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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."

"It's usually us and the child, waving our arms and trying to explain what this is, why that person has big, yellow spiky hair and why is a giant robot coming down the hallway. But if the parents are cool enough to bring their kids to an event like this, they pretty much go with the flow."

Diederichs attributes the younger crowd in large part to the Cartoon Network, which has introduced a wider range of Japanese 'toons to American audiences. For decades, manga and anime have dealt with such commonplace topics as sports, high school, work, food and romance. (There's another market altogether for the manga known as "hentai," which translates as "pervert.") The everyday-life series were long ignored by U.S. comic book companies, which preferred something more akin to the superhero adventures they already published. It turned out, however, that there is an American audience for stories that don't involve swords, guns or the end of the world.

Peter Casazza, who manages the Georgetown branch of Big Planet Comics, has seen the impact of "shojo" (girl) comics. "Over the last five years, we've seen an explosion in titles and interest," he says. "Especially with younger kids, those between 8 and 20, and especially girls. A lot of manga is geared toward girls -- relationships and high school and junior high and stuff like that. Marvel and DC [Comics] do a pretty bad job of addressing that market."

Traditionally, American fans and commentators have endorsed the serious side of Japanese 'toons, from "Barefoot Gen" (a semiautobiographical manga account of the Hiroshima bombing) to the pro-nature ("Princess Mononoke") and antiwar ("Howl's Moving Castle") anime of Hayao Miyazaki, consistently Japan's top-grossing filmmaker. (Nevermind that his children's movies, such as "My Neighbor Totoro," are more coherent than the ones he makes for adults.) But the newest fans don't want muted tones and solemn humanistic themes.

They prefer the bright colors, ramshackle plotting and sugar-high cadences of comics, movies and TV shows designed for a younger crowd.

John Malott, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington, admits to being "amazed when I see young [American] kids singing the theme song from 'Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi' in Japanese." A former State Department "Japan hand," Malott tallies "three generations of people who got interested in Japan. There was the original group after World War II, who were attracted to the cul ture. Then there was the next generation -- I would consider myself at the start of that -- who were attracted to Japan because of what was happening there economically. And now we have the next wave, of people who are attracted to Japan because of the popular culture."

To Mitsuru Kitano, minister for public affairs at the Embassy of Japan, the increasing American interest in Japan's illustrated storytelling is unsurprising. "For years, anime and manga have been very well received in Asia," he says. "So why not in the U.S.?"

A reader of manga since he was a child, Kitano attributes the universal appeal of the genre to its high level of craftsmanship and complex worldview. "Each character embodies good and evil," he says. "It is not a purely good guy or a purely bad guy. Each character is a reflection of the varied natures of human beings."

Yet manga and anime's American fans aren't stopping with those forms, Diederichs notes. Katsucon now also encompasses live-action film and the music known as J-pop. "We have a fairly large contingent of Hong Kong and Japanese live-action film programming because a lot of those properties are brought out in America by the same companies that bring you anime titles," Diederichs says. "We have Japanese horror, which has become really big in the last couple of years. And then we also have the music.

"These days, most of the musical acts have absolutely no ties to anime at all. They're strictly J-pop or Japanese rock. There's such an expanded interest in anything Japanese. Which has led Katsucon to expand its palette."

Last year, the featured J-pop act was Psycho Le Simu, which Diederichs describes as very theatrical -- and very popular. "It was kind of like going to a Kiss show. It's not so much about the music as the whole experience. We had a huge influx of people specifically to see them. It's a fan base you never knew existed until you have 400 or 500 screaming girls waiting to see this band."

The 2005 musical lineup features Salia, singer of the movie and TV series "Cutey Honey Flash" theme; Mr. New Jack, whose theme-song vocals include the one for "Dragonball Z," a top Cartoon Network attraction; and Funny Stones: Akiko and Maro, singer-models who are also "cosplayers."

A Japanese-made English neologism, cosplaying is short for costume playing.

