Popcorn, manga swag, and the goop-filled orb: it’s Ninja Night in Rockridge
on September 17, 2009
They wear plaid laceless sneakers and tattered jeans scrawled with indelible pen. They have brightly colored braces and prescription glasses. They are self-proclaimed “high school rejects.” They are no older than 19, but they can absolutely school you on many aspects of contemporary Japanese popular culture—particularly as expressed in the comic book and video phenomena called manga and anime.
These are the Rockridge Ninjas.
If you happen to be at the Rockridge Branch Library on the commercial thoroughfare of College Avenue on any second Tuesday of the month, you might run into a Ninja—one of the 15 or so who have been gathering there for screenings of selected imported anime since late 2005. The local library is one of the few places in the area where anime-obsessed youth can view the relatively rare, often expensive DVDs of their favorite Japanese anime shows and movies, and share an open love of all things anime.
“Anime”—Japanese shorthand for “animation”—refers mostly to heavily stylized television and movie cartoons produced in Japan that have found niche followings in the United States. Fans of anime are die-hard, rallying around the culture in small viewing clubs like the Ninjas and at conventions where anime character costumes are as numbered as Superman capes at a DC Comics gathering. Role-playing—long the badge of self-proclaimed high school rejects—also has its place in this culture, in the form of “cos-plays” (a mashup of “costume” and “play”) based on anime narratives.
This past Tuesday, the Rockridge Ninjas’ selected television show “Wolf’s Rain” projected onto a 5×7 screen that’s probably used for writers workshops and basic computer skills classes other nights of the week. The chatty Ninjas had elected to crank the volume to full-blast to drown out the whir of a floor-fan that wafted popcorn scents across one of the branch’s two second-floor meeting rooms.
“You might want to go buy a pair of earplugs,” advised Shakara Sessoms-Howell, a 17-year-old Ninja who attends the nearby Far West High School. “We get pretty loud in here.”
Sessoms-Howell helped herself to two plastic bowls of popcorn from a spherical machine set up on the Ninjas’ concessions table—a healthy spread also offering two-liters of Sprite and Coca Cola and Oreos—and stashed them beneath her front-row seat with two cups of Coke. As the other Ninjas took their places, Susy Moorhead, teen specialist librarian at the library, produced a special treat for this month’s meeting: Pocky sticks. (For those not in the know, Pocky is a thin breadstick coated in chocolate that is popular in Japan.) This was met with a chorus of “Yay, Pocky!” from the Ninjas, grateful for the Japanese import.
“A lot of friendships have formed in here,” Moorhead said. “It’s a social outlet.”
It’s also a youth lifestyle commitment on the level of the Boy Scouts.
“I’ve been watching anime since I was a toddler,” said Justin Bennett, a Berkeley Community College student who at 19 is the elder statesman of the group. With cornrows, a chain wallet and black and red Champion sneakers, Bennett is well-poised to enter a world where anime lovers are in the minority, not the majority. That world is Berkeley Community College. At college age, many Ninjas stop showing up at the Library, Moorhead said. But so far, Bennett’s new school duties haven’t yet kept him from the monthly meetings at the library.
Young brothers and sisters of members attending were as young as 10. The Ninjas attend many of the area schools, including Oakland Technical High School, Claremont Middle School and Westlake, Moorhead said.
The plot line of “Wolf’s Rain” (Japanese with English subtitles)—featuring a post-apocalyptic cityscape, a spaceship, a comatose damsel suspended in an green goop-filled orb, and certain characters who turn into wolves to commit unconscious acts of violence—was somewhat challenging for the uninitiated anime spectator to follow. But it was immensely entertaining to the Ninjas. More Coke and Pocky went to latecomers, who were greeted by their fellow Ninjas with a familial familiarity.
During a break, Moorhead raffled off copies of manga books and posters displayed on a conference table. Book covers show mostly female anime characters, scantily clad, with very big eyes, very big hair, and very big chests. Titles included “Battle Vixens,” “Dragon Ball Z,” “Wish,” “Tokyo Boys and Girls,” and “Dragon Sister!”
Tyler Martin, a 14-year-old Westlake Middle eighth grader, was awarded first dibs, and selected volumes from the collection entitled “Fruit Basket.”
“’Fruit Basket’ is awesome,” Miller said, plopping down into a green upholstered chair and spreading a set of five books out in his lap. Miller, who has been an avid anime watcher since the age of 4, was the envy of the group.
“Lemme see gimme gimme,” a jealous fellow Ninja pleaded.
The manga swag comes mostly from donations from local comic book stores. While it’s not always the case, on Tuesday, every Ninja walked away with something from the table.
A whiteboard behind the table was littered with a list of what “to watch next”—titles like “Darker Than Black,” “Tower of Draga,” “Bleach—movie,” and “Naruto (live).” The group voted in a selection for next month before logging another episode of “Wolf’s Rain” to take them up to the 6:30 ending time, when parents began arriving to collect their respective Ninjas.
By the end of the viewing, the floor was littered with empty soda cups and sneaker-pulverized popcorn. Pushing straw brooms across the wall-to-wall carpeting, the Ninjas engaged in a discussion about the finer points of anime that were once again befuddling to a non-expert. The conversation rose to such a pitch that Moorhead called for the meeting room door to be shut.
“There are varying opinions on what is better,” Moorhead said, “dubbed or subtitled.”
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