Thankfully, as I was initiated into the culture, I had "Reiko" as a guide. The high school sophomore gave me the 411 as we navigated through the ninjas, schoolgirls, space sluts, zombies, animal-eared samurais, and futuristic military characters. Dressed in a style she called "goth-loli," a term for "gothic Lolita," Reiko could don the sexy-cute black clothes and lacy hair ribbons and take a Japanese name, just like the anime characters she admired, but her freckles and blue eyes still said "all American" to me. To her peers, perhaps, she was a bishojo, but to me, she was just a pretty girl.
I knew there'd be lots of kids, but with late-night hentai (animated porn), which had an "adults-only" restriction, and the lineup of local bands on the schedule, I had expected to find some grownup fans, not just exhausted parents collapsed on lobby benches. I made the most of things by exploring the subculture, starting with the costumes. Some were obviously store-bought garb of popular characters from manga (also known as graphic novels but really just long comic books) and animated TV series. Others, like the blue foam globes that orbited a young woman's head and a blue outfit that included harem-like pants, were more DIY in spirit. I didn't have to know the source to appreciate the character. But some were hard to fathom.
"What's up with the bandages?" I asked Reiko, nodding toward the teenager in front of us.
The clean, white gauze wound from her ankles up to her knees. In fact, many had similarly wrapped extremities.
"She's a ninja," Reiko said matter-of-factly.
Not like any ninja I'd ever seen, and not just because of the khaki short shorts.
"Ninjas wear high heels?"
"If they are hot like her...," Reiko shrugged, shooting me a sweet smirk. "You are so cute and uninformed!"
Yup, that's the thing about this community. Even their condescension is cute, or, as they call it, kawai. Instead of beauty and conformity reigning supreme, as they do in mainstream teenaged culture, cute and sexy rule peacefully alongside imagination and tolerance. It's nerdtopia for all ages, even if mostly teenagers are the ones taking advantage of it. I felt like a bigger jerk than usual for noting that some of the kids (especially those in the gaming room) were so ugly that they looked practically deformed.
Frank Edwards, the karaoke host popularly known as Frank-E-Oke, remarked later: "I thought one kid had a forehead prosthesis, like he was dressed as an alien or something,"
Like I said, practically deformed. But it wouldn't be kawai to say so.
No, the shojo (girl) in the red satin jacket was more in the spirit of things. Instead of hawking her wares in the shopping area, she had an offer many couldn't refuse.
"For five cents, we'll make out with each other!" she egged on passersby. Her accomplice, another shojo in an aqua kimono and orange cat ears, held a bamboo hat full of offerings for the kissing exhibition.
A cute couple dropped a nickel in the hat, and it quickly slid down past the chow mein noodles and Pocky soy snacks others had contributed and settled with a clink in the loose change at the bottom. Then the hawker and the hat-holder began kissing as an androgynous teenager in an orange beanie (bedecked with cat ears, of course) stood on a chair holding a poster-board sign announcing "Will Yaoi-Yuri-hetero 4 Pocky" cheered them on.
Reiko translated: Yaoi and Yuri are gay and lesbian romance, respectively, in the otaku (obsessive fans of Japanese culture, particularly) world.
So much I didn't understand. And not just all the Japanese.
"What's 'glomp'?" I asked the young lady who had donated the nickel and had the term printed across her T-shirt.
"It's easier if I show you," she replied.
She backed up a couple of feet to get a little running start and then flung herself with affectionate enthusiasm against her boyfriend, embracing him tightly.
"Glomp!" she said grinning, like a nerdy Cheshire cat, thanks to the shiny black ears on top of her head and the matching eyeglasses. Evidently, it's the preferred method of greeting among anime conventioneers. It looked a lot more fun (and potentially dangerous) than a handshake.
Reiko wandered off, and later I saw her booty-shaking with a ninja and a dark fairy whose iPod was nestled in a hotel planter. When they weren't assuming the personas of their anime heroes, they just seemed committed to having fun.
So now that I was on my own, I decided to seek out those my own age. I stumbled into an apparent photo-op with some guys who were seemingly important. At least, they had warm beer on hand.
"That's Master Shake," convention organizer Mike Broder told me when I asked who the big guy in the trucker hat and the Buddy Holly glasses was.
I looked at him blankly.
"Master Shake... from Aqua Teen Hunger Force," he said, as if emphasis would clue me in. Since my interest in cartoons ended in the Scooby-Doo era, the blank look must have remained.
I finally got a hint from a stack of movie posters with an animated shake, an order of fries, and a meatball, all brandishing weapons in an end-of-the-world sort of scenario, complete with monsters and erupting volcanoes. Oh, yeah, that oddball animated movie that's making the rounds after the Adult Swim series got it rolling.
"And that's Jay Wade Edwards, the editor and producer," Broder continued, indicating the gray-haired guy with the mutton-chop sideburns.
Editor? Producer? These were things I understood.
"Let's get one more picture," Broder suggested, sending me up to the photo staging area.
"Prom shot!" Master Shake declared as I stood between the two, and they took my left hand in each of theirs and leaned in close.
Lately, Jay has been screening "a beach party, rock 'n' roll monster movie" he'd written, edited, and produced: Stomp! Scream! Shout! And it was included in the day's events.
"It's like a real movie," he claimed, wondering aloud how it would go over. "I may not be in my element here, but everyone is so fucking happy."
The guys headed out to dinner, and I beelined it to the hotel bar, where Japanese culture continued to reign this time in the form of karaoke, a regular Saturday-night occurrence at the Long Green Lounge (remember, we're at a golf and tennis resort!). The same pastime had been offered earlier in the convention's main room, but the space had been ripe with adolescent armpit stank.
"We call that 'fan funk,'" explained a guy with a goatee and shaved head who had claimed the stool next to mine when I complained of the smell.
The guy, a 30-something, claimed to be an organizer of a similar convention, but he didn't want to give me his name.
"Call me Dick Fitzwell," he suggested.
Half serious, I asked if he was a pedophile.
"It's funny you should ask that," Dick said, unfazed. "These things do attract them. But the community makes sure they are removed. It's a close group."
Dick estimated the number of fans over 18 years old at 25 to 30 percent. His estimate seemed high, but with the costumes and makeup, who could be sure?
"We're normally a bunch of social introverts, but when we are together, it's like three days of sleep-away camp," Dick explained.
"What happens at Con stays at Con," interjected his friend, a 32-year-old Orlando hotel employee.
"It does have Vegas atmosphere," Dick confirmed.
Good to know, but I had to excuse myself so I could go listen to Zombies! Organize!! take some musical jabs at consumer culture. I reached into my purse for my business card and pulled out a wad of note-laden cocktail napkins.
"Don't laugh. That's how Ninja Turtles started," Dick reassured me as I finally produced a business card, "on cocktail napkins at a pizza place. The waiter was fat and slow as a turtle."
Of course, my own brainstorming would probably yield a different sort of super hero: a bombshell sexpot with the powers of night vision, fast-talking and possessing a disarming wit, who stomped out evil in her Mary Janes. Sound familiar, Night Rider fans? The rest of the details could be worked out while I rocked to zombie rap.