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What Would Godzilla Say?

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2000; Page C01

In the modern commerce of a vinylized culture, it's hard to know for certain whether we tell the Japanese what to do or they tell us. Lately the dialogue has collapsed giddily into a driving, sonic beat and the war whoops of mutant, cartoon samurai. It snuggles up to us with names like Pikachu.

Even if you're "Pokemon"-literate, even if you may have rooted for Godzilla to crush Mothra or cheered that dubbed-English dreamboat Speed Racer, you realize how out of it you've suddenly become, standing here in the middle of something called Katsucon, the area's sixth annual Japanese animation festival, which drew 4,000 or so young and old Japanophiles to the Crystal City Hyatt Regency on Saturday afternoon. It's a combination of giant-eyed heroes and junk worship--a duct-taped, electronic lifestyle of thunderous noise and fantasy.

Watch as a shapely teenage girl--in a skimpy, nautical-inspired miniskirt and furry rabbit ears worn on her head of long pink hair--goes absolutely bonkers for a shyish, acne-dotted young man of perhaps 21, who draws science fiction comic books in the Japanese style.

She pushes others aside, reaching into her bright blue, plastic, teeny-weeny Princess Mononoke knapsack for a teeny-weeny digital camera and takes his picture. He gives her a picture of a half-naked superheroine who has a tiger's tail. You realize that the "Star Trek" convention--with all its nerdy, boys-only traditions and mores--has been jettisoned like space debris. Katsucon is a plastic bullet train to yet another brave, new world.

And, oh, how we've been left behind.

For the uninitiated, Japanese "anime" and "manga" (translation: movie and comic book) art are apparently tops with the neo-nerds right this very minute, after years of waiting on the fringe of the sci-fi/fantasy universe.

Ranging from the "Pokemon" critters to the plainly pornographic, the Japanese animation scene feels like a new century has arrived (plunked down in the remnants of a concrete utopia; kudos on the selection of a Crystal City location for Katsucon, where, underground, we can all be karate-chopping secret agents of some pan-Asian-mafia-teenage-rock-band-mutant syndicate).

This time, the scene is not entirely dominated by hypergeeks. Two remarkable differences between this and conventions of other genres are that there are at least as many girls here as guys, and there is more racial and ethnic diversity.

The anime kids seem cool, self-assured, uninhibited--cooler than the whole line of thirty-something Yodas queued up last summer for the latest "Star Wars" installment. What a bunch of granddads that crowd was. There may be some social marginalization going on here, like always, and these kids may yet entertain thoughts of blowing up the school. But they seem so much more together, more hip, more social than the dudes you played Dungeons & Dragons with, once. (Okay, twice.) If you were 16 again, you'd want to date the girls dressed like Sailor Moon, stomping around in knee-high boots with five-inch platform heels. You'd go mad for the samurai boy in the amputated bathrobe wearing the business end of a broom on his head and waving a sword around. Oh, you would.

(And who is Sailor Moon, anyway? She's a Japanese cartoon character with her own popular TV show. She sings horrible pop songs. In strict anime proportion, she has boobs the size of volleyballs and eyeballs the size of compact discs.)

You're lost, you're hopelessly lost in a crowd of cuteness and valor and candy, where simplicity is inherent but noise is everywhere and the favorite color is hot pink--so very Japan.

On the top floor of the hotel's convention rooms, they are playing souped-up video and computer games, violent enough to waste a thousand school board members. On the mid-level, in the exhibition hall, they are snacking on Japanese junk food, gummy candy treats and horseradish-roasted green peas (the package says: "A Happy Present From the Earth"), and they are especially chowing down on the ubiquitous Pocky, crisp biscuit sticks dipped in chocolate. ("Will draw for Pocky," reads a sign in front of one of about 40 anime and manga artists, mostly Americans, sitting at tables in the downstairs lobby, churning out sketch after sketch of their characters.)

In various other rooms, fans watch their favorite anime cartoons ("Akazukin Cha-Cha," "Combustible Campus Guardress," "Sakura Wars" and, hmmm, "Those Who Hunt Elves"). In still other rooms, panelists are convened to address the state of American manga; workshops are offered on how to draw manga. After an hour of looking at the many, many thousands of Japanese comic books and TV shows, it seems as if anyone could draw them. It all looks stunningly the same to the untrained eye.

In fact, most people at the convention admit to drawing a little (or a lot) of their own characters. "I'm an unpublished artist," explains one teenage girl in a kimono. "Fan art" takes up one side of the exhibition hall, and the ensuing auctions for peer artwork, says Katsucon organizer Keith Mayfield, "can get pretty ugly."

One can only imagine all those kids locked up in suburban bedrooms, techno music blaring, perfecting their technique with marker pens. How exactly to draw a naked tiger girl? How to give her the perfect machine gun? How about warrior boys--their spiky, wild hair coming out of ninja head-wraps--with bunny ears? This is a long way from doodling Spider-Man, yet it seems more reductive, more simplistic, almost like fashion-school drawings. How hard can it be, after all, to draw it? Like . . . (sketch, sketch, sketch) . . . this?

There. Sort of. Now, throw in some explosions and lots of overblown drama--animes are quite sad and poetic, almost pessimistic. These cartoon characters are not afraid to die and are frequently stabbed to death; those who are left behind shed noble, subtitled tears.

Farther into the exhibition hall, the Katsucon atmosphere shows its odder proclivities: One dealer sells sharpened, ornate samurai swords for $150 to $250 each, as well as smaller daggers and weaponish whatnot.

Some tables of manga and anime are strictly marked "for adults only," though plenty of teens manage sneak peeks. (One shrink-wrapped cartoon video's synopsis reads like this: "Moemi, Reina and Mitsugu decide to document their first sex exploration on video." And at the artists' tables, two men jokingly debate the best way to render bodily fluids in motion.) It's sex and the Orient all over again--for what is more Japanese, it seems, than the whispers and geisha giggles of that Asian prudishness? The shadows behind the paper screen: silhouettes projecting the seedy fantasies of GI Joe! There is and always will be a chemistry between the American computer dork and his fantasy Asian bride.

But let us return to that Hello, Kitty sweetness of it all. The lollipops in the shapes of cellular phones. The furry, faunaesque teenagers of Katsucon, girls and boys running around wearing kitten noses and bunny ears. This may be leading right back to some sublime naughtiness, but as the evening progresses all eyes turn to something called "cosplay," short for "costume play."

A couple thousand Katsucon attendees sit in line for two hours to guarantee themselves a seat for cosplay, which turns out to be a bunch of skits performed by elaborately costumed anime and manga fans, who were herded into a greenroom and assigned numbers. The Japanese animation scene seems to place the highest priority on participation: Draw it yourself, act it out, become the cartoon.

Kids dressed in papier-mache lobster claws wait next to all the Sailor Moon wannabes. Lots of karate moves are practiced. A girl in a kimono with a miniature merry-go-round bobby-pinned to her head sits in a red plastic car. A man named Tex, wearing Terminator sunglasses, barks orders to the cosplayers.

Outside, at the pay phones, a cardboard robot argues with his father on the other end of the line, begging to stay out beyond curfew. "But Dad," he squeals, something a warrior robot should never say.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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