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A Missive From the Front Lines of Fandom

Brian Ruh

Fans are forming their own entertainment subcultures, creating their own distinct meanings, and, to steal a phrase from the IWW, creating a 'new society within the shell of the old.'

The bumper sticker read "Anime: Drugs Would Be Cheaper". As I was standing in the dealers' room of the convention, the sticker made me wonder about the kinds of "deals" that were going on around me. The idea had the appeal of the illicit — these were deals for new information, new realities, new senses of self. Being at this convention sometimes felt like running a gauntlet of Japanese pop music, video games, and anime, pressing in from all sides. Adding to the sense of displacement were the many people milling about, costumed as their favorite characters. And yet I could sense that there was meaning to be found in this multimedia mishmash.

For a long weekend in early August, Otakon 2003 took over the Baltimore Convention Center. Otakon is just one of many anime-themed conventions that take place yearly around the United States (and around the world, for that matter, including Canada, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany, and of course Japan). The anime convention can range from the small fannish get-together to big blowouts like Otakon that bring in people from all over, swarming around a city like an invading force of sartorially skewed shock troops.

I arrived mid-afternoon on Friday to see what was going on around the convention and to pick up my registration, which brings me to the cardinal rule of anime conventions. In the words of Lou Reed, "First thing you learn is you always gotta wait." Standing in line is simply an accepted matter of course at anime conventions, especially if you've come to see some of the more high-profile guests. When I got to the convention, things were pretty happening for a Friday afternoon (the biggest day for such conventions is usually Saturday, which is why I wanted to get everything squared away ahead of time.) I waited in the pre-registration line for a while only to be told, when I got to the front, that I needed to go up to the press room for my pass. After waiting to get my badge from Peter, the overworked and obviously harried press relations coordinator, I learned that the folks down in the registration line should have given me a membership badge before sending me to get my press pass. After talking to a number of people and sorting everything out, Peter was finally able to get my membership badge, and I was sent on my way into the mimetic reality of the convention.

An anime convention is a fascinating locus where fans and industry representatives come to do battle and find affirmation. It is a contested space in which participants struggle to create their own meanings based on media that stem from a foreign popular culture. Plus it's really fun. The backbone of most conventions is a series of video rooms which continually playing all manner of Japanese animation throughout the day. The shows can run from very popular ones that have had a wide commercial release, such as Pokemon, to shows that are so new they have yet to be translated from Japanese and are shown un-subtitled.

Various panels are held on a multitude of topics that include how to make anime music videos, workshops on drawing technique, and playing DDR. At Otakon this year, I was lucky enough to be on a panel called "Anime in Academia", along with Professor Susan J. Napier and some of my fellows from the Anime and Manga Research Circle. At the panel, we discussed some of the finer points of studying Japanese animation at institutions of higher learning, concluding that the study of such fan-centric media subcultures is still in its incipiency and that there is much ground to be covered.

In addition to the copious entertainment possibilities available (only a few of which I have mentioned), conventions are also a time for fans and those in the anime industry to meet and get a feel for what the other side is thinking. It is at such conventions that many companies make announcements about the various programs they have licensed from Japan and when their eagerly awaited titles will be released on U.S. shores. The relationship between the fans and the companies displays an interesting dynamic because, to a greater or lesser extent, fans use anime to create an identity for themselves. This can range from simply belonging to a group that likes foreign cartoons to cultivating an intimate sense of identity with a certain character or series. Because notions of identity are at stake, though, some fans have a love/hate relationship with the companies that release anime domestically. These fans see U.S. companies as simply trying to make a quick buck from Japanese animation, and by extension, from the manner in which they have decided to live their lives.

This brings me back to the dealers' room, where I spent the majority of my time. If the video rooms are the entertainment backbone of the anime convention, then the dealers' room is the economic backbone. The companies with booths in the giant hall included corporations such as Bandai and Pioneer, as well as extensions of smaller stores trying to sell their wares. The dealers' room is where fans of anime and manga could pick up the basic components of their obsession; books, tapes, and DVDs were in abundance throughout the hall. While the independent stores were probably just trying to make ends meet in the highly competitive economy of the room, some of the bigger companies were giving away plenty of swag. Without trying, or even particularly wanting to do so, I managed to collect a couple of pens, a deck of cards, a pin, a preview DVD, a manga sampler book, and a magazine. One company was even giving away a car, decorated for the convention with anime-themed window decals.

I spent a lot of time in the dealers' room, going around to the different booths to see the various goods for sale. The dealers' room as a commercial space is vitally important to the anime subculture because this is how we obtain the basis of our fascination. It is sometimes easy to overlook the fact that anime is at its core a commercial medium. While there is a grand artistry associated with some products, others obviously have been generated as a method of invoking a new cash flow.

However, anime culture works in spite of this commercialism that is its very essence. The fandom of anime is very active in its give-and-take with its objects of desire. Through acts such as cosplay (dressing up like characters from anime and video games) and creating what is known in Japan as doujinshi (small press comic magazines), fans maintain an active dialogue with anime as object. When compared to how viewers consume many other forms of popular television and film, fans of anime (as well as many other members of media fan subcultures) are very proactive in their dealings with the creators and distributors of their favored media. In this way, it would behoove us all to act more like fans.

As anime (and fan culture in general) becomes integrated with mainstream American culture, it becomes more important to understand how fandom functions and how fans interact with each other. If I learned anything from Otakon, it is that the stereotypical white, male, socially inept fan is dead. The people I saw at the convention constituted a surprising mix of genders and ethnicities, mirroring the multicultural composition of America in general. Fans are forming their own entertainment subcultures, creating their own distinct meanings, and, to steal a phrase from the IWW, creating a "new society within the shell of the old."

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