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.

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Going to ACEN? Don’t forget to bring your passport!

May 29, 2007

Here are some more pictures from ACEN:
http://uchicago.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2035902&l=0bcd2&id=2908752
Soton


What’s in a Name: Conventional Oddity

May 24, 2007

Names have representative and constitutive power, and the name of the convention tells it all: “Anime Central: the Midwest Anime and Manga Convention.” At once, it recognizes the regional significance this event has for anime and manga fans in the Midwest United States; at the same time, it embeds itself in a national and, by extension, global nation of fandom through explicit “glocalization.” Anime and manga are transnational commodities now, both in their material commercial manifestation and as a social consumer lifestyle that includes all sorts of standards of behavior. These behaviors are mediated and recycled through the convention, a word stressing the normalization of action, or an interface through which normalized individuals can reaffirm their homogenous normalcy. To this extent, a convention of anime fans (“otaku,” to use a purposefully othering term) seems like a contradiction, but the continuity of ordered society, however far it may fall from the beaten path, calls for the maintenance of conventions of normalcy.
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The Death of Spend Thrift, an Investment in Cosplay, and an Escape from Gender Construction

May 23, 2007

Getting off the Blue Line train at Rosemont was my first experience of the fan culture of A-Cen 2007. Streams of people ranging in ages from teens to adults walked the three block trek to the Stephens’ Convention Center and many had on costumes of their favorite anime character. As my fiancé and I walked the trek we bumped into two friends he had not seen in a while and this motif of meeting and greeting, whether planning on meeting there or being pleasantly surprised – was a common feature at the convention. Pre-teens and teens, costumed and plain-clothes dressed, squealed and jumped in delight at being at the convention and experiencing it together. People were often in pairs or whole roaming groups and there were many couples as well (implicitly breaking down the myth of otaku’s as socially inept and unable to maintain relationships).

Upon entering the convention center, the lobby is filled with costumed characters ranging from Sailor Moon to Final Fantasy’s Sepiroth. And as I enter the main hall, I was surprised to see such a long line for at-the-door registration and it persisted even with only three hours left until the convention closed for the day. The reason I was surprised at the number of people is mainly because of my unfortunate pre-conceived notion that most anime-fans are know-everything-about-their-obsession types of folks, who would have pre-registered for the event. As my experience continued there were many other notions that would get challenged as well.

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My “Friends” the Wild Otaku

May 23, 2007

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).
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The Imaginary and the Real: Commerce, Cosplay, and Gender at A-Cen

May 23, 2007

About a mile away from the Rosemont convention center, groups of enthusiastic “cosplayers” and convention goers roam the streets, transforming the quiet Chicago suburb into an arena of fantasy. Once a year, “otaku” (diehard fans of manga, anime, and video games) gather together for the Anime Central Convention. The convention entails a myriad of panels, workshops, and events to entertain convention goers. For some, this entrance into the fantastical is negotiated on a practical level; the concentration of vendors selling Japanese goods allows them to purchase their favorite items and bring home a piece of the experience. For others, dressing in costumes enables the transformation into an otherworldly character. Along with the adoption of the fantastical, a space is created in which expressions of gendered identities are opened to freer possibilities. Most importantly, the convention serves as a threshold to a world of fantasy, a place in which the imaginary and the real are constantly renegotiated. Read the rest of this entry »


On Cosplay and Camaraderie

May 23, 2007

      Rather than spending a single day at the Anime Central Convention, I effectively spent the entire weekend there with my roommate, who has been to the past four conventions.  Because my roommate and her sisters enjoy many of the different panels and events during the convention, they always book a hotel room so that they can enjoy the convention in leisure.  At first I thought this was a bit extreme and only people from out-of-town would do so, but when I arrived, I found out I was wrong.
I took public transportation to the convention Friday afternoon, May 11th.  Nothing was out of the ordinary in the beginning, but I found that with each stop of the Blue Line, rather than emptying out as tremendously as I thought it would, the train cars stayed at about the same capacity, and many passengers were around my own age, most of them wearing or carrying something that I recognized as something to do with either anime, video games, or both.  I got off at the Rosemont stop, and found many of the passengers getting off as well, all of them walking in the direction of the main road leading towards the Hyatt.  As I walked along the road, I kept to myself, concentrating only on getting to the hotel to meet up with my roommate so that I could leave my things in the hotel room.  However, I was soon distracted by the people walking past me in the street—some going to other hotels, others just out for a walk in the sunshine.  It wasn’t that I was surprised to see so many people—after all, it was a convention.  Rather, more than half of them were in costume.  Having watched some of the popular anime in the past few years, I recognized some of the costumes, but others were elaborate affairs that I knew nothing about.  Some were extremely detailed and obviously handmade, while others were obviously factory-made for mass consumption.  Most of the characters I recognized were of the latter quality, which made sense.  After all, I watched only the more popular anime series—they were the mass-marketed shows, and so costumes made by Japanese companies and American licensers are marketed for fans more, too.

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