speed, it won't). Thirty four years later we in the West are able to watch a surprising chunk of this list, with the glaring exception of Arion, Future War 198X, and of course Gu Gu Chicken. Get with it, licensors! 

Here's a piece about Metal Armor Dragonar, the only Mobile Suit Gundam series that was NEVER a Mobile Suit Gundam series. It's notable for the green paper, for being about all the attention this show would ever get in the West, and again for being a prime example of that fuzzy dot-matrix printing combined with the smallest possible font size. Yeah I wear glasses now, THANK YOU

Many of these anime synopses were reprinted from anime fandom Amateur Press Associations (or A.P.A.s), the self-published collective magazines that were the primary source of fan drama in those more innocent pre-internet days. This guide to Dream Hunter Rem first saw light in C/FO Santa Monica's program book and then was appropriated for use in "Out Of Chaos," which was the title for someone's personal section of whatever A.P.A. they were a part of - maybe Sasha, or Final Stop Andromeda, or APA Hasshin, or another of the myriad of anime-focused A.P.A.s that clogged mailboxes and inspired flame wars. 

This synopsis of the Galaxy Express TV special "Eternal Wanderer Emeraldas" was reprinted exclusively for the Books Nippan Animation Fan Club, courtesy the Japanese Animation Archives, open to the public by appointment only. "Petuniacon" was, interestingly enough, a Bay Area indy comics convention built around an appearance by Cerebus creator Dave Sim. Note the spelling of "Emeraldus," and keep in mind this is how we spelled it back then and that's why occasionally we still spell it like that. Come at us, bro!

Sometimes they'd just cram four or five short synopses onto one page, giving readers a cheat sheet of 80s Japanese animated film, typed on what appears to be the same equipment used to produce much of the early C/FO's printed output, an IBM Selectric with a nice clean typeface, thank goodness.

Popular series like Urusei Yatsura would receive comprehensive coverage in these packets, like this extensive piece from the "Final Stop Andromeda" APA.

This particular UY guide had been copied, stapled, copied again, stapled again, copied and stapled a third time. People really needed to know about Urusei Yatsura!

And once you managed to actually get a few Urusei Yatsura episodes on videotape, well, you needed to know which episodes they were, so that you could label your random assortment of Urusei Yatsura episodes correctly. 

desperately random selection of Urusei Yatsura episodes

You may ask, how did these information packets reach the fans? What were their distribution channels? Well, one way you'd get them is by joining an anime club - Anime Hasshin made them available to members. Other fans took it upon themselves to compile all the information they could possibly grab and assemble them into sets, which would be copied and sent out to fans everywhere! 

Yes, years before Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements would edit their Anime Encyclopedia, Houston's Lynn Johnson (not the cartoonist Lynn Johnston, mind you) was doing the Lord's work packaging vital anime information one packet at a time, sending 'em out to anyone with a few bucks to spare and a three ring binder to keep 'em in. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of amateur linguists were ferreting out the hidden meanings of all that katakana and kanji keeping us from knowing what was really going on in our favorite anime titles. 

An entire galaxy of teasingly unavailable anime titles were detailed in various magazines and books, and while today fans may recognize Area 88 and Laputa (starring "Pazoo" and "Cedar"), and hope one day Kenritsu Chikyu Boeigun (Prefectural Earth Defense Force) returns to home video availability, we might still wonder about "Love 30S Chuhai Lemon." Wonder no more, dear friends! Love 30S Chuhai Lemon was produced by Wonder Kids in 1985, it's based on a manga about a hard boiled detective and his clumsy romance, it featured the song "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," and Wonder Kids went bankrupt immediately after releasing it.

Meanwhile Hiro Media Associates was planning to dominate the nascent Original Video Animation market, both with animation from Kaname Productions and with their anime magazine "Globian," which would cover the whole world of direct-to-video animation. And, when Bruce Eimon finished translating their video guide, we'd all get a taste of what we'd be watching 4th generation VHS copies of at our next club meeting. Thank you Bruce!

