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The time is 2 a.m. It is sweltering hot for the first night all year, and I am busily hunched over the top of my Yoruichi costume, sewing by hand. ACEN, the largest anime, manga and everything else (un)related convention, is a scant few hours away. I really wish that I hadn’t procrastinated so much and had started on the costume weeks ago when the friends I will be meeting at the con tomorrow and have not seen in two years reminded me. There is no sense in being anxious about it now, though. Another sweaty hour rolls by stitch by stitch and I finally finish to collapse amidst black and white fabric strewn across the bed.
The next morning, or maybe I should say later that morning, and on into the afternoon is filled with tasks and events slower than snails. When 5pm finally emerges I find myself waiting at the bus stop, pack slung over shoulder, ready to embark on the hour and half trip to the Hyatt by O’Hare Airport. Prior experience informs me that stepping off the Blue Line at Rosemont will feel like crossing national borders.
Sure enough, disembarking from the train, the air is charged as fellow attendees sweep past me to the left and the right, in front and behind, some dressed “normally” others in elaborate costume. I realize that though I was here one day last year, I cannot remember the way to the hotel or convention center. A brief survey of my surroundings draws me towards a blonde haired girl in an orange tank top and jeans with her boyfriend, who is also similarly dressed. They wear no badges, no emblems of the “hottest” anime like Naruto or Bleach, but something about their aura marks them as undeniable ACEN attendees. I approach and ask them for directions; they are all too happy to ask me to tag along. The ten-minute walk from the train station is filled with amiable and easy conversation. ACEN in a nutshell? The instant bond of friendship bound by the cord of commonality. If Komiketto is about hiding your identity, a get in get out quick and unseen, covert operation, then ACEN is its antonym in everyway.
Once at the Hyatt I call the friends I will be staying with. There is a lot to soak in, much of it in the form of leather, chains, heavy eyeliner, bright colors juxtaposed with so much black and scantily clad con-goers of all shapes, sizes and tones. It is almost like no vestiges of the “real world” are meant to exist in this world that seems like a doujinshi come to life—characters from a myriad video games, anime, manga and even Hollywood movies creating their own storylines. Reclined against a pillar in the lobby, I cannot help but feel awkwardly out of place in my street clothes. I cannot wait to get out of them. But, as Scott, the first of the friends who I had to say good-bye to two years ago descends the staircase towards me, I decide to exercise patience. Today, I will just bathe in the atmosphere. Tomorrow, I will “suit up” and ask questions.
Before sunrise the next day, Devin, my friend’s fiancée, gets up, dons his Urahara costume and heads off to wait in line. Much of Acen involves waiting in long, slow moving lines. Two night’s before two other friends, Scott and Noel, spent three hours in line waiting for their badges. In fact, late Saturday, roughly 5 o’clock, still saw people waiting in line to register.
There will be much more waiting in line as others in the party queue for badges and then to enter the High and Mighty Color concert, but that comes later.
While the majority of our party waits to get their badges, Devin and I decide to check out the exhibition hall. Scott and Noelle lead the way, as they have already been through and know the best places to see first. Before we head off, I pause to ask them why they are here. Devin, who got into anime at the age of 14 when his brother showed him Dragon Ball Z, replies that he likes anime, wants the chance to dress up, to visit the weapons dealers and that seeing all the other people makes him feel normal. Noelle answers that she like anime and wants to be around other people who do as well. For Scott the answer is simple; “Outside I feel like a dork, but now I don’t.” There is a common thread here that will recur and recur again through out the next two days. ACEN is about community and its normalizing effect.
My first trip through the artist’s alley and the expo is a bit of a whirlwind tour. Perhaps this is because there was so much to see. It was mind-boggling; the vast, elaborate display of commodities driving the mind to dizzying heights and limits. Reportedly, there are 15,000 people in attendance at ACEN this year. Stepping between the tables and booths, dodging the excited bodies, it is easy to believe. Many of the venders are selling the same wears, and we are advised to go through everything at least once, make memos of what we want, price check and then buy. In the end, the expo will take a total of three trips. Some might find the ACEN experience to be riddled with consumerism, and I think it is, but not in the negative, “mass-culture” sense. At ACEN, I find, fans consume as a manifestation of involvement. It is no different really than cos-play. It is an investment.
As I continue roaming the vender’s shops, I am introduced to yet another essential aspect of the ACEN experience—picture taking. Devin and I are, somewhat coincidentally, garbed in the costumes of two “partnered” characters in a recently popular anime entitled Bleach. We find we cannot take more than a few steps before someone requests to take either one or both of our pictures. This is a sort of consumption as well, I suppose, but I find that it is consumption in most cases for the sake of appreciation as well as involvement. Characters from the same anime, particularly if the relationship between mine and theirs were close, would ask to take a picture with me, and sporadically through the con there were large group shots where everyone from a specific, popular game, manga or anime would aggregate. I cannot help but smile as I feel with absolute certainty that the late night (or early morning) and thousands of pin pricks were more than worth the trouble and pain. I too decide to snap back.
