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July 23, 2011

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Chinese imitate Japan's cartoon heroes

THEY say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Chinese young people, already smitten by Japanese animation, have taken their passion to new heights, painting and drawing imitations and publishing new comic books for their cartoon icons.

It's not particularly imaginative, but aficionados say they like working with already established characters, tweaking them and embellishing upon them. Many who aspire to be professional cartoonists say it does allow creativity in storytelling and they call it good experience that helps them mature.

And this imitation of cute, big-eyed, waif-like creatures (overwhelmingly girls, plus girl elves, witches and some, androgynous boys and other characters) has become a craze. It's known as doujinshi (in Chinese tong ren zhi, literally same person magazine), the Japanese term for self-published works such as manga, novels and magazines. Some Chinese doujinshi are based on Chinese stories and characters.

Societies and communities in Shanghai devote themselves to drawing and recreating these characters and placing them in new situations. Some incorporate Chinese elements such as kung fu, pandas, Chinese calligraphy and other aspects.

A major exhibition and sale called Comicon is coming up today at the Shanghai EverBright Convention and Exhibition Center (88 Caobao Road) in Xuhui District. One of the new communities MoeChemistry will debut their own doujinshi.

It's one of several every year in Shanghai and there are 10 around China. It will also feature bands playing songs from animation and it's popular among young fans of Japanese manga, animation and computer games.

Most of these imitators are young men, aged from around 15 to 35, who overwhelmingly draw bishojo (beautiful little girls). Some young women also are involved.

One of the most zealous is He Jing, who doesn't regret having dropped out of university early this year to devote himself to his "real love," doujinshi. He had been a sophomore studying at the East China University of Science and Technology.

In university a classmate showed him "Touhou" (a series of Japanese shooting games involving little girls) and he was immediately captivated by the characters. He, born in 1990, gets emotional about this first encounter.

He was so ravished by Youmu Konpaku (a half-human, half-phantom girl who wields a sword and has extraordinary powers of concentration) that he joined Imperishable Scarlet, a doujinshi community. He also often dresses like Konpaku who has short, tousled, silvery-blue hair.

Now He is a full-time painter in the community, drawing whatever he wants from the computer game and re-imagining stories. The community has sold more than 10 doujinshi books in the comics market in Shanghai.

At the new MoeChemistry community, Liu Haoliang is the man in charge, busy preparing for the weekend event. He oversees the development, publicizes works and communicates with other communities. He makes sure painters hand in their work and checks it carefully.

Painters Liu and Chen Tianze decided six months ago to sell their first doujinshi at the coming Comicon exhibition.

"We never thought we could go this far. When I met (Chen) Tianze and realized we wanted to do the same thing, I thought we could make our dreams come true," says Liu.

The project involves publishing and binding costs, decoration and other expenses. They make very little money, but that isn't the purpose - it's fun and a labor of love.

"When I was in primary school, I always dreamed of becoming a cartoonist," says Chen, a leading painter in MoeChemistry.

At first he created his own characters and stories, but in time he became hooked on recreating Japanese characters and found friends with similar interests.

Asked why he chose to imitate and recreate rather than do something original, he says: "Because doujinshi is totally self-published, there's less pressure and more space for me to create. I like this style to complete my own stories and in this way I get better."

In Japan many famous cartoonists started in doujinshi communities. To create a new manga or a game, one must consider many things, but doujinshi is simpler.

"This way I get closer to my childhood dreams," Chen says, adding that he takes the original character and depicts his own understanding and adventures.

He, Liu and Chen say the field is becoming more mature and attracting more enthusiasts. But He is concerned about the quality of the products on sale and is skeptical about the future.

"Everything we do is for love and exchange with people who share our enthusiasm - it's not for money," says Chen.

Liu, head of MoeChemistry, agrees there are problems and says some communities sell low-quality products at prices higher than those charged for high-quality in Japan. "It's so disappointing," he says.

He also suggests there should be no admission fee, noting that the best such markets in Japan are free.

"Half the 'psychos' in Shanghai come here" - that's what doujinshi fan Wang Hanyan heard from the security guard when he went to the last Comicup held in June in Shanghai.

He proudly admits that he's one of the "psychos." He has been to more than 10 exhibitions, bought many doujinshi magazines and CDs and taken photos. Some fans create their own figures.

"It's all so incredible," says Wang. Since he's a university student, he doesn't have much money, so he makes sacrifices and even skips meals to buy doujinshi.

"My parents know about my hobbies, but they just can't understand," Wang admits. "At least they don't interfere."

Most of the people who don't know about doujinshi share the opinion of Wang's parents. Zhang Yuanhao, a university student, says he cannot understand why people are so crazy about making imitations.

"I think these projects are too simple, sometimes naive, I just don't get the point of doing it," he says. "I prefer to watch 'The Simpsons' because it's more real and conveys the ironies about society."


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