Sam Brooks pens a love letter to the after-school gateway drug of the late nineties and early aughts: anime on free-to-air TV.
If you look on the free TV schedule today, you’ll find a dearth of good after-school content for kids. Assuming a child-spawn gets home at around 3:30pm, they’ve got an hour of TVNZ content to gorge on and not much else. This hour includes:
- The comic/dramatic antics of the Peppa Pig family from 3:30-3:35pm
- The somewhat truncated adventures of The Justice League from 3:35-3:45pm.
- A throwback to when you couldn’t learn everything after a quick YouTube show with Get Arty, from 3:45-4:10pm.
- Brain Busters, which sounds like The Chase with less pyrotechnics and more children, from 4:10–4:30pm.
But from 4:30? Y’all, it’s a deadzone for kids, unless your child happens to be enthralled by Susie Nordqvist on Newshub Live at 4:30. Or maybe they want to watch a sitcom that ended five to 10 years before they were born, but I guess there are far worse ways to introduce your child to the comic stylings of Lisa Kudrow.
Today’s offerings a far cry from what I remember racing home to in my youth. This was back in the days when, if you wanted to use the internet, you had to let your phone line scream at you for a good minute and a half. Or, more appropriately, when what you were shown on TV when you got home was what you watched while you did (or procrastinated) your homework. You got to choose between Emmerdale Farm, music videos, and whatever you were blessed with on the free-to-air channels, and at least for a decade, that was anime. If you had Sky, I can’t even talk to you. This piece isn’t for you. At any rate, I’m sure they held the anime back until primetime hours on Cartoon Network.
For most of my schooling years, I was welcomed with the bright colours of anime. Every weekday, for many a month, I would wait for Goku to finish his goddamned Spirit Bomb; Ash meander make his way through Kanto/Orange Islands/Johto; or Sakura slowly getting all the Clow Cards (after-school anime has the pacing of a sedated slug).
If the previous paragraph is incomprehensible to you, you’re either old enough to remember literally turning the dial on a television or young enough that watching non-linear television at an appointed time is foreign concept.
These after-school animes were like soap operas for kids; anime is produced at such a rate that by the time they made it to our shores (this was before things came out everywhere at roughly the same time) they could be consumed at the same rate as something like Days of Our Lives. There were so many goddamn episodes that you could burn through five a week for half a year before having to move onto a new show. Every afternoon (and some mornings, if you were of a certain age), you were guaranteed a half hour of catching up with brightly-coloured, super-powered (or above-average powered) characters. You could also be guaranteed a solid eight minutes of ads for toys that your parents resented being asked for, which is surely one of the blessed erasures of the streaming era.
I put out a tweet earlier this week asking if people remembered the days when this was commonplace and if it got them into anime. I got streams of replies with the same shows: Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, Cardcaptors, Yu-Gi-Oh, Beyblades, Gundam, and Superpig, a show about a girl who puts on a pig snout and transforms into a super-powered pig at will. These shows are burned into the memories of those of a certain age, sort of like we’re some sort of benign cultural sleeper agents ready to awaken at the phrase “Who’s that Pokémon?!“
It’s not that kids aren’t able to access these saturated, hyperactive, repetitive shows anymore. In fact, access to anime is more readily available than ever, for better or worse (oh, don’t look at me like that. Look at the description for Superpig above and tell me that it’s Ibsen). If you’ve got Netflix, you (or your children, or child-aged acquaintances) have access to at least 90 shows, whether they’re a dozen variations on Beyblade or the iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as a breezy post-school watch. In comparison, the only place you’re likely to find anime on free-to-air TV now is an episode of Bakugan Battle Planet at 7:50-8:15am on a weekday.
Even more importantly, at least for this homo-author, these shows were also the first shows, aimed explicitly at kids (no matter how much you might enjoy them as an adult) that I ever saw that brushed against queerness – a brush that I later found out was a lot more explicit in the versions that were shown elsewhere. I’m thinking mostly of Cardcaptors here, with it’s full-on canon relationship between Sakura’s brother Tory and Sakura’s crush Julian (or Touya/Yukito if you’re subs over dubs). It’s the kind of thing that sounds silly in retrospect, but at the time it felt like a window into another world – the fantasy anime world where pretty men just happened to be in relationships with each other and that was fine
(And on that note: good voice acting is good voice acting, good translation is good translation. If a dub anime has neither, watch the sub. If it has both, watch in your preferred language. There’s no hard and fast rule. Absolutely do not @ me.)
But I think the most important part of it was that it made you part of a weird, seemingly universal community. Everybody went home and watched Pokémon. Everybody knew who died on Dragon Ball Z the previous day. So when you came into school the next day, that’s what you talked about. Maybe now they talk about TikTok or how to circumvent the parental controls on streaming services in their homes, but back then, after-school anime was a unifier. Regardless of what made us different as kids, we were all emotionally invested in whether Ash got that gym badge or Sakura got that Clow Card. Too young to be invested in pro sports, politics or gossip about people you didn’t personally know, talking about what you watched yesterday was a way to, well, talk and feel like we were all sharing something together.
So I can’t help but look at that after-school schedule and despair a bit for our youth. There’s nothing wrong with any of it, of course, but I treasure the insight I got into the weird, wonderful world of anime, even though those shows are nowhere near the weirdest or most wonderful of the genre (for the love of god caregivers and guardians, turn on your Safe Search before you let your children Google these shows).
And at any rate, those shows were, and still are, a damn sight better than those cop dogs on Paw Patrol.