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  ANIME: IT'S NOT JUST FOR FIFTH GRADERS ANYMORE.  
   
   
 

My sister Amy and the rest of her crew strike out for Rosemont, Ill., the home of Anime Central (ACEN) 2005, in the packed Mazda late Thursday, May 12, carting Red Bull, Kudos, and Jaeger -- in bulk -- as a down-payment on nonstop precon fun.

They can't wait. These kids are sick of life in TC. Traverse City, Mich., the resort cove in Michigan's "pinky" offers little community for

 
 

passionate anime fans, few stores that offer the merchandise and fewer people who consider anime a legitimate medium for anything. Outsiders balk at the depiction of buxom, bug-eyed sylphs, and assume the whole movement is a slick vehicle for child porn.

My sister has pre-registered for ACEN as Amyxor; she's 22 and burnt-out -- this is her fifth con, her farewell con. Of course, her crew dissents; she can't quit now, not when they're just getting started! Amyxor considers this, but sticks to her line; this is how Cher must feel.

Her conference minions include SuggestiveThemes, 21, who works at a photo lab and runs his own wedding photography business, and his beau, Bradxor. Dr-Baa,

     
 

27, is an IT czar at a credit union, and his girlfriend, Socopogogo, 25, works at a veterinarian's office. The place where they live is cold and barren, but they've banded together against it -- hopping the pain away in frenzied, two foot radiuses during a Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) session in someone's parents' basement, or swapping mangas -- Japanese comics -- and debating dubs over Long Island Iced Teas and Red-headed Sluts on Ladies' Night.

I join them at the Rosemont Hyatt near Chicago on Friday, where parking has been "cancelled." ACEN Attendance is estimated at 10,000 this year, up from 7,500 last year. It's the largest conference of its kind in the Midwest, and the third largest in the nation. You just don't turn down 10,000 anime fans -- from the most devoted otaku (i.e. diehards) to surface plebs like me -- with loads of disposable income.

Amy escorts me to the convention center annexing the hotel. As we walk through the skyway to get my badge, I understand the fabled ACEN stench that has prompted the conference to peddle "got soap?" tees. Still, these halls have an official feel, and the stormtroopers, elves and hotohoris trundle past us if they're getting off their shift on the triage.

The humidity is melting everyone's makeup, and we can hear the expo swelling to capacity. Behind us, one boy says to another "Do you hear that? That is the sound of inevitability, Mr. Anderson."

In the expo lobby we spy a line that folds back onto itself, and we laugh at its victims. Amyxor breaks the news that this is my line, created to punish the spontaneous. She raises one compassionate eyebrow and vanishes into the labyrinthine merchandise room.

In line, people gawk at me. I'm dressed in civilian wear. Thank God when I'm suddenly back-ended by a group of boisterous teens from Hammond, Ill., not far, but might as well be. They're bored there, but cutting a slow path out into the world.

Charity, 19, is the Wendy of the group. She's used to packs of men because she has five brothers. No one is in cosplay yet -- meaning no one is dressed up as their favorite character -- though Nate, 19, has black eyeliner hieroglyphed across his face, and Nick, 17, is underdressed in a headband from the allegedly overrated series, Naruto. Joe, 19 and on the masseuse track at his community college, is the most restless and keeps asking Charity if she'll have sex with him. She rolls her eyes.

Back in the Hyatt and with a badge at last, I'm on my own. I don't have a room key, so I loiter around the second floor pavilion, where people are camped as if they're still in line -- hunched around in semicircles watching anime on mini-dvd players, telling stories. Playing a role-playing game called Munchkin Accessibility is the best way to meet new people, though, and that -- if nothing else -- is what's going on.

We are in the game room, which has low ceilings that italicize the basement-y feel, and indeed a few people are in their pajamas, or at least in socks. A few shape-shifting homunculi are tearing up the DDR floor, but the place is dead compared to upstairs. Colin tells me it's usually more alive than this. His friends Brandon, 19, and Tim, 21, both from Aurora, Ill., agree.

"Boring," so far, they say.

Colin shrugs. "It's fun when bad stuff happens."

"Every single year there's a paramedic," says Tim, who is dressed as a reindeer from the series One Piece.

"And pederasty," Colin adds.

At OhioCon in January, Tim witnessed a hotel bathtub filled with various orange liqueurs; it was a shout-out to the series Evengelian, in which the cockpits of flying robots are filled with primordial orange effluvium that is then ingested by the humanoid pilots, a la amniotic fluid.

Colin, despite his general enthusiasm for cons, harbors contempt towards what he considers the illiteracy of many fans.

