Japan Expo 2nd Impactby Heidi Kemps,
August 22-24, San Mateo Event Center
UPDATE 8-26-14: Check out a full report from the Sekai Project panel!
Japan Expo's inaugural year was beset by well-publicized growing pains: as SEFA Entertainment's first foray into a conference outside of their native France, the show had a guest and programming list rivaling that of some of the most well-established North American cons – but numerous factors, including a poor choice of date and location and a less than complete understanding of how different North American con culture was, meant that the show was woefully under-attended. Despite excellent organization and programming, the show was considered disappointing in many regards.
Not content to just give up, the team reassembled for the second attempt at Japan Expo, moving the venue to San Mateo – a location more easily accessible for the broader Bay Area than the previous year's Santa Clara – and choosing the San Mateo County Event Center as their host rather than a hotel. The change of venue was welcome, though many expressed concerns that it might be too small for what Japan Expo wanted to host – it's a combination indoor/outdoor space frequently used for events like Maker Faire and local festivals rather than what we'd typically view as an anime con. The organizers mentioned that they picked the space for its “matsuri” vibe, and it definitely felt that way, with a constant stream of demonstrations, concerts, and live programming outdoors at all times. Inside the smaller buildings throughout the event center were the vendor booths, artist tables, panel rooms, gaming setups, martial arts demos, and video screening rooms.
The smaller venue was very easy to get around, and since the weather was sunny and pleasantly warm the entire weekend, being outside for a good chunk of the show felt quite refreshing. Unlike last year, programming continued late into the evenings, with one of the major draws being a 9PM outdoor Akira Yamaoka concert on Saturday. One major issue, however, was that the panel rooms weren't good at shutting out some of the outside sounds. Since one of the larger panel structures shared space with a martial-arts demo area, it got quite noisy (particularly during the much-anticipated Gen Urobuchi panel).
To older anime fans, the guest list this year was pretty great: veteran director and mecha designer Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed), storied animator Akihiro Kanayama, and Izumi Matsumoto of the Kimagure Orange Road manga. However, since the typical anime con audiences tend to skew younger, these guests didn't have quite the impact of last year's headliners Yūsuke Kozaki and Tatsurō Iwamoto. For these attendees, the draws were Gen Urobuchi – one of the few well-known writers in the field – and Daigo Ikeno, illustrator for CAPCOM's Street Fighter games. Akira Yamaoka, composer of Silent Hill and other beloved Japanese games, also had plenty of passionate fans eager to meet him. Felipe Smith of Peepo Choo fame also made a welcome return appearance. The scheduling of some of the guest panels, however, could have been better: Ikeno's amazing live-drawing panel, which included a history of CAPCOM art, was on Friday afternoon (easily the most sparsely attended day), while Yamaoka was early on Saturday.
One thing absolutely nobody could have predicted, however, was a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hitting Northern California in the wee hours of Sunday morning. While the epicenter was a fair distance away from San Mateo, the effect it had on the whole area was noticeable: the morning walk to the venue from my apartment, which is located near a major highway, was eerily quiet, as people were still hesitant to drive anywhere and several modes of public transit needed to be checked before they could run again. While there was a fair-sized crowd by early afternoon on Sunday, I couldn't help but feel like the quake scared off potential attendees.
While attendance did look better than last year, I got the impression that JX is still lagging a bit in their US attendance numbers. Part of it would be con fatigue – Northern California has numerous conventions, including SacAnime just next week – and part of it could be due to school starting up again for parts of the region. The emphasis on strictly Japanese things and trying to appeal to a broader audience than just anime fans makes sense economically, but it's incredibly difficult to get the anime fanbase interested in the wider cultural stuff, and vice versa. The con's set up so that when there's not something anime- or game-related happening, there's meaningful cultural presentations going on, but I still heard some attendees complaining about there not being things to do in between panels and signings. They simply weren't interested in things like live ikebana demonstrations.
Japan Expo 2nd Impact was definitely an improvement overall, however, and I did enjoy my time there. It still feels like more adaptations for the US market need to be made – and the team could do more to market the show outside the anime demographic if they really want that broad appeal – but things definitely look better for the event's future outside of France.
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