Fear and Loathing at Acen: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Otaku Dream

            Armed with only a notepad and a pencil, I grimly exited the Blue Line at Rosemont and mentally prepared myself for a dive into the very bowels of anime fandom.  I walked around for a bit in an attempt to find the convention center and eventually ran into someone wearing a bright yellow jacket and carrying an impractically large cardboard sword.  He introduced himself as “Wakka from Final Fantasy X.”  Bingo, found my man.  I introduced myself, made a little small talk and followed him to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, the mecca for all things anime, manga and video game related on this three day weekend.

            The first thing I checked out was the dealer’s room.  That’s a bit of a misnomer though; the “room” was actually a huge warehouse space housing dozens of small booths selling all sorts of anime or manga related products.  I took a few minutes to just take in the atmosphere and adjust to the sensory overload.  There were colors everywhere, an explosion of neon blues and earthy greens and fluorescent pinks from the brightly adorned signs and cardboard cutouts to the stacks of manga to the cosplayers in their capes and wigs.  As I walked around the place, pieces of random conversations drifted into my ears, containing names of people and stories of events that only ever existed on paper or celluloid. 

            The dealer’s room was an unabashed orgy of consumerism.  Everyone was here to buy, sell and partake in the great party that is the free market.  People had no problem dropping a couple hundred dollars for a twenty volume manga series.  Pretty much everything you could ever merchandise was on sale.  Aside from the standard DVDs and manga, there were T-shirts, plushies, posters, prints, wall scrolls, character figurines, real weapons, trading cards, video games of all kinds and types (RPGs, shooting games, hentai games, fighting games, hentai fighting games) and other miscellaneous trinkets that I probably missed; if you were a fan of this kind of stuff you could’ve gone broke after about 20 minutes.     

            Eventually I wandered into a section devoted solely to fan-produced merchandise.  Much of it was artwork or amateur manga; there was one booth where they painted anime characters on rocks, aptly named “Anime Rocks.”  One booth offered to “turn you into an anime character,” meaning they’d draw a portrait of you in the “anime style.”  I talked to a 43-year old artist who painted these admittedly gorgeous pictures of popular anime girls onto hanging pieces of canvas.  If I had had more than $7 to my name then I might’ve picked up one of them.  He’d been an anime fan for years now, and enjoyed the visual, aesthetic aspect of it so much that he incorporated that style into his own artwork, which was on display.  On the other side of the hall I met a teenage girl who created these funny felt hats with Japanese pop culture related designs on them.  Each was sewn together by hand in her house.  Every year she’d make the trek to six or seven conventions across the country in order to sell her wares.  These two people, I feel, are the type of fans that exemplify this particular community, inhabiting dual roles of consumer and producer.  They circumvent the usual rigid boundaries between the “industry” and the “fans” and through conventions, online interaction, and clubs, establish a vibrant underground culture, one that encourages the exchange of ideas and opinions in addition to plastic models and DVDs. 

            In fact, I asked the 43-year old artist how he would define the word “otaku.”  He replied that an “otaku” was someone who was involved in the entire industry, one who bought products as well as created their own related to their fandom, either for sale, or just for fun.  He noted that otaku are the fans who collect merchandise like figurines and posters and amass huge volumes of anime and manga.  On the flip side, they also tend to write fanfiction and draw fanart of their favorite series, as well as cosplay and make costumes, producing content that can be enjoyed by other otaku.  The constant dialogue between fans, each one seamlessly shifting from producer to consumer, was indeed fascinating, and it was happening all around me, from the sharing of fan-drawn manga or doujinshi, to discussions of plot and animation styles.  This unregulated market of ideas and creative content, I concluded, was the true lifeblood of the culture, and it was very similar to what I learned about otaku culture in Japan.  In America, the doujinshi culture might be a little less prevalent, probably due to stricter copyright laws, but you still got the sense that the fans were the arbiter of the anime culture, rather than the industry.         

            Not to say that there wasn’t any industry presence at all.  In fact, I had the opportunity to talk to a Bandai Entertainment representative at the convention.  His name was Taku Otsuka, and he worked as a producer on many popular anime series licensed by Bandai, such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Please Teacher!, and Tenchi Universe.  I was curious to know how much of the industry (companies, studios, etc) was composed of anime fans, especially the American anime industry.  Otsuka estimated that about 50% of the industry people were fans who enjoyed anime, and the rest of them were just regular people trying to make a living, who weren’t necessarily huge fans of anime.  In fact, many of the voice actors used in dubbing the Japanese need to pull other jobs in order to make ends meet, and only a few could be characterized as hardcore anime fans, compared to the people I saw at the convention.  A small percentage of existing anime fans “break” into the industry as part of the creative staff.  More likely, one would be employed in administration and financial departments. 

