Making the CONnection at Anime Central

Every Wednesday in Stuart Hall, the University of Chicago Japanese Animation Society meets in a large dark room and watches officer and member selected anime for several hours, providing a running Mystery Science Theater-esque commentary of whatever happens to be on the screen. However, according to the UCJAS wiki site, “The highlight of the year comes in the feats of hilarity and organization that are our ACen skits. Anime Central (ACen) is THE Midwestern anime convention, taking place a long drive from campus. Every year we buy a ridiculously small number of rooms to house a ridiculously large number of people and drive our contingent to ACen, either giving them proper chairs or covering them with large costume components in the back seat.”

Well over two months before ACen, the president of UCJAS was sending out emails rallying people together to get organized for the annual Masquerade, and I decided to join them—partially in order to see what ACen was like for this 6-year consecutive ACen Masquerade award winning skit group. From this point on, a group of people met for several hours a week to create and practice a two minute performance piece that could fit as many anime and video game joke references, sight gags, and choreographed dance as possible, while still being somewhat coherent, and at the same time crafting props and costumes, leading up to 5A.M. sewing sessions the weekend before the convention. Those involved in the skit included a prone-to-gesticulating graduating anthropology major we called “Cat-cho”, (a sort of pun on her name, Cat, and the Japanese term for president, “kaicho,”) Jono, two years graduated from the UofC Computer Science Professional Program, Eric, a third year linguistics major writing his next paper on the linguistic changes that happen when singing JPop, Natasha, a Chemical Neuroscience grad student, Ariel, a master seemstress, Rennaissance fair going second year, Kat, who enjoys perfecting the art of the ridiculous hyperbole in her speech and has just started getting into Magic the Gathering, and Andrew, the relatively quiet taskmaster. Although the group consisted of a wide range of people, with anime, and in many cases gaming as the common thread, there was more than enough to get a lively discussion started.

During these meetings in the basement of the Reynolds club, amidst the sounds of sewing machines and anime/video game themed music, the club members involved chatted about various anime and game related topics. One memorable moment was when one of the members shared with everyone that he was planning a short and simplified game of Dungeons and Dragons for his yet to be 7 year old niece’s birthday. After telling us how she seemed to really look forward to it, he proclaimed that he was going to “make sure she grew up to be a gamer”, which was followed by laughs and an “Awww…” from everyone in the room. The idea of perpetuating a “nerd-culture” activity was something that everyone could support.

A few days before the convention, UCJAS hosted an extended meeting, which would not only show the scheduled anime for the week, but also set aside an extra hour in the middle for a “sneak preview” of the skit as well as some time before to familiarize those at the meeting with characters and essential knowledge for understanding all of the jokes made throughout this year’s skit. This “briefing” of the inside jokes strongly implies that there is really no assumption that everyone at the meeting has seen all of these series completely to understand the jokes, however, they did make a certain assumption of the knowledge of Sailor Moon. After the briefing, there was a showing of previous award-winning skits, “typical” of UCJAS—near-surreal, almost incoherent with some amazing choreography—because it seems to be important to tell members about the club’s history, in which it takes pride and also uses as a way of self-identification.

Once many of the UCJAS members got to the Embassy Suites, only across the street from the Convention Center at which ACen was being held, the first order of business, after picking up badges and checking into the rooms, was to unload the car full of props, costumes, bags of food, blankets, pillows, and a sewing machine, which was followed by the equal distribution of food to the other rooms, and unpacking and hanging of costumes and props, making sure that everything was in place. By this time, Jono had come with his 3 foot-long griddle and more bags of food, including yakisoba, tonkatsu sauce, a rice cooker (for rice-cooker bread, with a recipe from an anime) and furikake.

Jono had explained earlier that he comes to ACen only to do the skit and cook, and not for much else. It seemed, however, that socializing was a large part of coming to the convention, and I think that this was the case with a number of other club members as well, including last year’s graduated president of the club, Sushu, who flew in from Northern California to attend the convention, as well as John and Kimberly, who were in the anime club slightly before anyone in the room or in the club could remember, graduating from the UofC in 1998. Jono stated emphatically that he actually had absolutely had no desire to watch another anime series (or play another video game) at this point in his life, while John mentioned that he still had not finished watching the anime DVDs he purchased at last year’s ACen, and that he probably would not for awhile, also implying the lack of active pursuit of this medium that this convention was created for. In addition, Sushu refered to John, Jono and herself as “jaded anime fans,” and suggested that there should be a website or something for these “jaded anime fans” to find series that might interest them and get them back into watching anime. Several other UCJAS members nodded in agreement.

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Why was it that these people were all coming to the anime convention, and even cosplaying, despite their admittance of no longer watching or enjoying anime anymore? Jono provided an answer during one of the hotel room conversations, noting that anime was valuable for him now only as a tool to enable socializing. In other words, it was no longer the anime that was important to him now, but rather the people that he could connect to because of his knowledge of anime. For instance, he said that during his three years in Japan through the JET program, anime would be a starting point when meeting certain people until it could evolve into a deeper relationship. Knowing that the other person knew “anime” could provide a sort of base for conversation that would ensure that both sides would have something to talk about.

On the train ride back, former president Sushu also talked about her first experiences with UCJAS. She explained that she was at first intimidated by the officers and old time members of the club because it seemed that she had to know all of this obscure knowledge of anime series, but once she actually tagged along to one of the after meetings, she realized that anime club was not about knowing all of these obscure facts about all of these anime, but rather about sharing this information amongst each other, and being able to handle others relating their own knowledge of anime, which could eventually turn into the sharing of information about many things.

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I encountered the same kind of fear the first time that I went to the ACen skit meetings—as I had not watched anime since the time that I have been at the university, save a couple of series, and was unfamiliar with half of the material that was in the skit we preformed. However, I soon realized that just helping, laughing, listening, and commenting with my own “outdated” anime knowledge was enough to feel accepted as part of the group.

So although there are probably many anime fans that go to ACen for the dealers room with rows and rows of merchandise, panels and screenings, I found among those con-goes a number of people that are relatively deeply involved with an anime club spending most of their time staying in the room, cooking various meals, and talking with each other about a good share of anime and game related things, as well as topics as mundane as how to not seem creepy to a girl that you are interested in, or the kind of characteristically quirky things like the existence super heroes in real life. In a way, it makes a lot of sense that those involved with UCJAS are more interested in the social aspect, especially now that one can easily download any series they want online, that involvement in the anime club means that you are looking for social interaction (as opposed to coming to anime club because it’s the only source of anime, as it was in the past). Although “otaku” are stereotyped as awkward and anti-social, the way that a number of people have described their relationship with anime seems as if
it is just a bridge that enables some wholesome social interaction.

The UCJAS skit group.
UCJAS Acen Skit people

Lecherous man drawn in bathroom

Akio, the incestuous, will-seduce-every-female-character pretty boy, drawn by the former president of the club in the bathroom of the UCJAS hotel room.

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