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Anime-niacs

This weekend, anime devotees convene in Tampa. Some dressed to the industry nines.

By LEONORA LaPETER
Published July 18, 2003

[Times photos: Ken Shimizu]
From left, Wendy King, Tracy King, Andrea Zampella, Victoria Seda and Lisa Fedrowitz (all age 17 except Victoria, 16) will wear their handmade Tokyo Mew Mew costumes to an anime convention.

photo
This wig is part of one of the Tokyo Mew Mew costumes assembled by Sarasota teens.

Andrea Zampella wears Japanese clothes, listens to Japanese pop music and has action figures and dolls from Japanese cartoons on the shelves of her bright pink room.

The 17-year-old, who is not Japanese, is hooked on Japanese animated series with English subtitles and has learned Japanese just from watching them. She reads Japanese comic novels translated into English and works at a Japanese restaurant. Even the guy she likes is into all things Japanese.

Zampella is a modern-day "anime" fan, a Sarasota teen who plays trombone, acts in drama club and has spent two weeks sewing costumes to transform her and her friends into characters from a Japanese series for a convention in Tampa this weekend.

"We used to like it a lot when we were kids," she said of anime one day this week at her Sarasota home, where she and four of her friends hung out sewing. "We liked it before it got popular, like, before every time you turned around and saw Pikachu (from Pokemon) in Target."

Organizers of this weekend's gathering of anime fans, which begins today at the Crowne Plaza Tampa at Sabal Park and is expected to draw 750 to 1,000, are billing it as Tampa's first anime convention. Short for animation, anime is the way the genre's fans refer to it.

Begun in the 1960s and based on Japanese comic books, it is growing in popularity in the United States with some $500-million in annual sales. About a dozen U.S. companies are major distributors of anime products, including DVDs and videos, T-shirts and comic books, and more and more Japanese series and movies are being translated into English.

The genre's appeal appears to be its diversity and depth, style and substance. Shows target all ages and cross all the genres of American live movies, from romance and comedies to adventure and dramas.

"In the 1980s, when a lot of animation started coming over here, there was a large misconception that all animated series were X-rated," said Roy Harms, 34, creator of the Web site AnimeMetro.com, who is putting on this weekend's convention. "We had a long struggle coming out of that era and in the mid '90s we broke out and people have gotten past the idea that it's either just for 5-year-olds or it should be at the back of the store and nobody should see it. Now it's a race to see who can license titles faster."

Harms said shows are becoming more mainstream. Japanese animation has even captured Hollywood; this year's Oscar for animated feature went to Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away.

One Tampa company, AnimeNation, sells some 8,000 anime products online and just started a new company that licenses and translates Japanese titles. It produced its first series with subtitles this month.

Gene Field, 36, started the business seven years ago from his apartment in Clearwater. He created a Web site and took orders for Japanese movies and series, buying one for the customer and another for his shelves.

Before long, he'd outgrown the apartment and then a small garage in an industrial complex. Four years ago, he had enough business to build his own facility. He declined to provide gross sales figures but said it is in the millions of dollars and his mailing list reaches 100,000.

"We're doing a small share of the market now that Best Buy and Amazon and Wal-Mart have anime," he said. "When we got started, it was nice to be one of three places online doing this. It gave us a huge advantage. But with the growth of anime's popularity, when money is in it, it gets noticed by the big chains. Now everyone's our competitor."

Shows such as Pokemon, Digimon and Sailor Moon, which draw younger viewers, are probably the best-known Japanese animation. But with Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" late-night block of cartoons, animated shows such as Cowboy Beebop are drawing in adult viewers.

Zampella and her friends say they are too old to watch Pokemon now. They prefer series for their own age group, such as Tokyo Mew Mew, a story about five girls who get injected with the DNA of endangered species and become superheros saving the world from aliens.

The Sarasota teens have created from scratch the maid outfits worn by these characters, who work in a cafe. Each girl, with names that translate into English as "Strawberry," "Pudding" and "Pomegranate," will be a different girl/animal. They have also made the girls' superhero outfits.

"The saving the world story line is pretty popular," said Wendy King, 17, one of Zampella's friends.

"Or saving the world and saving friends or saving the world and saving someone's soul or saving the world and falling in love," said another friend, Lisa Fedrowitz, 17.

"Or being transported to another world and you have to save that world," added King with a laugh.

The girls said they like Japanese animation because it's different and interesting. Most have, in some way, embraced aspects of Japanese culture, either by wearing Japanese clothes or learning Japanese.

Victoria Seda, 16, met her boyfriend, who is from New Jersey, at an anime convention in Orlando a year ago. She has seen him twice but talks to him daily online. And one of Fedrowitz's relationships recently ended because she and her boyfriend didn't have enough in common. He wasn't into anime.

"Typically fans of Japanese animation are fairly literate and generally very, very devoted and it's not at all uncommon to see fans get into other aspects of Japanese culture, like Japanese pop music and Japanese fiction translated into English and Japanese movies," said John Oppliger, who's in charge of Internet development for AnimeNation of Tampa.

The Sarasota teens said they hadn't embraced Japanese culture at the expense of what they've grown up with.

"Being into another culture doesn't mean you don't embrace your own," Fedrowitz said. "I watch TV and movies a lot. I really like Friends. It's my favorite show. It's kind of like people who live in America who are from Brazil. They still have national pride in the culture they came from, but they enjoy American culture too."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

If you go

Metrocon will be held from noon today through 5 p.m. Sunday at Crowne Plaza Tampa at Sabal Court, 10221 Princess Palm Ave. in Tampa. Tickets, which range from $15 to $30 for adults and $8 to $15 for children under 10, may be purchased by cash or check at the convention during certain hours. Children under 12 must be accompanied by a parent. For more information, visit http://www.animemetro.com/metroconventions/control.cfm

[Last modified July 18, 2003, 02:08:21]


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