Anime Central 2005

by Mikhail Koulikov, May 2nd 2005
Panel Reports:
   Funimation
   Geneon
   Dark Horse


The middle of May may be prom and graduation season for some, and the season of frantically tying up loose ends at work before the utter wasteland that is the summer for others, but for more and more people every year, it is first and foremost the season of three days of concentrated insanity and multicolored costumes in the Chicago suburbs - the three days of Anime Central.

In terms of the physical layout, ACen continues to slowly move towards the inevitable. The Hyatt Regency O'Hare is a good hotel, and quite well-suited to hosting an anime convention, but as attendance numbers increase with every passing year (according to anime-cons.com, the final attendance tally stood at just under 10,500 total “badges” – registered attendees, dealers, staff and guests), it is simply not big enough. The dealer's room has been located in the adjacent convention center for at least the last couple of years, Registration moved there in 2004, and this year saw the problem of just what the hell to do with the artist alley solved in the same way. The negative view on such a placement is that it puts the artists away from most of the traffic flow in the hotel; on the other hand, placing the artist alley in the immediate vicinity of the DR made it extremely easy for attendees to move from one area full of dealer booths to the other. All of the actual convention function and video rooms are still in the Hyatt, but if attendance keeps growing at the current rate, I would not be surprised if within the next year or two, ACen takes the lead of both Otakon and Anime Expo and moves a majority of its function rooms into the convention center – especially given how huge the Stevens Centers is and how little of it the convention is currently using.

Joining the recent trend of going beyond the usual line-up of anime/manga creators, production staff and voice actors, ACen featured – in what for many attendees was not merely the highlight of the program, but their sole reason for attending the convention – the j-rock band _The Pillows_. Although this was not their first U.S. appearance, as they played the South by Southwest music festival and several clubs earlier in the year, this was the first time the band played an anime event.

ACen's live programming line-up definitely gets high marks for its sheer breadth and diversity. At one point on Saturday, ten separate tracks of live programming, covering the full spectrum of anime/manga fandom, from a second Pillows concert to an Initial D fan panel to an "anatomy for artists" workshop were running simultaneously: The usual guest and fan panels were of course present (although, somewhat surprisingly, the industry presence was limited), but whereas the more "interactive" live programming content at many other conventions is frequently nothing beyond a cel painting session and maybe another workshop, ACen presented the fan with workshops on topics as elaborate and varied as wig and hair makeup, manga screentones, fan translations of videogames, and plus-sized cosplay. Another highlight of the live events schedule was the extensive and creative use of both the American and Japanese guests. Far from the all-too-common case where a guest will appear once for an interview panel and never again, ACen had its guests interact with fans in a variety of roles and settings. For example, Opening Ceremonies were followed by a presentation, by fan favorite Vic Mignona, of "Fullmetal Fantasy," a live-action short featuring a number of voice actors from Funimation's dub of Fullmetal Alchemist. Later the same day, Vic was punching the clock at an "Inside the Voice Actors Studio" panel, and on Saturday morning, he hosted a music composition panel. Yet, the benefits of a large and established convention include being able to attract an extensive and diverse guest list, and not once did it feel as if the ACen programming staff was simply mixing and matching names and program slots without giving any thought to the appropriateness of a particular American or Japanese guest speaking on this or another topic.

For its own part, the video schedule, with six dedicated anime rooms and an anime music video track, pretty much covered all of the bases. All of the titles shown were official releases, but, as the anime industry itself grows in power, it is only the huge conventions and the very small that really can get away with showing fansubs.

ACen's location is one of the most difficult aspects of the convention to write about. The Hyatt Regency O'Hare is one of the few anime convention venues in the US with a nickname and identity of its own - especially as so many other conventions change venues every year. Placed as it is, near a major airport, right off an interstate highway, and within walking distance of a subway station, it is extremely accessible to both the long-range traveler coming in from a city hundreds of miles away, to a driver, and to the public transit-dependent. And the separate "party wing" allows for a unique atmosphere on the friday or saturday night that is best described as what would happen if anime fans invaded a college spring break town...and won. But Rosemont is clearly not a place that welcoms the poor anime fan, not when more or less the only food options that are available immediately are the (expectedly) overpriced restaurants in the cluster of hotels opposite the convention center. You want Denny's, or the McDonalds, or the convenience store - well, better start walking, we'll see you in an hour. Especially in light of how readily available food of all kinds is at Otakon or Katsucon or Anime Boston, something like this becomes hard to ignore.

But at the same time, the fact that the relative lack of cheap food within easy walking distance is my biggest complaint this year is perhaps THE single best way of showing how well-run Anime Central is. Sure enough, "it's not a real con until the ambulances start pulling up," but ACen takes the same basic ingredients that all the other guys do, and combines them, through first and foremost the dedication and professionalism of its staffers, into an experience that, at least for me, is not likely to ever get old.

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