Richard Chan of Port St. Lucie as Tonberry (one of hundreds of attendees at the recent OtakuCon in Miami Beach)
Colby Katz

Barnes & Noble Bookstore in downtown West Palm Beach's CityPlace is buzzing with the early-winter tourist crowd on this Friday night in January. Milling about the two-story bookstore, the older folks are dressed smartly for dinner, while the young set keeps it cas with T-shirts and jeans.

Crystal Tilton, however, defies the clothing conventions of a night out at an upscale mall. Sitting with friends in the store's coffee shop, the 17-year-old looks like a living cartoon character: She possesses long, jet-black hair held in place by a wide, pink headband, which is encircled by dark-blue zigzag. She wears what's best described as a modified yellow kimono, though it's made of cotton instead of silk and cinched with a purple belt. More blue zigzag adorns the garment's cuffs and front panel. She carries a circle of green cloth that, when stretched out over wiring, serves as a leaf from a tree. The homemade costume, fashioned after an animated Japanese sprite named Kororo, is easy to pull on and off.

Nearby book browsers glance, bewildered as much by her garb as her argot, oblivious to the fact that they've just crossed paths with one of the growing minion of anime fans, many of whom dress in costumes of their favorite characters, or cosplay for short. They're as obsessed with Japanese animation as ornithologists are with birds -- though bird watchers don't usually feel the need to don tail feathers.

"I'm very much a fantasy person," Tilton chirps. She's standing beside several other members of Ronin Anime Club of the Palm Beaches, a group that meets routinely to discuss and watch anime. "I don't like living in reality very much. Which might explain my hyperness. Cosplay is an excuse to get out of reality."

Kororo is a character from the TV series Shaman King, which is about a tournament for wannabe spirit warriors. Tilton is a sucker for characters who are "little and cute," like Kororo, a relatively minor character who serves as a "spirit ally" for one of the competitors. She's drawn to their similarities: "We both tend to be a bit clingy," she says. "I usually want to cosplay characters who are like me or have personalities that I really like," she says. "If I absolutely despise a character, I wouldn't want to cosplay him."

The Japanese long ago coined a name for such hyperfans: otaku. Although they use it disdainfully, American animaniacs have embraced the description.

Tilton describes the appeal of anime -- whose doe-eyed adventurers are poised, some experts say, to wrest preeminence in the international 'toon world from cute animals and princesses -- this way: "The best part of it is that anything and everything you would see on American TV as live action you'll see in anime, plus more."

Most anime series and movies begin in the graphic novel form called manga and, if successful, are adapted into animation. Anime is highly stylized, with much more of an emphasis on detail rather than the fluidity of motion found in high-end Disney animation. For instance, a robot might have the shading and detail of a Renaissance portrait -- and at times appears to be posing as a still-life model. Characters are generally part of the environment around them; they're not just figures moving across a nebulous background, as in many American cartoons.

But what really grabs fans are the characters' highly perceptible emotions, which are often heightened by the genre's most notable hallmark: the characters' oversized eyes and mouths, which help exaggerate emotion. Anime artists have also created a domain of facial symbols for expressing emotion. For example, a teenaged boy swooning over a pretty girl might be depicted with a surreal clown face with huge lips. Anger might be crosshairs replacing the eyes.

Above all else, perhaps, anime is unpredictable, even bizarre. Take, for example, the unlikely titled TV series Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo. Our hero here fights a ruthless emperor who sends out his Hair Hunters to shave the entire human race. Sporting a golden Afro, Bobo possesses special powers to hear what hair has to say, and he engages in battle using nose hairs that snake out of his nostrils. During less violent moments, he fashions a nose-hair clothesline to dry his outfits. Makes SpongeBob SquarePants look like a Wall Street broker.

Part of anime's allure is that it remains quasi-underground; much of the stuff is subtitled by hard-core fans immediately after its release in Japan and then offered to aficionados via Internet downloads. American media have largely relegated it to the "kids-only ghetto," as one critic puts it. Others associate it with anime's X-rated genre, called hentai.

There are signs, however, that even in America, the perception is changing. In 2003, the film Spirited Away won an Academy Award for best animated feature. Kill Bill, Volume 1 featured a lengthy anime section. Disney has just released on DVD Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, one of the most influential anime films ever made. Such high-profile releases help spread the word that anime isn't just for kids; there's gripping storytelling here, equal to films the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings.  

