Japanese Imports

By Mark Jenkins
Friday, February 17, 2006

The big-eyed ones walk among us.

Without attracting much mainstream attention, such diverse Japanese 'toons as Astroboy, Puffy AmiYumi and Naruto have infiltrated American culture.

Mostly, these huge-pupiled characters keep to the contemporary electronic equivalent of the back roads: cable TV, video-rental stores and the Internet.

This weekend, however, the growing stateside fascination with Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (animated movies and TV shows) will come pouring out of the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro station and into the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Some of the devotees will even be dressed as their favorite characters.

The occasion is the 12th annual Katsucon, the Washington area's largest gathering of fans of Japanese comics and other pop culture, including movies, music, video games, toys, trading cards and more. These are people whose knowledge goes far beyond such widely recognized creatures as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Hello Kitty. "Every year, we move to a larger facility as the head counts increase," says Chad Diederichs, the nonprofit gathering's press liaison. "This year, we're guessing in the 10,000-attendee range."

Katsucon is much like other conventions of comic, movie and science-fiction fans, and "con" is the customary suffix for such events. The rest of the three-day event's name, however, is something of a mystery. Although "katsu" can mean several things in Japanese, commonly it identifies a breaded meat cutlet. None of the organizers of the first Katsucon, held 12 years ago in Virginia Beach, is still around to clarify the title's inspiration.

"Literally translated from Japanese," Diederichs suggests, "the name means 'Convention of Pork.' The best we've been able to tell, we must sheepishly admit, is that the original translator really didn't know very much Japanese and got the phrase wrong. Unfortunately, by that time it had really stuck. Right now, our official policy is [to] avoid any literal translation of our name. It really confuses our Japanese guests."

In a way, the awkward translation is appropriate, since manga (MAHN-gah) and anime (usually pronounced AH-nee-may by Westerners) developed largely from Japanese mutations of Western cartooning styles. The term "manga" (roughly, "whimsical pictures") is generally credited to 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, the subject of an exhibition opening next month at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. But manga and anime as they're currently understood began after World War II with a single artist, Osamu Tezuka, who was an enormous fan of Walt Disney's style of animation.

In the 1950s, Tezuka created such characters as Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion, both of which became common kids' fare on '60s American TV. Tezuka kept the soft shapes and cute faces of Disney cartoons and further exaggerated his characters' eyes, creating the enduring template for manga and anime physiognomy. As Hokusai had done before him, Tezuka also rejected the flat, head-on vantage points of traditional Japanese drawing, instead using extreme angles and dramatic perspectives. It was this "cinematic" quality that grabbed the attention of American comics artists such as Frank ("Sin City") Miller, who in the 1980s began borrowing Japanese elements for Marvel's "Daredevil." Soon, manga was a major influence on American comic books, and U.S. companies began publishing translations of such stark, violent sci-fi and samurai manga as "Akira" (later to become a cult-film success) and "Lone Wolf and Cub."

No doubt there will be fans of both series at the Omni Shoreham this weekend, and the chat room on Katsucon's Web site drew a query from one fan who wanted to know if he could bring "live steel" -- that is, a real samurai sword -- to the convention. (The answer is no.) But anime no longer belongs exclusively to followers of tales about World War III apocalypse, samurai mayhem and futuristic societies full of robots and androids. It also belongs to young fans who have grown up on Hello Kitty, Sailor Moon and Puffy AmiYumi, who are pop stars with animated Cartoon Network alter egos.

"We see more first-timers every year," Diederichs says, "and they've been getting younger and younger. It's gotten to the point where we actually have a parental consent notification on the back of every badge because there are so many minors attending our events. We have to ensure their safety and make sure the parents know what kind of event the kids are going to."

The Katsucon veteran allows that "it's a lot for parents to take in, when they're just bringing their kids to what they think is a comic book show."

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