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Nakaido “Chabo” Reichi
Serial Experiments Lain Soundtrack: Cyberia Mix
Pioneer
2003

This was the first anime soundtrack I ever bought. I picked it up at Anime Central in 2004, though as this was a fairly widely available CD, I probably should have spent my money on something a little harder to find. Also, I somehow lost a $20 bill that day and I’m pretty sure that it must have fallen out of my hands or my pocket while I was buying this, which effectively means that I paid about $35 for this CD. Which is too bad, because it really sucks. That’s a little too harsh a judgment, but I’m not sure I’ve given this a listen since 2006 at the latest, nor have I been motivated to give it a fair shake since.

This isn’t the “real” soundtrack for Serial Experiments Lain. There’s none of the series’ background music to be found, nor any “Duvet” by Bôa or the end credits theme by that guy with the scratchy voice. I only recognize one motif from the series here in remixed form, so as a soundtrack Cyberia Mix is definitely more in the vein of all those “music inspired by” collections than the traditional “as featured in” variety. Fans of the series will recognize “Cyberia” as the dance club Lain reluctantly visits with friends, later returning to for more strange encounters with clubgoers and DJs. The music at Cyberia is heavy and hard mid-tempo house and industrial, not really my thing although I can remember a few scenes where something caught my ear, if only for a moment. While not being the most catchy or interesting thing I’ve ever heard, it helped establish the setting, build an interesting atmosphere, and further contrast and alienate the quiet, reticent Lain from the world around her. So it’s effective in the context it’s presented in, but would it hold up on its own? Since those tracks aren’t actually featured on this CD, I guess we’ll never know, though a good deal of what’s here is arguably in the same spirit.

As for what is here, the album gets off to a rather clumsy start, trying to channel a blend of Juno Reactor, Crystal Method, Basement Jaxx and Boom Boom Satellites in the opening tracks. There’s rapping and corny spoken word samples, too, and the less I say about those, the better. Some of these tracks might have worked in a mix, but sequenced as they are and on their own they lumber along and make the first half of the album a mess to wade through. It’s a shame because, against all odds, the last four tracks are actually pretty good. “island in a Video Casset” takes a minimal, funky route that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Kompakt compilation. I could say the same about “K.I.D.s,” which sounds like Kaito. “Cloudy, with occasional rain” is chillout at its best, which is to say nothing remarkable, but pleasant and relaxing nonetheless. “INFANiTy world” rides that laid-back vibe into pop territory, but it has a classic feel to it, like a slowed-down Black Box or Inner City, perhaps.

Cyberia Mix is probably a better album than I’m willing to give it credit for, and fans of “heavy” house and techno might enjoy it more than those who crave a more nuanced approach to their dance music. I’m not even sure if it’s essential for fans of Lain, but anyone wanting to reexperience the series’ dark and paranoid mood might find this cyberpunk time capsule right up their wheelhouse. For those who bought it expecting music from the series, or just because Lain is on the cover (and DJ’ing!) in another fine portrait by Yoshitoshi ABe, it might find its way to the bottom of your collection quicker than you’d expect.

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Sometime in 2003 or so I was riding with a friend into downtown Chicago on I-94. He had his iPod connected to his car stereo, and while it was mostly filled with the same crappy Christian rock that he’d been playing to death for the last five years, there were a few other songs on it that he’d gotten into since college. Specifically, some hip-hop and upbeat dance music that he probably didn’t listen to outside of his times working out at the gym, but why he had them was of no concern to me, so long as there was something to soundtrack our drive that didn’t make me want to stuff cotton in my ears. It was here that I heard Daft Punk’s “Aerodynamic” not for the first time, but finally as the epic and glorious track that I know it as today.

My feelings toward Daft Punk’s Discovery as a whole weren’t changed overnight but in the past seven years since then (or nine years since hearing it shortly after its release in 2001) I’ve gone from misunderstanding and dismissing the album to liking, loving, and admiring it as a truly awe-inspiring achievement. Around the turn of the decade it was easy to assume that the future of electronic music would belong to confounding, often obtuse artists like Autechre or Oval – or in my crystal ball, laptop jockeys like Kid 606 or Cex – but certainly not corny and indulgent retro crap like this. Pop music was still considered “evil” and disco was still regarded as a fad best left to the past. Sure, Discovery had its fans early on but there were just as many listeners that didn’t know what to do with it at all. Those of us who would need time to come around to it would need to unlearn a decade’s worth of reactionary habits and revise our attitudes about pop music, a more complicated task than it may sound. Understanding accessibility as a positive trait, accepting and basking in the album’s sheer excess, and giving in to its boundless optimism and brazenly idealistic vision were key to finally “getting” the album, and by extension, so much of the decade’s music that would follow it.

