Theoretical Nostalgia

I don’t understand people.

Perhaps this is not an uncommon sentiment for isolated otaku, hikikomori, or what have you. But when I say “I don’t understand people,” I do not mean “how come people aren’t like me?” It’s more an expression of my own ignorance, my lack of context for that which drives the lives of others.

I’ve been American all my life, but I don’t really understand what it means to grow up in America. Growing up, TV commercials were not of N64 games nor frosted flakes, but shampoo products from Japan being marketed to Hong Kong. Nor do I really understand what it means to grow up in Hong Kong, since I spent much of my youth bumbling about the internet on video game forums and chatrooms; that was the path of least resistance to getting around a local language barrier.

In the past I’ve verbally painted a portrait of a once wide-eyed anime fan broken down by the glut of 21st century moe, or expressed sentiments of shame regarding my past enthusiasm for certain works as a fan. Truth be told, I was partially exaggerating for comedic effect. However, when I pause to think about why I decided to go back “to another time where darkness and light are one,” was it truly driven by a disdain for my past interests? There was a time when I believed this, but now I don’t think so. There are countless other hobbies I could have pursued instead were this truly the case. No, it was the feelings that these works from another time impressed upon its viewers. Feelings that keep these works alive far beyond their expected expiration date. As someone who observes from afar, it leaves me in awe.

Thanks to efforts of fans before me, I’ve gleaned a glimpse of the anglosphere in which these works and fans once lived. The people who lived in those times and places first-hand do a better job of documentation than I ever could as someone who lives in the realm of theory.

The term “theoretical nostalgia” inherently suggests a lack of context. Indeed, no matter how many accounts I read or hear from other anime fans of the 70s and 80s, the longing I may feel for a time long gone, a time literally before my own, is fundamentally a product of fiction. It is not born out of a genuine first-hand understanding of those times, but rather fabricated from the feelings of others who lived it.

But one could also ask, to what extent do these feelings from Western anime fans reflect the reality in Japan? This is not to suggest that Bubblegum Crisis did not take American anime fandom by storm, nor that it was actually Macross and not Robotech that triggered an explosion of American animania. Those experiences were in fact real, and not any less genuine just because something different was happening over in Japan. What I am merely suggesting is a disconnect between the perceptions of Western fans with that of their Japanese counterparts.

How could Western fans possibly know of the reality in Japan back then? It was a very different time compared to the modern day where you can follow your favorite Japanese animators and comic authors on social media. Indeed, the communication gap has shrunk considerably between these once segregated regions of fandom. While modern fandom is more internationally connected and aligned, truth be told, I really have little idea of what Japanese people of the time actually thought of the animated products of the bubble era economy. When I say Japanese people I do not only mean those involved in the craft of the medium, but also the fans outside of the industry.

It would be easy to tread the beaten path and parrot the narrative that all modern day anime is just a bunch of garbage, and the 1980s was the only time anime was ever good. In the past I’ve been guilty of this myself. But wallowing about in a stew of this fabricated narrative would be nothing but an act of intellectual dishonesty. Possibly ironic considering the title of this article, but I would like to quote my favorite paragraph of RSF 25 :

We can look back at, appreciate, and take lessons from the past. But to put the lesson into practice somehow, it is essential to remember the past was once a physical thing, a moment, a unique set of opportunities and circumstances. Now those are gone, and the past has become a spirit. We have new lives, and new moments before us. The 1980s will not return, but that is all right, if we learn to make better use of these times we are given. Royal Space Force was not made as a work of nostalgia, and neither is this fanzine.

Carl Gustav Horn

What lies here is an attempt to understand Japanese fandom during that time as it truly was, as opposed to what we may like to believe it was. This is an attempt (albeit not a pure one; at the end of the day this is a personal space for me) to construct a bridge from the bustling present to the fading context of the past. As I’ve already said, I’ll never truly understand those times. In that regard, perhaps this is an exercise in futility. However, it is my hope that I can bring my theory closer to reality.

Thank you, and enjoy your stay.
We’re all going to die anyway.

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