It's 85 degrees on a sunny Memorial Day weekend, and I'm in an elevator with Princess Zelda and a ninja whose kendo sword's hilt is bumping into my left nostril. We're at the Raleigh Convention Center for the 12th Animazement, a festival of Japanese animation, comics, video games and culture. I'm wearing a golf shirt and shorts, and in this tough crowd, I'm the one dressed weirdly.
As Raleigh tries to attract more and bigger shows to the convention center, Animazement represents something of a coup for the city. The show's taken over the whole center, and as of 2 p.m. Saturday, it's already matched the previous year's attendance of 5,300 people. These anime fans have paid up to $50 for a full weekend at the show. Many attendees have traveled from out of town to be here; almost all are clad in some sort of costume reflecting a character found in anime, or Japanese animation.
Occasionally, more Anglo-centric characters appear in the crowd, such as the group dressed as the title character from Where's Waldo? It's only appropriate here. The program includes guidelines for costumes, such as "no guns or live steel" and "you cannot connect yourself to another person." The escalators have been turned off for the weekend, to prevent problems with skirts, capes or what one attendee calls the "coattails of death."
A large number of the attendees are teenage girls in corsets, bustiers or very short skirts like those worn by the Japanese heroine Sailor Moon. Part of me wonders if there were girls like this back when I was in high school; the other part feels just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.
Animazement represents a comprehensive look at the culture of both anime and Japan. Downstairs, there's a library for Japanese comics or manga; upstairs, one can rock out to the Japanese band Uchuu Sentai NOIZ or play classic video games on everything from an arcade cabinet to an Atari 2600. This year, the convention, sponsored by a tax-exempt nonprofit called Educational Growth Across Oceans, has expanded to offer many educational panels on Japanese culture, from how to learn the language to instructions in karate and kendo to how to wear a kimono.
Films such as Akira and the works of Hayao Miyazaki helped build a fan base for anime in America in the 1990s, but the titles were not always as accessible as they are today. My friend Mike Moon, who's selling drawings from his site www.catgirlisland.net, recalls how difficult it was in the 1980s, when fans of more complex overseas shows such as Starblazers and Battle of the Planets had to pay $50 or $60 to order VHS tapes straight from Japan. Even in the early 1990s, anime fandom in the Triangle involved sitting in a small room with a bunch of N.C. State students to watch a low-quality VHS.
"It seemed like early on, it was just a bunch of guys watching giant robot series," Moon says. "Today, there's probably more female anime fans than men, and most of the fans are much younger."
Today, volumes of manga can be found in the backpacks of high-schoolers across the Triangle. Samantha Rowe, a junior at Wake Forest's Franklin Academy, says she regularly hangs out with 10-20 other anime fans at her school, and is having a great time at Animazement. Still, even fans aren't immune to confusion. "Most of the time," she admits, "I'm wandering around going, 'Who is that character?'"
She's not alone. Many anime fans take pride in calling themselves otaku, or obsessive fans. In a way, it's no different from sports fans who paint themselves team colors, or those who know the make and model of every firearm at a gun-and-knife show at the fairgrounds. But even for those who enjoy genre entertainment, the sheer density of anime fandom can be overwhelming. While I've lived my life as a hardcore fan of comic books, TV and SF/Fantasy, walking through this crowd at age 29 makes me feel like a 40-something at Woodstock. The youth of today have embraced the characters of anime to an extent unseen since, well, the original Star Trek.
And the costumes are certainly more elaborate than mere Vulcan ears and Starfleet insignias. "[A costume] can range from something you put together for $15 to $20 at a thrift store or thousands of dollars for a detailed, official piece," says Jeremy David Clos of Raleigh's The Tudor Shoppe, a costume shop that usually specializes in Renaissance Faire fare. "Or, fans can spend thousands of dollars putting something official-looking together from scratch." He's saying this as he stands by a glass case with a black corset and dark angel wings inside. "A lot of the costumes seem fetishized, but they're really just invoking anime characters. I'm not sure some of the little girls understand what it is they're wearing, though."
The weekend's highlight comes in the "cosplay" show on Saturday night, where fans in elaborate costumes act out skits for prizes. The panel of judges consists of American actors who dub over anime for American audiences; although hardly household names, they're A-list stars here. Around the third hour, I'm still bewildered by the in-jokes of the sketches and fan videos (I sort of followed the Doctor Who vs. Pokemon one), but the standing-room crowd is roaring with appreciation.
Even if it's a culture I don't totally understand, there is something profound about the way anime unites so many people in appreciation of a creative outlet. And by midnight, I'm dancing at the show's rave with a couple of cat girls and a samurai assassin. Also, I found a bitchin' T-shirt of Dr. Rockso from the anime-influenced American series Metalocalypse. OK, so I'm not completely out of my element here.