[Photos: Alexis Kenyon]
Seventeen-year-old Mary Alice Stanberry is standing outside the Marriott Tech Center Hotel in Denver wearing a white school uniform, a blue wig and bright green contact lenses. Everyone around her is dressed up as some type of anime character: that is, some type of character from an animated movie or TV series created in Japan. Mary says that last year at Nan Desu Kan—Denver’s annual anime convention— she went across the street to a Panera Bread eatery and witnessed a man dressed up as "Triangle Head" trying to order soup.
“Do you know what Triangle Head is?” Stanberry asks. “They have a giant headpiece that’s triangle shaped. He couldn’t get up to the counter cause his head would hit it and they were just like, ‘What do you want?’” Stanberry impersonates Triangle Head mumbling his order through his mask and then imitates the people behind the counter. “They were like, ‘Can you take off your mask?’”
Half of Stanberry's wardrobe is dedicated to "cosplay" -- the Japanese term for costume-play. Stanberry says Nan Desu Kan is the time of year she can cosplay with abandon and that it's the one time of year she can be herself around other people who understand her.
The hallways at Nan Desu Kan are packed with anime cosplayers who are stopping to give each other hugs, taking pictures and shrieking at each others' costumes. The three-day convention brings in 7,000 anime fans per day. It is the largest anime convention in Colorado and 14 surrounding states.
Colorado is a hotbed for anime. This weekend, about a thousand anime and science fiction fans will flock to Denver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel for the Mile High Con, a science fiction convention with a big focus on anime. Nationwide there are about 150 anime cons happening across the country in 2013.
Stanberry says she and many people who attend anime conferences consider themselves to be "anime otakus." This means they are obsessed with all things anime and all things Japanese. “I’ll eat burgers with chopsticks,” Stanberry says. “I would love to go to Japan someday. I think that’s everyone’s dream here.”
André Joaquin Martinez, a researcher and scholar of Japanese and American storytelling and symbolism at University of Colorado, says he can relate to people who are obsessed with anime. Martinez became an anime fan as a teen as a result of feeling excluded from most American media. “Essentially, I was wholly uninterested in the way that heroism is presented in the Western world,” Martinez says.
Martinez comes from lower income family in Colorado. He didn’t have many friends growing up. He says he didn’t see himself in Superman but that he could relate to the characters in anime who aren’t all good or all evil. Often, Martinez says, the characters in anime transform from evil to good. “And, sometimes, he actually joins your party and is one of your strongest members. So, it’s this unification of good and evil,” Martinez says.
Martinez thinks religion is part of the reason American media tends to present less nuanced heroes and villains. Where most Asian theologies believe in many gods, Western monotheism polarizes good and evil, says Martinez. “There has to be an ultimate evil if there is an ultimate good,” Martinez says.
Also, Martinez says, good transforming in or out of evil makes sense in the context of Japanese history. From war campaigns burning down entire villages, to earthquakes, the Japanese have had to rebuild as a matter of existence for thousands of years. “World War II, America burned Japan to the ground,” Martinez says. “You know, intentionally, firebombed Japan. So, not seeing the end as the end, is a very Japanese perspective, I think.”
After World War II, when Americans still occupied Japan, American animation saturated Japanese media. Japanese producers took the American model andadpated it to create their own style. In 1963 a Japanese doctor turned animator named Osamu Tezuka created “Astro Boy,” the world’s first-ever animated television series for Japanese audiences. Fittingly, “Astro Boy” had transformation at the heart of its storytelling.
While anime proliferated in Japan, it didn’t reach a mass audience in the US until the mid-1990s. In 1998, Pokemon became more successful in the US than it had ever been in Japan. In the last decade, American anime fandom has created a multi-billion dollar industry.
Eiji Ozasa, a Japanese exchange student at University of Colorado, says that as much as American fans idealize Japan as a mecca for Japanese anime Japanese culture is not entirely accepting of anime fandom. In fact, he says, up until a few years ago, calling someone an anime otaku was derogatory in Japan. “If you say anime otaku people think like hentai, or porno or those perverted ones,” Ozasa says.
In the last few years, as Americans have started using the term anime otaku, Ozasa says Japanese people have become more accepting of anime otakus in Japan. He says, in general, people in Japan are honored that so many Americans are interested in anime.
Whether or not American fans have realistic views about Japanese society, they are creating a transformative community. “That’s the dream of the people who are making anime. So American fans are living it," Martinez says. "And, they might see Japan as this mecca—and, you can if you want—but I think there is an argument to be made that America is the mecca. And all of this cosplaying and conventions are something that couldn’t necessarily happen in Japan.”
On the last day of Nan Desu Kan, the crowd is thinning out. People are slouched against the hotel walls listening to a musician who makes music for anime soundtracks. A samurai and a ninja get up to dance.
20-year-old Stephanie Borchard is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with new friends. She says she would love to go to Japan. But just being at the convention is like going to a whole other world. “And, when it’s over, you never want to leave,” Borchard says. “You get home and you’re like, ‘I want to go back to con.”
Hotel rooms at the Marriott for next September’s Nan Desu Kan are already sold out.