Legends of VHS Fansubs: Tracking Down Miami Mikeby Dawn H.,
This article serves as crucial backstory for this week's episode of The Anime Nostalgia Podcast, which is linked at the end for the full story. Thanks for reading!
It all started with a screenshot.
For those too young to have been an anime fan in the '80s and '90s, the “lore” behind Miami Mike might seem confusing.
Around 2010, older-anime-focused fansite Animepast.net (now known as OldSchoolOtaku.com) unknowingly brought VHS fansub culture back into the spotlight. There was a small corner of the site devoted to chronicling what fansub culture used to look like in the days of analog media. While the pages are gone now (with most of them missing even from the Wayback Machine), it included a few choice screencaps of an old grainy VHS of Dragon Ball Z fansubs—one in which a '90s fansub group called Ctenosaur Video claims in their ending credits that their video was brought to you “No Thanks To” a person called “Miami Mike”; they remember what he did to them at DragonCon.
Over time, the screenshot was saved and passed around the internet through image boards and social media. “Who was Miami Mike?” people mused, “And where did this even come from?” It became a meme, with older fans especially using it as a punchline. But for fans who never had to deal with fansubbed anime on VHS, it might be difficult to imagine what such a world was like.
Before anime became so accessible for fans in North America (and the rest of the world), only a sliver of the anime being released in Japan was chosen to be licensed, translated, and sold officially in English. Companies were much smaller, which led to them picking only the titles they could afford, could access, and thought would sell the best. And while we did get some amazing things released in English even back in those days, there was still a huge amount of anime unavailable to fans. This led to many fans scouring comic shops, conventions, and even print magazines looking for imported and untranslated VHS tapes of those precious unreleased titles. Fans would even network with expats living in Japan for shows recorded directly off Japanese TV, commercials and all. Early anime clubs as far back as the '70s would gather together to watch these imports—and if they were lucky, someone among them might know enough Japanese to narrate the story to everyone while they watched. As time passed, people started typing up translated scripts to go with shows they were watching, so you could “read along” without someone talking over the episode. As you can imagine, this was a hassle.
But as the years went on, fans discovered that with the help of growing technology, they could buy A/V and computer equipment that would make adding subtitles to their own VHS tapes a reality. Anime clubs started pooling their resources to subtitle anime they thought would never be licensed, and they'd network with fellow fans through other anime clubs, comic conventions, and BBS boards on the brand-new resource that was the World Wide Web. At first, it seemed that most people who got into fansubbing were just fans wanting to share their love of anime with other fans. These groups weren't out to make a profit; if you lived close by, you'd simply pay for the cost of a blank VHS tape or supply your own. If you lived far away and wanted a tape, you'd snail-mail the group your request, a blank tape (or a money order to cover the blank tape), and an SASE (that's “Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope” for the non-USPS-savvy), and you'd be added to the list to get the anime of your choice. If you didn't want to figure out postage on your own, (there was no internet to help you figure this out back then!) you could always just send a money order for the price of the tape and shipping and send that instead.
However, the downside to this was that if you lived far away and the fansub group was extremely busy, there would often be a significant wait time for a tape. A single request could have a turnaround time of anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. This led to many fans making lists of their personal collections to trade with people locally at cons or on BBS boards and newsgroups. They usually wouldn't be as high quality as getting a tape directly from a fansubber, but you'd at least get a copy of your desired anime faster.
This networking of anime fans and fansubbers generally worked out well—except for the times when it didn't. There was plenty of drama in anime fan communities back then (some things never change), and the tape-trading circles were no exception. There were times you'd send away for a tape only to never receive anything; your money order would be taken and cashed, with the perpetrator never to be heard from again. While the standard rules for fansubs were “not for profit” and “if a series gets licensed, stop circulating tapes and support the official release”, there were plenty of people who skirted these rules. Blacklists of bad traders started popping up, and as anime started hitting more TV screens in North America, some fansubbers took advantage of fans' desperation for more episodes of things like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z by offering their own tapes of episodes not available in English yet—by selling them at a profit at comic conventions.
