One of the ways I still maintain my connection to Japan and its culture is by watching its movies and anime. I still collect anime and related merchandise. I have many framed posters hanging in my bedroom and living room of "cute girls" displaying ample cleavage. Despite being married for over three years, my wife Hitomi hasn't complained yet.
I know people when they see those posters and see my vast anime video collection probably wonder exactly how or why somebody of my age would regularly watch cartoon. And when they notice the cleavage, they probably they wonder just how much of a pervert I really am, given the reputation for Japanese anime and culture to highly sexualize young girls. No doubt anime fans have an equally poor reputation, which in part has resulted from misunderstanding, and so I believe it's worth explaining exactly why somebody like me (who's outwardly quite normal) watches anime.
It's interesting for me share just how my interest in anime has shaped my life. It's a long story, but I hope it will make some sense to you.
An Otaku Is Born
What is an otaku? In the US, the word is used to refer to somebody who is a casual anime fans. (Whereas in Japan otaku labels somebody as a socially insular and inept geek, and with a peculiar hobby which may or may not be anime related. And I should know better, as somebody who's lived in Japan and speaks Japanese, than to label myself as an otaku, especially with its highly negative connotations, but I'm choosing the word that sound right in English.) Some anime fans ("American Otaku") date in the US not more than twenty years ago. A lot of them originated as sci-fi convention ("Star Trek") geeks who passed around anime videos when the VCR came into widespread use in the early 1980s.
Overall, there hasn't been a lot of mainstream awareness of anime in the US until just five or ten years ago. I am somebody who dates from just before the (first?) big anime wave hit in 1993.
The large number of anime fans of what I'd like to call of the Sailor Moon TV generation, date from around 1995. (Some people refer to them as Generation Y.) Despite waking up on Saturdays and catching Star Blazers (circa 1978) on TV at 6:30AM, I'm really more of that later generation: I really only started watching anime when I started seeing Sailor Moon on TV in high school. I even taped it regularly, signed up some of the earliest Internet mailing lists, spent some time looking at early web fan efforts to document the Sailor Moon phenomenon. I had been watching Ranma 1/2 and several other n-th generation fansubs at that time, but I think it took the regular exposure from the cheesy Sailor Moon TV version to hook me on anime.
My best friend of the time, Jeremy Blackman, held weekly screenings of anime of that generation, in my Garfield High School chemistry laboratory. He brought to school tapes of Pioneer's Ah! My Goddess and a few other recent releases. We watched with a few other like-minded otaku at the showings, including even a few girls. (At Garfield, most people ate lunch in the classrooms, hallways, or outside when sunny. The lunchroom was dominated by black kids, at this impoverished inner-city school, and for whatever reason, white kids never usually never went there to eat.) I knew that anime must only be for geeks, because that were the only people who seemed to be watching it.
When I went to the University of Washington, I regularly attended another anime screening club (Anime Discovery Project, or ADP) who introduced me to the larger world of anime, made up of many shows that were never imported to the US. More importantly, they introduced two of my favorite anime shows (at that time) Maison Ikkoku and Kimagure Orange Road which, for TV shows, probably were the most influential TV shows on my life. It is hard for me to articulate why. I think I learned exactly what it was to love a woman, specifically, what that kind of love meant versus sexuality. Anime also showed me how to conduct oneself with courage and self-respect.
It sounds dumb: But how does a teenager suddenly learn to love somebody outside of their family? It was hard for me to conceive that somebody (outside of my family) would love me. Since all the many years of being persecuted by girls and boys in Middle School and High School, I was extremely skeptical that was somebody who would love me back. I admit that much of my fear and insecurity probably didn't originate from classmates. I know a lot of fear came from my mother and father's failed relationship, the trauma surrounding a divorce, and my lack of courage in general. No doubt hiding away in front of the computer dampened by social development as well. (This discussion is no longer anime related, but you get the point.)
How come contemporary, live-action movies (or books) of my own culture did not resonate with me? Everybody will readily admit that teen movies are notoriously corny, emotionally shallow. Most adult fare has characters that are hard for a teenager to identify with, and situations which are unfamiliar. I hope that there are at least some American romance stories which resonate with teenage girls. But, where are the teen romance stories for males? There aren't any: That is why anime has a special place in my heart. It's geared for a market that serves (did serve) me in my teen and early college years. Even now I still have a lot of empathy for anime and manga characters, even though they are merely drawings, of people ten years younger.
