Stepping off the Blue Line train at the Rosemont stop, it would not take long for anyone to notice that there was something “special” going on. In place of the men and women who would normally be in transit to Chicago’s business district, there was Luigi, the Yellow Power Ranger, an army of teenage girls in cat ears, and swarms of other cosplayers, which an everyday traveler on this train would be hard-pressed to identify. However, for all the people who were there for the con – as it was colloquially called – these were the characters of Final Fantasy X, Death Note, Bleach, and endless other manga, anime, and video games. Throw that badge around your neck and brace yourself. Welcome to Anime Central – ten years strong.
“What does ‘otaku’ mean to you?” asked a news correspondent to two young men in cosplay. One of the boys pointed his sword tip to the ground, and rested his elbow on the handle in a dignified manner. (I could just imagine his response: “As if you could understand what it means to be an otaku.”) But seconds later, his composure broke and the two boys excitedly began to explain the term. They found themselves tripping over each other’s words as they both enthusiastically attempted to answer at the same time:
“It’s everything we are.”
“It’s everything at this con. It’s everywhere. It’s seeping from these bushes right here; it’s everywhere!”
“We’re all one!”
Were they being a bit melodramatic? Could they just have been excited and acting outlandishly to get on television? Possibly, but a better question might be: what did they neglect to say?
In Japan, otaku has a derogatory connotation for these people who immerse themselves in a world of manga, anime, video games, etc. (Remember of that kid in high school with the rolling backpack who played Dungeons and Dragons in the cafeteria? He might be comparable to the Japanese otaku.) Outside of their group of otaku friends – which they very well may or may not have – they are the “weird ones,” the social outcasts. Within the subculture, this way of life is accepted, but beyond it there is little hope for social acceptance of such behavior.
But at A-Cen, there was no sign of this squirrelly looking kid covering his acne with long, greasy hair. In his place, there were the aforementioned cosplayers proudly displaying their craft. Perhaps it was just my lingering ignorance and lack of experience, but the number of cosplayers was truly a shock to me. Intrigued, I knew I could not leave the convention without attending the masquerade – where all of the best examples of cosplay would be shown.
The master of ceremonies of the masquerade took the stage donning a costume of his own. The applause for him was neither short nor obligatory. The cheers continued, but amongst the screaming, you could hear people shouting his name. It appeared that anyone who knew anything about A-Cen knew exactly who this man was. He was Isaac Sher, and he has been with Anime Central since its first year.
He graciously accepted his applause, but then directed the admiration right back towards the audience. “I love you all!” he exclaimed. He seemed moved by how kindly he was being received. He almost did not have any words to express how he was feeling. He gave his respects to all of the people who keep coming back to the con year after year, improving their costumes, and shocking everyone with their dedication to A-Cen and this culture as a whole. The room erupted in cheers again. He reiterated himself: “I love you all! Seriously!”
Before the judging was to take place, he announced that they would be showing a series of videos for our entertainment. These consisted of spoofs and parodies of widely popular manga and anime. Throughout these bits, the audience either broke out into laughter, cheer, or let out a sentimental “aww!” almost in complete unison.
As the videos came to an end, Isaac picked up his microphone again and returned to the center of the stage. He told everyone that he had an important announcement to make – a somewhat bittersweet announcement: at the end of this year’s convention he would be giving up his position on the A-Cen board in order to allow someone else to “have some fun with it.” The news did not go over well with the majority of the audience. A girl two rows ahead was absolutely devastated (The end of an era!” she cried out). However, specifying that he was relinquishing his position in order for someone else to “have some fun with it” was an encouraging reminder that this convention is all about fun. The purpose of this convention is to celebrate the things that make the attendees happy.
During the masquerade, there was a free level of discourse between the judges, the audience and the people vying for “Best Costume.” These roles may have appeared to be inherently defined in a hierarchical way (one group is there to judge, one to display, and one to watch), but this was not the case here. At one point, there were some technical difficulties that resulted in a prolonged pause in the festivities. The crowd took it upon themselves to fill that hole by chanting “Yaoi! Yaoi!” at the two male judges on stage. The bantering back and forth between the judges and the crowd persisted even after the technical difficulties were resolved. It resembled the back-and-forth joking and teasing of real friends.
Where else can a person leave behind his or her every-day duties and dress up as Jupiter from Sailor Moon? A-Cen is a haven for like-minded and enthusiastic people. They were most likely aware of the social stigma some people may attach to anime or manga obsessions, but it did not seem to be a concern at all. They were simply enjoying themselves. People were not sidling around the dojinshi tables or trying to suppress the excitement of seeing someone dressed up as their favorite character. No one had a reason to be self-conscious because they were all there to revel in the things they enjoy.
Reflecting back on what the cosplaying interviewees said about otaku (effectively referring to everyone at the convention) all being “one,” it no longer seems like a ridiculous exaggeration. While most of the people who attended were obviously not friends with one another – nor did they even know each other – that did not mean they were not all unified as one. They entered individually, but by the end, they were all part of the con.