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Arts & Entertainment - Cartoons a living reality

In a room inside a section of a building within the heart of a city, a world of living cartoons thrives. Schoolgirls with bubblegum pink hair talk to ninjas with gravity-defiant hair. Lolitas sit to eat lunch with psychotic geniuses. To these characters, life is about animation.

“My name is Shelly Gray, and I’m dressed as Sheena Fujibayashi from Tales of Symphonia,” says one girl with a bow tied around her waste long enough to reach the ground. Her entire ensemble was handmade by friends.

Gray’s not the only one willing to spend months of her time and hundreds of dollars on custom-made costumes. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre was home to the annual AnimeCon hosted by FanExpo on March 15-16. Thousands of fans gathered in full costume, paying homage to their favourite Japanese cartoon character.

The convention is a place for fans of Japanese animation, more commonly known as anime, to come together to share their common interest. This year, more than 3,000 guests checked in, up a thousand from last year, said James Armstrong, organizer of the show.

“Anime has always kind of grown in popularity,” he said. “They haven’t had that backslide. It’s always going up or staying the same.” Shows always get popular and lose steam and another one is right behind it ready to create another wave of fandom, Armstrong said.

Not sure what anime is? Get out of your own bubble and take a look at YTV’s programming where much of the weeknights and entire Fridays are devoted to dubbed cartoons imported from Japan. Look for the shows that look more aesthetically pleasing. Exaggerated features like big eyes, elongated limbs, and elaborate shading give the characters a more visually pleasing appeal than the simplistic crudity of Spongebob, Homer Simpson, or Peter Griffin.

The audience’s voracious appetite for anime almost rivals Trekkies and Star Wars fans. “It’s similar,” said Armstrong. “The fans probably have more in common with Trekkies than they realize. Since they’re both into different material, they’ll probably never admit to something like that, but yeah, I see similarities there.”

“It’s just something to do,” said Amanda Rihal, a vendor at the convention. “The cartoons here in North America just didn’t appeal to me. They seemed really dumbed down.”

The fluffiness of North American cartoons has made cartoons seem suitable for 5-year-olds. Many North American shows are centred around school life and popularity, while imported shows range from high school kids taking on the role of the Grim Reaper to futuristic alternate universes. The plots are extremely complex and characters are highly developed as they battle personal dilemmas and giant robots.

The diversity and fresh plot ideas are what draws the large crowds. “The TV exposure’s bringing younger kids in, but I’m also seeing a lot of the older people getting into the newer things,” said Jody who was selling comics at the convention for the fifth year. “It’s a market that was never tapped. Part of the problem comic books has had is it has never geared itself towards women. And that’s one thing Japanese comics really have.”

The comics, inked in the same visually pleasing style as anime and known as manga, beg for readership through the pages, and it works. Characters drawn with large eyes and the ideal physique draw readers in, with a plot that often complements a cartoon series.

“Manga’s starting to sneak into the comic book industry,” said Armstrong. Anime fans have begun to gravitate towards the comics, and the publishers love it even though the typical superhero has foundered. The surge of popularity for Japanese artwork is like a second coming after the death of Superman. “Probably in a few years, the anime/comic connection is going to be a real relationship.”

The popularity has even spawned the American version of anime (which was once supposed to be influenced by American animation, ironically). Avatar: the Last Airbender emulates the anime style with artful scenery and anime-style drawing.

Meanwhile, American cartoons like South Park and Family Guy have made gags and parodies with characters speaking in poorly dubbed English, or adding the words “ha-HA!” to the end of every sentence.

Knowing the fickle nature of television-watching audiences, it’s hard to really predict the road that anime will go down. Reality television is doing well too, but you don’t see conventions celebrating their greatness. And what reality show’s fans would be willing to sew their own costume to look like their favourite pop star du jour?

“The name’s Pierre, and I’m dressed up as an akatsuki ninja from Naruto,” says a guy wearing long robes and a rice hat. He’s been into anime for almost 10 years, and he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

“There are so many reasons why people are drawn into anime. It could even be video games or manga. There’re so many categories, but basically, it’s all anime.”