Beryl and Addie: An Unexpected Delight

June 8, 2007

Of course, I wasn’t dreading their visit or anything, but I definitely did not expect to sit through two hours of immensely entertaining storytelling. I was all ready to ask Beryl and Addie about their most unusual experience as staff members at the anime convention, but obviously, it would have been like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. It was very reassuring to hear Beryl confirm my theory of the power of “mega-subcultures” being derived from the nature of their various intersections, as well as from the celebration of the minority. As Beryl said, “if we learn about each other’s differences, we start seeing our similarities…and all of a sudden those guys don’t seem so strange anymore. A-Cen in itself is going to be about the celebration of a foreign culture that people find cool. Our facination with Japanese culture is a direct expression of American culture…we’re open to see what’s good about people outside our world. As Americans, we’re always looking for the next fresh thing.” Evidently, the anime culture has persistently leaked into the American mainstream. From my experience at the convention, it is apparent that, as with”the geek,” the otaku has unashamedly embraced its own creation, took back the power of their name, and declared their rightful foothold in the world of “the mundanes.”

Indeed, “art is in the hands of the people now.” We no longer have to be elitist and selectively chosen artists to create.


A Walk Down Memory Lane

June 8, 2007

            As I walk around the Anime Convention in awe of all the dedicated cosplayers around me, I can’t help but notice that the atmosphere is surprisingly all too reminiscent of that of Harajuku, a unique shopping district in Tokyo made famous in America by Gwen Stefani. The vibrant and visually rich coexistence of multiple subcultures at the convention – Goths, Lolita, otaku, punk, and various fashion plates – is a dead ringer of the pop-cultural dynamic one would typically find in Takeshita-dori, the busiest street in Harajuku teeming with stores that sell the most eclectic range of commodities and in turn attracts the most diverse collection of scensters. Once again, I find myself feeling like a foreigner, someone who sticks out like a sore thumb and is obviously in the position to be educated. In the words of my classmates who went to the convention with me, we, the “normal” kids who dared not to participate in elaborate cosplay, have become freaks all of a sudden.

            Overwhelmed by such a strange mix of people, I wonder what exactly is the purpose of an anime convention outside of Japan. Why are so many non-Japanese people interested in a foreign culture, and what do they wish to gain out of the event? For some attendees, it is quite apparent: to show off their love and obsession of manga and anime, via their authentic costumes and their knowledge of the subject, which can be flagrantly shown off at a myriad of activities at the convention. For some others, it is to network with others who share the same interest. As an overtly excited Sailor Moon shoves me aside in the crowd to get to the impending swords bid, I had a flashback: an intensely eager middle school girl in uniform pushing me out of her way to get to the jewelry sale at the mouth of Takeshita-dori. And voilà, the underlying theme of the convention that explains it all: consumer enthusiasm.

            Ah, yes, now I remember. How can anyone forget the gargantuan magnificence that is the consumer fetish in Tokyo? What easier way is there to have physical manifestations of one’s love for anime, manga, and anything else of interest at the convention other than buying products of such objects of obsession? Maybe this is a twist on moe: we want physical objects that bear resemblance to what we adore so that we feel that, through ownership, we’re closer to them. Surely enough, moments later, I hear a girl declaring with pride, “I just bought a hundred dollars-worth of manga.”

            Of course, to be fair, consumerism isn’t the only thing that excites the crowd, although it certainly helps. The anime convention is the only weekend in the year when fans can revel in their dedication to this mega-subculture, this enormous collage of intersecting obscure passions that elude the comprehension of the mainstream. “Put your wig on or I’ll slap you with my sword,” threatens an avid anime fan. Evidently, solidarity in at least physical appearance is crucial to these fans; given that many people travel from faraway places (such as Minnesota) for the convention, I suppose that it is only polite to keep the ambiance like a greenhouse of anime/manga enthusiasts. Their attendance at the event is of unquestionable importance, and their pre-planning is comparable to, if not more extensive than, a Desperate Housewife planning Thanksgiving dinner.

