Hobbies: Japanese animated films inspire an American generation of 'otaku' fans.
By Leslie Gornstein, The Orange County Register
ANIME -- Cos-play fans tend to appreciate all things Japanese.
Before you can learn why a 27-year-old woman is donning neon-colored wigs and giggling in bathrooms and fast-food establishments, before you can hear why someone nearly killed himself under 6 feet of poorly constructed robot gear, and before you can possibly understand why someone would spend two months crafting a costume sword that will never be featured on any screen, big or small, you must learn this word: Otaku.
It means "obsessed person" in Japanese. Obsessed with cartoons, comic books, action figures - anything connected with the sprawling subculture of Japanese animation, or anime.
For those of you without kids who have gone otaku for Pokémon, or if you did not grow up with the rocket-footed AstroBoy, a primer: If you happen to be watching a cartoon where all the girls have eyes the size of hubcaps, legs longer than giant redwoods and lips that move independently of words, you're probably watching anime.
> "Sailor Moon," in which perky schoolgirl Usagi is transformed into a superhero by saying "moon prism power, makeup."
> "Ranma-1/2," in which a boy turns into a girl whenever flushed with cold water.
> "Marmalade Boy."
> "Oh My Goddess!," in which a college loser accidentally patches himself through to the world of hot babe immortals.
They're Japanese imports.
American fans like being called otaku, which confuses the poor Japanese. Now Americans are adopting another aspect of rabid fandom: dressing as favorite anime characters and assuming their personalities. It's called cos-play in Japan. Sometimes, at conventions, it goes on for days at a time.
Attendees expect to see hundreds of cos-players at this weekend's Anime Expo convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. More than 5,000 people are expected to show, making it the biggest anime convention in the country.
The idea behind cos-play isn't just to immerse oneself in fantasy, fans say. It's to bathe in all things Japanese. Japanese fans dress up, so we'll dress up, too.
"Sometimes I've been referred to as the ota-king," says David Ramsay of Long Beach. "The king of otaku. I am beyond otaku. I am beyond a fanboy. I am living this."
For Ramsay and wife Kimberly Johnson, the cos will mean more than play. They've quit their jobs to start a cos-play costume business out of their one-bedroom apartment, and they're debuting it at the show. Ramsay is the detail-happy costume creator who will explain the difference between a knife pleat and a box pleat without prompting. Kimberly is the adviser, Webmaster, muse and model. He is the Squirtle to her Pikachu.
When they are in costume, they are in character. They will not break character just because they have to pop across the street for lunch. Or visit a public bathroom, where Johnson was recently powdering her nose as Hikaru, a demure girl heroine with electric red hair. "Some lady came out of the stall and let out a scream," Ramsay said. "Well, Kimberly was Hikaru, so she giggled like Hikaru."
The couple plans to sell about 500 pieces from their private anime collection - trading cards, dolls, handkerchiefs, toilet paper, books -- at Anime Expo to help bankroll the debut. But among true fans, Ramsay and Johnson are tame.
At a San Diego fan convention last year, photographer Kevin Lillard had to stop himself from laughing when a fan dressed as a giant robot tipped over on his back and flailed like a turtle, unable to rise. "It had taken him almost 10 minutes to shuffle up this 20-foot ramp," Lillard recalled. "Then they had to practically pull the costume apart to let him escape."
And Anaheim graduate student Wayne Chang has formed a team of cos-players called the Anything Goes School of Masquerade Arts. They compete at -- ready -- convention cos-play contests, acting out skits and winning trophies. "As far as I know, we are the only team with a formalized presence on the Net," said Chang, whose site is at agsma.virtualave.net. "I am sure there are plenty of teams that have not organized and made cute little Web sites together."
Then, of course, there's the motherland. "Cos-play is a lot bigger in Japan," said Eric Patterson, Anime editor for GameFan magazine. "It is, like, nuts over there." Young people spend upward of $1,000 on costumes made to look like 10-foot robots. They throw parties in parking lots or stadiums just for cos-play.
As otakuism spread -- starting in the early 1990s, when poorly reproduced, undubbed, unsubtitled anime videos arrived in the States -- Americans began dressing up to commune with Asian counterparts, Patterson said.
"I am not saying that people who dress up are weird, or anime fans in America are strange," Patterson said. "But some of the hard-core fans get into this mentality where they want to be as much like the Japanese fans as possible. "I live with someone who just walks around saying Japanese words at random and has a map of Japan over his bed," Patterson said. "It is sort of like - they start wanting to be Japanese."
Johnson and Ramsay say he may have a point there. Their business is called theJ.A.S.P.E.R. Cosplay Closet. J.A.S.P.E.R. stands for the Japanese Animation Super Premier Entertainment Review. "The Japanese," Ramsay explained, "love acronyms."
ANIME EXPO '99 (article extra)
What: An international convention for fans of Japanese animation.
What you'll see:
> Five screening rooms offering morning-to-night showings of favorite cartoons.
> Trivia, modeling, music video, video games, costume and karaoke contests, with prizes for winners.
> A traders exhibit hall.
> A reception where fans can mingle with anime artists.
Where: Anaheim Convention Center
How much: $45 for a three-day pass.
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