The Decline of Anime Clubs...and the Otaku's Response
The start of my anime obsession began not with my first introduction to anime, but through friends who helped fuel my interest. Back in 1985, I became completely obsessed with Robotech, as did many young and impressionable 11-year-olds. I didn't start actively finding out more about anime until 1988 when I attended a comic book convention in Indianapolis. The Dayton Animation Club [out of Ohio] had a television set up in the main lobby with plenty of chairs for viewing. On this, their first foray into promoting the club outside of Ohio (at least as I understood it), they didn't even play a single anime in its entirety. They showed several tapes worth of openings and "best-of" segments, along with many of the vignettes from Robot Carnival, the Diacon films, and other bits of interest. I was hooked. I sat in front of that television for eight hours, leaving just long enough to get a soda from a vending machine down the hall in the hotel and a quick restroom break. Mesmerized, I was determined to become a part of anime fandom.
Over the course of the next three years, I was able to participate, in limited fashion, with the club. Because of the distance, I only attended meetings occasionally, primarily limiting my experience to whenever the club had showings at Indianapolis comic book conventions. However, the group was also very willing to share their anime collection with me and I got a number of titles through their library. All of this was well before virtually any anime was available in the States through distributors. By 1992, I had a rather large collection. I have always been grateful to the Dayton Animation Club for their help in sparking my anime fire. In all honesty, I have no idea if they still exist.
Locally, the situation was much worse. Although small groups of friends from the Ohio group lived and worked in Indianapolis, their meetings were sporadic at best. Although there were several attempts to start local clubs, a lot of them fizzled for various reasons. One club advertised itself as an anime club, but wound up showing Ralph Bakshi and old American cartoons the majority of the day. By the time the anime started, I was done. Another club had a much better following, but its approach was to show mostly older anime like Akira, which are certainly excellent but held no appeal to a collector wanting to see what else was available.
Communication caused the floundering of many of the clubs. I would repeatedly enter my name on mailing lists, only to find meetings had already passed me by. Some clubs met on Sunday mornings, which were out of the question for me. Locations changed as buildings became unavailable. I more than once went to a meeting that simply didn't happen. It burned me out on the club scene, which truly disappointed me. In relation, as I did some research on the Internet (with much thanks to Jay Fubler Harvey's Anime Web Turnpike), it became clear that most clubs have a limited Web presence. The few clubs that do have reasonable sites are primarily based at various colleges, which is encouraging though it shows little promise for the typical fan. Such does not bode well. The final analysis is that anime clubs, save for those on the coasts and in Texas, are a dying breed with little or no advertising and little hope of making inroads with today's average fan.
For my grousing, you might wonder why I mourned the loss of active anime clubs. The main reason is this: films are meant to be seen in a group setting. As a culture, we have gotten used to watching shows on our own and the Japanese culture is no different, with the individualization of culture getting to a point where it almost cannot be believed. However, film is still film, seen in a theater and enjoyed by a group of people, regardless of culture. Anime clubs provide this opportunity. Even when looking at shows meant for home viewing, the group experience adds immensely. If you've only watched Ranma 1/2 by yourself, you may have missed out. The group experience, especially in America, adds immeasurably to the anime experience. The diversity of such groups is also very revealing. Anglo/Saxon college males are not the only anime fans in existence!
Anime clubs used to be where otaku were hatched and created, but with the prevelance of anime on the open market, new fans are developing. However, most of them have no clue as to the history and bredth of anime as a whole and are likely to pass on to the next "big thing" without help. Anime clubs that expand their scope beyond local universities and typical "recruitment" spots such as comic books stores can make an impact to bring anime to the culture at large and to those already established fans who have no place to turn. Before it closed, the local Media Play store was willing to put up an advertisement for a local anime club. In less than three weeks, there were thirty signatures with addresses asking for more information. There is a craving out there from a fandom that would love to know more about anime. They just don't know where to go. Finally, anime clubs often have access to resources the average collector doesn't have in terms of funding (whether through dues or through private sources), and so they can provide a wealth of anime the average fan could not find. This includes an incredible amount of programming not yet available in the States through regular channels.
Is the anime club dead? Not really. Although there is certainly a lack of them readily available in some areas, California has an incredible amount of them going strong with New York and Texas having reasonable numbers as well. Perhaps the time has come and gone for clubs, or rather the time has come for individual otaku to make a stand for their hobby. For those who have interest in expanding their anime horizons, with or without club connections, I suggest the following:
1. Check with your local libraries and see if they have an animation club. Request that they begin to carry more literary anime, perhaps even donate a copy of Wings of Honneamise or Grave of the Fireflies so the staff can get an idea of the genre's artistic merit. If you're a library patron, you've got the right to make the request both to start a club and to request anime be added to future library purchases.
2. Check your local newsstand. Not many groups advertise in large newspapers, but many do have free blurbs that are given to them by local free press. NUVO in Indianapolis, for example, has occasionally carried anime-related news.
3. Start with a local video store. I would suggest a retail store like Suncoast Motion Picture Co. or any reputable locally-owned business. Many carry anime and often have information on local clubs. Although Blockbuster has started carrying dubs at certain locations, store policies often prohibit their advertising other services (like anime clubs).
4. Make sure that your local art theatre knows about your interest in anime coming to their screens and have other otaku call as well. Make sure to attend any screenings that they set and invite others to come. Very importantly, also attend any Japanese films that make it here on their own. For example, Princess Mononoke is coming to the States this summer with a professional dub job. Even if subs are your taste, it is virtual sacriledge not to see anime on the big screen when it is available and unedited.
I truly hope that my cry that the anime club is essentially dead will turn out to be false and that those readers out there who belong to great clubs will write in and share their experiences. I would happily share them in a later editorial. Until then, happy anime hunting!