I followed quite a number of shows at that time. I obtained many fan-subbed shows from some of the "girly" "shojo" fansubbers, like Tomodachi Anime. Even though I ended up with all of Marmalade Boy on tape (all 76 half-hour episodes), I didn't watch all of it, since nobody I knew could stand to watch it with me. (Except possibly my younger sister.)
I admit to being a big fan of melodrama, but it needs to be sincere melodrama: The most effective ways to appear sincere is appear young, naive, and inexperienced which is why I believe the teen melodrama is the best of the romance genre. Anime doesn't deal with adults because teenagers not only can't identify with adult relationships, but also because it is difficult for adult love to appear sincere. Remember that one of the greatest romances of all time, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, starred teenage lovers. Take their relationship (and its assorted conflict), add a few characters, minus a portion of the inevitable tragedy, and you will end up with a typical Japanese anime melodrama.
Around the time I started watching Marmalade Boy, my mother probably wondered if I would turn out gay. I didn't understand the "gay" biological and psychological mechanism, but I doubted homosexuality could be induced by watching cartoons.
My obsession at that time was somewhat scary, in retrospect. Daily, I was spending hours pouring over Usenet and reading e-mail from the Sailor Moon mailing list. My anime hobby in some respects resembled my older addiction of hiding away in the basement and playing and programming games on my games, but I stayed more balanced. Luckily, my hobby didn't overwhelm my life, and I began to pursue outdoor activities and balanced social activity. With my raging hormonal flow, anime probably had a profound effect on my sexuality (or reinforced my existing proclivity toward cute, intellectual, quiet but strongly independent females) and likely influenced me in choosing somebody like Hitomi.
This is my convention history.
I attended Anime Expo in 1996. By then, anime was being distributed by ADV, CPM, Viz, and Animeigo, and shelves full of titles were available at my local Hollywood Video store, as well as local comic stores. My first year I attended the expo with my friend Jeremy Blackman and Michael Johnson, both who were involved in running something resembling nausicaa.net. I spent about of my paycheck from Starwave on posters and CDs. (Others there no doubt spent much more, many even all the money they had.) I had a good time despite being shy even around other fans, and spending a good part of the convention alone. Despite being somewhat lonely, I enjoyed the convention because I was in the vicinity of so many fans. Nobody (in my family) seemed to understand what a wonderful thing anime was. It was amazing how I could be surrounded by thousands of like-minded fans, of some pursuit which was truly inscrutable to everybody else.
For the 1997 Anime Expo, I attempted to manufacture fan art using my stepfather's sheet metal cutting machine, from designs anime fans contributed. The fan art was to be sold at the art show. The project was nick-named Animetal, though in retrospect it probably wasn't a good choice. The word "Animetal" goes to a well-known band in Japan that plays "heavy metal" remixes of anime themes. Anyway, I was actually very proud of my artistic effort, since I actually sold some pieces for more than what most "real" fan artists were selling their original works for. My goal was to create original designs, so I couldn't be accused of plagiarizing any Japanese artists. I came to realize, though, that most people don't want to buy original art work, and were only coming to the art show to buy and own their favorite character.
My 1997 Anime Expo convention report is still available online, thanks to Google News.
At the end of 1997, I went to Japan. I attempted to start my own anime club in 1998. We had just two showings, but I was happy to at least have had those two showings. I also spent a lot of time perusing local merchandise, but didn't have much money for collecting goods, apart from a few CDs and posters. My biggest fan-related event of 1998 was attending Comike at Tokyo Big Sight, which is covered in my Japan travel diary.
In 1999, I didn't have money to spare for travel to Anime Expo, and besides that, Hitomi was with me and I had all the Japanese girl I could want. Instead, Hitomi and I rented anime and watched it in my parent's living room. She was no doubt a distraction when I was trying to finish my last quarter of school. In some respects, it was like a typical anime comedy: A girl from another planet (country) comes to sleep in the same bed as the male protagonist. An otaku wet dream?
