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Anime Expo 2003
Overview - Fans Perspective

by Mikhail Koulikov,
For better or for worse, Anime Expo is the public face of anime and manga in North America. There may be club meetings, shelves packed with anime DVDs at a local Suncoast, the Cartoon Network, other regional conventions, but in the end, all of the aspects of anime, manga, fandom, and the industry come together for a four-day weekend to see, be seen, judge, and be judged in a way unlike any other event.

Over this single four-day weekend, the amount of cash that changes hands easily rises into the millions of dollars, and millions more in potential revenue are generated through the deals signed and announced. After all has been said and done, of course, money only matters so much, and far more important are the memories that can be born as thousands of people are interacting, sharing common interests and a common happiness. Especially in light of the controversies associated with AX three years ago, and then again this year, it is an event held to a standard much higher than that faced by other anime conventions.

So, then, Anime Expo 2003 – an assessment. From the viewpoint of merely a fan. Someone looking to spend a weekend in the company of several thousand other fans, someone interested in the full range of events and experiences that AX encompasses, but someone also able to view them critically.

For the previous two years, Anime Expo's location was downtown Long Beach, the Long Beach Convention Center, and several surrounding hotels. For 2003, however, for a number of reasons, the decision was made to move several miles south, to the Anaheim Convention Center. Probably the only negative aspect of the move is the comparative difficulty of accessing the location by public transit. Sure, it is Southern California, and everyone drives, but where does this leave someone coming in from the airport? Whereas downtown Long Beach is directly accessible via Los Angeles County's extensive bus/rapid transit system, getting out to Anaheim required either a significantly more expensive shuttle ride or spending two to three hours on local buses.

The pluses of the move certainly outweigh the minuses, however. Most anime conventions in the US and Canada are held in airport-area hotels, concrete towers surrounded by very little of anything in particular. A situation in which the hotel restaurant, a fast-food outlet or two, and maybe a convenience store are the only things around is not uncommon. AX, located in the heart of one of the major tourist areas of the US, and at the same time in the middle of a major metropolitan area, is a complete departure from that. Food venues in the immediate vicinity range from pizza and sandwich shops where a full and filling meal can be had for five dollars, all the way up the range, through diners and family restaurants, up to fancy steak houses perfect for a truly spectacular end to an already memorable day at the convention. Several convenience and liquor stores were also available nearby, as well as Starbucks in one of the convention hotels. And for those few brave souls seeking an escape form the controlled chaos of the dealer's room into a more familiar shopping environment, the Downtown Disney shopping center was only a short walk away.

This brings us to a point that must be mentioned. The immediate neighbor of the Anaheim Convention Center is a site that allows for a dichotomy that is all but impossible to ignore: Disneyland. Whereas in 2000, when AX was last held at this location, there were ugly rumors of altercations between Disneyland staff and rowdy anime fans, nothing of the kind was seen this time around. In fact, it was one of the many signs of the growing acceptance of anime that very few eyebrows were raised when hotel employees, shopkeepers, and even other tourists were told that a Japanese animation convention was in venue for the weekend.

The convention space, two floors of the Anaheim Convention Center, and rooms in three hotels on either side of the access road leading to the ACC's entrance, were used in probably the most logical way possible. The ACC played host to the dealer's room, main events, and several panel rooms, while a majority of the video rooms, workshop spaces, video game areas and staff-only areas, as well as registration, were concentrated in the hotels. This effectively minimized traffic jams and line spillover. At the same time, unlike the setup seen in Long Beach and at Anime Central, all it took to get from either of the three hotels to the dealer's room was a single turn out the front doors. The plaza areas in front of the ACC also worked out perfectly, being utilized for cosplay photo-shoots and in at least one case, an impromptu musical performance by a saxophone-toting cosplayer. One of the few complaints that attendees made about the setup was the fact that while most of the events were concentrated in the two hotels closest to the convention center, several, like the video game tournament, were confusingly placed in the third one, farther away, with labeling and directions leaving something to be desired.

