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November 16, 2018

To the Beginning: Anime and American Fandom in the 1980s

November 16, 2018 | By | No Comments

The first problem to resolve in mapping out American anime fandom is where to situate a start point for the project. The first major anime convention in the United States was Project A-Kon, first held in 1990. Before this point, smaller anime meetings were held as stand-alone local events by clubs or as part of larger conventions which catered to broader American fandom. This was quite typical of conventions on both sides of the Pacific, an example of which is the long running Japanese science fiction convention Nihon SF Taikai (日本SF大会) which had a heavy emphasis on American media.

“The light of the beautiful moon
Sinks down to the beginning,
Far beyond the sky”
to the beginning by Kalafina

Current large general fandom conventions such as Dragon*Con still have anime tracks in their programming. The situation is similar with Star Trek, as the first dedicated Trek convention was in 1972, although Star Trek was a fixture of science fiction conventions since 1966 and remains a strong presence in American fandom. Anime fandom before 1990 was inherently tied up with he broader contours of fandom. After 1990, a distinct brand of convention arose revolving around anime and Japanese culture. Both eras present challenging questions and different ways to view anime fandom, along with advantages and drawbacks. Although a long term goal of this project is to expand into general American fandom and connect the dots of influence and the spread of the institutions of modern fandom, for the purposes of CHI and my current research, the years 1980 to 1990 are of particular interest.

In terms of accessible information on conventions, 1990 would be a more logical starting point. However, the 1980s represents the start of new American engagements with Japan through popular culture while also being a political nadir in recent US – Japan relations. The deepening concern over Japan’s economic ascendance is contrasted with the rise of interest in Japan through popular culture, both of which are depicted in American media of the era – although admittedly many of these future visions postulated a dystopian tomorrow. Die Hard, Blade Runner, Back to the Future II–all had elements of a Japanese influenced future. Fandom has often been referred to as “recession-proof” but to another extent the Japanese media scholar Koichi Iwabuchi has stated anime can be “culturally odorless.” The product of anime can be disassociated from from its origin, a common occurrence with commodities as historian William Cronon and others have noted. A major question his project seeks to ask is if the influence of Japanese popular culture provided a counter-narrative to anti-Japan sentiment or if Japanese popular culture was consumed without the creation of connections or goodwill towards Japan–an early challenge to the idea of Japanese soft power. A second focus is to track the formation of a particular brand of American cultural identity dependent on the cultural exports of Japan. Lastly, American conventions have transformed into cultural institutions. Conventions were a destination for fans due to the content they offered. For many fans today conventions are the destination themselves due to the overall experience, which can be enjoyed without ever attending a panel or event directly related to fandom.

A scene from the seminal 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner.

As many anime events in the 1980s sprang from the efforts of local anime clubs, this inserts a new wrinkle in the idea of mapping fandom. Often the events were held by the local clubs and these clubs were the driving force behind the creation of conventions as they possessed a small core of knowledgable and enthusiastic individuals who were already used to working together and managing an organization. Examples include JACO–the Japanese Animation Club of Orlando–and the formation of the JACON convention and Anime Gaijin America and the Anime Festival Orlando convention. As such, anime fan clubs need to be added to the map.

Notes

to the beginning is the 2nd opening theme song for the 2011 anime Fate/Zero by Kalafina. (Lower case spelling intentional)

Project A-kon’s name was taken from the 1986 anime film Project A-Ko. As it stands, Project A-ko reflects some of the international elements of general fandom in the 1980s as a brief scene depicts American comic book characters Superman and Wonder Woman as the titular heroine’s parents.

References and Further Reading

Star Trek conventions at Memory Alpha

Project A-Kon home page

Nihon SF Taikai home page (in Japanese)

William Cronon. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

Kōichi Iwabuchi, Recentering Globalization : Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

 

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