The Mike Toole Show
The Poll Vault

by Mike Toole,

It's election season in the US! Are you exhausted with the whole thing yet? I sure am—pals, I am completely full up on election news, speculation, and scandal. I have hopes about the outcome of my country's national election, and even more hopes about the crucial ballot questions facing my home state of Massachusetts, but after two years of constant noise, my greatest hope is for the whole loud, fulminating parade of shouting, gossip, and recriminations to wrap up and quit bothering me. That's why I'm here to talk about anime! Anime and voting.

The whole idea of an election, a popular vote to determine primacy, dates all the way back to ancient Greece, when the citizens of Athens came together to vote on which was better: Love Live! , or The [email protected]. Since then, our society has had a lasting fascination with voting on everything from who gets to lead nations to who gets to play second base in the All-Star Game. One of my favorite regular voting exercises is the character poll in Newtype magazine, in which thousands of anime nerds from across Japan decide who is best boy and best girl. It's interesting how internet voting has changed this poll—in the 80s and 90s, fan favorites would hang on for years at a time. Looking at the latest issue's list, I'm not terribly surprised to see Kabaneri's Mumei topping the female list, but I am intrigued to see Macross Delta's Hayate Immelman handily beating out the likes of Josuke Higashikata and Kirito. I knew the show was popular, but wasn't aware that the protagonist had curried so much favor with viewers.

Newtype's poll is obviously something that only their readers participate in, so you've got to figure that it's a relatively limited sampling of fandom in general. Anime might be targeted towards Japanese viewers, but it's a global medium, so with voting on my mind, I sought out the first persistent, long-running, globally-reaching poll of anime fandom: the rec.arts.anime Anime Favorites poll, conducted initially in the winter of 1992. Hey, that was a US election year, too!

There was a time when rec.arts.anime (or just RAA) was the locus of English-speaking anime fandom, and that time was the early and mid-1990s. RAA was (and still is, in fact!) part of Usenet, a sprawling, loose confederation of message boards that propagated across the internet in the frontier days before the World Wide Web opened things up to less tech-savvy users. Usenet was kind of funny—not all usenet groups were available to every internet portal, because they relied on individual institutions (which, at the time, tended to be universities and tech companies rather than consumer internet portals) to subscribe to each individual group. In that sense, there was no “central” Usenet directory; the whole thing was distributed, decentralized, and enjoyably chaotic. Most internet servers carried rec.arts.anime, for example, but it was harder to keep up with your favorite posts on or alt.alien.vampire.flonk.flonk.flonk. Of course, the whole thing was completely unmoderated, which would probably be impossible to pull off in today's world.

Rec.arts.anime and its handful of related discussion boards was the place to talk turkey about the latest VHS mail-order fansubs, post the minutes of your local anime club meeting, dish up feedback on one of the emerging commercial anime releases (which would often be read and responded to by the publishers themselves), argue about your favorite characters and shows, and share info with other fans about the latest laserdisc releases from Japan, often mere months or even weeks after release. In December of 1992, a poster named Ryan Mathews (who would later run the popular Last Exit Before Toll column on the Anime Web Turnpike, another favorite anime destination of internet days gone by) solicited RAA posters for their picks for the 1992 rec.arts.anime Favorites Poll. This was interesting, because the stated intent was to make this poll a fixture, rather than the chaotic, rolling polls that constantly showed up in the newsgroup at the time. This poll would become, like I said earlier, the first persistent, globally-reaching poll of anime fandom.

That poll's first category was a whopper: best anime movie. In the initial results, 99 votes were counted in that category, which probably equaled the total number of participants—an impressive tally at the time, though these days, 99 is the number of folks who show up on a Tuesday night to see the Digimon Tri movie. The winner was controversial enough that some participants would later suggest ballot-stuffing—after all, who would survey the pantheon of classic anime films and pick Wings of Honneamise as the favorite? Well, 11 respondents did, which was enough to get it the win.

