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I don’t know if I’ve done a proper “about me”/”personal journey through anime” post yet. I guess that’s the thing to do this week, so I’ll take a shot at it now. I’ll probably be writing this in brief bursts while I have time at work today (in between rushes of customers), which will limit the amount of time I’d usually take to tackle such an ambitious post. So by necessity I’ll be keeping this as simple as possible.

My mom has told me that as a child, I used to watch Speed Racer on TV. I have no memory of this whatsoever and just assumed that my first exposure to that title was via the Alpha Team song in 1992.  But I guess that series, along with your Voltrons and Transformers, were the first Japanese cartoons I ever watched. Not that I knew it or would have cared at the time.

I don’t remember where or when I first learned what “anime” was. I remember having a vague understanding of it when I first saw Akira on the shelf at Blockbuster, and when I was finally able to go rent it for myself when I was… 16? I can’t recall for sure. Around that same time I saw clips from Ghost in the Shell on TV, which I wasn’t able to view until the English-dubbed VHS edition appeared on the shelves at… you guessed it! It’s kind of embarrassing how much that evil chain shaped my early viewing habits, but not having any friends, older siblings, or any other “in” to the hobby, I had nowhere else to turn until the rise of the Internet gave us all a rallying point for our anime needs. The blurry, late-night transmissions from channel 66 of ultraviolent, Fist of the North Star/M.D. Geist-esque shows did little to nourish my appreciation or knowledge of the medium, and only served to traumatize my younger brother who’d stayed up with me to watch them. Needless to say, kids in the 90s didn’t have the choices that they take for granted today.

Heading out of high school, I knew what anime was and had sampled a few different feature-length films and OVAs, but hadn’t watched any episodic anime and knew next to nothing about the anime canon or “anime culture.” I was much more into film in general, studying the auteurs (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Scorsese, etc.) with hopes of one day following in their footsteps. Yeah, I wanted to be a director, which meant watching lots of serious films in hopes of one day going to film school. I put this goal off until after college, during which I slowly lost my motivation to do it at all. I lost motivation to do a lot of things during college, which sort of uninspired and sucked the life out of me. During this time, I started watching anime on TV. Kids anime, that is, especially Digimon, which I took special solace in as each semester in school grew more ennui-laden then the last. The simple and positive messages in each episode went down like comfort food, and though it was a guilty pleasure — one that I’m a little afraid to revisit for a lot of reasons — I looked forward to watching it each afternoon.

I got to know anime a little better throughout college, getting into Miyazaki and Ghibli films and renting whatever weird titles I could get my hands on (Slayers, Riding Bean, Zone of Enders, etc.). Soon I bought my first anime DVDs, Serial Experiments Lain, FLCL, and R.O.D.. In all three cases, I don’t recall having seen even of a minute of any before dropping the cash on them. Maybe I was just willing to take a gamble on something new? If I was picking titles blindly, I could have done a lot worse than those three. It was around this time that I first started to think of myself as a true “anime fan.”

After college I explored the hobby more deeply, attending my first convention (Anime Central in 2004), getting into AMVs, and exploring more series, whatever I could get my hands on or catch on television. I bought more DVDs (Noir, Haibane Renmei, Read or Die the TV) and made shows like Fullmetal Alchemist and Ghost In the Shell: Standalone Complex regular appointment TV when they aired on Adult Swim. This was all well and good, but something was missing.

Two things happened next that would change everything. First, I finally met my legendary girlfriend Mandy, who’s probably the only person I’ve ever known who actually likes this stuff as much as I do. So I not only met the most awesome girl in the world, but as a bonus I finally had someone who’d watch Cowboy Bebop with me. And secondly, I finally got around to watching an anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion, which hit me mentally and emotionally in ways I’d never experienced before, and moved me enough to call it my favorite series of all time, an honor it still holds today.

Since then, we’ve just been baking bread, making AMVs, and watching lots of Naruto. And life goes on. There’s no epilogue to this story. I’d rather not think about whether or not I’ll still be a fan in another ten or twenty years. Will you be? Who knows! Let’s just enjoy what we’ve got for now and see where it takes us next.

So, as of today, Amazon is selling the new Evangelion movie on DVD for just ten dollars?

This should be a good thing for fans, right? So why do I feel conflicted about it?

I just can’t help but wonder how undercutting every other online retailer, let alone the few big box stores that will actually bother to carry the film, is going to be a good thing for the anime DVD market. I’m sure that companies like Rightstuf and many of their smaller competitors are counting on releases like this to keep them in the black. What happens when fans peel away from specialty anime retailers and the brick-and-mortar stores and flock to Amazon, who probably regard Evangelion 2.22 as just another widget to sell?

