Generally-speaking, an “anime club” is an organization, often centered around a college or university, focused on showing, promoting, and discussing anime. In the past, they were a staple of the fandom. Fans got together and organized clubs not only because joining forces with like-minded fans is fun, but because anime itself was difficult to obtain.
The history of anime clubs has a similar genesis that of the Japanese otaku community. The earliest recorded anime club, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO), began as a spin-off group from a science-fiction club, much like how many early otaku got into anime through sci-fi. The C/FO began corresponding with sci-fi fans in Japan, with whom they would trade VHS tapes: Their Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica for the Japanese fans’ anime.
It bears mentioning that, at the time of the C/FO’s rise, there was no anime market in the US. Most material was obtained through legally-dubious means, often VHS-recorded TV broadcasts which were then copied and distributed. Though the C/FO made efforts to convince Japanese production companies (Namely Toei Animation) of the existence of an American market for anime, a combination of high barriers to entry and a failure to sell their animation properties to American studios caused their efforts to ultimately fail by the early 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s, small companies would occasionally license anime works, edit them heavily, and release them as children’s cartoon movies. Despite this practice, anime fans were inspired to get their hands on the original Japanese works the edits were based off of.
The practice of fansubbing (Using computer hardware and software to encode subtitles onto a VHS tape) is also closely related to anime clubs. The first known fansub came out of a C/FO chapter situated near an Air Force base in Japan. The practice of VHS fansubbing would continue through the late ‘80s and well into the 1990s, coinciding with the rise of American licensing firms and the birth of a real American anime industry.
Put simply, anime clubs were instrumental to the rise of the anime industry in the West and without them, the medium would never have found success here.
But that raises a question: If, in the past, anime clubs were not just instrumental, but necessary for people who wanted to get their hands on anime, what purpose do they serve in today’s age, where a quick visit to Crunchyroll or even Netflix yields a wealth of anime, ripe for consumption?
The internet age caused a massive paradigm shift, not just for anime, but for media in general. In a relatively short time, we’ve gone from waiting for disc releases years after a show’s original Japanese airing, to Crunchyroll subtitled streaming releases simultaneous with the Japanese broadcast. Further, companies like Aniplex and Pony Canyon have set up shop in the US, and Funimation is somehow managing to pull off simulcast dubs.
Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, there is no lack of content for anime fans to peruse, and it’s all very easy to get. While the market began with a club in LA mailing tapes back and forth with Japan, now we're absolutely swimming in anime.
We’ve come a very long way, but where does that leave anime clubs?
It’s certainly easy enough to find and watch anime on one’s own, and while there’s something to be said about the experience of watching anime with others, that’s a significant reduction of the anime club’s role from back when the concept was established.
While anime clubs of past eras existed to provide content, anime clubs of the current era have a duty to provide context.
Look at anime conventions. Screening rooms, more prominent in past decades when obscure anime was very difficult to obtain, have given way to panels and lectures, where fellow anime fans stand up on a stage and speak on various topics to their audience. As content becomes less scarce and, in a sense, less valuable by itself, context and perspective come in greater demand, especially when talking in terms of anime, videogames, and other nerd media.
Ideally, the modern anime club is a cultural exchange committee, where a group of fans, all steeped in anime and otaku culture to various degrees, share context and perspective with one another, and share context and perspective with the community.
Viewing the anime club as just a club that watches cartoons devalue the concept’s rich history and deep ties to the anime industry and anime fandom. It takes just as much to manage a modern anime club as it takes to manage any socially- or politically-active group on, say, a college campus. However, while many of those groups have a very clear mission and direction, the very open nature of the “anime club” concept is difficult to manage.
Strong leadership is a must for the modern anime club. Without clear direction, it’s easy to fall into a complacent habit of simple consumption. Decisiveness, charisma, knowledge of the medium, and, above all else, true passion for anime are all qualities of a good anime club president. The leader needs to be able and willing to push the club in a positive direction, by any means necessary.
An anime club's leader must be willing to skirt the rules, or take a "better to ask forgiveness than ask permission" attitude to advance the club. He or she has to be a little bit crazy, and has to take anime way too seriously.
There is no room for negativity, discrimination, or shame in the modern anime club’s leadership. There is no room for people with a hatred of any aspect of the medium, be it ecchi, yaoi, yuri, harem, loli, moé, or even hentai. That isn’t to say that they can’t have preferences, but they must be prepared to watch anime they dislike if the screenings are determined democratically.
The leader of the modern anime club must be armed with both the knowledge and the intestinal fortitude to be able to put into context elements of the medium that might seem questionable to outsiders.
Knowledge can be taught, but passion and courage need to come from within. The modern anime fandom has the luxury of being able to be dispassionate. In the ‘70s and the ‘80s, getting anime to watch was an act that required passion. Now, with anime just as easy to obtain as any other media, it’s still just as important to have passionate leaders in the fandom because, while those who simply desire content can eventually be satisfied, those who desire context know no end to their thirst for more and more knowledge and perspective.
This is where the modern anime club comes in. In an era where anime is trivially easy to get, it’s no longer enough to simply have a communal space where people get together and watch anime. The role of the anime club must expand, both in depth and breadth, to explore the medium much more deeply and the culture surrounding it much more broadly.
I’m reminded of the manga and anime Genshiken, where a college club spins off from the school’s anime and manga clubs to form a general-purpose club for otaku. Desiring to explore otaku culture as a whole, rather than being boxed into a medium, and preferring to discuss manga and anime from a consumer’s perspective rather than a creator’s perspective, the characters form “Genshiken,” a club for otaku, fueled by pure passion and bolstered by its members, who’s disparate interests are nonetheless similar on a basic level.
A group of knowledgeable and (most importantly) passionate experts or aspiring experts, meeting together to share their knowledge and perspectives on the medium with others: This is the new role of the modern anime club.