An overweight middle age man listening to a walkman (rather than an Ipod), dressed in a flannel shirt layered over a t shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers holding all of his belongings in a plastic bag walked onto the train as the announcements repeated, “doors are closing”. After finding the closest vacant seat, the guy plopped into a seat, sat down, and scratched his nose. Otaku? I reflected back on the characters in the Genshiken and “how an otaku dresses” slide from the group presentation. With every stop we got closer to Rosemont, my curiosity increased little by little as more and more “Otaku” looking people got on the train. There was even one couple on the train with us that was wearing their ACen badges, and aha! Otaku? I don’t know, but at least they were going to the same place as we were. One more stop to Rosemont, and the scruffy walkman listening man got up and left. I was disappointed to realize he was not an Otaku. So what does an Otaku really look like?
From the train station to the convention center, the vision of an Otaku became clearer. Otaku walked by us in groups, all dressed in colorful costumes complete from colored hair to stuffed animal accessories. There were multiple Sailormoons, various Naruto ninja’s with orange spikey hair, fairies, warriors with their weapons, and many furry looking animals complete with ears and tails. I could not recognize many of the characters but all the costumes looked very elaborate and individualized as most seemed home made. As we entered the convention hall, it was a maze of people. I felt as if I walked into the subway station in Japan during rush hour. There were people going left and right, people dancing, people singing, and people taking pictures. We finally found our way through the crowd as we ventured out to a mini session on Superflat. This lecture gave examples of current Superflat artists, and samples of their work were shown. One similarity in all of the artists was their creation of commodities as they all produced T-shirts that cost a couple hundred dollars. What captured my attention the most during this session was that a girl sitting in the corner was wearing a kimono with a black formal hair wig. I did a double take as for a second I thought I was seeing a geisha actress for the tourists visiting Kyoto. Her kimono was the right length, she had her face painted white, and she even had a kamikazari (decoration pin for the hair) in her black wig. From the Otaku: Unite! Video I was definitely expecting some weird looking Japanese outfits, but I did not realize how ‘authentic’ and accurate some of the costumes were going to look. However I did see some Japanese kimono’s with glued on Obi’s that definitely fit in to my assumptions of Otaku dressing Japanese.
So who are these Otaku? Where do they come from, and what do they do? Placing Otaku into a single stereotype category seems very difficult. Are Otaku the mainstream or are they outcasts? Being at the convention center surrounded by enthusiastic fans dressed up in their full gear, they seem to look normal, and I felt like the outsider. As I approached some cosplayers and asked them if I could speak to them, every single one of them looked at me with a bright smile eagerly waiting to tell me all about who they were. They didn’t seem to care that I was a ‘newbie’ as one person put it at this and didn’t really understand their costume. Many gave me a ten minute spiel of who their character was with sure excitement. 5 out of 6 groups I interviewed were all characters from playstation’s popular video game – Final Fantasy. All of them were very outgoing, and far from the antisocial stereotype of Otaku found in the Genshiken. As I interviewed them, I quickly noticed that most of the cosplayers were holding a large accessory in their hand. Some had stuffed animals but most of them had swords, guns, and other types of weapons. As I questioned them on what importance their accessory had and if it was essential to their character, I found that every single one of them said that the accessory made them who they were. Without the gun, sword, stuffed animal – they were nobody. One boy in a suit with a pistol told me “without this gun, I would be any other man. This gun makes me the Final Fantasy original character”. This taught me the strictness of the meticulous detail these Otaku put into making their costumes.
The Otaku community’s enthusiasm for anime was at its peak during the Masquerade Event. As we walked into the ballroom there was a stage, two large screens on both sides of the room, with rows and rows of chairs. As the anxious fans sat one by one into the rows of seats, they were all fanatically shouting and screaming in joy. Soon enough the MC came out to announce a technical error, so everyone needed to be quiet for one second. Then he stated everyone needed to scream and shout for ACen in the next ten seconds to fix the sound system. This type of corny set up worked for the anime fans as they obsessively screamed and shouted for the next ten seconds. The MC wearing a pseudo machine gun on his right arm explained that he felt so much gratitude for the amount of effort everyone put into their costumes the past ten years, it made him want to dress up himself this year. As the cosplayers came out one by one, the MC kept saying “That is excellent, great work, great work!” and telling everyone how amazing they were. The whole time he seemed to be giving the audience a lot of support, for believing in something unique and not being embarrassed to show it. I wondered– do these Otaku need constant pep talking? Do they need constant support telling them that they are not weird, different, or outcasts? Rather are they normal people in a normal world? Every time the MC congratulated anyone, the crowd got so excited; they even started a human wave. Being in that ballroom, I felt a strong power that these people possessed for this fantasy world. These crazed fans had a burning desire to showcase their love for their favorite characters. From this love they seemed to be fueling a rage of energy. These Otaku were so excited and pleased to be together with others like themselves. During the Masquerade Event I witnessed something happen – it was the Otaku community coming together and uniting as one bringing their underground powers together. As I left the masquerade I thought – perhaps these Otaku do not need someone constantly telling them that they are not outcasts. Rather they simply need each other and to have a place to call home as the ACen.
I still wonder what Otaku are like in everyday life. As I walked through the vendor tables, it was hard not to notice how attractive many of these cosplayers were. Not that Otaku had to be unattractive, but from what was read in class it seemed that most Otaku did not have the mainstream appeal. So I wonder, what kind of lives do these anime fans lead on a typical day away from the ACen? The demographics of the people present varied greatly. There seemed to be equal number of men and women, and age ranged from children to grown adults. There were a few children that had been accompanied by noncosplay parents. Those parents seemed very dedicated, and believed in anime as good outlet for their children. It seemed that the majority of the attendees were teenagers. All those that were in cosplay were mostly in groups of people. Most of them were dressed as characters from Final Fantasy VII, IIX, X. As I continued to walk through the mass of people, we encountered a group of Super Mario Brothers. As we watched them talk to each other, all of a sudden Donkey Kong held up his barrel and shouted “Barrel in the air attack!” Immediately Luigi got in front of Princess Peach to protect her. Within the next thirty seconds, a second Mario jumped out and confronted the other Mario as he shouted “Mario versus Mario!” as they both made boxing movements with their white gloves. These otaku were so clever, so fast, and so witty. They had a great sense of humor, and they seemed to really play out their characters during cosplay.
Another mass of people we found doing something similar were two male cosplay characters holding each other. Then from the corner a boy shouted “Yaoi! That’s kinda gay!” and then the crowd laughed. Then someone shouted “Yuri! Let’s see some Yuri!” and a bunch of girl cosplay characters ran out of the mass and created the next scene. These Otaku were having a great time improvising and entertaining each other. At many times throughout the day, there were many “anime” jokes that I just did not understand because I didn’t know the anime, manga, or games to which they were referencing. It seemed that these Otaku were very intelligent people, all very knowledgeable about not only their favorite manga but about their competitor’s manga as well. They do a session called “Your favorite anime sucks!” where they bash on each others anime by making clever references to the characters and plot line.
At the University of Chicago, we are all used to understanding the philosophical jokes such as how “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. But at the anime convention, for the first time ever, we were the ones that did not understand the intellectual remarks they made within the world of anime. Perhaps Otaku are not outcasts, but rather people see them as outcasts because they themselves can’t fit into the Otaku world. As I left the convention, I realized that perhaps my clear vision of Otaku was not so clear at all.