Having gone through this process myself, Discovery holds a special place in my heart, coloring my experience of its visual manifestation in ways that (I suspect) most anime fans probably can’t quite relate to. Now I’ve only watched Interstella 5555 four times through, but each time I’ve felt literally overcome with emotion, captivated by the story and the gorgeous visuals and continually feeling somewhat shocked that the movie is indeed real, and not a product of my Frosted Flakes-fueled dreams. Apparently conceived by Bangalter and de Homem-Christo during the recording of Discovery, the film was pitched to legendary anime creator Leiji Matsumoto, who agreed to head the project at Toei Animation. If there was more to the initial process than this simple and cordial meeting, Daft Punk have kept the details to themselves. It’s hard enough for promising and “safe” films to go from a script to the screen, but a French-Japanese collaboration based on an album of post-millennial space-age bubblegum disco without a single line of dialogue? It’s a miracle this film was ever made at all. Interstella 5555 premiered in late 2003 and has since become a cult classic of sorts, albeit one recognized more in fractured form as a series of music videos (thanks in no small part to Youtube) than as the great animated musical it should be viewed as.

The first glimpse I ever had of Interstella 5555 was of the now-iconic music video for “One More Time.” I was walking past a television in a vacant students’ lounge at school (the beginning of a suspicious-sounding story, but I assure you it happened) when I saw it on the screen and paused to watch it, not so much excited and intrigued but confused and somewhat annoyed by the unexplained blue people and their rather straightforward onstage performance. Was this done as a parody of AMVs? Of Eiffel 65’s “Blue”? Surely this had to be ironic, right? The twist at the end, as the concert is attacked and the band is abducted, seemed like a copout of an ending. This was a real video? Although I was going through some difficult times at school, I don’t understand my hostile reaction to the album, the song or the video and in hindsight feel somewhat ashamed of myself and my reasoning. I wouldn’t understand the context of the video for a few years, but by then I was in much better spirits, a much bigger fan of the band, and an exponentially bigger anime enthusiast who’d grown to love the particular animation style of it.

While the story isn’t exactly groundbreaking, it’s simple enough to give both the artists and writers plenty of opportunities to play off of the songs in clever and imaginative ways, and in turn the music provides no shortage of cues for the story to surprise and delight. It’s hard not to get caught up in the fate of the four main characters and their biggest fan, whose troubles mirror those stuck in the marketing machine of our own idol-obsessed culture. The music industry – no matter what country it’s in – has long been a subject ripe for mockery in fiction, but I’ve never seen it addressed or skewered in science fiction quite like it is here. Commentary aside, there’s plenty of suspense and some genuinely exciting action sequences, and the dramatic ups and downs of the film pack a wallop.

Much as it’s hard to choose a favorite track on Discovery, it’s hard to deny any of the individual sequences in the film, each of which is essential to the film as a whole and contain hardly a superfluous scene in its succinct 68 minutes. The opening segments, featuring “One More Time” and “Aerodynamic,” set the visual (and sonic) tone of the film, introduce the characters and the conflict, and quickly draw us into their world. In the “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Crescendolls” chapters, the film’s villain and fifth protagonist are introduced, and the conflict is further flushed out in masterfully-composed montages that are some of the most elaborate and whimsical I’ve ever seen. As “Nightvision” provides an interlude of sorts on the album, here it soundtracks an emotional comedown from the exhausting yet (until now) upbeat ordeal of the now-brainwashed band, a necessary rock-bottom for our heroes to hit in order for the fantastic sequence featuring “Superheroes” to have the effect that it does. I’ll abstain from actually proceeding to describe every part of the film, particularly in such purposeful but vague terms, as it’s not worth experiencing in such a secondhand manner. The look, the sound, the tactile feel of the movie give it a depth and resonance that can’t be communicated outside of simply viewing it itself. Watching this on DVD is an experience to relish and return to, the dynamic colors and sounds deserving better than what a pixilated video stream and cheap computer speakers could provide, but for those viewers hunting for the film on the cheap, it is posted on Youtube in its entirety.