The reaction I got from interviewing several cosplayers is that their dedication is both palpable and unanimous. Invariably, they design and make their own costumes. Authenticity is prioritized, and there is no question of whether or not to buy an accessory if it would make a costume better. I asked one girl why she went into so much detail with her costume, to the extent that she changed her eye color, to which she responded, “because that’s the color of my character’s eyes, and you can easily buy these contact lenses on the internet.” Another cosplayer I spoke to actually spent months to hand-carve the designs on his leather vest, simply for the purpose of having “an authentic costume.” I got the impression that many fans don’t go there with a specific goal of winning a costume contest; rather the point is to just be in a costume they can be proud of. The time spent on making the costumes is also very revealing of their dedication. Of the dozen of people I interviewed, the shortest time spent on the costume is “three weeks of making, several months of sketching and planning.” This diligence toward authenticity, I feel, is again another feature of moe: in order to feel closer to an object of adoration (the cosplay character), to have that object be a part of oneself, one would have to do one’s best to become this object, via absolute authenticity in appearance and mannerisms.

Authenticity in mannerisms, therefore, is also integral to successful cosplay. One way in which the anime convention differs from Takeshita-dori is that many (if not most of the) participants are not just hanging out there, but rather are in constant performance. To be a good cosplayer means that not only does one have to look like one’s character, one also has to be in character. This is why whenever a cosplayer is asked to be photographed, she would pose in the manner or a trademark gesture of her character, which is quite different from, say, a child in a Spiderman costume on Halloween grinning at the camera. Cosplayers thus differ from someone who is simply playing dress-up, a distinction that is often forgotten by those who are not a part of this subculture.

One way in which the anime convention here differs from one in Japan is that a significant portion of the cosplayers and the venders are devoted to American cult followings. Within the first hour of my experience, I saw three Captain Jack Sparrows, a plethora of Soul Caliber characters, Aquateen characters, and a table-full of Jem dolls. These deviations from anime/manga – American toys, products of American cult movies, American cartoons, and popular video games in America – may seem at a glance irrelevant to the cause of the anime convention. Upon closer inspection, however, I realize that the hybridization does not necessarily diminish the authenticity of the event, as it is still in keeping with the spirit of intersecting subcultures.

The anime convention itself is a cult phenomenon, so it is only natural that it would attract people who are interested in multiple cult cultures. Ask one of the many Captain Jack Sparrows, who sashayed around like Johnny Depp meandering in the Caribbean. “I cheated,” he confessed. “The pants and the boots are from the costume I used in the last Renaissance Festival.” Although some devout anime fans may get upset at this “cheating,” I believe that there is no use in pointing a finger at everything that does not fit into one conception of a supposed authentic convention, like what the sci-fi conventions are often accused of doing. The beauty of this convention is that the participants are genuinely happy just to be there and to form quick bonds with others through common interest, even if they have to wait in line for hours to get in. It is about the formation of an inclusive community that “speaks the same [geek] language,” not the replication of a vacuum. The anime convention is about the congregation of people who share minority obsessions; as with any identity group, the minute one tries to define and limit the identity, the subculture collapses from too much elimination.

MAPS scholarship

June 2, 2007

Midwest Animation Promotion Society has $500 scholarship for full-time college students majoring in Japanese language and literature!

Beryl and Addie: Straight Outta Acen

May 31, 2007

I had the opportunity to talk with a lot of people at Acen, but none of them actually were staff members who worked behind the scenes to make the convention itself possible.  Luckily on the last day of class, who should happen to show up but the chairman of Anime Central himself, Beryl Turner, with another staff member, Addie, in tow.


It was great to hear the story of a lifelong otaku, from the first illuminating moment of fandom to the present day, going on twenty years or so.  He gave us a history of fandom, starting from the underground to the mainstream, which was quite interesting.  He’d been with Acen from pretty much the beginning, and told us of the way they planned and ran the convention.  I had no idea that Acen only employed unpaid volunteers, and it made me realize how committed you had to be to be a part of this convention, if you were doing it just out of love and not money.  Even better, Beryl had a lot of great stories to tell us, like the run in with the Atlanta police that made him stop cosplaying, and the hilarious story behind Sailor Bubba. 


