The Lost World of Early Anime Fansites
Plus: a Yugoslav classic and the world's animation news.
Welcome back! We’re here with another new issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. This is the plan for today:
1 — the significance of the anime fansites of yesteryear.
2 — animation news from across the globe.
3 — a classic from the Zagreb School of Animation.
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All clear? Let’s go!
1. No page here
The early internet was a weird place. Tens of millions of people once browsed without Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia or even Google. The internet didn’t look the same, work the same or feel the same. But it did have one thing in common, at least, with the internet of today.
Anime was a big deal.
The influence of anime fandom on internet culture has a long history. It didn’t start with social media. When you look back, you find that anime shaped the online world of the ‘90s — and of the ‘80s. As The Complete Anime Guide explained in 1995:
Anime fan Ann Schubert established the internet anime newsgroup rec.arts.anime in late 1987. Recent measurements put the total number of people who read this newsgroup worldwide at about 70,000. It is not one of the larger newsgroups (alt.tv.simpsons has about 215,000 readers, for example), but it is definitely one of the most active, averaging more than 8,000 postings per month.
Anime fans weren’t always in the majority, but they were always online, and their passion for anime was contagious. Years before the birth of the World Wide Web, they spread that passion on Usenet, where Schubert started rec.arts.anime (or RAA). When the web showed up, anime fans filled it with fansites.
Today, the unique world of early anime fansites is mostly lost. Even if you track one down in the Wayback Machine, it isn’t quite right — there are dead links and missing images, and the layouts don’t totally work (they were designed for Netscape, after all).
Oddly enough, one place that did preserve a slice of that history was a Spanish game magazine. The little-known PC Top Player wrote about anime and manga sites during the mid-to-late-1990s — and took screenshots along the way. Using these as a guide, we’ve decided to take a tiny peek back into this era.
Looking at retro anime sites, the first thing you notice is that we don’t do web design this way anymore. A lot of that was the era. Part of it was the nature of fansites themselves.
There was a wonderfully unhinged quality to the design of something like Anime Theme (above). PC Top Player reported in 1998 that “the Java language has been used profusely on this website, so you can see many icons moving on the screen and access the different pages as if it were your own desktop.” None of that survives in the Wayback Machine version, but the screenshots show what once existed.
Still, Anime Theme wasn’t the template. In the ‘90s, anime fansites had no one shape or size. Many were simple pages dedicated to single shows. Others, like the fanzine Animecca by Elaine Barlow, were a bit more ambitious in scope.
One of the first sites that PC Top Player highlighted (in early 1995) was modest in layout but extravagant in detail. That was Macross Mecha Designs, written by a college student named Dave Deitrich. It’s unusually intact in the Wayback Machine, although it still doesn’t look quite like it does in the screenshots.
By contrast, the anime-and-manga page Kiki’s Internet Services fared worse than even Anime Theme. The link given by PC Top Player wasn’t archived. A shame, because the magazine spoke very highly of the site in 1996:
We have finally found the ultimate manga-related website. At Kiki’s Internet Services you will find everything you want to know about any series, whether known or unknown to the Western public.
PC Top Player told of downloadable JPEGs reaching up into the 5 MB range — “their quality, as you might guess, is impressive,” it reported. Back then, images that big would’ve taken hours to download on a slower connection.
Not all anime fansites were created equal, or equally wholesome. In the ‘90s, the seedy side of the internet could be upsetting even by modern standards. (Usenet, which was scarcely moderated, had an especially dark underbelly.)
Rather than dwell on that part of the anime ecosystem, though, we’d prefer to point you toward /pub/anime-manga — the best thing that PC Top Player highlighted from the early anime fansite era. It’s less of a site and more of a directory, but still it’s an amazing snapshot of its time.
When PC Top Player wrote about it in 1997, the writer described it as “one of the best addresses related to anime and manga that you can find on the internet.” And it’s almost completely alive in a December 1996 capture from the Wayback Machine.
This directory is a mishmash. You’ll find archived posts from anime fans on Usenet. Scans of magazines and manga. Photos of conventions. Fan fiction. Incredibly low-resolution videos of Battle Angel Alita. And incredibly high-resolution images (for the time) of backgrounds from Only Yesterday. To name a few.