So who was this film made for? Daft Punk fans? Anime fans? How much of a crossover really exists between the two? The band’s previous music videos, directed by such auteurs as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, established them as conduits for groundbreaking visual art and endeared them to discerning fans of the medium. These same folks seem to hold Interstella 5555 at arm’s length, or at least express a hesitation to engage with it in the same way that I do. As far as the film’s reputation in the world of anime, it seems somewhat unappreciated given its ambitious scope, technical achievements and relatively accessible nature. I’d go so far as to say that anime fans (in the West, at least) generally don’t like this sort of music at all. Of course, being in both of those camps makes me the ideal viewer, but I wonder how many other people out there might stand to see it the same way. I hope it’s more than I suspect, because a film this brilliant and joyful shouldn’t ever be taken for granted.

I probably haven’t even seen 50 anime series altogether, let alone 50 from the past decade. But it looks like plenty of bloggers out there have and have been rolling out their top 50 lists over the past few weeks. A quick glance at Mono no aware or Guriguriblog reminds me of just how little I’ve seen and how I could easily spend the rest of this decade just catching up on the last.

I’ve only viewed nine of Roger Ebert’s top 20 films of the decade, but I have seen Synecdoche, New York, his number one choice and the most impenetrable film I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive (the number one choice of both Time Out New York and Indiewire). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make sense of either, or if doing so is even possible, but I hope to return to each sometime in the next year.

Decade-ending music lists were being published as early as this past summer and there’s no shortage of sites and publications out there weighing in with their rankings of the last ten years. Metacritic‘s broken and incomplete rankings paint a truly strange picture. More interesting are the unpredictable top 50 from NPR (listed alphabetically), the coveted list of 200 from Pitchfork, a highly-recommended list from FACT (blocked as “pornography” for some reason on the network here at work), and the surprising return of Stylus more than two years after its final update. At some point I’ll likely take a crack at a top 50 30 of my own here. Maybe even this month!

Real blog entries coming soon.

I remind myself of the subjective nature of lists like this, how they rarely exist to please readers (or even succeed when that is their intent), and how expecting them to be anything close to “definitive” is near impossible. That said, the Toonzone’s Top 25 Animated Television Series of the 00’s list surely exists to provoke discussion, so here are my unprompted and unexamined thoughts on it.

I’ve never been a fan of the kind of sloppy, “ironic” visual style so that took off so big after the success of The Powerpuff Girls. I don’t have much love for the crude and whimsical look of Spongebob Squarepants, either, which also lent itself well to a lot of similarly obstreperous cartoons. Yet these two aesthetics (or a hybrid of the two) seemed to have the decade on lock, at least from my experiences in channel surfing. This messy style was headache-inducing and the general loudness of these programs only contributed to the obstreperousness and “screamification” of television in general, helping rewire a generation of kids whose parents long ago gave up on teaching them to use their inside voices. At least the dreadful Camp Lazlo isn’t here but I look at the screenshots for Chowder, Flapjack and El Tigre and my temples begin to throb. No doubt that this style was also visual shorthand for a kind of classic authenticity, an easy way to harken back to the spirit of Jones, Avery, Hanna, et al. (whom I’m sure the writers and readers of Toonzone revere) and to make a grab for recognition as a proper successor to their tradition of making “pure” cartoons. Without having to do any of the heavy lifting to truly earn such a title, of course.

I like to think that I’m open to all forms of animation, not simply anime, as my viewing habits may suggest. Some of my favorite movies of the past five years include Ratatouille, Wall-E and Persepolis, I’m kind of a connoisseur of animated music videos, and The Simpsons is probably my favorite television series of all time. That said, it feels like anime was shortchanged, or at least artificially capped at just four choices. Why Paranoia Agent and not Haibane Renmei, FLCL, or The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya? Why Mobile Suit Gundam and not Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex or Last Exile? Why Fullmetal Alchemist and not Kino’s Journey or Naruto? When you look back at the decade and the embarrassment of riches that anime fans had to choose from, the selections here feel arbitrary, randomly placed, and somewhat limited. Now it’s quite possible that Fullmetal Alchemist was the best anime series of the decade, a beautifully composed epic and tragic story. But I’ve watched Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends and Kim Possible and I just don’t understand how these three titles fall where they do.

