Joe Strike ventures to the New York Anime Festival to find an event that goes deeper than most events into the rich world of anime.
Thanks to a surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 became "a day that will live in infamy." Sixty-six years later, however, December 7 th seemed like a perfectly fine day to begin a much more benign Japanese invasion of New York City: Reed Exhibitions' New York Anime Festival, a spin-off and follow-up to the two-year-old New York Comic Con.
"We never even thought of that, which is good in a way," says John McGeary, Reed vp and show manager for the festival. "I think it's a testament to our good relationship with Japan -- [the Pearl Harbor attack] is part of history now. Frankly, having the Festival in December was due to the availability of [New York's] Javits Convention Center.
"We noticed that of all the Comic-Con segments, we'd only scratched the surface of anime. There's so much more we can do with a separate event, all the panels and screenings, we decided to do a full show the first year right off the bat."
According to a Reed spokesman, the festival prepared for 10-15,000 attendees and actually topped the high number. While the Anime Festival is a latecomer compared to more established and larger gatherings like Southern California's Anime Expo and Otakon in Baltimore, its New York location gave the event an instant leg-up, in attracting both fans throughout the region and professionals from publishing and media organizations based in the city. The day before the convention began, the pop-culture industry news group ICv2 held a series of panels at the Javits Center for businesses eager to tap into the growing appetite for anime and manga, including sessions exploring prospects for digital/new media distribution and advice on tapping into the large female market for "J[apanese]-culture."
The festival took up a good portion of the convention center's lower level, with three massive, nearly equal-sized areas side by side: the first a vast gaming hall, the second filled by some 128 exhibitors, and a third devoted to screening and panel rooms. The first sight greeting contestants entering the gaming hall for the "Magic: The Gathering" World Championship was a giant-sized brain in a giant-sized jar, courtesy of Wizards of the Coast. As the company's Jeff Phillips explained, "It's kind of a joke. People used to say that our research and development department is run by a giant brain in a glass jar named 'Gleemax.' It kind of took off as an urban legend and when we put out 'Unhinged' [a surreal card-game send-up of card games] we included a Gleemax card. We just relaunched our website's message board with Gleemax as our mascot."
The exhibit hall was the hub of the Festival's activities, as thousands of otaku [dedicated fans], many dressed for "cosplay" [costume play] as their favorite anime characters, traveled from booth to booth. ADV and TOKYOPOP's oversized booths, side by side at the front of the hall, had first shot at the attendees and their spending money.
"Our biggest priority is Devil May Cry," enthused ADV head Chris Orr. "It's a new anime series based on the Capcom game franchise, and it's getting a same day/date release as Devil May Cry 4, the next-generation video game. We're here with Capcom demoing the game. People love it, they've been anticipating it for years.
"We're doing wonderful things with Capcom to bring anime to the gaming audience. Our fans know about the series, and we know gamers are open to anime -- they like animation in general. The series just finished airing in Japan a couple of months ago. We're combining our volume one disc [which contains the series' first four episodes] with their limited/collector's edition of the game. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide will get this thing. It's the biggest promotion we've ever done with another company."
Orr's other new import is The Wallflower, based on the 13-volume manga series published in the U.S. by Del Rey. He describes it as a "great comedy series" about a girl who adopts an ugly persona despite the ongoing efforts of a quartet of young men to beautify her.
On the other side of the aisle, TOKYOPOP marketing coordinator Joe Soriano plugged the sneak preview of Princess Ai, "our own project. We created it from the beginning and took it from manga to video." The notorious rocker Courtney Love is credited as co-creator of the project. According to the company's website, Love became a manga fan during her early career when she was performing in Tokyo -- and the half-human, half-angel Ai is the singer's fantasy alter-ego.
TOKYOPOP's other high-profile effort: using the festival as a location for the company's live-action movie project Van Von Hunter 100. Based on a tongue-in-cheek (and American-created) good-vs.-evil manga, the film is described by Soriano as a "real world meets the anime/manga world" adventure. "We filmed in our panel room and used our fans as extras."
