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True to Character

At Anime Expo, 15,000 fans, some of whom dressed the part, gathered to buy--and bond


Regular girls with "boring day jobs," Judy Grivich and Kelly Bolton were "glomped" by fans and stopped for photographs hundreds of times over the weekend. Dressed as Hand Maid May and Cyberdoll Sara--characters from the Japanese animation series "Hand Maid May"--the San Jose roommates were minor celebrities as they walked the aisles of the 11th annual Anime Expo; Grivich in a hot-pink pinafore and apron, a wall-plug hanging out from under her fluffy white petticoat, and Bolton in a black satin gown and corset, clutching an empty plastic ramen bowl.

Bolton, a 26-year-old administrative assistant, and Grivich, a 27-year-old bank employee, were among 15,000 die-hard anime fans, or otaku, who attended last weekend's expo in Long Beach--a four-day convention that celebrates all aspects of Japanese pop culture.

"I've been into anime for a really long time when I used to rush home from school to watch 'Star Blazers,' " said Bolton, who used the show to make a convert out of her roommate. "It's like a drug. Show them something really simple that's easy to get into, and then you hook 'em."

Some otaku were at the expo to snap pictures and collect autographs from fellow fans who, like Grivich and Bolton, came to the convention dressed as their favorite animated characters. One woman used her T-shirt to collect signatures. Another woman's blue jeans were covered with inky scrawls.

Others were there to watch the fast and flashy videos that screened around the clock, to sing karaoke-style late into the night or to test their motor skills on various shoot-'em-up video games. Most came with cash and credit cards, hoping to snatch up manga (Japanese comic books), rare art cels, pop CDs and new videos.

Jarrett Davidson, 22, already owns $10,000 worth of anime videos and DVDs, but that didn't stop him from spending $500 and maxing out his credit card to purchase even more.

"We're above average, but there are people that extremely out-do us," said Davidson, who, with two of his friends, drove 1,300 miles in less than 24 hours to feast his eyes on all things anime over the four-day holiday weekend.

Like many otaku, he and his friends are attracted to the aesthetic of anime, but also its creative and evolved story lines. Unlike American cartoons, which are complete stories in and of themselves, anime series must be watched in sequence and sometimes have hundreds of episodes.

"It's like cartoons, but it's a lot more serious," said Davidson, who recalls staying up for two days without sleep to watch the entire "Slayer" series. "It's geared toward a higher age level with the character development, the plot."

American animation is still primarily geared toward children, but anime is made for people of all ages and interests, running the gamut from preschool "Pokemon"-type material to adult-oriented hentai. Series like "Sailor Moon," about a schoolgirl with superpowers, have a strong following with women, whereas shows like "Trigun," about an outlaw with a $60-billion bounty on his head who accidentally foils everyone's plans to kill him, appeal to both genders.

At Suncoast, a video and DVD store that had set up shop at the expo, "His & Her," a he-said-she-said romance about two competitive students who fall in love, was selling like hot cakes. So was "Excel Saga," a comedy about a girl who joins a club that plots to take over a city.

The three major anime production studios--Bandai, ADV and Pioneer--were all screening their latest videos before blissed-out fans who sat in beanbag chairs and lay on the carpet to take it all in. Meanwhile, other exhibit-goers dressed in "Got Manga?" T-shirts wandered the aisles, emptying their wallets so they could stuff their plastic bags with Astro Boy action figures and books on how to draw.

Anime first came to the U.S. in the '60s, with shows like "Kimba the White Lion" and "Speed Racer," but it wasn't until 1989 with the animated film "Akira" that anime began to take off and until 1999 with the wildly popular "Pokemon" movie that it began to gain mainstream acceptance. Today, anime is shown on the Cartoon Network and Fox Kids, and videos are sold at Blockbuster and Tower Records.

Its popularity is mirrored in the expo's attendance. In 1992, when it began, 1,200 people attended. The average age was 25 to 35. About 85% were male, according to Mike Tatsugawa, the 34-year-old founder of the expo. This year, more than 15,000 people attended. The average age had dropped, ranging from 13 to 18; the genders were evenly divided.

"Oh my God! Did you make this?" asked a breathless teenage girl, running up to expo attendee Jon Lubbe and grabbing the plush toy from his hand. Lubbe, 27, was dressed as an obscure anime character and was holding a stuffed animal from an even more obscure program.

The two had never seen one another before this moment, still, they bonded seamlessly.

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