I’d probably be content with FMA at #11 if it wasn’t for the placement of the title at #10. Robot Chicken is one of the most nihilistic, angry and cruel programs I’ve been unfortunate enough to lay eyes upon (Family Guy being much worse, although I expected it to show in the top ten and don’t begrudge its placing), and even within this strain of Adult Swim series aimed at stoners and /b/tards, it scrapes the bottom of the barrel in ways that Squidbillies would never dare. How and why does this find its way onto the list at all when Aqua Teen Hunger Force is nowhere to be found? At least that program had a brilliant run for a few years early in the decade, one that seems lost on a generation that thinks Youtube Poops are hilarious and whose biggest contribution to culture will be the elevation of eviscerated and “random” parody to the highest (and possibly only) form of humor. Absolutely indefensible.

I didn’t even discover this site until about a month ago — quite a coincidence how suddenly I should be ready to question their collective opinions, I know — and my impressions of what it’s about and where the writers are coming from on all this are probably incomplete. I’m really pleased to see a list so well-presented and willing to seriously consider such a wide spectrum of animated works. But like anyone else, I wish it had reflected the decade as I’d lived it, or at least in how I found temporary escapes from the grisly reality of it all. At least everyone should be able to agree on their other decade-in-review features, especially their piece on the end of broadcast kids’ television, which should be required reading for everyone interested in animation and the business behind it.

Following my visit to Anime Central in 2004, I looked forward to returning again in 2005, hoping to get more out of the experience than the initial taste I’d had. Having to play “spirit guide” to my lost and bewildered friend, leading him through the strange and sometimes frightening world of anime fandom, probably held me back from geeking out to the extent that I’d wanted to, but I’d make sure that wouldn’t be an issue again. Yet as the springtime rolled around once again, I found myself in financial ruin and unable to cover the single-day admission fee, let alone any of the other likely expenses that a budding otaku would try to budget for. This happened more than once, and I didn’t find myself back on my feet until 2008, ready to give the convention another go. This time, however, I had a trustworthy companion every bit as primed for the day as I was. Mandy had attended a con somewhere out west several years ago and was new to ACEN but was ready to brave the crowds, explore strange new panels, seek out new DVDs, and boldly go with me where no couple quite so nerdy had gone before. We arrived in Rosemont, parked in the massive garage, and made our way to the convention center.

At this point in putting together this entry, I began to recount the experience of arriving at registration and waiting in line for two and a half hours, only to find ourselves less than halfway through the queue before giving up and leaving. It’s probably best to skip the details of the notorious “Linecon ‘08” and skip directly to the next year, where we pre-registered in advance and arrived on Friday morning to a pleasantly-empty registration area. Organizers had fortunately remedied the technical issues from the year before, and it’s likely that lots of other visitors had decided to avoid the process altogether by registering ahead of time as we did. Getting in was a breeze, but what to do next? It’s been about eight months so my memory isn’t as precise as it probably should be for my purposes here, but I’ll try to recall as much as I can.

One of the first panels we visited was “An Introduction to the Animation Process,” run by “Gold Digger” creator Fred Perry. I was vaguely familiar with his work and enjoyed the short but fun clip he shared with us of his characters come to life in animated form (a clip similar to this, likely from the same work). Demonstrating the process via simple stick figure computer animation, the panel was a brief but interesting look at an art form once out of reach of the average person, now apparently available to anyone with a personal computer. A few technical difficulties aside, I enjoyed just getting a chance to listen to an artist talk about his work and the creative process. From there we proceeded to the “How to Create AMVs” panel, which I’d been looking forward to ever since the convention schedule was released online. AMV-making was a hobby I’d been interested in for several years and I was hoping to witness a demonstration akin to the one that Mr. Perry had just hosted. Unfortunately, the hosts never showed up, leaving a handful of editors already on hand setting up for the evening’s other programming to throw together a quick introductory panel on the spot. They did the best with what they had, and all things considered they put on a good presentation, showing a handful of videos and answering everyone’s questions as best they could. To be honest, their improvised panel was probably better-informed than whatever the original host had prepared (which was probably nothing at all). After this we watched the first half of the AMV contest entries (the best of which being “A Feel Good AMV,” definitely worth watching or even downloading if you can) before we stepped out for some fresh air.

