We live in a golden age for anime fans. Not only are there hundreds of high-definition animated series and movies available literally at our fingertips, but some are also even available the same day they air in Japan!
It’s not an exaggeration to say that for fans who congregated in anime clubs during the 1990s, the current state of anime would have been simply unimaginable.
Let’s take a look back at the beginning of anime popularity in the U.S. and a few series you can watch right here on Funimation to capture the magic of the anime club communities of the ’90s.
Early anime fandom in the U.S.
Episodes of hit shounen anime and shoujo favorites were traded through the mail as VHS tapes. Sometimes you’d open the mailbox to find a tape copy of a tape copy of a…well, you get the idea.
But you wouldn’t mind, because in-hand tapes were almost the only option for anime fans in the States almost 30 years ago.
For those who didn’t have community connections, there was another option to get your hands on the series you were dying to see: anime clubs at high schools and colleges.
In the 1990s, clubs at large universities filled classroom auditoriums with hundreds of students. On Friday nights at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, you’d find showings for episodes of Rurouni Kenshin, Outlaw Star and Yu Yu Hakusho in a packed room in the chemistry building.
When the showing was done, you could mosey over to another room in the building and check out a tape from the UT Anime Club’s large collection to watch at home. And it was all free.
Janeka Rector got involved with the UT Anime Club in the summer of 1996. She started attending viewings every Friday night and stepped up to help with the club. She was dubbed the “Showing Czarina” as she curated the anime shown every week.
“To watch fantastic stories unfold and to be able to share them with others, to get the movie theater-style experience was so unique and amazing for me,” Janeka told us in an interview.
She worked with the other officers of the club to provide a balance of shoujo and shounen titles for appreciative anime fans.
“We wanted to appeal to everyone, and I would purposefully plan the order of the showing with our audience in mind,” Janeka said. “Occasionally we would have parents bring their teenagers or local high school kids would sneak in, so we wanted to be responsible stewards of our content… And we also tried to get new shows and air classics so our audience could be entertained and well-rounded.”
Even though it’s been almost 25 years since her anime club days, Janeka still has fond memories of the Friday nights in the chemistry building.
“I can remember one moment from my first screening so clearly,” she recalled. “Early in the evening, we were watching Fushigi Yuugi, Episode 14, ‘Wolf in the Fortress,’ and at the end of the episode, the damsel Miaka is suddenly rescued by the hero Tamahome in a great fight scene which ends with her running into his arms—only for him to disappear because he was a magical illusion. The reaction from the audience was electric. Everyone felt that moment, even if they suspected it was coming! And it cemented my love for the group.”
Want more info?
If you’re a history buff, it doesn’t get much better than Sean Leonard’s in-depth examination of anime in the U.S. beginning as early as the 1960s.
Progress Against the Law: Fan Distribution, Copyright, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation looks at fan-distributed anime, including anime clubs, all the way through the advent of digital distribution at the end of the 20th century.
Reliving the glory days
Fire up the projector, set up a screen in the backyard, invite your friends, and get ready to go back in time with an anime club showing of your own! Thankfully, Funimation is home to classic series from the ’90s and early ’00s that might be found in a typical anime club showing.
No fuzzy VHS copies here—even if you watched these picks back in your college days, you’ve probably never seen them as clear and vibrant as they are now.
Plenty of early anime fandom began with Ranma ½, one fans probably never expected to see get a wide release. The unforgettable story of a boy-who-turns-into-a-girl meets girl, the action comedy/romance started a countless number of audience members on their journey to a lifetime of being an anime fan.
Serial Experiments Lain is a hidden gem of the ’90s that should go in your queue for when you’re in the mood for something more than a little different. Lain is just 13 episodes of intense psychological drama and suspense that will stick with you a long time after you watch it. And that opening theme? Timeless.
And this wouldn’t be a list of classic ’90s anime without The Vision of EscaFlowne. This romantic isekai series combines fantasy and mecha action, and also boasts an incredible soundtrack by Yoko Kanno. Follow high school student Hitomi as she travels to another world called Gaea and joins a young prince in his fight against an evil empire.
Were you a part of an anime club? What were your favorite series from those days? Share this post and let us know! And stay tuned to Funimation for the latest news on all things anime, this season and beyond.