#117: N’Donna

Age: 37

Location: Victoria, BC, Canada

When did you discover anime? The first anime I ever really saw and connected with was Sailor Moon, when it first aired in the US in 1995. I’d seen anime like Speed Racer and a few Christian titles (like Superbook and the Flying House) beforehand, but Sailor Moon is the one I really connected with.

What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? The mature storylines and the emotional weight of the story. Before I watched anime, many American animated tv shows followed a “monster of the week” formula—it was all about defeating the bad guy while looking both pure of heart and strong. Anime was the first instance in which characters were portrayed with shades of grey. Plus, the animation techniques used were completely different from the ones American shows used.

What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? Sailor Moon definitely had its fan base in 1995. It gained further popularity when it aired on Toonami several years later. Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z were also very popular.

Tell me more about getting into Sailor Moon, your first fandom. Why did you like it so much? To be very honest, when Sailor Moon hit the airwaves for the first time in 1995, it was exciting because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Serena/Usagi was this high school girl with meatballs/odangos in her head who fought the bad guys while being clumsy and imperfect, dealing with an annoying sibling, and hanging out with her friends. She was special but she was just like me—she was a teenager than dealt with the things teenagers dealt with. Furthermore, the narrative was very compelling. Unlike other shows at the time, which were monster-of-the-week good guy/bad guy shows, Sailor Moon featured characters that weren’t perfect and quiet flawed. Sailor Moon didn’t always win at the end of the day. You could see her emotionally react to things and even have a breakdown. Even though the original airing was limited to half of the Sailor Moon R season, I still kept watching because it was just so dang addictive!

What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? Back then, you had to be in the know when it came to anime. This was before Tokyopop made anime infinitely more popular and mainstream. I didn’t know a lot of people who knew about anime. Just my friend and I at the time were into it. Anime conventions were just starting up—they weren’t as popular as they are now.

Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? Anipike [Anime Web Turnpike] was the go-to site for anime information at the time. This was before Facebook, so I connected to other fans via mail groups and Java chats.

What are mail groups and what are java chats? Describe to younger fans reading this who may have never heard of these before. Back when I first started really using the internet, mail groups were the best way to connect to other fans. On Anime Turnpike, the most comprehensive website related to anime (at the time), there were listing for groups related to various series. You’d visit the website to opt-in to the mailing list, and then you’d have to confirm that you wanted it via an email. Then you’d send messages to the group via a special email address.

Java chats were just that—chats that operated on Javascript. You’d just create a name for yourself and log in. WBS Chat was pretty popular because you could have a dedicated account and use pictures in the chat. It was kind of like Facebook communities before Facebook in a way.

Do you remember your first convention? What was it, and what was it like?
My first ever convention was Anime Central 2005 in Rosemont, Illinois. It was the most exhilarating experience. It was the first time I ever saw cosplay and I was amazed at how people spent so much time on looking like their favorite character. Because it was a 24-hour con, I didn’t get any sleep all three days. My friends and I all went together, and we had an amazing time.

N’Donna cosplaying as a Team Rocket grunt from ‘Pokemon.’

You saw cosplay for the first time at ACen 2005. How much time elapsed before you started doing cosplay yourself? Oh, a good ten years! Honestly, as a plus-size woman, I didn’t think cosplay was for me. I had no sewing skills whatsoever and I was just happy going to events. Also, back then, only a few people would cosplay at events. You could tell that they’d work hard and make it all themselves. And I loved that. The culture wasn’t as visual as it is now. A majority of people were dressed in fan/brand shirts and maybe wigs with cosplayers being a cherished minority. It’s not like that now, is it?

As for myself, I didn’t cosplay until my son was older (about four). I felt like by getting him to dress up for cons gave me carte blanche to do the same. Little did I realize that we’d run with it three years later. Every cosplay we create seems to be more elaborate than the one before it.

How does cosplay allow you to express your anime fandom? It allows me to use a costume to embody and perform a moment that meant a lot to me or carries emotional significance for me. For example, the first elaborate cosplay I ever did was Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro. I watched the film with my son when he was just two and we loved the film. Even though this little toddler had no understanding of the Japanese language, it still managed to connect to him. As for myself, it made me feel like a child, imaginative and whimsy, all over again. When I cosplay as Totoro, it helps me to muster those feelings again and it helps me to connect with others who may have felt the same way watching the film. Because my local convention (Tsukino-con at the University of Victoria) takes place on a college campus, I encounter both con attendees and university students. Even if they may not be attending the convention, both groups know who Totoro is! It warms my heart when people want to hug me or take a picture of me because of their love for Totoro.

N’Donna wearing her Princess 9 cosplay.

Can you tell me about an experience you had while you were cosplaying at a con that made you want to keep doing it? Oh geez, I think that would be cosplaying as Mistress 9 [from Sailor Moon] last summer. My friend was kind enough to make the cosplay for me but I still wasn’t convinced that I could pull it off because we look so vastly different (anime-slender body aside). Lucky for me, my friend and I were sharing a room for the event so she was right there to encourage me and be my biggest cheerleader. As I transformed myself bit by bit—foundation, contouring, make-up—I could see myself transforming in the Messiah of Silence bit by bit. People my scoff when its suggested that cosplayers have the ability to transform into a certain character, but it’s true. Little by little, I saw less of myself and more of Mistress 9. When I finally have everything on, my friend gasped and said to me “You’re really Mistress 9!” And I struggled because I wasn’t about to cry and ruin my make-up! Not everyone knew who I was, but that didn’t matter. I knew who I was and I saw myself transform into that character. Now, every time I cosplay, it’s kind of like a challenge of who I can transform into this time!

In your opinion, what’s the biggest contrast between anime fandom now and anime fandom when you first discovered it? Hmm… that’s an interesting question. I think back then, anime was this low-key, under the radar thing that only people who were in the know knew about. Like, if you liked a show and someone who was a fan of the same show found out you liked it, it was a positive thing. Anime was an underground thing back in the mid-to-late 1990s, even if it was becoming more visual. Like, Toonami is credited with bringing anime to the mainstream masses, but anime cons and events were still relatively small compared to now. It was like a treasure hunt – you had to really work hard to find out more about your favorite shows which made you appreciate it even more. My friends and I would pour our resources together and piece the puzzle of various anime series. It was very much a community-based culture back then. I guess what I’m trying to say is that back then, it was more of a subculture and fans treated it as such. Nowadays, it’s everywhere. You don’t have to send money in the mail to get a fan sub tape that has humorous translator notes. I mean, Sailor Moon is such a prominent series that I got to write my master’s thesis about it! People from all walks of like attend anime cons, it’s not just a one-off celebrate created by nerds for other nerds. Parents may have wondered why you were watching animation in another language, but now, parents and their families go to anime cons. It’s good to see that so many people like anime now, but the small community feel is for the most part gone. A good way of saying it is “Anime Con? We e-sports now!” or something like that.

N’Donna can be reached on Facebook and Twitter.

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