A trip to the dealer’s hall netted me nothing this day. Mandy got a couple of shirts, but neither of us bought any of the usual swag that people supposedly stock up on at cons. We finished browsing and headed back to the hotel, where the next panel we wanted to attend was being held. “That Troublesome Naruto Fanpanel” was right up our wheelhouse, or so I thought. Finding ourselves in what would be the white-hot center of Naruto fandom on the entire planet, if only for an hour or so, was one of those strange experiences I just had to have for myself. That’s not to say that my interest was born out of any kind of ironic fascination; we’d both been heavily into the series for almost a year, tearing through the DVDs at frightening speed. I anticipated a healthy number of “Narutards” to be on hand but who was I to judge? Besides, I probably wasn’t as personally disgusted with them as much as I was bitterly jealous of their carefree lack of self-awareness. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?

What I witnessed that afternoon was a total and complete disregard for social norms, an eager and energetic fulfillment of every negative and embarrassing stereotype surrounding anime fandom, and perhaps even a glimpse of the downfall of Western civilization. The panel hosts, cosplaying as various Naruto characters (Choji and Hidan, if I remember correctly) showed a PowerPoint presentation, bringing the audience up to speed on upcoming plans for manga publication, DVD releases, and streaming episodes online. The audience didn’t seem particularly interested in any of these details (likely perfectly content to continue reading scanlations of the latest manga chapters from Japan and downloading fansubbed episodes online) but was incredibly eager to shout at the hosts and at each other, screaming about their favorite characters and couples, acting out the characters they were cosplaying as, and butchering the Japanese language (in the midst of excoriating English translators for alleged mistakes, no less). At one point a kid (who looked like an emaciated Andrew W.K. with tattoos) was handed the microphone and proceeded to passionately rail against the Nickelodeon network for a laundry list of crimes against its anime properties. The hosts had to cut him off in mid-rant and several times had to implore the hyperactive front row to calm down. The floor was opened up for questions, at which point the panel became a contest among the audience to see who could yell out the most revealing spoilers the loudest. I won’t reveal what was said at this point, but to this day neither the English release of the manga or the latest episodes of Naruto Shippuden has arrived at some of the plot points that these maniacal fans apparently devoured in advance and violently regurgitated upon everyone else that afternoon. The panel was stopped to allow fans who didn’t want to discuss spoilers to leave the room. Immediately, I told Mandy that I simply couldn’t stay for another minute, and I bolted to go wander the hotel for a half hour or so until it was over.

We met up soon afterwards, took another short tour of the dealer’s hall, and watched some more AMVs in the screening room before deciding to call it a day. As we drove home I couldn’t help but feel that the day had gone by far too quickly and that I hadn’t quite gotten my convention fix. Mandy was too tuckered out to come back on Saturday, so I ended up returning on my own the next day. There were just as many panels and events that I wanted to attend on Saturday as there were on Friday, although they were more spread out through the day and probably not Mandy’s cup of tea, so it was probably a more suitable day for flying solo, anyway.

Upon my arrival, having missed most of the early events that would have piqued my interest – my old copy of the schedule has “Living and Teaching in Japan,” “The Tainted World of Jrock,” and “Japanese Pop Culture” highlighted – I made my way straight back to the AMV room and sat in the second half of the AMV contest entries. This screening segued into a panel called “Koop and Atom’s Top Ten Indie Vids.” “Koop,” of course, being the one and only Koopiskeva on AnimeMusicVideos.org, Atomx being the former moniker of editor Arashinome (I think). It was a laid-back screening of ten or so videos from past and present that were very good overall and worthy of showing, and it was just fun to sit and listen in on a few guys who were actually talking AMVs (while riffing on themselves and each other, too).