Hitomi was interested in going to Anime Expo in 2000, and despite our accumulated debt from buying home furnishings and whatnot for our new apartment, we bought two tickets to LA and got our own hotel room at the Disney Hotel. I was really quite proud to be bringing my (100% racially pure!) Japanese wife to a convention. I know there are many fans who, despite being interested in girls, are too scared to get a girlfriend, and of those that are courageous, no doubt would want one that might accept their fringe hobby. More than a few would like an Asian; it's easy to infer from what we see from the porn industry that there are those men who prefer Asian (or specifically Japanese). And so, at no other venue than an anime convention, would you find a sizable number of people seriously interested in Hitomi as a girlfriend. No, I don't think she is somebody that an ordinary man would necessarily overlook, but it is as if she were sushi, whereas most men (in the US) are after steak.
That year, I planned to do Animetal art again. We prepared metal art, with her doing the designs. That time we brought with us what I thought were the popular characters. I believe we sold around worth of art, and even had one or two pieces go to the art auction.
After that convention, Hitomi had a ticket to return home to Sendai, and left early from the convention in LA. Since I didn't have any money to buy anything that year, I asked her to buy some anime things on the way back. She brought back some posters, and her Japanese cat, that somewhat resembles the cat "Jingoro" from the anime Kimagure Orange Road.
The Seattle area finally got a fairly sizable anime convention by 2001, called Sakura-Con. Hitomi and I tried to attend the convention in 2000, but it was sold out: I had no idea such a convention could yet be so popular. We were fairly impressed by the large number of fans from our own backyard. (And their attendance growth rate appears to be around 50% per year, which is phenomenal.) One of the memorable moments that convention was being with Hitomi and (for the first time) several Japanese guests: I had the thought we might someday volunteer as Japanese guest support one year. (More on this later.)
I recall meeting some of the organizers of "Baka-Con" (the original name of "Sakura Con"). I was (for some reason) invited to a University District apartment building the summer of '96 or maybe '97, to discuss convention logistics and finances. I was a little surprised when I heard upon returning from Japan in '98 that in fact a small convention had taken place that year. The biggest problems facing first-year conventions seems to be debt related: There usually is a large amount of money being exchanged, and with that a large number of contracts to sign by organizers. Once the first years pass, there is a high likelihood of continued success. There haven't been any long-running anime conventions that have closed.
We returned to Anime Expo July 2001. This was around the time that anime DVDs started being released and after when Cartoon Network started showing Tenchi on TV. I noticed more and more "kids" showing up, and a large number of Tenchi Muyo! cos-players. Anime Expo grew yet another 25%, and finally was substantial enough to require nearly the entire Long Beach Convention Center, and a good part of three hotels.
The Vancouver, BC. convention Akakon (aka "Aka-con") was in its second year, in November 2001. Hitomi convinced me we should attended, even though it was going to be quite smaller than either Anime Expo or Sakura-Con, and they planned no Japanese guests. Indeed it was a very unique experience, especially witnessing a convention on the verge of organizational collapse: They lost records of Hitomi and I having paid. The director (president?) of the event was scouting the first morning of the convention for volunteers and confessed he hadn't yet slept for two days. Despite the chaos, and the shadow of September 11, the numerous events that were planned went fine. Hitomi and I got to talk to Scott Frazier face-to-face, as well as some other guests. The laid-back community feeling made it quite relaxing, despite the organization difficulties. (Akakon is no longer running, no doubt due to arguing about debts, funds, and staff interpersonal issues: The usual things that poison a convention.)
Sakura-con was held in a new and classier hotel by the Sea-Tac airport. It was a low-key event for us: Hitomi and I had plenty of sleep, ate well, took part in the art show, and attended all the events we were interested in. The convention was just as well organized as we were. The meet-the-guest reception was memorable, as this was the first year we presented a gift to one of the guests of honor, Nagahama Hiroshi. My wife also talked with one of her favorite illustrators, Shioyama Norio, whose work she based a dojinshi on in High School. We received ("won") a sketch from him. Despite his incredible amount of experience in the industry, he appeared somewhat lonely, probably because not many fans know his work.
We gave our metal cut out of the face of Jyuubei Nanohana, from the not-so-well-known Jyuubei-chan series, to Nagahama who in turn handed it over to the series director Daichi Akitaro. Hitomi noticed we were on his website a few days later as "John and Yohko" with a request to e-mail him: We have yet to do so.
This year, I attended Anime Expo yet again, this time promising I wouldn't wear myself out as much. Mike Bloch, a friend of mine, decided to move to LA with his old work buddies and my older sister Alsia had moved to be with her Mother Mary comrades, and my younger sister Ariel went to be with Alsia. I decided this year to meet all of them during the convention. Mike even came one day to the convention with me.
