The story of how I became an anime fan isn’t all that unusual from other folks my age, who grew up back in the day. But now, in the age of anime on TV and instant on-demand streaming, it might seem a bit unusual. You see, there was a time when anime was not so commonplace; A time when anime’s Japanese roots were something companies often edited out, changed, and hid as they saw fit. A time when anything animated was labeled as “kid’s stuff,” and treated as such — repackaged and repurposed with the intent to sell to children.

And, ironically, that was exactly how I stumbled upon anime.

Back in the early ‘80s, the home video rental market was just starting to pick up. Families liked the idea of watching movies at home instead of having to go to a theater — especially in more rural areas, where it might be a bit of a drive to get to one. As luck would have it, my mother got a job at a video rental shop close to our neighborhood. It was a simple “mom and pop” operation, as chain stores like Blockbuster wouldn’t take off for at least another decade. But I was just a kid, so I wasn’t thinking about these kinds of things. No, I was excited about the fact that my mom now got free video rentals… meaning that I could now watch all the cartoons my heart desired.

As a kid, animation fascinated me like no other form of media. It was drawings! That moved! People drew them with their own two hands! My understanding of how animation worked was incredibly limited as a child, of course. But, at the time, I loved drawing and art. At such a young age, I had dreams of becoming “an artist” myself one day, and often found myself watching the same cartoons over and over again, marveling at the workmanship and trying to draw my own characters and stories.

So, it was no surprise that I’d eventually be drawn to anime without even knowing what it was. Things weren’t marketed as “anime,” as I mentioned before. Even box art for children’s VHS releases that contained anime were often plastered with redrawn cover art or a simple screencap of a random scene that often had nothing to do with the story. This was the case of many of my first anime VHS rentals from back in the day: The Fantastic Adventures of Unico, The Sea Prince & The Fire Child, A Journey Through Fairyland, and one of the first anime films I ever watched: Galaxy Express 999.

Released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, the film’s first-ever American release was what you might have expected at the time. It was heavily edited and dubbed poorly, with name and plot changes at every turn. The the VHS box art was a still shot of one of the random androids from the end of the movie. Even the name was edited to just Galaxy Express. There were no images of the main cast, or even a picture of the iconic flying train. If you had never seen the movie before, you’d assume that it had more to do with Star Wars than Leji Matsumoto’s space opera universe. Still, this was an unknown world to me. I just wanted to watch a cartoon and see if it was cool.

And watch it, I did. Galaxy Express 999 is a film that I often jokingly tell people was my “Bambi Moment.” Many folks my age point to Bambi’s mom being shot as the first time they cried at a movie, how it felt traumatic to them. Spoilers for the first ten minutes of Galaxy Express 999, but our hero Tetsuro has a flashback of losing his mother as a young boy (possibly around the age I was, even!) when a rich android by the name of Count Mecha not only shoots his mother right in front of him. In a ghoulish twist, we later find out Count Mecha had her stuffed and mounted, like a taxidermied sport animal to hang over his fireplace! To tiny me, this was a terrifying thought, as up until that point I had no idea that your mother could just….die! That was scary enough as is, without the added horror of seeing your poor mother turned into a trophy afterwards. And yet, as awful as it was… I couldn’t look away. I needed to know if plucky Tetsuro (“Johnny” in this dub) would get revenge for his mother. He had to, right? He was the hero, after all!

There was something else as well, though: I was captivated by the look and feel of the film. The idea of a train flying through space seemed both magical and romantic, and never once silly to me. Maetel was mysterious and beautiful, and with each new character on screen, I found myself more and more invested. By the end, I was already sprawled out on my living room floor, crayons and markers in hand, inspired. Drawing lazily in one of my many notebooks, I was already thinking about when I could watch it again.

As time passed, I realized that whenever I was looking at new cartoons at the video store, I would carefully examine the art on the back. Each time, I looked for any signs of similarities to Galaxy Express and the other films I mentioned before. I was starting to notice that, much like Disney films had a certain “look” to them, these particular movies also had a style that I couldn’t quite put my finger on… but I knew it when I saw it. Little did I know, I was already becoming an anime connoisseur without even realizing it.

It wouldn’t be until I entered my teen years that I realized that the thing these cartoons I’d loved had in common were that they were all made in Japan. Once I learned that, the rest started falling into place shortly afterwards. At the same time, though, a little more anime was being shown on TV & cable. Later, I’d discover VHS tape trading with other fans. When my family moved to a more populated area, I became acquainted with the Japanese book and video stores in my local international district. From there, I discovered Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon just before it started airing in the States and, well… the rest is history.

As I’d began making friends with other anime fans, we’d share how we got into anime, only to find that our stories weren’t so different. While I found my gateway pretty early on, many wouldn’t discover anime on VHS until a little closer to their teens. Still, it was still pretty similar. There was a draw to anime that some just couldn’t resist, and we got hooked. Ironically, many fans close to my age, even to this day, share stories about how they, too, where first a bit horrified by their first exposure to anime. They’d recall everything, from seeing Akira at a friend’s house, to catching bits of Vampire Hunter D on Sci-Fi Channel… or even accidentally renting La Blue Girl from their local video store. Amazingly, these brave souls continued to pursue anime after that initial shock wore off.

Now, there’s much less of a barrier of entry for anime. Gone are the days of having to stumble upon it in a corner of your video store, or seeing heavily edited & Frankensteined versions on TV. Now, all you have to do is hear your favorite celeb talk about it online, or see an advertisement somewhere prominent, or have an enthusiastic friend tell you all about their favorite series. It’s never been an easier time to be anime fan, but I like to help people remember that it didn’t always used to be this way. Sometimes, you’d fall into anime completely by accident, and it’d mesmerize you… even if you might have been a little traumatized.

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