I have kinda, but I’m not sure where they’re at (and they’re usually side stories buried in another topic). But you asked, so sure! You wanted big, and big is what I bring to you.
BACK IN MYYYY DAY
The fanzines thing wasn’t really a deal, at least not in my personal experience. The Internet was alive and well to the general public in the mid-90s, just in nascent form. You know all those Geocities sites with the sparkly glitter shit everywhere that we like to laugh at? That’s the time period we’re talking about, that’s where it came from. Anime websites — Sailor Moon ones, anyway, I can’t speak about any other fandom — were abundant, they were just mostly kind of crap.
Getting real information was next to impossible. Everything was a giant game of telephone (WITH SPARKLE GIFS), where some person imagined something and someone else heard about it and posted their version and a third person read it in someone’s sig file and embellished it and then put it on a website and since it’s now on a website IT MUST BE TRUE.
Putting it like that, it’s actually not too different today.
Point being, there was next to no official presence on the web, and so a lot of confusion about absolutely everything. The fact that you had the dub airing at the time made misinformation ABUNDANT. There were search engines, but no Google (which was revolutionary at the time because it was so streamlined), so finding anything was a crap shoot. There was no Wikipedia which, while not being the single most reliable thing in the world, does unquestionable good as being a central source of information that everyone knows. There was no YouTube, so no way to easily disperse video so everyone could be looking at the same thing. There was no peer-to-peer, so no real file sharing. If you wanted to share a file, someone downloaded it from where you put it, and we’re talking an average of like 28.8 kpbs. To put this into perspective, right now I have a FiOS connection with 25 Mbps. Doing the math, back in the 90s on a 28.8 kpbs dial-up connection, that would have literally been 1/1000th the speed I have right now.
Another way of looking at it? It would take you about 15 minutes to download a 3MB mp3 on dial-up in the mid 90s. IF your connection was good, and would hold, and nobody picked up the phone on you.
So jumping back a second, information — good, solid information — was a highly-prized commodity. This is why sites like Hitoshi Doi’s Sailor Moon page were so critical. Whatever Doi said was true. It was fact. Takeuchi herself could have come into alt.fan.sailor-moon (this was my fandom hub) and posted something, and if it contradicted Doi’s site, we would’ve told her she was wrong.
The file sharing part is probably what I think is the most critical thing to realize about the 90s Sailor Moon fan experience. Today we take for granted just how ubiquitous file sharing and video streaming is. I mean fuck, a few days ago we were all gathered around our computers to watch the premier episode of brand new Sailor Moon streaming simultaneously around the world. IN HIGH-DEFINITION. It’s moments like that which really hit home for me how far we’ve come, as I keenly remember nearly twenty years ago waiting anxiously for my next VHS tape to come from my friend in Japan who was recording Stars off the TV for me.
I was recently reunited with some of those VHS tapes, by the way.
THEY HAVE COMMERCIALS I’M SO EXCITED
Look at that though. “Japanese Sailor Moon”. Oh Me of twenty years ago.
The connection speed and file sharing situation goes hand in hand with FANSUBS.
Today, commercially available anime is pretty much standard, if perhaps still niche. Back in MYYYY DAY, it pretty much did not exist at all. Domestically released anime VHS tapes were only just beginning to appear. (In fact Hubby [he was Boyfriend at the time] and I watched our very first anime one night when we were bored and wandered over to the brand new two-shelf “Japanese Animation” section that our local Blockbuster had set up. We rented Golgo 13, Dirty Pair: Affair on Nolandia, and the first episode of Bubblegum Crisis, in case you were curious.) The selection was pitiful, but it was a start.
If you wanted to watch anything not commercially released however — by which I mean almost everything — then getting fansub VHS tapes was literally your only option.
Oh, fansub tapes. What a dicey and unpredictable wonder you were. (I believe I still have most of mine. This upcoming move of my mother’s will return to me my anime video tape collection, and it should be quite a thing.)
