"At the end of the journey, all men think that their youth was Arcadia..."
Sadly, I don't know much about the details of how exactly the Anime Society was founded, but from what I understand, it started in the early 90s (1993 I think) with a couple of guys and their friends who had a VCR and a few anime fansubs who got together regularly to watch them. At first, it was just a casual gathering in someone's house, but eventually they decided to make an actual MUN club out of it and the St. John's Anime Film Society was born.
It started out small, with only a handful of members. At that time, anime was not something many people had heard of. There certainly wasn't much anime to speak of on TV. There were a few shows here and there, but nothing very mainstream, and what there was had been hacked to pieces and stitched back together by the translators (though I suppose that still goes on today for any anime airing on daytime TV). In any case, there was not a huge anime fanbase in St. John's, and the membership list for the society was of a humble size. I have no idea who the executive were at the time, but some notable members who contributed significantly to the society were:
The society soon started having regular bi-weekly showings in one of the MUN lecture halls (usually ED-1020) which would consist of a short feature or a couple of episodes of a series, followed by a short break, followed by a longer feature. The longer feature would almost always be a full-length movie of some kind, and when the first feature was episodes, it was usually two or three episodes, and would often be consistently from the same series, showing the entire thing (or whatever the society had collected of it) over the course of the semester.
At that time, five dollars got you a lifetime membership. Membership was not required in order to attend showings, but it entitled you to borrow tapes from the society's VHS fansub library (though back then it was quite small; it fit in a single box and couldn't have been more than 30-40 tapes total). A member could borrow up to two tapes and they would be due back by the next showing, at which time they could borrow two different tapes (except the last showing for the semester of course).
After a while, some of the old members and founders moved away and the executive for several years consisted of:
In those days, the internet was a relatively new thing and was only starting to become widely available to the populace at large. However, there was a significant worldwide network of anime fans on the internet, and they would use it to exchange information and fansubs. This was really the only way to get access to a wide array of anime, since so little of it made it to North American TV (and what did make it to TV was often badly dubbed and severely censored and/or butchered), and there was not really much in the way of commercial anime releases at video stores (and what was there was often just as badly dubbed and butchered as the stuff on TV). In any case, borrowing tapes through the anime society was the easiest, cheapest, and most efficient way at the time to access anime. Even if you were one of the people lucky enough to have an internet connection, fansub distribution was still done through snail-mail and thus it would be much faster and better for everyone to simply borrow fansubs from the society in exchange for a contribution that will help expand the society's collection for everyone. Plus you would get to see a few animes on the big projector screen and maybe be exposed to some new shows you haven't heard of yet or never thought to watch yourself and become interested in them.
In September of 1995, Sailor Moon began airing on YTV's "The Zone". This fact, combined with the internet's growing accessibility to the public, caused a significant increase in the general public's awareness of the existence of anime, though for a while the society remained relatively unknown since most of the new generation of fans were kids.
However, one fateful winter's day in 1996, the St. John's Anime Film Society decided to have an event where they would show a Japanese subtitled version of the Sailor Moon R movie. They advertised extensively, not only around MUN, but also in the local high schools. They had booked out SN-2109 for this showing, a very large lecture room, with far more seating capacity than the rooms in the Education Building, and the place was packed. Suddenly, a very large number of very young fanatics knew of the existence of the society and the wonders of anime that was free from the butchering of the North American dubbers.
Almost overnight, society membership exploded and SN-2109 became the regular room for showings, since the extra seating capacity was needed to accommodate everyone. However, it wasn't long before Will Suvak was the only remaining executive, and even he was scheduled to leave for England after the next semester. With no one specifically to pass the torch to, Will called for a meeting of anyone who was interested in running the society. Only four people showed up to the meeting, who ultimately became the new executive, basically by default:
Will showed us the ropes as best he could in the limited time he had left in St. John's and took off for England. However, the new executive were all quite young (16-18), none of us were as yet even MUN students, and were suddenly in charge of running a very large anime society that was attended by a large number of rowdy kids which had to be kept from causing major disturbances or damaging the property. It was quite a daunting and intimidating task but we learned and adjusted as best we could.
Since the society was so large and we were quickly running out of things to show, we decided we needed to increase the pace at which we were obtaining fansubs. Thus, we implemented a semesterly membership system, where for three dollars you got a membership for one semester with the same tape borrowing privleges as before.
After about a year or so, enough was enough. The society was so large and so full of kids that it was at the point where it was hard to hear what was going on during the showings due to people's chatter, and the moment the show was over, sometimes even before, there would be a huge crowd trampling over each other to get to the front of the room to try to be the first to get access to the tape library. Needless to say, it was difficult for the university students (who the club is supposedly mainly for in the first place) to enjoy their experience at the society showings.
Something had to be done. We decided that we had to eliminate as many of the rowdy kids as possible while keeping as many of the civilized members as possible. Our solution was to decide on our showings in such a way as to specifically not cater to the kids. We would stop showing anything remotely popular and show only obscure, artsy, slow-paced, philosophical anime, the idea being that the kids would eventually get bored and fed up and leave, while the true otaku would have the patience to stay.
