An Animated Bunch

Count on fans of Japanese anime to dress the part as they descend upon Baltimore for a convention celebrating the Genre's heros


Baltimore can expect the Sailor Scouts to be out in force this weekend.

But don't worry. It isn't some kind of cosmic calamity bringing Sailor Moon and her interplanetary crew of injustice-battling Japanese schoolgirls to the Inner Harbor.

They're coming for a convention.

Otakon -- the "Convention of Otaku Generation" -- will be bringing some 4,000 Japanese animation fans to the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend. A three-day celebration of anime (the Japanese word for animation) and anime fan culture, the convention offers everything from panel discussions and non-stop screenings to hotly contested video-game tournaments and costume contests.

Hence the Sailor Scouts.

"We usually get three or four full sets of Sailor Scouts," says Neal Leyendecker, Otakon's comptroller. "Sailor Moon" is not the most popular among anime costume buffs -- that honor probably lies with "Ranma 1/2" -- but the series is one of the top fan favorites, along with "Tenchi Muyo -- No Need for Tenchi," "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Fushigi Yuugi."

"We also get quite a few male Sailor Scouts," adds Leyendecker.

Guys in Japanese schoolgirl outfits?

"It's not meant to be transvestism," he says, chuckling. "It's meant to show skill in costuming. It is a little bit of a joke, but mainly it's a show of skill."

It may sound silly, even slightly obsessive, but for the fans, conventions like Otakon are treasured opportunities, allowing them to interact with other fans, to see anime shows before they're released in America and even to meet some of the animators and voice actors responsible for the shows they love.

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, anime (pronounced ah-nee-may) was essentially an underground enthusiasm in America, attracting a small but dedicated following. But in recent years, interest in Japanese animation has grown exponentially, thanks largely to the popularity of the televised series "Sailor Moon," "Dragon Ball Z" and "Pokemon," as well as such video-only titles as "Ranma 1/2," "Tekkan" and "Ghost in the Shell."

Otakon's expansion reflects that growth. When it started, Otakon -- an offshoot of the Penn State anime club -- was a tiny convention held in State College, Pa., attracting a mere 350 anime buffs. Six years later, attendance has grown tenfold, making Otakon the second-largest anime convention in America, after one in Los Angeles.

Even better, Otakon's audience has diversified as it broadened. Typically, American anime fans are college boys, and when Leyendecker began attending anime conventions eight years ago, the ratio of women to men was maybe one to six. "Nowadays, it's maybe one in four or one in three," he says. "We're getting more females and more older people. People range from all over to come to this."

Part of the attraction may be that this year's Otakon has a host of high-profile guests. Besides American panelists ranging from translator and author Frederik Schodt to comic artists Adam Warren and Robert Dejesus, Otakon '99 will play host to a number of Japanese anime stars, including composer Yoko Kanno, directors Shinichirou Watanabe ("Macross Plus") and Hirayuki Kitakubo ("Roujin Z"), and voice actress Mari Iijima, who acted and sang the role of Lin Minmay in the acclaimed series "Macross: Do You Remember the Love."

Kanno, though, is the convention's biggest coup. A composer and pianist who has scored a number of anime series in Japan, including "Macross Plus," "Vision of Escaflowne" and "Brain Powerd," she is the closest thing anime music has to an actual pop star.

Not only are her albums big sellers in Japan -- two soundtrack CDs from the television series "Cowboy Bebop" made the Japanese Top 20 in the last year -- but according to Mike Kiley of the online anime store, Kanno is by far the most popular soundtrack artist with American anime fans.

Leyendecker adds that Otakon's Japanese guests are "overjoyed" to attend the convention. "Yoko Kanno, who we only asked to do a panel and some autographs, volunteered to do a piano recital for us, because she was so excited to come," he says.

Focus on the fans

Still, as important as the guests are, Otakon's main focus remains on the fans. After all, Otakon takes its name from the term "otaku," a Japanese word applied to extremely devoted hobbyists. And there's no mistaking the devotion of the people behind Otakon.

Take, for example, the six video viewing rooms. As might be expected of a big animation convention, Otakon '99 will include several U.S. premieres, including English-subtitled versions of "Nadesico: The Movie" and the long-awaited American release of the "Neon Genesis Evangelion" movies, "Death: Rebirth" and "End of Evangelion."

But most of what will get screened at Otakon are "fan subs" -- that is, versions of anime shows that have been translated and subtitled by American anime fans.

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