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Every year for the past 12 years, fans of anime -- Japanese animation -- have converged on Dallas in the summer heat for their own special convention, a crowded and somewhat disorganized affair called Project A-kon. Some come in elaborate homemade costumes, puzzling staff at hotels where the event takes place. Some come to obtain autographs from voice actors. Some come to meet friends from the Internet. Some come with their artwork and fan fiction.
A year ago, fan Andy Kent came with a question. He didn't get to ask his question during a panel discussion about the work of ADV Films, one of the largest distributors of anime in America. But afterward, he approached an ADV representative who had been sitting on the panel.
The rep looked at Andy's name tag and recognized his nickname "Avatar" from the Internet.
"Send in your résumé and we'll hire you," he said.
Andy Kent, a self-described geek, a man who has spent hours of his life watching animated characters fight, fall in love, die, have sex and save the world, had found his dream job. And he wasn't even looking.
He became privy to the inside workings of the industry. He became keeper of the anime.
Remember Robotech and Voltron, which aired on American TV in the '80s? That was anime. Today, with Pokémon and Sailor Moon popular among the grade-school set, anime is ascending into the realm of mainstream entertainment. The Cartoon Network reserves a late-night spot for Toonami, its assortment of anime shows. Ravers have partied with anime images flickering in the background for years. Even Madonna is playing a pastiche of sexually violent and disturbing anime now on her Drowned World Tour.
Pokémon is kid stuff, though, and most anime tells sophisticated stories with complex characters aimed at adults. After all, the largest anime club in the Houston area was founded on a college campus. The University of Houston's Anime no Kai has held biweekly screenings since the fall of 1995.
"There are two stereotypes about anime," says club member David McGuire. "One, it's just for kids. Two, it's all porn. And in reality it's somewhere in between."
Most Americans probably recognize anime as those cartoons where characters have big eyes and pilot giant fighting robots, says Mark Phu, who was one of the first members of Anime no Kai.
"Kill Godzilla. Save Japan," he jokes about the average anime plot. But actually, the Japanese animation industry is far more diverse than America's and includes all genres found in cinema, from heroic epics, science fiction and dramas to comedies, romance and pornography.
Phu has attended A-kon for three years now, with other members of Anime no Kai. A-kon resembles a Star Trek convention in the ardent devotion and bizarre behavior of its fans. One year he appeared as an orange demon, darting about the convention, terrorizing the young and old alike, with only some black and white around his eyes to break up the one-color motif.
The part-time student, who helps run his parents' restaurant chain when not watching anime, dressed as Tora from Ushio and Tora because he wanted a one-of-a-kind, eye-catching costume. And what could be more eye-catching than a grown man dressed head to toe in bright orange? Well, probably the guy who came as the rotund and furry creature Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro. His costume was so large that it included an a/c unit.
Phu made his own costume, sewing felt to make the body, and attaching extensions to a platinum-blond wig, then spray-painting it orange and teasing it into a frizzy mangle.
"I want to be someone else," he says. "I can act this way and get away with it."
Dressing and acting as a character, or "cosplay" for short, is just one form of anime fandom. Other symptoms, in addition to watching the stuff all the time, include peppering conversation with a smattering of Japanese words; spending tons of money buying tapes, DVDs, manga(comic books), wall scrolls and other assorted goods; writing or drawing your own anime; and going on-line to chat with other fans or to search for copies of shows that other fans have painstakingly subtitled themselves, called fansubs, short for "fan subtitling." Some fans even make music videos and parodies, setting audio to scenes from their favorite series.
Perhaps the greatest concentration of fans in Houston can be found at 5750 Bintliff, the headquarters of ADV Films. The rapid expansion of ADV mirrors the growing popularity of what was once a niche hobby for a handful of geeky boys. Yet, like so many cultural phenomena, anime is not just about anime itself, but about a subculture that's grown up enough to find some mainstream acceptance but is often still misunderstood.
Nine years ago, Matt Greenfield ran an anime club in the Clear Lake area called Anime NASA. One man who frequented the meetings kept telling Greenfield that he had to meet his boss, John Ledford. You guys really need to talk, he insisted. Both men did business with companies that imported Japanese shows on laser disc. Greenfield worked for a retail electronics company, and Ledford owned a video game company.