“They said I could show whatever the hell I wanted,” says Anime Hell's Dave Merrill. “I said I wanted to show a bunch of stuff that’ll make people ask, ‘what the hell is this?’”
In high school, I went all-in on anime, and witnessed the first Canadian edition of Anime Hell. I caught on to the irreverent pop culture freak show from other dweebs at Anime North, Toronto’s biggest anime convention. Dave Merrill, who works in printing but runs the clip show on the side, had just moved to Toronto in 2004. In a dimly lit hotel ballroom filled with folks, some sitting in chairs, others sprawled along the carpet like a sleepover, he walked us through what can only be described as a highway pileup of video content.
Some clips would take on a life of their own once YouTube came around, like those edited GI Joe PSAs. Others were rare, like a grotesque German forklift safety video and a spectacularly dumb pilot for an American version of Sailor Moon that reenvisioned the heroes as space windsurfers.
A decidedly old-school program, Merrill has been touring the Anime Hell circus around for 20 years, hauling around 50 tapes and two VCRs from city to city in a transforming world of fandom. This weekend, he’s back at Anime North at the International Plaza Hotel.
“I’ve been doing this way too long, let me point that out,” says Merrill over the phone. “Back in the day we would carve televisions out of rawhide and tailbones.”
The name came from hotel room parties thrown in the 80s called Japanese Animation Hell, but it didn’t become a four-hour performance until around 1997. Merrill was asked to run the anime room graveyard shift for Atlanta’s Dragon Con, a small basement chamber, from midnight to 6 a.m. – with no guidelines. “They said I could show whatever the hell I wanted,” says Merrill, “I said I wanted to show a bunch of stuff that’ll make people ask, ‘what the hell is this?’”
Still in college and inspired by alternative TV like Night Flight, Merrill became the Dr. Demento of Japanese animation. He played rude redubs of classics like Dirty Pair. A proto-Power Rangers parody called Dynaman, created by SCTV alumni. Bambi Meets Godzilla. Merrill says he knew this experiment had legs when the audience joined him in yelling at a 1934 Buck Rogers serial called Tiger Men of Mars. The spaceships were cans on strings and the space suits were garbage bags. Merrill had been drinking all day.
He posted flyers that looked like local punk show posters. As Anime Hell became its own entity, Merrill tired of getting third billing in his own big top. He started performing at other cons like Anime Weekend Atlanta, which he helped to create. By the late 90s, Anime Hell began deputizing friends and fans like Ryan Gavigan and Dan Baker to take the show to more conventions in more cities: Cincinnati, Raleigh, Boston, Chicago. Toronto’s Anime North is the current headquarters.
“This was the 90s. If you weren’t obsessively collecting these videos, you wouldn’t see it,” he says. Even as a teenager, Merrill was trading tapes. It was a necessity for fans. He’d trade a Project A-ko tape for one with Golgo 13. He said anyone in Atlanta worth their salt had the Macross movie.
The way curios got mixed into tapes is not unlike the way 60s rep theatres paired foreign art house with Russ Meyer schlock. An episode or two of Kimagure Orange Road wouldn’t take up a whole cassette, so bootleggers would fill the gaps with bonkers Japanese advertisements or fan films. A loot bag on magnetic tape. Anime Hell didn’t invent the clip show, but it brought its own sort of enthusiasm to it. What delights Merrill is that the format continues to entertain.
Fandom in the west always revolved around distribution. Anime had a moment in the late 90s and early 2000s that fits with the rise and fall of DVD sets and big box stores. Canadian stations broadcast Gundam Wing and Inuyasha. American networks played Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. Shonen Jump, the Japanese magazine that gave the world Dragon Ball and One Piece, published in North America from 2002 to 2012. The fad settled, but the fandom didn’t. Consumption of anime has moved to digital formats, not just pirating but Netflix and Crunchyroll (a Netflix but anime).
Merrill doesn’t rely on tapes anymore. It’s easier to manage digital clips. A lot of his collection can be found somewhere online. Some have reached a level of infamy where his promotion of it would be irrelevant. That doesn’t slight him, since they were never his creations to begin with, and he has enough material to cycle through. This year he’s excited to show a tape he thought he lost, a cartoon from Night Flight called “Chickens for Rent.”
Anime fandom is bigger than ever. Younger, more diverse, but also more commercial. Comics, fantasy and sci-fi have the bug too, squeezed between Hollywood and the people who crank out Walking Dead shirts, something that can be a big business will be a big business. What burnt me out from conventions was the canonization, feeling like what was going to be enjoyed was already decided on and sold. Anime Hell is the opposite of that. It’s a bunch of weird crap, take it or leave it, to be hollered at or absorbed in awe. Merrill’s glad that new generations gets a kick from that too.
“Honestly I have this tremendous bully pulpit to shove animation into the faces of people who might not otherwise see it,” says Merrill. “You can go on YouTube and sit at home, but you can’t watch them in a big room with 2,000 other people. People really like to see this stuff together.”
Catch Anime Hell at Anime North this Friday, 10 pm. It is being held at the International Plaza Hotel.