Just Anime Central?: An Ethnography of ACEN

            My initial thoughts about Anime Central were ones of timidity and apprehension; I had never been to any sort of convention like this before, and quite frankly I was hesitant about the level of obsession seemingly displayed by otaku.  I have to say that I got what I was expecting.  I was amazed at the amount of character-acting and dress-up that I saw, but especially at the variance of characters.  Fans were dressed up as not just characters from their favorite anime and manga, but also as popular American cultural symbols (for example Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, of which I saw at least three) as well as miscellaneous Japanese cultural references that didn’t really have anything to do with manga or anime (like ramen packages with “Yaoi” as the flavor).  These costumes may have even been more popular than the ever-present Naruto character.  They seemed to me and marker of the convention that broadened the single focus on animated Japanese media to include products of Hollywood or the Maruchan brand – markers of America and American interpretation undoubtedly.  What I noticed more and more was that this is not necessarily a celebration of anime, as the name might imply.  It was instead a conglomerate of a number of subcultures – mainly American, though some Japanese through an American filter – and the passion for expression through them.

Even before stepping inside the cavernous convention center I saw my first glances of attendees wearing costumes of their favorite anime (as well as non-manga) characters in a phenomenon that is known as cosplay.  They hung around outside, waiting for lunch, or on a cigarette break from the efforts of the day so far.  I would come to see countless cosplayers in the hours I spent at ACEN, to the point where, at the end of the day, they didn’t phase me and their existence seemed completely natural.  The costumes were amazingly intricate and I kept wondering how long a person had had to spend to make an outfit for a few days.  More than this, though, I wondered if they wore the costume on the train.  Does this life of devoted fandom of various cultural icons transfer to a public world where one would (undoubtedly) risk humiliation?  A popular slogan, which answered my question pretty succinctly, was “what happens at ACEN stays at ACEN.”  So no; this weekend and the couple other a year that are filled with conventions of this type (a number of people I spoke to mentioned how seasoned they were at anime conventions and how they’ll fly hundreds of miles to attend ones in other parts of the nation) are outlets for meeting people and participating in this way, but aside from that the majority of these people are not devoted to it as a constant phenomenon.  It was an event, not necessarily a lifestyle.

Going with this act of cosplay, there was a tremendous cult of spectacle and of seeing and being seen.  A lot of my time was spent looking at people in costumes and looking at other people look at people in costumes (many of whom, including some in my own group, took pictures with and of cosplayers).  Each character also had a pose s/he would do when asked for a picture, all depending on their particular character.  The military characters would act angry, the schoolgirls would act demure, and the Goths would act morose, but each in a very particular and unique pose pertinent to the particular character.  I watched a single cosplayer walk around and take a few pictures with different fans, and each time he enacted the same face and the same body movements.  They had obviously done this before and were proud to display themselves – just as the photographer was proud to look.

            One of the costumes I saw which perhaps seemed most out of place (although I don’t know to what extent the wearer thought of it as a “costume” per se) was a man, seemingly in his mid-20’s, wearing a jersey for the Carson Palmer, the quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, a football team in the NFL.  My (probably prejudiced) preconceptions of otaku were the anti-jock – the antithesis of the sports fan that this man seemed to embrace, even if his “costume” was considered more socially acceptable.  Yet he, too, was a part of this variation of otaku culture, and as far as I could tell he was considered just another patron, not as a threat – as I might have previously assumed.

            This, for me, really recontextualized the phenomenon of an anime convention and reframed my view of the attendees.  Is this football fan in a jersey cosplaying as well?  If not, why not?  He was certainly going beyond mere announcement of his fandom (in which case a mere t-shirt with a logo would have sufficed) and, in wearing the jersey, was in some sense identifying himself with the popular quarterback and channeling the aura of football fame.  Was he not pretending to be a professional football player in the same sense that the cosplayers were pretending to be characters from their favorite anime and manga?  This, for me, was a personally revelatory realization about the attendees of ACEN.

