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The Mike Toole Show
Join The Club

by Michael Toole,

Last week, I did something I hadn't done for a good five years - I attended an anime club meeting. See, the whole phenomenon of organized anime fandom has only been a big factor for about three decades, and in that lengthy period before downloading and streaming anime became something obvious and easy, clubs helped facilitate anime fandom in those long, cold periods between conventions. (Anime cons used to happen a lot less frequently than basically every single weekend, but that's a story for another column.) 

But as anime got easier and easier to acquire, first in the DVD-era avalanche of releases to brick and mortar stores, and slightly later online, the most obvious raison d'etre that anime clubs had-- acquiring and watching anime-- started to fade. Why spend hours of your time trooping to some location, be it a local library or a university meeting room or the community room at your pal's apartment complex, to crowd together with a pack of other weirdos and watch stuff that could, after all, be obtained with a few clicks of a mouse? Why, indeed. I had to know. That's how I found myself sitting in the back row of MIT Anime's weekly meeting, bunched up with about thirty folks, most of them at least ten years younger than me. 

But before I get into that, I'll give a little background on how anime clubs started in North America. Most folks consider the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization to be the very first club devoted to screening Japanese animation; it was formed in 1977 by Mark Merlino and noted anime historian Fred Patten. Fred's been a bit frail so I haven't spoken with him recently, but I have had correspondence with him about what the club was like in its earliest days. At first, they didn't always had a VCR and TV - the VCR was known in the 70s, but it was an expensive and newfangled piece of equipment. Instead, they'd use a 16mm film projector and prints either provided by collectors or rented by the group, so the C/FO spent their early days looking at fare like Alakazam the Great, Kimba the White Lion, and even non-anime animated fare like Gay Purr-ee.

Clubs similar to the C/FO started to dot the landscape as the 80s progressed-- in fact, a kid named Jerry Beck helped form a C/FO branch in New York in 1980. Interestingly, Beck would eventually head to Hollywood and find himself working alongside Fred at the famous (and infamous) Streamline Pictures. What was interesting about these clubs is that, including the C/FO, they would almost invariably organize very quickly and effectively - attendees would rapidly become club officers and start corresponding with other organizations, acquiring new anime, and contributing to the newsletter (of course there was a newsletter!). 

Eventually, C/FO branches would open in numerous cities - while this opened the clubs up to some rather onerous micromanagement from afar by C/FO officers who worried way too much about their clubs, it also spread anime far and wide and allowed new clubs to survive and thrive. My friend and occasional collaborator Dave Merill helped create a C/FO branch in Atlanta in 1985 with Scott Weikert and Bill Spurlock. Dave has a lot to say about anime clubs during this period.  "Once we put the word out through the various Atlanta fandom organizations that we were starting an anime club, anime fans kind of came out of the woodwork," he remembers. "We had most of our meetings at the Highland branch of the Atlanta Public Library."

One aspect of old clubs that Dave remembers well has long since vanished from the anime club landscape. "Pretty much every club meeting involved chains of VCRs and people making copies of movies and TV shows. If we visited anime fan friends in other cities, or if they visited us, out would come the latest acquisitions and the VCRs would start humming. We'd set up in hotel rooms at conventions and get entire series copied over the weekend. We would spend entire weekends in somebody's apartment copying tapes, eating pizza, playing RPGs, generally LIVING LIFE TO ITS FULLEST." Dave and his fellows spent these days watching and trading the likes of Vampire Hunter D, Crusher Joe, Zeta Gundam, Bubblegum Crisis, and a lot of other stuff that was once highly sought after and is now easily available on DVD. These old meetings, according to Dave, would draw anywhere from 15 to 35 people.