"I just don't like that you can't strike up a conversation about Vonnegut," Colin says. "It's like -- what about Sirens of Titan? Breakfast of Champions? Camus?"

"Basically, we look around for people who are highly cynical, like us," Brandon says.

Brandon also points out the hypocrisy of security. Last year at ACEN,

 
 

hand-cuffs that were part of his outfit were confiscated, but replica semi-automatics were not. He's right -- earlier, in a game suite upstairs, someone handed me a fake M16 right as the cleaning staff materialized to inquire about towels.

Nearby is a table of dudes looking drunk and cocky as if they're sunning on a frat house lawn. Except -- what's this? They have scored major Pocky, and have it arranged tantalizingly on the table. To each person who walks by they ask, "What would you do for Pocky?" A pair of girls rush forth in bath towels, but stop short and giggle. Are they prepared to flash these dudes for snack food?

When I finally meet up with Amyxor & Co. in 266, there are plans for food and drink before we catch some hentai -- porny anime -- which only runs from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. Over pizza, the team gives

     
 

me an abridged guide to hentai culture.

"Beware of anything called furry. When they fuck, it's called yiffing," SuggestiveThemes says gravely.

"Sometimes furries are mixed in with anime," Bradxor levels. "Because a lot of them are based from anime characters -- like Sonic. And they give catgirls penises a lot. Or they'll make a current creature furry -- like Link. They'll make him a cat-cunt-boy."

Tonight is yaoi night, featuring the shorts Level C and My Sexual Harassment. "Level C has invincible penises," SuggestiveThemes says. "All hentai is liquids coming out everywhere."

Socopogogo nods and tosses me a hentai manga that proves this. In the frame I flip to, a girl sans fuku (i.e. school-girl uniform) is leaning over the rim of a bathtub, gushing.

"La Blue Girl -- the character?" Socopogogo says. "She's a sex ninja. She gets fucked by tentacles with penis ends. Many hentai feature tentacles. Violent tentacle rape."

Dr-Baa nods and chews.

"Have you guys seen Bible Black?" Amyxor asks. "I don't like the part where they stick the tube up the girls's snatch and fill it with water."

"I like anything that's weird. As long as the girl really enjoys it," Socopogogo says. "'Cause with the tentacles, she's like 'oooh.' I don't like anything with old men or fat men. Tales of Misbehaving I hated."

Socopogogo reaches into the cooler for the Jaeger -- it's time to get pumped. She makes her jaeger bombs tall, and I have to sip it carefully -- it's like a highball of AlkaSeltzer.

"I'm glad I met you guys," Socopogogo says. Jaeger warms the heart. "I didn't really know any gay people."

Bradxor shrugs. "We're the gayxors."

By two, I'm feeling hentai-stic. Amyxor comes with me, as she's never seen yaoi -- the boy on boy kind of hentai -- but has heard it's

 
   
 

a riot. Amyxor and I duck in and find a seat in the back. My Sexual Harassment is about a young corporate punk who gets Shanghai-ed into sleeping with all his higher-ups, shuffled in with flashbacks to his childhood home on the shore, replete with close-ups of seagulls.

Someone who's not watching any hentai is Grif Ravenwing, 21, from Elkhart, Ind. He is being censured for the sign that is duct-taped to his arm; it reads: "ask me about my fanart." So, I approach him after security disappears and asks him about his fanart. Apparently,

 
 

he needs an exhibitor's permit or his fanart doesn't fly. He scans the premises and lets me have a peak -- lots of laminated ornate charcoals of popular characters, and he'll do made-to-order, too. Since it's so late, I ask if he's staying up for the hentai.

"No way!" Grif believes it is a waste of high caliber animation, and unnecessarily divides the fan base. This is his second ACEN, and the sign bans are just one more reason to support Grif's grim forecast for this con.

"It was peppier last year. And I hate cosplayers who don't know the scene -- people who just come to get dressed up and do jello shots."

It's Saturday morning and I'm heading to the game suite on the ninth floor. Nick from the Hammond group wants to teach me DDR -- Dance Dance Revolution.

"Nobody's good at it the first time," he offers.

The first suite we visit is dimly lit and peopled with rapt fanboys munching Combos and other a la carte brunch items heaped tall as a landfill on a back table.

"You squeamish?" an old man in a cap asks us.

I look at the television and suspect this is hentai. I assure him we're not squeamish, though Nick is underage and not technically allowed to watch this. A quick index of other aficionados tells me he's not alone.

"Annihilation is just starting," someone reports.

