A lot of people have their own opinion of what an “anime freak” looks like. There are many biases toward American otaku mainly because an obsession with manga and anime seems to be “too different” from an obsession, say, with Star Wars or Star Trek. Why would a love for 2-D characters be any different from a love for 3-D characters? To further examine this question, I had the opportunity to attend the Anime Central convention, now in its 10th year. Three weeks before the Anime Central convention, I had thought about all of the different people I would meet and became excited at the prospect of attending my first Anime convention. However, I will admit – watching the Otaku Unite! video made me a little nervous about the convention. I was not sure how these die-hard fans would react to my costume-less presence. I know a few things about anime and manga, but not anywhere close to the degree that these fans would know their obscure anime and manga facts! I was anxious to compare American otaku to Asian otaku. I was determined to find out what the hoopla was about for American otaku and what kinds of anime and manga were popular at the attendees at this convention.
When I had arrived at ACEN, it was everything I had imagined it to be. Walking up to the convention center, I passed by many people in elaborate costumes of their favorite anime characters. The majority of males were dressed up as video game characters, like Super Mario and Zelda. The popularity of video game characters was not surprising – games imported from Japan seemed to be a best-seller at ACEN. For females, Sailor Moon costumes and Japanese school girl uniforms were popular. Upon entering the convention center, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people gathered around in huge groups. People were talking, taking pictures, discussing the latest plot of popular manga and figuring out which workshops to attend. I felt like an outsider wearing jeans and a shirt. I decided to explore a bit further, and went inside to another building. In this other building, I saw the registration table and was amazed at how long the line was. Also in this building, there were tons of different booths set up. When I obtained a map and schedule of events, I realized that there were all sorts of different workshops that were being held in the hotel.
Most of the people I observed were in their teens. I did see younger attendees who came with their parents. I talked to a group of three boys and they were all seniors in high school. They were not dressed in costumes, but they carried bags and bags of merchandise. I asked one of the boys what he had purchased, and he said that he had purchased a sword and a “Yaoi paddle.” I asked him how much he had spent total, and he said he had spent around $100 at the convention. I was shocked at how much money he had spent at the convention, but I realized that this convention was probably his only chance to obtain the anime and manga merchandise he desires every year. I talked to another group of boys and I asked them if they were from Illinois. They all were from the suburbs and small towns outside of Chicago. I asked them if there were a lot of people from out of state who come to ACEN, and they said a lot of people from out of state attend the convention every year. I think that it is pretty incredible that this convention attracts so many different kinds of people every year.
I walked around to see what kind of things were sold at the various booths that were set up in the convention center. I was mostly excited about the authentic Japanese manga booth. There was so much manga! Everything from Fruits Basket to Boys Over Flowers was sold there. There also were multiple sword-selling booths, and a lot of tables sold anime DVD’s and English-translated manga. The yaoi booth was also popular (mostly amongst female fans), and the hentai table was popular amongst the older male teenager crowd. To look at the items at the hentai table, one had to show proper identification to prove that one was over eighteen years of age. I personally did not peruse any items at the hentai table, but it was crowded throughout the day.
Wandering around the convention area, I came across a separate area in the convention center that sold fan-produced merchandise. I talked to an elderly couple who were selling rocks that had painted anime characters on them. This couple had been selling their products at the Anime Central convention for about four years. I asked them what kind of characters sold the best, and they said that Inuyasha was very popular every year. They also said they painted characters on giant boulders! This couple was one example of unusual yet dedicated otaku. In this area of self-produced merchandise, there were many people my age who were selling their sketches for little money, and I also passed by a group of teenagers setting up a fortune telling booth. I was surprised at how little doujinshi there was at the convention. I found fan-produced coloring books and sketches, but no doujinshi. Did I not look hard enough? I think I assumed by reading “Genshiken” that ACEN would be more like the anime convention that was featured in it: a lot of doujinshi booths as well as cosplayers. Were the doujinshi-producing fans in hiding or just under-represented?