This year I attended Sakura-Con again, but this year Hitomi and I attended as staff.
Two unexpected guests from Japan attended, Susumu Sakurai and Yukio Kikukawa (both producers) and were attending Sakura-Con to promote Anime Expo Tokyo. When we arrived at the convention, Rik Wall (director of relations) assigned us to help escort them.
It was Hitomi and my first time as convention staff, and probably one of our most memorable. First of all, being guest relations staff confers special privileges such as attending any event with your guest at the front of the room. However, the expectation is that you are with your guest pretty much from when they leave their room in the morning to when they return at night. Given that some guests may hardly sleep at all, it can be difficult. You also are expected to do exactly what they want to do. Ideally, you are with somebody friendly, but still you act your most poliet.
As anime producers, both of them of course know practically everyone in the anime industry and of course knew how to talk. And belonging to the anime industry, have probably twice the energy as normal human beings. They had endless stories to share about everyone and I was completely worn out after the convention on Monday.
I didn't plan to attend Anime Expo. There were three reasons: Too big, too expensive. On size: Anime Expo has always been crowded, but I had gotten quite tired of the poor line control and communication. They always have lots of guests, but they're practically kept in glass cases. Expense: The dealer's room didn't sell anything you can't buy readily online, except possibly posters. It didn't make economic sense to buy two plane tickets, get a hotel room for the weekend just to be able to buy what was readily available online. Sakura-con just seemed like a lot nicer at the time.
As I said, the two producers were helping run Anime Expo Tokyo. And having met the two producers, gave Hitomi and I a chance to be staff in" for Anime Expo Tokyo. I wasn't especially confident that I would be that much use when it came to translation, but they needed staff to handle their English guests, and there were other translation opportunities. We pitched in to translate their con book, especially difficult I found was dealing with the plots of various upcoming shows which in anime are always convoluted.
Hitomi and I found that Anime Expo Tokyo wasn't very well received by the Japanese. It was more of a business convention rather than a weekend party that most Americans are familiar. Many of the guests simply took the train and gave panels for an hour, which was convenient for them but didn't promote a lot of industry/fan interaction. Also, the Japanese weren't familiar with the format, and I imagine were simply coming by to see one or two Japanese industry people or concerts and leaving.
For Hitomi and I, we spent a lot of time waiting in the staff room or Green Room, waiting to be called upon. We didn't get to see a lot of the convention, unsure of when we were actually needed to help.
They of course had some of the best anime music guests. I unfortunately missed out seeing all but 2-3 minutes of Under 17 concert. I do remember seeing MiQ, who was an amazing singer and performer but no longer a young, good looking one.
As it turned out, much of the convention was done to convince the WorldCon ("World Science Fiction Society") organization that there were volunteers and staff capable of running a science fiction convention in Japan. To this end, they were successful. Financially, though, they had expected to have more attendees to cover their costs.
Sakura-con, Kumori-con, Anime Evolution.
Sakura-con, Kumori-con, Anime Evolution (?).
Hitomi attended Otakon and Fanime by herself.
Sakura-con, Fanime, Anime Expo.
Planning to attend Otakon and maybe Kumori-con.
The average age of attendants at an anime convention still around 18-20, and Hitomi and I are becoming more and more of the age of parents, who aren't interested in attending, but are merely there to supervise their kids. And now people no longer stop to check our badges to see if we've been registered. I readily convinced a volunteer I came to the convention to chaperon my child.
I'm hopeful the Japanese will still be releasing high-quality shows when I'm 40. At which point, I'm sure there will a complete of convergence of American- and Japanese-style animation. Who knows what will happen to fandom at that point? I expect we will still have a reason to come together in one place and show our fan habits. Will more animation become targeted primarily toward an adult audience? I expect someday, some anime will be co-produced by Hollywood, and widely released like any other blockbuster. Hopefully, Miyazaki will still be around in twenty years and his films receive more notoriety.
There are numerous anime fans whose uncouth manner have caused the rest of us so-called normal people to cringe, to be less than proud of anime fandom. Many would like to place those fans who lack polite manner, social grace, common decency, and personal hygiene into a separate group. Many more would like these people to Get A Life.
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