Did Amazon talk (force?) Funimation down to a low, low “wholesale price” on this title, ala Wal Mart and pickles? Or are Amazon discounting it themselves, short-selling it in hopes to lure customers who might feel tempted to bundle a few other items in with their purchase before checking out? Either way, will Funimation walk away from it all with the money they deserve, or has the system crumbled to the point where licensing and releasing a “big” title like this just isn’t the moneymaking event that it used to be?

I’ll admit that I don’t understand the economics behind this market, but economically and morally, something about this just doesn’t sit right with me. Ultimately, what is this movie “worth” and (why) does it matter?

Will I preorder from Amazon? Even after airing out my concerns here, well… I just gave them free advertising, so I might as well go all in and add it to my cart. Ugh.

Has anyone who’s into “dubstep” today even heard of, say, Kode9 or Peverelist? Do people who listen to Magnetic Man or upload “Skrillex” or “Excision” AMVs to Youtube even know about Skull Disco or Hyperdub? It’s like a whole generation of chavs (and their cousins on this side of the pond) somehow missed everything that happened over the past decade and just dug straight into Caspa and Roska’s macho choons instead. What began as a deeply underground, mysterious music now constitutes the soundtrack to a night out of high-fiving and roofie-slipping with the boys. Massive, perverse wobby basslines, glossy R&B vocals and polished production now define the genre, which bears no resemblance to what it was even three or four years ago. What happened?

None of this should matter to me as long as I still enjoy the sounds of “vintage” dubstep (Untrue still sounds like a masterpiece, Hyperdub’s singles output is still unfuckwithable), or as long as the creative pioneers of the genre keep putting out great music (see the most recent efforts from Mount Kimbie or Shackleton). But it annoys the hell out of me how the new audience for dubstep has redefined the genre (nu-dubstep?) and ruined the culture around it, turning it all into a complete joke, an internet meme that’s gone out of control and retroactively rendered a decade’s worth of cool music into something that people are now embarrassed to admit they listened to.

It was fun while it lasted.

I first set foot in Borders some time back in the mid-90s. One had just opened less than 20 minutes from us, and it was the first “big” bookstore I’d ever seen. Until then, the only bookstores I’d ever visited were the tiny and then-long closed B. Dalton in the nearby derelict mall (where I bought “Garfield” books as a kid), and a quaint, independent store on the other side of town that carried little I was interested in. Borders, on the other hand, was like a playground for a kid like me who was interested in books, music and periodicals. I wouldn’t say that I was a “bookworm” so much as a little media junkie who couldn’t get his fix anymore at the tiny town library. I loved combing through the CDs and magazines, and being the little consumerist I was, I burned through my allowances and earliest paychecks there at an alarming rate. But even if I wasn’t buying anything, Borders was still a place that I somehow ended up at when I didn’t have anything better to do. Yes, I was/am that much of a huge nerd.

Years later, shortly after college I moved in with a roommate and began the process of job hunting. Go figure, there wasn’t much demand for an unmotivated media studies major with no experience, so after several months, my priorities shifted from finding the ideal entry-level position to just landing any job at all. Once again, I found myself at Borders, this time filling out a job application, one that (gasp!) actually landed me an interview. It turned out that they liked my library experience and were looking for holiday help. What began as a short-term holiday employment eventually turned into a two and a half year gig before I finally resigned. In between I had some of the best and worst work experiences of my life.

Borders Book Store, Alameda, CA

After a good six months of ringing up customers at the register, I was “promoted” to working at the cafe. I never thought I’d be serving lattes to people after graduation, but there I was, ringing up stale baked goods and artfully squirting chocolate checkerboard-patterns onto whipped cream-topped mochas. This was (at times) relaxingly predictable work, that is, during weekday afternoons. Weekends brought seemingly endless queues of customers, which packed the cafe with stacks of books, almost all of which would be left behind for us to pick up and deliver to the restock shelf at customer service. We were commonly understaffed, so what should have been a mellow job was often pretty stressful. In hindsight, I look back on all the times that I let it stress me out and wonder just what my problem was. Out of plastic spoons? Stroller moms with crying kids in the cafe? Customers dumping hot coffee out in the garbage can? None of it really mattered, and I should have just let it all slide, but instead I often let it agitate me to an embarrassing degree. If I took anything away from this time, it was that I learned a lot about myself and my abilities to deal with stress.

