Last weekend’s New York Anime Festival was an interesting experience to say the least. It was only the second anime show I’ve ever attended (I went to Otakon in Baltimore a few years ago) so the hypotheses I drew from the experience can hardly be called conclusions. I welcome corrections or deeper observations. But the one thing I can say with some certainty is that I wish there had been more people from Marvel and DC there. (There were a few people from Marvel and I spotted DC’s new SVP of sales and Marketing Steve Rotterdam taking in a few panels, but that was about it.) It was a real eye opener and no mistake.
I wish more people from the mainstream had been there because the sight of thousands of young teens cavorting in their fantasy world was a joyous one. This was a show for teenagers, a highly unfamiliar concept in the mainstream. The elements of a comics book convention were there, but magnified. Dressing up and play acting is seen as the fringe of traditional comics fandom, but it’s the lifeblood of otaku life. Everybody was singing and dancing and playing games. I saw some girls carrying yaoi paddles and asked what they were for and got a pitying and patronizing answer about some game of whacking boys. The participatory element is one I don’t feel personally for this material, but it’s something I can relate to. I guess if there were a big pirate convention going on, I’d dress up and whack someone with my sword, too. I may not get why dressing up as a beloved anime character has such specific appeal, but to deny the power of the fantasy is foolish.
The show also gave me some insight into why there hasn’t been more outcry against the often highly adult themes of many manga, and the reason was both shockingly simple and refreshing: as far as I can tell, these are good kids. They aren’t binge drinking, getting knocked up, smoking crack or making porn tapes for the internet. (Not yet anyway.) Instead, their outlet is reading and watching manga and anime. Parents may shake their heads in confusion, but as long as Cindy and Timmy are getting good grades and staying out of trouble, maybe they don’t need to dig any deeper.
That isn’t to say that the Wertham for yaoi may not still arise. But it does help this commentator, at least, understand why manga has gotten such a relatively free pass.
Maybe I’m turning my own blind eye, but there was a lot of innocence in the room. The kids are just figuring things out, and manga (and even yaoi, saints preserve us) are helping them. Take the whole Lolita thing. The look is named after a book about a middle-aged man who is sexually obsessed with a 12 year old girl — about as unsavory as you can get. But what does that have to do with curling your hair and wearing a frilly dress? Not a whole lot, it seems. When I went to Otakon, I thought the place was a pervert’s paradise, with teen-aged girls running around in short skirts and tight outfits. Of course, all young girls have a sense of their sexual power, but this wasn’t about that, at least not directly. It isn’t about looking attractive to skeevy oldtimers in their 20s. I’m not sure exactly what it is about, but that isn’t it. And the girls seem to be aware that staying away from skeevy pervs is a key to having a good time. The observer isn’t very important in this particular fantasy.
(Note, there may be some unhealthy element of willful obliviousness and childishness working here, but that is a topic for much further study,)
I was reminded much more of a science fiction con than a comic-con, to be honest. A sense of proud, or even defiant, nerditry prevailed over the proceedings, but rather than being anal retentive it was more, anal expulsive, I suppose. The fans were very passionate about the details and continuity of their favored fantasies, but it was channeled into obsessive costuming and role playing, not trivia and list-making. “Otaku” was originally a pejorative word for a deranged fanboy, but its been adopted by fans of Japanese material as a badge of honor.
The “mainstream” of comics could learn much from the hold this material has over its audience. What makes the fantasy so compelling? Themes of mastery and coming of age, ambivalence about emerging sexuality, gender confusion–these are are basic themes of all classic literature for young adults, and manga fits the bill. Many of the creators are young themselves, just emerged from the dojinshi ranks and finding their own place in the hierarchy.
I hesitate to make too many assumptions about the original Japanese culture that spawned all this stuff, but I think a lot of the things we find shocking–remember the Nymphet controversy?–may come from a sense of confusion and searching. They’re not full blown explorations of the dire consequences of knowledge in the Nabokov sense. Everyone is figuring it out.
In Japan, there doesn’t seem to be as much shame about sex as we have in America. On the other hand, there is a lot of shame about “face” and behaving properly in a larger way. The “sex ed” manga about a young married couple, Futari Ecchi, really is a sex manual not an overly prurient exercise. (It’s coming out in America from Tokyopop as “Manga Sutra”.)
I won’t go any further down this route because, again, these are hypotheses and guesses. It would take a lifetime of study and a degree in psychology to begin to decode all this. However, some things are universal — at the NYAF I observed a half dressed, attractive girl encountering an attractive half-dressed boy. There was obviously some interest there, but it was shown with a poke from a wooden sword. Facebook, anyone?
For all my my own bafflement over the details, I can actually relate to some of this Japan-o-mania. As a kid, I was obsessed with Speed Racer–my mom got me a pair of vinyl driving gloves and then had to practically cut them off me because I wore them all the time, until they began to get quite stinky. I was equally fascinated by Godzilla (Kaiju) movies, and Ultraman, the earliest Japanese imports. (Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot was another favorite, but by then the campy elements had begun to be the attraction.) By the time Robotech and Yamato came along, however, I had moved on to something else, but I suppose if there had been a club to dress up as Speed Racer when I was the right age, I would have been there on the spot.
In the end the fun everyone was having at NYAF was infectious. It’s no surprise that there was some grumbling from vendors about sales, though — the kids already had all their manga and anime. And I would have to say that if vendors don’t know who their audience is and what they want to buy, that may not be the fault of the show. This is a DIY crowd — making the costume is half the fun. I think someone selling reels of ribbon and rick rack would have done better than someone selling Death Note stickers.
Anyway, Tim Leong over at Comic Foundry summed it up pretty well:
Everyone was having so much fun. The vendors. The attendees. The media. The goth lolita brides. Everyone. The average attendee age was much lower than I was used to seeing. Out with the old curmudgeons, in with the hyperactive teens running around. Literally. You know when you were in high school and you got to go on an out-of-town field trip for Model UN or for band or some other club (what up, high school Journalism Education Association)? And there were no parents and you’re around all these other people with the same interests and you just cut loose? That is what it was like. Kids just enjoying what they love. Very refreshing to see.
So where will the kids go? Will they grow up and look for more mature and challenging manga material? Josei, gekiga, Umezu, Urasawa? Or will they just figure things out a little more and discover sex, drugs and rock and roll? I suspect a bit more of the latter, but that’s still only a guess. Everyone has a lot of things to figure out about this otaku generation.
[Top photo by me; Middle photo by Calvin Reid, from PW Comics Week’s NYAF photo parade.]