Anime Expo is, of course, a convention, and oriented at the fan, but increasingly, it is also seen as an industry trade show. Therefore, the dealer's room was far more than the usual assortment of tables seen at other conventions. It was, as has become an AX trademark over the last few years, an “exhibit space.” Sure, there were plenty of dealers with nothing more than a table, several boxes of items for sale, and a stack of business cards. But invariably, the first thing an attendee walking in saw were the elaborate setups of the big companies: ADV's two-story tower, Bandai Entertainment's mini-theater, Viz and Tokyopop and Pioneer each with their own pavilion, ready to offer information as readily as DVD's, committed to reminding – as if reminders are even that much needed anymore – that anime is here, and anime is here to stay. Interestingly, despite the heavy industry presence, several dealers were more than willing to sell bootleg SonMay and EverAnime soundtrack CDs.

The guest list AX assembled, too, was nothing short of stellar. While it appears very heavy on the Japanese guests and rather light on Western ones, the explanation for that is simple: as a convention with a heavy industry presence, a large number of American and Japanese anime industry professionals that would be listed as guests of another convention attend AX on behalf of a studio or production company. For example, at one panel, the presenter reached into the audience and asked one of the members, none other than Noburo Ishiguro, director of the classic anime Macross to come on stage. The guests who appeared included composer Yuki Kajiura, artist and character designer Yoshitoshi ABe, and a whole range of voice actors, manga artists and animation professionals.

As befits its status as simultaneously a trade show and a fan-oriented event, the panels at AX largely fell into two categories. For the North American anime industry, AX is a chance to present their newest announcements and update fans on the current status of projects, as well as future plans, in a format far more interactive than a press release. No, in the end, it doesn't make any difference when an announcement is heard first-hand from a studio representative, or later, after it has been reported by the anime news publications. But at the same time, to a true fan, there is something indescribable but incredible to being one of the first to know that a particular title will, indeed, be coming to the US, and AX is the perfect event to satisfy this hunger for information and closure. For every industry announcement panel, though, there was one that catered strictly to fan tastes. Cosplay and costume techniques, discussions of individual titles and trends, arguments – none of these may have been specifically unique to AX, but that in itself is the point. Whatever else the event may be, it has to fulfill certain expectations attendees have of an anime convention, any anime convention.

One implication of an event with such a heavy industry involvement was that the video rooms showed only titles that had been released in the US, or at the very least were confirmed for release. Obviously, the range of titles, compared to all those available in English, was limited somewhat, but such a limitation is completely understandable if AX is to present itself as much more than a weekend gathering of fans. An interesting and rather unique feature, on the other hand, was that in addition to the four video rooms run by the convention itself, three of the major North American anime companies (Pioneer, Viz, and ADV) sponsored their own screening rooms, thus bringing the total available to seven. The decision to locate the video rooms in hotel function space, rather than inside the convention center, was also a very smart one, since it allowed the rooms to be operated twenty-four hours a day and presumably allowed the convention to avoid having to pay union rates on room setup and takedown.

Another distinct advantage of AX's size, budget, and level of industry participation is the convention's ability to mount truly unique events, such as a meet the guests reception, games, including a truly unique “anime scavenger hunt.” and quasi-official parties, such a an off-site celebration of Ranma ½ sponsored by Viz, the venue for which was the nearby House of Blues restaurant. Interestingly, however, those looking for open parties advertised on bulletin boards, as is the case at Anime Central and Katsucon, for example, were left sorely disappointed.

Ultimately, whatever other anime conventions do, Expo does bigger. It is not a radical departure from the tried-and-true form, but a combination of budget, experience, learning from past mistakes, and the dedication of dozens of staff and volunteers results in an event that effectively highlights just how big anime and manga have gotten in the U.S. in recent years. True, AX lacks the pioneering us-against-the-world feel of many smaller regional conventions, but the fact is, it does not need it. Anime has effectively and firmly established itself a market force, as an influence on other media, and as a major feature on the cultural landscape. AX is not the best event to show up at if you are looking primarily to hang out and interact with other attendees; for that, I really would first recommend a smaller regional convention. Just the sheer size of it is definitely intimidating, especially to a beginner. But if you are able to only make one or two conventions in a year, or, alternately, if you are looking for the most bang for your buck, AX is the one event per year I would most recommend attending.

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