Instead of dewlling on the doujinshi dilemma, I stopped by some workshops that were held in the hotel. The first workshop I attended was a workshop on the superflat theory. I expected it to be an academic and scholarly review of superflat, but it was just an overview of modern superflat artists in Japan. It was interesting besides the fact that I was expecting something completely different. The second workshop I wanted to attend was on Azumanga Daioh, one of my favorite Japanese manga. It was full so I could not sit in on it. The manga follows the daily lives of six Japanese high school girls. The manga itself totals four volumes and uses a vertical four-panel layout. Because I could not attend this workshop, I sat in on a workshop about the daily life of a comic book writer. It was highly illuminating – he went over the process of getting a comic published. This was supposed to be a panel discussion, but there was only one person present, which disappointed me. The attendees of these workshops were mostly adults and some older teenagers. Not a lot of them were in costume, either, and it seemed to me that they were more interested in the content and inner workings of manga and anime than the “consumerism” part of it. But that is not to say that these fans were more “legit” than the cosplayers and the fans who were going crazy buying anime and manga merchandise – I do not think it is fair to say that the people who attended mostly workshops were bigger fans of manga and anime than those in the convention center. My view is that it does not really matter how one expresses his or her love for manga and anime as long as they support it.
Additionally, I found it hard to spend an entire day at ACEN and not spend a dime on any merchandise. I really wanted to purchase manga and keychains, but I knew that if I started to spend money that I would not be able to stop! I thought that one important characteristic of an American otaku is the ability to consume as much merchandise as possible. Knowing that these teenagers were spending around $100 on merchandise in a matter of minutes made me realize that consumerism is what ultimately continues and keeps driving this intense fandom. As we read in Schodt’s Dreamland Japan, 40% of all printed material sold are in the manga category. Although the percentage of manga sold here in the United States is probably nowhere near 40%, people are still buying and supporting the manga business in America. I found the English translated manga to be absurdly expensive – I am used to buying and reading manga that are under $5.00 USD and manga magazines that are usually around $3.00 to $4.00 USD in South Korea. There are expensive manga magazines, but the most expensive ones I have read have been around $6.00 to $8.00 USD. These manga magazines tend to have more literary content, such as essays and fictional stories that accompanied elaborate pictures.
At ACEN, I also witnessed a “coming-together” of different subcultures. Even within this otaku culture there was a collection of other subcultures. “Goth” kids, “punk” kids, “indie” kids, and “nerds” were all gathered around in one place to support the anime and manga industry. I also saw a few “jocks” here and there, trying to hide their North Face jackets from plain sight. In the Otaku Unite! video it seemed like American otaku were portrayed as “nerds” and people who were socially awkward. This was certainly not the majority at ACEN. It was interesting to see all of these different people who all loved anime and manga; I did not know that such a wide variety of people in America had a fondness for anime and manga. But then again, manga and anime also appeal to a wide variety of people in Japan. Maybe the difference between Japanese and American otaku is the fact that Japanese otaku are not really proud of being labeled as “otaku.” Within the greater sphere of anime and manga, Japanese otaku are isolated and are viewed as “weird.” In contrast, in America, being an otaku is like wearing a badge of honor. It is something exclusive; it is like an inside joke that no one else knows about. Because American otaku think that being an otaku is something exclusive, I think a lot of people want to take part in it.
Overall, my experience at Anime Central opened up a different world for me. I had never been in such a chaotic, overwhelming environment. I found it a little intimidating to be around American otaku. Once I started talking to a few people, I realized that these people are incredibly passionate about Japanese manga and anime. It is not just about dressing up and reading manga – it is about creating the right atmosphere and the long-lasting camaraderie. I observed so many strangers become friends in an instant, bonding over their favorite characters and discussing the latest episode of Cowboy Bebop. Even though American otaku may spend hundreds of dollars on cellular phone charms, yaoi paddles, and manga at these anime conventions, at the end of the day, they are just an average consumer in this capitalist society. I cannot judge these people any more than they can judge me.