Watching Anime in America: A History

Sora no Manimani

Look at you, sitting on a streaming site (Viewster…perhaps?). Click a button and you can binge an entire series. Translated for you. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s almost criminal how easy it is.

Decades ago, watching anime outside of Japan and a few other countries was extremely difficult. In the United States, fans who lived in the same general vicinity (read: on the same coast) would get together at one person’s house for a weekend to copy videos. Back then, it wasn’t a matter of Dropboxing them or putting them on USBs. A typing gathering would involve several VCRs linked together, all transferring to each other, everyone praying they didn’t get the tape on the far end.

What shows were popular? Honestly, whatever you could get. Some of it obscure and downright bad. As for translations? …What translations? You either read along on a dot-matrix printout, or you guessed. Or… you learned Japanese.


Eventually, the fansub community began. Fans of a certain era probably remember the technicolor tapes – Lupin III was green, Kodocha was purple – coming to their dorms in brown envelopes, generally copied from a second- or third-generation VHS. The Internet existed, but you mainly used it to go to a listing of a group’s available videos, accented with a small, grainy thumbnail of the title screen.

Then came Napster. Limewire. The era of file sharing had begun. The favored format for quite a while was RealPlayer – a bit glitchy, but so was the video, so it all evened out. These files were infinitely smaller than what we stream now, but might take hours to download.

downloading anime

The era of online fansubbing kicked off from there. Groups formed, many got C&Ds, but one thing became very clear from their existence: people wanted better access to anime, both old and new. It was possible to see quite a bit in video rooms at anime conventions, but not everyone could get to cons. And people wanted the opportunity to show their appreciation for creators by getting their anime legally.

The idea of streaming sites is a very long time in coming – and if fans decades ago had known that we’d be watching shows as they aired in Japan, translated, legally, they’d be baffled. They’d also be pleased, because no one would have to be last on the VCR train.

Guy with eye patch anime

So what’s next for anime in America? We’re already starting to see it. Giant names like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are dipping their toes into anime streaming. Many Japanese companies have decided to stop region-locking their sites, with the understanding that people in other countries are up-to-date with their shows. And a few projects are being streamed with subtitles directly from Japan.

In the end it’s all due to one irrefutable fact: Anime fans are pretty awesome.

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