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Visiting an Anime Convention
Photos and text by Courtney Reid-Eaton

Early summer brought an invitation from my colleague, John Biewen, to accompany him on assignment to the Mid-Atlantic Anime Convention. A couple of days in Richmond, Virginia with a bag full of film, people in costumes, and free reign to follow my camera.

I'm a 47-year-old woman of color who spent many of her formative years in front of a television. I'm also the mother of a 21-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl. My personal relationship with anime began with Astro Boy and included Gigantor and Speed Racer. As a young mother, I watched Thundercats, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles over my son's shoulder. Over the past few months, my daughter and I have taken in many of the beautiful films of Hayao Miyazaki and she has become a regular consumer of some of the manga of Shonen Jump magazine. All this to say, I have a little bit of background, but could not anticipate the experience of "the Con," as young fans refer to anime conventions.

Reading manga
Long swords - katana - available for sale (Vendor Room)
Action figures (Vendor Room)
Vintage kimonos (Vendor Room)

We watched some snippets of anime, checked out a concert featuring a J-pop star, watched some of the "cosplay" (Japanese for "costume play") rehearsal, but spent most of our time taking in the sights in the hall. I expected a world of total geeks and misfits. While there certainly were people who might be categorized in such a way, this stereotype was one I couldn't cling to. A lot of these people were hip, more edgy than outsider. The convention had the feel of a big family reunion, but in costume. There were mostly adolescents, as many girls as boys, but also grown men and women as participatory chaperones and whole families out for a weekend of fantasy. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many black folk, though not necessarily in costume. There aren't many black characters in the popular (widely distributed) manga that I've discovered so far, though artists like Austell Callwood, creator of Cove Pirate Mercenary, are working to change that. And it wasn't segregated packs of people; there were black kids hanging with white kids hanging with Asian kids.

The first day there I encountered a young African-American woman (she told me her name was "Sparky"), about 15 years old, dressed up as Pikachu - the round, yellow mouse-like creature from the video game (and anime), Pokemon. Most of the young women roaming the corridors had chosen to manifest sexier characters (cat-girls and raccoon-girls abound) or schoolgirl characters, like Kagome from the manga/anime, Inuyasha. But "Sparky" was so devoted to "Pika" that she'd taken the trouble to hand dye her fabric the "right shade of yellow." She was there with her godmother and cousin. Her godmother busted with pride to talk about how she herself had come to enjoy the "Con" circuit so much (this was their eighth convention in a few years) that she was going to be taking a workshop this go-round. She shared that "Sparky" was very shy, a good student, an avid reader, creative, different, "special" - adjectives used by many parents of manga/anime-addicted youth. "Sparky" told me that the next day she'd be dressed as "Ed" from "Full Metal Alchemist."

Cosplay rehearsal
Inuyasha from Inuyasha (right, in red kimono, Artist's Alley)
The girls from Tokyo Mew Mew
At play in the Video Game Room

People wanted to talk about their costumes, their artwork, their favorite anime and manga. They wanted to be photographed. It was hard for me to keep up, as, even when folks told me who they were dressed as, they were characters with whom I was unfamiliar. That's changed some since, as my daughter has recently developed an appetite for Naruto, and I have for Inuyasha. It is addictive.

Something of a slave to material culture, I spent a good deal of time in the Vendor Room. Everything an anime-head could desire: long swords, daggers, corsets, kimonos, manga, video games, action figures, backpacks, t-shirts…. I met a fantastic guy from D.C., Kurt Kumagai, who owns the largest Japanese bookstore on the East Coast. Like me, he was old enough to remember Gigantor, so we bonded. Among the sushi stickers, daggers, and kimonos, he also carried a selection of Japanese snack foods and soft drinks, which were being snapped up like crazy.

Dance Dance Revolution (Video Game Room)
A doubletake on the escalator
Sakura and Sasuke from Naruto (Vendor Room)

In the video game room, people were mesmerized in front of television screens, some playing and some looking over their shoulders. I was attracted to something called Dance Dance Revolution. Instead of using your hands, you advance in the game by hitting different stations - dancing - with your stocking feet to pulsating music. As you are successful, the pace accelerates. It's a little something the gaming industry came up with to combat the negative image of a lumpen homicidal adolescent on the couch, staring glassy-eyed at the television with only fingers in motion.

As with most of popular culture, there's the upside and the downside. I share concerns about violence in some video games and anime. But like hip hop, Japan's pop culture is deeper than the casual observer might think. There are stories drawn from history and long-held, beautiful traditions. There are critiques of our relationship to technology, and our disconnection from nature and deep spiritual experience. At the "Con," I saw an enthusiastic, creative, animated crowd of people.

Cosplay star Yunmao Ayakawa as Toki Takahasu from the manga
Cove Pirate Mercenary, signing autographs (Vendor Room)
Manga (Vendor Room)
Admiring a costume detail

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