“I don’t know why I didn’t think that existed, but I didn’t think that existed,” I overheard someone say as I sat with a few friends at the Raleigh Convention Center, noshing on little snack cakes imported from Japan.

At Animazement, the anime convention held annually in Raleigh since the late nineties, this statement could apply to almost anything. At this year’s event on Memorial Day weekend, a Santa, a giant blueberry, and a Japanese death god all passed by me in one five-minute span.

No one was quite sure who the blueberry was supposed to be; the logical answer is Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but it could be some Japanese cartoon we haven’t seen.

This uncertainty is actually kind of comforting. Every time I go to Animazement, the variety of fandom for Japanese cartoons and comics and the density of knowledge present overwhelm me. After two decades, the convention has attained a massive presence in downtown Raleigh. Even those without a ticket to the often sold-out show still get to take in a visual feast of cosplayers, elaborately dressed up as their favorite characters (or dressed downthis year I witnessed a larger percentage of shirtless guys than ever before).

It’s good to have a smartphone handy; panels I attended with friends often threw out names and terms that are not for the uninitiated. When the crowd roared with laughter over a clip from a live-action Japanese show where the punch line was “Hideaki Anno,” it took me a moment to confirm that it referred to the creator of the series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the subject of the panel. Ah. It was still a good panel, though, partly because I got to see a copyright-violating animation the people who went on to form Evangelion‘s production studio made for a convention they held in the eighties, in which a Playboy Bunny throws down on Darth Vader and the alien from Alien to the tune of the E.L.O.’s “Twilight.”

At a panel about the history of Animazement on Saturday night, two of the people responsible for establishing and building the convention addressed a crowd whose numbers rivaled the line for the “Peep Show” a few doors over. (“I’m afraid we can only compete with pornography so much,” they said.) They recalled the humble origins of Animazement as the Triangle Anime Society, where expensive laserdiscs had to be ordered from Japan to watch new anime at N.C. State.

“These days, you can just watch anime on your phone!” they told the audience. “You don’t know how good you have it.” They were only half-joking.

I remember getting my dad to take me to one of the old Triangle Anime Society screenings in the early nineties, when most Japanese comics collections cost about $20 apiece after shipping, directly from the publisher, and you were lucky if a VHS tape for the same price contained two episodes of a half-hour show. The screening turned out to be Otaku no Video, an in-joke-filled parody of anime obsessives. Everyone I talk to agrees it was probably not the best starting point, though I was later startled to find out that it contained the aforementioned video from the future Evangelion people, which I must have forgotten.

At any rate, it was perhaps better that I got Dad to take me to that screening than another, recalled by the founders, which apparently drew three hundred people to an N.C. State auditorium to watch a Street Fighter II anime in which the winsome fighter Chun-Li takes a shower.

“Why are we still here?” one of the founders asked. “I don’t know.”

I have an idea: it’s the sense of community. I saw more deep, warm hugs between Animazement attendees than at any other sci-fi or comic-book convention I’ve ever attended. When you talk about trying to get more into anime, people listen specifically to what you like and then come up with shows attuned to your tastes, as opposed to simply saying, “You gotta see the new Iron Man!” I walked away with not only a dozen solid recommendations, but also with tips on where to watch them, ranging from such services as Hulu and the anime-centered Crunchyroll to those of the less, ahem, copyright-honoring variety.

As my friends and I supped on the Japanese snack cakes, my thoughts drifted back to past Animazement events, lonely nights of anime on VHS giving way to packed screenings of Akira and Miyazaki films at the Carolina Theatre, and friends, like the ones I’m with, gained through what once seemed like a strange niche obsession.

It might not be Proust’s madeleine, but as I bite into the snack cake, I know a history is contained therein: of the decades when Animazement grew from a few people packed into a room at State into thousands of costumed fans joyfully shouting their obsessions throughout the Raleigh Convention Center. A place where you can wonder if the giant blueberry suit you just saw is from Willy Wonka and then realize that it doesn’t matter. It’s just cool that someone made it.

The lyrics of the E.L.O. song from earlier echo in my head: “It’s either real or it’s a dream/ There’s nothing that is in between.” But they haven’t been to Animazement.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Dazed and Animazed”