Friday, October 1, 2010

Convention Season, Part II

"Why I Love Anime Weekend Atlanta"

My love of animation is already well-documented on this blog; I don't think I have to reiterate my enthusiasm for all things Pixar, Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies, and classic-era Disney. However, despite the sophisticated and often violent humor to be found in Chuck Jones's and Bob Clampett's best-known cartoons, the intricate storytelling and weighty themes of the best Pixar films, and the folkloric horror that characterizes some of the images in Disney's first five feature films (who can forget the transformation of Queen into hag in Snow White? The marching, menacing pink elephants in Dumbo? The grim leer of the horned Dark God in the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment of Fantasia?), here in America we can't seem to let go of the idea that cartoons are primarily children's entertainment. If we animate it, brilliant as it may be, we must be going after a "family audience."

Other nations do not hold such a limited view of the possibilities inherent in animation. In Japan, anything might be animated -- anything from gangster dramas (Baccano!) to Hitchcockian thrillers (Perfect Blue) to the agonizing downward spiral of two orphaned children as World War II nears its end (Grave of the Firefiles). These are all brilliant stories, and I wouldn't recommend a one of them for anyone under the age of thirteen. (Grave of the Fireflies may be about children, but that doesn't mean it's for children; this is a mistake people make too often. This beautiful film should come with a warning: you will want to lie down in a dark room for at least an hour after you've watched it.) "Anime" -- the term for Japanese animation -- encompasses realistic drama, slapstick comedy, thought-provoking science fiction, and wondrous fantasy. No genre is left unexplored. So when we visit an anime convention, we never know quite what we will discover. There's always some new story waiting to move or intrigue us.

That's the first and best thing I love about Atlanta's biggest tribute to anime, Anime Weekend Atlanta:
1) The viewing rooms. Throughout the convention's three days, various anime films and shows of all different varieties are screened for fans. Many of these films and shows aren't available on commercial DVD; the convention gives us our only chance to glimpse them. Each year I've visited AWA, I've found myself engaged by some new story. This year it was Baccano!, with its wildly eccentric cast of gangsters, thieves, hit men, and other shady characters, and The Glass Mask, with its imaginative girl protagonist who yearns for a career on the stage. In previous years I've gotten excited by Romeo X Juliet, a take on the famous family feud which may have precious little to do with Shakespeare but offers plenty of action and romance, and Rose of Versailles, which tells the sad story of a girl reared as a boy, who grows up to serve as the captain of Marie Antoinette's guard. Historical drama, forbidden love, coming-of-age, machine guns and violence -- I never know quite what waits around the corner at AWA.

2) The manga (Japanese graphic novel) reading room. This convention knows that the visiting fans love to read, so it sets aside a nook where we can go, choose from a varied selection of manga volumes, and sit and lose ourselves in a good story. (AWA is all about stories.) I never read many comic books when I was a child; in the manga reading room I can make up for lost time. One small objection: manga novels are usually multi-volume, and too often the room will only make one or two volumes available -- perhaps because they want to be sure we'll be driven to visit --

3) The dealer's room. Here, as at DragonCon, we see how many and varied are the ways in which we fannish fools may be parted from our money. Plenty of manga dealers will offer to supply those volumes missing from the reading room. DVD merchants will hawk those marvelous shows we've been watching in the viewing rooms, so we can see them in all their multi-episode glory; they know, as we know, that outside the convention these shows won't be easy to find, for sale or for rent. Movie posters, trading cards, T-shirts, artwork, anything a geek's heart desires can be found within those walls. Perhaps the most valuable things we can take out of the dealer's room, however, are the inner commodities of self-control and restraint -- to look, to want, and not to buy.

4) Artist's Alley. Area artists with an infinite variety of styles inhabit this room, offering to draw popular or obscure anime characters upon requests. When I visit the Alley, however, I'm not much interested in commissioning drawings of someone else's characters. Instead I write down descriptions of characters from stories I'm working on, and I give them to an artist and ask for sketches of them. I have favorites who seem to understand exactly how my imagination works. When a vision in my head suddenly appears before me in pencil, it's incredibly rewarding. The Alley's only drawback is that whenever I traverse it, I lament my lack of ability with paintbrush and pencil.

5) "Anime Hell." I have to include this because it is certainly one of my favorite things to experience at AWA, but I'm not quite sure how to describe it. It takes place from 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday night, and it consists of a collection of shorts, some intentionally hilarious and some downright ridiculous in their earnestness, all designed to fill the audience with a sense of sublime wierdness. Anime Hell is not for the easily offended, nor is it for those who take themselves too seriously. But I always find plenty to make me laugh till I hurt.

6) Costumes! I get to dress up here, too. Most of the geeks at AWA come clad as their favorite anime characters, but I always see plenty of generic costumes, worn by people like me who fancy daydreaming themselves into another time and place without inhabiting a specific character's skin. Whether specific or generic, costumes are always fun to see.

Like DragonCon, AWA is for people who relish stories and storytelling. Also like DragonCon, AWA is hard to leave. "Day-after-Christmas Syndrome" always characterizes the homeward journey. The best my husband and I can do when we're down in those dumps is assure ourselves and each other that the year is awfully short, and we'll be back at the Cobb Galleria and Renaissance Waverly before we know it, looking over the program and choosing what shows to see and what discussions to take part in. In the meantime, our passion for stories and storytelling will not desert us.

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