I still remember my first anime club meeting at UMass Amherst's UMJAMS organization. I was spending one Monday morning before classes at the university's science fiction library sifting through the Robotech novels (yes, I read the Robotech novels. I'm sorry.) and the guy clerking the desk noticed this. This shaggy, bespectacled gent languidly explained that UMass had an anime club (I would later learn that it was less than a year old) with a meeting tonight, and I should go. Boy, this excited the hell out of me! I somehow managed to make it to my classes (which was disappointingly rare for me) and hit the meeting.

It turns out that the scruffy dude was Lawrence Amshey, the club's president and co-founder. Along with him, about a dozen other folks had crowded into a small conference room with a 26-inch television and VCR. Out came the tapes - I would soon discover that the club rarely had strict schedules, and would decide what to watch based on what stuff attendees had brought with them. At my first club meeting, we ended up watching the short OVA series Here is Greenwood and the first Ranma 1/2 movie, both of which are decent enough titles for new fans. I was hooked, and would spend the rest of my time at UMass returning to these meetings over and over again. In fact, the Monday night meetings weren't enough for me - I'd frequently drag several club members up Orchard Hill to my dorm, where there was another VCR, and viewings would continue until 1am or later, which had a remarkable (read: remarkably negative) effect on my grades. 

I made numerous friends at UMJAMS, some of whom I still maintain ties with. I watched entire series, like Kimagure Orange Road and Maison Ikkoku. UMJAMS was where I first held and read a copy of Animerica, where I'd later start my anime writing gig, and UMJAMS was where I made plans with my pal Frank Zado to travel to our first anime con, AnimEast. (This turned out to be a big deal to the club's officers and attendees who didn't go - they eagerly pumped Frank and I for information, pored carefully over the convention program, and wondered over the new tapes we had purchased.) One of these old club buddies, ANN encyclopedia contributor and forums stalwart John C. Watson, would stay involved with UMJAMS for years. He recalls: "It was in 2000, I believe, that we changed to classroom auditoriums, which had projectors... Because we were in auditoriums instead of function rooms, the meetings, while likely larger, grew a bit less social because the members were spread out, and had less opportunity or incentive to chat with everyone else."

After I left UMass, I continued to hunger for more anime - Boston's biggest club by far in those days was MIT Anime, which regularly hosted 100+ attendees. These folks would crowd in to watch newly-fansubbed hits like Fushigi Yuugi and Rurouni Kenshin. Even that wasn't enough for me - in the summer of 1997, I found myself regularly making lengthy trips down to Cape Cod with my friend, translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman, to attend the meetings of a small club that met at a public access cable TV station. This club taught me a valuable lesson - that not all anime fans were friendly, reasonable people. The club's president seemed affable enough at first, but ended up getting into an argument with Neil that culminated in a hilarious email flamewar that concluded with the outraged exclamation, "How dare you reveal the secrets of Evangelion?!" We were banned from the club, but Neil and I still say that catchphrase to each other to this day. Dave Merrill elaborates: "Members ran the gamut from people who became lifelong friends to utterly insane lunatics who made every experience with them a living hell. Actual child molesters, single mothers, kids in their teens, adults in their 50s, furry video pirates, scam artists, the developmentally disabled, gamers, costumers, dart gun enthusiasts, software geniuses, engineers, misfits, losers, crybabies and fuckups, they all paraded through the doors of the anime club." My experiences weren't so different from Dave's, but it was the social aspect of club-going that made it so interesting.

This social aspect is one of the most unique and important aspects of anime club participation, and it's what drew the attention of GeekNights hosts Brandom "Rym" DeCoster and Scott Rubin to the anime club at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the early 2000s. DeCoster, who would serve as club president during his time at RIT, remembers: "Our showings almost always started with a selection of AMVs, followed by either a complete movie/OAV, the first four episodes of a single show, or the first episodes of four distinct shows... some 200-300 people would attend each meeting. About a third of them would leave after the AMVs were shown, heading early to the club office to socialize and/or wait for library access to open." His partner Rubin elaborates: "RIT anime was mostly social. We did have showings once a week, and eventually twice a week. But a bunch of us would... hang out in the club space most of the night. We would head to a diner afterwards. We had social nights, dance parties, etc. three times per year. It was basically a hang-out for anime fans with showings as a rallying point."

