When American kids were watching “Speed Racer” and “Robotech” in the ’80s, it was only barely apparent that the shows were coming from an entirely different place, across a vast ocean from the usual Hollywood cartoon factories.
Things sure have changed. The interest in Japanese animation — or anime , as it is popularly known — has gone from a small cult following for sci-fi fanboys into a cultural tsunami, influencing even American comics, film, television and video games. It’s still a niche, but an enormous one — big enough to fill the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for Tekkoshocon, Pittsburgh’s annual convention for fans of Japanese animation and pop culture, which starts today.
“It’s really kind of a young industry (in America), but you can trace the roots back to when ‘Speed Racer’ and ‘Robotech’ were going up on American television in the ’80s and before,” says T.J. Condon, a Tekkoshocon organizer. “But then there was a sense that we were getting it from Japan, but trying not to say, ‘Hey this is Japanese’ — it was just something they happened to procure. And now, there’s a whole lot of people who are especially interested in the cultural significance, and the very different-ness of it.”
Anime cuts across many media platforms — not just movies and animated series. Manga — the thick, book-sized Japanese comic books — have become one of the bright spots in publishing in recent years, finding a huge audience among American teens, especially girls. Then there’s video games.
“I think video games are one of the major driving forces of it,” Condon says. “Back in 1983 when the American video game industry faltered — due to Atari’s eyes really getting too big for their head, and making millions of copies of E.T. and other really bad games — the American video game industry kind of shut down. And (Japan’s) Nintendo came in, and really started making an entire generation familiar with this very Japanese aesthetic, even if it wasn’t always overt.
“And there were almost shameful cases where a company wanted to release a video game in the U.S., where they went to great lengths to strip out Japanese cultural icons and ideas,” Condon says.
Now, that’s clearly not the case. In fact, interest in video games or anime series like “Dragon Ball Z” or “Cowboy Bebop” tend to be the hook that gets young Americans interested in other aspects of Japanese culture.
“We try to be very diverse and educational in what we do, introducing people to new things,” says Condon. “Say, there’s a Japanese anime that references the (traditional) game Go, and there’s another anime about mah-jong — here, we’re having a demonstration.
“We’re flying in a few bands from Japan. That’s one of the things we’ve tried to do — there’s this whole realm of Japanese culture that isn’t limited to anime and video games, but extends to things like food, music and other different ideas,” he says
Ironically, the originators of Japanese animation were heavily influenced by American animators of the ’30s and ’40s. The Toonseum, Pittsburgh’s new museum for cartoon art in the Cultural District, will be participating in Tekkoshocon this year, screening some films from the dawn of Asian animation.
“There was an artist by the name of Te Wei, who did these remarkable animated watercolors,” says Joe Wos, Toonseum curator. “This is actually Chinese animation, which influenced the Japanese animation. He did these unbelievable watercolor kinds of animations, and he was influenced by the stuff going on at Warner Bros. — so he was the first one to end up with this cross-cultural influence.”
In addition, the Toonseum — a short walk away in the Cultural District — will be screening several hard-to-find anime classics. “Pom Poko” (1994) from anime masters Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, will screen at 7 p.m. Friday. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006) will screen at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, and “Barefoot Gen” (1983) at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The films are free.
The Toonseum will feature an anime exhibit in May — “The Art of ‘Akira'” — involving one of Japanese animation’s most iconic movies.
People-watching at Tekkoshocon is, quite literally, an art form. Most comic book and pop culture conventions have a few brave souls who will dress up as their favorite characters. At Tekkoshocon, it’s standard practice. Costume contests are for many, the highlight of the ‘con. Giant robots and sword-wielding neon-haired heroes are only the beginning.
“One of the most fun ways to experience the fandom is to make a costume,” says Condon. “In some cases, we’ve had a couple folks who have been known to take commissions, since their work is fantastic. Others work in design. A lot of folks from the Art Institute are really into anime.”
What: Pittsburgh’s annual anime and Japanese culture convention.
When: 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. today, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $15 today; $35 Friday; $40 Saturday; $25 Sunday; four-day pass is $55.
Where: David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
Details: tekkoshocon.com .