The earliest American anime fans were people at science fiction conventions watching tapes untranslated: if they were lucky there was a translated script in their hands, or maybe a guy up front telling them what was going on. I had this delightful experience a year ago at Otakon, as a fan narrated his untranslated episodes of Tezuka's Wonder Three to the audience. Try it sometime with something you don't understand!
Like I said in an earlier column, since there were neither TV broadcasts nor legitimate video releases, people passed tapes around. Maybe a friend in Japan got them off TV, maybe they were copied off a Japanese video. There were (still are) a lot of Japanese supermarkets with this stuff in the back, too! You just had to know a place, or a person: and that person knew someone, and so on.
But let's go back to my junior high days. My chuunibyou days, right? At 12 my best buddy and I-- he raised on Robotech (Macross), I raised on Voltron (Go-Lion)-- joined the anime club at our middle school (which also included a high school) and hit the American anime underground. For an hour every week, these wonderful people showed us anime from their tape collections. I first saw Evangelion here: and Touch, and Slayers, and Kodomo no Omocha. After an anime diet consisting exclusively of sci-fi in my formative years, it was a real surprise that Japanese animation could be so many other things. Of course, at that age... I mostly wanted sci-fi and fantasy. The absurd Dragon Half was my favorite.
(We were just obnoxious twelve-year-olds, but if they had kicked us out, I probably wouldn't be here right now. Thanks, guys.)
At the end of every session, the older kids would crowd around a table with big bags full of tapes. My buddy and I were too young and shy to go up ourselves, so we didn't fully know what was going on, or where the tapes for some of this stuff came from (why didn't any of our local video stores have Kodocha?), until years later.
Half of this wide selection (from the titles named above, Eva and Slayers) came from tapes the club officers had bought. The other half was copied stuff they traded, things that had been taped off TV and subtitled in English for our benefit. Kodocha came complete with commercials for the YakBak toy. That club got together to trade tapes and fill out collections.
At this time (late 90s) you could get a lot more stuff legally than the original tape traders could (nothing), but TV series were still a bad bet for US licensors: for many titles, especially the long ones, this was the only way to go.
The original tape-traders dreamed of a world where their beloved anime was easily accessible by anybody who was interested. Well, we're there now. TV didn't work out, an audience of millions didn't come running. But if you're in the States, and you have an Internet connection, you can legally access nearly every anime that runs in Japan, hours from its original airing. For those of us who used to dig, that's unbelievable. The TV broadcast didn't exist, so we used any means we could. Now we have something better than TV, and let's be thankful for that.