Looking at the bulk of the stories I’ve been sharing on the pages of Diet via my Analog Diaries column, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a small shoutout to a period in my fandom that so few I speak with seem to mention, let alone talk about. It is something of a footnote in the anime and manga phenomenon that doesn’t get coverage in many places online, especially since the internet can be said to be the bomb that truly blew the fandom floodgates open. But before PCs were truly widespread, and bandwidth was reasonable, connieurs of J-culture had to resort to other means to gather information, and find friends around the world with commonalities such as these to chat up.
My first brush with folks who traded tapes, zines, and materials from Japan was through the friend of a relative who had once stationed in and around Okinawa. As it turns out, since his travelling back and forth from Japan had begun to slow, it became common for this guy to have a network of pals willing to share the wealth via parcels, and classic postal service methods. There was a romance to this as it was clear that it took effort to really make these friendships last. And what would come from a lot of this would not only be some truly cool buddies from all over, care packages of stuff would often land, granting him access to things I would not see anywhere for years. This person’s room was awash in pin-up art, figures, and videocassettes, and it was something that would likely leave a burn mark within for a very long time.
Flash forward to roughly the mid-90s, and I am essentially in the California desert, many miles from anything resembling hobby shops, let alone convention venues. Access was almost completely nonexistent, save for the occasional run-in with your local geeks at the local Suncoast, and buddies. And our pally from the service had long since vanished, so it was pretty much time to either pack it in, or doggedly keep seeking out others with similar passions. When it came to learning anything about such a medium such as this, about the best ways to do so would be to save up, head out toward the Los Angeles area to forage the popular haunts, and naturally, talk to folks who really knew what was up, the elder fans. However, as in anything geek, there were many times where it felt like the only way into such a world was to “know the code”, perhaps a secret handshake, or perhaps even a little blood sharing to just get a glimpse at something else made by Miyazaki, Oshii, or even Dezaki. The walls keeping the average, passtionate fan were many if you knew noone. Simply put, if you didn’t know anyone, anime fandom was near to impossible…
…Or so I thought…
Soon after anime on VHS was beginning to gather ground, and the ADVs, Central Parks, AnimEigos, and others of the world were beginning to see an upsurge of younger fandom, I had the good fortune to spark up a conversation with someone while chatting up a mutual admiration, the manga collective CLAMP. And that’s pretty much all it took to be introduced to an already long-established world network of not only shoujo manga & anime lovers, but an entire living, breathing faction of fans with a love of the written word, as well as a humongous DIY spirit. I was introduced to the world of Friendship Books, and pen-pal circles.
For those unfamiliar; pen pal circles are as they sound, and yet offered an interesting way to get to know others without the interference, and often static that an instantaneous internet can at times elicit. To begin, one would select a fictional moniker; a name for yourself that could either be original, or naturally be that of a favorite character. (we seeing the seeds yet?) And to spread awareness of your profile to those looking for new pals to write, one would create what was known as a Friendship Book.
As you can see, Friendship Books cold be made out of anything from construction, to washi, to standard line stock. These books would start with a page, often decorated with an anime/manga image, and a brief opener, describing the kinds of shows you liked along with one’s mailing address. The page complete, the book could then be sent to other pen pals, and sent randomly around to other pals until the book was completed front to back, at which time the book was sent back to its author. And to see where it went was often interesting, and even moreso, was to see the creativity expressed by those placing their profiles into it. It was a fascinating process that could become messy quite quickly should one not send a few out with every replied letter. Many would even come back from as far away as Japan, or even Germany.
But the friendships that formed out of this curious move were often very cordial, and fun. Especially when con season returned. One of the more notable events each year was to be able to meet some of these fellow writers, which naturally had its highs and lows.
In all this was a truly interesting time as it was also more possible than ever to hear about current shows, as well as swap tapes of series that either hadn’t been licensed for US distribution, or even favorites that the american market would never even consider. The fansub community was still in relative infancy, so it was also a peak time for the empowered few to take their Japanese skills, and shell out free cassettes featuring anime that for better or worse helped pave the path for how anime fandom was going to burst in the near future. I would even argue that prior to the internet’s massive impact on the anime industry as a whole (rise AND fall) , it was really up to a significant, and yet largely silent subculture within subcultures. It was how I was able to first begin reading Ginga Tetsudo 999 in Japanese, as well as see shows like Escaflowne, Gundam Wing, Wedding Peach, and many others before the companies began paying real attention. And the prime motivator for all of those I met throughout this time period was less about what one had, but rather who they could share their love of all of this with. There was no malevolence, or selfishness involved, it was merely enthusiasm.
It might have been slow, but in that came a sense of build-up. Of anticipation. Even if the show was so-so, there was something of an in-the bunker vibe that came from this kind of community that made every new major show something of an event. When was the last real time we’ve experienced this?
Long before I had a net connection, and a station to type from, it was all about pens, paper, glue, and a lot of motivation(oh, and stamps).
And it is something that I at times only wish to see more of as it has the world’s fans scramble for some kind of sense of community that feels lost at the moment. And perhaps this was all because of it’s rarity. Lack of access can do amazing things when one thinks about it. Perhaps it is here that answers exist. Of course there is no going back. But one can at least hope for the kind of long form love fans have for their interests, all in the name of finding others with the same affliction. Not in the name of a cure, but in the name of understanding.
Understanding via creation. Isn’t that what much of this is all about?