One thing I found interesting was how he explained that anime had a “simplistic style” that everyone could learn to draw, as opposed to the strict “Marvel” style of American comics.  Although there are more and more experimental American graphic novels being released, I have noticed that in America, comics are usually drawn by committee, in that there are lots of people involved in the whole process, from writers to inkers to letterers to sketchers and whatever.  Whereas in Japan it’s usually just the mangaka and maybe one or two assistants to help him.  This really does suggest that creating manga is a more intimate and personal process than working on a traditional American comic.  It was great that Beryl managed to bring that up.  


Overall, I had a great time with these guys, and although Beryl and Addie didn’t manage to guilt me into going to next year’s Acen, I wouldn’t rule out going sometime in the future…given a proper subsidy, of course.  


Beryl and Addie’s Discussion

May 31, 2007

I liked the discussion yesterday with Addie and Beryl Turner.  Beryl, in his discussion of his own personal history with anime and manga and how he got into the con culture, seemed to really reiterate the classic stories we’d been told through Otaku Unite and a number of readings.  I especially noticed it in his and Addie’s description of “the early days” when a bootleg VHS tape of some anime was coveted and small groups of friends huddled around televisions to watch original Japanese TV shows. 


I also was really interested in how Beryl got his start in the con circuit, and especially given Lily’s response (at least I think it was Lily…) that the con culture is not just about whatever the object of the con is.  In other words, ACen isn’t just about anime and manga, as Beryl said it’s about “community” and “making it a smaller world.”  There’s a community at conventions of all types, be they science-fiction, anime or gaming, and it was through this community that he managed to climb the ladder and end up chairing this year’s ACen.  I think the parallels in the different cultures of conventions are interesting (if I were in a sociology course I would probably talk about social and culture capital), and I think it was really helpful to talk to the two of them about their experiences. 


I, as did many other I see, really liked the notion of the “mundanes” as opposed to the otaku, and I liked how JK Rowling co-opted and extended its meaning to become “muggles.”  I’m not really a Harry Potter fan, but I like seeing how aspects of these seemingly fringe social groups become mainstream.

Prototype World Citizen

May 31, 2007

Given the increasingly global presence of anime/manga, especially in America, I had to ask week 10’s guest Beryl Turner—the head of ACEN, anime/manga aficionado and historian extraordinaire—whether he sees anime and manga in America losing its Japanese connection and become totally subsumed into mainstream American pop culture. His answer? Absolutely. According to Beryl Turner anime and manga will be a prototype for what globalization is touted to do in the best sense—create a sort of world citizenry. He believes that manga and anime as an art form will eventually lose its nationality, and I am inclined to agree. The one issue, however, is the nature of anime/manga fans in America in the past and at present. Even Beryl acknowledged, giving this breakdown of the road map to mainstream status—innovation/discovery, dissemination through the underground as a fringe movement, (re)discovery and tentative investment from Big Business and the explosion—that anime and manga has its roots in the underground. Furthermore, considering that anime/manga fans while extremely inclusive of fans of other genres such as science fiction, still refer to the collective other as “mundanes.” It is hard to see this group of people forgetting the history behind their beloved art form.

I suppose then, that the key to transforming anime/manga into a global commodity sans national boundaries, lies in the unwitting masses who never touch the underground and never make it to a convention like ACEN, those who flip to Cartoon Network and get their first glimpse of Bleach, then head to a bookstore like Barnes and Nobles or Borders and pick up a copy of the manga along with a title by an American author and never bother to dig further. Is this positive? Negative? I can’t say. I am all for the more prevalent exposure of anime and manga in the West and around the world, but then I am also one of those people who likes to stick to the facts, and for me one of the facts here is that manga is Japanese. Still, I would hate to see an authenticity debate rear its head in this quarter. Maybe I should say manga was Japanese, but today and in the future it can and will go in whatever direction its progressively more global fans pull.

Photos with Beryl and Addie

May 31, 2007