I spent some time back in the dealer’s hall, picking up Interstella 5555, a copy of Castle of Cagliostro on the cheap, and the four-disc Last Exile set. I spent a lot of time just browsing, watching people, and just feeling oddly caught up in the experience of being at such a strange event, scanning booth after booth for wasteful products I don’t need next to other people dressed in silly costumes who were doing the same. The experience itself was certainly out of the ordinary, but what was probably even stranger was the ease at which I’d so quickly gotten used to it all. Maybe I wasn’t completely at ease; on a few occasions I came close to asking a cosplayer if I could take their picture, but having never approached a stranger with such a request before in my life, couldn’t quite work up the nerve to do so. But I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I bought lunch, a sloppy joe and a cup of coffee, from a vendor in the convention center. I ate at a table with some older adults and a young Japanese couple before heading off once again.

“Creating Electronica” was the next panel I attended, and a pretty apt summation of an interest I’ve held for over a decade but never actively pursued. The description in the convention program promised a demonstration of the Albeton Live software, and that “free versions of the program will be given out to everyone attending.” For someone who needs to be walked through every little step when being introduced to almost anything new or different, and given my long-repressed intent to actually make music in such a way, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Upon arriving, however, we were informed that the free copies had been lost and that technical difficulties would prevent the panel’s special guests (synthpop band The Slants) from showing or playing us any music of their own. To put it mildly, this was a big disappointment, even as the open forum provided the only time in memory that I’ve ever heard people utter the names “Matmos” and “Autechre” out loud in public. After a half hour or so I walked out and headed to a panel already in progress, one I’d really wanted to catch but had unfortunately decided to pass up in favor of the washout I’d just attended.

“An English Major’s Look at Evangelion” might sound like a hopelessly pretentious panel but featured some of the most thought-provoking and spirited discussion of anime that I’ve ever been privileged to listen to firsthand, the complete antithesis of the Naruto panel, to say the least. The hosts’ presentation was well-organized and lead itself well to audience participation, and the conversation was civil and enlightening, even in discussing the most controversial aspects of the series. This was my favorite panel of the weekend, and I made sure to tell the hosts so afterwards. I’d love to be able to discuss anime like this but even after taking college courses in the analysis of literature and film, I often find it difficult to organize my thoughts or to separate my personal feelings from an unbiased reading of the text. What I loved about this panel (and the AMV screenings from earlier in the day) was being able to see and hear other people giving serious consideration to many of my interests, especially the ones that would seem least likely for anyone else to treat with respect and reverence. I’ve always held certain things in high regard that others have commonly dismissed as trivial or worthless, so walking into a room full of other people suddenly willing to affirm the worth of some of my private obsessions was tremendously gratifying.

The Studio Ghibli panel was held in a tiny conference room, leaving no extra room to sit or stand, so I decided to pop back in to the AMV room to see what was going on before heading home. The “Iron Editor” challenge was being held, which initially hadn’t sounded like the most tempting event to catch, but I decided to sit in on it for a few minutes before heading home. I ended up staying for more than an hour. The editors themselves were clicking away onstage, and only occasionally would the MC give us a peek at what they were working on. Most of the time, various AMVs were screened, mostly con-favorites that had the audience in stitches or even singing along. A few years of forced participation in church youth group had burned a severe disdain such sing-a-longs into the core of my being, especially ones involving clapping and silly hand motions. This all melted away as I found myself caught up in the experience of joining the crowd in a momentary surrender to my most regressive, geeky nature. I know I spent an absurd amount of time during the convention watching AMVs (while still only seeing a fraction of what was actually shown) but I really love the atmosphere of the screening room and the experience of enjoying such a solitary pleasure in the presence of so many other people.

Saturday was much cooler than Friday. I wore a sweater for most of the day and was glad I had it as I walked through the hotel, down the long pedestrian walkway to the parking lot and out into the crisp night air. I’d gone most of the day without saying much of anything to anyone, but I felt genuinely happy and oddly content with myself and what I’d been able to take in during the day. I still feel like my experience was incomplete and I might expound on why that is at some point in the future, but my only real ACEN regret was that I waited so many years to finally make it back there. I don’t know if next year is going to bring any big changes, since I’ve pretty much scrapped my plans to actually get a room for the weekend. But I definitely can’t wait to go back again. Hopefully I’ll come back with a more interesting story next time.

