On the Rocks
by: ©2006 DAVID PLECHL, For some, it’s all about the games at Kumoricon, an anime convention celebrating Japanese animation, comics and more. The convention drew about 2,000 adoring fans.

In the lobby and down the hallway, the kids are laughing, hugging, play-fighting and snapping one another's pictures. It looks like a high school on Halloween, and the hotel desk clerks do not look amused.

The Red Lion Hotel on the River - Jantzen Beach hosts all kinds of conventions, but this one stands out from the rest. For starters, it's not a convention, it's a con. Shriners and Realtors say 'convention.' Science fiction fanatics and comic book nerds say 'con.'

This is Kumoricon, Oregon's annual gathering of anime fans, a 2,000 person-strong army of self-admitted geeks.

Anime is, simply put, Japanese animation. The basic anime template is fairly familiar: Childlike characters with huge, sparkly eyes and spiky hair get swept up in a save-the-universe fantasy adventure.

As a genre, though, anime has become an umbrella for an entire subculture, with its own aesthetics, vocabulary and inside jokes. Meg Uhde, a Portland resident and the convention chairwoman, is showing me around, and what I see requires a steady stream of explanations.

The hotel is full of ninjas, giant bugs, girls with cat ears and guys in the uniforms of imaginary militias. Almost everyone is in costume, dressed as characters I don't recognize. Their costumes are references to stories I've never read, movies and TV shows I've never seen.

Cosplay puts on the drama

Uhde leads me into a carpeted ballroom, where the cosplay competition is in full swing. In front of an audience of more than 500 people, two young men are acting out a skit on stage. They hold gigantic swords - they're warriors from a video game - but they decide not to do battle. The audience laughs and cheers.

When a woman with long blond hair and black samurai armor appears on stage, the crowd erupts in applause. I don't know why.

Cosplay is a contraction of 'costume play.' The term covers play-acting, improv, scripted skits, or simply walking around in a costume. Cosplayers choose their favorite characters from anime or manga (Japanese comic books) or whatever else strikes their fancy - the whole gang from 'Scooby Doo' is here tonight, for instance.

There are also 'gothic Lolitas,' girls dressed in frilly black and white frocks, who have borrowed a Japanese teen fad for dressing like a Victorian doll.

Workshops on costume-making are part of the con. Uhde teaches a pattern-making class. She also hosts a workshop titled 'Adult Content in Anime,' to which only those over 18 are admitted.

She estimates that most of those in attendance are from 18 to 22 years old. Some are older - Uhde herself is 26 - and some are younger. Approximately 40 percent are from the Portland area, Uhde says, and the rest have traveled from as far away as Canada.

Something for all ages

The 17-year-old Mandie Bond is here with four friends and her mom. They made the five-hour drive from Camino Island, Wash., together. The friends are all dressed as characters from the show 'Naruto.'

Bond is Naruto, the show's hero. She explains, 'I'm a ninja and I'm really annoying and I like to eat ramen.' She's lost track of her mom, who probably is in the gaming room, because 'she's gotten really into DDR.'

At first I don't know what DDR means, which brands me as a raw neophyte. The letters stand for Dance Dance Revolution. It's an arcade game with music and flashing arrows and floor panels that light up when you step on them. Downstairs in the game room, a girl dressed as a French maid is performing this electronic jig, while a line stretches behind her as people wait their turn to play.

Also downstairs, there's a panel discussion in progress with three professional voice actors. Japanese films play in one room; in another, a group plays Japanese 'Name That Tune.'

Only a small percentage of Kumoricon attendees are Asian. Anime fans are a subculture in Japan as well as in the United States, Uhde explains, and the Japanese word for fans, otaku, is somewhat derogatory. In other words, she says, 'It's geeky there, too.'

Next we enter the Creation Station, a very popular activity room dedicated to fan fiction. Entries in an art contest line the walls, and the lights have been dimmed in preparation for 'Fan Fiction Bedtime Stories,' an open mike for stories and skits about anime characters.

Fan fiction is the creative outlet for the otaku. 'Basically,' Uhde explains, 'people like the characters enough that they start to create their own worlds for them, their own stories and scenarios. They'll take, say, Sailor Moon, and they'll write a story about what Sailor Moon would do in a certain situation.'

This type of writing is rampant on the Internet, and the Internet is a key part of the community. 'These people are not only anime savvy, they tend to be Internet savvy,' Uhde says. Trends and jokes move quickly through cyberspace - surely you've heard of the Numa Numa Dance? OK, I hadn't either. There's a whole little universe at play, here, and it may take the Red Lion Inn a while to recover.

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