Based on the upload dates, the material here stretches back until at least 1991. You could spend hours getting lost in this stuff — from the random odds and ends to the legitimate finds. Things get even better when you stumble across the sister directory with extra Miyazaki and Takahata material. Anyone with fond memories of Nausicaa.net will recognize something here.
The early internet was an awkward and often embarrassing place — it’s well known that anime fansites were no exception. Many people of a certain age like to laugh about the Anime Web Turnpike girl. But, while the period was often funny, it also wasn’t a joke.
These fansites represented an intense passion. It was an era when bleary VHS tapes with unauthorized fansubs were the only access people had, outside Japan, to many classics we take for granted now. These fans cataloged that work, wrote about it, raised awareness of it, grew demand for it and in some cases translated it themselves.
None of it had to happen. At their best, they made it happen — with the same hyper-sincerity we see on their fansites. We’re lucky that some of this era has survived. It’s something that we need to see, for a lot of reasons.
But it’s worth restating how little of it has survived. So much of it is lost history we’ll never see again. One of PC Top Player’s most interesting screenshots came from a site called Serpent’s Anime Page, which wasn’t properly archived. The version in the Wayback Machine displays a single image, alongside a message from the owner:
Gomen!! No page here!!
Computer brain spazed, lost lotsa stuff!
Come back soon, please please please!!
Will have lotsa stuffz!! *^-^*
2. Global animation news
Animators begin graduating in China
As graduation season arrives in China, the flood of new student animation is getting underway again. It’s like this every year. And, in another annual tradition, animation blogs in China are showcasing as much of this work as they can.
There’s a lot already. The piece by Anim-Babblers on the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, for example, is a sea of intriguing stills and GIFs.
While the films from Guangzhou Academy are only available in a special streaming exhibit, some other schools have their animation uploaded to public platforms. A batch from the Chengdu Academy of Fine Arts drew our attention, in particular, because of a film called Dogmatism that’s streaming for free.
With Dogmatism, director and animator Lei Xiao offers a piece that’s both funny and technically stunning — the animation is really expressive. Plus, when you look closer, you find a critique of China’s education system as a whole.
We watch as a free-spirited dancer comes face to face with the instructors, who squeeze the person’s natural talent into predesigned molds. A bunch of silly-looking, identical dancers demonstrate the “right” way to pass the exam. In the end, the free spirit follows suit — and gets a reward that couldn’t be less satisfying.
There’s a lot of Priit Pärn in Dogmatism, but Lei Xiao makes the film feel fresh and personal. It’s great to see something like this from the graduates this year — we recommend it.
Best of the rest
We lost Fernando Laverde (88), a stop-motion director from Colombia, earlier in May. This week, Cartoon Brew looked back on his career.
In America, The Animation Guild finally reached an agreement with Hollywood. The details aren’t fully public yet. It’s still not a done deal, either — TAG’s members need to ratify it next month.
In Japan, the Ghibli Museum is readying a Future Boy Conan exhibit. At a preview, three members of the team said that realism was key to the series.
The Ukrainian animated feature Mavka: The Forest Song, shown at the Cannes film market, has already nabbed distribution deals in Greece, Scandinavia and Mongolia.
French director Sylvain Chomet had the (almost-but-not-quite) global rights to his next film, The Magnificent Life of Marcel Pagnol, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Spanish animation studio Device recently made an impressive commercial for Montblanc.
The Ice Merchants, from Portugal, just won an award at Cannes. The trailer grabbed us.
In America, Netflix isn’t doing Jorge R. Gutierrez’s Kung-Fu Space Punch. “It’s not dead DEAD,” he tweeted. “Just not moving forward at Netflix Animation.”
Following the announcement in China that Nezha is getting a full sequel, a poster for said sequel has been revealed.
Lastly, we wrote about the beauty of cutout animation, its ancient roots and its incredible diversity.
We hope you’re enjoying today’s issue so far! Thanks for checking it out.
The last part of the newsletter is for members (paying subscribers). Below, we dive into the film Alone, one of the key cartoons in the Zagreb School of Animation. Alongside its history, which we’ve drawn partly from rare books, you can watch the film as well.
Members, read on. Everyone else — we’ll see you next time!