It began at the comics marts in Akihabara, the bustling, day-glo Tokyo neighborhood known for electronics retailers and cafes catering to Otaku, obsessive fans of manga and anime. (The Otaku provide the name for Baltimore's annual convention, Otakon, which will be held in August and is even bigger than Washington's.) In Japan, cosplay simply involves creating elaborate costumes of characters and modeling them. But in the 15 years since the first U.S. manga/anime convention -- in, of course, Anaheim, Calif., home of Disneyland -- cosplaying has undergone another of those trans-Pacific mutations.

At first, Diederichs recalls, Katsucon's cosplay event attracted barely a dozen participants. "Because they were so few people, and it was the main program for Saturday night before the concert, people would perform skits or comedy shows onstage. Now it's the largest event of any anime convention, not just ours," Diederichs says. "Some people come just for the cosplay. It's gotten to the point where we actually have to put limits on the number of people who can go up on stage and the time they can use to perform these skits. I've seen skits with 45 people in them, choreographed to music, with fight scenes out of a Hollywood film.

"This is all very interesting to our Japanese guests, who are not used to this form of cosplay," he adds. "Some people will reenact scenes from the shows, or the media that they're dressing up from, and other people will put together completely original, often hilarious comedy skits, often mixing characters from different shows and genres. The whole performance aspect is a strictly American thing. You will not see that outside of this country."

Stephanie Brown, 27, a Katsucon regular who works at a martial arts school in Stafford County, estimates that she has made almost 50 cosplay outfits in the past nine years, most but not all for herself. She'll attend the 2006 convention dressed as her favorite anime character, Naga the Serpent, an avaricious sorceress featured in the "Slayers" series. "I can't really explain why I like her so much, but she cracks me up every time I see her," Brown says.

Naga is a voluptuous woman whose all-black outfit consists basically of a bikini, gloves, a cape and spiky shoulder pads. "It's really funny to do that kind of costume, because I'm a tomboy. It shocked a lot of people that I would do something like that," recalls Brown of her 1997 debut as Naga, in what she calls "a terrible costume." (She has since remade it twice.)

Brown will attend Katsucon to have fun and catch up with friends, but she coordinates costume events at two smaller conventions, Richmond's Anime Mid-Atlantic and Virginia Beach's Nekocon. ("Neko" is Japanese for cat, and cat ears are a common element in cosplay outfits.) "There are lots of reasons why people do it," Brown says of cosplaying. "But it goes down to the need to be something else for a little while."

The new American synergy with manga and anime is not just the work of inventive, irreverent fans with sewing skills. U.S. production companies have also begun to collaborate with Japanese producers, mostly of TV shows. While relatively few anime movies make it into American theaters, kid-oriented TV channels now rely heavily on the genre sometimes called "Japanimation."

"The Kids' WB completely financed a revisioning of 'Astroboy,' which was a remake of the 1960s classic," Diederichs says. "That was broadcast here several months before it hit the air in Japan. The budget for that rivaled that of some theatrical productions, and it really showed. Cartoon Network has a show called 'Teen Titans,' based on a DC Comics project. It's completely financed by Warner Brothers through Cartoon Network and shown in America and Japan at the same time. It was precedent setting."

And then there's "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi," produced by Warner Bros. for Cartoon Network and made in Korea. "It is simply cheaper to animate in Korea," Diederichs explains. "So properties like 'The Simpsons' and such are done right alongside 'Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi.' A lot of it is Korean productions by Japanese studios with American producers and writers."

Some of these people never meet face to face, unless it's at an event like Katsucon. "We bring together the American voice actors, the American writers, the Japanese directors, the Korean animation directors," Diederichs says. "And they really show the fans how the shows come into being."

The big-eyed, brightly hued manga look has also infiltrated U.S. comics and advertising, especially for products aimed at teens and tweens. Yet American-made manga has little commercial appeal, according to Big Planet's Casazza. "Marvel really tried to capitalize on that. They did [Spider-Man love interest] Mary Jane as a teenager and stuff like that. It met with mixed results, at best. Most people who are really into manga want original Japanese, or Korean or Asian stuff. They don't want an American version of it."

