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Anime Expo 2003: Anime Conventions Enter Their Adolescence

Fred Patten ventured to Anime Expo 2003 and reports back that anime conventions arent babies anymore.

Looking at the estimated 18,000 fans crowding into the Anaheim Convention Center and adjoining Hilton and Marriott hotels for Anime Expo 2003 during the four-day July 4th weekend, it is hard to imagine that the annual AX began with only 1,750 attendees 12 years earlier. The baby has grown up.

Welcome to another world. All photos by Lionel Lum, courtesy Anime Expo.

Welcome to another world. All photos by Lionel Lum, courtesy Anime Expo.

Anime conventions can trace their gestation back to the first anime videotape room parties held at sci-fi and comic book fan conventions in 1977, a year after the first giant-robot sci-fi adventure cartoons appeared on American Japanese-community TV channels. During the 1980s, anime became an increasingly prominent portion of those conventions, with an anime video room as part of the official programs, fans in anime character costumes in the masquerades and anime merchandise in the dealers hall.

As companies get bigger so does their presence at Anime Expo.

As companies get bigger so does their presence at Anime Expo.

By the late 1980s, anime fans began asking for conventions of their own. It was not a coincidence that this was also when the first specialty companies were founded to license anime and release it commercially on video. The first all-anime convention, with the support of the new American anime specialty companies that featured guests of honor from the Japanese animation studios, was held in 1991. It was a success, but it was organized as a stand-alone event. Anime fans wanted an annual convention like the sci-fi and comic book cons. Mike Tatsugawa in the San Francisco Bay area organized the non-profit Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA) to make it so. Anime Expo 92, in San Jose, California staked out the July 4th holiday weekend. In 1994, AX moved to Southern California and has been in Anaheim, Los Angeles or Long Beach ever since. As anime (and manga, its comic book counterpart) became increasingly popular during the late 90s and early 00s, AX attendance has risen sharply. Other annual anime conventions have become established throughout the U.S. and Canada, but AX remains the oldest and largest.

AX has also taken on many of the aspects of a trade show rather than a fan convention. At the early fan conventions, and still at many of the regional conventions, the dealers hall consists of small anime specialty shops and individual fans selling and trading collectibles. AXs dealers hall still has a lot of those (enough to result in long lines of fans at the convention centers ATMs getting more money), but it is dominated by professional commercial display booths of all the major American anime producers and retailers. Some of these were two-stories-tall, with huge plasma or projection TV screens constantly showing their latest anime. At the early conventions, programming consisted mostly of panels of fans discussing their favorite anime titles and characters. At AX, the programming is divided up among the anime companies to let each one tell the fans what new projects it has under development, and what new titles it will release on DVD or theatrically during the next few months. This is news that the fans want to hear, but it is also more commercial than it is artistic.

(A technological sign-of-the-times: practically every anime retailer had a super discount corner offering anime video tapes and laser discs at $5 each or three for $10. By next year, anime in any format other than DVD should be extinct.)

Anime Expos guests of honor.

Anime Expos guests of honor.

AX 2003 featured 13 Japanese guests of honor: Yoshitoshi ABe (anime character designer and/or writer), Kazuki Akane (director of TV and theatrical anime), Kazuhiro Furuhashi (director), Mitsuru Hongo (director/writer), Yuki Kajiura (anime music composer), Yao Kazuki (voice actor), Yousuke Kuroda (screenwriter), Mahiro Maeda (director and designer specializing in CGI anime), Atsuko Nakajima (character designer and animation director), Koushi Rikudo (writer/cartoonist of the fan-favorite Excel Saga manga), Goro Taniguchi (director), Misa Watanabe (voice actress), and Nobuteru Yuuki (character designer). Some of these guests were invited by AX, while others were sponsored by an anime company to promote one or more of their productions to the fans. AX presented these guests in a series of focus panels throughout the convention, in which the guest (and a translator) were introduced to an audience of several hundred fans to discuss their works and answer questions. Yuki Kajiura, a current fan-favorite because of her music for the anime series Noir and .hack//SIGN, presented an hour-long concert of the most popular songs from them.

American voice actors Crispin Freeman and Wendee Lee mingled more directly with the fans in voice acting workshops. There were also some animators/cartoonists who hosted how-to-draw workshops using Japanese art supplies (provided by import shops hoping to increase sales).

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Attendees take in the voice over panel, flipbook workshop and the all-important gameroom.

One sign of the increasing popularity of anime is that the list of anime specialty companies presenting panels at AX grows longer every year. There were three or four brand new companies at AX 2003 announcing their first licensed anime releases. Two prominent Tokyo animation studios had panels of their own, both on the occasion of anniversary celebrations, Studio Gonzo (10th anniversary) and Studio Pierrot (25th anniversary).

The most impressive news was from A.D.V. Films, founded in 1992 and now one of the largest anime DVD releasers in America. In addition to announcing its acquisition of some of the hottest new anime titles in Japan, A.D.V. has just launched an Anime Network cable TV channel (fans were urged to contact their cable TV providers to request it), and is about to start new divisions to publish its own releases of licensed manga and of anime music CDs. Also, A.D.V. will begin producing its own anime, using the facilities of Japanese studios whose titles it has been licensing. Preliminary art designs were shown for a 26-episode TV anime adaptation of American s-f author David Webers Mutineers Moon, the first novel in a trilogy. If it is successful, anime adaptations of Webers two interstellar sequels will follow.