Wings of Honneamise is easy enough to find on Blu-Ray these days, though the Royal Space Force title is a little more prominent now. It's funny, the whole “Wings of Honneamise” thing was done largely at the behest of sponsors; one of them, the film's distributor Toho-Towa, figured “Honneamise” would lend the movie an exotic flavor that would somehow make moviegoers think of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (they rather infamously had designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto cook up a promo poster based on this line of thinking), and another sponsor, an airline company, simply insisted that the word “wings” be in the title. Anyway, while the movie is inarguably impressive, it's also inarguably divisive; to this day, fans bicker about a scene in which the protagonist, a callow young astronaut-in-training slowly lifted up by his emerging idealism, tries to rape the nice church girl he's been pining after. In doing so, he reveals a truly awful flaw in his character; later, he desperately tries to apologize, while she heartbreakingly insists that it all happened because of her own failings. Is Royal Space Force's narrative improved by this scene, or degraded by it? Maybe we should have a vote.

The second category, naturally, is Best TV Series. I'm not surprised that Kimagure Orange Road won big here, with 25 votes. (The Rumiko Takahashi bloc's vote was split between Ranma ½, Maison Ikkoku, and Urusei Yatsura, so maybe she really “won” the category?) Back before TV anime became something everyone watched week-to-week, KOR was one of the only shows that could be acquired relatively easily and completely, and while it isn't a personal favorite of mine, the show does a remarkably good job of depicting rosy, winsome high-school love, even with the added frill of wacky comedy telekinesis. One interesting detail: every entry on the list that got more than one vote was eventually released, in entirety, on DVD in North America. The last holdout, getting two votes, was Giant Gorg, which came out earlier this year. Know what else got exactly two votes? Sailor Moon.

The third category's results are even more curious, partly because it's a bit fragmented; Mathews had voting categories for both Best Stand-Alone OVA and Best OVA Series, which resulted in a lot of one and two-vote ties in the lower depths. The big winner of the category? Vampire Princess Miyu, a series I haven't thought of in at least a decade. I think that this series winning out demonstrates an interesting quirk—a lot of entries on these lists of favorites only got there because they were the only stuff people could get at Blockbuster Video. Anyway, Miyu just barely beat out Bubblegum Crisis, which has stuck around in fans' collective memory. Gundam 0083 made third, making it the highest-ranking Gundam anything in the entire poll; the favorite stand-alone OVA was Riding Bean, which again, has managed to stand the test of time.

After these staples, we get into stuff like favorite male and female character. The first poll's prom king and queen were Char Aznable and KOR's Madoka Ayukawa; like I'm fond of saying, Ayukawa was the original Dokes. Interestingly, no other character made double digits. We then move on to stuff like favorite writer and director, and here we see a trend that endures to this day: anime fans, even pretty engaged ones, don't keep very close tabs on who makes the stuff. The Writer category votes are dominated by manga creators rather than people who write for anime (granted, in 1992 I'm pretty sure Mayori Sekijima was writing half of all anime, and Satoru Akahori was writing the other half), and Miyazaki runs away with the Director category, scoring five times as many votes as the #2 most popular director, “Hideki Anno.” Oops! This sense of detachment is rounded off nicely with the Best Studio category, in which Artmic dominates (no doubt thanks to Bubblegum Crisis, Megazone 23, and of course, Gall Force), but Kitty and Pony Canyon are also tipped, even though they're publishers, not studios. The poll is wrapped up with English-language translation and magazine categories, and what's interesting about this is the way fansub outfits like Operation X and Arctic Animation are right up there with AnimEigo and Streamline.

Ultimately, the 1992 Anime Favorites poll paints a picture of western fandom that's reliant on fansubs, only just starting to dig deep into the creators behind the media, and firmly rooted in the hits of the 80s. But the neat thing is, Mathews kept the poll going for years, and by tracking it, we can see trends emerge. Riding Bean and Miyu are unseated at the head of the Best OVA table by emerging favorites like Oh! My Goddess and a fabulous monster called Tenchi Muyo! , which races up the standings in 1993 and never leaves. Char and Dokes tumble down the favorite character standings, yielding to the likes of Ranma ½'s Ryoga Hibiki, and… wait, I lied about the second bit, Madoka Ayukawa never gets bumped from the top spot once in the poll's six-year history.