At his store, Casazza says, "I've seen the interest in manga wane a little bit. Once you go through the best material, a lot of the other stuff isn't that great. And kids' interests move on. They read them for a few years, and then they move on."

Yet manga and anime fever has not cooled at Katsucon, which attracts fans mostly from the mid-Atlantic states but lures a few disciples from as far away as Australia. No wonder that more staid local institutions continue to reach out to anime fans: The Freer Gallery will present its Fourth Annual Cherry Blossom Anime Marathon on April 1, and for the first time this year, the Japan-America Society of Washington will add a "J-Pop Land" to its Sakura Matsuri (which just means "cherry blossom festival"). Although plans for the April 8 event are not complete, says Malott, president of the society, "we will most likely be featuring anime and manga ourselves. We may have some performers from Japan that are aimed more at the younger set."

Kid power also resonates in anime's homeland, where Takashi Miike recently finished his first children's film, "The Great Yokai War." The director, who's known for such gory and sexually explicit films as "D.O.A." and "Audition," has made a live-action film based on the work of influential manga pioneer Shigeru Mizuki, who incorporated Japanese folklore into his work. (To make the connection clear, the movie includes a scene in which its preadolescent hero visits the Mizuki museum in Sakaiminato, the artist's home town.)

There is perhaps no more powerful expression of manga and anime's new American following, Diederichs suggests, than the moment a Japanese writer or artist meets his or her fans at a event such as Katsucon. "It's very interesting when you see 300 12-year-olds lined up to get autographs from someone who doesn't speak the language and had no idea that his product was shown outside of his home country."

It's as if the children of Walt Disney are meeting the offspring of Katsushika Hokusai, and despite all they have in common, they are still a little bit surprised that they recognize each other.

KATSUCON 12 Friday at 8 to Sunday at 4. Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW (Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo). Most events end at midnight Friday and Saturday, but the video room operates nearly all night, with hour-long breaks about 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m. (Some late-night fare is for adults only.) A three-day pass is $50. One-day tickets are $25 Friday, $35 Saturday and $20 Sunday. Children ages 6 to 12 half-price.http://www.katsucon.com.

Mark Jenkins writes about the semi-popular arts for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper.

Stores

Manga and anime are so mainstream now that the most popular titles are available at such mass-market retailers as Borders, Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble. Some proprietors of local comics stores admit they can't compete with the chains' selection. But smaller stores carry more offbeat material, and their employees are likely to have more expertise.

Wisconsin Avenue is the main line for local comics shops, beginning with two "big" Georgetown stores, Big Planet Comics (3145 Dumbarton St. NW; 202-342-1961) and Big Monkey Comics (1419-B Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-8650). Farther north are Fantom Comics (4500 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-362-5051), another Big Planet (4908 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-6856) and Beyond Comics (701 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-216-0007). Anime is among the specialties of Dream Wizards (11772 Parklawn Dr., Rockville; 301-881-3530).

In Virginia, there's a third Big Planet (426 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-242-9412), as well as Phoenix Comics & Toys (678 Elden St., Herndon; 703-437-9530) and two stores specializing in anime and manga, Anime Pavilion (115 Hillwood Ave., Suite 10, Falls Church; 703-534-1544) and Anime World (4300 Chantilly Shopping Center, Chantilly; 703-817-0550).

Among local video shops that specialize in cult material are Alexandria's Video Vault (113 S. Columbus St.; 800-828-5866), Adams Morgan's 18th Street Video (2104 18th St. NW; 202-588-0117) and Takoma Park's Video Americain (6937 Laurel Ave.; 301-270-4464).

For fans fluent in Japanese, or just interested in investigating what's available to those who are, the Daruma Japanese grocery (6931 Arlington Rd., Bethesda; 301-654-8832) rents videos. Adjoining Daruma's Rockville location (301-738-6468) is Taiga (1055 Rockville Pike; 301-738-2409), a Japanese-language bookstore and video-rental outlet.

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