Under the influence

I totally admit I know next to nothing about anime or manga. I know Hayao Miyazaki, but he’s pretty mainstream. Many entries in my roster of known Japanese films star Toshiro Mifune. Worse, my video-game knowledge is straight-up, old-school Ms. Pac Man/Pitfall/Frogger era. And while I had seen a newscast about a rash of local teen wolves, I’d never seen one in person, much less heard an event coordinator cry out, “Last call for ‘Are You a Werewolf!’” in the conference-room area of the Rivercenter Marriott.

This was the San Japan Japanese Anime & Culture Convention, the third annual gathering of participants from South Texas and beyond who are loyal fans of Japanese animation and/or video games, and who turn this passion into serious play.

Cosplay devotees! Cosplay as in “costume play,” a form of role-playing wherein the player dons, usually, the garb of his or her favorite animated or video-game character. Often, but not always, players remain sartorially loyal to one particular character, though some cosplay peeps make up their own characters. Now, I’d had a colorful but arduous experience living with a friend who was hardcore into Burning Man, so I was slightly suspicious of this cosplay thing. While I loved my friend, I found the Burning Man subculture tedious — the jargon, the in-jokes, the nicknames, the many photos of people wearing loincloths and boots tripping balls amid bad art, the software engineers with Fu Manchus calling themselves “Dr. Nightmare” and boasting of their collection of nipple photos, the slight air of sanctimony — I like my subcultures genuinely odd, slightly inexplicable, and kinda mysterious, like Southeast Asian ladyboys, those Cockney folk who wear tons of buttons and use indecipherable rhyming slang, or Mormons.

“What are you dressed up as?” I asked Current photographer Bryan Rindfuss, upon meeting him in the crowded-with-cosplayers hotel lobby.

“Fat,” he answered (he’s not.) “Creepy. A creepy old man. It’s an original character: I didn’t get it from anime.”

I went on to ask a whole lot of people who they were dressed as, and rarely understood what they told me (catch my video of the event on sacurrent.com!). I was struck by how young most of the participants were (except for the occasional actual creepy old man, who ogled girls wearing giant bursts of neon-colored hair and short skirts). I was surprised by the pervasive air of friendliness, the atmospheric cheer that suffuses a roomful of people totally geeking out from their very souls.

“It’s sort of a Renaissance Faire vibe, kind of Goth, but with more style options,” Bryan decided.

Surprising things I learned at San Japan:

1. To play “Sleeping Samurai,” you get a giant Q-tippy spear thing and beat on other similarly armed people with it. I saw two girls, in particular, who had a flair for this. One of them was annoyed by her amateur photog parent, at one point whining, “Really, Dad?”

2. There are “water ninjas” who run around giving out water to make sure people don’t dehydrate. There were also people — a lot of people — wearing buttons reading FREE HUGS, which sounds dorky, but they meant it (I hugged a sheepish teenaged boy, then immediately felt guilty).

3. A lot of the kids I spoke to wouldn’t give Bryan or me their actual names, because they were minors and hence not supposed to attend certain events. About which Bryan opined, “I don’t know why minors wouldn’t be allowed here. It’s really all just good clean fun.”

4. Evidently, I love Mario. Yes, Mario of Donkey Kong and –Kart fame. I must, because when I saw a boy dressed up as Mario, I audibly gasped, pointed at him, and yelled, “MARIO!”

5. The Cosplay Fashion Show stipulates that all garments be handmade and not purchased, which Bryan and I liked.

6. Events during the two-day Con included a steampunk panel, live-action cosplay chess, basic Japanese lessons, autograph sessions with voiceover artists, clothing and makeup workshops, and a closing ceremony whose keynote speaker was Jonathan Joss, the voice of John Redcorn on King of the Hill (and a native San Antonian).

7. Do cosplayers care about the World Cup? Surprisingly, hells yes. The crowd went absolutely NUTS when Spain won.

8. Bryan and I said “Awww!” a lot, in fits of cuteness-appreciation.

I’m not particularly drawn to anime or video games, nor can I boast the skillset to become a cosplayer (The sewing. My God, the sewing!). But most of the folks I talked to were smart, friendly, and a little off-kilter. They tried their best, with enthusiasm and infectious glee, to explain their world to me. They wore weird and wonderful stuff I didn’t understand. They’re aces! They’re right up there with the Southeast Asian ladyboys. And I mean that as a compliment. •

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