Annihilation is about a catgirl who leads a double-life as a murderess. There's a Tom Hanks, Splashy element to it, as well, as we see the catgirl inexplicably wash up on shores and break hearts with her waifish duplicity. When she is caught by authorities, she is dragged through prison camp naked and promptly tortured. After the guards shoot her, she comes back to life as a bullet-proof vixen with her kitten ears replaced by two-foot long tentacles. After she turns her murderer into a neo-Tiresius, she disembowels him, too, leaving intact just enough viscera for him to curse her as she morphs back into a catgirl and recalls nothing.

The suite has trouble recovering from the feature, and despite the panoply of goodies, this is not a social place. We head down the hall to another suite -- the "Freaking Game Suite."

This game suite has an inviting feel, and even the fetid-sock-smelling-miasma is less intense here -- perhaps it's due to the wind moving through the open sliding doors leading to the balcony.

An obese young man is wedged into an otherwise comfortable-looking chair. He emits slow, dyspeptic groans, and someone explains that he was up all night gaming, woke briefly to drink some Everclear, and has been comatose since.

Things get real on Saturday night. I'm sent on a mission to get Red Bull and plain white rice and nearly end up in Indiana. No one has seen Amyxor in several hours. This is attributed her sudden break-up with her boyfriend, the teen Asian she from Queens that she scraped from World of Warcraft. People start coming to the room looking for her, notably a man named Sparkle who wears a body harness and says he is supposed to meet Amyxor here to do jaeger bombs. I dismiss him.

I find Amyxor outside, slumped on a concrete bench with some Narutos and wearing a large mushroom hat that covers her eyes.

"I had some chocolate milk," she says in hiccups. "This is my new Asian." She slings her arm around the gruff fellow. He assesses me, then leans close to whisper the location of some party. I make Amyxor promise to meet me in the room in ten minutes, and she shoos me away.

"I know DDR -- love me!" she yells

Amyxor arrives at the "party," which is really just some guys who want to drink with her. She is wearing a black fuku and white tube top that is precariously slung around her chest and plans to hit the masquerade.

I follow her, aided by the trusty and baleful Nick, who has been banished from his group for seeming cooler and "hanging with 25-year-olds." Nick is lonely and despotic, and willing to talk to me about anime. Even in his new samurai robe and Ralph Machhio hachimaki, he has little appetite for cosplay. I suffer flashbacks to various frat parties that might as well have been masquerades, and the increasingly moody, drunk and fatigued litany of cosplays puts me ill at ease. I just want to find my sister, amid a sea of a thousand fukus.

Amyxor's friend Little Jon trucks past and mutters, "Your sister is safe." He's coming from the grand ballroom, but it's hard to get through the human dam of girls wearing cotton balls.

The dance is hard to tell from any old fetish ball, except there are period-specific light sabers. It's dark and pounding and worthy exhibitionists dance on platforms. But no Amyxor.

Her crew at 266 is sinking fast. It is Socopogogo's birthday, so the rest of the Jaeger is rightfully hers. Visions of the seven-hour drive back home are setting in. The crew lies propped against the bed watching a DVD Dr-Baa bought earlier -- some sort of claymation hentai.

It's about 3 a.m. Amyxor's absence is not alarming to them, as they know con vets often try to recreate their first con. Plus, there's a break-up still in the air.

I've had so much Red Bull that I'm secreting taurine, but the mercy of some higher grace knocks me out, and I awake to find Amyxor sprawled safely in bed. Word is she crept in at 8 a.m. after hanging out with Little Jon and the 201 boys. We all file in and out of the bathroom collecting our goods, and the morning's tone reeks of afterprom.

Someone mumbles that the merchandise room has lots of sales today, but who has any money left? In true prom fashion, I have to bust out of here early. I have a long drive, and I don't want to stick around 266 for the shedding of any stomach lining.

Back home, Amyxor and SuggestiveThemes tell me they can't watch any anime for awhile. But the drive home was fun -- the Olive Garden ruled! What about retirement? It depends. Amyxor had a good group this year, her cosplay didn't stress her, and she actually liked that I went along because it was a good excuse to meet people.

I later heard someone in the game room had a grand mal seizure. Pendragoon sent me an email littered with dozens of boggling acronyms, and the Hammond group has reabsorbed Nick, who ended things with his girlfriend (she wasn't that into anime, anyway).

As for Charity's first con? "The worst thing that happened was that I got groped by a Miroku."

 

Becky Hayes has been leaving New York for years. She was briefly harbored by The Lexicon Project and is on her way to California to start preconning for Anime Expo.