In early December, Tilton and hundreds of other fans converged on OtakuCon in Miami Beach, an orgy of computer games, anime screenings, celebrity appearances, and of course cosplay. If anime lovers are marginalized or teased elsewhere, then this three-day convention tried to make up for that through intense camaraderie. When old friends met -- usually from a previous convention -- they often glomped -- a kind of tackling hug. Most devotees wore costumes, some simple, some elaborate. Several dragged life-sized crucifixes around while imitating a character from a television series called Trigun. Others hoisted six-foot cardboard swords over their shoulders. Some costumes were slapdash, such as cardboard boxes thrown together for a robot. Others had been handcrafted over months. As one fan said, "Here, if you're not wearing a costume, you're looked at as weird."

At the beginning of the convention, about 40 attendees, mostly young men and boys, gathered to begin a game of Assassin. Many were clad in ninja outfits; others looked vaguely like characters from The Matrix. A restless anticipation permeated the room, not unlike that of a pregame football locker room. The contest's goal was simple: As the convention proceeded, eliminate other players by sneaking up on them and swiping the victim with a small plastic dagger. The last man standing wins. The players lined up for digital photos, from which the game's organizer quickly printed out "hit" portfolios. Each player was given one. From these, he'd locate his victim among hundreds of conventiongoers. After each successful kill, he'd receive a new target.

"What if you're sharing a hotel room with someone you're supposed to kill?" one guy asked. "Can we do it while he's asleep?" The organizer, a long-haired IT-looking guy, forbade such an uncouth termination. "And no running in the hallways, knocking down people," he continued. "What you do outside the hotel, of course, is up to you."

If the convention seems a bit, well, nerdy, most anime fans are quick to acknowledge that reputation and even have some fun with it. David Chau, a short, perky Asian with spiky black hair, led a well-attended panel called "Chino Eye for the Otaku Guy," which was intended to help the guys "overcome the evils and perils of those scary cute little chibis we know as girls."

After making over one boy's wardrobe, he set a girl to work plucking the ample eyebrows of another. He asked another girl to the stage as a volunteer. "This is how a typical fan would introduce himself to a girl at a con," Chau said. He slouched, licked his lips, and kept his head bent a few inches from her chest. "Try to keep your eyes on her face and not her tits!" he shouted. As for those awkward first moments, he offered this advice: "Women don't like to hear how ugly you are."

A gathering of anime fans outside the no-holds-barred convention setting, however, is a lot less manic, with devotees delving into metaphysics or coolly perusing the latest offerings from Japan.

On a rainy Saturday evening in January, the Ronin Anime Club crammed into the living room of a small duplex in unincorporated Lake Worth for its biweekly gathering. The potholes riddling the street out front, some a half-foot deep, are filled with water. This neighborhood, just off Florida Mango Drive Road, is home to the club's president, Aimee Huffman, who is now a freshman at Florida Atlantic University. Stocky with dark-blond, kinky hair, Huffman lives with her family next door to the duplex, whose owner volunteered its vacant half for anime viewing -- provided they clean up afterward and don't break anything.

Here, they dip into the vast collection of downloaded anime -- a 260 gigabyte hard drive is almost full -- and watch only a fraction of it for three or four hours. Membership is loose. You're in basically by showing up with some frequency and paying $5 for each viewing. And even the latter isn't that strict: When weed-thin Christian Piescik gingerly brought up the topic of collecting the money while the assemblage chowed down on birthday cake, each member pleaded poverty. "You know," Piescik inveigled in his soft, nasal-toned voice, "if we're going to get this many people showing up, we could afford to rent a hotel room and have a lot more space."  

A baker's dozen showed up this night, taking their places on an old couch, a few chairs, an ottoman, and the floor. The rest of the space is consumed by two overflowing bookcases; hanging above all from the ceiling is a mobile made of ubiquitous AOL startup compact discs.

They warmed up watching a popular fan-made genre called AMV, anime music videos. The maker chooses a song to his liking, then slices up one or several anime series to fit the lyrics. Sometimes the song is sexually suggestive and utterly contrary to the theme of the series. They all remained riveted to the videos, but groans went up: "This is so wrong," someone said. "Just in almost every possible single way," agreed Erik Burk, a skinny 22-year-old with spiky black hair.

As they often do, they sampled the bootlegged pilots of several half-hour anime TV series. One of them hewed to anime's popular "harem" genus, in this case a teenaged boy sent away to a new high school on an island. Here, he meets, one at a time, several spaniel-eyed girls who save him from calamity in their own style, then disappear. "This is so random!" Burk interjected as the story bounced from girl to girl.

The show was slightly titillating, slightly dopey, and ended bizarrely as the teenager was deliberating which girl to pursue romantically. Suddenly, they all appear before him and announce they're his "little sisters." Or maybe they're not. It's not really clear. One of those anime moments.

"What the hell?" Piescik exclaimed.