For those who came to AX to watch anime, there was a 35mm film program and four simultaneous anime video rooms. Several of the anime specialty companies also had mini-theaters featuring their own DVD releases. It was possible to watch anime around-the-clock for four days. (There were signs asking fans not to sleep in the anime theaters.)

Fan activities remain a major part of AXs programming. Thursdays main fan event was an idol (pop singer) contest. There was also a presentation of an amateur Sailor Moon musical. Friday had a new mini-masquerade event (for fans too inexperienced at costume construction to compete in the main masquerade), a J-Rock dance contest and an evening of screening fan-produced anime music videos. Saturday was dominated by the main masquerade, which began with preparations at 2:00 pm and lasted until well after midnight.

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Some fans go all out.

AX still uses the traditional English words masquerade and costuming in its program guide. During the last few years, the fans have been adopting the Japanese fan term cosplay (an abbreviation of costume play), so there was far more talk about cosplaying than about costuming. As impressive as the formal masquerade was, it was insignificant in comparison with the number of fans who wore anime costumes all convention long.

It was easy to tell which anime titles are currently popular by the number of fans dressed as their characters. .hack//SIGN, Trigun and Hellsing were among the most popular for adult characters, while any girls eight or younger were sure to have been dressed by their mothers as either Sakura from Card Captor Sakura, Sugar from Sugar: A Little Snow Fairy or one of the cat-eared little girls from Di Gi Charat. There were even some cosplayers as Storm from the X-Men movie because Storm looks like she ought to be an anime character; and as Neo from The Matrix Reloaded, because everybody knows that The Matrix is really just live-action anime.

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Other fans like to glam it up.

(Is it possible to have too many cosplayers at a con? If only 10% of the 18,000 attendees were wearing costumes, that was still 1,800 cosplayers. It was almost impossible to walk three feet without accidentally stepping in front of someone taking a photo of a cosplayer. There were so many fans in the same costumes that impromptu group photo sessions were scheduled: Would all the fans in Lupin III costumes meet in the Hilton main lobby on Friday at 4:30 for a group photo? There were enough .hack//SIGN cosplayers to start a separate convention.)

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Kids get into the act.

Sunday was the traditional packing up to go home day, but there were still enough attendees to make the benefit auction for the City of Hope medical foundation (AXs official charity) a rousing success. An AX tradition is having its Japanese cartoonist guests of honor draw two or three rough sketches of their most popular characters for this auction. Two by Koushi Rikudo of his Excel Saga cast, that may have taken five minutes each to draw, went for more than $2,000 each. Some bidding went $500 - $2,000 - $2,500 - $3,000 - $5,000 - no more bids? Sold! in less than two minutes. The highest bid was $6,400 for a marker-multicolored sketch by Nobuteru Yuuki of Pirotessa, the dark elf warrior from Record of Lodoss War. The grand total for the City of Hope was $74,020 for 55 items; an average of almost $1,350 each.

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Two of the cosplay winners.

The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animations Anime Industry Awards (anime fandoms equivalent of the Oscars) are both voted on and presented at Anime Expo. The ballot is included in members registration packets. Voting is held during the first three days of the con; the ballots are tallied Saturday evening and the awards are presented as the main event at the closing ceremonies.

Will Anime Expo 2004 break the 20,000 attendance mark? The fans are confident that it will. If AXs first 12 years have been anime conventions childhood, what will adolescence bring?

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Some of the characters appearing at Anime Expo arent alien to all outsiders.

Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation 2003 Industry Awards (presented during the closing ceremonies)

1. Best Male Character: Japanese Release Amon (in Witch Hunter Robin; Sunrise, Inc.)

2. Best Male Character: USA Release Kenshin (Samurai X; ADV Films)

3. Best Female Character: Japanese Release Robin (Witch Hunter Robin; Sunrise, Inc.)

4. Best Female Character: USA Release Yukino (His & Her Circumstances; TRSI, Inc.)

5. Best Non-Human Character: Japanese Release Grunties (.hack//DUSK; Bandai Visual Co.)

6. Best Non-Human Character: USA Release Menchi (Excel Saga; ADV Films)

7. Best Manga: Japanese Release Fruits Basket (Hakusensha)

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Miyazaki sure has his fans.

8. Best Manga: USA Release Naruto (Viz LLC)

9. Best Publication: Japanese Language Newtype

10. Best Publication: English Language Newtype USA (ADV Films)

11. Best TV Series: Japanese Release Naruto (Studio Pierrot)

12. Best TV Series: USA Release .hack//SIGN (Bandai Entertainment)

13. Best Film: Japanese Release Inu Yasha: Kagami no Naka no Mugenjiyo (Sunrise, Inc.)

14. Best Film: USA Release Spirited Away (Buena Vista Home Entertainment)

15. Best Film Debut at Anime Expo The Animatrix (Warner Home Video)

16. Best OVA: Japanese Release .hack//Liminality (Bandai Visual Co.)

17. Best OVA: USA Release Read or Die (Manga Entertainment)

18. Best Music Album: Japanese Release Final Fantasy X-2 Original Soundtrack (Avex Mode)

19. Best Music Album: USA Release .hack//SIGN Original Soundtrack 1 (Bandai Entertainment)

20. Best Company (USA) TOKYOPOP

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).

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