We have decided to attend the High and Mighty Color concert. Anticipating the long lines and the reality of limited space, we decide to line up way ahead of time at noon. While waiting in line, we run into more sociable, fellow con-goers, one of which is a 4o-something year old mother and teacher dressed as a Japanese schoolgirl. She tells me she has been watching anime for 15 years now. Her favorite things are the costumes and—attesting to the openness of ACEN attendees—she gets to hug people. She has a 12 year old son, who she brings with her every year. “It’s lonely for him. Not many people at his school like anime. Coming here is like finding a community. You find other people who speak the same language,” she says. Behind her two girls chip in that they too love the fact that they find other people who will not find their interest abnormal. It turns out that they are cousins. The rest of their family, they tell me, just cannot understand what they like about anime or why they like Japan so much. But here, there is no need for translation. They are understood.
During the High and Mighty Color concert I am compelled to think about language, translation and understanding again. By some stroke of luck I find myself pressed against the front of the stage, scant feet, at times mere inches, from the hard rocking stars that have crossed thousands of miles to perform for screaming fans, most of whom cannot speak the language in which the band sings and they sing back. Some of them may or may not even know the translation of the lyrics they are singing, especially the less common songs that are not from the soundtracks of the animes Gundam Seed or Bleach, for which the band has supplied the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the fervor is just as strong through these less/unknown songs, and as the lead singer comes forward and leans towards the crowd, a young adult male, wearing glasses and looking like the “classic” otaku, strains forward and makes contact with the barefoot rock star. The remainder of the concert passes as he stands enraptured, a blissed out expression a constant on his face, jostled by gyrating fans.
After the concert, almost certain that I have lost considerable amounts of hearing in both ears, I regroup with the friends I had been separated from in the mad dash to get as close to the action as possible. I find them sitting by the glass doors outside, joined by another Urahara cos-player. To see them sitting there, the new Urahara relaxed and smoking a cigarette, you would think they had known each other for long. Just as we get up to leave, we are approached by a cloaked ACEN-er. He pulls back his robe and offers to sell us underwear. “Some of them new, some of them used,” he assures us of their quality, but as we decline, he replies, “well, then, perhaps next time,” and hobbles on his way. Anywhere else, any time else, and I would have seriously doubted his mental faculties. Rather, we turn and walk back towards the convention center speculating which Final Fantasy he was from.
There are few hours of operation left in the day, so we decide to return to the artist’s alley and expo, this time to take our time and meander the rows of tables. Becky falls in line with others flipping through what I think is doujinshi, and I decide to start interviewing some of these artists. When I ask the first whether I can take her picture, she looks shocked and pleased. I consider that it must be an entirely different experience spending ACEN behind the wall of a table. Separated from the lines, the cos-playing, concerts, roaming and picture taking, there is an undeniable element of isolation. People come to look at your art, but they almost never come to look at you.
I ask the first artist I interview whether the manga she is selling is her own original work or doujinshi fan stories. She tells me it is original work. She used to do fan stories, but now she has gone back to originals. To my further surprise, I will find this to be a trend among the artists. I place her age around 24/25, since she tells me she got started around 12 or 13 and has been drawing anime/manga style for the past 12 years. Her favorite aspects of the con experience are the opportunity to get her work out into the public and meeting and conversing with fans of her work that like the same things she does. Perhaps, the table isn’t quite the wall I thought it was. I buy two cards of Bleach characters from her before moving on.
The next artist I interview demonstrates just how global anime and manga has become. When I ask her how she first got into the anime/manga scene, she tells me that it all started when she was a child and her mother would show her adult anime in Arabic. In junior high she started drawing the style. Her media of choice is digital. My trip through artist’s alley will lead me to believe that this is the new standard in art production, at least in this art community. My final question, of course, is why she’s here. Her reply is that she likes to see what everyone else is doing and appreciates the uniqueness of everyone’s work. A curious point when, even though most artists are not producing doujinshi manga, most are selling fan-art of popular games and series. Still, I know what she means, as no one’s Link (the main character from Nintendo’s Zelda) is quite like another. She confirms this point as she tells that the best thing about fan art is seeing the original through someone else’s eyes.
Not every artist at ACEN is here for the distinct love of the genre, however. I am drawn to a row of evocative oil paintings, depicting mostly characters from various Final Fantasies. It is the last booth before the expo. My initial reaction is positive and as I approach the artist I expect to hear an interesting story about the development of her style. Instead I am left teetering between disbelief and disdain as she tells me that she got started doing Marvel and DC until three years ago when she all of a sudden realized she was getting more and more commissions for “anime stuff and video game characters.” She switched, she tells me, because this is where the money is.
Fortunately and unfortunately, she is correct, and as Becky, Devin and I transition back into the exhibition, we are ever reminded so, but at least here, we find fans consuming to share and to communicate. Fans whose underlying desire is neither money, nor even the object itself but to get closer to the genre they love. I cannot shake the radical words of one of the more passionate artists from my head. Almost expectedly, she is at ACEN bearing her wares for the interaction and the unified experience, but for her the concept of community extends much further. Unlike sci-fi and comic conventions, she tells me, anime cons embrace all. I am reminded of the Captain Jack Sparrow I had seen earlier. “The sci-fi people usually hate anime,” she says, “but here, nobody cares about anything. They don’t care what race you are, what gender, what sexual orientation. They don’t care about what you like. It’s stronger than religion because in religion there’s always someone you got to hate.” Her statements stand in sharp relief to the words of the commercially driven artist. They are extreme, yes. Otaku extreme. But through all the noise I find a clear note—inclusion.