4:36pm

Mon March 21, 2011
Pop Culture

Japan Disaster Strikes Home Among Anime Fans

This past weekend, a suburban Philadelphia convention center was crawling with kids wearing dragon wings, pigtails and outrageous neon-colored schoolgirl outfits. Girls in Victorian dresses. Boys in Victorian dresses.

All of them had come to the annual Zenkaikon anime convention because they're among the countless people around the world who feel an intense, visceral connection to Japan through its popular culture — in the U.S. alone, fans spent an estimated $200 million last year just on anime.

So in the wake of the disasters that struck Japan on March 11, it's no wonder that the general mood at this year's Zenkaikon was more somber than usual.

"Everyone I've talked to ... has been kind of down," said anime-convention regular Jeremy Volk. "It doesn't feel like a normal, upbeat convention."

After all, this is a community where many people have close personal ties with people in Japan. Eve Perusse, a 21-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., mentioned a still-missing pen pal. Her friend Angel Brazier, working with her at a table selling Japanese rock CDs, said she felt more devastated by the tragedy in Japan than by the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Many fans described being on Twitter nonstop, communicating about the safety of favorite artists. Some quietly expressed concern about the disaster's impact on anime supply. But Andrew Taylor, a freshman at Drexel University, was clear on that front.

"We're not just worried about our anime being cut off," he said firmly. "We're actually concerned for the people there."

The convention was filled with fundraising efforts. Most vendors had posted signs announcing donations to the Japanese Red Cross. Joy Morrison, a self-described "con mom" who has wholeheartedly embraced her daughter's obsession with Pokemon, walked around the convention floor shaking a gallon jar that bore a little sign: Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief.

"I take cash, checks, I'll take your food stamps," she bellowed. Teenagers crowded around her, digging out crumpled bills from the depths of their odd, inventive costumes.

"I'm sorry I don't have more," one told her. "I love Japan."

That country, almost 7,000 miles away, is psychically close to Miles Adams, a skinny 19-year-old who got hooked on anime at age 8. At Zenkaikon, he was dressed as a character from the Japanese video game series Kingdom Hearts — all flowing black robes and spiky white wig. In a funny way, he said, Japan feels like home to him.

"I mean, it's where I've gotten most of my enjoyment for all my life," he said. His favorite video games, shows, books, music, even clothes all owe a debt to Japanese pop culture. "It means a lot to me."

And Japan means a lot to the fans who piled into screenings of such shows as Robogeisha and Bamboo Blade. Or into the panels on giant robots and mixed martial arts.

Ezra Cudjoe, 43, traveled to Zenkaikon from New York, where in real life, he's a case manager in a mental health facility. He said he was heartbroken by Japan's crisis.

"It has pushed me to want to do more, to be more a part of these people," he said.

Cudjoe said manga and anime are not frivolous, as far as he's concerned. They're a meaningful part of his life. He wants his connection to Japan to be more intense, more profound. The tragedy inspired him, he said, to start seriously studying Japanese. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Countless people around the world feel an intense connection to Japan through its popular culture, specifically its animation. In the U.S., fans spent about $200 million on anime last year. It can be anything from apocalyptic stories about aliens to Pokemon or to the Oscar-winning movie "Spirited Away."

(Soundbite of film)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Person #1 (Actor): (as Character) Haku, fight him! Come on! He's hurt.

SIEGEL: This weekend, NPR's Neda Ulaby visited an anime convention outside Philadelphia to talk to fans about their response to the catastrophe in Japan.

NEDA ULABY: This suburban convention center is crawling with kids wearing dragon wings and outrageous, neon-colored schoolgirl outfits. There's girls in Victorian dresses and boys in Victorian dresses. Joy Morrison of New Jersey is a mom, walking around shaking a gallon jar that says Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief.

Ms. JOY MORRISON: I'll take your cash. I'll take your credit cards. I'll take your food stamps. Come on.

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't have much change.

Ms. MORRISON: Thank you so much.

Unidentified Woman #1: I love Japan.

ULABY: The kids here are young. So they don't have a lot of money to donate, but Morrison thinks they're contributing by buying anime.

Ms. MORRISON: When you come to events like this, okay, everything you see in here is all from Japan.

ULABY: Almost 7,000 miles away, but immediate for kids like Miles Adams. The skinny 19-year-old in a flowing black cloak and spiky white wig is dressed as a character from a Japanese video game. In a funny way, he says Japan feels like home.

Mr. MILES ADAMS: I means, it's where I've gotten most of my enjoyment for all my life - the video games, the clothing, the shows and books. So it means a lot to me.

ULABY: And Japan means a lot to the fans piling into screenings of Japanese shows like "Bamboo Blade" or panels on giant robots and mixed martial arts.

Jeremy Volk is an anime convention regular. In the wake of Japan's disaster, he says the mood here is mixed too.

Mr. JEREMY VOLK: I think it's been hard on everybody. Like, everyone that I've talked to today has been kind of down, and it doesn't seem like your normal upbeat convention.

ULABY: A lot of people here have friends in Japan.

Ms. EVE PERUSSE: Yeah, I actually have a couple pen pals out there. One we still haven't heard back from because he lives in Sendai.

ULABY: Eve Perusse, 21, is working in a cavernous room filled with vendors hawking comics, action figures and vintage kimonos. She's selling Japanese rock CDs with a friend, Angel Brazier. Brazier describes her deep response to the earthquake and tsunami.

Ms. ANGEL BRAZIER: Like, versus Katrina, which was in my own country, I didn't feel it as much as what I feel in Japan.

ULABY: Brazier and other fans say they've been on Twitter nonstop, communicating about the safety of favorite studios and stars. Some quietly expressed concern about the disaster's impact on anime supply.

But Andrew Taylor, a freshman at Drexel University, is clear.

Mr. ANDREW TAYLOR: We're not just worried about our anime being cut off. Like, we're actually concerned for the people there.

ULABY: The convention was filled with fundraising efforts. Most of the vendors had signs saying they'd donate to the Japanese Red Cross. And convention organizers raised about $3,000.

Mr. EZRA KIDJO: It has pushed me to want to do more, to be more a part of these people.

ULABY: Ezra Kidjo is 43. To him, manga and anime are not frivolous. Kidjo says the tragedy inspired him to start seriously studying Japanese. He wants his connection to the country now to be more intense, more profound.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program