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Anime Magnetism 

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“So . . . what are you wearing?”

Kevin cradles the cell phone, listening to the girl on the other end of the line.

“Wow!” he says. “With a sword? Cool.”

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It is the Fourth of July, and my friend Kevin and I are on our way to the AnimeExpo2004 at the Anaheim Convention Center. We’re going not for the Ghost in the Shell 2 premiere, nor for the special appearance of J-Pop songstress Yoko Ishida, the industry focus panels, the “How To Draw Manga” workshops, the gaming tournaments, the karaoke contests, or the Gungrave, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Galaxy Angel Z screenings. We’re here because Kevin is in love with a girl.

Cindy, Kevin says, is not someone he gets to see much in everyday life. She is shy. She is Korean. She is a community organizer for a nonprofit organization. But she also has a thing for “cosplay” (or costume play), for a subset of anime in particular called “Yaoi.” They’ve encountered each other in the real world only twice: when they met for the first time through a mutual friend, and briefly at a previous anime convention where she came dressed in a blue kimono with a matching set of folding fans. It doesn’t help that they live eight hours apart and only talk via e-mail.

It also doesn’t help that Kevin is just about the least expressive person on the planet.

He hasn’t yet confessed his love for her, which is what we’re here today to accomplish.

In theory, anyway.

The convention entrance is like a cocktail party gone insane. I recognize the bloodied prep-school kids from Battle Royale, the gothic Lolita girls of Doll with the intricate Victorian crinolines and black parasols, plus about a hundred different iterations of Pikachu. But most are beyond me — a whirling sea of neon hair and strange ears.

“How are we going to find her?” I ask.

Kevin shrugs. We follow a man carrying a cardboard sign that reads “Glomps wanted: Apply now.” Across the street, a whippet-thin boy in a black suit hefts a gigantic cross over his shoulder. His left hand steadies the cross. His right holds a silver gun.

“Who is he supposed to be?” I ask.

“His character’s name is ‘What Would Jesus Do?’” Kevin deadpans. I smack him on the arm, and he mimes a gunshot, “Die for my sins, motherfucker!” A man with a sword crosses our path on his way to a weapons-instruction workshop. “Cindy’s sword is bigger than that,” Kevin sighs.

Lust and love blossom around us. Sailor Moons hold hands with Robotech Macross boys, while boys from Harry Potter hold hands with elf girls. Green-haired Lum, in a furry bikini, strolls arm in arm with Peter Pan, while a Japanese schoolgirl (à la murderous Go-Go Yubari) kisses a guy who, inexplicably, has a stuffed rabbit on top of his head.

I pull Kevin over to a booth that specializes in the mysterious Yaoi anime that Cindy likes so much. What is Yaoi? The guy behind the stacks of comic books grins. “Yaoi is where the dominant character is a man paired with a submissive character who is . . . also a man, but feminized. The artists take certain set storylines and draw the characters the way they think things should have gone. Say, for example, I like Aladdin. But I think Aladdin should fall in love with Genie, not with Jasmine. Or maybe I like Harry Potter, but I think Harry and Ron should be together. Essentially,” he says, “they’re romance novels.” The opposite side of the booth, which is labeled “Hentai,” has its own set of books. “That side is for boys. It has girls with everybody, girls and aliens, girls and tentacles. This side,” he gestures to the Yaoi side, “is for girls. It has guys and guys, guys and horses, guys and tentacles . . . actually we’re sold out of guys and tentacles.”

The men who look like women smile up at us benignly from the covers of the romance novels. Their hair is long and flowing. Their eyes, sweetly lowered. Nearby, a girl tugs on a boy with a chain around his neck.

When we find her, Cindy is surrounded by a group of anime friends, all in costume. She is dressed as Cloud, a male character from Final Fantasy 7. Her costume is an assemblage of faux leather and corduroy with an armband that is actually a Home Depot painter’s kneepad spray-painted black.

“Hi,” she says, and waggles the fingers of one black-satin-gloved hand. She is cute and boyish. Nervously, Kevin offers her a Ziploc bag of blueberry muffins — he baked them for her this morning. Side by side, they walk awkwardly through the maze of booths, amid the elves, the ghosts, the demons and warrior princesses.

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