Anime is a term that has become part of pop culture all around the world, but especially in the United States. Though the word is typically tied to Japanese animation, enthusiasm from a furtive fan base has catapulted anime into the mainstream. Part of the upward trajectory of anime’s popularity can be attributed to a number of factors, but one powerful force blazed the trail: television programming on major networks pushed the phenomenon into the stratosphere when entertainment properties like Pokémon inspired the imaginations of kids and adults. What emerged as a video game concept turned out to be perfectly suited to animation adaptation, with a storyline that empowered kids as trainers. As anime is a Japanese contracted form of animation, Pokémon is the Japanese truncation of Pocket Monster. The notion of an action character that you tote with you and train like a pet followed on the heels of the popularity of that other Japanese phenomenon, Tamagotchi, the virtual pet, from Bandai (one of the prime producers and distributors of toys and anime). Tamagotchi is a portmanteau of two Japanese words (tamago and uocchi; egg and watch, respectively). Cute play on words and sounds is also clearly part of the charm and fascination with anime properties, many of which transition very well into merchandising across a major market of licensed goods. Merchandising and advertising dollars spent to promote these intellectual properties also assist in spreading the infectious nature of anime throughout our kid kulture.
Perpetuating the infectious nature of anime is the distinctive styling of characters and the provocative storylines that pervade the literature and media. The fantastically whimsical escapism that’s intertwined with a charming coming of age theme is at the center of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a tour de force in his oeuvre. Eccentricities abound in that film, yet it also touches the heart in a profound and innocent manner, exploring the concepts of honor, courage and loyalty. Meanwhile, Ghost in the Shell deals with a future where our brains are neurally networked to cyberspace. It’s a dystopian world that features themes about government protection at the expense of liberty, with edgy characters like Motoko Kusanagi, a bi-sexual female cyborg whose personality changes from one episode to the next because of the time span that’s covered in the storyline. The intellectual property lives as a manga publication, feature film, animated TV series, video games, and collectible toys. No matter the complexity or simplicity of anime properties, they all celebrate characters — and that’s perhaps the reason anime has broken the fourth wall and become an intrinsic part of many fans’ lives.
The excitement of anime is no better expressed than via the Anime Expo, which annually draws crowds in the tens of thousands to convention centers. In the early 1990’s, the conventions traveled from Northern California (San Jose and Oakland) to Southern California (Anaheim, Long Beach and Los Angeles). Along the way, these cons picked up fans who were more and more energized and enthused, excited to showcase their celebration of anime properties by emulating their favorite characters. The term used, Cosplay, is yet another Japanese shortening for the word kosupure or costume play. Many attendees of Anime Expo appear as Cosplayers, whereas in Japan, it’s not uncommon to see youth attired as their Cosplay creations inside shopping malls, outside fashion districts and all over Tokyo at parties and clubs.
Lolita fashion, a sort of lacy cute couture, compels girls to don Victorian, Rococo and Edwardian fantasy outfits and grace the famous Harajuku district of the Tokyo Prefecture. In the United States, the emulation is typically reserved for special occasions, such as the Anime Expo and other related industry conventions (Comic-Con, Comikaze Expo, DragonCon and WonderCon, to name a few). Dressing up as a way to pay tribute and have fun is the cornerstone of what Anime Expo is all about. The costumes are typically designed and created by the wearer (or by teams of people who share the common bond of being anime fans). Contests for cash and prizes are also part of the attraction — and over the years, the monetary incentive and the recognition by media has helped propel anime into the mainstream.
Witness the most recent incarnation on the SyFy Channel, Heroes of Cosplay, a reality show that follows the wannabes, leaders, movers and shakers of Cosplay. One of the most popular “heroes” of the show is Cosplayer Yaya Han, who’s gone from being a star competitor to the most intimidating and demanding judge, one that many contestants equally fear and fawn over, because of her own summits of success and demand for precision and perfection. People like Yaya have taken the fun and ran with it, making it all the more fun by being lucrative. For many Cosplayers, appearing in costume is an obsession and profession. Indeed, the stakes are now enormous, compared to the early days when kids would dress up with little more than Halloween calibre costumes and win candy, coupons and toys. Though the seriousness is evident in the show, Heroes of Cosplay, there’s also a wry grin behind all of it. The craft of creating patterns and castings and the workmanship and tooling that goes into some of these elaborate costumes is truly astounding — and once again sing praise to the fanatical devotion to anime and the compulsion to get the look nailed, right down to slipping in cosmetic colorized lenses to make the Cosplayers’ eyes more like the characters they’re portraying. The devil’s in the detail, as it were.
To find evidence of the conviction, passion and sincerity of Cosplaying, one need only stop any of the fans on their way in or out of AX (the further truncated and cool way to reference Anime Expo). Returning for her eighth Anime Expo was Tia Tanaka of South Orange County. She planned well in advance, getting her tickets on the heels of the previous year’s event and preparing her costume a month before, so she had time to further work with it and refine it. Durability and fashion have to work in harmony. Last minute workmanship can be embarrassing — and certainly won’t win any prizes with the persnickety judges. Tia made her own costume of Guqin Sona from League of Legends, one of the most popular anime properties from about four years ago. League of Legends is Riot Games’s multiplayer online battle arena video game that has grown enormously in popularity among teens. Tia was among her own kind when she attended the League of Legends gathering at AX. As she noted, “Everyone who Cosplayed from the game league came together. It was really intense fun because people with similar interests band together to converse about the characters. It’s all about the characters. Plus, during these gatherings and even walking around the AX show, a lot of times you make new friends.” Tia was also impressed with how professional the AX staff and hosts were: “They’re great people because they’re part of the fan base themselves; some of the staff even complimented my Cosplay costume.”
One of Tia’s friends gets commissioned by Cosplayers to make their outfits and accoutrement. Prices range from hundreds of dollars to thousands, based on the buyer’s budget, how difficult the execution is — and the type of materials that get utilized. Judges seem to go for those Cosplayers who do their own design and execution — or work with the costumer as part of a team approach. One of the most popular Cosplay costumes at the 2013 AX were those that emulated characters from Attack on Titan, a manga publication from 2009 that was recently adapted into an anime television series. A live action film is in development, indicating the property has not yet reached its peak, which is why so many came to 2013 AX dressed like a character from Attack on Titan. Tia mentioned, as she walked away in character, that the best costumes are always the ones that are handmade — the fabrics are better quality, the accessories are richer and more detailed. Elaborately crafted costumes rule the day, though some of the fellows who frequent AX think less is more. Certainly, the common sensibility is that off-the-rack stuff is for those kids who confuse the event as an extension of Beggars’ Night. No one’s winning a contest with anything store-bought. Not at AX.
Even though anime has gone from sub-culture to mainstream phenomenon, and despite the added lure of financial reward, underneath the movement is a simplicity that appears to be immutable: a community core that seeks to bond together for the fun of it. As Meg Amo, the Deputy Director of Marketing from the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, reminds us, “Without the vibrant fan community, Anime Expo would not be where it is today.” She is absolutely spot-on in that assessment. Anime Expo is operated as a non-profit. Growing from the early 1990’s, where a few thousand gathered in a hotel ballroom, to the most recent triumph of over 60,000 unique attendees (and over 160,000 turnstile visitors) at the Los Angeles Convention Center during the three-day period (July 4-July 7, 2013), Anime Expo has taken the mainstream by storm. Amo notes that the show “is a labor of love from 900+ volunteers. These passionate fans share their love of anime with their friends and family, and then they want to experience Anime Expo together. There, they meet new friends, possibly from out-of-state, who they can look forward to seeing again the following year.”
Contributing to the sense of community, the ease of access to the internet, availability of streaming anime videos, social media outlets, including FaceBook fan pages, flurries of tweets and the undisputed hook of having content and updates in one’s hand via smart phones, all serve to bring anime fans closer together, with heightened and faster information flow. As Amo commented on the rise of popularity of anime, “Ever since it first arrived in the U.S. in the form of Robotech, anime continued to capture people’s attention through other series such as the stylish Cowboy Bebop, the carefree Sailor Moon, and the action-packed Dragon Ball Z. Those fans have grown up and are using anime as an inspiration for their own creations (for example, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Pacific Rim). Perhaps this cycle of inspiration has made Japanese animation feel a little less foreign to the mass market.” She further points out that anime has really always had a dedicated fanbase. Through savvy marketing, new technologies, and accessibility of traditional media through new smart devices, the Anime Expo, like a Pichu evolving into a well-trained Pikachu, the popularity of anime will continue its ascent, as mainstream pop culture embraces it and makes it part of the Zeitgeist. As with many growing phenomena, the world seems to expand from people learning about our varying cultures; though they realize how little we all know about one another, movements like anime swell outward and embrace our disparity through community, revealing just how much in common we all share. It turns out, character does matter.
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