Sunday, May 25, 2008

Andrew's Anime Antics

I spent the weekend at Anime North, a massive anime extravaganza in Toronto. It took place at a sprawling convention center and two big hotels down the street from Toronto's Pearson International Airport. For the uninitiated, anime is Japanese animation. It is often characterized by complex story lines, violence, dark themes, and a distinctive style of art work -- the big eyes, almost nonexistent noses, tiny slits for mouths. It's not just for grownups. There is also anime directed toward kids, like Sailor Moon, Hamtaro, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc. To complicate matters, there is also manga, which is essentially the cartoon book form of anime. Manga -- which actually dates back to the eighteenth century in Japan -- is hugely popular across North America. By the end of 2007, there were 15 manga publishers in the United States printing between 1300 and 1400 titles.

North drew thousands of participants, most of them dressed in mind-boggling costumes. There were teenagers (some male, some female) in Japanese girl school outfits. There were people carrying giant hammers and swords and ornate scythes. Many wore colorful wigs -- red, baby blue, pink, green, purple -- styled in post-apocalyptic spikes. Some wore masks or other coverings over their faces. Among the costumed were Witches and Soul Reapers and dimension-hopping Warriors and Black Magicians and Medieval Priestesses and Cyber Criminals and Dark Conspirators and Ancient Knights and Fox Demons and Lecherous Monks. I saw young women with painted faces wearing eighteenth-century Japanese silk gowns. There were people dressed like Pokemon monsters (my own daughter dressed as a Pokemon called Mudkip). Large crowds of adolescents wore the elaborate, multicolored school uniforms found in the Japanese manga Host Club. When these giddy young men and women spotted their favorite anime characters, they clapped like kids on Christmas morning, whipped out their digital cameras and pleaded with them to pose for photos.

Inside the hotels, convention-goers attended anime and manga panels, sessions on how-to-draw anime characters, video gaming exhibits and autograph signings. In a vast convention hall, there were hundreds of vendor booths selling toys and dolls and manga and anime DVDs and swords and padded nunchaku (numchucks).

I must admit, when I first arrived at this anime extravaganza, I kept thinking of my dear, departed grandfather, Grandpa Ralph, a combat veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II and saw the very worst of the war against the Japanese. Grandpa Ralph passed away last year. He detested all things Japanese until the later years of his life. He even gave me grief when I bought a Mazda in the mid-1990s. I heard him call the Japanese "Japs" on more than one occasion. And I couldn't help but wonder: What would Grandpa Ralph make of this highly successful Japanese invasion of North America?

Also, I rolled my eyes at some of the uber-geekery I witnessed ("Oh, I've been hunting high and low for the volume when Yusuke defeats the Four Saint Beasts at Maze Castle!" one enthusiastic buyer cried at a manga table, as if she'd just discovered gold at Sutter's Mill.) Some of the nerdiness reminded me of those Star Trek conventions, where dorks would debate which was a better episode, Amok Time or The Trouble with Tribbles.

Yet, having said that, I must admit I found myself deeply moved by this subculture of kindred spirits, all gathered together in one place for the same purpose. The whole time I walked among those thousands of anime/manga fanatics, I never sensed any competitiveness or mean-spiritedness. The young men and women packed into the convention hall were amazingly affectionate with one another. The hugging started Friday night and happened over and over again until Sunday afternoon. Young people who didn't even know each other hugged like they were lifelong friends. At one point, a long line of anime fans stood with signs advertising "FREE HUGS." And they hugged and hugged and hugged. Nero fiddled, but these people hugged. What I witnessed was a vibrant subculture, accepting -- no, actually, welcoming -- of nonconformity and unconventionality. These people were non-judgmental. They were kind -- I mean genuinely kind, not a phony or insincere kind. As far as I could see, they weren't forming cliques or spreading hateful rumors about one another, like so many young people did back in the 1980s when I trudged through that lowest level of hell known as junior high.

When I left Anime North and headed home, I felt an affinity with this young generation. These were gentle souls. Despite their outwardly odd appearance, these were some of the sanest people I have ever seen. They offered a haven for gays, lesbians, artists, poets, sensitive teens, depressed outcasts, creative dynamos and angst-filled youths. The laughter, the hugs, the snapping photos all added up to a joyous celebration of youth. I wish I could say I'm a convert and I'm now a big anime/manga fan, but I can't because -- quite frankly -- that stuff is way over my head. But I'm proud to have been a part of such a life-affirming and vibrant subculture, if only for one weekend.

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