As the semester kicks off and your free time is taken up by whichever hobbies, student groups or jobs you’ve committed to, you may not be aware of a certain group of fervent individuals quietly residing in all areas of campus, trickling into the far-out corners of Ann Arbor. This avid bunch, often secluded though very aware of the larger community it belongs to, has one common love: anime.
Everyone has come face to face with this Japanese-culture obsession at one point or another. Maybe you were the bandwagon “Pokémon” fan trying to make money off a Charizard card, or the die-hard Saturday morning “Sailor Moon” addict. You may even have a personal obsession with anime to this day, and if you do, you’re not alone. Even if you simply have an anime-loving friend, you’ve been exposed to the medium.
“I’ve pretty much grown up with anime,” said Ariel Roberts, a School of Art & Design freshman. “My mom is Japanese, and we had Studio Ghibli films like ‘My Neighbor Totoro.’ My middle name is Mei, after the younger sister in the movie.”
So where do those struck with this passion find an outlet for their anime love?
At the University, there’s Animania, a student group that holds monthly screenings of anime for students and townies and holds Ann Arbor’s anime convention.
Animania: serving Ann Arbor anime addicts for nearly 25 years
Animania is not only one of the largest student groups on campus, with over 800 members on its e-mail list, but it’s also one of the most distinct. Embracing Japanese culture, the officers and staff of Animania get together and plan monthly screenings of Japan’s most underground anime for the general public’s viewing pleasure. The group’s goal is to show people the multifaceted nature of anime as an art form, hoping to expose audiences to films they may not find among mainstream releases.
The club, founded by a small group of of Ann Arbor townies in the late 1980s, has been affiliated with the University for about 20 years.
Among Animania’s founding fathers is former Ann Arborite Tim Eldred, a comic artist most notable for his graphic novel “Grease Monkey,” which was selected by the American Library Association in 2007 as one of the best books for young adults.
Eldred began his anime addiction as a tween in the 1970s with television shows like “Speed Racer” and “Star Blazers.”
“I didn’t catch onto the fact that it was from another country,” Eldred wrote in an e-mail interview. “I just loved the energy of it. I could watch it every day after school and the tone was more mature than the usual Saturday morning fare.”
When Eldred stumbled upon the Ann Arbor anime scene, there was only a very small anime group present in the city, consisting of fewer than ten regular members. The group was struggling and on the verge of losing its organizing member. Eldred was corresponding with him at the time, and both were mutual pen pals with other anime fans across the country.
“I agreed to take over,” Eldred wrote. “This was the late 1980s, and I had built up a big video library of anime via tape trading on VHS, so I had plenty of stuff to show. I started up a newsletter, came up with the name Animania, and we had monthly screenings in the house of one of our members.”
After Eldred took over the group, membership soared. Eldred explained that within just a few months there were too many members to be accommodated in the house where they had been holding the screenings, so they moved to a community building in an apartment complex.
“A few months later, we were outgrowing that, so we booked a meeting room at the Michigan Union,” Eldred wrote.
The group continued to flourish through the 1990s, regularly attracting 300 to 400 people to the monthly screenings and organizing a trip to the Anime Expo in Los Angeles. It was also asked by the staff of U-Con, Ann Arbor’s gaming convention, to bring its following to the autumn event.
But the University wouldn’t allow for a proper convention with U-Con. University policy dictated that there couldn’t be any private vendors in University buildings. So Animania birthed its own type of convention — or non-convention, rather.
Con Ja Nai — literally translated from Japanese as “not a convention” — is an event now held annually by Animania. It’s an all-day affair on the first floor of the Modern Languages Building, including four screening rooms for anime and other activities including games, trivia and discussion panels. The first Con Ja Nai in 1994 had an attendance of roughly 1,000 people.
But times are tougher for Animania nowadays, and attendance at monthly screenings and Con Ja Nai are at an all-time low. Steven Heise, president of Animania, thinks this has to do with the group’s lack of resources and advertisement rather than a lack of an anime fans on campus or in Ann Arbor.