To begin to understand the mesmerizing nature of anime on its devotees, you must understand its history. Americans were introduced to animation via movie theater cartoon shorts before World War II that were basically brief, slapdash comedies. As television developed in the 1950s, cartoons were relegated to the kiddie land of Saturday morning.

Animation's route was decidedly different in Japan. Although animation languished for about ten years after the end of the war, comic books, unlike in the U.S., developed into the graphic novel form. Osamu Tezuka, now considered the godfather of Japanimation, was the country's most popular comic book artist in the 1950s. After one of his comic books was successfully adapted into a feature-length animated film, he established the country's first TV animation studio. His first series, Tetsuwan Atomu, was a big hit, and by the early '60s, it was introduced to Americans as the now venerable Astro Boy, a 21st-century child robot fashioned after a scientist's dead son.

By the time Astro Boy had joined the host of Saturday-morning cartoons in America, however, Tezuka and his imitators had pushed the conventions of animation, establishing it as the primary storytelling vehicle for any age group and any genre: drama, sci-fi, Western classics, sports stories, and mysteries.

In the 1970s, American cartoon shows began broadcasting edited anime involving flying robots and space battles that sparked a nascent cult following here. "In the '80s, when VCRs came and you could get tapes, that's when it really started growing," recalls Patrick Drazen, author of Anime Explosion! The What? Why? Wow! of Japanese Animation. Those tapes, bootlegs traded among aficionados or those found in specialty stores, meant fans were no longer limited by broadcast television's conception of who was interested in animation. The children of that era are now the teens and young adults of today, many of whom absorbed the style of anime and find it easy to embrace the form the way older Americans accept Hollywood's orthodoxy.

"After a while, you get to understand what it is that draws the West to this," Drazen explains. "It's fresh, intellectually challenging, emotionally compelling, a breath of fresh air in every sense of the word."

Story lines can involve controversial subjects, such as suicide and homosexuality, and dabble in motifs, such as crucifixion, that just wouldn't get on prime-time TV, much less cartoon shows.

"For so long now, Disney has had a lock on the definition of what animation is supposed to do," Drazen says. "The Japanese transcended that. They're able to paint with a color that we deny ourselves."

Unlike most American cartoons, anime and manga try to induce an audience to identify emotionally with characters. "They are not just cute critters," he says. "They are not something to keep your eyes busy for 20 minutes, sell you a product, and then have a little moral at the end. These things deliberately punch the emotional buttons because that's how the fans get into them and keep coming back."

For example, he submits, a recent episode of Full Metal Alchemist -- in which a character's soul is trapped in a suit of armor because he has used forbidden science -- involved a magician whose continued high status depends on his creating a talking animal. He couldn't do it, so he fudged and sort of melded his daughter and pet dog. "What he created was an atrocity, and it had to be put out of its misery," Drazen says. "It was the most heartbreaking thing. I watched it with my 11-year-old niece, and we were both near tears."  

It's a big leap, however, from identifying emotionally with a story to actually wanting to be its characters. That's truly otaku, the kind of obsession that drives Amanda Rojas and Stefen Mazzone, who recently talked about cosplay while chomping on French fries at a Pembroke Pines burger joint. A 16-year-old sophomore at Flanagan High School, Mazzone has a round face, wire-rimmed glasses, messy dark hair, and a sly smile. He usually defers to the 18-year-old Rojas, who's a senior at the same school. She's petite, with shoulder-length black hair and eyes almost as big as an anime fairy's. They grow even larger as she speaks.

On this day, the only telltale evidence that they've gone from viewing to participating is the bright-blue forehead protector hanging around Rojas' neck. The shiny chromed headband is featured in the ninja-themed TV series Naruto, and it's the symbol for the show's Hidden Village of Rain. Hanging below it is a replica of the ring from Lord of the Rings.

They throw down in a nerd showdown over who's more possessed with the famous trilogy, and she flashes the ring.

"I beat her, though," he says.

"No you don't, no you don't!"

"I speak Elvish."

"Oh my God!" she wails.

The two met when Rojas founded the high school's anime club, and she hopes Mazzone will become president after she graduates this year. "My regular friends who don't like anime are like, 'Wow, you're a nerd,'" Rojas says.

Not to be outdone, Mazzone boasts, "I'm known for the Link character from Legend of Zelda. I guess you'd call it my signature costume that I've worn to most places. People know me at conventions. I even wore this costume to school once." He pulls out a Pez dispenser that bears the image of Link, an elf garbed in a green tunic.

"People ask, 'How can you wear that?'" he says. "I'm like, 'Because I don't care what you people think.' I got into it because I thought it was cool with the contests. It was people with my interests. For fun, that's mainly why I dress. You don't have to act like yourself. You can act like the character."

