Anime's growing market Otaku: They are the serious fans of Japanese animation, and they are a growing group.

April 16, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Let's say you like Japanese animation, or "anime." You own a couple videos, rent others from time to time and know just enough about the field to know what you like. You're a fan.

On the other hand, let's say you spend several hours a day watching anime. You have several shelves of videotapes -- both commercial releases and second-generation, hand-subtitled copies of Japanese videos -- and a couple dozen CDs of anime soundtracks. And a couple hand-painted resin models of your favorite anime characters. And a small collection of animation cels. And a couple hundred anime stills downloaded from the Internet on your computer. And a teach-yourself-Japanese manual so you might someday read all the manga (Japanese-language comics) you own.

You are an otaku.

Don't worry, though -- you're not alone. Otaku, or hard-core anime fans, may not be quite as common as Trekkers, but give 'em time. After all, anime remains a relatively new enthusiasm for Americans.

Naturally enough, the otaku phenomenon has been in place for some time in Japan. The term itself is Japanese, and

originally derives from the phrase "o-taku," or "your house." Apparently, video fans in Japan used "o-taku" so much in conversation that they were dubbed "otaku-zoku" (roughly, "your tribe").

But as interest in anime and manga grows, the ranks of American otaku steadily swells. They can be found in specialty stores like New York's trendy Anime Crash (located in Greenwich Village, just across the street from Tower Records); at conventions like Otakon (which this August relocates from State College, Penn., to Hunt Valley), KatsuCon and Anime America; and on college campuses across the country.

On campus

Although university-based anime clubs are major meeting places for American otaku, they aren't all college kids.

"Since it is a university club, the majority of the members are students," says Hong-Loan Luu, editor of the anime fanzine Tsunami, and a member of the University of Maryland's Terrapin Anime Society. "Then you have some fans who are much older, in their 30s and above, who are developing quite a voracious appetite for anything anime-related. They collect tapes, T-shirts, stationery, anything that has their favorite anime pasted on it.

"That is predominantly what anime fans are."

"Otaku in America is somebody who not only really likes Japanese animation, but likes it enough that it's probably their biggest hobby," says Dave Asher, convention chairman of Otakon. "As opposed to the Japanese sense of the word, which is someone who's more obsessed, who quits their job so they can be closer to artists and other weird things. American otaku just devote a large amount of their spare time to watching stuff or reading those newsgroups on the Internet."

Otaku are a major presence on the Internet. In addition to such general groups as rec.arts.manga, in which fans argue over Japanese comics, and alt.binaries.pictures.anime, which is full of encoded anime picture files, there are specialized newsgroups like alt.fan.bgcrisis and alt.fan.sailor-moon, which are devoted to the anime series "Bubblegum Crisis" and "Sailor Moon," respectively. And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of anime-related home pages, ranging from the "AMG Skuld Shrine," devoted to the little sister of Belldandy from "Oh! My Goddess," to "The Ranma 1/2 Universe," which focuses on all things Ranma-related.

Lots of Internet traffic

Traffic on the Internet newsgroups is dauntingly high, with more than 8,000 posts per month on rec.arts.anime alone, while anime-related home pages are sometimes so popular they wreak havoc on the host computers.

Just ask Thomas Cardwell, a senior at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte's engineering school. His "Ranma 1/2 Extended Home Page" was so popular that he was asked to move it off the university's computer system. "It was about at least 33 percent of the server's [host computer's] business at one time," he says. "That's how busy it was. They told me it was killing their server." Fortunately, Cardwell found a private host for his new "Ranma 1/2 Universe," which can be found at: http: //iczer1.usacomputers.net /ranma/ranma.html.

Cardwell doesn't consider himself an otaku, just a fan. What's the difference? "I don't have the money to be an otaku," he answers. That's one of the reasons he hasn't gotten into collecting anime cels (the individual drawings that make an animated character move). "I was at the animation convention, KatsuCon, last year and I was just flipping through them," he says. "They were running around $100 for even the cheapest one, and most of the good ones were around $200.

"I want to get into models," he adds. "On my latest page, I've got one of the models I saw in one of the Japanese books. I'm going a little bit onto that route."

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