How Have Anime Conventions Changed Over Time?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've only been going to conventions for the past year or so, and I'm curious how they've evolved over time.
You'd actually be surprised by how little has changed for anime conventions over the years. The crowds are bigger, the shows people are obsessed with change every year or two, and there are just a lot more cons in general these days. But as for what goes on at your standard anime convention, it's remarkably stable.
The "big draws" of an anime convention are generally the same from show to show, and haven't changed much at all in 20+ years: the cosplay masquerade, the anime music video contests, the panels with voice actors, premiere screenings, occasional big concerts. Obviously, different conventions in different places each have their own unique flavor and personality, and so there has always been quite a bit of variation in what each crowd is into and what's popular. And as conventions have grown and the larger ones get more industry savvy, you see more and more Japanese guest involvement. But it's been a slow build over the years.
There are a few categories of programming that have seen a drop-off in interest, due to how the way the broader anime world works these days: Industry panels used to be a much, much bigger deal. Back in the DVD-centric days, companies like ADV Films, Geneon and Bandai controlled what many fans would see, and finding out what shows they'd licensed for distribution was a big deal. Now that between Funimation, Crunchyroll and the other streaming sites, we get pretty much everything simulcast from Japan, these panels still fill rooms, but they're not as big of a deal as they once were.
Similarly, the video rooms used to be a much bigger draw, since it was simply the only place to see a lot of the shows that were screened. But now, trying out new shows from the comfort of home is pretty easy. Premiere events can still pack a room, but a lot of video programming is now classic and sometimes even obscure content. There's no point in showing stuff everyone is already watching.
Many conventions have had some issues navigating how they deal with hentai. Some shows had "hentai night" screenings, complete with tight security, ID checks, and a lineup of (mostly comedy-oriented) adult shows, and the riotous audience would scream and laugh along with them. Some venues expressed disapproval over these activities, and attendee mischief (including some absolutely gross pranks involving hotel mini bottles of conditioner) caused many cons to cancel these or move them off-site. A few cons still host an official hentai night, but I don't see it nearly as often as I once did.
The mid-2000s were a particularly interesting time on the convention scene. The rise of fangirls and their interests in things like yaoi made fandom a lot more gender-balanced in terms of attendance. This led to an increasing amount of female-oriented merchandise for sale and programming aimed at women. Around the same time, anime's demographic shifted younger, and conventions became a bit less focused on anime and more about general geekiness. As Charles Dunbar wrote a few years back, this younger generation began using the accepting, congenial atmosphere of conventions to test out new interests and persona for themselves, ranging from their own gender conformity, to interest in stuff like Homestuck and My Little Pony.
Strangely, some of this experimentation fueled the boom in maid cafés. First popularized as a variation on a hostess club in Japan, the unique costumes and idealized, friendly persona led quite a few female fans to see them as something potentially empowering, and many created their own versions at conventions. Many cons still have these, and while they're no longer the huge draws they once were, they still have their fans. (The whole "maid" fad seems to have died down quite a bit.)
There were also a few waves of Youth Discovering Annoying Things, which led to most conventions acting quickly to ban things like vuvuzelas (after the 2010 World Cup showcased their unique sound to the world), "free hug" signs, and the infamous yaoi paddles (which were often used to "playfully" assault people). Ad hoc flash mobs would blare the sped-up version of the Swedish dance song Caramelldansen (popularized with a gif from Popotan) or Hare Hare Yukai from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and overtake entire hallways emulating the dance moves. Luckily I haven't seen much of this sort of thing in recent years.
Recent years have also led to an increased awareness of safety at conventions. There had long been an issue with people crossing the line and groping some exposed flesh, especially with certain costumes being a bit on the revealing side. The "cosplay is not consent" movement seemed to really take off around 2014, and is now a prominent part of most conventions' safety programs. Likewise, the horrifying rise in mass shootings in North America has led many cons to spend a lot more resources on security, including bag and weapon checks.
Really, the biggest changes at conventions can be seen in on the floor of the exhibit hall. Early conventions were stocked to the brim with VHS tapes and CD soundtracks -- many of them pirated. By the early 2000s many of the bigger conventions started clamping down on bootlegs, and by that time DVDs and the studios that published them dominated convention halls. ADV Films would infamously bang a drum from atop an upper floor of their booth at the bigger shows, creating a stampede of fans to catch whatever swag they tossed down. After a few years cons put a stop to this, as it caused major safety issues. Now, DVDs and Blu-rays are only sold in a handful of places, and dealer rooms are filled with apparel, figures and accessories. (Manga, for all of that industry's ebbs and flows, has been a bit more of a stable presence.)
The changes to conventions have basically been signs of the times, and of a slowly growing and maturing fan scene and industry at large. What changes have you noticed at conventions? Let us know in the forum.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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