“I don’t want to say the University doesn’t support us, because we do get money from MSA and LSA-SG,” Heise said. “But I think that the University has other things they’d rather promote than the anime club.”
“There is a stigma attached with anime fans that would be undesirable for the University to promote,” he added.
Heise maintains that this stigma is a misconception, which is evident if you take a look at the club.
“We have a very diverse group of people,” Heise said. “We have Engineers and LSA people and Art & Design people. We have people who aren’t what you expect to see when you think anime fan.”
“I think being open-minded and watching some anime even if you don’t think you’re going to like it is important,” Heise said. “Sometimes you’ll get a nice surprise from a source you never expected.”
Animania is attempting to overcome its obstacles. Heise encourages showing anime that is less mainstream, not what you may typically think of when considering the genre’s identity.
“The shows I promote are the ones that aren’t what people think anime is,” Heise said. “It’s not all just the magical girls and giant robots, even though there are shows like that out there.”
Eldred is still proud of the Ann Arbor anime legacy he has left in Animania.
“Once in a while I’ll hear through the grapevine that Animania is still going, and it makes me feel like a proud father,” he said. “I think what makes Animania really special is that it was around before anime went mainstream. They’re in a position to appreciate the roots and the history.”
“When I think of all the friendships and cross-cultural interest that must have resulted, I think it can only be a good thing for any community to have an anime group.”
Anime: more than a cartoon?
The existence of such a large group with so many avid fans demands the question: What is it about anime that makes fans so passionate they jump right into the surrounding communal hype? The answer is simple: Anime is more than just a cartoon.
“It’s not just for kids,” said Charlotte Raines, Music, Theatre & Dance junior. “Some people may only be familiar with the ‘Pokémon’- or ‘Dragon Ball Z’-type stuff and might be skeptical, thinking that 30-year-olds are watching kids’ cartoons, but anime is a lot more than those shows.”
“They delve into many more topics than your typical Bugs Bunny cartoon,” said Ken Childers, a fifth year LSA senior and member of Animania. “It’s not really some sort of slapstick animation. There’s a lot of anime that delves into philosophical subjects, like what it means to be human.”
Raines explained how she takes issue with most Americanized anime cartoons because they have a tendency to be one-dimensional, focusing on one aspect like dirty comedy or action.
“Anime just has so many more layers that people probably are not aware of,” Raines explained. “It’s so much more meatier.”
Alongside its philosophical components, anime provides an entire fantasy realm in which to escape. Raines explained how, for some fans, this cultural aspect is anime’s main draw. For instance, there are viewers who get really into the outfits the characters wear and the worlds in which the characters live. This is referred to as “cosplay” (meaning “costume play”) in the convention world. Fans dress in clothes and accessories to mimic characters from their favorite shows.
Others are drawn to the whimsical characteristics of anime — the use of primary colors and swirling images coupled with gorgeous people and the trademark big eyes, a beautiful, simplistic quality that creates a magical feel often lost in realistic computer animation.
Still other viewers, as Roberts explained, are interested in the quality of the animation — with special attention to detail regarding anatomy, lighting and backgrounds.
Unfortunately, fully immersing oneself in the world of anime can bring on societal complications.
“I’ve found that it’s hard to get into art colleges by having an anime style, because it’s seemingly copying,” Roberts said. “But I know from myself, and other artists, that the anime style can vary greatly.”
Many “otaku” — the term coined for hardcore anime fans — are fully aware of the stigmas that come with their chosen passion.
“When someone thinks ‘anime fan,’ they probably think of someone who just sits in his room and watches anime all day, doesn’t go out, is overweight, pimple-faced, looks at pictures of little girls,” Heise said. “You know, all these really extreme stereotypes — a nerd persona.”
“Every stereotype is based on truth,” Raines said. “Some of those people do exist — I have seen them at conventions. So whenever I tell people I like anime and they don’t know much about it, they snicker at me and automatically place me in the geek/outcast label.”