Though cosplayers have a reputation as nerds, there's no telling where the anime lightning will strike. Rojas' older brother, now a Marine, had an intense interest in anime that sparked hers. He and his friends took her to a convention. "If you go to an anime con not dressed up, they're like, 'Why aren't you dressed up?'" she says. "People like to dress up because it makes them feel comfortable with themselves," she asserts. She's worn a Harry Potter costume to school and sometimes wears her forehead protector.

Of course, they both have their own conception of how far is too far with anime. "There are some scary people who are kind of like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons," Mazzone says, holding the tips of his fingers together and striking a creepy voice: "Excellent."

"One guy thinks he's a half demon," Rojas says of a club member. "There's a lot of anime based on vampires. Some people just connect in that way."

Indeed, Huffman recalls one fellow high schooler who introduced himself to his teacher as Duo Maxwell, the God of Death, from the anime series Gundam Wing. "So this guy is constantly telling people that he's going to destroy the earth federation. He's integrated it into everyday life. He acted like he firmly believed it. He even grew out his hair and braided it like the character's." She sums up: "Most of us have lives."

Shortly after New Year's Day, the diehard members of Ronin Anime are strolling through the Zen-drenched footpaths of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach. The entrance is guarded by a granite replica of the Chie no Wa Wisdom Ring, which is fashioned after the original that sits near a Buddhist temple in Japan. From that point, a pathway of bamboo thickets, rock gardens, gentle brooks, and bonsai plants evokes the Japanese settings they often see in anime. It's the perfect setting for a group of animaniacs.

In fact, there are signs that in the past, other fans have soaked up the Japanese ambiance: "I love Manga" and other anime graffiti have been carved into the trunks of bamboo in a grove. The Morikami is a virtual clubhouse for anime fans, who idolize Japanese culture.  

When they reach the Contemplation Pavilion, a small, wooden, gazebo-like structure, they settle in to chatter. They are soon joined by Rob, a member of Orange Anime, a Florida-wide club whose members interact mainly online. Handsome with short, dark hair, Rob declines to give his last name, preferring instead to use his Internet name, Hylian Blood. In his online profile, the 22-year-old Lighthouse Point resident describes himself as a cosplayaholic and professional dork. For the average passerby, he probably lives up to his self-description: He sports a green elf hat, a two-foot plastic Japanese sword, and a T-shirt bearing an elfin image and the logo "Legend at Work." Around his neck hangs a collection of convention passes and Orange Anime ID badges.

"It's just enough so that the anime people who come here will be able to pick me out," he says of his outfit. Indeed, Huffman had caught a glimpse of him earlier and recalled meeting him at a past convention.

The pavilion is a cacophony of anything but contemplation as everyone babbles. "I told some random people at Barnes & Noble because they didn't know there was an anime club in West Palm," one voice rises up. "I said, 'Yes there is!'"

Later, while seated for lunch at the museum's sushi café, the repast discourse inevitably turns to anime, this time to the subject of dubbing versus subtitles.

"If I want to read, I'll look at a magazine," declares Burk, who wears wraparound sunglasses and smiles broadly after each sip of his hot sake.

"It's a lame argument," Rob interjects with a tone that implies this topic is often debated.

"Look, TV was invented so you can look," Burk counters. "I just want to relax and watch."

"Most of us like subtitles because more of the translation gets through," Huffman explains from behind a heap of curried beef, but there's hardly agreement on that either because there's the matter of how to translate.

"Sure, a lot of the dialogue is messed up," Rob says, arguing against ultraliteral translations. "But what's the difference between someone saying, 'This is not an impure act' or if they say, 'I'm not going to get into trouble'? The idea is the same."

But Huffman maintains that shades of meaning reflecting the country's history and religious fables are lost during such translations. "You have a lot of people who don't understand that much about Japanese culture," she says.

Such as the word sayonara. At the conclusion of one particular episode, Piescik points out, a character says sayonara, which in this case carries with it the implication of leaving forever, like he's going to his death. That can't simply be translated into goodbye or the meaning of the scene would be corrupted.

The club reaches a happy accord a short while after lunch as they approach a footbridge over a meandering goldfish-filled stream. Standing guard is a samurai knight, fully decked out in battle armor. Part of the museum's New Year's celebration, the grim-faced samurai stands at attention, his arm extended and holding a steel-tipped lance. The anime lovers recognize one of their own, rush to his side, and pepper him with questions about his armor and gear. Thrusting their cameras at passersby so they record their presence at the event, they mug animatedly in the samurai's shadow.

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