Tooned In To Anime

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.

Greenfield finally made his way over to Ledford's store one day. They talked business, about the problems with trying to rent out laser discs. Then the conversation turned to anime, a topic that both could talk on and on about, that already evoked a certain nostalgia for these two longtime fans. Sitting there, in a deep discussion, they realized that anime could take off in a big way in America.

Fifteen days later, they formed A.D. Vision, or ADV Films. The plan: to acquire the rights to anime titles from Japanese companies, translate them into English, repackage and release them in the United States. That was August 1992. By December of that year, they had released their first title, Devil Hunter Yokho.

Today ADV Films has more than a thousand titles, offices in London and Tokyo, and affiliates in Europe and Australia. More than 60 employees work at the headquarters, which takes up nearly a whole block of warehouselike buildings in southwest Houston. They have been dubbed "the Microsoft of anime" and have started to branch out from anime into live action shows.

One reason that ADV has become so successful is that Greenfield, Ledford and executive producer Sharon Papa realized there was more to anime than action stories featuring fighting robots and spaceships. At the time, other companies rushed to release more of the same robot-on-robot violence after shows like Voltron, Star Blazers and Tranzor Z proved popular.

"I think one of the mistakes a lot of people initially had was those shows were all fighting giant robots," Greenfield says. "There's nothing wrong with fighting giant robots, but that's like looking at American TV and saying that's all car crashes. We've got a lot of car crashes, but that's not what it's all about. Anime is not a genre. It's a medium."

Not a single robot appears in Devil Hunter Yokho, which tells the tale of a high school girl who discovers she's part of a long line of female warriors destined to protecthumankind by battlingdemons.

When ADV first approached the Japanese about licensing Devil Hunter Yokho, they said, "You really want to license this thing?" Greenfield recalls. At the time, no anime markets existed outside of Japan. Now, many Japanese companies have American subsidiaries who compete with ADV, such as Bandai and Viz Entertainment, the U.S. arm of a Japanese manga publisher that brought Pokémon to America.

Early fans, like Greenfield, who is now 40, grew up on Astroboy, Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion (to which The Lion King bears a remarkable resemblance). As a kid, Greenfield was captivated by the artwork.

"Visually they were incredible, and the stories were like something I'd never seen before because they were so complex…It was like wow, this is like a novel being presented as an animated film," he says.

By the time VCRs became affordable in the '80s, Greenfield was watching original tapes in raw Japanese, even though he didn't understand a word of dialogue. Several anime series from the '70s were reworked into American TV shows in the '80s, including Robotech, which aired in 1985 and consisted of three unrelated shows chopped up and spliced together with a new story line. In December 1989, Akira, a story of young delinquents who find themselves accidentally involved with a classified military experiment, played in art-house theaters and earned a cult following.

Anime has gained fans because it is as addictive as soap operas, Greenfield says. A strong linear story arc carries though each episode, requiring the viewer to watch them in order, unlike American TV shows, which are episodic. Only recently have a few American TV shows started carrying narratives from season to season, like Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he says. The different styles of storytelling originate in conversational patterns.

"For a lot of people, Americans are considered direct to the point of being rude, because…when talking about a subject, you go from point A to point B to point C, and that's not how it's done in other parts of the world," Greenfield says. "One of the things that's fascinating about Japanese shows is that they don't give everything away in the first episode. It's an unwinding spiral. Basically you start off slowly and you're encompassing more and more ground, going over the same ground over and over but adding things." Sometimes important elements subtly reveal themselves in the dialogue, which a viewer doesn't notice until seeing the ending, he says. So every time you watch it, you get something new out of it, much like rereading a good book.

A lot of anime also explores futuristic themes, creating complex universes and compelling characters. People die in anime. Main characters die. They don't waddle off, flat as a pancake, from under an anvil, and regain their normal shape. As ADV's own Web site points out, the Japanese make "wonderful, entertaining animated films that didn't all star cats and mice and never insulted the viewers' intelligence."

