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Characters flock to METROCON event

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 05:37 PM

Shane McMullin traded his Army National Guard uniform and recollections of his recent stint in Afghanistan for a pair of tights, a green mask with yellow bug eyes and a flimsy crown -- and, suddenly, he became Tonberry King from Final Fantasy.

"It's very hot," said the 22-year-old McMullin, "very hard to breathe. It's very hard to see."

His 21-year-old wife, Eugenia, in faux leopard skin leggings and bustier, let out a coquettish snarl.

"I'm his pet leopard," she said, "even though he doesn't really have one."

The Melbourne pair met a few years ago at an anime convention in Orlando and they just clicked. This morning they were right at home in the Tampa Convention Center, as a glut of anime, comic book and video game characters came to life in homemade costumes, some of which were elaborate, some crude.

Thousands clogged the center's first floor. And it was just the first day of the three-day event. Inspired by the Japanese animation phenomenon, about 8,000 devoted anime followers have converged for the annual METROCON event.

This year's theme: Monsters Versus Hunters.

Dressed as a cyber Goth in a white, black and red outfit, 16-year-old Samantha Scarcella of Riverview said this is her second METROCON.

"I love seeing so many people, so many costumes," she said.

Nearby, Jon Birt, 24, wore a black plastic mask over his nose and mouth. A flip of a switch, and a green light inside the mask flashed. He wore a black cape and had red tinged hair.

"I like the atmosphere," he said. "These are great people to meet."

Hailing from Japan, Izumi Sugiyama had the spiked collar, mask and a shiny techno Medusa type wig. This weekend she is Hatsune Miku of the Vocaloid anime show. This is her third METROCON, the 17-year-old anima-ist said.

"I just love coming to these," she said, adding that it took six months to build her costume. "I just love being around these people. I was not able to sleep last night."

Among the highlights of the convention: a human anime chess match in which participants do battle on the board. A fantasy masquerade also was planned and shows are scheduled with a troupe of in-character volunteers prodding the crowd into interaction at every opportunity.

And zombie expert Max Brooks, who has penned two books about the undead, including "The Zombie Survival Guide," is among the list of keynote speakers.

This isn't a convention of dentists, to be sure, unless they moonlight as vampire killers from another world.

Dressed in street clothes was Christopher DiSarra, 29, of Naples. He and several hundred anime enthusiasts waited in line to get into the room where vendors and celebrity guests waited.

"I've been a fan of anime since I was 5 years old," he said. He has been to every METROCON convention held in Tampa.

"I never get in costume on the first day," he said. "There are so many different costumes here, I have to get a feel for it, get the lay of the land," before deciding what costumes to wear. He brought three with him, he said.

Shannon Fazio, spokeswoman for the event, said fans of Japanese anime that meshes dimensions and worlds, come from all walks of life, but mostly they are of this world.

"Fans are pretty much anyone," she said. "We have families with young children and people in their 50s coming out enjoying the event. It's about the Japanese animation and culture and food and everything Japanese.

"With our preregistration numbers," she said, "we're expecting 8,000 this year, from all over the world. People are coming from every state."

While the METROCON convention is billed as the largest anime event in Florida, there are much bigger ones. "Conventions in Los Angeles and New York typically draw between 30,000 and 50,000 people," Fazio said.

This is the seventh year at the Tampa Convention Center and the ninth year in Tampa, she said.

"The highlights of the convention are the shows we put on," she said. "We have 100 people putting on five different shows."

For many, the convention is a chance to hook up with old friends.

"There are a lot of people here who know each other," Fazio said. "And a lot of people who come in and by the end of the week, they know everyone."

METROCON started as an idea by the founders of AnimeMetro.com. Members gravitated to each other and an annual meet and greet evolved. While 8,000 are expected, the event, by the end of the weekend, could count 10,000. If that happens, it will expand to four days next year.

Anime has gained a cult-like following around the globe during the past decade or so, according to the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation.

"Anime is renowned as a visual medium for its emphasis on visuals, unique presentation and immersive storytelling style," said the society's website. "In America, cartoons are considered a form of entertainment meant for children, but in Japan, people of all ages watch anime.

"Most shows and movies are intended for children, adolescents and young adults. But there also are anime series made for older audiences.

"Many anime series," the website said, "deal with deep, thought-provoking themes."

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

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