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February 22, 2008

UChi-Con will open eyes to anime’s appeal

There is a prevailing impression that books with pictures are, well, frivolous, but it is an impression a number of Chicago students are trying to correct. The University’s Japanese Animation Society (JAS) is a long-standing RSO that screens series and movies on Wednesday nights for campus anime lovers. They also put on bigger outreach events every quarter, the largest of which is their annual anime convention, affectionately known as UChi-Con.

With over 300 attendees last year, UChi-Con is a popular event which is still growing. This year, the convention will feature not only U of C students, but also members of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Anime Club, and the Chicago-based anime band The Spoony Bards. According to JAS president Ariel Erbacher, the popular band “just turned up one year” and have been coming ever since. “They even wrote us a theme song,” she added (it’s based on the Pokémon theme song). While most attendees are University students and affiliates, Erbacher explained that the club had received a number of queries about the convention and the club from outside the University community. “We’re trying to draw a diverse group of people,” Erbacher added. And they’re succeeding.

Part of the benefit of UChi-Con for Hyde Park anime lovers is that there are few conventions in the immediate area. The suburbs host several conventions, including Anime Central, the largest anime convention in the Midwest, but the distance can be a problem. Holding a day-long convention in Hyde Park, however, is a godsend for the diehard fans and a non-incidental opportunity for the casual viewers.

“We’re really trying to open up the [animated] media to people who wouldn’t ordinarily watch it,” remarked Daniel Lampert, JAS treasurer. One of the ways they accomplish this task is by paying tribute to their host institution and giving the convention’s lectures an academic spin. This year, as always, talks will be given by area scholars whose research focuses on Japanese animation.

Lauren Miller, a member of the Loyola anthropology department, will speak on the changing image of Koreans in anime as well as their entrance into the industry itself; Mark Holmburg, a visiting faculty member to the U of C’s art history department, will present the highly influential manga Ninja Bugeicho (The Ninja Martial Arts) from the 1960s. Both the manga and the subsequent animated film are rare outside of Japan, and Holmburg will be screening the movie, which features his own subtitles.

Even with the lectures, UChi-Con is emphatically more than just a conference. The day is packed with panels as well as talks, and offers opportunities such as trivia contests, music, an artists’ alley, and an all-day video game tournament. Of course, there will also be screenings running most of the day that offer something for everyone; the films range from the popular series Full Metal Alchemist to the critically acclaimed Paprika.

Are you allowed to come if you don’t know Sailor Jupiter from Charizard? Absolutely. “The speakers do actually talk about things people have seen,” Erbacher said, adding that relevant material will be screened in conjunction with the talks. In fact, the ignorant are more than welcome, and both officers feel that attending the convention could be a great introduction to the genre.

Both Erbacher and Lambert spoke of the necessity of gaining broad exposure for the JAS and anime in general. They agreed the goal of the club was in part to show there is meaning behind the art, and that all the shows released on Cartoon Network are not necessarily the best examples available. “We’re trying to show the more obscure, better stuff,” they joked.

But there’s truth to the jokes. Any art historian—or one of a number of U of C faculty members—could tell you that Japanese animation is in fact a complex and detailed art form capable of spreading its own messages and attracting viewers as much as any other serialized narrative. “It’s something to identify with,” said Lampert of his favorite series.

The U of C hosts a number of strange and wonderful events, from the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company to the Folk Festival, which open the campus to a larger community while retaining a uniquely U of C twist. UChi-Con, our very own anime convention, has the stature to join these festivals and, as it quietly sets its own precedents, will no doubt become a part of culture as much as UC Ballet performances or FOTA shows. So do yourself a favor—come this weekend and see University history in the making. Better yet, come for the anime.