PARIS: The strange teenage cult of manga, the Japanese world of fantasy cartoons and their gaming and toy offshoots, came to Paris at the weekend, with tens of thousands of youngsters queuing up – and dressing up – for this year s Japan Expo.
Looking the part, where devotees engage in the world of so-called cosplay (an amalgam of costume and play as in role-playing), is at least as important as turning up.
Tess Collet, a 16-year-old from the Paris outskirts, wears one typical outfit: a Tartan skirt, ripped shirt, a plastic rat dangling from her neck, a syringe tucked into her belt and a mini gas-mask.
But I m jealous because there are more beautiful costumes than mine here, she smiled on Thursday, the opening day of the four-day extravaganza.
The celebration of Japanese contemporary culture, with its weird and sinister mix of Tokyo pop, manga comics, anime, video gaming and Lolita-like fashion, is expected to pull in some 100,000 fans from around France and beyond.
Now in its ninth edition, the huge conference hall north of Paris will showcase dozens of established and aspiring manga artists, in addition to more esoteric Asian cultural pursuits, such as flower arranging, sudoku, Zen and the ancient oriental board game, Go.
Perhaps the French capital is not such an odd choice for this mix and match of cultures after all.
One in two French children is thought to have read at least one manga comic, and an entire French generation was reared on a diet of Japanese animated television cartoons.
With France now the second biggest market for manga outside Japan, there is also a growing interest in other sides of Japanese culture.
Manga acts as a spearhead for Japanese pop culture, explained event organizer Cyril Grillon. Comics open up a window onto Japan s language, its food, its fashion.
Contests will be held for the best cartoon character costumes – a discipline known as Cosplay – and amateur manga comic strips, in the vast hall mingling gaming, drawing contests, martial arts, gigs and fashion shows.
Another visitor on Thursday was Marine Massart, also 16, dressed in a bright red mini-skirt, huge-heeled shoes, gigantic fingernails – and, on a leash, her 18-year-old friend Jean-Baptiste Ferone, docilely following her, adorned with a blue tunic, arms tied behind his back and an androgynous haircut.
He wears a baby s dummy round his neck, and declares himself as a futuristic puppet or a cyber doll.
I created this outfit myself. It s my passion. It allows me to dream, Massart, a school student from north Paris suburbs, said. Every weekend, I cosplay – even if my parents don t like it.
Disciples of cosplay say it allows them to slip into the skin of particular manga or video characters.
Hopefully it is more fantasy than reality, as the Lolita look is also popular, with legions of schoolgirls dressing up in the uniform of a school tie, short skirt and white socks. They sometimes also wear fake rabbit ears, and frou-frou scarves.
The boys prefer the warrior look, or to dress as the space alien heroes from video games. With plastic or even cardboard weapons in hand, they re happy to pose for the cameras.
These French disguises are really excellent. They really look like characters from manga, said Yusuke Yasuda, from the company Koikekazuogekigasonjuku, which manages private manga schools.
More than 400 contestants have entered the various cosplay contests being held during the Expo.
Other keynote events include the book-signings by manga authors. Dozens of youngsters sit on the floors of the vast exhibition halls, waiting their turn in line, studiously reading the comic books they ve already purchased.
The names of the various genres show the vitality of the heroes of manga – The Knights of the Zodiac , and Dragon s Destiny.
Of course, merchandise is heavily promoted: T-shirts, stuffed animals, posters and weird gadgets. Endless stalls allow shoppers to complete this year s manga look , or get ready for next year s.
Whoops, I spent ?200 euros ($315), said one girl leaving a shop. I ve spent even more, rejoined her friend.
That s not unusual. Last year, the average spend by visitor was ?237, said Cyril Grillon, artistic director of SEFA, the organizers of the Expo.
But there are many free activities. There were more than 10 J Pop (Japanese Pop) gigs, as well as martial arts displays and Japanese wrestling bouts.
In 2007, Japan Expo attracted 80,700 visitors over three days. This year – which also coincides with the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and France – organizers expect more than 100,000, visiting 300 exhibition stalls, seeing 50 special VIP Manga guests, over 70,000 square meters of floor space. -AFP