With the advent of streaming services, channel surfing has become a lost art form. Children stuck at home on sick days or before bedtime don’t scan the airwaves looking for stimulation, as they’re now privy to endless on-demand content of any genre or style. Although the plethora of choices available at a moment’s notice is certainly an embarrassment of riches, there was something magical about the discovery of a new, unexpected television show—stumbled upon in moments of bored desperation.
Back in the early ’00s, Cartoon Network began broadcasting Japanese animation in the Toonami scheduling block and airing adult-oriented cartoons during the late-night [adult swim] block, providing a sharp contrast to the usual colorful kids' media. These series were often darkly apocalyptic, deeply surreal or comically hypersexual. While we’ve come to expect certain kinds of highbrow twists on the small screen in the current Golden Age of prestige TV, this kind of cerebral entertainment was somewhat unheard of at the time, especially when packaged as hand-drawn artworks.
[adult swim] and Toonami were how many Americans discovered the existence of anime—the genuinely bizarre aesthetics of post-modern Japanese cinema were suddenly shown to teens and tweens acting as their first exposure to avant-gardism. While some shows were silly adventure capers with motifs of existential woe (like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Inuyasha and Big O), others explored Y2K-era fears of technology and the emergence of cyberspace (like Paranoia Agent, Serial Experiments Lain, Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL and Ghost in the Shell). The artistic statements behind these works were far more dense and inaccessible than American sci-fi at the time—the latter favored big-budget special effects and celebrity name power over intellectual exploration.
Entire subcultures began forming around young people obsessed with Japanese media, sometimes called otakus (taken from a quite derogatory Japanese term for perverted nerds)—or, more recently, called weeaboos. Because more obscure and hardcore content wasn’t available on TV, communities began to form and share their wares, not so dissimilar from the tape traders of pro wrestling culture.
“At the time it felt niche—it was a secret that made you feel seen,” said Katie Rose Leon, who runs the Ballin' Out SUPER podcast that covers nostalgic anime faves from a distinctly feminist and leftist political viewpoint. “You had to know where to find it. Communities and friendships were built around it. It also offered a visual alternative to Western cartoons during the late '90s and early aughts, which were largely angular and masculine. Good aesthetics go a long way.”