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Collecting Otaku, anime and manga at Richmond's first Japanese-animation convention.

It Came from Japan

Stephanie Brown bends over her Berina 1008 sewing machine, hard at work. She holds reams of gray stretch-velvet for the body of the raccoon costume, silky baroque satin for the kimono top and bendable wire to hold up the bushy tail. Brown is stitching together Tanuki-chan, the raccoon girl mascot for Anime Mid-Atlantic, Richmond's first Japanese animation convention. This Friday, Brown will slip the Tanuki-chan costume over her head, paint a black mask around her eyes and head over to the Holiday Inn Koger Center for the three-day convention.

Anime Mid-Atlantic isn't a Star Trek convention, but it's close. At anime conventions, fans dress up like their favorite Japanamation characters, pack themselves into a local hotel and spend the weekend watching premiere movies, tracking down hard-to-find merchandise, singing karaoke and otherwise socializing with fellow con-goers donned in gauzy, streaming robes and see-through Lycra stretch pants.

"It's a social event for nonsocial people," says Matt Martin, former Webmaster of the University of Richmond's Anime Club. "It's kind of funny because a lot of the people you see at conventions are the kind that don't normally go out and do things."

With Anime Mid-Atlantic looming over Richmond like Godzilla over Tokyo, the question is: What goes on at one of these conventions? And who are anime fans?

For starters, there are more anime fans out there than you think. "There's a large population of anime fans in Richmond," says Edward Fortner, chairman of Anime Mid-Atlantic. "And this event is long overdue." Fortner expects to greet 400 to 500 visitors this weekend. Next year, he's hoping for even more.

Anime (pronounced ah-nee-may) entered the American marketplace in the '50s with the television series' "Speed Racer" and "Astro Boy." In the '70s and '80s, afternoon cartoon programs such as "Starblazers" and "Robotech" began familiarizing viewers with the anime style of cartooning, most noticeable in the big eyes of the characters and in the hand-drawn artwork of the cel paintings. Anime even hit the big screen in 1988 with "Akira," one of the first major anime films to impress American critics.

Still, anime fans remained an underground handful who formed clubs with friends, passing around illegally subtitled anime videotapes and hunting down translated Japanese comic books at independent comic book shops. Then, a few years ago, Pokémon erupted on the scene, sucking in a mass market of kid fans faster than you can say "Pikachu!"

Now there are thousands of anime fans across the country, many travelling long distances just to attend a convention where, yes, they wear costumes in public. Not all con-goers get decked out, but a good number dress up for the "cosplay" event where contestants compete for prizes like "Best in Show" or "Best Craftsmanship." Favorite costumes for women are the short, sexy uniform skirts of Sailor Moon, while men go for the muscled allure of Dragonball Z.

"It's like playing dress-up," says Brown. "You get to put on a costume and act like someone completely different. You've got a lot more leeway with outrageous behavior because you're just out there to have fun."

Brown, the "It girl" of the local anime scene composed mostly of single white guys in their 20s and early 30s, works at Studio Ironcat, a Fredericksburg company that translates Japanese comics for American consumption. But no words can translate the real-life experience of seeing hyped-up anime fans strut down the catwalk to Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy."

At conventions you're likely to hear more Japanese being tossed around the con floor than at your favorite sushi bar. Con-goers hip to the lingo employ anime slang from Japanese words. When a con-goer refers to himself as "otaku," that doesn't mean he's becoming a Sumo wrestler, it just means he's an obsessed fan. Many otaku collect "manga," the Japanese word for comic books. Also, many anime fans get together and create their own Japanese zines and call them "dojinshi."

Most fans trek to conventions just for the chance to drop major coin at the dealer's tables. Otaku look for original artwork, rare movies, manga, art books and model kits for figurines and spaceships that they can construct at home. "The average con-goer will spend anywhere from $300 to $1,000 and that's just the stuff in the dealer's room," Fortner says. "Some fans will go to a convention and drop $2,000 to $3,000."

But the real draw of an anime convention isn't just the cosplay or the dealer's room, it's the events. With late-night movies running until 4 a.m., a midnight dance shaking down past 1 a.m., and a video game tournament where the champion takes home a Japanese import Gameboy, otaku rage against the break of day at conventions.

Anime Mid-Atlantic will also bring in leaders of the industry to direct panels and workshops on topics from the history of anime in the United States, to instruction in cel painting, to tips on voice acting. The average anime convention is so jampacked with events that sometimes, otaku pass out from the excitement.

"Dehydration. We need to be thinking about dehydration," Fortner says. "We need lots of water fountains stationed around the suites." Some con-goers in the past have been overwhelmed by three days of 24-hour anime stimulation and have dropped to the floor from dehydration. Passing out is so prevalent at these events that Anime Mid-Atlantic will be conducting a "Cons 101 Survival Skills" workshop where the moderator will insist, "Water. Drink lots of water. And don't forget to eat."

Anime fans are simply looking for a good time. "It's like a football fan who paints himself," says Roy Bruce, president of the JAN fan club, Richmond's 13-year-old Japanese Animation Network. "Or it's like going to the Renaissance Fair, there's nothing weird about it. It's just having fun." S

Anime Mid-Atlantic takes place at the Holiday Inn Select Koger Center, 1021 Koger Center Blvd. Friday, June 15 through Sunday, June 17. A three-day pass costs $35, with single-day passes $10 for Friday and $25 for Saturday. See for details.

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