It's fun to walk down the street or get aboard a train with Tracey Seals and watch how Japanese people react. Once they notice the blue-eyed, bespectacled 21-year-old redhead from Mississippi in their midst, some break out in smiles. And others do double-takes, as if they've just seen an anime character come to life.
Maybe they have. There's no lack of stories about foreigners who came to Japan to pursue their dreams, but Seals' may be a classic case of carrying coals to Newcastle: She's set her sights on a future career as an illustrator and creator of anime and spends her days studying, sketching and writing in an effort to fulfill that dream. Old fogey Mark Schreiber, a complete ignoramus when it comes to anime, is fascinated.
So Tracey, tell me: Are you into cosupure (costume play) too?
I just like Japanese fashion in general. Some of anime's fashion overlaps with everyday fashion here. I have so many clothes. I had to buy 50 clothes hangers when I came to Japan! As far as how Japanese react to me, I'm not too sure: I'm kind of oblivious, but I think I just attract more attention because I am Caucasian and look different to them.
When did you decide you wanted to come to Japan?
I began thinking about coming here while still in high school. I was going to be an exchange student in my senior year through the Rotary Club, but that door suddenly slammed shut and I was so upset. Meanwhile, our family got to host a Japanese boy named Taka Sato, who turned out to be a great blessing for us — and his stay helped keep alive my dream to study and immerse myself into Japanese culture.
My mom and I came to Japan for two short vacations, and during both, we visited many Japanese colleges. I was so excited and happy once I got admitted, and I came in August to start my studies.
But did the real Japan fall short of your expectations?
Oh no, it was everything I expected — I love it here! Japan is my other passion besides drawing. Everything has its downside, so I expected that. However, that hasn't dispelled my passion for Japan and my desire to help her people.
What's been the most difficult thing for you to cope with while living here?
I expected the Japanese language to be hard, but never this difficult. I actually failed Japanese last semester. It was hard for me to cope with failure since I was an "A" student in high school. I'm happy to say I'm doing well in class now.
When and how did you first become acquainted with anime?
It would have been when I was in elementary school in Alabama. The first ones I remember were "Pokemon" and "Sailor Moon." By middle school I'd fallen in love with anime, and by the age of 12, I'd become serious about drawing and had begun dreaming about getting into the entertainment business of gaming and anime.
Was your family supportive?
My family didn't, and still doesn't, understand my interest, but they are still supportive. A few of my friends enjoyed anime, but it wasn't all that popular. But I was always creating and drawing and I still am. Sometimes I show my parents an anime story I'd written and they would respond, "What in the world does this mean?" [laughs] I am a deep thinker, so I create on a deep level that moves other people to think.
What is it about Japanese anime that pulled you toward it?
Anime has a sense of fantasy to it. No, it is fantasy, to which people can relate. It creates a space where I can go to be myself, away from the daily pressures of life. It offers another world in which I can daydream all I want, with no one to interfere.
Have you watched the violent and pornographic varieties?
I don't ordinarily look at porn. Although a lot of anime does have violence, I'm not drawn to the blood and gore. But I do like the fighting spirit, the "never give up" attitude that seems to thrive in Japan, because I believe every person is created for a purpose.
You've watched hundreds of anime. Tell me about some of your favorites.
One is "Voices of a Distant Star," a 25-minute film created, drawn and written by Makoto Shinkai in 2002. I normally don't watch melancholy movies, but this one is an exception. I get mushy every time I see it again.
The story revolves around a girl named Mikako Nagmine and boy, Noboru Terao, who have a long-distance relationship. Mikako dreams of joining the part of the U.N. Army that searches for and repels Tarsians or "aliens that attacked Mars." The fleet travels beyond the solar system. She succeeds and becomes one of the chosen few to continue on her journey in outer space. The only problem is that the further she travels away from Earth, the longer it takes her text messages to reach Noboru. Eight years and seven months is the longest Noboru has to wait to receive a message.
Another favorite of mine is "Yotsuba&!" [sic], released in 2003. It was written and drawn by Kiyohiko Azuma, "Yotsuba&!" is a comedy about a young girl who moves to a new neighborhood from an island that she claims to be "from the left." Yotsuba and her neighbors go on adventures that are hilariously quirky — there's a scene in which a character draws around her neighbor on the sidewalk and bystanders whisper to themselves, "Was there a dead body here?"
Do you think it's relevant that most of the big-names in anime are men?
I wish it were otherwise, but there aren't many well-known females in the business. But as a general rule, whatever the gender, I think anime illustrators have to be able to project their imaginations through their characters, the same way writers do. A writer has to be able to feel their characters to bring them to life.
What's next? Where do you go from here?
After a rough first semester at school, my Japanese is getting better. I'm just hitting my stride. My dream is to work with game production house Square Enix and help make them an even greater company. I believe that what I create can connect with the people of Japan since it deals with their value system and train of thought. It can connect with everyone on a deep and personal level through its symbolism. Through entertainment I want to help people by delivering positive messages as they watch my anime or play my video games.
Tell me something about what you are working on.
My lead character is named Naomi and her alter ego ("from the mirror world, another part of Naomi") is Sayori. Sayori's dialogue goes like this: I am Naomi's other . . .
Naomi's other being . . .
I am what lies inside of her . . .
I am the second dreamer . . .
The second dreamer that has him within me . . .
Dreams beyond measure (He dreams without measure for our future and success) and her knowing, but it is what is in both of our hearts that makes the difference.
I was created for this, and if you do not have the pure heart of understanding and believing then you cannot exist in this world.
You will be no more.
I exist with Naomi and Naomi exists with me.
We are one.
We exist together
The pure dreamer exists in this world.
The second that is one to none.
As long as she is the other being . . . .
That's all you get to see [smiles]. I'm very secretive about my ideas. Usually I don't even talk about them with my closest friends. Anyway, this one is my favorite. I believe one day it could become a powerful video game. The strategy is very similar to "Kingdom Hearts," a deep-thinking game that requires players to use their minds.
Ahem! Well Tracey, now that you've got my attention, what should I do to learn more about anime?
If you were in the U.S. South, you might consider attending the annual "Kami-Con" (held since 2009 at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa) or other anime conventions. Here in Tokyo, you should go to places where otaku are known to hang out — the Broadway Center building in Nakano, or Akihabara, would be good starting points. And there's also the free Suginami Animation Museum, which is near Ogikubo Station, that's very educational.