The only thing that got me through all the headaches of the job were all the fantastic people I met on the job. Through my coworkers, I was able to experience a kind of “second college,” being able to hang out with cool people my own age, only this time without all the religious social hangups that perpetually hampered my college relationships. After work, we’d congregate outside the store doors and smoke cigarettes before heading off to a bar for a few drinks. I went to parties and concerts with my newfound friends and had a blast. Who knew that making friends was this easy? Finally, I had people to hang out with outside of work, who I could enjoy a few drinks with without being silently judged.

Borders Book Store, Alameda, CA

Bookstores naturally draw an eccentric mix of people; my coworkers included a handful of anime geeks, a music teacher, art students, a few stoner-types and a fair share of fellow liberal-minded people like myself. I felt that I fit in really well. For the first time at a job, I felt comfortable. This was good, right? Maybe not when you’re just getting by at a few quarters over the minimum wage. I regularly struggled with money during my whole time at Borders, but after a year or so of working with such cool people in such a relaxed atmosphere (er, for the most part), I had a hard time imagining myself working anywhere else.

After a year or so at the cafe, I was offered a position working in the music/DVD section. This was the big break I’d been waiting for. It wasn’t quite the proper “music store” job that I’d always wanted, but it was close enough. Stocking and rearranging CDs on the shelves, sorting out the mess that was the DVD section… probably sounds like a pain in the butt to most “normal” people, but hey, if I’m going to be set to mindless tasks then it might as well be ones that come natural to me. My coworkers and I had the entire upstairs of the store to ourselves, and put on whatever music we liked. Gorillaz, Daft Punk, David Bowie, Bjork, Talking Heads… usually anything but the CDs that corporate mandated us to be playing every day.

Border's Store #1 in Ann Arbor

I can remember some of the first times that I ever visited Borders, scanning through the CD sections, and finding more music than I’d ever seen in one place ever before: the entire Sonic Youth catalog, multiple albums by Autechre, Throbbing Gristle, Aphex Twin, Wire, Plastikman, Merzbow (!), Swans, Silver Apples, Suicide… by the time I working in the music department, this once-rich selection (which about half of my CD collection was purchased from) had been cut in half with almost all the hard-to-find artists completely purged from the inventory, and the worst was still to come. Every month meant a new RPL, in which we’d pull all of the interesting albums we were actually still carrying off the shelf to be sent back to the distributor. Soon we were down to only the essentials, with the monthly listening-station titles being the only source of interesting titles that weren’t Celtic Woman or post-mortem Ray Charles duets. This made my job as a music seller somewhat difficult. Whenever the opportunity arose to actually recommend a title to an interested customer, chances were that it was one that we no longer carried. Of course, we could always order it, which would usually prompt the same customer reaction every time: “If I wanted to order it, I would just go to Amazon!”

There lied the problem that Borders was unable or simply unwilling to deal with. Customers were turning to the Internet for their book, music, and DVD needs, which provided a greater selection at a lower price that we simply couldn’t compete with. Our closest competitor, Barnes and Noble, had been selling books online since 1997. Maybe in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of way, Borders contracted Amazon.com to handle its online orders for most of the 00’s. I have no idea whether Borders reaped the full profit from such sales or just a small commission. Either way, it helped drive customers out of stores and onto their home computers, where they found a more comfortable and easier shopping experience. The new Borders website, launched in 2008, was and still is a sad imitation of its competitors’ sites, its most unique features being the slow-loading (now defunct?) “magic shelf” and embarrassingly-tiny search results which have somehow managed to diminish over time. As of 2005 and 2006, though, things were still looking up for the company, as it kept expanding and working to improve its existing stores.

In the Book Store

Store remodeling eventually brought the religion and manga sections upstairs to us, which meant bringing the manga kids upstairs with it. Our manga section was always over-packed and strewn with discarded food wrappings and torn shrinkwrap removed from mature titles. I wish I could say that this corner of the store was a hangout for otaku teens. Rather, it was always packed with ravenous ten year-olds whose parents likely abandoned them for a few hours’ worth of shopping across the street at the mall. Still, I enjoyed trying to keep this section straight, as well as the anime DVDs. But there’s only so many 4-episode Inuyasha DVDs (for a low, low price of $24.99!) that you can fit on a handful of shelves, so it was often a struggle to pack everything in. As time went on, I noticed that to be the case throughout the DVD section, as well as most of the books we held upstairs. I wouldn’t say that people weren’t buying stuff like they used to, but they definitely weren’t buying it at Borders anymore.