Yeah, the poll only went between 1992 and 1997. By the late 90s, online anime fandom was changing—folks were migrating away from Usenet to web-based BBSes and chat systems, and Usenet itself was starting to be subverted into a file delivery system. Rec.arts.anime never really went away (for a long time, it was re-classified to rec.arts.anime.misc, though)—even today, you can find people posting about that new Shelter video—but was never as lively as it was in 1996, when the poll drew 182 voters. Looking at the data, it's interesting to see how some categories had more-or-less permanent winners—the gang on the newsgroup just could not stop loving Madoka Ayukawa, or her character designer Akemi Takada, or the music of Bubblegum Crisis, or AnimEigo's approach to releasing subtitled VHS tapes – they all won their category every single year.

The more intriguing categories for me are the TV and OVA ones, because while Tenchi Muyo! dominates the OVA field, it's regularly challenged by the likes of Macross Plus and El Hazard. Kimagure Orange Road is unseated as TV champ by Maison Ikkoku, which eventually yields to Neon Genesis Evangelion, while further down the table, these new shows called Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z slowly creep up the standings. Characters from this obscure new OVA series called Jojo's Bizarre Adventure show up in the “best animal/mascot” and “best villain” categories. Towards the end of the poll's history, we finally start to see brand-new shows emerge as favorites, with Escaflowne drawing a lot of interest in the poll's final year.

Another interesting facet of these polls are Mathews' own remarks about the data. In 1993, he wonders at the way folks were eager to vote for their favorite anime dubs, even though the ones that end up winning—mainly Ranma ½-- and the same ones that the real fans trash-talk constantly in the newsgroup. The following year, he marvels at what he sees as an influx of “new fans” – young students who just discovered the medium in 1993 and 1994, and are already surprisingly knowledgeable about it. I think we can thank the web for that!

I kinda miss how much of a big deal rec.arts.anime was in its heyday. I can still remember the flurry of “Is this real?!” messages when Megumi Hayashibara posted there, to plug her appearance at Anime America, and the constant discussions of important topics like who's roleplaying which character on AnimeMUCK. Japanese creators were distant—only a handful of fans from Japan posted regularly—but Viz and AnimEigo people patrolled the threads regularly, hungry to interact with their customers years and years before social media engagement became a thing that companies worry about. If you want to check out the poll result postings yourself, they're here: 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 part 1, 1996 part 2, and 1997

What's the big picture, here? I think the Anime Favorites poll demonstrates how fandom in the 90s was starting to speed up—the growth of the internet was driving that, and anime was just plain getting more popular. It's still interesting to see how some shows and characters were just these weird institutional favorites—remember how Wings of Honneamise won Favorite Movie in year 1? Yeah, it held on to that category for the entire history of the poll. This was at times impressive (a couple of years, notably in its VHS release year of 1995, it won by a large margin) and at times hilarious (twice, it won by a single vote). The ballot-stuffing that some wondered about did eventually happen, but not in service of Honneamise—it was to try and get Oh! My Goddess's Skuld to the top of the Favorite Female Character standings. Fortunately, this kind of voter fraud is rare, and it was caught in time.

As we wind towards the US election, I think the freshest current-day analog to the poll is this infographic, posted by Crunchyroll's Miles Thomas. Anime News Network's rating system is helpful, but it's aggregated over many years, so it's only in recent years-- ANN's exhaustive weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual polling only got rolling in 2014-- that we've started to get detailed snapshots of what people like at specific times. The linked graphic is focused on current stuff and annoyingly free of actual numbers (not surprising, since Crunchyroll is a commercial outfit and this would qualify as a trade secret), but still interesting to look at. After all, according to this graphic, we're all still voting in the big popularity contest—we're just voting with our views, and not our typed-out ballots. As the bumbling FBI agent in the original Lupin the 3rd: Mystery of Mamo dub says: “Be grateful to democracy!”

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