My “Friends” the Wild Otaku

Note: the title is based on a Jane Goodall book, “My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees.”

As I walked the couple blocks from the Blue Line to the convention hall, I knew this experience would be strange for me. I had never been to an anime convention before; I had never even watched anime before signing up for this class. As convention goers walked by me on the street, dressed in full-body cartoon suits complete with wings, guns, and other bizarre paraphernalia, I realized I didn’t possess a mental framework for interpreting this—I had nothing to compare it to. I decided I needed a metric by which I might gauge the experience. But how do you distinguish what’s ordinary and what’s unusual when everything strikes you as utterly bizarre?

It wasn’t the costumes that were throwing me. It was who was wearing them. I’ve seen people dress up in outlandish ways before: Halloween, movie premieres, Scav Hunt. But the thing that was different in this case, the thing that was entirely mind-boggling for me, was the demographics of the people who were dressing up. At the anime convention, where fans addressed their hobby with a level of seriousness that blurred the line between passion and obsession, there were middle-aged men dressed as anime characters. I have no prior experience interpreting a man my dad’s age attempting to reconstruct with most detailed accuracy the image of an alien-looking cartoon animal with ears and wings (I’m still not sure what that was).

Walking into the anime convention confirmed that none of the conventions I was used to, particularly in the realm of dress, were being heeded. So with the absolute foreignness of this event at the forefront of my mind, I tried to think a practical metric for interpreting the events. My first inclination: T-shirt designs. I started to look at what people were wearing in instances when they weren’t hardcore enough to dress in full body costumes. People walked past me in a slew of funny and weird t-shits: “Nintendo University,” “I can ignore you for as long as it takes,” “Hello! Really?! Really?!”

But as I attempted to make sense of things based on this fabricated gauge, I wiped out. Walking up to the convention hall, amid a small crowd of decked out anime-goers, I tripped on the curb and twisted my ankle. It hurt, but I didn’t need help. Yet before a brave “I’m fine” could roll off my lips, I realized that no one had inquired. People had sort of shuffled away, leaving a hole where I was sitting on the ground, grabbing my ankle. No one had acknowledged me or offered me help. Strange, I thought. Is this an isolated instance?

That’s when it dawned on me. My klutziness had presented a perfect way to gauge my experience at the anime convention, far better than reading people’s t-shirts: I could gauge how people responded and reacted to me. After all, being me for the last 19 years makes me an expert on this topic. So, experience number one: ankle twist met with blithe disregard. It wasn’t hostility; it was more like people hadn’t really noticed me (despite that I was sitting at their feet). It seemed like it just hadn’t occurred to them to offer me help.

So, I got up and limped into the convention. The first event I attended was in a gigantic convention hall room brimming with cheering otaku. They were watching a performance on the stage. Decked out performers were lip-synching before us, making jokes to the amusement of an uproarious audience. As before, I did not understand the program at all. I did not understand why some comments were met with laughs and others awed silence. I did not understand why one of the main female actors was calling everyone her “minions.” It was like watching theater in another language. So, again, I opted to gauge this event on the basis of how people treated me.

This time, I was standing at the back of the convention hall near the exit. A middle-aged man—maybe 45-years old?—wearing tall white feathered wings approached me and stood right next to me. He looked at me, but he didn’t smile, as people usually do when they get this close. Is he going to talk to me? I wondered. He planted his feet next to mine, so that we stood shoulder-to-shoulder, nearly touching. I waited for him to strike up a conversation, but it never came. Instead, he suddenly walked about ten feet away, looped around, and came back. Once again he planted his feet next to mine, in the same position. I didn’t say anything—I wanted to see what he was going to do. He made another little loop and, once again, returned. This time, just as I was expecting him to say something to me, he suddenly started humming. There, standing should-to-shoulder with me at the back of a convention hall filled with riled otaku, he loudly hummed a tune I’d never heard before. Does this correspond with something happening on the stage? I thought. It didn’t seem to. His humming seemed independent of what was going on. I still don’t understand it. I wish I could say I stuck around and got to the bottom of it, but standing next to the man as he hummed so strangely became unsettling for me and I bolted.

My next endeavor was to try and watch some anime. I consulted a schedule from a convention organizer sitting Indian style behind a concierge desk wearing no shoes.
“What’s this?” I asked, and pointed to a spot on the map.

“A video screening room,” he said, rolling his eyes like I’d asked something insanely obvious.