The social aspect of RIT's anime club surged to the point where the club hosts its own small anime convention, Tora-Con, which is still in operation today. DeCoster and Rubin's recollections highlight something important - most fans know that anime clubs helped fans acquire and view new anime, but they were also the best way to meet local fans and expand your social network in the days when the guys who made Facebook and Twitter were still in diapers. Some anime clubs, like Lorraine Savage's Anime Hasshin, weren't even local events with screenings - Savage instead maintained an immensely complex fanzine and tape trading list, and during Anime Hasshin's heyday, it successfully kept thousands of fans connected. A lot of these fans and organizations are still active today; the C/FO in Los Angeles still meets every month, and one of the oldest anime clubs on the east coast, the Boston Japanimation Society, still holds meetings every month in a small office above the grocery store in Cambridge's Central Square.

Here's the thing: a few months back, some of my friends and I started to wonder if anime clubs still served any purpose at all. After all, anime was easy to get, and anime fans weren't that hard to find, either. So why expend the effort and resources organizing screenings that may or may not be populated by literally crazy people? My intrigue with the question came to a head after reading KC Green's superb Anime Club comic strip, which highlights both good and (usually) bad aspects of club participation. Amazingly, Green didn't draw on his own experiences. He elaborates: "None of The Anime Club is based on personal experience. I made up the story one night a year and a half ago and the characters all kind of started as basic stereotypes I knew of from the world of anime fandom. The most "research" I did is to lurk horrid image boards and other forums and remember back to a group of people I knew of in high school who sort of acted like that. I just exaggerated it up for comedic effect." In spite of that, The Anime Club's tales of colossal nerd-fights over proper terminology and nuances of children's cartoons, the awkward but undeniable sense of belonging fans feel at these meetings, and the regular ousting of prickly, out-of-touch "club elders" by new blood suggest experience, and resonate with this longtime club attendee.

As I entered MIT Anime's regular Friday meeting last week, it seemed like little enough had changed. I was still presented with a classroom replete with video projector and sound system, in which perhaps two dozen fans were spread out and enjoying The World Only God Knows, a brand-new TV series currently streaming on Crunchyroll. Club president Jennifer Fu, who hurried over to introduce herself at the break, would explain that the club has an arrangement with Crunchyroll to show their offerings, which works out just fine for the attendees. Fu was quick to reinforce the idea that the anime club was mainly a social thing, with organized trips to Anime Boston, local shopping trips and restaurant outings, and video game and karaoke nights, all in addition to twice-weekly screenings that revolved around lengthy breaks spent chatting and eating pizza. This struck me as interesting, because when anime clubs started, socializing was a fringe benefit, not the focus. Now it's the other way around.

Still what MIT Anime presented me with was a room full of bright-eyed, talkative people who all wanted to get together and watch anime as a group. They laughed uproariously at a new show that is easy enough to stream and watch at home alone (I was the only one who got the giant Heidi reference in the show, though - oh god, so ooooold!) and even more fans came in during the break to talk and enjoy the next feature. Anime clubs aren't the brawny and completely necessary force they were in the 80s and 90s, but as long as fans are out there wanting to enjoy stuff together with other fans, anime clubs will always have a reason for being.

You know, as I sat in that meeting, I felt myself kind of missing the group viewing experience. My city's library just opened a new main branch with a massive screening room that's free to use for the community, and this has me wondering if anyone would show up if I tried to organize my own little screening. I'll be sure to report back on my findings. In the meantime, reach out online and see if you can find an anime club in your area. If you're already party of a club, share your experiences in the talkback thread. Maybe you're a longtime club-goer or founder-- or maybe you've already gotten kicked out! Next time, don't be so quick to reveal the secrets of Evangelion.

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