During the last few months of my time at Borders, I experienced one financial crisis after another, and the once-close web of friends that I enjoyed was splintering apart due to resignations and in-store drama in which once-friendly coworkers grew embittered and succumbed to workplace gossip and backstabbing. Every other new hire seemed to possess once psychopathic quality or another; we hired a wise-ass slacker who’d sit on the countertop at the information desk and blare awful pop-punk music at full volume throughout the entire upper floor, which caused management to crack down on our entire department with a new set of strict rules. Then there was the aspiring MMA fighter who bragged about beating his wife and taking her wedding ring, and the new manager who was fired and arrested for stealing a TV. But I guess it’s hard not to get nostalgic for a time when any loser off the street could walk into a store and get a job, a general state of affairs that it looks like we’ll never see again.

Borders

I eventually reached a point where I realized that my life was going nowhere. I put in my two-week notice in the middle of a huge remodeling job, one which covered every square inch of the store in dust and marked the final transition of the chain from a simple bookstore into a bookstore/games/nicknacks/wrapping paper shoppe. My final week was spent working overnight shifts, moving stock from one section to another, and nearly losing my mind from lack of sleep. On my last night I reorganized an entire wall full of headphones, CD cases, and accessories, mostly by myself, while my coworker blasted My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult on the overhead speakers. I said my goodbyes to a handful of people, packed up my belongings from my locker and walked out the door, wondering if I would ever set foot in the store again. It’s been about five years now and I still haven’t.

I’ve kept a close eye on the slow demise of the chain, from its interoffice drama to its decade-late scramble to finally establish itself online. Its desperate reliance on “make” titles (see how desperately they’re pushing the “Millennium Trilogy” books these days and you’ll get an idea of how much they needed regular hits like Harry Potter just to stay afloat) and sideline items began to push its wider selection towards the margins of its business. Nothing’s taken a hit quite like the CD and DVD stock, which became a liability for the chain in recent years. Of course, that’s just the nature of business in the digital age, but unfortunately Borders didn’t have the luxury of treating such items as loss leaders like Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Everything they sell has been devalued by the big box stores, iTunes, and Amazon.

It’s such a sad situation for the employees of the chain who truly loved their jobs and took them seriously, even as they were treated like wage slaves and likely making less than your average Taco Bell employee. But the writing’s been on the wall for months, maybe even years, hopefully long enough for workers to begin preparing for life after Borders. Since leaving, I’ve found a better-paying job that I can actually support myself with, but I still get wistful when I think about all the carefree time I spent working there. Days could be hectic and annoying, but were just as often a breezy blur that I remember most for the friends that I made and the good times that we had. It was more than just a job. It was the center of a mellow lifestyle that seems to have passed for me, and after this week’s news, is likely passing away for thousands of others, too. Hopefully the remaining Borders stores can ride out the crisis and stay open for years, but even if they do, the fin de siècle for the industry is definitely upon us.

Deadman Wonderland
Vol. 1-3
Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou
Shōnen Ace 2007 – present
Tokyopop
2010

In looking over my (rather small) manga collection, I noticed a tendency for me to gravitate to books with bold and creative cover designs. Of course, there’s a handful of notable titles that I bought because of great reviews or word of mouth, but when it comes to making the occasional impulse buy (or in this case, Amazon wishlist add), I’m always looking at covers for something to grab my eye. In the case of Deadman Wonderland, just a passing glance at the bookstore was all it took to pique my interest.  The art and design on these covers, alongside the vague but intriguing title, grabbed my attention almost immediately.

Deadman Wonderland tells the story of Igarashi Ganta, a middle school student who’s wrongly accused of murder when his class is slaughtered by a grim (and possibly supernatural) figure that Ganta knows only as “the red man.” Ganta meets a swift conviction at his trial and is sent off to the notorious Deadman Wonderland prison, which also functions as an amusement park open to the public. Deadman Wonderland’s “attractions” include regular races between inmates on a deadly obstacle course and the famous “Carnival of Corpses,” which pits two inmates against each other in a fight to the death. If only that were the least of Ganta’s troubles: each inmate is fitted with a collar that continually delivers a lethal dose of poison, which can only be countered by medicine that must be purchased with inmate “cast points.” Needless to say, this prison is far from ordinary, and as Ganta soon finds out, neither are its inmates.

Despite being a “prison manga,” with all the grisly expectations that we’ve come to anticipate from “prison movies” or any story set behind bars, Deadman Wonderland isn’t the dark or depressing tale that we might expect. The prisoners are given a surprising freedom to roam, which Ganta uses to his advantage as he spends most of these three volumes exploring Deadman Wonderland and meeting some of its most unusual inmates. Despite his naive nature, he quickly makes friends with a handful of inmates, including Shiro, a cheerful, friendly girl, and Yoh, a thieving prisoner with extensive connections and a hidden agenda. And just when things couldn’t get any stranger for Ganta, he discovers something in himself that changes everything.