“I feel that for a lot of otakus and anime fans in general, we are aware of that stigma,” she added. “Most of us just deal with it by hating the ‘normal’ people.”
Because of the stereotype, most outsiders feel that anime is always perverted or sexual in nature, but the genres, ideas, topics and maturity levels explored in anime are infinite.
And Heise feels anime is becoming increasingly accepted by the general masses.
“I think we are definitely getting near to the point where people aren’t going to say it can’t be serious if it’s anime,” Heise said.
There are other ways for Ann Arbor anime lovers to get their fix besides frequenting screenings with Animania and perusing the assortment of manga available at the local bookstores. The anime scene here extends past the point of hobby and into — believe it or not — the educational realm. Here at the University, many courses are offered through departments such as History of Art, Screen Arts & Cultures, Art & Design and Japanese Studies that deal partially — and in some cases exclusively — with anime.
Kevin Carr, assistant professor of History of Art and Asian Languages and Cultures, has been teaching a course for the past three years called History of Art 392: Anime to Zen. The course attempts to present a thematic analysis of Japanese art history, as seen through the contemporary lens of pop culture with anime and manga serving as primary objects of study.
“One of my larger projects as a teacher is to make the students more cognizant of how images work and how they work on us — what they make us do,” Carr said. “Anime and manga are two good objects with which to consider those issues, because they are very compelling for a lot of students, but at the same time the messages they hold are quite complex.”
Because anime and manga express cultural ideals through illustration, Carr believes that they impact a viewer far differently from the way live action can and, like most mediums, there is room for experimentation.
“I don’t know if this is the 10-year-old in me coming out or not, but I think there is a certain magic to drawn animation,” Carr said. “It creates a space of wonder that allows one to sit back and enjoy the entertainment without taking it so seriously, while at the same time it can be very effective in communicating messages and transforming the way people think.”
Carr believes that using pop-culture elements like anime in class can be useful for wooing students from other fields who may not otherwise be interested in taking a course dealing with art history or Japanese studies.
“Sometimes we joke in Japanese Studies that if you want to attract a lot of students to the class, just put anime in the title,” he said. “I can usually assume that someone in the audience knows a lot about (anime). So there is kind of a familiarity and immediacy to the students that in other classes is hard to generate.”
“It’s really nice to draw on that passion and enthusiasm, and general interest in the material,” he added.
Carr acknowledges that serious study of art forms like anime in school can certainly kill the art form’s magic, but for those willing to take that risk, there are ample opportunities right here at the University for students interested in a critical study of anime as art. And Carr is happy to see that there are, indeed, more and more students interested in the material.
“It’s become more mainstream,” Carr said. “I mean, for goodness sake, professors like me are talking about it, so obviously it has fallen into the general mass of humanity.”
Anime friends in Ann Arbor: If you build it, they will come
Although there’s a prevalent anime presence on campus and plenty of resources to seek out in Ann Arbor, it’s not a scene that goes out recruiting new people. If you’re interested in finding fellow anime lovers around town, you’ll need to smoke them out of their caves.
“When I first got to this school, I actually had trouble finding anime fans,” Raines said. “They are here and they definitely exist at the University, but they kind of keep to themselves. You have to actively go look for them.”
Raines said her experience with anime at the University has been relatively independent, watching most of her anime on the Internet and with fellow otaku. But she said that Ann Arbor is a great location for getting active in the convention scene, with some of the most popular Midwestern conventions happening in Detroit, Dearborn and Chicago.
Of course, for anyone interested in seeking out the Ann Arbor anime scene, Animania is very accessible and a great place to start.
Anime is not a passive entertainment experience. Although the preconceived notions about anime may bring forth visions of the ultimate sedentary nerd stereotype, the cultural and societal involvement of the artwork with its fan base has created an entire world that is anything but stagnant. It’s a cultural phenomenon in Japan that has made its way to the United States and launched a living, breathing, vibrant sub-cultural community. And that movement has a unique, deeply rooted footing in Ann Arbor. It’s up to the students and locals to keep it going.