Cartoon Swoon

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

"What if you're sharing a hotel room with someone you're supposed to kill?" one guy asked. "Can we do it while he's asleep?" The organizer, a long-haired IT-looking guy, banned such easy terminations. "And no running in the hallways, knocking down people," he continued. "What you do outside the hotel, of course, is up to you."

If the convention seems a bit, well, nerdy, most anime fans are quick to acknowledge that reputation and even have some fun with the cliché. David Chau (a.k.a. Chino-San), a short, perky Asian with spiky black hair, led a well-attended panel called "Chino Eye for the Otaku Guy," which was intended to help the guys "overcome the evils and perils of those scary cute little chibis we know as girls."

After making over one boy's wardrobe, he set a girl to work plucking the ample eyebrows of another. He asked another girl to the stage as a volunteer. "This is how a typical fan would introduce himself to a girl at a con," Chau said. He slouched, licked his lips, and kept his head bent a few inches from her chest. "Try to keep your eyes on her face and not her tits!" he shouted. As for those awkward first moments, he offered this advice: "Women don't like to hear how ugly you are."

Colby Katz


Back at FIU, interest had waned in the night's screening. Aside from the projector, the only light in the room came from a laptop computer. A small group had huddled around to check out the amateur work of a member, clearly a computer-animation wizard. The laptop screen glowed with a homemade, computer-generated fight scene between Batman and the Predator. It was genuinely as good as anything Hollywood might produce, and had been made by a novice. These otaku are not the losers others might imagine. They're computer animators, electrical engineering majors, and most of them are honor students. It's true they don't fit in, but it's also true that most geniuses in other fields don't either.

Deanna Echanique, a twenty-year-old psychology major, is the president-elect of FIU's anime club. As she took a break outside the dark auditorium, the sorority girls running around on the scavenger hunt stopped abruptly in their tracks, gawking in bewilderment at Echanique and her furry tail.

"I get that a lot," she sighed. "I'm used to it. People stop and stare at me all the time. They just can't seem to understand why I'm wearing a tail. They think I'm a freak, but I say live and let live. I mean, isn't it just as freakish to wear Greek letters and be called by silly names? They do it for acceptance, just like me."

Echanique has always felt different from her classmates, going back nearly six years to her days at the school district's exclusive School for Advanced Studies, where she was introduced to anime. Between classes, she would draw her own interpretations of anime characters, becoming an expert in the field. At her job with the Dolphin Mall's Hot Topic, which sells a variety of anime products, the president of the company regularly consults her on trends in the genre. Her Website, RedHalos.com, is filled with artwork, bulletin boards, and her own anime story lines. One day, she hopes to work in the anime industry. "It's starting to enter its peak," Echanique said. "The merchandise is entering the mainstream, and that means a lot of the more difficult items to find are popping up everywhere now, and they're cheaper. That's always good."

To understand the mesmerizing grip anime has on its devotees, it's helpful to understand the history. Before World War II, Americans were introduced to animation via movie-theater cartoon shorts that were basically brief, slapdash comedies. As television developed in the Fifties, cartoons were relegated to the kiddie land of Saturday morning.

Animation's route was decidedly different in Japan. Although animation languished for about ten years after the end of the war, comic books, unlike in the U.S., developed into the graphic-novel form manga. Most anime series and movies begin as manga and, if successful, are adapted to animation. Osamu Tezuka, now considered the godfather of Japanimation, was the nation's most popular comic-book artist in the Fifties. After one of his books was successfully adapted into a feature-length animated film, he established Japan's first TV animation studio. His debut series, Tetsuwan Atomu, was a big hit, and by the early Sixties it was introduced to Americans as the now venerable Astro Boy, a 21st-century child robot fashioned after a scientist's dead son.

By the time Astro Boy had joined the lineup of Saturday-morning cartoons in America, Tezuka and his imitators had pushed the conventions of animation, establishing it as the primary storytelling vehicle for any age group and any genre: drama, sci-fi, Western classics, sports stories, and mysteries.

In the Seventies, American cartoon shows began broadcasting edited anime involving flying robots and space battles, sparking a nascent cult following. "In the Eighties, when VCRs came and you could get tapes, that's when it really started growing," recounted Patrick Drazen, author of Anime Explosion! The What? Why? Wow! of Japanese Animation. Those tapes, bootlegs traded among collectors or those found in specialty stores, meant fans were no longer limited by broadcast television's conception of who was interested in animation. The children of that era are now the teens and young adults of today, many of whom absorbed the style of anime and find it easy to embrace the form -- in the same way older Americans accept Hollywood's orthodoxy.

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