Deadman Wonderland is Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou’s follow-up to the hugely successful Eureka 7 (which I haven’t had the pleasure to read or watch just yet) and should look familiar to any reader who’s even casually familiar with that series. I love how Kondou draws his characters: very expressive and emotive, with lots of detail in the finer aspects of their appearance (hair and clothing, especially). The characters radiate charisma, and coolness, and are a pleasure to follow.

Ganta makes for a simple but likable lead character. He’s not the overly-precocious protagonist that so many characters his age commonly are; not particularly bright or gifted, he’s understandably overwhelmed by the situation he finds himself in but still displays flashes of bravery and determination when it counts. The gallery of supporting characters are colorful and interesting enough in their own right, making the world of Deadman Wonderland bizarre and often absurd, like a nightmare that could be terrifying if only it weren’t so funny and strange.

I don’t know if I’m completely hooked on this story or not yet, but with the release of volume 4, I feel like I’m in too deep to quit. With the secrets of Deadman Wonderland slowly revealing themselves, I’m looking forward to reading more.

Better use this Borders gift card while they’re still in business.

From a profile on Baltimore’s Otakon in the UK anime magazine Neo:

But for fans who want to go to have fun and hang out, Otakon is the place to be. “You can’t pirate seeing your friends in person” says [Otakon event chairman Sean] Chichankitmun. “One of the big differences to me between American conventions and European conventions is that American conventions seem more social” says Volkmar. “Everyone goes back to the hotels and hangs out for hours after we close down [at 3AM.]  Here it seems like the programming ends at 7 and everyone goes home.”

That Guy With the Glasses talks about anime conventions:

let’s face it, no one really sleeps in their hotel rooms. Actually, no one really sleeps. People tend to load up on unhealthy amounts of caffeine and stay up all night partying; because it would be criminal to waste one hour of your precious con time on sleep. You can sleep when you’re dead; but while you’re alive and paying for a hotel room, partying is definitely in order.

UK blogger Mrlewissmith discusses his fondness for conventions:

One great thing that I have taken from Anime conventions is a great group of friends that I trust a great deal. We will mainly meet up at Cons and spend a lot of time at a local pub/bar etc… And generally we will have alot of fun, make a lot of noise, pandemonium and get into trouble with the accomodation /Con Staff, but we only get to meet up a few times a year and meet literally from all over the UK so what do ya expect!

Ogiue Maniax on the irreplaceable benefits of anime conventions:

One thing that’s said about conventions in the internet age is that they’ve lost some of their utility, as conventions used to be about meeting people you couldn’t otherwise, whereas now you just head over to your favorite chatroom/messageboard/whatever and talk it up. One thing that hasn’t changed though is that it provides a common gathering point for fans, only now instead of meeting total strangers you get to meet people with whom you’ve chatted, and once after you’ve bonded over fine anime and cola, you can then continue your friendship online. On a personal level this has worked out quite well for me. Quite well.

None of these testimonials comes close to describing my own convention experiences. This leads me to the question: have I been going about conventions all wrong?

I know there’s no single way for everyone to enjoy a convention, but if message boards and blogs are to be believed, a huge segment of congoers regularly turn out not for the panels, the special events, or even the dealers’ room, but for the simple act of socializing. Meeting people — or “meeting up” with people — seems to be the biggest draw for lots of fans, who may seem to be taking in the day’s events with interest but are really just be looking forward to an evening’s worth of partying and memory-making, Facebook update-worthy hijinks.

No one’s really coming out and saying it, but here’s what I’m getting from reading blog entries and message board posts like the ones above: anime fans go to conventions to meet and hang out with their friends from the Internet. As I walk the hallways in the convention center and in the hotel, is this what’s happening all around me? Someone set me straight, because I honestly don’t know.

This April we’ll be attending Sakura-Con in Seattle. It just so happens that we’ll likely be meeting up with… friends from the Internet! Well, Mandy’s friends, to be precise, but I’m hoping that it’ll make things a little more exciting then they were when we attended ACEN last year and stuck to ourselves the entire time. Not that there was anything wrong with that; we had a fantastic time all by ourselves. But were we missing something? Is socializing an essential part of the “convention experince” that I’ve been missing out on? What role has socializing — particularly that experienced with friends and contacts from the Internet — played in your enjoyment of conventions? Is the simple act of hanging out and partying the primary draw for many (most?) fans who make the trip to conventions? Or am I reading too much into a few Internet comments?

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