Anime subculture takes over Baltimore
Spiderman strolls leisurely through a crowded room, narrowly avoiding a nasty collision with Draco Malfoy, who is clutching a tiny stuffed animal and gesturing wildly to his friends. Captain Jack Sparrow swaggers past a Pikachu and, posing for photographers in the middle of the floor, is an impressively accurate depiction of a totoro, straight out of "My Neighbor Totoro."
Inside the giant stuffed totoro is Lauren Sumida, a Blair junior, and by her side stands none other than junior Liz Shapiro, who is dressed as a character from the manga "D. Gray-man," named Allen Walker.
No one seems disturbed or even mildly surprised by these strange get-ups. After all, today is the first day of Otakon, a huge, three-day convention ("con"), where fans of Japanese anime and its manga equivalent (graphic novels) take over Baltimore's Inner Harbor to dress up like their favorite characters, party and celebrate all things Japanese.
Sumida and Shapiro have attended Otakon annually for several years, along with thousands of other anime, manga, and videogame fanatics. This year the con attracted 22,302 attendees, a number which has increased steadily since Otakon's establishment; which now boasts one of the largest cons in the United States, according to otakon.com.
The popularity of cons such as Otakon and Anime Expo, Otakon's West Coast equivalent, is indicative of the growing impact of anime on American culture. The widespread Pokemon craze in 1998 was hardly the beginning of anime's infiltration of American culture. "My Neighbor Totoro" was released in 1988; "Sailor Moon" in 1992 and other animes like "Cowboy Bebop" and Naruto are shown on Cartoon Network.
A costly addiction
Fans spend hundreds of dollars and tens of hours crafting elaborate costumes to parade around at these cons. Sumida spent 80 hours crafting her totoro, staying up until 4 a.m. the night before Otakon in order to finish, and spending more than $50 on fabric and supplies. The admission price alone shows true dedication; an Otakon membership costs $50, not including other expenses, according to Brooke Kao, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School.
Kao has been a fan of anime her entire life and views the cost and work that goes into cons as part of begin an anime aficionado. "Don't knock it 'till you try it people, it may seem nerdy, and it may be expensive, but honestly, it's the same with all other hobbies. Jocks have their muscles and stupidity. Fashionistas have their expensive purses and vanity. And anime fans have their cons."
Despite Kao's reassurances, Shapiro admits that anime can become costly. "An anime addiction is an extremely expensive one, as most anime DVDs are like $20 for three or four episodes," she says. "That's where the otaku inside joke, 'Anime: Crack is cheaper,' comes from."
The appeal of anime
For many fans, anime is a preferable alternative to the worn out live action clichés found in too many of Hollywood's creations, according to Sumida. As Tina Zhang, a junior and con veteran put it, "Watching guys shoot at each other is not exactly the most exhilarating thing to watch. And what's nice about anime is that you can make the characters do inhuman stunts that would look really unnatural in live action films."
Zhang is attracted to the aesthetic beauty of anime and manga. She watched a couple episodes of Sailor Moon and DragonballZ in second grade and was hooked. Shapiro adds, "I, personally, just love how [anime] can go from silly to thought provoking to dramatic back to funny in a few minutes. American TV doesn't do that for me."
Japanese Club Sponsor Kenneth Seat lived in Japan for 20 years and believes that anime is a cultural phenomenon. "It's sort of the same as comic books for adults… In Japan you see these businessmen in suits riding the train to work, but they're sitting there reading comic books… In America the appeal is more: it's cool, it's from Japan," says Seat.
The anime stereotype
Anime, like many obsessions, comes with a stereotype. Junior Steven Sugar, a former anime fan who now draws his own cartoons, defines the typical anime geek as a nerd. "Anime fans are often stereotyped as nerdy kids, often diehard gamers, with too much free time and their hands," Sugar says. Shapiro finds these stereotypes annoying. "Anime fans are usually stereotyped as dorks and nerds with nothing better to do than sit in the dark and watch pervy cartoons," she says.
Seat agrees that there is often a stereotype associated anime, and expresses concern that fans can let it control their lives. "Some people get too wrapped up in [anime], and it starts to shape their world-view," says Seat. Shapiro, however, thinks that the benefits of the genre outweigh the negatives and points out that anime takes up only as much time as one allows it to.
Enough people gather at the Convention Center annually that it is clear that not everyone fits the stereotype. The only thing the attendees have in common is a love of anime. As Zhang describes, "Cons are basically just places where people who really like anime and manga can get together and just enjoy being with people who don't think you're weird for being obsessed with cartoons from another country."
Shapiro smiles, "I think many people would really be surprised at the number of anime fans, and [at] how many different kinds of people are into it. It's such a large genre that everyone, if willing to throw out their preconceived notions and give it a chance, can find something they like in anime."
Courtney Burtraw. Courtney Burtraw is an incoming junior who is excited to be joining the Silver Chips Online staff. Outside of school, she enjoys playing soccer, reading, watching movies, hanging out with friends, and sometimes running track and cross-country. She is in love with Johnny Depp, but … More »