Eventually, copies of these same tapes would slowly make their way into comic shops and “China Town” video stores across the USA. These bootlegs would often come in clam-shell cases with color-printed copies of original Japanese VHS covers, making them look somewhat legitimate. And without the guidance of more knowledgeable fans and the anime clubs that originated the concept of fansubs, it was easy for newer fans (and sometimes their clueless parents) to buy or rent them without knowing they weren't official until the familiar “not for sale or rent” warning would pop up somewhere in the tape. This kind of thing led to a lot of drama within fansubber groups, who would take note of any video stores or shops that would turn around and resell their tapes by trash-talking them in the credits of future releases. In fact, many fansubbers started doing this for all sorts of drama outside of fansubs, like arguments at conventions they attended—sound familiar?
As more anime became available, and anime companies started releasing more and more of what we wanted in the US, fansubs slowly became less necessary, and things like old VHS drama became just as forgotten as the extinct media format itself. Fans who were once part of those communities have left them behind, leaving mysteries like who Miami Mike was and what he'd done at DragonCon up to our imaginations—or so I thought until recently.
As someone with a podcast that focuses on talking about not only older anime titles, but how fandom used to be back in the pre-digital age, I was curious about this story myself. I grew up on the west coast, and I'd never been to Dragon Con in my life. I only knew a handful of fellow fans on the east coast at that time, and when I brought it up to the people I thought might have a chance of knowing, I came up empty-handed. Googling was pointless, because most people had already done their own Google searches and come back with nothing but more jokes and questions. I even tried contacting Ctenosaur Video, as Google led me to their new name and website of operation, but either it never reached them or they had no interest in discussing it with me. Every time I'd think of a new avenue to search, that search turned up nothing. So I put the search for Miami Mike on hold indefinitely—until last month, when I got the biggest breakthrough in the case, completely by accident.
While on a trip to one of my local used bookstores to go searching for older manga, anime, and general references for the podcast, my friend and I found some old '80s & '90s-era Japanese tankobon. While we were flipping through them to see if they might be worth picking up, out fell an old business card for a store called Anime Hurricane. And the owner of Anime Hurricane was listed as “Miami Mike.”
Needless to say, I bought the manga and kept the business card, wasting no time getting home and firing up the computer. The search was officially back on, and this time I had two real names: the full name of “Miami Mike” (owner of Anime Hurricane), and the name of the store's manager, Pat.
Sadly, Mike's name is a fairly common one. Searching for him on Google was almost as bad as looking up “John Brown”. (So I'm not going to share his last name, to keep a great number of inboxes in the world from being flooded with questions and internet memes.) None of the people who shared his name on Facebook looked like they once owned an anime store in Miami, much to my dismay. So I tried the next logical step and searched for the store manager, Pat.
Pat was much easier to find—as luck would have it, his twitter account was the first result in my Google search. After a few minutes of hesitation, I bit the bullet and tweeted at Pat, asking if he was the former manager of Anime Hurricane, and if so, could he email me about some questions I had for him? Pat ended up being an immensely good sport. He not only emailed me promptly, but he didn't get scared away when I replied with basically the strangest email I have ever had to compose. I laid out the “mystery” of Miami Mike as clearly and simply as I could, how his former boss had become a famous Unsolved Mystery in fandom, and that people have wanted to know the story behind that screencap for years now.
“This is so funny because a few months ago a friend of mine had texted me a twitter thread about the exact same thing!” Pat said to me in his email. “I added my two cents in, but I guess no one believed me.”
This was no surprise. Anyone claiming to know Miami Mike or what he did on Twitter was probably just ignored as yet another person joking around. I told him that while I wasn't exactly internet famous, I was in a position where I could give him a platform to set the record straight once and for all. I asked if he'd be willing to let me interview him. He cheerfully agreed, but gave me a word of warning. “It's nowhere near as salacious as everyone has made it out to be,” he admitted. “It's actually kind of dull.”
I assured him that no matter what the answer was, no matter how dull or exciting, this was something that fandom at large wanted to know. It's an oddity of fandom history that deserves to be recorded for future generations. Considering the origins of this question-turned-meme, it's honestly amazing that someone out there can still recall the story, as many pre-internet anime fans have long since moved on to other things. I learned a lot from talking with Pat: how Mike wasn't exactly the savviest of businessmen, what it was like to run an anime store back when anime was just starting to hit big on American TV, and how the Ctenosaur video group wasn't as innocent as you might think. In the end, the story proves that no matter how much fandom changes, a lot of things stay the same.
Want to hear the full story? Listen to the complete interview on the latest episode of The Anime Nostalgia Podcast here!
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