During the nineties, there were quite a few ways to watch anime. Though not as plentiful as today, things were still better than they were in the 80s.
Back in the 80s, anime was mostly bootleg, mail order, or an expensive purchase from a comic book store. However, thanks to Akira’s release, the early 90s saw a surge in the availability of anime, and the world of Japanese adult animation began its invasion of America.
The early 1990s is when I became a fan of anime, and despite living in a rural area, I was still able to watch a lot of great anime through multiple outlets that I often came upon it by chance.
So here is how I watched anime in the 90s.
Move rental stores had their heyday in the 80s and 90s, and many of them had a small collection of anime. Adult anime was typically found in either the “Special Interest” or “Foreign Movies” section. And this is how I came upon movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
Sometimes you would find anime mixed in with the kids’ movie section. For example, one of the first anime movies I recall watching is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, though back then, we knew it as Warriors of the Wind.
At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that cartoons were for kids. So unsavvy movie store clerks were all too happy to let kids rent Japanese animated movies, which is why I could rent Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend, as a 14-year-old kid.
In the early 90s, MTV had a run of late-night animated shows on Liquid Television and MTV’s Oddities. This featured presentations of Aeon Flux and The Maxx. Other networks were hopping on the adult animation bandwagon, and this saw the start of shows like South Park and Futurama.
Anime also attracted attention from cable networks such as the Sci-Fi channel (now Syfy) and Cartoon Network. Syfy had a Saturday morning anime showcase featuring movies, and Cartoon Network had Toonami, which featured tv shows.
This was back in the days before DVRs, so if you couldn’t watch it live, you could program your VCR to record on a blank tape at a specific time. God forbid you forget though, because that was often your only opportunity to watch the movie or episode.
Suncoast Motion Picture Company
Back in the 90s, if you lived near a mall, you probably lived near a Suncoast, and they had a fairly robust selection of anime. The problem was that anime was pretty expensive at the time. So for those of us who watched anime in the 90s, collecting anime could be an expensive hobby.
At the time, VHS anime was typically $20-$30 for movies. If you were watching a TV series, you were generally going to pay $30 for a tape with 2-3 episodes.
So if you wanted to buy the entire 6 volume collection of Record of Lodoss War, you would have paid $180, which is nearly $300 in 2020 dollars. This is why it was more economical to buy movies.
With that said, it was still a real joy to peruse their anime collection and buy movies such as Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell.
Columbia House – US Manga Corps
During the late 90s, in a partnership with US Manga Corps, Columbia House offered a mail-order anime service. This was a huge offering if you watched anime in the 90s.
At the time, Columbia House and BMG were well known for their ridiculous CD offerings. They would hook you by offering 8 CDs for a penny, and you got three more CDs for free if you bought another CD at full price. The catch was that you had to buy a certain number of CDs at full price to fulfill the contract terms. So you could very quickly build a CD collection by using fake names (not that anyone ever did that).
The anime service offered by Columbia House functioned similarly to this model. For $4.98, you could get Akira on VHS, and then every month, new anime arrived at your house. If you decided to keep it, you mailed in a check for $30; if you didn’t want to keep it, you had to ship it back.
I subscribed to this service for about six months before it became too much to support with my minimum-wage earnings. But I did end up with MD Geist, Akira, Roujin Z, and some other great movies.
Copied on VHS
Some of the anime fans from the 80s (before my time) will talk of the days of watching fan-subbed low-quality anime bootlegged on VHS. These tapes were often exchanged in person at conventions, flea markets, or various other meetups and were sometimes the only way anime was available.
With the increased availability of retail anime in the 90s, this practice decreased. But given the expense of anime, if you had a circle of friends who all enjoyed it, you would make copies of each other’s VHS tapes so you could all add movies to your collections.
This is how I ended up with my first copy of Ninja Scroll (later on, I bought a legit copy at Suncoast).
For more reading, check out the anime that got me hooked!