My coworker Diane is a 40-something evangelical Christian mother of three who makes money on the side selling items online from garage and estate sales. During downtimes at work (the week after Thanksgiving, the week before Christmas, most of the last two months here, actually) she types up new entries for her Ebay listings, sometimes bringing in boxes of her newly-acquired antique books, old postcards, or used dolls to photograph and upload to the Internet. Today she arrived with a trashbag full of tiny figurines.

“I was at the Goodwill this afternoon and I found this whole bag for just ten dollars!”

“What is it?” I asked. She opened up the bag, revealing at least two dozen tiny anime figures, still wrapped in plastic, arms and legs detached and packed away in separate sections. Almost all were characters I didn’t recognize, mostly different girls posing suggestively in swimwear.

“Aren’t they cute? I just love their hair. Look at this one.” She pulled out a green-haired girl in a tiny bikini, probably from a well-known series but one unknown to myself. “What do you call these? Annie-may?”

“What’s that?” our 60-something co-worker asked.

“Oh, you know. That Japanese art that they make cartoons from. Like Sailor Moon.” I know she’d recently come into a collection of Sailor Moon dolls as part of some girl’s Barbie collection being sold off by a father eager to part ways with his daughter’s abandoned clutter. Like most items she procured in such fashion, she was quick to use the Internet to educate herself on their origins. Likewise, she was probably going to do the same with this stash. Only one of the figures was still in its original box, but it would give her enough of a lead to get started. “Love Hina… ‘story image figure’… I’m going to have to look this up!”

“Oh, look at this,” I said, trying to distract her away from her Google search that I was sure would inevitably lead to some NSFW results. “Hey, these are from Final Fantasy.” I picked up a bag of Cloud Strife pieces and a pair of Sephiroths, also in bags but whose sword-wielding arms were secured inside separate pieces of rigid plastic.

“What’s Final Fantasy?”

“It’s a video game. These are from Final Fantasy 7, the only one I’ve played.” She was familiar with the worlds of Mario and Zelda, but apparently her sons had never been into RPGs. “Oh, and these are from Chobits.” Mixed in with the other figurines were a few of Chii sprawled out on the floor and wearing pajamas. I wouldn’t have recognized her if not for the tiny persocom ears, making her the only girl in the entire bag that I recognized. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized I probably should have kept my knowledge to myself.

“How do you know this?” she asked in a strange tone of voice, uptalking her way to the end of the sentence.

“Oh… I don’t know,” I said mysteriously. “I had a friend who was into that stuff.” I left the desk to go file some papers, return some keys to the cabinet, and have a few holiday snacks that our boss had brought in. When I returned, both Diane and our coworker were searching the Internet for answers.

“You know, it seems like adult cartoons are big in Japan,” our coworker casually observed scrolled through her search results. My renewed commitment to feign ignorance over the topic and appear completely uninterested was enough to keep me out of their conversation, but I couldn’t resist taking a quick glance at her screen, which was filled with countless links to hentai sites that may or may not have been blocked on our company’s network. Whether or not she understoof exactly what she was looking at, I couldn’t say.

Picking up one of the figures and looking it over, still somewhat oblivious to the nature and purpose of such “toys,” Diane seemed oddly fascinated by her find and surprisingly receptive to what probably should have been a bag full of creepy and immoral aberrations. “At least they’re all normal. No Pamela Anderson lookalikes here!”

The phone rang and a few other distractions intervened, thus bringing an end to this latest chapter of the ever-so-rare and always strange encounters between anime culture and my everyday life.

Nearly eight months ago I sat at my computer, hand on my mouse, cursor poised over the “publish” button displayed on the Blogger webpage on my monitor. Over the weekend I’d attended Anime Central in Rosemont, Illinois, and enjoyed two days of insightful panels, relatively restrained DVD/merch hunting and fascinating people-watching. I wanted to share my thoughts on the convention with the world, so I typed up a few paragraphs recounting some of the highlights. Or at least that was my intention. A thousand words or so later and ready to finally post my work, I looked over my piece and realized that I’d somehow managed to type out a rambling, incomprehensible essay in which I vaguely alluded to having attended some kind of large event, without ever naming just what is was or what I did when I was there. So paranoid was I that some of my friends might find out I had attended an anime convention (let alone enjoyed myself at it immensely) that I danced around the topic for several paragraphs without saying anything meaningful about it at all. Does that sound neurotic? Funny, I was thinking the same thing. Reference my first post here from a week or so ago and you’ll see that this was becoming a distressingly common pattern in not just my blogging, but in all my attempts at online communication, which is why I’ve attempted to start over here.

