A semi-true story . . .
Dasad picked up a box, inside sat a smiling figure with long blonde hair donning a short nun’s frock and a pair of whirling yo-yos. “How about this one?” he shouted to me as I crouched down to look at several swimsuit clad girls on the lower shelf. “She looks cute and Catholic too. Your family shouldn’t give you too much crap about that.”
“Uh sorry, no traps for me. If you find a cute reverse trap, like Kino, I might give it a look.”
“ ‘Traps,’” I explain before any of the nearby otaku or anime fans overhead us; aloud my explanations of otaku culture always sounded a little embarrassing. Not that anyone really cared. On the last day of Otakon, one of the East Coast’s biggest anime conventions, the attendees filed into the vendor hall by the thousands decked out in their finest costumes or cosplay.
“In other words, a gender bender. Bridget there is a guy that looks like a girl, thus the ‘trap.’ I don’t recommend gazing up ‘his’ skirt. It’s not pretty.”
“Oh,” Desad said, gently pushing the box back on the shelf. “So a ‘reverse trap’ is . . .”
“A girl that looks like a guy, yeah. Typically the ones in suits and hats, accessories that hide their . . . femininity. Check out that Persona 4 wall scroll over there,” I point behind me. Dasad gazes at the shingled wooden board painted with images of various students relaxing in a classroom. “The one in black hat and suit is a girl.”
“Looks like some badass street punk.”
“Yeah, she’s a detective in the game, but wraps up her chest like a female swordsman to make herself appear more masculine. You see, the theme of role reversal is not limited to Shakespeare. Many Asian . . .”
“Whatever dude, are you done here?” Dasad asks impatiently, quickly evading a pair of giggling otaku fan-girls in black lace who raced cameras in-hand toward a long-haired cosplayer in blue uniform. As my impatient friend did so, his head bumped against the outspread black wings of a sweaty thirteen year old, causing a momentarily spasm of panic akin to seven-year-old infected with cooties. “I’m real interested in your sexual perversion and all, but my stomach’s been growling for the past hour. Let’s grab some tacos from across the street before that guy eats them all.”
A fat pox-marked kid jiggles past us sucking on cheese-dribbled French fries; residual finger grease and ketchups stains smear a Robotech t-shirt.
“Aw . . . I don’t know if I’d say that. Kid looks like a serial eater, doesn’t have any friends to tell him otherwise.”
“Probably ‘cause he ate them all. Let’s go. We’ll be safe as long as the concession stands are still stocked up on nacho cheese and pork rinds.”
“Okay,” I sigh, spying no interesting figures on the shelves and still deciding on a rather ecchi Fortune Arterial artbook. “Let me walk through this row of stands and then we’ll head out.”
And so, I – nearly – drag him through the rows of manga, art books, DVDs, posters, and cat-eared hats, my eyes like anchors latching onto the latest series box set or plastic swimsuit clad swordmen. Occasionally I lose Dasad while taking pictures or gazing at DVDs, only to find him surrounded and petrified by uniform-donned girls gyrating to some techno-enhanced soundtrack. He nearly collapses when we leave the vendor floor. Considering we had scoured the figure shelves for nearly two hours amid the thick Sunday crowds of the Con, I found his patience truly commendable.
“Some of those girls in the bunny suits were not girls,” he pants, sniffling slightly. “Son of a geek must have coated himself in olive oil to fit into those fishnets. He stunk like week old garbage left out in the sun too long.” He sneezes.
“Those crowds don’t help either . . . Say dude,” I say flicking through my collection of photos on the viewer. “You want to do sushi instead of tex-mex?”
“More Japanese stuff?” he heaved, with a reluctant smile. “Sure I don’t mind. What places are around here?”
Near the stairs, we tiptoe through groups of otaku clustered near the walls, their bags strewn open to reveal stacks of doujinshi, art books, manga, and other swag. Some stretch out, relaxing atop friends and bookbags reading, others fast sleep curled on fake wings and stuffed animals. In a separate corner, a group click and stab excitedly at their pocket game systems. I hear the familiar roar of Mario carts, lightning bolts, and bubbling lava.
“There’s someplace nearby, I think. Further north. Sushi Sano or something like that . . .”
“Ugh,” he groans accidentally treading on a Naruto artbook before its owner could snatch it away. “No way. Is there anyplace else?”
“Why? What’s wrong? I hear the food there is pretty good.”
“That’s the place we visited last year, remember? They kept an aquarium right beside the bar. Staring at the customers, ten or so live fish in a tank . . . swimming!”
“Uh yeah, they do have a nasty habit of doing that. So?”
“So . . . any place that cuts and prepares raw fish in front of live fish is disgusting. It’s like eating a Big Mac in front of your cows.”
“Yeah, apart from the smell of livestock comingling with good food, it’s not really that big of a deal. I mean, the cows and the fish don’t mind, dude.”
“Well, I do. It’s disgusting and inhumane. Let’s pick another place. Maybe one within walking distance . . .”
As we reach the top of the stairs, crowds of otaku flow through the doors: young and old, in all manner of costumes and thus in all levels of dress and undress. I recognize half-a-dozen characters from my favorite series and video games; others, perhaps more out of an urge to participate, appear to have worn whatever they found on their hotel floor this morning: assorted cat ears, human-sized swords, blood splatter, bells, whips, blue hair dye, silver trays, Coke bottles, and stuffed animals duct taped onto their person. One old lady strode rapidly up the escalator dressed in white frills, her hair flailing in all directions, looking every bit the part of a burnt-out (and slightly hung over) tooth fairy.
“I think that was an old lady. Nearly fifty or so.”
“Ugh, that’s even worse,” my friend sighs. “Pop!”
