This past weekend, a suburban Philadelphia convention center was crawling with kids wearing dragon wings, pigtails and outrageous neon-colored schoolgirl outfits. Girls in Victorian dresses. Boys in Victorian dresses.
All of them had come to the annual Zenkaikon anime convention because they're among the countless people around the world who feel an intense, visceral connection to Japan through its popular culture — in the U.S. alone, fans spent an estimated $200 million last year just on anime.
So in the wake of the disasters that struck Japan on March 11, it's no wonder that the general mood at this year's Zenkaikon was more somber than usual.
"Everyone I've talked to ... has been kind of down," said anime-convention regular Jeremy Volk. "It doesn't feel like a normal, upbeat convention."
After all, this is a community where many people have close personal ties with people in Japan. Eve Perusse, a 21-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., mentioned a still-missing pen pal. Her friend Angel Brazier, working with her at a table selling Japanese rock CDs, said she felt more devastated by the tragedy in Japan than by the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.
Many fans described being on Twitter nonstop, communicating about the safety of favorite artists. Some quietly expressed concern about the disaster's impact on anime supply. But Andrew Taylor, a freshman at Drexel University, was clear on that front.
"We're not just worried about our anime being cut off," he said firmly. "We're actually concerned for the people there."
The convention was filled with fundraising efforts. Most vendors had posted signs announcing donations to the Japanese Red Cross. Joy Morrison, a self-described "con mom" who has wholeheartedly embraced her daughter's obsession with Pokemon, walked around the convention floor shaking a gallon jar that bore a little sign: Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief.
"I take cash, checks, I'll take your food stamps," she bellowed. Teenagers crowded around her, digging out crumpled bills from the depths of their odd, inventive costumes.
"I'm sorry I don't have more," one told her. "I love Japan."
That country, almost 7,000 miles away, is psychically close to Miles Adams, a skinny 19-year-old who got hooked on anime at age 8. At Zenkaikon, he was dressed as a character from the Japanese video game series Kingdom Hearts — all flowing black robes and spiky white wig. In a funny way, he said, Japan feels like home to him.
"I mean, it's where I've gotten most of my enjoyment for all my life," he said. His favorite video games, shows, books, music, even clothes all owe a debt to Japanese pop culture. "It means a lot to me."
And Japan means a lot to the fans who piled into screenings of such shows as Robogeisha and Bamboo Blade. Or into the panels on giant robots and mixed martial arts.
Ezra Cudjoe, 43, traveled to Zenkaikon from New York, where in real life, he's a case manager in a mental health facility. He said he was heartbroken by Japan's crisis.
"It has pushed me to want to do more, to be more a part of these people," he said.
Cudjoe said manga and anime are not frivolous, as far as he's concerned. They're a meaningful part of his life. He wants his connection to Japan to be more intense, more profound. The tragedy inspired him, he said, to start seriously studying Japanese.