            Otsuka noted that the relationship between the industry and its fans was very open.  Unlike many other cultures (music, literature, etc) where communication is restricted one way, from the industry (producers) to the fans, the anime and manga industry, especially in America, is very bilateral.  The industry encourages feedback and strives to maintain an open, free dialogue with its fanbase.  Otsuka pointed to Bandai’s recent licensing of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a popular anime show in Japan right now.  The company created a website where they polled fans to generate feedback for the company.  The poll questions included questions about dubbing (which voice actors they wanted to dub the characters) and DVD format (episode release order, extras included on the DVD).  The way the industry and fanbase integrate themselves with each other is something that isn’t found in many other markets.  In fact, a convention like Acen could be construed as a genba, a place where fans and industry folk gather and mingle, the place where the unique interaction between those players is exemplified.      

            I estimated that about every other person attending was in cosplay of some sort.  I noticed that video game characters were especially popular, especially those of the Final Fantasy series.  Some other popular series seemed to be Trigun, Bleach, Naruto and Inuyasha.  Crossdressing Sailor Moons, complete with thigh-length skirts and week-old facial hair were also spotted and received with equal amounts of applause and awkward stares.  I was mightily impressed by the level of detail in the cosplay.  Many of them also had matching accessories, like cardboard swords for Link and brightly colored wigs for…well, pretty much any given anime character. 

            The cosplayers were more than happy to share their hobby and pose for pictures, often imitating a scene from their favorite game or anime.  Many of the ones portraying popular characters or featuring well-made costumes attracted large crowds clicking away on their cameras.  The social dynamic was interesting; in a room full of like-minded individuals here to have a good time, it was easy to just walk up to any random person and start up a conversation (when they weren’t busy perusing manga).         

            In terms of gender, it was pretty much split right down the middle; I didn’t notice any obvious disparities, although I think I saw more girls in cosplay than boys.  The convention attendees were mostly white, although you had a considerable portion of Asians thrown in there, and a few blacks and Hispanics scattered around here and there.  Age varied considerably.  I saw cosplayers as young as 4 or 5, and people in their 50’s walking around sporting anime shirts.  Most of the crowd skewed towards young people in their teens or twenties though, although most of the dealers tended to be a bit older.  I saw quite a few parents as well, although I couldn’t be sure if they were there to just keep an eye on their children, or were actually legitimate fans of anime and manga.  As for attractiveness…you had a wide variety, probably no different than what you’d find in any given social gathering.  Some people were just straight up good looking, especially in their costumes, and some others probably should’ve realized that not everyone looks good in tights and miniskirts.  This was a pleasant surprise, since most, if not all, the otaku featured on those videos we watched in class honestly weren’t too physically appealing.  I suppose this could be an indication of how much the fanbase has expanded in recent years.  More and more people outside the normal “geek” circles are getting into anime.  No longer is the stereotypical pasty-faced skinny nerd the only example of the hardcore fan.  In fact, the more people I talked to, the more I realized how diverse the fanbase is, not only in terms of race or gender or age or appearance, but also in outside interests and lifestyle.  Indeed, I saw many people who looked like punk rockers and goths, their metal spikes and black leather clashing with the teal convention badges.  In fact, there was even a group of breakdancers at the end of the hall, grooving and busting moves to a steady diet of techno music played by the DJ.        

            Although a few of the convention goers seemed shy, I found that most of the people I talked to had a lot to say, and weren’t socially awkward or inept at all.  In fact, if you took any random person and placed them in a normal, non-anime-related social situation you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that he or she was a hardcore anime fan.  Unfortunately I also did run into a few fans who ranked pretty high on the obnoxious scale (that one LOUD, squealing girl sitting next to me at the masquerade comes immediately to mind), but I’d like to attribute that more to being young and immature than to being an anime fan.

            Indeed, I ended up talking to a group of cosplayers and asked their opinion on their fellow otaku.  They hypothesized that for an otaku, just being around other fans in a convention like this brings out the best, as well as the worst in that person.  They tend to feel liberated about their interests and act more friendly and outgoing because they feel more welcome, but some do cross the line and just start being inconsiderate.  One of the cosplayers noted that in America, being an “otaku” is something like a badge of honor among the anime fandom.  They are respected for their dedication and appreciation of anime and Japanese culture.  However, she observed that you didn’t want to be one of those otaku who take it too far and blindly worship Japan as the “land of puppies and happiness.”  Generally, she concluded, you didn’t want to be overbearing and annoying to your fellow fan.  I agree wholeheartedly.          

            On ride here, I was honestly a bit cautious I was about to meet; I had heard all the stereotypes and all of the rumors.  Fortunately, I left Anime Central with more optimistic conclusions.  It may have been the case that ten years ago, anime fandom was strictly the realm of outcasts and geeks.  However, it’s evident that today, the fandom has evolved to include people of all types, from young to old, nerd to jock, united by a shared pride in their supposed “geekery.”  I will never look at anime fans the same way again.

            One more thing…at the end of the masquerade, they introduced the last cosplayer of the night, the “Ode to Unfinished Cosplays.”  The guy went up on stage.  He asked a certain girl in the audience to join him.  He knelt and proposed.  She accepted.  They kissed.  Pandemonium ensued.  True love, such a beautiful thing.

 

Karry Lu

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