This wasn’t the first time that I’d felt the need to censor myself online for the benefit of others. Many times before and many times since have I begun a blog entry with good intentions only to omit one detail after another, keeping in mind that people I know could be reading my secrets and judging me accordingly. I know perfectly well that I’ve always had a tendency to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to these things, but I’ve also experienced and witnessed the consequences of geeking-out on the Internet with no sense of self-awareness. But that’s no longer an issue here, so I’ll attempt to piece together the weekend one last time into a coherent recollection. This will likely be a lengthy entry so I’m going to divide it into two or three parts.

My first visit to ACEN was in 2004, in which I dragged along a friend whose exposure to anime had likely been limited to the matinee of Spirited Away that I’d also dragged him to a year or two before. There’s no way I’d even consider trying to rope an anime virgin into accompanying me to a con today, but I had no one else to ask aside from the otaku girls at work that I knew would be there, but who already had full schedules devoted to volunteering, cosplaying and likely plenty of partying throughout the nights. My friend was surprisingly receptive to the bizarre scene that greeted us at the convention center, despite the fact that I’d more or less brought him along without saying exactly where we were going. Did he even know was cosplaying was? If not, by the end of the day he’d seen more of it than most people ever should and seen a side of me that I’m not sure he was prepared for.

We sat in on a panel on AMVs, did a lap or two around the dealer’s room (I bought a Haibane Renmei poster), watched the first few epidoes of R.O.D. the TV and Texhnolyze, and caught a bunch of AMVs in a screening room before leaving some time around 9:00 or so at night, pretty early departure by many people’s standards but being single-day guests with a job and homework to do the next day (respectively), staying late wasn’t much of an option. I’m sure that we did more than this while we were there (besides walking around hopelessly lost for an embarrassing amount of time, I mean) but those are the most memorable events of that day for me. I had hoped to meet up with some otaku girls from work that I knew would be there, but it wasn’t to be and I’m not sure if we would have “hung out” or anything anyway. This was the biggest uncertainty for me: what were people really supposed to do here, anyway? And even if I knew, could I do it with someone who wasn’t into this stuff like I was?

Sitting in the screening rooms was a first for me. Being able to watch anime with a few dozen other fans was a first for me, as my viewing had strictly been a solitary experience up to that point. Being seated behind some of the taller con-goers in a non-raised seating room of simple meeting room-style chairs meant plenty of neck-craining to see the screen (and likely obstructing the view of others as well, unfortunately), but for better or worse I guess that’s part of the experience. We got better seats at the packed opening of the AMV contest showing, and saw some really fantastic videos (Daniel Chang’s “Here Comes the Sun” still a favorite of mine to this day) and ended the night on a positive note. After driving home I collapsed in bed, exhausted from all the miles we’d walked and slightly overstimulated from everything that I’d tried to take in throughout the day. The next morning, I felt slightly hungover from it all, never having tried to pack so much escapism into a single day before.

But still, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a difference between myself and most of the other 7,400 people who passed through the gates that year. I was about 25 years old, which probably put me in the middle third of the congers there by age, but as much as the convention allowed me to forget about my adult responsibilities and to indulge in what most people would consider childish pleasures, I left feeling somewhat older than most people there. I was also aware of the social aspect of the con, the primary attraction for many but one that I was unsure how to take part in, myself. While others traveled in small packs, arriving with groups of friends or meeting up with people they knew online, I was a lone wolf, my somewhat bemused friend in tow aside. How could I find an “in” to this world? What would I need to change about myself or accept about others? I was a very shy person at the time and am only still getting over this handicap now, so naturally integrating myself into groups was never my strong suit. On the other hand, just walking around and seeing everyone genuinely excited to be at the convention, genuinely excited about many of the same things I was, was a reward in itself, and one I was eager to experience again.

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