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From Saint Seiya to CCXP: the Past and Present of Anime Fandom in Brazil

by Vinicius Marino Carvalho,

“Do you remember Os Cavaleiros do Zodíaco?”

Ask this question to anyone in the streets of São Paulo, or any major Brazilian city, and I can guarantee it will elicit a glimmer of recognition. The name – Portuguese for “Knights of the Zodiac” – is how Toei anime Saint Seiya is known to its Brazilian fans ever since it was first broadcast by the now-defunct Rede Manchete in 1994.

To say that the franchise is the most successful Japanese series ever brought to the country barely does justice to its cultural impact. Everyone remembers Cavaleiros, either because they used to watch it on TV, had kids who begged them to buy the countless toys and collectibles of their favorite characters, or grew up attending anime conventions where Masami Kurumada's original manga is revered as a founding myth.

Saint Seiya wasn't the first Japanese series to reach Brazilian waters, nor the first to become a media sensation. In the early 1960s, tokusatsu series National Kid found a similar passionate fanbase in the Baby Boomer generation. The unlikely success of that unique foreign series prompted TV channels to get their hands on as many Japanese IPs as possible. As Brazilian kids would soon find out, many of these shows were anime.

But Saint Seiya was the series that arguably inaugurated anime “fandom” in the country as we know it today. It also created a cultural legacy that is still felt in anime journalism, conventions, and the preferences of anime lovers throughout Brazil. To understand its appeal, we must travel back in time, way before the now nostalgic 1990s.

A piece of Japan in São Paulo

Part of the reason anime became a cultural sensation in such a short span of time is because the ground had already been prepared by nearly a century of soft power. Brazil, after all, has the largest Japanese diaspora in the world. Over two million of its residents have Japanese descent. In the city of São Paulo, home of the highest number of nikkei in the country, their influence is most clearly felt in Liberdade, the local Little Tokyo neighborhood.

“It wasn't the same Liberdade of today,” recalls Sérgio Peixoto, the founder of Brazilian anime journalism, in an interview to YouTube channel WarpZone.“It was a piece of Japan in São Paulo. Japanese goods at every store, Japanese banners, people talking in Japanese in the streets.”

Peixoto had reasons to be fascinated by the neighborhood. As a kid, he was an avid fan of TV shows like Samurai Kid, Space Boy Soran, Ogon Bat and Princess Knight. In the mid-seventies, he started attending a middle school in Liberdade, where he first heard of manga magazines by visiting secondhand bookshops. Years later, when he was already working as an entertainment journalist, he decided he would do what he could to share his passions with others.

In 1993, he published the first issue of Japan Fury, a fanzine dedicated to Japanese pop culture. The reception was cold, to say the least. The major Brazilian publishers, whose catalogues were by and large dominated by American IPs, regarded manga with suspicion. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel when there was already an established audience for foreign cartoons and comics.

The first (May 1996) edition of Animax, one of Brazil's major anime magazines in the late-1990s. Image credit: Sérgio Peixoto

Everything changed in September 1994, when Saint Seiya was first broadcast. Official (and unofficial) merchandise flooded toy shops and the Christmas wish lists of kids throughout the country. Publishers and TV channels started looking for the “new Cavaleiros” that would repeat the success of Rede Manchete's unprecedented hit. They needed people who knew their way around this new medium and were willing to write about it.

Peixoto was the man for the job. He transformed Japan Fury into an actual magazine, then founded another publication, Animax. At the same time, a different group of journalists founded their own pop culture magazine, Herói. The publications quickly became some of the bestselling magazines of the 1990s. Anime journalism in Brazil had officially been born.

It did not take long for other series to win the hearts of Brazilian fans. From the success of Saint Seiya – as well as Animax's and Herói's competent curatorship – came Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, Rurouni Kenshin, Yū Yū Hakusho, Cardcaptor Sakura, and many other anime. The state was set for what would become a new chapter in Brazilian pop culture.

From samba schools to cosplay contests

The origins of anime journalism, of course, are merely one ingredient in the history of anime watching in Brazil. As cultural scholars like Henry Jenkins have written time and again, a large part of what makes a fandom what it is are the actions, labor, and personal mythologies of fans themselves.

In the case of Brazil, all of this also traces back to Peixoto.

The first anime event in the country took place in 1988, hosted by cultural center Sesc Pompéia in São Paulo. It included lectures, exhibitions, and, in what may seem baffling to contemporary con-goers, screenings of anime and tokusatsu series in their original language, without subtitles.

Anime magazines and figures on exhibition at the SESC Pompéia event, 1988. Image credit: Sérgio Peixoto

“Even if we cannot understand them, we can feel the story” said Peixoto, in a phrase that was immortalized by a contemporary news piece.

This budding anime scene was about to be radically transformed. In 1996, ABRADEMI, a cultural association dedicated to promoting manga and Japanese culture, organized a convention called Mangácon. The event famously organized the first cosplay contest ever held in the country. Unlike cosplayers in the U.S., who could draw upon the tradition of “sci-fi masquerades” dating back to the 1930s, Mangácon's attendees had no real precedent. In a remarkable example of cultural syncretism, ABRADEMI's team sought help from costume designers of samba school Vai-Vai, one of the troupes that perform in São Paulo's traditional Carnival parade.

