Police officers direct traffic as men dressed in masks and brandishing fake assault rifles cross the road. They walk past a group of warriors wielding large, cardboard swords while a group of tennis players complete with the all-white tennis garb seen in the Prince of Tennis comic and tennis rackets, sit nearby to discuss their next plan of action. The reason for this bizarre sight? The 2007 Anime Convention, held at the Donald Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. To some extent, the event’s name was a misnomer since manga and video games were also featured prominently. It was not so much an anime convention as an amalgamation of all manga, anime and video games, reflecting not just the close relationship between the three media but the three different interests that brought the attendees there. Inside the convention hall, the event is no less colorful. As with the hundreds of varieties of manga and anime produced in Japan annually, it is almost impossible to classify the people at the event. Rather, the one common thread was a broader appreciation the three media. The event provided an opportunity for these aficionados to express and feed their interest in the subject while declaring their individuality to an approving group, and they were more than happy to do so.
The event saw a very even mix of males and females. Most of them were in their late teens to early twenties. While most of the population was white, Asians were disproportionately represented while there were several African-Americans in the audience. This diverse bunch often came together in groups, underlying the fact that they had sought out fellow otaku in their daily lives and that this was an event that they as a group would enjoy together. It was also a chance for them to bond and foster a sense of group identity, since they could come together in similar-themed cosplay, as with the group of tennis players. Inside, the groups wandered around together, observing the booths while attracting the attention of others with their cosplay. There was also a certain irony in seeing Americans dressed as Japanese manga characters whereas the Asians dressed as the Western characters, further reflecting the diversity and universality of characters featured in manga and anime.
Set up at the convention were a variety of booths, separated roughly into merchandise and artist. The merchandise booths featured large varieties of anime-related items, from Super Mario cushions to school uniforms to swords. Most popular were the manga, anime and video game booths, with enthusiasts stocking up on hard-to-find items. Also present were the ubiquitous hentai booths while yaoi was also on prominent display, once again demonstrating the range of interests. On the other hand, many budding manga artists were keen to display their works, with many offering to do commissions. They too enjoyed a lot of attention, with many people stopping by to admire their work. However, it was clear that many of the people were far more interested in the merchandise and far more willing to spend money on them. Consumerism was clearly in the air and as one girl present put it, “I have no problem spending all my money.” The vendors seemed to realize as much, as many seemed almost uninterested in selling their wares to an audience that was in a spate of frenzied buying. Furthermore, unlike the comic festival in Tokyo, there were far less doujinshi on sale. In contrast to the vendors, the artists seemed far more interested in the attendees often talking to people who stopped by about their drawings or advertising their upcoming works. There was also a certain level of respect accorded to the artists, as people who stopped by often felt that the artists were fellow anime fans, compared to the more mercenary vendors.
The movement of the attendees was largely similar. They entered the center as a group, and were more than willing to pose for photos in their cosplay. At this point, they appeared to be surveying the surroundings, observing the presence of their fellow otaku while posing happily for anyone interested in taking their picture. Interaction, beyond taking photos of cosplay, was largely absent between different groups. Next, they wandered through the artist’s section, stopping occasionally at items that interested them, before heading to the merchandise section. Here, with over 5 rows of booths set up, they would spend most of their time, covering the entire area to find shops of interest, before heading back to the booths that captured their attention. There, they could spend fifteen to twenty minutes at each of these tiny booths, browsing each and every item for sale, enquiring with the sales staff or even just watching anime or videos being played on flat screens. Their interests varied widely, depending on their level of interest in anime. There were some groups which were happy to buy display-type merchandise, such as posters, swords and soft toys. The feeling of overwhelming consumerism was no doubt present, and opportunistic vendors obliged by selling items at exorbitant prices, from school uniforms at $69 to tiny soft toys at $28. On the other hand, other groups with a deeper interest in anime and manga could be spotted poring through numerous manga at bookstores. This group was more than happy to stock up on manga on an occasion which provided far more variety than they could find on a daily basis. One person was overheard remarking, “I hope it’s not another hentai stand, I want comics!”
What was unique about the occasion was the participative nature of the audience, in the sense that most attendees came in cosplay. While the level of detail varied, the amount of effort put in was often extensive and there was tremendous variety. Most groups came as a theme, be it from the same manga, anime or even video game, with each group often displaying similar levels of detail in their costumes, implying that they probably dressed up together and that they saw cosplay as a group activity. In fact, even when not in cosplay, groups often came in similar clothing to represent a theme. The cosplay was also instructive in showing where the interests of the attendees came from. A large proportion of the cosplay were of video game characters, from Mario, Princess Peach and Yoshi from the Super Mario Brothers game to Sephiroth, Cloud, Rinoa and Squall from the Final Fantasy series of games. It seemed to indicate how some of them saw video games as another extension to Japanese-style animation and drawings and further seemed to indicate that their interest in the subject could have been derived from video games. The most popular characters were also often from video games. There were at least 3 Squalls and 3 Vashstampedes (from Trigun) spotted in a short span of time, complete with gunblade and cross respectively. In particular, those dressed as the former were often very detailed in their cosplay. One such Squall took over a minute assembling his three-piece gunblade for a photograph, while the second Squall went one step further. He was dressed completely in character, complete with leather pants with cross belt, brown fur-lined jacket, a similar hairstyle and with Squall’s trademark scar drawn between his eyes.
One point that was unique about all those in cosplay was that they were happy to have their photograph taken, to make a statement about their affinity to the character and the amount of effort they had put in, which could be seen as a proxy for one’s devotion as an otaku. They had taken an inordinate amount of effort to dress up and were willing to pose in character, with some going so far as to suggest we should take their photo by deliberately posing in the middle of crowded areas or atop chairs. It was as if dressing in cosplay was seen as a badge of honor, a declaration of their dedication to the art. Being in an environment where everyone was a fellow fan, there was no better place to stand out – although ironically being in T-shirt and jeans was more abnormal than being in costume. More interesting was their choice of character and what it represented. What was unique was that people of all ages, shapes and sizes sought to portray certain characters. Scrawny guys dressed up as characters with sculpted bodies, while girls – and guys – tried to fit into wigs, midriff baring tops, miniskirts and even fishnet stockings that they would ordinarily never wear. Perhaps it was being in the presence of appreciative fellow fans that prompted them to dress up in clothing they would ordinarily never do and declare their love of anime. Finally, one could argue that the characters they chose represented people that they identified most with and people they wanted to emulate. Like the video game characters, the Squalls present were often taciturn in their behavior, yet perhaps they also wanted to be known for heroic qualities, just as Squall was in the video game. Similarly, girls dressed in revealing clothing could have wished that they would be the center of guy’s attention, as the main female characters often are in comics.
It is hard to define the physical traits of the typical attendee, while it would also be unfair to judge if a person that was more interested in reading comics was more of a fan than one who was interested in collecting plastic figurines and posters. Nonetheless, as one would expect of a themed convention, the event attracted numerous like-minded people sharing a common interest. Yet, from their limited communication with other groups, it seems as if their presence at event was not so much a chance to meet other fans as it was to further explore their interest with their own circle of otaku, be it through coming together in cosplay or moving around together. It also demonstrated the very personal nature of the hobby. Each person came in the attire of his or her favorite character, which could in turn be a reflection of his or her own personality. Similarly, each person has his or her own favorite shows or genres in an ocean of choice, which makes finding a common favorite amongst strangers all the more difficult. Rather, the convention was not so much a chance to find common ground amongst strangers as it was a chance for them to revel in their hobby while silently though overtly expressing themselves through cosplay. It was a chance for their individuality to shine through in a sea of receptive people.
– Brian O