This past summer I was a guest of Kitacon, an anime convention in Coventry, England.
By Petrea Burchard
Yes, they paid me to be there.
In case you haven’t come across it (and where have you been?), Anime is Japanese animation: cartoon characters with big eyes, girls with over-long legs and over-big breasts, heroes, villains, and adventure. It can be cute and innocent. It can be dystopian and violent. Around the world, avid fans of the genre hold regular conventions (cons), and those fans are a culture unto themselves.
Of what interest is a 62-year-old woman (I won’t say “little old lady”) from Pasadena to anime fans in England?
I’m a voice actor, and thanks to a character I voice-dubbed in the 1990s, I enjoy some celebrity in the anime world. The character—a sexy, powerful space pirate named Ryoko—could walk through walls and fly. She was loved by thousands of pre-teen boys for her outrageous figure and flirting ways. Girls were devoted to her as well, because of her power as a woman and her insistence on being herself. She was in love with Tenchi, the title character in the series, Tenchi Muyo!, and you’d best not mess with her.
(The Pasadena Library system has four Tenchi DVDs and my voice would be in two of them, except Tenchi in Tokyo is missing.)
An anime con is a loud, colorful, creative, weekend-long party clamoring with wigs, high heels, plastic ray guns, and cleavage. In my experience, the crowd is not as young as one might think. Many people who grew up on anime are now reaching their thirties. The genre influenced their lives; they’ve become designers, animators, CGI artists, and even voice actors. Some of them organize anime cons.
On a blustery Thursday, my husband and I are greeted at the Birmingham, UK airport by a chauffeur holding a “celebrity sign” with my name on it, a first for me. The Kitacon venue is Warwick University at Coventry, England. When we arrive there, con organizer and guest liaison Luke (“Louche”) meets us, along with Lauren, Vee, and Pouncey. Luke is a big guy with a beard; he looks like a studio grip, though in “real life” he’s a CGI expert. He’s the only one not in costume. Lauren wears a short skirt and heavy cartoon make-up. Pouncey, a male, sports long, purple hair.
Luke and his co-organizers have done everything possible to make us comfortable. I quickly learn that Luke, Phil, Iain, Vee, Christian, Keith, and several more are all volunteers, all friends. They’ve put the con together because they love it. It takes a lot of people to orchestrate a con, and Kitacon is relatively small. Compare its 1500 attendees to nearly 200,000 at San Diego’s Comic-Con.
John and I have 24 hours to relax before my duties begin. Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, isn’t far. Closer is Warwick Castle, a medieval marvel. But we don’t have a car (not that we’d know how to drive it), and we’re too jet-lagged. We sleep, eat, and wander around the convention center trying to get our bearings. Our favorite spot is near the single-serve coffee makers in the lounge, where we can press a button for espresso, latte, or whatever we desire. What would cost about $4.00 at Starbucks is free here.
The con officially begins Friday afternoon. Luke, my guide, hands me off to Vee to wait backstage while fans cheer in the auditorium. Iain, the emcee, delivers the rules of the con, including Rule #1: “Don’t be a dick.” Over the next three days there will be cosplay, gaming, costume workshops, a team competition for monster-building, a talent competition, a vendors’ room, raves, parties, and a hundred other things to do, non-stop, all weekend.
Iain introduces me and I walk onto the stage to the exhilaration of cheers and applause. I haven’t planned a thing to say, but I’ll be fine. I’m a performer. I like cheers and applause. Yet this is different than a curtain call. Many of these people grew up listening to my voice. When we recorded Tenchi Muyo! it was just an acting job for me. I had no idea it would become an anime classic. Some voice actors focus on the genre, but Tenchi Muyo! is the only anime I’ve ever done. To discover 20 years later how much it meant to people is humbling. Fans say I’m all sorts of good things, but no, the character is those things. I’m just a 62-year-old Pasadena woman, and greeting the fans is a joy I won’t forget. (Yay, they like my jokes!)
Next there’s a VIP Meet and Greet for people who paid extra for the privilege. It’s Q&A, followed by an Ask Me Anything panel, an open event that gives me a chance to find out what the fans what to know, and tell them about myself. About a hundred people attend (the other 1400 are probably getting ready for the evening’s rave). They grill me on Tenchi lore, which they know better than I do. They ask about my favorite roles and things that inspire me. Some bring gifts, usually things they made. Anime fans are a creative bunch. After the panel I sign autographs.
I don’t suppose it’s a great idea to generalize about a group of people, but what the hell. Anime fans are, generally, kind and accepting. Nobody is too cool, there’s no in-crowd. Every outcast is welcome. I’ve found this to be true of every con I’ve visited. And by accepting the invitation to come, I feel a responsibility to be available and encouraging, and to share what I know.
Saturday and Sunday are a whirlwind of cosplay, music, a talent contest (I’m a judge and it’s hard to decide!), a charity auction (the con raises £5,146.46, or $6776.34), milling about, posing for photos, signing more autographs, and saying “thank you” a lot. Everyone is appreciative, everyone has a story to share. I host two more panels, a writing workshop and a “Turn Your Passion into Your Day Job” discussion. One woman tells me she met her husband online in a Tenchi Muyo! chat room. They’ve been married 17 years. She and I are thrilled to meet each other.
More autographs. People are so kind, so happy to meet me, and the feeling is mutual. It’s an unexpected honor to have fans. They tell me what they’re working on. They ask for advice. I don’t have all the answers, but the conversation has begun and they’re inspired. It’s the best I could ask for.
Between appearances and events, I visit that coffee machine all the damn time.
When it’s all over Sunday evening, I’m exhausted. I’ve been “on” for three days. But you won’t hear me complain.
An anime con is an opportunity to make friends and to explore all sides of yourself, especially your creativity. Make-up, costumes, and platform shoes are de rigueur. You can be who you want to be. A small woman can be a superhero. A muscular man can be a fairy tale princess. A geek can be a king. And a 62-year-old woman from Pasadena can be a star, if only for the weekend.
Petrea Burchard is an American actress, voice actress, an author, and a resident of Pasadena. She’s the English voice actor for fictional character and space pirate, Ryoko Hakubi from the Japanese animated series Tenchi Muyo!.
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