Take, for example, the postapocalyptic landscape in one of ADV's former titles, Battle Angel. The first episode begins when we find the main character's head in a trash heap. A scientist saves Gally by building a powerful metallic body for her. Gally, sweet and petite, has no memory of her previous life, but becomes a bounty hunter, driven by a dark instinct. She falls in love with a seemingly nice boy who by night steals spines from cyborgs in a twisted attempt to fulfill his dead brother's dream. Another character is killed for her organs and ends up as parts in stacked jars.

One of ADV's most popular releases, Neon Genesis Evangelion, is a science fiction saga set in the year 2015, when a mysterious race of beings known as the Angels has decimated half of Earth's population. Layering high-tech action with human drama and biblical prophecy, Evangelion has spawned endless discussion and controversy about what it all means.

Greenfield, who directs and produces many of ADV's series, says he tries to talk to as many of the original filmmakers as possible, to properly translate Japanese concepts into English. It can take a few weeks to a few years to release a show, depending on the market. Sometimes ADV shelves shows for a couple of years until the time seems right.

And now seems like a good time for anime, with your average Blockbuster offering tapes for rental and as many females interested in it as males. These days you can see whole families at conventions, Greenfield says.

"When we started, you could pinpoint the average anime fan as being between 18 and 27. Obviously he was male and he was usually someone who was in college or just out of college, but that's no longer true at all," he says.

Andy Kent is male, 23, and in college, slowly acquiring a political science degree. He is the quintessential anime fan, what people think of when they think about anime fans. He doesn't care for fashion trends, definitely nothing more complicated than jeans and a T-shirt. He eats hot dogs for lunch and frequently chats on-line and posts comments on message boards at anime Web sites. He also comes across as quite articulate, intelligent and full of information. In short, Andy knows he's a geek.

There is something to be said about geeks who know they are geeks. People who are self-aware about their place in the world possess, at the least, a sense of humor. Anime fans and computer nerds fall into this category. Goth people and Renaissance festival fanatics do not.

Andy was first exposed to anime when a high school teacher sometimes brought it to class, showed a film or two, and called it a teaching day. He saw quite a few classics, like Akira, this way. At UH one day, he walked by a bake sale for a new club called Anime no Kai. Andy joined, and soon enough he became president.

At ADV, Andy does a little of this and that. He synchronizes subtitles, schedules the voice actors' appointments, and proofreads advertisements and product packaging. He does other things outside of anime too. He loves football and used to manage a team in high school. This is Texas after all, he points out. And he reads science fiction novels. But he figures he's probably spent more money on manga than on college tuition.

Usually ADV does not find its employees at conventions, but the company is full of fans. Shoko Oono, 21, majored in computer engineering but found her dream job as a translator for ADV. Born in Japan, she moved to Chicago before the age of one but returned to Japan every summer; hence she has a firm grasp of both English and Japanese.

When Shoko was little, she read a Japanese version of Little House on the Prairie that was so far from the original that even a kid like her could tell it was terrible.

"I was thinking if I was the author, I'd be pretty mad. I felt that was really wrong. That's what I keep in mind when translating," she says.

Though she grew up watching anime in Japan, ironically her Anglo friends in America got her into it during high school. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she joined the anime club, where she met her fiancé, the club president.

Because many series were not commercially available in North America at the time, leaving fans without much to watch, Shoko and other club members undertook the painstaking process of producing subtitled anime for other fans. The fansubbing took months. They would obtain a show from Japanese laser disc, DVD or tape. Shoko would translate. Then, using computer software, they inserted subtitles and made VHS copies to distribute. Fansubs fill the libraries of many anime clubs.

"Back then there was no alternative," she says.

