[Zyl] Before the Anime Blog: My Anime Pre-History

Yi’s post, in the context of Nopy’s broader History With Anime Project, got me reminiscing about how my consumption of anime has evolved through the years, particularly the on and off phases. These have been organized in terms of the media by I came into contact with anime before the current era of BitTorrent.

A caveat: The lack of written records and a few artifacts makes this attempt to reconstruct the past, from the mid 1980s to up until mid 2005, an exercise fraught with possible bias due to nostalgia, the selection effect and other biases.

Chinese dubs on free-to-air TV

There was nothing linguistically Japanese about my earliest exposure to anime. Chinese-dubbed anime were regularly broadcast in the early evening slot of the state-owned Channel 8. I have not watched a Chinese dub of a Japanese anime in a long time but I strongly suspect that the quality was better than most English dubs. The reasons are pretty simple. First, although Chinese has a completely different grammatical structure and pronunciation from Japanese, it is still much more closely related to Japanese than English. Second, these dubs were most likely to have been produced in Taiwan which had both the linguistic and cultural capital to produce decent dubs due in no small part to its colonization during a earlier and relatively more Pan-Asianist and integrationist phase of Japanese imperialism.

My favourite characters were Henry J. Gloval and Breetai

The highlights included Science Ninja Gatchaman, Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato and Super Dimension Fortress Macross. I still can recall the dramatic and melancholy build-up to the conclusion of Gatchaman with the loss of more than a few characters. Strangely enough the scene from Yamato that sticks most in my mind was when an officer who had made a terrible pun, compounding his offence by laughing loudly at his own joke, ticked off Dessler enough for the Gamilas dictator to open a trapdoor under him and cause him to fall to his doom. I recently picked up Robotech: The Complete Saga 85 episode DVD boxset (English dub) from the Forbidden Planet’s bargain bin and still managed to zoom in straight away to two of my favourite scenes: the engines ripping out of the SDF during its initial attempt to lift off (Ep 02) and the firing of Alaska Base’s Grand Cannon (Ep 27).

My interest in Japanese audio anime only began in early 1990s when I was learning Japanese under the MOE’s Third Language program. There was a shop in Takashimaya Shopping Centre (the unit is now occupied by a Paris Miki spectacle shop) where I rented Laser Discs (played via my parents’ home karaoke machine) and as the LDs were, of course, without sub-titles, it was a case of Bad Ass Raw Watching without the requisite listening comprehension skills. Nonetheless I fondly recall how I could still roughly follow the plot of The Record of Lodoss War.

This phase lasted all the way until the mid-late 1990s with Ranma 1/2 (which put me off long shounen series where the source manga is still ongoing) and both TV seasons of You’re Under Arrest.

Video Home System Cassette Tapes

The (English dubbed) video casette tape was very much the dominant medium during my under-graduate days in London from the late 1990s. Most highly prized in my (now disposed) collection were the twelve Neon Genesis Evangelion tapes from Forbidden Planet (when it was still on New Oxford St, W1 – the unit is occupied by a Toni&Guy Academy now).

Unlike the free-to-air TV days, I didn’t miss any episodes and rewatched episodes pretty often. The downside, of course, was the unbearable wait for the next batch of episodes for a series one enjoyed very much. A more prosaic problem was when I bought a tape (at the then astronomical price of GBP 19.99) and hated the series (many of which could need someone to force you to watch them) but could not get a refund because entertainment media had explicit non-return policies. One particularly egregious example was Burn Up W. I also recall that there was quite a lot of hentai anime on the shelves; the most heavily promoted was Legend of the Overfiend, probably a revolutionary release at the time but would be considered tame compared to my personal H favourites: Another Lady Innocent, Crimson Climax and Bible Black.

It was also via VHS that I experienced my first fansub. I somehow learnt about it via the internet, sent off five quid (which barely covered postage, packaging and the cost of the tape itself) to the University of Nottingham’s anime club and, two weeks later, received a VHS tape of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I still hold on that item as a physical reminder of my first experience of Japanese audio with English sub-titles that had been lovingly translated by a fan for a  (soon-to-be) fan.