So with fansubs, what you had to do was track down a reliable fansub distributor and place your order. I will remind you of what I have already established as the condition of finding shit on the web at the time. You had, typically, about two hours of VHS tape you could fill, which worked out to about four episodes. You could “build” your tape out of whatever you wanted from most fansub distros (I think a few had it set to where you had to take whatever was on the tape, no customizing; most didn’t do it that way). This kind of clues you in to what you’re getting, though. Those fansubbers would “build” your tape for you, but they are doing this by literally playing the episode you want on one VCR while recording it on to another.
For those of you young whippersnappers who are used to digital media, allow me to introduce you to analogue. It’s physical, and magnetic, and it doesn’t last forever. The more you play it, the more you’re degrading it. So a DVD, your first play and your 10,000th play of the disc will be exactly the same. Very not true for VHS tapes. What’s more, with every “child” copy of a tape, you’re losing quality. It’s like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.
What I’m saying is, sometimes what you got looked like shit. I mean near unwatchable shit. Garbled audio, video jittering.
BUT STILL THANK GOD BECAUSE THIS IS THE RUN OF EPISODES I SO DESPERATELY WANTED TO SEE AND THIS IS THE ONLY WAY BLESS YOU
Most distros would at least mark what was shitty quality so you were well aware going in, and that was appreciated. (Really, their quality guides were pretty extensive, it was impressive.)
So you track down your distributor and it’s like wandering into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory that first time. EVERYTHING LOOKS SO GOOD I WANT TO TRY IT ALL
Only now the reality hits you, because holy fuck this is expensive.
"Expensive", I must point out in all fairness, is relative. You could (and I DID) pay about $30 PER COMMERCIAL TAPE. If you were LUCKY it had two episodes on it. IF YOU WERE LUCKY. So when I say fansubs were "expensive", they weren’t so much as compared. But when you’re [however old I was at the time] and you’re standing on the edge of the promised land and you want it ALL, it’s pretty fucking expensive.
The cost ran, if I remember right, anywhere from US $5 to $10 per two-hour tape, plus shipping. And that was back in mid-90s money, so $10 to $20 adjusting for inflation for today. So you’re looking at, assuming four episodes per tape, 50 VHS tapes JUST for Sailor Moon’s running series (no movies, no specials), and even going low-end, it would’ve been US $500 today. Plus shipping.
LIKE I SAID, EXPENSIVE
Once you’d placed your order, now the fun begins. You emailed them your order, and then had to wait for conformation and a final total. Typically this would take a few days. Once they confirmed they had everything and you were good, you had to go get your money order. YES, MONEY ORDER. Sending cash was a not a good idea, they wouldn’t take checks, and nobody could do anything with a credit card. You then had to mail that money order to the distributors along with what you wanted.
It could be months. MONTHS. This is not an exaggeration. MONTHS. Because the thing with making VHS copies off of VHS copies is that it’s all real-time. It’s not copying a video file onto a thumb drive and calling it done. This is someone putting in their copy of what you want into one VCR, putting your tape-in-progress into another VCR, pushing play on one and record on the other and then waiting half an hour. If they were a good and reliable distributor (and if you were smart, that’s who you went with), they were ALWAYS busy and ALWAYS backlogged, and it would be MONTHS.
Months without confirmation numbers to input on convenient web forms to check on the status of your order. Months where, hopefully, the distros updated and gave general time frames now and then, but mostly they were busy actually making the tapes everyone wanted, so that was rare.
(I should point out that distributors were doing this for no profit. Your $5 to $10 covered your tape and a few miscellaneous expenses, and that was it. This wasn’t anyone’s business, nobody was making a living at this. It was a labour of love, and so something they would do in their spare time.)
You sent your money into the void and hoped that one day it would return to you in the form of delicious not too-terribly unwatchable quality fansubbed anime that you could get nowhere else.
And you were thrilled at the opportunity.
That was what being a 90s anime fan was like.
For those wondering, my very first fansub anime tape ever (and so consequently my first exposure to the original) consisted of Episodes 44-46 of Sailor Moon. Nothing was ever the same.
Oh MAN is this true. I was actually lucky in that I lived in a big city with a large Asian population (Seattle), a really awesome video store (Scarecrow) and a couple other options. Also, ten miles uphill each way. In the snow.