Cartoon Swoon

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

"After a while, you get to understand what it is that draws the West to this," Drazen explained. "It's fresh, intellectually challenging, emotionally compelling, a breath of fresh air in every sense of the word."

Storylines can involve controversial subjects such as suicide and homosexuality, and dabble in motifs, such as crucifixion, that just wouldn't get on prime-time TV, much less cartoon shows.

"For so long now, Disney has had a lock on the definition of what animation is supposed to do," Drazen continued. "The Japanese transcended that. They're able to paint with a color that we deny ourselves."

Colby Katz
Colby Katz

In contrast to most American cartoons, anime and manga seek to have audiences identify emotionally with their characters. "They are not just cute critters," Drazen noted. "They are not something to keep your eyes busy for twenty minutes, sell you a product, and then have a little moral at the end. These things deliberately punch the emotional buttons because that's how the fans get into them and keep coming back."

By way of example, Drazen pointed to a recent episode of Full Metal Alchemist, in which a scientist's continued high status depended upon his ability to create a talking animal. He couldn't do it, so he fudged and sort of melded his daughter and pet dog. "What he created was an atrocity, and it had to be put out of its misery," Drazen said. "It was the most heartbreaking thing. I watched it with my eleven-year-old niece and we were both near tears."

Shortly after New Year's Day, the diehard members of another South Florida anime club, Ronin Anime, strolled through the Zen-drenched footpaths of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach. The entrance is guarded by a granite replica of the Chie no Wa Wisdom Ring, which is fashioned after the original that sits near a Buddhist temple in Japan. From that point, a pathway of bamboo thickets, rock gardens, gentle brooks, and bonsai plants evokes the Japanese settings often seen in anime. It's the perfect setting for a group of devout otaku.

In fact, the gardens have signs that, in the past, other anime fans had soaked up the Japanese ambiance. In a bamboo grove, carved on the thick stalks, was this simple statement of devotion: "I love Manga." The Morikami is a virtual clubhouse for anime fans, who idolize Japanese culture.

When they reached the Contemplation Pavilion, a small wooden gazebo, they settled in for some chatter. Soon they were joined by Rob, a member of Orange Anime, a statewide club whose members interact mainly online. A handsome young man with short dark hair, Rob declined to give his last name, preferring instead to use his Internet name, Hylian Blood. In his online profile, the 22-year-old Lighthouse Point resident describes himself as a cosplayaholic and professional dork. To the average passerby, he would probably match his self-description: He wore a green elf hat, a two-foot plastic Japanese sword, and a T-shirt bearing an elfin image and the logo "Legend at Work." Around his neck hung a collection of convention passes and Orange Anime ID badges, the crowning touch of the outfit. "It's just enough so the anime people who come here will be able to pick me out," he said.

Later, while seated for lunch at the museum's outdoor café, the conversation inevitably turned to anime, this time to the subject of dubbing versus subtitles.

"If I want to read, I'll look at a magazine," declared Erik Burk, a skinny 22-year-old with spiky black hair, wraparound sunglasses, and a broad smile.

"It's a lame argument," Rob interjected with a tone that suggested this topic was often debated.

"Look, TV was invented so you can look," Burk countered. "I just want to relax and watch."

"Most of us like subtitles because more of the translation gets through," added Aimee Huffman, though there's hardly agreement on that issue, owing to imperfect translations.

"Sure, a lot of the dialogue is messed up," Rob said, arguing against literal translations. "But what's the difference between someone saying, öThis is not an impure act' or if they say, öI'm not going to get into trouble'? The idea is the same."

But Huffman maintained that shades of meaning reflecting the country's history and religious fables are lost during such translations. "You have a lot of people who don't understand that much about Japanese culture," she countered.

A case in point is a word everyone knows, sayonara. At the conclusion of one particular anime episode, a character says sayonara, which in this case carries with it the implication of leaving forever, as if he's going to his death. That can't simply be translated into goodbye, or the meaning of the scene would be corrupted.

Club members eventually reached an accord on those issues, and a short while after lunch, they confronted a study in life imitates art as they approached a foot bridge over a meandering stream. Standing guard at the bridge was a man dressed as a samurai warrior, fully decked out in battle armor. Part of the museum's New Year's celebration, the grim-faced samurai stood at attention, his arm extended and holding a steel-tipped lance. The anime lovers recognized one of their own, a fellow devotee of Japanese culture, as they rushed to his side and peppered him with questions about his armor and gear. Thrusting their cameras at people passing by, they mugged animatedly in the samurai's shadow, recording their moment in the spotlight for posterity. To anime lovers, life is one big cartoon.

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