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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson