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"These are not just comics about superheroes," Kajirian added as he, Preston, and Alkemade prepared to depart. "These are stories about everyday people with big-time problems, with human depth. The main characters might hate themselves; their souls might be in turmoil. But the story lines bring out the heroic aspects of these tortured, everyday-type people."

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting at a table in the Green Teahouse cafe, where the lighting's too bright to provide much in the way of ambiance, the multicolored drinks feature floating balls of something called koba, and pop music blares from tiny, tinny speakers strewn around the room. Off in the corner, at a reserved banquet table, the San Diego Anime and Manga Meetup Group was discussing the finer points of their favorite art form.

"What's so great about Japanese anime?" one man asked.

"It's not kid's stuff, like it is here in the States," a woman named Rebecca answered.

"It's about sharing," a middle-school English teacher named Laura added. "You're excited about something new that's being released. You want to be able to go up to someone and say, 'Kenjin 5 is coming out this week!' and have them know what you're talking about."

Here, a woman named Reese gained the floor and delivered an oration on the breadth of anime's stories, its pushing of cultural envelopes, its fantastical mythos and cutting-edge animation, and, finally, "visual techniques we've seen in movies like The Matrix but that were done in anime over 20 years ago." She finished by saying, "Anime's really a reflection of life, but like a more intense life than we can live because we have actual bodies to deal with."

"I don't know about all that," another man said, midway through this monologue. "I just like to see everything bloodied and blown up."

In Japanese, the word otaku describes an anime fanatic. Once a derogatory term, it has long since evolved into a compliment. "Cosplay" is short for "costume play," in which anime fans dress up and act out the roles of their favorite anime characters. Most cosplay participants wait for the big conventions to dress up, though some groups will use any excuse to get into character. Kawaii is Japanese for "cute" (it's obvious to anyone who's seen even a single anime film that cuteness is an important characteristic in Japanese culture). "Con" is short for "convention" -- an official gathering of anime vendors and fans. And, as it happens, San Diego is the home of Comic-Con -- the largest, most venerable comic-related event in the world.

Comic-Con has been drawing comic book enthusiasts to the city since 1970, but the "Japanese Invasion" of Comic-Con didn't begin until 1980, when a delegation of Japanese cartoonists, animators, and business agents attended. Last year's Comic-Con, which hosted over 87,000 people, featured four days of anime screenings. And the 2005 version, which took place the week of July 14, devoted even more space to anime.

In preparation for the event, I sat down to watch some of the anime films the anime fans I'd been talking to never failed to mention. In the course of a single week, I watched Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Cowboy Bebop, and Samurai Champion. I caught an episode of Full Metal Alchemist on late-night TV and saw a children's anime called The Daichis: Earth's Defense Family, which I took to be the inspiration for America's own movie The Incredibles. I got used to the sight of cartoon characters smoking cigarettes, to the archetypal anime character's outsized eyes and too-small mouths. I came to notice that hair in anime actually looks so real that it's practically a character unto itself.

I hadn't become an otaku yet -- not quite, at least. But by the time you read this, I should be well on my way.

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