Otaku In The Ozarks

By Shannon Caine


When you think about Japanese animation, you don’t usually think of Northwest Arkansas. However, Northwest Arkansas is home to a growing community of anime fans, and has gained considerable recognition for the Arkansas Anime Festival, or as the event is often called, A2F.

The festival began in 2006 and occurs twice a year — in spring and fall — bringing thousands of people and dollars to the area. The spring festival was held this month at the Clarion Inn convention center in Bentonville. In previous years, the festival was headquartered in Fayetteville, but the need for a larger venue moved the event north.

The regional anime scene extends well beyond the festival. Many local schools have anime clubs, as does the Fayetteville Public Library. There is a shop in Fayetteville devoted specifically to anime and related interests. It seems that anime has taken the region by storm.

Brooklyn Shock, in addition to running Realms Anime, the Fayetteville shop dealing in “all things anime” and billed on Facebook as the only anime store in Fayetteville, is the primary organizer of the Arkansas Anime Festival.

An Eye-Opener

Shock said that the first A2F was a real eye-opener.

“We were swamped with people,” Shock said. “I wasn’t expecting anywhere near that number. I nearly panicked. It was more successful than I could have imagined, and it keeps getting bigger every year.”

Shock estimated the 2009 fall A2F generated roughly $30,000 in revenue. That’s not a bad intake for a do-it-yourself effort by Arkansas anime fans. While they’re here, convention attendees pay for hotel rooms and meals. They purchase merchandise from the many different vendors who’ve set up booths at the event, who in turn are paying for the privilege of being there.

Anime is about fun and fandom, but it’s also about dollars and cents. And the Arkansas Anime Festival continues to bring more of those dollars to Northwest Arkansas.

The event is an eye-opener for others as well. Unsuspecting hotel guests who inadvertently book rooms at the same time an anime convention is taking place often find themselves in for a surprise. Imagine finding yourself in an elevator with three elves, a blue-haired man wielding a sword, a human-animal hybrid and a middle-aged woman in a schoolgirl outfit.

For some anime fans, “cosplay,” or costumed role-playing, is part of the fun. Costumes can be as cheap or expensive as one wishes, but the better costumes can involve a major investment of time and money.

At most anime conventions, one will encounter people dressed as their favorite anime characters, with costuming ranging from highly elaborate efforts to a more casual, inexpensive approach.

“You’d be surprised at some of the costuming people can whip up from stuff fished out of their own closets,” said Bobbi Kay Odom who attended the recent A2F.

One thing Odom said was missing from many costumes is pockets.

“Some people forget to add pockets,” said Odom who was working at a booth that sold miniature canvas totes and other accessories to make up for that oversight.

When asked if dressing up as an anime character was taking fandom a little too far, Elizabeth Chaffin, an intern with A2F, said that Star Trek and Harry Potter fans also dress up in character sometimes, so it’s really nothing new.

“Being someone you’re not for a day can be fun,” Chaffin said. “There’s no harm in it unless you actually start believing yourself to be a fictional character. Then you’ve got problems.”

Chaffin said some fans have specialized in costuming to the point that they are able to launch careers as specialty costume designers.

Another A2F vendor, Otaku House, has been to three Arkansas Anime Festivals. The proprietor, Gaelen Coleman, who describes himself as “head otaku” of the company, said he really enjoys A2F.

“We always have a great time here,” Coleman said.

Otaku House, based in Springfield, Mo., does business online as well as on the convention circuit.

An Otaku House staffer, Kate Tarrant, said they tend to do well at A2F.

“Vendors are fans, too,” Coleman said. This is why vendors in such a specialized market can stay in business. As fans, they are aware of the new trends as they arise.

A2F prides itself on being a fan-run festival, so event organizers have a good sense of what fans are looking for, what they want to do at conventions and what special guests they’re willing to come out and see.

Focus On The Family Calls Anime Perverted

Not everyone is an anime fan, however. Some parents sharply object to their children getting involved with anime. These parents are nervous about a subculture that’s foreign to them in every sense. But rather than fearing anime and automatically banning it, Shock recommends learning about it.

“There’s no sense in being afraid of something just because you don’t understand it,” Shock said. “Try watching some anime with your kids.”

Shock found that some parents who tried this approach ended up becoming anime fans themselves. Part of the reason for this is that anime covers such a wide gamut of subgenres.

“There’s really something for everyone,” Shock said. “It ranges from shows aimed toward children to programs for mature audiences, and everything in between. Almost everyone can find a show to enjoy.”

