RALEIGH — It started a few hundred feet from the Raleigh Convention Center, at the streetside cafe table where a Norse goddess sat for a break, hammer laid against her chair. It was 10 a.m.
Across the street, a taxi driver leaned against a cement wall and took a long look at a woman wearing a schoolgirl outfit and cropped dark hair, and her colleague in liquid-black latex, as they walked away from their minivan.
“It’s not a religion. It’s not a holiday, like Memorial Day,” he said, searching for some better description of Animazement, the Japanese animation-centered convention that will bring some 8,500 people, many in costume, to Raleigh over the weekend.
In front of the convention center, a man with only a sprig of hair on his forehead ripped off his navy commander’s coat as a young man circled with a camera.
“It’s that guy from Full Metal Alchemist,” an onlooker told his friend. “He’s somebody’s master, right?” the other man asked.
The nerve center
Behind the convention center’swalls, organizers watched as their plan came together.
The high-ceiling meeting room dubbed “ConOps” – Convention Operations – is the nerve center of the yearly event, which has grown tenfold since its debut in 1998.
Coordinator Chad Matich for a moment pondered problems with pulling off the event.
“Back in ‘96, nobody had swords. Over the years, everyone started bringing swords,” he said, referring to actual steel weapons. Hence, swords, knives, shurikens (think ninja stars) and bayonets were banned.
These rules only rarely need enforcement, according to Matich. Animazement is said to be one of the most “family friendly” of the various anime and sci-fi conventions that unfold in American cities each year.
People like Matich, 38, are the core of an organic social structure that blooms each year in downtown Raleigh, growing largely by word of mouth.
About 50 people work year-round to plan the event, while hundreds more volunteer through the weekend — none of them paid.
The odd thing about the most-central organizers is how normal they look.
“I’m so busy I don’t have time to change in and out of my costume,” Matich said.
“It’s the only place where you wear a costume to blend in,” added Kimberly Sergend, 31, volunteer coordinator.
“I wear cat ears, so people are a little more comfortable,” she said.
Sergend’s pleasure is creating a place for younger people to enjoy anime and Japanese culture. She never had that as a kid in rural Virginia.
“I get to help out as an adult now,” she said.
On the floor
Down on the show floor,kids and adults traded compliments, posed for photos and treatedone another like celebrities.
“It makes the person feel so good,” said Elrod Quiroz, 22, who was roaming the hall with a high-end video camera and a custom-printed T-shirt advertising his videography website.
He has plenty of subjects. The foyer was a bazaar of colors and odd uniforms, mashing up the already fantastical worlds of anime into one playacting stage.
Alice Crowley, 21, stood off to the side, watching the scene a bit nervously. Her first-ever weekend at Animazement – or any convention – had started just two hours earlier.
She’d worn an anime costume before, but never in public, like she was with her long black wig and bright green skirt on Friday.
“It’s a lot more nerve-wracking,” she admitted. The Lumberton resident described herself as normally shy and nervous– but said she already felt it falling away that morning.
Here, she said, “I don’t feel so much judged.”
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC