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Anime Boston 2004
The Fan Experience

by Mikhail Koulikov,
When in early 2002, the New England Anime Society announced that Boston would soon play host to the city's first anime convention, nobody in fandom or the industry really knew what to expect of the event. Nor, for that matter, did its organizers, who estimated attendance for Anime Boston 2003, held on April 18-20 of that year, to be no more than 2000 people. All that needs to be said is that with a final official attendee total of 4,100 people, Anime Boston easily set a first-year attendance record for North American anime events.

The 2004 event, held at the same downtown Boston location, the historic Boston Park Plaza hotel, had quite a reputation to live up to. Whereas most second-year anime cons are strictly local, or at most regional, in scope, by all measures - the quality of the guests, the extent of the programming, the sheer size – “AniBo” is very much a national-level convention, on par with long-established events like A-Kon, Anime Central and Fanime. As with any event of this size, the question of whether expectations matched up with the actual experience is multifaceted. At least in my view – although with some specific reservations – the answer is yes.

As far as AniBo's location goes, most of the points relevant to last year's event still apply. On one hand, the hotel's downtown location meant that it was surrounded by literally dozens of restaurants, from expensive dinner venues where a bill could easily run over fifty dollars a person to fast-food chains, a food court, and the ever-indispensable 7-Eleven. And, as Boston is a major transportation center, easily accessible by plane from throughout the United States and Canada, and by car or bus from the entire Northeast and Midatlantic, the convention attracted attendees from both the immediate vicinity and as far away as New York City and Philadelphia. On the other hand, however, the fact that the Park Plaza is a historic downtown hotel not specifically designed with conventions in mind made itself painfully clear time and time again. Too-narrow hallways with too many turns made it certain that any time an attendee with a camera stopped a cosplayer to take pictures, dozens of people behind them would be halted. A complicated floor layout left most attendees concentrated on two floors, while many video and panel rooms, as well as the artists' alley, which were located a floor away and accessible only by elevator or internal stairwell, were largely ignored. The extensive use of airwalls to divide up large function spaces into smaller event rooms resulted in repeated instances of video soundtracks drowning out speakers. And, for whatever reason, the lights in the main events hall were never turned all the way down, which of course did not affect the panels or cosplay but did make many of the anime music videos almost impossible to watch. It must be said, however, that the decision to locate the art show and dealer's room in the Castle exhibit hall across the street was a stroke of genius. In recent years, conventions like AX, Anime Central and NekoCon have physically separated the DR from the rest of the convention events, and while such an option is always risky (one word: rain), it is easily a better choice than slowing attendee traffic down even further in the hotel. This is especially relevant at Anime Boston, which last year was ordered by the city Fire Marshal to restrict attendance mid-con because of fire code limits. In fact, keeping that memory fresh in their minds, this year, the convention took the unusual but, in retrospect, understandable – step of capping attendance when pre-registrations reached the fire code limit. Unsurprisingly, many potential attendees who planned on just walking in, perhaps for a day, were frustrated, but imposing the attendance cap was the best of all possible options for dealing with the situation, especially since "Castle passes" (for access to the dealer's room and art show only) were freely available. One point related to registration that attracted almost universal criticism, however, was the decision to use plastic credit card-sized badges to identify attendees. While certainly functional, the badges were not color-coded, making identification of staffers, guests, members of the press and dealers difficult; in addition, they were far too small to feature any sort of unique or distinctive artwork.

In terms of its programming, Anime Boston, probably more so than almost any other anime event in North America, draws on the strength, diversity, and experience of the many people now in anime/manga fandom and the industry. All the standard components of an anime con: the guests, the cosplay, the anime music video contest, the industry panels, the dance... the parties, were present, but in addition so was a strong game show track, and a truly extensive array of fan-led talks, including industry critiques, discussions of aspects of fandom and specific titles and themes. A relatively novel practice (thought one that has existed at science-fiction conventions for quite a while) was a track of academic discussions and presentations by scholars in fields like anthropology, gender studies and political science on topics that combined their areas of expertise with anime and manga and presented both in unexpected ways. Overall, if Anime Boston's greatest strength can be identified, it is a unique combination of diversity and balance. The schedule is neither weighed too heavily in the direction of some of its components to the detriment of others nor so diluted as to be essentially irrelevant. The guest slate included a cross-section of the North American anime industry: voice actors, production staff, editors (the one Japanese guest scheduled to attend was not able to do so because of circumstances outside his control.) And, because of the skill and experience level of the many people on staff – the best of the best of the North American anime convention scene – Anime Boston was able to implement a number of things other conventions only dream about, such as a separate photo suite and a cosplay broadcast on the hotel's closed-circuit TV channel.

Anime Boston is not a “perfect” convention; no convention can be perfect, if nothing else then because each one of the several thousand attendees present will always expect something different. The same things one finds perfect, another will fail to notice, or even actively dislike. The one issue facing Anime Boston that has consistently been identified as a problem by attendees the question of space and the overall unsuitability of the hotel to hosting an anime convention – is now moot. Anime Boston 2005 is moving to the Hynes Convention Center (and an adjacent hotel), both located just a few blocks away, but offering a space that is truly suited for the kind of major event that Anime Boston is. In any case, one thing is clear - Anime Boston is here, Anime Boston is here to stay, and Anime Boston will be around and keeping fans happy for quite a while.

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