Sacramento turning Japanese

At SacAnime, cosplay’s the thing

Try to imagine what kind of costumes these works by Melissa McCommon (above) and Zack Pangborn (lower left) may inspire at the SacAnime festival.

Try to imagine what kind of costumes these works by Melissa McCommon (above) and Zack Pangborn (lower left) may inspire at the SacAnime festival.

Illustration by Melissa McCommon

SacAnime takes place Friday, January 13 through Sunday, January 15, at the Woodlake Hotel, 500 Leisure Lane. For more information, visit

Imagine this: A man with graying hair dressed as a ninja walks through a crowd of teens and young adults, but instead of earning strange looks for his odd costume, the gentleman blends in perfectly among an eclectic mix of maids and superheroes, schoolgirls and soul reapers.

It’s not some surreal dream, it’s exactly the sort of cosplay scene that’s common at an anime convention.

Cosplay, short for “costume play,” is the term used to describe the act of dressing up as a Japanese anime or manga comic character. Someone who frequently cosplays is often referred to as an otaku which, in Japanese literally means “house,” and is considered a derogatory term for someone so obsessed with their hobby or interest that they barely leave the home.

In the United States, however, the word has a less obsessive connotation and is instead roughly the equivalent to the word “fan”—or, more specifically, “die-hard fan” of anime cartoons, manga comics, cosplay and Japanese culture.

This weekend the obsession hits close to home at SacAnime, a biannual convention devoted to all things otaku.

illustration by Zack Pangborn

The convention, now in its eighth year, got its start as an extension of the quarterly Sacramento Comic, Toy and Anime Show. Scheduled events include a rave as well as a masquerade and fashion show, featuring cosplayers competing with skits, dances and comedy routines.

There’ll also be karaoke and a maid cafe—at the latter, patrons will find themselves served by women dressed as domestic help and entertained with musical performances and games.

In addition, SacAnime will showcase artists and feature a console gaming room, live music performances, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic card-game tournaments, a Japanese winter festival, and an animated music video contest.

But the convention isn’t just about entertainment, it also highlights Sacramento’s growing otaku culture.

At the 2011 summer convention, for example, there were a record 4,800 otaku fans in attendance. Since the first convention in 2004, attendance has increased annually, while anime and manga comics have become a major part of American pop culture, with combined U.S. and Canadian sales exceeding $175 million a year, according to figures from Publishers Weekly magazine.

So, what exactly is it about otaku culture that speaks to its Western popularity?

While the Powerpuff Girls may dominate the American mainstream anime scene, the art you see here, including works by Melissa McCommon (lower left) and Zack Pangborn (above, below), isn’t exactly the stuff of Saturday-morning cartoons.

illustration by Zack Pangborn

Katie Bair, SacAnime’s cosplay and fashion-events director, credits the genre’s success here to its wide-ranging themes and topics.

Unlike Western graphic novels that are written for one gender and a limited age range, she says, there are anime and manga stories for every age and taste.

“Much like we have television shows geared toward all audiences, the Japanese have [anime and] manga that canvass the population from toddlers to grandparents,” Blair says.

Certainly, there’s something for everyone—like the darkly philosophical Death Note and the bubbly schoolgirl drama Peach Girl, both of which began as manga comics and were adapted into anime series.

Indeed, with myriad themes and styles, the best anime and manga dissolves social barriers and bring people together.

“Otaku subculture tends to have a more inclusive mentality,” explains Jodon Bellofatto, the convention’s programming director.

illustration by Melissa McCommon

“It creates a rich, warm atmosphere that … is unique to the culture.”

And the SacAnime festival reflects that culture.

“SacAnime is definitely getting more packed,” says Melissa McCommon, a 17-year-old artist who will show her work at the convention.

McCommon, a student at Solano Community College, creates art with the typical manga and anime look—heroes and heroines with disproportionately large, shiny eyes and small noses.

The convention’s growth, she says, has largely been word of mouth. Case in point: After McCommon attended her first SacAnime, she encouraged her friends to join her at the next one.

“About 20 of my friends went to the next SacAnime, [and] they ended up telling more of their friends,” she says.

illustration by Zack Pangborn

Jason Dube, an artist and founder of the Sacramento Comic Book Creator’s Group, believes people use the convention as a way to make and meet up with friends.

“They … stay in contact for the couple months [between shows] and then see them again, and it’s like a big party,” he says.

The convention, he adds, also offers a good opportunity to catch some big-time names in the genre.

“You can see [these artists] without having to go out to [bigger venues in] San Francisco or [Los Angeles],” he says.

Of course, as McCommon jokes, “all the girls dressed in cosplay” don’t hurt either.

For John Lee, a member of the group, cosplay isn’t just about the cute girls and their costumes, it’s also an entertaining puzzle.

illustration by Zack Pangborn

“Seeing [a cosplayer’s] solution to making

“Seeing [a cosplayer’s] solution to making three-dimensional reality of the crazy, stylized artwork [of anime and manga] is a real treat,” he says.

Convention director Dan Houck says that, unlike other similar gatherings, the organizers behind SacAnime strive to appeal to a wider base.

“[We offer] more pop culture,” he says. “We’re really trying to be relevant [to more people].”

As such, some of this convention’s featured guests don’t work exclusively in anime—they also voice video games and American cartoons. This year’s notable names include Tara Strong, who voiced Bubbles in the Powerpuff Girls cartoon and Quinton Flynn, who voices Deidara and Iruka-sensei in the English dubbed version of the anime series Naruto.

Along with McCommon, several other artists will display their works in the Artist Alley, including local artist Zack Pangborn, whose moody line drawings are a far cry from the usual bright pop art-inspired manga motifs.

In coming years, SacAnime organizers want to see the convention grow in both size and scope with the addition of an anime viewing room and a formal ball.

For now, cosplay fans can satisfy themselves with the chance to delve into their deepest obsessions, Bellofatto says.

“It’s like, for one weekend everyone is united under one banner and anything else be damned if it tries to ruin those three days.”