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."

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.

"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."


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.

"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."

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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