Following a group of giggling Sailor Moon girls, I made my way to the Anime Central (ACen) convention and snuck closer to listen to their conversation. They excitedly made plans to meet with a group that would be dressed like members from the famous anime, Bleach. The two groups had been conversing over the internet for months prior to the actual convention and would meet face to face for the first time. Sailor Mercury, who I noticed was a boy when he began to talk, told his friends to look for a guy dressed in Ichigo (the orange-haired protagonist of the anime) cosplay and a girl dressed as Rukia (the female protagonist) and various other characters from the hit anime. Swept up by their anxious chatter, I blindly followed in hopes of witnessing the encounter. However, leading up to the convention center we were immediately assaulted by a sea of orange sprayed hair and wigs and guys sporting large cardboard swords as they imitate their favorite character, Ichigo. It seems that the characters of Bleach are extremely popular and the Sailor Moon group move to the side and sigh in dismay as they realized that they will have a hard time finding their friends. Leaving the dejected group behind, I continued into the convention center and was immediately bombarded by the flashing lights from cameras that captured cosplayers posing in a manner typical of their character.
My brother, who decided to accompany me, did not have a badge to enter the mecca of Midwestern anime/manga fans and we went to the line which an aggravated combat-ready soldier pointed out to us. The line took up half of the large entrance hall and I soon realized that this was only the visible portion of a line that continued within the large convention center itself. I went to the line and stood behind a girl with very bright hot pink hair who was accompanied by her mother and soon an Alucard (from Hellsing) joined the line behind me. In the line, people conversed with their friends with barely suppressed excitement and many began to make plans for visiting all the activities that ACen had to offer. Suddenly, a flash of light to my left interrupted my thoughts and I saw a young girl contentedly snapping pictures of Alucard behind me. A guy in another row reprimands the girl, telling her she needs to ask before she takes the picture and she needs tell the cosplayer that she likes their outfit. The poor girl stammers an apology but Alucard assures her that it’s fine as long as she remembers to ask permission next time. It seems that there is a proper etiquette to follow known to the ACen community and it is important not to offend anyone.
Although my brother likes anime and watches it with me, he still needs to ask me who certain characters are that he recognizes but can’t really place. I begin to notice that people around us give my brother disbelieving looks and get bothered when he doesn’t know the more famous characters. One even asks him why he’s in the line when it’s obvious he doesn’t know anything about anime. Being short-tempered and impatient, I snap back until I am reprimanded by a samurai wearing bunny ears. It is through this exchange that I begin to notice that being part of the line and being within the convention creates a certain “us” vs. “them” mentality. The people within the convention are able to walk around freely and are secure in their position as a member of this community consisting of anime, manga, and video game fans. However, those within the line are not yet secure in their ability to enter the convention and attempt to differentiate themselves from those who will not even get the opportunity to get a badge. The line is a literal separation between the outside world and the convention and those within the line are forced to straddle both worlds. They begin to resent any reminder that they are not yet part of the world they desire and could just as easily be barred from it. My brother threatens their perceived integration into this community with his lack of knowledge when he continues to ask me whispered questions about the cosplayers.
Three hours and a Shin-chan mooning later, my brother had his badge and we were finally able to join others in Acen. We first went into the section reserved for fans who wished to display their art. We made our way down the aisles where fans showed off their hand drawn arts and crafts to various fans who stopped to admire their displays. Going through the art, it is amazing to see how much work and dedication is put in by the fans. However, every so often there is an artist who outshines the others and their booth is surrounded by a bevy of adoring fans. Next to this section was a larger portion dedicated to merchants and stores who came with the official merchandise from the anime and manga. The stores carried plush toys, cosplay outfits, swords, manga, and many other items that held the images of various characters from shows.
As I pondered what strategy I would implement to investigate every nook and cranny, I saw a girl dressed as Tohru from Fruits Basket flitting from one table to another. I noticed that she asked concise questions then would move on to another stall without making a purchase. My curiosity piqued, I chose to follow her at a discrete distance and see how she went about viewing the merchandise. Tohru was only interested in purchasing items that came from Fruits Basket and her priority seemed to be a Yuki plush toy in which Yuki cosplayed as a rat, his zodiac symbol. Tohru went to each table and would ask the price of the toy and write it down in her notebook as well as the name of the stall. Dodging various cardboard weapons, large fluffy tails, and other costume apparel, I kept a close eye on Tohru and admired her efficiency.
As I watched Tohru shop I was also able to witness the shopping methods of other customers. In many instances, the consumers would go on a frenzy and disregard the prices as they clamored over their favorite characters. The sword displays were surrounded by men who almost drooled over the stainless steel blades on the swords. Others, in true Madarame style (from Genshiken), simply picked up the item they wanted and handed their credit card over before they were told the price. It wasn’t the prices that were important but the items themselves which connected the consumer to the characters they loved. The items became a tangible reminder of what they loved about the convention, the memories they created over the weekend, and it also helped them become closer to the fictional characters that made the convention possible. The monetary exchange for the item was the conduit that allowed the consumer to become an active member of the convention and the community they created, regardless of whether they cosplayed or not. Finally, after several hours of circling the stalls and almost losing my quarry when I was distracted by a Mokona (Tsubasa Resevoir Chronicles) keychain, Tohru flipped through her book and went to various stalls to complete her purchases. She went on to the small food section to meet her friends (non-cosplayers) while I, satisfied that I had seen a professional at work, decided to explore other places ACen had to offer.
I decided to return to the entrance way and go up the escalators I had seen earlier. I followed a large group and made my way into the hotel and saw people strewn across the floor throwing large balls of yarn around and talking to one another while others swayed to the music of the band who played songs from video games and anime. Further down, there were screening rooms which showed shounen and shojo anime on various screens. A peek within showed people seated in the rooms mesmerized by the characters on the screen and completely engrossed in reading the subtitles. Across the hallway and through glass doors, one could go to engage in discussions where people were able to talk about issues important to the anime world. However, at the time I found the rooms, most of the discussions had ended and the others were already full so I was not able to see how they were organized.
After a long day of waiting and watching I began to make my way out of the hotel and begin the short trek to the blue line. As I passed through the exit, I was distracted by the sound of excited chatter. Right outside of the door stood a large group of Sailor Moons and Bleach characters and I realized that they were the first group I encountered on my way to the convention. I couldn’t help smiling as I realized that this is what the convention was about. Although there was a very large commercial aspect to Acen, at its heart were the fans who were able to relax and meet others who shared similar tastes. People at the convention were able to meet old friends and make new ones and comfortably talk about the anime and manga that interested them and the characters that fascinated them. It wasn’t about what you bought or how many shows and discussions you were able to squeeze into your hectic schedule, it was about the people you met and the anime you loved.