Funimation's booth was not far away, where pr manager Jackie Smith rattled off a list of the company's projects premiering at the convention, including One Piece Movie 8: The Desert Princess and the Pirates... the action/horror vampire series Black Blood Brothers... and a pair of crossover movies, Tsubasa Chronicle -- The Princess in the Birdcage Kingdom and xxxHOLiC -- A Midsummer's Night Dream. Funimation also announced the acquisition of the anime feature Vexille for 2008 theatrical and DVD release. The company has high hopes for the film, which comes from the same creative team as 2004's Appleseed and features music from Matrix Reloaded composer Paul Oakenfold.
Media Blasters was on hand as well, announcing their "biggie" -- the 55-minute OVA (original video animation) Kite Liberator, a follow-up to a hugely successful OVA release of a few years back. Liberator is due out in March in a simultaneous U.S./Japan release. "It will hopefully be the first of many co-productions," according to Blaster's Merideth Mulroney. "We've started on our own fully-funded animation production in Japan." She added that the company will also be releasing additional episodes of the popular Genshiken and Doujin Works anime series.
Deeper into the convention floor, one could find Bandai's small, low-key booth, all but indistinguishable from the dealer tables surrounding it. "Prior to this year, we only attended one or two conventions a year," explained Robert Napton, the company's director of sales and marketing. "We started expanding to do more conventions, but with a smaller set-up.
"It's a philosophical thing for us -- we're here to promote and sell the box sets and DVDs we brought with us. At other cons we've gone bigger. This has been a big success for us. We like working with the people at Reed and we'll probably expand when we come back here next year." Even so, Bandai announced several high-profile DVD releases at the festival, including Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, a "political/action/adventure" that will air on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in the spring, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a theatrical anime feature that made a splash on the film festival circuit. "We'll be translating and dubbing it over the next few months, before giving it a limited theatrical release next summer along with the DVD."
Viz Media had the lowest exhibit-floor profile of all, passing on the usual merchandise and staff-stuffed booth. Hedging its bets on a brand new con, the company instead participated in the festival in several other ways. For the average fan, Viz's most notable contribution was a "media lounge" in the back of the exhibit hall, filled with comfy chairs for exhausted con-goers to relax in. The company also sponsored and participated in the Thursday ICv2 Conference, and presented a panel to spotlight its upcoming releases.
Over the course of the weekend, Viz screened a half-dozen anime- and manga-inspired live-action movies it will be distributing in the U.S.: Honey and Clover (art school students struggle with love and careers); the romantic comedy Love*Com The Movie; Nana (a friendship between polar-opposite girls with the same name); the sport film Ping Pong; Kamikaze Girls (a friendship between two other polar-opposite girls); and Gackt: The Greatest Filmography Red (a collection of videos from anime music composer Gackt Camui).
In fact, with six separate screening rooms, a fan could have spent the entire weekend doing nothing except watching anime. Four more large rooms were dedicated to panel discussions, while tabletop- and video-gamers had smaller spaces to conduct their own competitions. Those panel discussions -- numbering over 80 -- covered every conceivable J-culture-related topic. Beyond the usual -- including industry, distributor, and program panels -- attendees could learn the reality behind Ninja legends, get tips on how to start their own anime club, meet anime translators and voice talents (including Speed Racer's Peter (Speed) Fernandez and Corinne (Trixie) Orr), or even find out about the history of sake.
J-culture fanatics could further indulge their addiction in any number of ways. The festival created its own version of a "Maid Café," based on actual restaurants found in Japan where customers are treated like royalty by waitresses dressed in English and French maid outfits. J-pop band Unicorn Table traveled to the U.S. to perform at the festival, while dedicated costumers competed in Friday night's World Cosplay Summit Masquerade. Winners Renee Gloger and Sonnya Paz will be packing their Umi and Hikaru costumes next summer for a free trip to Japan, where they will represent the U.S. in the 2008 Cosplay Championships. Not a bad payoff for being fans of the 1990s manga and anime series Magic Knight Rayearth -- or attending the first New York Anime Festival.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.