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Japanese anime and manga — animation and comics — are drawing a lot of attention in the United States. And, more than ever before, not just from its traditional male audience.
The art forms, defined by complex story lines and saucer-eyed characters, are also being made and enjoyed by young exuberant women, along with enthusiasts of computer-generated graphics, from both genders.
A record 41,000 visitors, dressed in colorfully wild costumes — from blue-haired heroines to red-eyed vampires — recently attended Anaheim's Anime Expo, the nation's largest trade show of anime and manga, just across the street from Disneyland.
Sprightly 22-year-old animation student Angelina Leanza paused during her exploration of the expo to explain what she feels is the reason for this massive appeal.
"A lot of anime is very beautiful, and the story lines are great. Most American animation is one episode, and it's usually for kids. Anime is usually a serial, for older audiences," said Leanza — a waif in pigtails and fuzzy cat ears — who traveled with fellow students from Collins College in Arizona.
From Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning fantasy flick "Spirited Away" to the violent voyeurism of "Ghost in the Shell," kiddie fare such as "Pokemon," TV shows on cable's Adult Swim and video game offshoots such as "Final Fantasy," anime has spread its tentacles across American culture.
Women, surging ahead in the video-gaming industry, have embraced anime and manga in a similar way.
"It was more men before. Nobody knew what anime was. It was a small group of dedicated fans mostly in high school," said Tony Oliver, the voice of hero Rick Hunter from the famed anime television series "Robotech," which ran in the U.S. from 1985 until 1988.
Adapted from the Japanese series "Macross," "Robotech" detailed the intricacies of relationships set against a backdrop of space-age conflict and alien invasion. The show influenced scores of anime fans.
Gaining fans by going beyond sci-fiOliver said the reason for the increasingly larger female base is the inclusion of more complicated, emotional plots.
Diversity, said robotech.com webmaster Steve Yun, also plays a big role.
"Back in the day, anime was all science fiction," he said. "Now it's everything: war, horror, romance."
That element of multifaceted fantasy pervaded the expo's high quotient of female visitors.
Student Susie Vance, 22, of Anaheim, took four months to make her long bubble-gum pink wig as a character from the magic-filled Japanese manga and anime series "Sailor Moon," which she first started watching as a kid when it debuted on American TV in 1995.
"I like the happy shows, not the ones where everyone dies," she said.
The antithesis of Vance, 19-year-old Sarah Johnson of Valencia attended the expo dressed up as Alucard, a vampire from the blood-soaked anime and manga "Hellsing."
With jet-black hair and crimson-hued contacts, Johnson said it took three years to find just the right industrial boots to match her outfit, complete with a red ascot she made herself.
"Anime has enough action, but it's sort of serious, and kind of fantasmical," she said. "It's all genres rolled into one."
No longer gender specificWhile much anime and manga content tends to be split by gender (into "shonen," Japanese for "boy," or "shojo," Japanese for "girl"), crossover is common, said Leanza, who would love to work in the industry as a designer or animator.
"There's a lot of stuff I read that's done by boys that's really cute, and really violent stuff done by women," she said, citing the expo's debut U.S. appearance of the Japanese collective CLAMP, a feisty all-female group of manga artists.
One wildly popular sect of manga starting to seep into the mainstream is "yuri" (girl-on-girl) and "yaoi" (boy-on-boy), soft-core and hard-core erotica geared toward mostly heterosexual males and females.
Bryan Musicar, whose company sells wooden paddles with either "yaoi" or "yuri" stenciled on them, said that 95 percent of people who buy "yaoi" books are women.
Though "yuri" books tend to depict buxom, thin-waisted amazons, similar to commercial comics and porn, "yaoi" goes against the grain of traditional rendering of men as buffly masculine.
"Men are emasculated in them, made to look less threatening," said Musicar, standing next to boxes of the comics, surrounded by clusters of young women. "It's huge here. We never thought American audiences would like it. It's in Japanese."
Male characters in "yaoi" look like girls, with large eyes and lithe, soft bodies. It's more about kissing and romance, said 18-year-old Lynn Teng.
"`Yaoi,' because it's for women, is not just about sex. There's more of a sappy plot," she said. "Because two guys in it are gay, it's kind of like a forbidden fruit sort of situation."
The changing demographics behind anime and manga also reflect a change in stylistic approach — mostly in the form of computer-generated graphics influenced by video games.
Unlike hand-drawn anime, CG features ultra realistic, fluid movements and seamless shadows and light, as in Romanov Higa's futuristic police thriller "Tank SWAT 01." Details, however, may become fuzzed out, and angles distorted.
"CG is becoming increasingly less expensive to do," and mass produce, said "Robotech'"s Oliver, who also directs anime in Los Angeles.
High-school graduate Christine Vu, 18, sat at a booth that sold manga markers and skillfully sketched a lean-lined portrait, reflecting as she did on how computers are replacing traditional tools in manga.
"I think it looks exactly the same," she said, shrugging her shoulders.
But what about anime and manga breaking cultural barriers? And moving past the fringes of nerd-dom?
"Personally, this is not the sort of thing you talked about in school, but now it's spreading, spreading, spreading," she said.