I couldn’t help but thinking: the man with no shoes is treating me like I’m the bizarre one. The culture of the anime convention is so pervasive within the walls of this building, it’s almost like a new reality has been constructed. A new society, at least, with different rules than my society. It’s a society where old men can wear wings with the utmost seriousness. I saw a girl lying against a wall in a white dress, covered in what appeared to be blood. She was supposed to appear to be dead. I saw men walking around with fake guns. I got a shiver thinking of Virginia Tech, but that wasn’t necessarily fair of me: after all, I was applying the rules and expectations of my own society to this other world. Part of me believed that if this were the dominant culture, anime fandom could be the end of civilization: it was, after all, a place where people took absurdity seriously, didn’t offer help when I tripped, behaved in ways I couldn’t fathom. I tried to shake these thoughts, which were a little disconcerting to me: why was I having such a strongly negative reaction to diversity of behavior? Was there a level of prejudice and intolerance within me that I needed to examine?

I checked out the schedule to choose my next endeavor. The lineup included everything from events that sounded like things Career and Planning Services (CAPS) would sponsor, about breaking into the industry, to strange names I couldn’t interpret—Spiral Spiders was one, I think.

I walked from the concierge desk to a video room, passing crowds of otaku on the way. Many were wearing color contacts to make their eyes two different colors, some were wielding glow sticks, some weren’t wearing shirts at all. One shirtless guy had a furry pink hat and cargo boots; a lot of the girls were dressed in revealing ensembles complete with what appeared to be hooker boots from outer space. I saw an older guy—maybe 50 years old?—talking to a group of scantily clad young girls. They all appeared to be strangers. He was grouping the three girls together and taking photos with a disposable camera. They were posing and mugging for the camera with plastic guns. “Ok, squeeze together closer,” the guy would say, and they abided. “Now put your hand on her tummy,” he said, and the girls abided, clutching the exposed midsection of one of the girls. This was incredibly creepy to me—why were the girls obliging? I realized that this convention was brimming with closet exhibitionists—people who might not indulge their desire for attention in their everyday lives, but who pose for the camera shots of a creepy old man while within the world of the convention. I thought back on the irreverent t-shirts I had observed earlier, “I can ignore you for as long as it takes,” among them. With their clothes and actions, even normal clothes like t-shirts, many people at the convention seemed to be seizing on, or perhaps grasping at, the chance to have a voice.

I made it to the video room, where a guard asked me to show my badge. Again, I’m struck by the seriousness with which this hobby is taken; he didn’t even crack a smile. As I try to enter the room, a second guard stops me: “This is 18+ because of its violence. I need to see ID. The Hentai begins at midnight.” This felt bizarre: I’d been mistaken for a person who might endeavor to watch hentai, and I had been treated without any stigma. The way the guard said these words, without a blink or even a glimpse of a joking grin—it synched up with my experience throughout the day: everything was taken so seriously.

This was strange to me because my framework for interpreting such high levels of absurdity usually applies to situations in which the absurdity is a joke—a mascot dressed up at a football game, for example. But the anime convention was a much more grave pursuit, much more serious. Inside this movie theater, the movie on the screen is disturbing to me: the characters are calling one another “slut” and “whore.” I take off.
The girls bathroom is another trippy experience. Girls are standing around applying makeup: I’ve seen this ritual a million times. Except they aren’t trying to make themselves pretty. One girl is reapplying blood to her forehead; another is adjusting her wings in the mirror.

“Should I reapply this dragon bite?” one girl asks her friend with the utmost seriousness.

“Nah, it looks right,” said another who was apparently imbued with the knowledge of the “right” way a dragon bite should look.

In the main lobby I saw some children running around. My instinct was that this was entirely inappropriate—this wasn’t a place for kids.

But maybe I was being unfair. In the lobby, I decided to attempt conversation with some of the fans. I walked up to one man sitting on a bench and struck up a conversation. Tim was a 26 year old man from the suburbs, the manager of a retail company. But as I talked to him, he seemed incredibly embarrassed about being there.

“My friend dragged me here. It’s not really my thing,” he said nervously.

This was a break from the proud way the other convention goers had displayed their passion for anime. Was he telling the truth? Probably not. When I asked him what could be improved, he said: fewer lines to get into the programs. Hmmm, he’d waited on line to get into his favorite programs – this, it appeared, was a thorough-going anime fan. Perhaps when confronted with a person who was not a member of this society he felt the need to disguise his passion.

My final otaku experience occurred after I had ridden the blue line back to downtown Chicago. I was switching to another train, and I ran to get an elevator. As the door to the elevator began shutting, I was about 10 feet away. “Hold the door!” I shouted. Inside the elevator stood three otaku still wearing makeup and costumes. Yet none of them reached over to keep the elevator door open. Quite the contrary, they stood there, and as the elevator doors shut in my face, they smiled and waved. Anime conventions, I thought scornfully, the end of civilization. But, at least I finally got a smile—even if it was with me as the bud of the joke—from otaku who’d spent a long day gravely pursuing their passion.

–Sara Jerome

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