Early Anime Fans Were Tough Pioneers

Early Anime Fans Were Tough Pioneers

In 2016, Westerners take stuff like anime and cosplay for granted. It’s everywhere. But in the 1970s and early 1980s, fans of these emerging scenes had to work hard for their leisure, braving bewildered hotels for their cons and going to incredible lengths just to get hold of bootleg episodes.

Karen, far left, and friends from an anime club meeting in 1981.

The following is an excerpt from Cosplay World, a book written by Kotaku’s Brian Ashcraft and, well, me. It’s available now on Book Depository.

“We were on the leading edge of the anime/cosplay wave”, says Karen Schnaubelt, a veteran of the cosplay scene in the 1970s and ’80s. “People didn’t always understand what the characters were from or what the costumes were, but we made them well enough that people liked them.”

Cosplaying as anime characters few had ever heard of (at the time, at least), Schnaubelt was also living in a time where finding other people who shared your interests wasn’t as easy as it is today.

“I had a pen pal in New York that I’d met through Star Trek fandom, and she would write me about trying to pull in episodes of Captain Harlock (in French!) by aiming her TV antenna at Canada out her apartment window in the Bronx.”

Early Anime Fans Were Tough PioneersKaren (as Captain Harlock, centre) at Equicon in 1981

Karen (as Captain Harlock, centre) at Equicon in 1981

Other ways America’s first cosplay and anime nerds used to hang out was by belonging to sci-fi clubs and attending conventions. “I remember a highlight of the 1978 World Science Fiction convention was seeing episodes of Astro Boy that I had last seen first-run in 1964. And the 1983 World Science Fiction Convention did a late-night showing of Arrivederci Yamato, complete with live translator, which led to a funny moment where Captain Okita gave a five-minute inspirational speech on-screen, and the English translation was: ‘Don’t screw up.'”

Fans could also get their anime fix, and talk cosplay, by just meeting at the homes of people lucky enough to own a VCR.

Early Anime Fans Were Tough PioneersKaren at Galacticon, 1980

Karen at Galacticon, 1980

“Anime was incredibly difficult to come by in the ’70s and ’80s. First, there was nothing available except broadcast TV until videotape became commonly available, and secondly, the import videotapes were heinously expensive, around $70-$100 [$AU95-$135] for a movie (or short collection of episodes).

“The cheapest blank video tapes were $18 [AU$24] each in those days, and video tape recorders were thousands of dollars to purchase. Each week, I would buy a blank videotape for a friend with a video recorder. He would record the episodes all week long, and then on Saturdays, a group of us would gather at his apartment and watch a marathon of the episodes.”

Schnaubelt and her friends did a fantastic job on their outfits, with a quality and dedication to the source material that would be impressive even by today’s standards. It’s a pity, then, that not everybody could appreciate their attention to detail.

“The only negative reaction we ever had was from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, when we hung our Captain Harlock and Queen Emeraldas pirate flags out our hotel window. The management asked us politely but pointedly to bring them back in, as they said it was giving the impression that the hotel had been taken over by terrorists!”


  • Man, those photos are great!

    Hey millenials, do you know they had a Trump too? He was called The Nixon in those times. Later on there was the Reagan.

    • ninja scroll, ghost in the shell, neon genesis evangelion, akira

      i think i was about 11 or 12 when i first watched ninja scroll… my aunty had to record it on vhs because our sbs sucked, and then questioned my mum whether i should watch it, my mum was like, yeah, just give it to him. quality parenting right there.

  • What was the name of the anime for the costumes in the photo at the top..I can remember it but for the life of me cant remember the name!!!

  • Living in South America in the 80-90s was, strangely a great time for a budding anime fan. We got TONS of anime and other Japanese shows for kids in the dead hours of TV. Later I’d learn that the reason was that much of it was donated or given away for pennies by Japanese TV stations. I don’t know if it was the fruit of a strange, random generosity or a meek attempt at cultural imperialism, but boy, I’m thankful.

  • I got into anime in the final years of the VHS fansub era, and I kind of miss those days of having to get in touch with a guy who knew a guy who had a guy who could dub VHS tapes from his vast library of fansubs and laserdiscs.

    Good times.

    Also, my favourite thing to come out of 1980s/1990s anime fandom is this. It’s called Fast Food Freedom Fighters and it’s a parody fan *dub* of Project A-Ko. It’s hilarious, if a little dated (and the quality is pretty rough), and is a great example of what some college kids with a VHS editing suite and a genlock can get up to.





  • I guess as 80s kids we were a little spoiled – I woke up most mornings to Astroboy on the ABC, and I remember watching Battle of the Planets a lot when I was smaller. While it was only really bastardised Gatchaman, it exposed me to that particular art and animation style. I sort of remember Star Blazers. Oh! And Robotech, although that seemed to air whenever my local network felt like it.

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