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December 19, 2007

Neo-New York is About to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.

A beginner's guide to discovering anime culture in NYC

A scene from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, one of the most popular anime titles of the last two years (Photo: Kadokawa Pictures USA)

Editor's Note: This article is the first in a special holiday series looking at animation in New York. Check back here Thursday for parts two and three.

Barely a decade ago, being into Japanese animation meant being a part of a cult that was into angled faces, gigantic eyes and giant robots -- er, mecha -- that would trounce over cities and have school girls flaunt their stuff in sailor uniforms. Today, however uncomfortably, anime is mainstream enough that it warrants a stand-alone section in most chain stores, the form has snuck into Nickelodeon cartoons and Tekkonkinkreet, directed by an American who transplanted himself to Japan, is on the bubble for Best Animated Feature Oscar nod.

That said, newcomers can be intimidated by Otaku -- the phrase characterizing anime super-fans -- populating what looks like an elitist subculture. But you don't have to be a hardcore devotee to appreciate something like the classic Miyazaki fantasy Spirited Away or even the hyper-violent, dated look of Fist of the North Star. Anime can be found for all types of interests, from the typical shounen style of Dragon Ball Z (a kung-fu epic with an emphasis on energy blasts and 10-episode arcs about reaching a new power level) to space operas like Gundam and Robotech to genre-blends like Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL.

And an introduction can be just as easy as showing up for Mexican food in Midtown: Visit one of Metro Anime's monthly Sunday meetings at Maui Tacos (330 Fifth Avenue.) Established in 1995, the club is New York City's largest, mainly serving as an umbrella to connect smaller anime groups in the area and introduce newbies to what they've been missing. For a $2 donation, visitors can swap titles, discuss the latest fansubs (i.e. films not yet licensed in the U.S. and subtitled by fans for free distribution) and enjoy some grub; Metro also co-sponsors screenings and discussions on Mondays at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (donations run from $1-3.) Or, if you prefer a more old-school introduction, check out ImaginAsian TV. The cable network features anime as a part of its regular programming and later this month will offer DVD box sets for the first season of the sci-fi series Cat's Eye, Orguss and Nobody's Boy Remi via its Web site.

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The outlet with the widest selection of anime and Japanese films in the area has to be the Kinokuniya Book Store. One of Japan's major book chains, Kinokuniya's new Bryant Park location (1073 Sixth Ave.) has an entire second floor devoted to anime and manga, But a word of warning: The selection includes films both translated and untranslated, so make sure you know which version you're buying. Most Japanese DVD's will come with English subtitles and run Region 0, but the translations could be a lacking in actual coherence; sample quotes include “PALTROON!” in place of “You idiot!” on a copy of Gungrave.

Image Anime (242 West 30th St) is a worthy successor to Games N' James, New York's original go-to anime outpost that become Otakuden before shuttering in 2005. While you won't find any bootlegs here, the quantity and quality make up for the latest releases if you're clamoring for a knowledgeable staff, decent prices ($23 for a single DVD? Eh, we can forgive it) and a Midtown location that makes a Kinokuniya stop viable to pick up anything else.

But let's say you hate the mainstream; you want your anime to be underground and in the original Japanese with shoddy "Engrish" subtitles that confuses your friends and makes you feel superior. In that case, I recommend the DVD stands run by "Sgt." Roman on the corner of 15th Street and Union Square West. DVD's run you $10 and range from homemade CD-R's to universal region, both ready for watching. Try not to giggle as Roman tells you about the "adult" stuff he has, and sign up for his release list as it is the best way to snag old shows like Berserk, Betterman, Demon City Shinjuku and La Blue Girl (which you should never watch unless curiosity gets the better of you, but that's another article).

Street cred: Find the old-school series Berserk from a vendor at Union Square

Elsewhere, I recommend fansubbers (or fansubs) as mentioned above. This can take a bit of fancy Interweb footwork, but it is only as difficult as the popularity of the series you’re looking to find. The most popular fansubbers are found at Dattebayo, which provides weekly fansubs for popular series like Bleach (Thursdays) and Naruto (Fridays) in Spanish, Portugese and English via torrents and file transfers. Other known groups are Catchphrase, an IRC channel open to all but mainly a space of self-proclaimed "Otaku Hikkiomori," and the torrent portal Fansub.tv. (We can’t vouch for every torrent, so keep your virus protectors at the ready. And do remember these are meant to be free, so if you pay online, you’re doing it wrong.)

With this, your next step into the world of anime in New York should be to explore. Part of the medium's appeal is just how staggeringly massive its selections are; there is literally something for everyone -- even if that means the creation of Ero Guro (please, don't ever Google Image this). Among feature films, a relatively light-hearted introduction might be Sailor Moon, a play on the "Magical Girl" formula about a young girl who becomes a hero. Even better would be anything from Hayao Miyazaki, especially My Neighbor Totoro. If you want more serious depths, move onto the Satoshi Kons and Mamoru Oshii; if you prefer to get into some current trends, you can’t go wrong with the sci-fi comedy The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Ouran High School Host Club, a raunchy self-parody of the young-girl-relationship drama. Be warned, however: The Reeler is not responsible for you becoming an Otaku or screaming random, nonsensical Japanese words at your family this holiday season.



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