Cosplayers Geek Out for Japanese Anime in the United States

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: It's easy to look at some aspects of culture in Japan and just scratch your head. Anime, the feature-length and serialized cartoon films from Japan, for example. It's not just the otherworldly stories in anime that are odd, but so is the Japanese fanaticism for the characters, dressing up like them, collecting action figures and books, making shrines to these imaginary people. And yet, when you come to an American anime convention, you suddenly realize that it's not just the Japanese who make you scratch your head. This morning I went to Anime Boston 2013, its 10th edition. It's one of the largest anime conventions in the US. In the massive convention center, thousands of people are talking and laughing and taking photos of each other. It's a strange world where costumes are the norm: men wearing scary masks, girls in bikinis and thigh-high boots, and even a guy covered in green body paint. My tour guide into this world is professor and author Ian Condry from MIT. His new book is called The Soul of Anime.

Ian Condry: Today starts with the opening ceremony where the guests of honor come up and get their adulation from the fans. There's screenings all day, there's a cosplay event, there's anime music videos, and there's a lot of what you see all around you, which is small groups of people chatting and getting to know each other.

Werman: And explain what cosplay is.

Condry: Cosplay means, is short for costume play, and it basically means dressing up in the outfit of your favorite character.

Werman: It seems like a very Japanese thing but obviously the Americans haven't had any problem climbing into that whole fanaticism.

Condry: It's like anime generally. Disney brought animation to Japan but then anime spreads to the world. So too with cosplay. Some early Japanese fans went to Star Trek conventions, saw them dressing up in the US, and brought that back to Japan, and now it's become a Japanese thing as well.

Werman: So how old is anime?

Condry: It was really the mid-50s when the big Disney hits, Bambi and Snow White, came through Japan and the world, and that's when the Japanese animation system began around then as well.

Werman: And when you compare, say, those early Disney films, like Bambi, with some of the early animes, or even later ones, do you see, kind of, influences?

Condry: Absolutely. If Disney was the father of American animation, Tezuka was one of the fathers of Japanese animation. Tezuka made Astroboy. But what's interesting is Astroboy beat Bambi in a really important way, which is that Tezuka figured out how to make animation cheap. And although it's not as pretty as Disney animation, what Tezuka understood was the fan excitement around characters is what mattered, and that even if the animation wasn't that exciting, the character was exciting. I think you see that today with the cosplay and all the dressing up that's going on.

Werman: So Ian, as you walk around this convention here in Boston, do you recognize characters yourself?

Condry: Oh yeah, absolutely. And even if you don't recognize the characters you want to find out who they are. And I think that's the excitement of the anime world, there's always more to explore. It's a vast world where people are intensely involved with it, and that kind of excitement is contagious.

Werman: To get an insider's view of the anime world, Ian wanted me to meet one of the guest speakers at the convention, Tomohiko Ito. He's a director at one of the largest anime studios in Japan, Aniplex. Ito had never been to an anime convention in the US.

Condry: This is Tomohiko Ito. He's the director of Sword Art Online, the hit anime series that's sweeping the world.

Werman: So Tomohiko, tell me first of all, what's in it for you? Why come here to Boston?

Tomohiko Ito [speaking Japanese, with English translator]: You know, of course, we had heard that Sword Art Online is quite popular here in the US, so I kind of want to see for myself what level of popularity, how much fan awareness there is. So we asked Aniplex to see if it would be possible for us to come to Boston.

Werman: So just your first impressions, how do the fans in the United States compare with the anime fans in Japan?

Ito [speaking Japanese, with English translator]: I feel that one of the biggest things is, of course our hotel is right next to the convention center, and even at the point of yesterday I could already walking around the hotel be like, hmm, I bet they're here for the convention. And that fact that I could instantly recognize that they were most likely fans and attendees is a very big difference already right there.

Werman: Have you spotted anybody dressed up from characters from Sword Art Online?

Ito [speaking Japanese, with English translator]: The main character of Sword Art Online of course is Kirito and I already saw one Kirito cosplayer in the hotel the other day, and I have to say, wow, he looks cool.

Werman: Back out on the floor I met Sarah Sullivan, Sully she's called. She's with FUNimation, a company that dubs and distributes anime in the US. She's a regular at these conventions.

Sarah Sullivan: This is actually my 225th convention. I see people all over the country that are spending every last dime going to anime conventions. They go to five or six of them a year, use all of their vacation time for them. I just look forward to coming out here, even though I'm going to be working all weekend, because I have so many wonderful friends that I only really see at conventions. It's a completely unique experience, especially anime conventions, because we are so welcoming of other genres as well.

Werman: And that's exactly what I learned from talking with some of the cosplayers here, like Ben, who's wearing a red robe and a white cardboard beard over his chin.

Ben: I'm not from an anime, I'm from a video game of The Legend of Zelda. I'm the very first character in the game. I say 'It's dangerous to go alone. Take this,' as I present the sword to the hero.

Werman: Then I met Amber and Jake, she in a platinum blond wig, he in a black tux and white eye mask. They're dressed up to look like their favorite anime characters.

Amber: My costume is Princess Serenity from Sailor Moon. She's the princess of the kingdom on the moon.

Werman: You're laughing. Why are you laughing?

Amber: It's just fun, silly.

Jake: Princess Serenity is like the princess of the solar system or something.

Amber: Yeah, she does take over the solar system by the end.

Werman: Are you laughing also because it's just a little bit silly?

Amber: Of course it's silly. That's part of the fun.

Werman: Indeed. And after a morning immersed in the world of anime, even I felt underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt. Maybe next year I'll dust off my Pokemon costume and join in the fun. Just kidding, I don't own one. But if you want to see pictures of Amber and Jake and Ben and some of the other people I met at Anime Boston 2013, just go to