Sometimes, objections to anime are religious in nature. There are conservative Christians who take issue with certain types of characters portrayed in anime, particularly within the horror category.

The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family makes this observation on their “Plugged In” Web site (www.pluggedin.com):

“The religious characters in anime have included demons, exorcists, vampires, priestesses and sorcerers. A multitude of Shinto-inspired spirits indwell everything from rocks to the sun (e.g., 2002’s Oscar winner “Spirited Away”). Woven through all of this are counterfeit presentations of Christianity. While the archetype of good vs. evil dates back to Genesis, anime often perverts God’s truth by partnering good with evil for noble purposes.”

Some anime fans may contend there are examples of Western Hemisphere fantasy that work in a similar fashion in which an otherwise evil character temporarily lends his or her assistance for a good cause.

As for the horror subgenre, Shock says “There’s some anime out there that even creeps me out. But it’s important to make wise viewing choices, rather than condemning the entire genre altogether.”

Despite the objections of some religious groups, there is a growing Christian anime market. “Superbook,” an anime series that began airing in the U.S. in 1982, was produced in conjunction with the Christian Broadcasting Network as a missionary effort. It features characters who travel back in time to experience Biblical adventures with an emphasis on Old Testament stories.

Currently there are Web sites operated by Christian anime fans in which Christianity and anime are often discussed simultaneously, such as the forums of the Christian Anime Alliance. (www.christiananime.net)

Shock said A2F is a family-friendly festival.

“This is a family-friendly event. We’ve got a lot of young people here, including many minors. Everything we do here is out in the open, and there’s nothing that would be objectionable to any reasonable parent.

“In fact, we strongly encourage parents to come along and check it out for themselves, and to actively learn more about what their children are watching and reading.”

Something For Everyone

Because the popularity of anime is a somewhat recent trend in America, many anime fans tend to be younger people. However, there’s a new generation that is even younger still, so there is something of a division between “old school” anime fans and the younger generation.

Still, when some anime fans, such as 18-year-old Elizabeth Chaffin, who has been into anime since she was four years old, talk about the “old days,” they might be meaning the 1980s.

Old school anime could be represented by series like “Gundam Wing,” “Dominion: Tank Police,” “Kimagure Orange Road” and “Urusei Yatsura.”

Younger fans might be more intrigued by shows like “Bleach,” “Naruto,” “InuYasha” and “Death Note.”

But those new to anime shouldn’t expect every anime or manga title to actually make sense in English. If some titles seem indecipherable, they should simply be enjoyed for the inadvertent surrealist poetry.

Some Northwest Arkansas anime fans are studying Japanese culture and language as a result of their interest in anime. It is not uncommon to find fans who can sing their favorite theme songs in Japanese. Some also acquire a knowledge of Japanese honorifics. But Shock said one doesn’t have to be conversant in Japanese culture to be an anime fan.

Chaffin said there is a strong bond in the anime community. “There is definitely a sense of community among anime fans.”

Some of that community is taking on a regional flavor as Arkansas becomes increasingly well known as a place for anime fans to gather.

One thrill for some anime fans is to personally meet the voice actors from their favorite shows and A2F brings internationally recognized anime talent to Arkansas. It’s a way of connecting with the real-life individual behind the animated drawings. Of particular interest at the most recent A2F was Vic Mignogna, a voice actor who has lent his skills to highly popular shows such as “Dragonball Z,” “Bleach” and “Fullmetal Alchemist.”

“We’ve been in the position of bringing in some great guests, and as the convention keeps expanding, it’s only going to keep getting better,” Shock said.

At the recent festival, fans could purchase a $40 VIP pass that offered a number of perks including a dinner with some of the festival’s guest stars. Because only 18 passes were available, it was a unique opportunity to converse with the stars. For dedicated fans, this was a definite draw. Other guests included Maria Vu, Chris Ayres and Wendy Powell, all well-known voice actors in the anime world.

Lydia Nelson of Fayetteville said she prefers anime to certain types of Western animation because it’s “softer, cuter and more visually appealing.” She said some American animation is too harsh.

My personal introduction to anime was the series “Hellsing,” which isn’t for kids. I started reading the manga and then began watching the anime. It’s somewhat dark and could be seen as disturbing, and I’m fine with that. But not everyone favors the darker style of anime. However, anything too cute and perky drives me nuts.

But again, there’s something for everyone in the world of anime. And as the popularity of anime continues to spread throughout the area, the Arkansas Anime Festival will be there to help fans get their fix.

Categories: Features