Video Compact Disc

The late 1990s shading over into the early first decade of 2000 saw, in tandem with the J-pop and anime boom in Singapore, the rise of the Video Compact Disc (VCD) which was everywhere – big central shopping centres, sub-urban malls, neighbourhood mom and pop stores, and especially housing estate night market stalls. Many suffered from poor quality (some were not even playable) and were often of doubtful provenance. Repeated crackdowns by the authorities and, much more importantly, significant narrowing of the price differential between legit and pirated VCDs.

I recall that two of my first officially licensed (by Odex LOL) VCD purchases, Serial Experiments Lain and Hellsing, were huge disappointments. Both series are literally quite dark, with night settings for many scenes, and I remember that I could barely see a thing. My disillusionment was further cemented when I had a much better visual experience with the downloaded versions (.mpg extension iirc) on my computer. Ironically, a strong belief developed from this time – that the downloading of free fansubs was more ethical than buying crappy pirated bootlegs; it was preferable that, as in the former case, no one made money compared to the latter case where the wrong people were making money.

Internet Relay Chat Channels

From around 1999/2000, a few friends, running IRC channels and having early adopters of broadband connections, would do most of the downloading which was then burnt on CD-Rs (x8 was soooo fast then LOL) and passed around physically – Love Hina was one of the first to be widely circulated.

It was only around 2004 with the replacement of dial-up modem with my first (ADSL) broadband connection and the Azureus 2.0 BT client that the current phase of my anime history began.

I'm surprised that these are still around!

18 thoughts on “[Zyl] Before the Anime Blog: My Anime Pre-History

  1. how sad that I can relate to all of this lol
    I remember borrowing my friend’s CHINESE DUBBED VHS TAPES of Sailor Moon (2 for the price of 1)
    I also remember buying borrowing friends’ VCDs of like Slayers or Inuyasha or something XD
    That’s why JP started that whole what I was forced to watch~ so we could toss out all my old CDs :P

    1. Ahhh, Chinese dubs! It’s a little odd that all the old people in Taiwan like my grandparents can speak and read Japanese. I remember seeing Sailor Moon manga for the first time in Taiwan and being like “WTF why is this so fugly and unlike the anime art?”

      That was my first experience with the shoujo art style.

      1. I like to reminisce about old anime but when I look at old stuff now, I get a similar sensation that you did with shoujo art style – it just feels so strange! Recently I was just /facepalm at Rick Hunter’s big pointy hair and thinking (1) he should have more helmet hair and (2) Talia Gladys’ hair style actually makes more sense.

        This might just be me being fickle (and/or moving with the times) but some recent stuff – even if the story ain’t great – looks gorgeous e.g. Infinite Stratos.

    2. Oh actually I just remembered that the OP/EDs were often not dubbed and I must have wondered, as a kid, what this strange language was.
      Borrowing and lending media was actually really common – old school BitTorrent haha.
      The stuff on your old CDs should have probably been uploaded to an archive! The licenses probably had all expired or had never been licensed in the first place. Would be so ironic if jp’s WIWFTW stimulated interest and demand to see them.

  2. I still have STACKS UPON STACKS of old CD-R’s with fansubbed anime on them.

    Not to mention quite a bit of the China-produced DVD’s and VCD’s.

    I remember getting trolled by the Scrapped Princess VCD “boxset”. It cut off at episode 16. I raged so hard.

    I never did complete Scrapped Princess until about 5 years later.

    1. When I first started burning CD-Rs, I was advised that they had a limited lifespan and one of my friends actually had a schedule of reburning his CD-Rs after 18-24 mths (also to compact his collection as the CD-Rs improved from x8 to x52).

      I recall that you had some problems with portable HDDs (might it be a power supply issue given that you’ve tried so many different brands?) but I also lost a whole bunch of stuff when two successive laptop HDDs died on me.

      Speaking of Scrapped Princess, I remember ordering the Anime Legends DVD boxset on behalf of Stripey and he was DISAPPOINT at the QUALITY of the DVD5 and showed me how his old 480p downloads were actually slightly better! That was the point where he convinced me to give up on DVD and just wait for BD.

  3. I haven’t watched a dub in over a decade, but I do remember spending many a morning in the early 80s watching Star Blazers and Voltron dubbed in English on TV – would probably make me cringe if I re-watched it now, though. I remember watching Urusei Yatsura and You’re Under Arrest on VHS, and later DVD – although since I never owned an LD player, Animeigo didn’t get my money three times over at least. I never went through an IRC phase, but I do remember painfully downloading 30-some pieces of an .rar file from iDrive to assemble a 40MB fansub of Love Hina, with quality that would make any HD fansub watcher’s eyes bleed today. At the time I was floored that it was possible to watch something that aired half a world away, translated by fans into English, just a month or so after it aired – between streaming simulcasts and next-day fansubs it’s an amazingly more convenient world today.

    1. I remember the feeling of amazement too! Though, like 1080p resolution, one rapidly gets used to it and treat it thereafter as the baseline. So difficult to go back once you’re juiced up on the good stuff though a retro watch of an old series once and a while can help to keep things in perspective. Surprisingly the thing that bothered me the most about the original Macross wasn’t the art style but the English dub.

  4. I watched my earliest of earliest anime with Chinese dubs too, and read mangas like Doraemon in Chinese as well. This makes me wonder how my tastes would’ve changed (or whether I’d even like anime) if I stayed in Taiwan, where my childhood options for anime is not limited to Pokemon, Sailormoon, and others.

    1. Does Taiwan continue to show current/new anime as dubs or subs? Or is everyone using BitTorrent too? Things have changed quite a lot in Southeast Asia with fansubs and the arrival of Animax in Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore where the dominant intervening language has shifted from Chinese to English.

      One of the things I’ve noticed (just an impression, not a scientific generalization) about the US aniblogger community is that it tends to be disproportionately ethnically East Asian (relative to its percentage of the population or even age cohort) and the Caucasian/white anibloggers are either (1) long looong time fans or (2) have some form of Japanese in their education/training/work.

      1. (1) long looong time fans

        Hey now….

        The ADV re-dub/remaster/un-Roboteching of SDF Macross is much better than the old Robotech version IMO. I watched the entire thing again last year and was a bit surprised that I really had caught every episode of the show in 1985. The failed lift-off is also on my list of top scenes, along with Breetai kicking vaccum’s ass in ep 10.

      2. Hey now…

        But I didn’t say anything about minivans or suburban houses! ;)

        ADV re-dub/remaster/un-Roboteching of SDF Macross

        That really explains why that Robotech boxset was in the bargain bin…

  5. Aaah… Robotech… natsukashii…

    I’ll never forget the moment when I unwrapped a treasure chest: When a chance-friend sent me a box of 8 Fourth-Generation VHS videotapes with Robotech. That was what got me into anime in the first place, I think.

    The video quality was so bad, and yet I so didn’t care. Wonderful…

    1. Strangely, it’s the first season (SDF Macross) that made the strongest impression on me. I hardly remembered anything about the later two.

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  7. You go back quite a ways more than I do. When I started really getting into anime, fansubbers were already switching to internet distribution rather than mailing out VHS tapes, though a lot of the old-timers still did that.

    I remember seeing hentai on store shelves too. I was still young so I was a bit shocked, everyone knew what porn was, but animated porn just seemed so weird. Nowadays it seems that’s been phased out (at least where I live). I don’t think I’ve seen any hentai in a physical store in years.

    Yes, 8x burning speed was fast. I used to burn VCDs at 2x so I could watch anime on my 19″ TV instead of my 12″ computer monitor. The burning process actually took longer than just watching the episodes on my computer, but at least it wasn’t as bad as waiting an entire day to download 1 episode.

    1. The burning process actually took longer than just watching the episodes

      Yes! And it was so unreliable at first – I always had to check if the episodes were playable after burning.

      I don’t think I’ve seen any hentai in a physical store in years.

      I guess it must still sell well online via the long tail. Bible Black (which is 6 DVDs – 1 ep per DVD!) is never on sale over at The Right Stuf *grumble*

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