Of course, fansubbing is illegal. And fans have adopted a loose code of ethics and etiquette to reduce potential conflict with companies who produce the original anime. First, no cash for a fansub should ever change hands, and if it does, it should cover only the costs of a blank tape and postage. Ideally, a person looking for a fansub should send in his own blank tape and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

"The idea is that it's not legal under any circumstances, but it's more palatable if you're not making any profit off it," says Andy, who once authored an article about fansubbing ethics on-line.

Fansubbers also seem to adhere to an unofficial agreement with companies to stop distributing a title once a company picks it up for release. Some even destroy their fansubs once commercial versions become available.

Though most hard-core fans already know about fansubbing (and many probably became fans of anime by watching fansubs), ADV didn't want to talk about it much for this story. When Shoko came on an interview, Ken Wiatrek from ADV's marketing department also showed up, acting like a chaperone and killing the conversation when it wandered too far into fansubbing territory.

"It hurts the industry, because why do we want to release something when it's been fansubbed to death?" he says. "We don't want to make people aware of it that aren't aware of it. We don't want people to get it for free."

Fans don't slap bumper stickers on their cars that say, "Anime: more expensive than drugs" for nothing. A single DVD, containing two to four episodes, runs about $30. Most series have 26 episodes.

But Greenfield says fansubbing isn't even necessary anymore because the anime market has grown so much that thousands of titles are now available in America. (As Wiatrek says, "The largest video market was porn. Now it's anime.")

"We're at the point where we license titles before they've even been on air in Japan," Greenfield says. "And we're co-producing a number of shows, so obviously it's an ADV production, so it's coming over here. So there's not much point in [fansubbing] anymore."

In the past, the quality of fansub tapes was pretty low, and many fans upgraded to commercial releases once they became available. But now, with advancements in technology improving image quality, people make digital fansubs and put them on the Internet so anyone can download them.

"The real problem isn't the old way of fansubbing, which was taking a tape and actually subtitling it, but people doing the same thing on the Internet," Andy says. "There are shows where a day or two after it airs in Japan for the first time, digital copies are floating around on the Internet."

But that's a problem that all entertainment industries face, he says. To a former fansubber like Shoko, the digital fansubbers don't seem to have morals.

"The next generation is pretty irreverent. They don't care what the company says. They have a bad mentality because they are trying to compete with the company," she says.

Perhaps that's easy for her to say now that she's part of ADV and has turned her hobby into a job. For every Shoko and Andy, though, there are hundreds of hard-core anime fans who haven't legitimized their obsessions by joining an anime company and suffer from the stigma of being, well, a complete geek.

Take, for instance, the fanboys, says Michael Udonpongsuk, who works at Planet Anime in the Rice Village, the place to rent anime titles in Houston. Fanboys, the joke goes, don't bathe because they're too busy watching anime. Michael even has a rating system, from one to five, one being the lowest level of stink.

"If you have three of them in here, even if they're standing in the far corners, you can have the door open and the a/c going and it still smells," he jokes.

"It's the truth that they're socially inept," says Jim Whitehead, another Planet Anime employee. "Like people who watch soap operas all day. It's a replacement for social activity."

Andy thinks that anime does the opposite: It provides social interaction.

"In Japan, they have extreme fans as well, but there it's much more of a solitary thing. It's the whole social rejection. Here, we have our share of geeks -- and I probably qualify as that sort of thing -- but at the last couple of conventions, I've done very little of actually going and watching stuff, and spent all of my time hanging with friends."

Like anyone else who fancies himself a fan of something, Andy comes off as an expert and can overwhelm you with the names of hundreds of titles you've never even heard of. His interactions, while social, are all about anime. These are social interactions that never reach the point of being socially stressful. After all, he's dealing with people just like him.

It started with Sailor Moon. Actually, it started with the Spice Girls. About five years ago, Cassie Matthews worshiped the Spice Girls. Then, she explains, "As everyone knows, they fell off the face of the earth." So she had to find a new passion. She found Sailor Moon.