Occasionally a little bit of editorial bias would wriggle its way into their reviews. 

"...a big spoof with nonsense animation..." - there's your pull quote right there!

Occasionally the American mass media would take notice of Japanese animation. America's "Japanimation" fans would dutifully clip those press clippings and distribute them widely as proof to the world that Japanese animation was a legitimate art form and not just a bunch of weirdos sitting in a dark room waiting for some cartoon character to flash her panties. Even though I'm not gonna lie, that's pretty much what it was most of the time.

And occasionally anime-adjacent properties would make their way into the info packets- like Kow Yokoyama's post-apocalypse model kit diorama-saga Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000 aka "SF 3D," and the subsequent role playing game based on the series, and its English translation courtesy Space Battleship Yamato model kit importers TCI. 

But for the most part, the contents of these anime info packets were as advertised, information about Japanese animation titles, some of which wouldn't get licensed releases for decades. 

And some of which STILL haven't received licensed releases. 

Seriously, I can see Touch not making it over here, sports anime is a hard sell, but Cosmo Police Justy had its own American comic book! And SPT Layzner, well, that one actually made it to the "licensed" stage, but never actually came out. Sure, the masters Bandai provided were flawed, but so what? Nothing's perfect!

At this point you're probably thinking, "Sure, this is interesting. But how exactly were groups of anime fans reproducing these info packets? What were the technological and economic circumstances that came together in the 80s to make photocopying cheap and easy? Well, I can tell you in one word, and that word is KINKO'S.

vintage 80s Kinko's ads

The first Kinko's opened in 1970 near UC Santa Barbara and grew to 1200 24-hour copy centers across ten different countries, a place where every struggling rock band, glue-stick fevered zinester, ink-stained cartoonist, aspiring entrepreneur, and Japanese cartoon synopsis distributor could roll up to at 1am and start making copies. Kinko's facilitiated the distribution of raw, genuine information on a scale never before seen, putting the power of print in the hands of anyone with four cents and something that would lie flat on the platen glass. Enabling collage artists, early desktop publishers, and an entire world of Factsheet Five-reading small press publishing mail art aficionados, Kinko's was instrumental in driving the visual culture of the last quarter of the 20th century. 

These are a few of my favorite zines

And sure, here in the 21st century, the zine culture that once crowded racks at Tower Records is gone. And Tower Records is also gone. Both were replaced with the internet, from which we download our music and with which we share information about Japanese cartoons. It's convenient and fast, and nobody's asking four cents a copy or what's the difference between 20# and 60# paper. But there are downsides to this convenience. Digital media, well, it's ones and zeros stored on somebody's hard drive or optical disc or server somewhere, and that's not nearly as permanent as paper. The zines we made in the 1980s and 1990s? Well, unless you took steps to get rid of 'em, they're still around somewhere in a box in your closet. But websites? If you stop paying for that hosting that website is going bye-bye. If your web host goes out of business and you didn't keep a backup, well, so long to all your work. YouTube can delete all your content, Facebook can delete all your content, hell, even Google here can delete all MY content. Let's Anime could vanish forever in an instant! Except, of course, for the print version from the 90s, which is, of course, safe in a box in my closet!

pasteups from Let's Anime #4

My friends, that's why we're still looking at these info packets twenty and thirty and thirty five years later. They're a snapshot of the anime we were watching, the anime we wished we could watch, and in some cases the anime we had no idea even existed. These things are desire itself, manifested upon paper, a magical spell hoping to bring forth Amon Saga and Roots Search and Votoms. These info packets are physical evidence of the work of a generation of fans that didn't know someday we'd be watching this stuff in English on our phones that we keep in our pockets everywhere. They only knew that they had to secure that information, they had to reproduce that information, and they had to keep it moving to the next group of fans, because information is always essential... except for whatever was going on with this Five Star Stories synopsis.

Remember dear friends, print is FOREVER! Can I get an amen? 

--Dave Merrill