We executed the plan, and for an entire year, Robert picked all the animes for all the showings. For the most part, it worked. After that time, all the troublemakers were gone and although we lost a few others as well, we did manage to keep a solid core group of civilized anime fans. We then went back to showing a more diverse lineup of shows and soon membership began to renew itself, but rather than being mostly immature kids it was mostly (relatively) mature young adults, and the society began to prosper once more. We once again changed our regular room, but this time to EN-2006. It was smaller, but the seats were much more comfortable, and it didn't have SN-2109's front potlights that were impossible to turn off.
We also decided that, in order to improve the quality of the experience of the showings, we would separate the tape borrowing from the showing. Rather than loaning out tapes at the end of the showing or during the break, we booked a separate room (C-2026) on a separate day (Saturday afternoons) where we would hold "society meetings" where people could borrow out tapes, offer suggestions for what they wanted to see shown, or talk about society issues in general. That way, people who just wanted tapes and didn't care about the showings wouldn't have to sit impatiently through the features, potentially disrupting others, and the people who didn't care about borrowing tapes and just wanted to enjoy the showings could do so in peace (and of course people who wanted both could show up to both).
It was during this time that we discovered an interesting principle about the quality of the showings. It seemed that the showings were found more enjoyable when there was a sense of completion to what was being shown. For example, if the two features were both simply the first few episodes of a couple of different anime TV series, then at the end of the showing, it would end in the middle, nothing is resolved, and you feel sort of empty. However, if the features (particularly the second feature) was a movie, or a complete (but short) OAV series, then everything would be wrapped up at the end and you'd leave the showing with a much better sense of completion and satisfaction with the whole experience.
In light of this discovery, we decided it might be a fun experiment to show an entire TV series over midterm break. There was a relatively new Vampire Princess Miyu series out, and we figured that since Miyu was our mascot, yet not many people were that familiar with the character, and the series was short enough to show over the span of a few evenings, we decided it would be a perfect candidate for our test run. While we didn't get anywhere near as large a turnout as the regular showings, it was still a hit, and the tradition of the "Midterm Fest" was born.
This period also saw the introduction of some other things that became continued traditions which are still carried on today. One of the more notable ones is the semesterly "Trivia Contest" where a good quality anime poster depicting artwork from all the anime that had been shown that semester would be awarded to a few people who were able to correctly answer the gruelling trivia questions based on those animes. There were also a few traditions that fell by the wayside, such as showing a Slayers OAV or movie once per semester (understandable since we eventually ran out) and the semesterly Lupin/Conan night, where we would show a Lupin III movie and a Detective Conan movie in the same night. Lupin is supposedly the greatest thief and Conan is the greatest detective so they made a fantastic counterpoint to each other and they were both very well-liked shows by the members at the time.
Time marched on and the executive slowly rotated. Some new ideas and traditions were established, most notably the "Spring Festival" where at the end of the winter semester each year, the society has a party of sorts where only one short feature is shown and the rest of the evening contains Japanese themed snacks, anime karaoke, cosplay, and general socializing.
During this period, the society began to advertize itself a little more. The website that had been highly neglected since 1997 and basically abandoned after 2001 was archived and a new one was established that was regularly updated with information on the details of the showings and events. As well, the society began participating in the clubs and societies fairs which it had also neglected to do in the past.
As time went by, however, despite the increased advertizing, there were less new members joining up than old ones leaving, and the membership slowly started to dwindle away. It was no one's fault; it was simply a result of the transition from the way anime was watched and distributed then compared to how it is now. With the technology for digital video ever increasing, it has become trivial for people to simply watch anime on their computers in the comfort of their own homes. They can pretty much watch any show or movie they want, whenever they want. Thus, what motivation would there be to attend the society? Why wait two weeks to watch a couple of features that I might not even be interested in, on a Friday night, and borrow two VHS tapes (which a lot of people no longer have the equipment to even play) from the society's tape library (which, while quite large, still cannot hold a candle to the internet), when I could instead watch whatever I want whenever I want on my computer?
It was during this period that the society began to reinvent and reorient itself around the new environment it found itself in. It began focusing less on the actual showings and more on the social interaction, and the showings became more an opportunity to interact with other fans around a commonly held interest.
Executives during this period include the following (if I missed anyone, please let me know):
The society's membership may not be anything close to what it used to be during its heyday, but it has continued to survive, and membership has even experienced a significant increase recently. The current exec is dedicated and passionate and has even begun holding showings every week rather than every second week.
The current executive as of this writing is:
I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the anime society and for the anime community in general both here in St. John's and worldwide. May it be filled with many exciting and enriching experiences.
This document was put together from what I can remember, either from having experienced it myself, or from having been told a very long time ago by Will Suvak. If you have anything you'd like to add or correct, particularly if you are one of the founding members or were there for the days before, say, 1995 please leave a message on the St. John's Anime Film Society facebook page.