I've been watching anime for the past couple of days, and there isn't enough aspirin (or Chivas Regal) in the world to relieve my pain.
For those fortunate enough not to know, anime is a term used to describe a type of highly stylized Japanese animation in which drawings of people with giant doe eyes are dogged by massive, anthropomorphic robots and the occasional ninja samurai. After cramming my head full of these cheesy Japanese cartoons, I invited local husband-and-wife anime fanatics Carlos and Christina Ross over to explain the appeal of this Bambi-eyed sci-fi mush, which -- despite its shiny, childlike veneer -- is clearly aimed at adults.
The Rosses, who met in a comic book store six years ago, took time out from their busy lives -- they're up to their normal-size eyeballs running an anime-review site, Themanime.org, and preparing for this weekend's AniZona 01, an anime convention that will no doubt attract anime fans from across the land -- and tried their best to enlighten me, to no avail. I still don't understand why anyone, young or old, wants to watch line drawings of teenaged martial arts masters kicking heck out of tentacled, demonic entities when they could be sleeping. Or drinking. Or going to the dentist.
New Times: Isn't "anime" just the Japanese word for animation?
Carlos Ross: Yes. But if you're talking about any of the Studio Ghibli films or My Neighbor Totoro -- by the way, if you need me to spell any of this, let me know --
NT: I promise. So, is there some sort of rule that says that "cartoon" should only refer to American-produced animation?
Carlos: I tend not to be nearly as elitist as others, because it's all animation in the long run. But a lot of people don't want to use "cartoon" because it means it's for kids.
Christina Ross: Which is all denial, since 90 percent of anime is kids' stuff. Some anime fans don't want to admit that.
NT: Because then we'll think they're geekazoids?
Christina: Well, actually, the first commercial releases of anime were pornographic.
NT: Wait. Anime pornography? Like naked cartoons with really big eyes? What else was big?
Carlos: They just hyped up the sex and violence. In Japan, they have this pressure-cooker culture, and they need different forms of escapism. One of the things they hit on was making cartoon porn. And they found basement boys who were willing to buy this stuff.
Christina: It's awful, though.
NT: It can't be as bad as some of the anime I've just watched. All of it seemed to involve a giant spaceship shaped like a dragon blowing up friendly planets. And what's with the giant eyes, anyway?
Christina: That's Japanese animators trying to draw Americans.
Carlos: American cartoons started that. Betty Boop had big eyes. That was the style back then. Where American art went in a different direction, Japan kept the big eyes, as a tradition.
NT: I watched something called Yu-Gi-Oh!, which I couldn't make heads or tails of. Something about a kid becoming a superhero -- it just made me want to lie down with an ice pack on my head.
Christina: Me, too. Yu-Gi-Oh! is a 30-minute commercial, made to sell a card game. It's kind of the dirty little secret that people don't want to admit about anime: First and foremost, its purpose is to make money.
Carlos: Not all anime is good. Every genre has its share of stuff that's substandard. But every once in a while you get one that's good.
NT: You couldn't prove it by me. I watched one called The Chronicles of Riddick starring a line drawing of Vin Diesel. Which seemed kind of redundant. Why is this stuff more popular than, say, Scooby-Doo or Magilla Gorilla?
Christina: Anime doesn't pander as much. Anime doesn't see itself as a genre; it's a medium, a form of telling a story. People are drawn to anime because there are so many different types of stories.
NT: Do you read books, or do you only like it if the pictures are talking to you?
Christina: I feel really stupid admitting this, but I have a bit of a reading disorder. It's hard for me to read books up to a certain level. One way to get myself to read is to read comic books or picture books. Even in college, if I had a textbook that was just words, I'd be like, "Huh?" But if it had an illustration or a chart, I could get it. I even had a hard time finishing the fourth Harry Potter book!
NT: What is cosplay?
Carlos: It's from the English words "costume play." It's basically people dressing up as cartoon characters. It's fun, because when you watch anime, you see all the bright colors and flashy costumes, and people want to know how they would look dressed up like that.
NT: So it's just super nerds playing make believe?
Carlos: It's dress-up. People are having fun, nobody is getting hurt. What's the big deal? The average cosplayer doesn't go to work dressed as a cartoon character. That's just silly. There are boundaries to the nerdiness. Even the major geeks will say, "Okay, you've gone too far. Staying in your basement and watching nothing but anime, that's a little out there."
NT: What would happen to you if we took your anime away?
Carlos: I have so many different interests. Like bird watching. People look at me funny when I say that I volunteer for the Audubon Society, because it's not normal. But there's an estimate from the Fish and Wildlife Service that one fourth of the population of the U.S. has indulged in bird watching at some point in time.
NT: Does that include glancing at the sparrows in my backyard while I'm grinding coffee in the morning?
Carlos: It means driving miles out of your way to see a rare bird. I actually keep a list of the birds I've seen. Because anime is not a hobby that everyone can go into full time. But there's at least one show somewhere out there that you'll like.
NT: Is there a rule that denouncing everything Western and championing everything Japanese is an essential part of being an anime fan?
Christina: Oh, God. A lot of the new anime fans are using it as a means of establishing an identity. They think if they watch anime dubbed in English, it's not pure.
Carlos: I think it's hilarious to be holier-than-thou about being geeky. It's a hobby! Some people get snobby about it.
NT: Isn't there a hierarchy among anime fans?
Carlos: Every social group has a hierarchy. And everyone wants to bag on people who are lower than them. That's hogwash. I like to say, "Hey, I've got this cool thing here that I want to share with you. Watch Samurai Champloo with me."
Christina: The drawback is you get people who actually believe that if they learn Japanese and go to Japan, they'll be accepted there because they watch these cartoons. It's not healthy. There's a small percentage of fans who take it too far.
Carlos: There's a small percentage who are very loud and vocal and obnoxious. There's always a fringe in every group that takes itself too seriously, that goes too far. You actually get people who believe they are anime characters. "I'm the reincarnation of Inu Yasha!" Never once thinking that maybe it would be a little strange to be the reincarnation of a fictional character whose creator is still extant. That's sort of bizarre. There are people who think that way, but they're a little bit funny in the head. And you can't really blame a hobby for someone being socially inept.
NT: Did you have an anime wedding?
Carlos: We tried to keep it traditional. But we played a song for the recessional that was from an anime.
Christina: It was a love song from an anime show about going into a fantasy together.
NT: Tell me about the anime convention. What will happen there?
Carlos: We'll have a lot of voice actors there, the people who do the dub work for the American releases of anime.
Christina: It's a good place for anime fans to get together, dress up, play games.
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NT: If there was an anime planet, would you go live there?
Carlos: I'd visit. It would be a little too much to live there.
Christina: There's such a thing as too much of a good thing. If anime became my life, then it wouldn't be my fun little hobby anymore.
AniZona 01 takes place Friday, March 25, through Sunday, March 27, at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 2577 West Greenway Road. Call 602-375-1777.