Early Anime Fans Were Tough Pioneers

By Luke Plunkett on at

In 2016, Westerners take stuff like anime and cosplay for granted. It’s everywhere. But in the 1970s and early 1980s, fans of these emerging scenes had to work hard for their leisure, braving bewildered hotels for their cons and going to incredible lengths just to get hold of bootleg episodes.

The following is an excerpt from Cosplay World, a book written by Kotaku’s Brian Ashcraft and, well, me. It’s available now on Amazon and other online (and physical) book stores.

“We were on the leading edge of the anime/cosplay wave”, says Karen Schnaubelt, a veteran of the cosplay scene in the 1970s and 80s. “People didn’t always understand what the characters were from or what the costumes were, but we made them well enough that people liked them.”

Cosplaying as anime characters few had ever heard of (at the time, at least), Schnaubelt was also living in a time where finding other people who shared your interests wasn’t as easy as it is today.

“I had a pen pal in New York that I’d met through Star Trek fandom, and she would write me about trying to pull in episodes of Captain Harlock (in French!) by aiming her TV antenna at Canada out her apartment window in the Bronx.”

cosplay_world_1Karen (as Captain Harlock, centre) at Equicon in 1981

Other ways America’s first cosplay and anime nerds used to hang out was by belonging to sci-fi clubs and attending conventions. “I remember a highlight of the 1978 World Science Fiction convention was seeing episodes of Astro Boy that I had last seen first-run in 1964. And the 1983 World Science Fiction Convention did a late-night showing of Arrivederci Yamato, complete with live translator, which led to a funny moment where Captain Okita gave a 5-minute inspirational speech on-screen, and the English translation was: ‘Don’t screw up.’”

Fans could also get their anime fix, and talk cosplay, by just meeting at the homes of people lucky enough to own a VCR.cosplay_world_2Karen at Galacticon, 1980

“Anime was incredibly difficult to come by in the 70s and 80s. First, there was nothing available except broadcast TV until videotape became commonly available, and secondly, the import videotapes were heinously expensive, around $70-$100 for a movie (or short collection of episodes).

“The cheapest blank video tapes were $18 each in those days, and video tape recorders were thousands of dollars to purchase. Each week, I would buy a blank videotape for a friend with a video recorder. He would record the episodes all week long, and then on Saturdays, a group of us would gather at his apartment and watch a marathon of the episodes.”

Schnaubelt and her friends did a fantastic job on their outfits, with a quality and dedication to the source material that would be impressive even by today’s standards. It’s a pity, then, that not everybody could appreciate their attention to detail.

“The only negative reaction we ever had was from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, when we hung our Captain Harlock and Queen Emeraldas pirate flags out our hotel window. The management asked us politely but pointedly to bring them back in, as they said it was giving the impression that the hotel had been taken over by terrorists!”