Cartoon Swoon

For young devotees of Japanese anime, simply watching isn't enough -- they want to become the characters

On a Thursday night in the exact middle of nowhere -- the Graham student center at Florida International University's West Miami-Dade campus -- a group of b-boys practiced spinning on their heads to the sound of beats and breaks from an old boom box. A herd of posh sorority girls ran past, laughing and heedless, in the midst of a drunken scavenger hunt. Amid the clamor and debauchery, another more unusual group of 30 or so students, self-proclaimed geeks, gathered inside the auditorium for the weekly gathering of the Anything Goes Anime Club.

They were unfazed by the revelry just outside the doors. As they sat scattered across the room, it was hard not to notice some of the more hardcore fans of the Japanese animation form known as anime indulging in cosplay -- wearing costumes made to resemble their favorite characters. Tonight it's a mixture of cat ears and furry tails. Sorcerer Hunters, a subtitled version of a Japanese cartoon most of the members had already seen, flickered on the auditorium's projection screen. Everyone took turns making dismissive remarks about the film, their cultivated standards being very high.

"It's an escape," said 22-year-old Tom Morris. "I enjoy being a part of anime culture. It gives me perspective. I like the socialization and being able to watch and converse about it with like-minded people. I've always stood out, but here I'm just like everyone else."

Colby Katz
Colby Katz

The Japanese long ago coined a name for such fanatics: otaku. Although used disdainfully, the description has been embraced by American "animaniacs." Anime (pronounced ah-nee-may) is highly stylized, with much more emphasis on detail and painterly composition than the more fluid and slick Disney animation. For instance, a robot might have the shading and detail of a Renaissance portrait -- and appear to be posing as a still-life model. Characters are generally part of the environment around them; they're not just figures moving across a nebulous background, as in many American cartoons.

But what really grabs fans are the characters' extreme emotions, which are often heightened by the genre's most notable hallmark: the characters' oversize eyes and mouths, which help exaggerate their facial expressions. Anime artists have also created an array of facial symbols for expressing strong feeling. For example, a teenage boy swooning over a pretty girl might be depicted with a surreal clown face and huge lips. Anger is often telegraphed with crosshairs replacing the eyes.

Above all, anime is unpredictable, even bizarre. Take, for example, the unlikely titled TV series Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo. The hero fights a ruthless emperor who sends out his Hair Hunters to shave the entire human race. Sporting a golden Afro, Bobo possesses special powers to hear what hair has to say, and he engages in battle using nose hairs that snake out of his nostrils. During less violent moments, he fashions a nose-hair clothesline to dry his outfits. This makes SpongeBob SquarePants look like a Wall Street broker.

Part of anime's allure is that it remains somewhat underground; much of the stuff is subtitled by hardcore fans immediately after its release in Japan and then offered to aficionados via Internet downloads. American media have largely relegated it to the "kids-only ghetto," as one critic put it. Others associate it with anime's X-rated genre, called hentai.

Even in America, there are signs that the perception is changing. In 2003, the anime film Spirited Away won an Academy Award for best animated feature. Kill Bill, Volume 1 featured a lengthy anime segment. Disney recently released on DVD Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, one of the most influential anime films ever made. Such high-profile releases help spread the word that anime isn't just for kids, and the gripping storytelling is equal to The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings.

This past December, hundreds of fans converged on OtakuCon at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach, an orgy of computer games, anime screenings, celebrity appearances, and of course cosplay. If anime lovers are marginalized or teased elsewhere, this three-day convention was all about intense camaraderie. When old friends ran into each other -- usually, they had met at previous conventions -- they often glomped, a kind of tackling hug. Most devotees wore costumes, some simple, some elaborate. Several dragged life-size crucifixes around while imitating a character from a television series called Trigun. Others hoisted six-foot cardboard swords over their shoulders. Some costumes were slapdash, such as cardboard boxes thrown together for a robot. Others had been carefully handcrafted for months. As one fan said, "Here, if you're not wearing a costume, you're looked at as weird."

At the beginning of the convention, about 40 attendees, mostly young men and boys, gathered to begin a game of "Assassin." Many were clad in ninja outfits; others looked vaguely like characters from The Matrix. A restless anticipation permeated the room, not unlike a football locker room. The contest's goal was simple: As the convention proceeded, the idea was to eliminate other players by sneaking up on them and swiping the victim with a small plastic dagger. The last man standing would win. Beforehand, everyone posed for digital photos, from which the game's organizer quickly printed out "hit" portfolios. Each player was given one, then sought out his victim among hundreds of conventioneers. After each successful kill, he'd receive a new target.

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