Anime devotees pack Sakura-con, but longtime fans see the magic fading

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Anime fans in full regalia at Sakura-con (Photo by Enfu via flickr)

Sakura-constarted back in 1998 as a humble gathering of 313 anime and manga fans at the Doubletree Inn in Tukwila. The 14th annual gathering last weekend at the Convention Center attracted 19,000.

I waited in line for 5 hours on Friday waiting to get in the door.

Sakura-con’s growth speaks to the rising popularity of Japanese anime and manga in the United States. With our close ties to Japan, this stuff is especially popular here in the Northwest, but in recent years the convention has begun to draw more than half its attendees from outside the region.

In case you need a to get up to speed, anime and manga are a style of animation and comic book, respectively, that originated in Japan. There’s often an overlap, as many anime cartoons are based off of manga books. Popular examples include the television series Pokemon and the The Secret World of Arrietty, which was recently dubbed into English by Disney and released in US theatres.

Wading through the crowds of hundreds of people wearing outlandish costumes of anime and video game characters, from a Princess Mononoke to Chun-Li from Street Fighter, I found Katie Williamson and Nicole Dubois sitting at a small booth.

Local anime artists Nicole Dubois and Katie Williamson at Sakura-con 2012 (Photo by Azusa Uchikura)

The pair (who decided to forgo the dayglow costumes in favor of a denim jacket and a cardigan) are both anime-inspired artists. They came to Sakura-con to display their art, which includes parody works of animations like Sailor Moon and My Little Pony, as well as drawings of original anime-style characters they created.

They’re part of a growing trend of local artists producing anime-inspired work.

Williamson said she first got into anime when she was about 15 years old. At the time, she lived in Michigan. She says anime was difficult to get a hold of when she was a kid, so she had to resort to watching late-night showings on the Sci-fi channel.

Growing up in Alaska, anime was even harder for Dubois to find. But she had parents who were fans, so she grew up watching the same shows they did and it was natural for her to like it.

“Oh, everyone thought it was just porn,” said Dubois of the reaction of her classmates to her obsession growing up. “That, or they call all anime Pokemon.”

“I didn’t find anyone who liked anime until I moved down here and went to college, and it was like ‘everyone watches anime here,’” she said.

Williamson also found a community who shared her interest when she came to Seattle to find a job. She’s now a full time artist at Cricket Moon Media, a Seattle based game, graphic and animation design company. Like Dubois, she sells her private work at conventions on the side.

They’ve both been coming to Sakura-con for several years now, but this year was their first time sharing a booth. Over the past several years, they say they’ve seen a lot of things change.

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Chun-Li from Street Fighter made an appearance this year (Photo by enfu via flickr)

“It’s exciting to see more people dress up,” said Williamson. “But it’s gotten huge so it’s a little overwhelming.”

The fans who dress up and brave the crowds at Sakura-con, or even know anime or manga when they see it, are still a minority of the population. But to longtime fans like Williamson and Dubois, the increase in popularity over the past decade is a little much.

The two say it’s because large corporations realized they could sell anime and manga to American audiences.

“Now that it’s gotten more mainstream, I don’t watch it as much.” said Williamson

Dubois says with the mass-marketing has actually hurt the art form.

“The quality of anime in the 80s and 90s used to be so much better, and the merchandise too. I really miss when it was harder to get,” she said. “I used to be really excited about new anime that came out, but it’s just become so commercialized.”

While they admit there are some positives in having more people that understand their love for the world of anime, for Dubois and Williamson, it’s a secret they might have preferred to keep to themselves.