Anything that had the visage of sparkly-eyed Sailor Moon on it, Cassie had to have. Backpacks, pencil cases, posters. Eventually, as she reached her teenage years, she outgrew the girls in sailor suits for more diversified stories like Fushigi Yugi, Vampire Princess Miyu and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Now 15, she is a full-fledged fan of shojo, or girls' anime, which is more drama- and character-driven. (Shonen, or boys' anime, contains more action.) Last summer Cassie and a friend took fencing lessons because the characters in Utena fence.

"Sailor Moon is like a gateway drug," says her mother, Janet Varela.

This summer Cassie and her friends made a pilgrimage to A-kon, chaperoned by Mom. Varela, who didn't want to look after so many teens by herself, recruited other parents but had to carefully explain what anime was. Their girls were not going to a sweet little festival to watch cartoons, she warned. No, people of all ages would be there, dressed in costumes, often with weapons. That meant men too, who sometimes dress as female characters. Okay, so it's a little scary when grown guys with beards dress up as Sailor Moon, she said, but lots of teenage boys cross-dress. So what?

"I think it's a safe way to work out their sexuality in a safe, funny way," she says.

The contingent of high school kids and parents from The Woodlands took up half a floor at a hotel. Cassie had a lot of fun, but she didn't get a chance to take part in the cosplay competition because it was too crowded. Cosplay involves her two favorite things: acting and anime. She's got three -- no wait, four -- costumes, which she sewed herself. She and her friends are in the drama club at school, and it shows. They are loud and clamor to outdo each other as the center of attention.

On the ride back from A-kon, the girls decided they should do their own convention, and started Chibicon, chibi meaning "small" in Japanese. At the end of June, they rented a room at the Woodlands Community Center and strung strands of Christmas lights to mark the stage area. They brought a karaoke machine and microphones. All in all, about 20 people came.

Some 11-year-old girls brought their drawings and hung them up on a screen with other fan art. They signed up for the first cosplay of the evening, acting out a scene from Utena. Another group of friends came in costume. Candice Boyles, 15, dressed as the demon Xelloss from Slayers, complete with a cape and papier-mâché staff. Her friend Matt Covell dressed as Vash from the futuristic space-travel epic Trigun. Matt got his costume from eBay, after winning an auction to have the Vash outfit tailor-made.

"He's a tough guy, but really just a nice man inside," Matt explains. He identifies with that.

Throughout the evening, Cassie emceed, babbling on in what her mother calls "The Cassie Show." Candice, Matt and another friend acted out a funny skit involving characters from different shows. Katy Ferrier delivered a crowd-hushing a cappella from Macross Plus. Matt Reynolds, 20, did some stand-up comedy about Dragon Ball Z. He wants to start a real convention like A-kon in Houston.

Varela made one appearance in a skit about the absurd confusion that was A-kon, but for the most part she kept to the kitchen area, selling chips and soda with her friend Tara Stewart, whom she dragged from work.

"If it keeps them from doing drugs, I'm happy," she says. Just as long as Cassie stops speaking to her in Japanese, which drives her nuts.

"She had a hard time fitting in, and here she found a group of kids that are a little odd and offbeat, and I think she just fit in and grasped it. This was really good for her," she says.

"I think a lot of these kids, you meet them and they are more the awkward kids. They're not the cheerleaders, the mainstream type, but they're not brainiacs. They're kind of something in between, and I think that's why they bond together, and anime is what bonds them together."

Varela doesn't know if Cassie will outgrow anime, like she did the Spice Girls. Actually, she wouldn't mind if Cassie remained a fan. As long as she watches anime and cosplays instead of smoking and doing drugs, that's fine by her. Varela even calls herself the animemom.

Andy Kent knows, though, that once you're a fan, you're always a fan.

"It's generally not a fad type thing," he says. "I don't know many people who get out of anime, you know what I mean? There are people who are not as rabid as they were when they first started watching. But it's kind of like saying, 'Did you stop watching TV?' I'm sure it's happened, but I don't know anyone who has."

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