Francisco Noriyuki Sato, president of Abrademi from 1984-1986, 1988-1996. Image credit: ABRADEMI

Mangácon was discontinued in 2000, but set a precedent that soon inspired other conventions. Soon, its legacy was taken up by Animecon (1999-2011), Anime Friends (2003) and Sana (2001), who would in turn influence a slew of local conventions and festivals.

It's not surprising that these early pop culture celebrations appeared right when the internet was making its way into people's homes. Thanks to the web, anime fans could finally connect with those few Brazilians who understood Japanese or had contacts in Japan. It was becoming increasingly clear to this incipient community of ‘otaku’ – a word that was quickly being adopted as a point of pride – that the series they watched on TV barely scratched the surface of the vast universe of anime.

Distribution, however, was a major issue – one which the conventions were in a unique position to remedy. While it is true that these events helped popularize hobbies like cosplay, a lot of their attendees were simply interested in getting to know new series – either via public screenings or by purchasing bootleg VHSs (and, later, DVDs). This parallel market eventually found its way into the stores of Liberdade. Soon, the neighborhood Peixoto nostalgically recalled as a “piece of Japan” became a Brazilian version of Akihabara, where teens and young adults would congregate to buy electronics and anime merchandise.

The ghost of fandom yet to come

Many anime fans who had witnessed this transformation first-hand regard the 1990s and 2000s with nostalgia. But it was obvious that the media landscape would continue to change. Not, necessarily, in the same direction.

Anime never stopped being a niche interest, but it eventually earned a certain veneer of respectability its earliest fans could only dream about. Once a motley group of amateurs relying on favors from samba schools, Brazilian cosplayers have become an international reference for the hobby. The country is a three-time World Cosplay Summit champion and has consistently sent delegations to the contest since 2006. Distinguished cultural venues like the São Paulo Museum of Image and Sound, Japan House, and Casa das Rosas have since hosted anime screenings or manga-related exhibitions. Cultural critics and academics like Sônia Luyten have made a career writing about anime, manga, and their influences in Brazilian culture. The impact of manga alone on Brazil's comics and literary scene (both in terms of licensing and in inspiring a generation of local writers) is large enough to warrant an article of its own.

At the same time, “pop culture” itself is changing, and in ways that veers increasingly away from the experiences of millennials and gen-Xers who attended conventions to watch pirated VHS tapes on makeshift movie theater screens.

Comic Con Experience (CCXP), hosted in São Paulo since 2014, is now the largest geek convention in the world, surpassing even its direct inspiration, San Diego Comic-Con. In terms of both audience and attractions, however, it bears little resemblance to the anime events of old. In a lecture given at the São Paulo Museum of Image and Sound, CCXP co-founder Ivan Costa explained that the organization was always looking for ways to renovate its formula, even if it meant taking inspiration from ‘mainstream’ cultural events like music festival Lollapalooza. Costa and his team certainly delivered on their promise. While CCXP still promotes traditional attractions like cosplay contests and parades, the crowning jewels of the four-day event are the screening of exclusive trailers for the latest Marvel movies and meet and greets with the hottest Hollywood celebrities.

CCXP's astronomical success sent ripples across the anime scene as well. The sponsor of Anime Friends, Brazil's largest anime con, now describes the event as a “multi-themed entertainment event” with “a focus on Japanese pop culture and the geek universe”. Sana, another prominent convention, has similarly adopted the label of “largest Pop and Geek culture event in the Brazilian North/Northeast”.

While these recent developments have greatly contributed to countering the social stigma once faced by cosplayers, zinesters, and geeks of all stripes, it has also pointed the cultural conversation towards a different direction: one that is distinctively U.S.-centric and steered by the financial interests of Disney, Warner Bros., and other major media conglomerates who use CCXP to promote their latest franchises.

Naturally, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Mangácons and Japan Furies of old were expressions of some sort of cultural “purity” that was lost with the passing of the years. Yet, it is also hard to deny that their very messiness and awkwardness constituted a unique kind of cultural expression.

It is for good reason that communications scholar André Noro dos Santos referred to Brazilian ‘otaku culture’ as an example of cultural hybridism, and that pop culture expert Sônia Luyten wrote about the impact of anime and manga in Brazil in terms of ‘glocalization’: the advent of global cultural trends that transform and are transformed by local influences. The series watched by anime fans may have come from elsewhere, but the hoops they jumped through to enjoy them the best they could – going to screenings to watch anime without understanding a single word, consulting with samba schools to organize cosplay contests – was theirs and theirs alone.

On the other hand, walking down the cramped aisles of CCXP in a hot December afternoon, it is hard to escape the feeling that this Brave New World of geek hegemony is far more top-down and one-sided. We are no longer protagonists of our own fandom, merely consumers in line for whatever is currently on offer.

CCXP 2015, São Paulo. Image credit: Paulo Guereta

But dwelling too much on the bad may prevent us from appreciating the immensurable good that came with it as well. It has never been as easy, as fast – and arguably, as cheap – to watch anime via legal channels as today. Netflix arrived in Brazil in 2011, followed by Crunchyroll (2012), Amazon Prime Video (2019) and Funimation (2020). While these streaming services have struggled to compete with piracy, some experts believe the coexistence of formal and informal distribution channels is bound to benefit the industry in the long run. In either case, one does not need anime conventions any more to get ahold of the latest series or make friends over a common interest. The future, for good or ill, lies online.

It'll be exciting to see what role Brazilians will play in this new media landscape. But that is a question only tomorrow can answer.

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