This is the first chapter of an ongoing work, which will chronicle the growth and sudden crash of the anime industry, from 1998 through 2008. New installments will be published irregularly.

As promised to our Patreon backers in 2018, all future chapters will be exclusive to our patrons for an extended period beyond our normal “early access” window.

Anime Dream logoAnybody who knows me knows that I’ve been covering this industry for a long time. I’ve been manning the news desk since 2003 and writing in some capacity within the anime sphere for nineteen years. And, as I look upon the industry that stands before us today, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride in that. I was fortunate enough to witness the subculture’s earliest days as this loose grouping of clubs and friend groups and cover its growth to become something truly special.

I helped chronicle the Icarian rise and fall of ADV Films. I stood by the sidelines, furiously typing as the industry collapsed, one industry player at a time. And, like many, I stood and watched with bated breath, as new players slowly tiptoed into this industry. I chronicled as they slowly grew into mega-behemoths, who have attracted the attention of suitors like AT&T and Sony Pictures while players like Netflix and Amazon jockey for key spots in anime fans’ living rooms. I wrote an obituary for Toonami in 2008, only to see it rise from the grave. First with a prank, then in earnest.

Lately, though, I find my mind going back to those days before the great crash, before the bubble burst, and before the industry rebuilt itself anew. With every new development, I find those familiar warning bells ringing in the back of my head. Each major acquisition, every landmark deal like Funimation’s first-look streaming deal with Hulu, brings a certain elation, followed by a lingering sense of concern. While the anime industry is bigger than it’s ever been, I can’t help but worry that we’ve been down this familiar road before, at some point.

Defining The Bubble Years

If you troll around any established fan community, you’ll undoubtedly hear some chatter about a nebulous period called “The Bubble” at some point. The definition tends to vary from group to group, but it’s commonly accepted that this was a decade-long period that began in 1998, coinciding with the rise of Pokémon in the west. The Bubble lasted until some point in 2008 when the market saw a catastrophic collapse that coincided with a greater global financial crisis.

Suncoast Motion Picture Company Logo It was during this period that anime jumped out of the basements, clubs, and gatherings to become a true pop-culture phenomenon. This was when Toonami was a thing that aired in the afternoons, and when stores like Suncoast and Musicland were go-to destinations for anime fans the world over. Companies like ADV, Pioneer/Geneon, and Funimation rose like Icarus, before the wings of fortune burned up, sending these companies crashing into the waves of ruin below.

Some were able to survive and thrive in this brave new world. Others found new life in their successors. Many, though, were not spared, perishing during the initial shocks, or in the fallout that would ensue in years to come.

It’s through this lens that we’ll be discussing events: as a time of transformation, of evolution, of growth, which was punctuated by mass destruction, which would change how we view the anime world forever.

The Build-Up to The Bubble

The ‘90s Anime Landscape

The anime subculture was vastly different in the mid-’90s. It was smaller, more insular. Though the anime club scene was fading away, that general small-town feeling was still very present in the greater anime community.

The Slayers Next VHS Set 2Anime was sold on VHS, with tapes containing anywhere from two to four episodes in either subtitled or English-dubbed formats. Prices on these ranged from $20 to as high as $40, depending on the show and format (subs cost more than dubs, usually by about $5). Furthermore, retailers often failed to stock smaller shows to completion due to a lack of interest.

Companies like ADV Films, Pioneer, Manga Entertainment, and Central Park Media ruled the shelves at stores like Record Town or Sam Goody, with titles like The Slayers, Ninja Scroll, and Ranma ½ being regular sights for folks seeking the latest and greatest titles from Japan.

Savvy fans were gathering on Usenet groups and message boards to figure out whatever details they could about their favorite shows, be it inquiries about Dragon Ball, questions about Magic Knight Rayearth, or even inquiries about where to find translations for Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Those who couldn’t get online had their choice of a couple of magazines. Specifically, there were Animerica and Protoculture Addicts. Both were seen as vital reading in certain circles, and both offered rare glimpses of the forms of legitimate anime journalism that would become the norm in the subculture today.

Convention attendance was measured in the hundreds, with big dogs of Otakon, Anime Weekend Atlanta, Project A-Kon, and Anime Expo holding an almost mythical status among smaller groups. These were the places to be for anime fans, who often talked about them with utter reverence. These were the cons where the action happened, where you’d see more than a thousand anime fans in one place, probably for the only time in your life.

If you had gone to any of the big four, you were a god among your peers.

The Early Fansub Connection

If you were a fan of serious salt, it was generally accepted that you had a few fansub tapes in your library. Before the bubble, and even during the bubble, fans who sought to dive deeper into the hobby, to become proverbial “Otakings” of their own, found a burgeoning community in the grey-market world of the fansub trade.

While fansubs still exist in some format today, they’re certainly don’t hold that same cachet that they did at their peak. I’m sure you’ve seen the “Miami Mike” meme, and often wondered who this person was, what he did at DragonCon, and why this is still a meme today. And, well… it’s complicated.

Credits from a Dragon Ball fansub VHS that read "NO thanks to Miami Mike. I remember what you did to me at DragonCon"

Fansubs in the ‘90s were something different, something special that many older fans tend to wax nostalgic about. These were VHS tapes, which were subtitled and distributed by fans, often at-cost to cover the tape and shipping. Some operated locally via word-of-mouth. Others began to set up distribution sites – often called “distros” – with the advent of the web.

“Early fansubs were very barebones affairs — loosely timed and rough in appearance,” comments Justin Sevakis in a 2017 Answerman column. “Not a whole lot of thought was put into credit or presentation in those early days: fans were just trying to make anime watchable for people who didn’t speak Japanese.”

Still, this was the place where those deepest “in the know” would find their material, where they would gain access to shows that hadn’t been seen before like Kodomo no Omocha, Initial D, Rose of Versailles, and Violinist of Hameln.

The fansub scene quickly grew and flourished into a vibrant community of its own, with its own codes of honor and conduct, ultimately weaving its way into the very fabric of the anime world. Quality of translations and presentations increased, over the years, as groups fiercely competed for attention, and ultimately glory.

“…[F]ansubber mailing lists turned into toxic stews of flame wars, over-inflated egos and pointless competition — both direct and indirect,” Sevakis remarked in his column. He added that the conflicts led to greater attempts by groups to put their names in front of people. In particular, he notes that “[s]ome groups (mine included) put elaborate animated logos at the beginning of their fansubs,” and implemented their own improvements to shows, from custom credits to improved audio tracks.

On a higher level, fansubbers were often treated with a wink and a nod from the western industry at large. Moreover, many players within the industry, from translators like Neil Nadelman and Kara Dennison to ADV Films co-founders David Williams and John Ledford, were quick to credit the fansub community for giving them a leg up in careers within the legitimate anime world.