“Hey,” I suddenly suggest, my eyes staring at a girl in a giant open pocky box. “We need to dress up next . . .”
“No. Hell, no.”
“Come on . . . Look how cool that costume is. Maybe we can start out slow, with a T-shirt and maybe a tattoo . . .”
“Nope, the only costume I have is this nerd badge,” Dasad said patting his convention ID. Across the front, a smiling blonde soldier in an orange jumpsuit stares wistfully at a blue sky. “And I only chose this badge ‘cause it seemed more . . . normal than any of the others. No half-dressed girls or supped-up robot maids.”
“Ooookay,” I whine. “Well, I have a year to convince you otherwise.”
We walk up the escalator, welcoming the open empty spaces. Among the upper levels of the center, the crowds thin and navigating felt much more manageable. We breathe easier too but in Dasad’s case, this is quite literal.
“Listen dude,” he says without sniffing, “do you really think you’ll still be doing this next year?”
“Well possibly . . .” I begin, momentarily distracted by a group of six or seven girls in various colored sailor-suited uniforms, all wielding bats, paper fans, bamboo swords, or in one case a pair of sub-machine guns. At their center a uniformed boy crouches, suffering blows from the girls’ weapons across the shoulders or playfully about the head. At each strike, the girls scream ‘Baka!’ and scowl haughtily. The abusive circle strides past the in-house Starbucks before posing for pictures. I snapped a few shots myself and continued walking.
“Shoot,” I curse, scanning through my shots. “No stabilization. All those shots look like a speeding train.”
“What was that?” Dasad asks as we cross the landbridge connecting the two halves of the convention center plaza. “And why are we still inside, where there is no food?”
“We have to cross the street anyway,” I answer. “Figured we could take some shots of the costumes before we leave. If there’s any more costumes like that tsundere troop back there, we can’t miss it.”
“Is that a show? Girls who beat guys, and the guys who love them?”
“Something like that. Tsundere is a loose term for a character archetype, the introverted tomboyish girls, who have difficulty admitting their feelings. Typically they tend to abuse the guy they like when they can’t express how they feel, but below that rough cruel shell, they’re actually quite kind and loving.”
“Like that girl in the Love Hina show, you liked?” he grins.
“Naru?” I laugh nervously. “Yeah. Personally I find it quite cute.”
“You would.” Dasad sighs. Someone behind us shouts ‘Marco!’ immediately followed up en mass with ‘Polo!’ This exchange continues for some minutes as more and more people join in what soon becomes a chant. Others seem more irritated by the noise, but most of us, myself included, just grin and laugh. Dasad looks questioningly at me.
“No clue, dude. Just go with it.”
The easternmost egress from the convention center opens onto a wide atrium brightly lit like a greenhouse by tall windows along the walls and ceilings. Dark volcanic tile, a wide regal staircase, and a jungle of ferns and trees give the impression of a Polynesian resort; clusters of brightly colored cosplayers crowd together for pictures, chatting excitedly before the last AMV show of the Con begins in a nearby theater. Dasad and I lean against the railing and look down from the upper floor, scanning the crowd for any interesting costumes.
I snap a few shots of Mario and Luigi as well as some of the Kingdom Hearts groups – girls with spiky hair wielding giant key-blades – meanwhile noticing that the gaming plaza had closed early. Sunday really is not the day to visit this place. Next year, I reminded myself I would have to get here either Friday or Saturday. With a final sigh Dasad and I escape through the doors and walk down the street towards the harbor restaurants.
“I probably should have bought that artbook,” I mutter, glancing behind me. “From what I’ve seen online, the art in that game is gorgeous. Be nice to have it around in print too.”
“You’re really into this, aren’t you?” my friend says matter-of-factly. “I suppose that you’re already thinking about next year. Heaven knows why you like all this nonsense.”
“The whole adventure of it all,” I smile stretching my arms out wide. “I mean look around you. Ninjas, samurai, elves, zombies, and lovers. They adore these characters; they love their stories. The enthusiasm for the strange, wonderful, and heroic is contagious. Everyone here is seeking something different, something extraordinary.”
“Something fake. Whatever they’re looking for, they probably won’t find it.”
On the street a group of cat-eared girls run past us waving a long wooden paddle. Japanese kanji decorate one side, on the other ‘yaoi’ is written. Several long-haired boys in purple uniforms see them and bolt inside, like spooked antelope, nearly knocking down a group of swordsmen in blue and green tunics, who raise their swords and shields shouting ‘Varlet’ in protest.
“Yeah, but sometimes it’s enough to keep hoping anyway. Something like . . . if we forget who we long to be, we won’t find who we really are.”
“Which is gay.”
“Yeah,” I nod. “Yeah, I know . . .” We cross the street and pass through a small park. Yellow metal children twist and curl about what seems to be a lamp post, marking the city’s contribution to artistic impressionism. Waterfalls and fountains splash against stone walls at the opposite end; brick steps lead down to turbulent pools where more costumed conventioneers pose with ornate umbrellas.
“. . . but not as gay as that.” A thin otaku wiggles past us, wagging his rear from side to side, swinging two attached raccoon tails. A bell jingles from a collar around his neck. He joins the crowd near the water and growls with um . . . paws raised: Rowr!
“No that takes the cake. So what can you deduce about his hopes and dreams?”
“Whatever they are. They best keep far away from mine,” I shudder. “Perhaps as a house cat in La Casa de Dasad.”
“Whatever. No one can say anything about me. I look perfectly normal.”
“Nerd badge,” I cough quickly ducking into a nearby restaurant. Horrified Dasad pulls off the convention badge and stuffs it into his pocket. After a few furtive looks, he shrugs and goes inside. Another year, another con. Resting our weary feet, we relax a bit toasting a successful morning with a large pitcher of sangria.