Monday, August 31, 2020

1987 catalog of dreams and VHS tapes

When we talk about 1980s North American anime fandom we tend to emphasize the fan art, newsletters, costumes, tape trading, and other home-grown elements of the fandom. And sure, that's because the DIY stuff is interesting and clumsy and charming. Just as interesting might be the contemporaneous Japanese anime merchandise that American fans were, even then, shelling out their hard earned cash for. How buried in anime merchandise could an 80s anime fan get without having to fly to Japan and fill up some suitcases? Surprisingly buried, actually! 

Before specialized websites and email, we relied on business cards, xeroxed catalogs, and addresses we’d find in classified ads and on convention flyer tables. Nascent "otaku" and the Japanese-American community would shop together at Mitsuwa Plazas from New Jersey to Texas to Chicago. We’d haunt Japanese groceries, comic shops, and toy & hobby retailers, and if we had a stamp to gamble we might shop via mail order with companies like Books Nippan, Nikaku Animart, Kimono My House, and something called Wyvern Web Graphics. 

The mid 80s creation of three Florida anime fans, Wyvern Web Graphics (a wyvern is a legendary bipedal winged dragon) combined anime knowledge, language skills and relationships in Japan to start an anime-merchandise import company at a time when options were few for desperate American anime nerds with a few bucks burning holes in their pockets. Wyvern Web would sell via mail order and would table at a small circuit of SF and comic conventions in the Southeast for a few years.

So what were those 1987 American anime nerds able to purchase? An embarrassing amount of stuff, to be honest. Posters, movie booklets, Roman Albums, postcards, buttons, binders, pencil boxes, stickers, sweatshirts, scores of anime soundtracks on LP and CD, and literally hundreds of official release laser discs and tapes of both VHS and Beta variety. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the April 1987 Wyvern Web catalog. 

Posters were a big item, reasonably priced from $4.50-$6.50. I can recall paying $8 for the full size Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 posters at Atlanta Fantasy Fairs. Of course $6.50 in 1987 dollars would be $26 today. 

I bought the Locke The Superman and the 3-foot Lum posters from Wyvern. That Lum hung in my room for years, garnering sarcastic comments from every female visitor (don’t mind them, Lum, they’re just jealous). 

I'm fairly certain I purchased this Lum wallet from WWG but I'm pretty sure I didn't spend $16 on it. It's more of a coin purse than anything else. It's not listed in their catalog but I bought this Urusei Yatsura pencil case from them; it's one of my favorite pieces of UY merch, demonstrating exactly how well the series fit into the colorful, New Wave design aesthetic of the late 1980s. 

It's honestly kind of humbling when you see exactly what the anime home video market looked like in the 1980s - I recall actual anime on video being hard to come by, but here we see a comprehensive selection of the Japanese anime field. Of course, we have to remember that these hundreds of titles were all in Japanese with none of English subtitles or dubs we take for granted today.

Let's also take a look at these prices and remember it's 1987, the minimum wage is $3.35 an hour, and a Beta copy of the Daicon openings is going to cost you a cool hundred dollars ($236 today). Captain Harlock Arcadia Of My Youth was $146 on VHS – today you could purchase five Blu-Rays of the film for that much money. Bubblegum Crisis part 1 was only $80 ($190 today) and the Fandora OVA was only $64 for the tape, $57 for the laserdisc. Or you could wait a couple of decades and pick up an ex-rental Fandora VHS for 100 yen. 

I’ve never played Persona, but I’ve seen the Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei OVA on sale here from WWG on VHS for a mere $78. Is it essential? Jury’s still out! 

The selection of anime really is impressive, including Harmagedon. Giant Gorg, God Mazinger, three volumes of Galient, and all three Gundam movies. You could drop $120 on Lensman, or $80 on Karuizawa Syndrome - you know, the OVA by Yoshihisa Tagami about the romantic adventures of a freelance cameraman. You could make it a Tagami double feature with his Digital Target Grey for only $113. Or you could take the safe route and buy the crowd-pleasing Macross movie on laser disc for only $64. 

There isn't a price for this Queen Emeraldas Galaxy Express 999 TV special, but I believe I paid $70 for it. At the time I was making minimum wage at the local K-Mart, which meant I worked twenty hours for 45 minutes of video. I think it's worth it - the thing still hasn't received an official English release. Ditto for the other Leiji Matsumoto Queen here, Queen Millennia, a film that really deserves to be seen in the West. Why no Millennia, people? Get with it, and while you’re at it, sell it for less than $150! 

I did not buy this Urusei Yatsura laser disc from WWG - it's a loaner, and has laser rot to boot. But in 1987 it would set you back $64 ($150 today), and I sure hope you copied it to VHS before the laser rot set in. Price-wise, the most expensive item in the catalog is the extended version of the Final Yamato film, which will run you a cool $160 in 1987 dollars, or three hundred sixty four dollars and ninety-three cents here in 2020. That’s more than two dollars a minute to watch the Earth get drowned and Kodai and Yuki finally get it on. 

Music is a big part of anime, and anime music on LP and CD was a big part of things. The CD was still a relatively new format in ‘87 but a surprising amount of titles were available. I didn't pick up this Captain Harlock Symphonic Suite LP until years later. The Macross Song Collection album was a staple in anime fan record collections for years. 

If you bought this Prefectural Earth Defense Force CD back in 1987 it would set you back sixty dollars in today's money, and I think it's worth it just for the title track alone (I didn't get this from WWG, it was a gift). Similarly priced is the Urusei Yatsura Juke Box 2 CD, not to be confused with Urusei Yasura Music File or Urusei Yatsura Music Capsule or Urusei Yatsura Jam Trip. You'll go broke trying to keep up with Urusei Yatsura album releases. 

Rounding out our music selection is one of the most striking anime covers ever, the Zeta Gundam Symphonic Suite with the amazing Masao Yamazaki artwork that takes the anime right out of those anime characters. A bargain at twice the price! 

Wyvern Web’s operation lasted only a few years. Getting this treasure trove of anime merchandise in front of interested and educated buyers ready to shell out seventy or eighty or ninety dollars for VHS tapes in foreign languages was itself a tremendous challenge. The principal business owners relocated to Japan and the stateside end of the Wyvern Web business collapsed fairly quickly, leaving our part of America sadly bereft of high-quality anime merchandise; for a little while, anyway. But their catalog remains, a testament to the wide gulf between the strong desire of anime fans and the not-so-strong purchasing power of anime fan bank accounts. I guess some things never change.

All merchandise from the personal collection of D. Merrill