Moving on, however, most of the inter-cosplay actions occur in the larger, central areas – a few lobbies, the outdoor patio, and the large dealer’s room where the majority of people seemed to mill around.  The convention was set up around minor discussion panels happening in the Hilton hotel across the street as well as other main events, but the most central affair was definitely this main dealer’s room.  When I told someone that it was my first convention he immediately asked if I had been to the dealer’s room.  That it seems, is where the real fun goes on.

The dealer’s room was, in fact, crowded and full of energy and excitement all around.  The room was partitioned into separate areas for main distributors, local/private dealers and an art exhibition.  The most professional dealers had large tables set up with intricate displays selling everything from Japanese yaoi dojinshi (a type of manga created by fans involving popular characters in vaguely or outright homosexual acts) to sword displays to action figures from early 90’s American pop cultural icons like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Patrons walked around in awe and more than once I heard exclamations along the line of “Man, I wish I had some more money.”  The amount of money I overheard people spending at once astounded me (over $100 of manga at any given booth).  More interestingly, though, was the lack of manga and anime (for which the convention was named) at a number of tables, and the goods that were sold there instead.  There were booths selling posters and CDs of popular Japanese music acts, the aforementioned sword dealers, advertisements for conventions on seemingly unrelated topics (for example Jem, an animated American TV series in the 1980’s), not to mention the henna parlors and tarot card readers in the amateur dealer section.  Additionally, a number of the paraphernalia being sold was from American cultural products, not Japanese.  Needless to say, a lot of this seemed really out of place. 

I was curious about this: what are t-shirts and action figures doing in a convention about manga and anime?  Granted, some of the material was related to the manga or had popular characters emblazoned as a trademark, but most did not.  I spoke to a dealer who sold buttons (and custom made them, if desired, which was a popular option) about what he was doing there and why his product (of which there were numerous dealers) was so popular, despite it being seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand.  Interestingly enough, he likened his buttons to “the punker kids that have their buttons from their favorite show or whatever.”  My initial reaction was to interpret “show” as concert (which shows much of my own prejudice), but I later realized he was probably talking about anime instead.  But “punker kids?”  What were they doing here?  Truth be told, though, a large proportion of the crowd seemed decked out in clothes characteristic of mall-punk or goth movements: black leather or black baggy jeans, fishnets, spiked hair, spiked bracelets, etc…  The buttons were appealing, then, not so much to the part of these people focused on anime fandom, but to a certain American niche.  This wasn’t really what I had thought about otaku and about anime conventions.  The otaku were just supposed to care about anime – they weren’t also supposed to be “punker kids.”

This definition of otaku was further complicated when, as I started to leave the building, a huge break battle emerged in the middle of the showroom floor.  A crowd of perhaps 50 to 100 stood in a circle while a DJ spun techno and house remixes of popular Western songs (including the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” and Blur’s “Song 2”) and people breakdanced.  This really blew my mind.  First of all, the dancers weren’t half bad.  In fact, some of them were actually pretty good.  As someone who is mildly familiar with breakdancing, I recognized the difficulty in technique that some of the dancers had and respected it.  Additionally, even those who weren’t good dancers were still encouraged and cheered on by the crowd, who just loved watching.  Mostly, though, about half of the dancers were in cosplay costume.  “What subculture is this?!” I thought to myself and wrote down in my notebook.  I had come into ACEN expecting very definite, clear cultural indicators, and instead I got a mash-up of cultural styles, both American and American re-interpretations of Japanese memes, and what’s more they were all mixed together.  The otaku phenomenon – in my experience – was not an isolated cultural style but involved an amalgam of additional icons from popular culture.  I was confronted with the crossing of subcultural borders in a place that I had not at all expected, and was totally blown away.

            This mix of different (sub)cultural styles was what was impressed upon me most.  The level of engagement with the cult of spectacle was interesting, however it was more expected and became less of an affair as the day went on.  On the train ride home I tried to pick out faces of who was also coming back from the convention, but I found it difficult.  As the motto goes, “What happens at ACEN stays at ACEN,” and it seemed true.  The social etiquette and code of conduct was unique to the hours (or days) spent inside the cloistered confines of the convention center, but on the way home the normal rules applied.

