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For the cultural stragglers who still think "Japanimation" means the childhood nostalgia of Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets, here's the news: You're waaayy behind. Called anime by the coterie, the genre has made quantum leaps in aesthetics, subject matter, and--across the Pacific as well as stateside--popularity.

The AnimeFest '98 hits the Omni Dallas Hotel on Friday and runs through Labor Day weekend. It's a festival and trade show (yes, much like Star Trek and comic-book conventions) all about anime, with an unexpected little injection of Hong Kong action cinema--a la John Woo and Jackie Chan--thrown in.

Anime, the intense, often erotic, more often violent sibling of Japanese graphic novels--manga, the complex adult comics that crown Japanese pop culture--has garnered an impressive cult following, and no wonder: These animated films are so much more than cartoons. Once the post-apocalyptic nightmare Akira found its U.S. legs earlier this decade, the fans drooled for more. Ninja Scroll, Dirty Pair, Neon Genesis Evangelion--mention these titles to the right sort of person, and a lengthy, energetic critical discussion follows. Epic in scope (often serialized, in fact), dealing with technology, mysticism, cultural tradition, alienation, and plenty of sex, anime plays its trump card visually: fluid, saturated with clear color, intricately detailed and split into aesthetic sub-categories. The bloodshed usually equals that of any John Woo film, and while English-language dubbing can undermine the dramatic impact of even the best ones, the subtitled versions keep the visceral level high. Alarmed by Kekko Kamen's "humorous" depiction of Nazi-like school headmasters molesting hapless female orphans? Welcome to Japan's underworld of established fetishes, springing to pushy, geeky life in countless offerings.

Granted, the fare can be stylistically convoluted (see Vampire Hunter D), ingratiatingly cute, or kawaii--a popular style of rounded, childlike figures termed chibi, which doesn't mean they're acting at all childlike. Occasionally anime is fit for younger viewers (the beautifully crafted, graceful My Neighbor Totoro). But the draw for North Texans is invariably the exoticism of an art form--edgy, mature-content animation--thus far ignored by Hollywood. Save for Ralph Bakshi, of course.

This year's AnimeFest includes round-the-clock video theaters, panel discussions, a visual art display, genre games, and the standard exhibition hall thoroughfare overflowing with industry booths. At 8 p.m. Friday night, a traditional Japanese Taiko drum ensemble plays, and a costume contest livens things up on Saturday.

--Christina Rees

AnimeFest '98 Autumn Festival of Asian Cinema begins Friday at the Omni Dallas Hotel. Admission is $30 at the door for four days, $15 for day passes (except Friday, which is free). For more info, call (301) 253-2366.


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