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3 Responses to Just Anime Central?: An Ethnography of ACEN

  1. Sabrina and Matt says:

    For the record, the ramen brand was Mokona-Chan, not Maruchan, referencing a character from Magic Knights Rayearth and xXx HoLiC by Clamp. That flavors were Chocobo (Final Fantasy VII), Original (aka Mokona flavor), Menchi (Excel Saga), and Yaoi (applicable to almost every anime and manga).
    I found your article interesting and your attitude towards fans a little insulting. The reasons for the large amount of American merchandise reflects the costs of shipping to America and the booming internet trade, as well as the rising costs which MAPS charges for dealer’s booths. Dealers who are smaller companies (which are usually the ones who run import businesses) can’t afford a booth when competing against large companies, like FYE, who sell American-made goods. Additionally, there are region differences between DVDs, preventing their sale here. Finally, the quality of Japanese DVDs and CDs and import costs place their price around $50 or more, preventing anime fans with small wallets from purchasing them. To compensate, companies import pencil boards, pins, and keychains, which are lower cost items. Their markup (100-1,000%) can prevent some sales, however. The last reason for this amalgamation of American and Japanese goods was the decision by MAPS and other convention organizations to ban Hong Kong DVD sales, which for many years was the largest draw to a dealer’s room at the convention. The English subtitles may have been terrible, but the DVDs were cheaper than in America or Japan and were therefore quite popular. (Also illegal, hence their banishment.)
    As for your expectations and then overall impression of ACen, there has never been an anime convention which was completely anime oriented. Video games, Japanese rock and pop artists, and Japanese culture (like Hello Kitty, Pocky, and ramen) have always been a large part of the conventions. American influences such as Captain Jack Sparrow are seen because the anime fan has other interests. Many fans are gothic, punk, preppy, jock, intellectual, etc. Japanese culture/anime is an interest and part of a lifestyle, not the overwhelming character trait. Would you say that you are entirely defined by your attendance at the University of Chicago? Neither are we defined by our attendance at ACen. “What happens at ACen, stays at ACen” is also rarely true, despite the panel. As is evidenced by our cosplay pictures across the web and proudly displayed to our parents and friends, we are not shy about showing our fandom. We carry it with us at school, at work, and at home. If you were to start asking people around your campus if they are fans of anime or Japanese culture, you would find that it has become remarkably mainstream, just like video games (it’s not overweight young men in their parents’ basement anymore!).
    Anime, manga, and Japanese culture has become a huge part of American culture. I’m glad that ACen has changed your view on things a little, but it seems that you don’t really understand that there are NEVER clear cultural borders. If you can walk away with that knowledge, rather than apply it specifically to ACen, THEN you will have learned something.

  2. naesung says:

    I think one of the problems we face is the desire to apply previous composed ideas of “otaku” to convention attendees, and then to interpret transactions in the convention on that order rather than taking into account that we are still in the wider economic and social world at the same time. That you mention tarot card readers made me think (I hadn’t noticed), my mother has read tarot for about 15-20 years, and finds herself at all sorts of events that don’t conform exactly to what your expectations of tarot readers might be (like fancy dress parties and church functions). What’s important is that at any large group of young people in a transition in their lives, there will be a demand for that sort of service, regardless. Similarly, swords are cool, original (not doujinshi) American comic books are cool (esp. ones drawn to fit manga convention), and therefore the convention provides an interesting meeting place for people buying and selling such things.

    Just as we have to bring in the outside world into our thoughts about the convention, I think Sabrina and Matt make a good point that it’s important to also not to steal the habitus of anime fans from them and contort it into a hegemonic cultural construct. That is, anime fandom can come from any number of situations in a person’s life regardless of their other life styles, and that the weirdness we attach to the fandom (when we say, “it provides kids on the edge of society an opportunity to adorn themselves to be unique,” paraphrasing one of my interlocutors) can overpower interpretation of what’s actually happening.

    Not directed at anyone in particular… I like Julien’s ethnography and I don’t think Sabrina and matt give him enough credit for writing honestly about the feelings and changes in perspective he documents during his time at the convention. Sometimes a good ethnography has to be a completely honest document of sojourn, and not necessarily sociological analysis.

  3. naesung says:

    That said… the discussion and learning keep going on. It’s great that we can discuss this with other convention-goers online.

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