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2004 Year in Review
Anime Con Highlights

by Mikhail Koulikov,
Looking back at the highlights and memorable moments of 2004 on the con scene is not an easy task. Some previous years have been defined almost entirely by single events: Mike Tatsugawa's resignation from Anime Expo, Otakon attendees completely oblivious to the fire and the flood that almost paralyzed downtown Baltimore, an anime convention in Times Square, arguably the heart of American popular culture. 2004, on the other hand, presented a whole array of headlines and memories. Picking the biggest, the brightest, the most memorable, is at least not too hard.

For years anime conventions have also served as concert venues, hosting dozens of Japanese and Western acts and singers. And likewise, for years, anime convention online forums have been filled with posts asking for guests who would never agree to attend an anime convention—and if they ever did, the appearance fees would be astronomical in proportion to the budget of even the largest convention. Hayao Miyazaki, Rumiko Takahashi, Yoko Kanno, Gackt... the names don't change, from year to year. But the fact that something has not happened yet very frequently means one thing only—it will happen... at some point. And this is why, when, in the early summer of 2004, the first rumors about a “special” guest signed by Otakon started making their way around, people started putting two and two together: recognizing that anime is big business now, that Otakon's operating budget is very possibly large enough to cover a five-figure appearance fee with ease, and that appearing at Otakon and directly pitching to the US market would be a wise business decision, as well as free advertising... The rest was simply a question of looking at the short list of possible names and waiting for the big announcement. When the announcement was made and L'Arc~en~Ciel, probably THE J-rock band, as far as American fans are concerned, was confirmed to play, all that was left was to mentally congratulate Otakon's guest relations staff for pulling it off.

And when Otakon at last came around, fans were treated to the sight of a J-rock band playing a concert venue in the heart of downtown of a major American city. The same arena that has, over the years, hosted U2, Elton John, the Eagles, and a variety of other Western rock acts. For me at least, it was a sight at least as memorable as my first convention (Otakon '99), or sitting at the Times Square Planet Hollywood in August of 2002 and watching the Cartoon Network premiere of Inu-Yasha. This right here is a lot of different things. Globalization. The global media environment. William Gibson's Idoru turned real. Another aspect of the already complicated relationship between Japan and the US. A radical expansion of the capabilities of an organization run entirely by volunteers. A demonstration to the Japanese industry of just how huge interest in anime and related products is in the U.S. And something much simpler as well: a new way for fans to experience the culture they love.

The L'Arc~en~Ciel concert was the most obvious big story of 2004, but it was by no means the only one. Another item of interest—though perhaps an item most fans couldn't possibly care less about—has been the argument over convention numbers; what is the largest anime con in the U.S., and just how is attendance to be tallied? Anime cons are big business: a large convention will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for advertisers and dealers. Because of this, the question of just how large any given convention actually is becomes more pertinent than ever before. And “very large” is not a good enough answer. Event attendance gets inflated all the time, whether we are talking about a professional conference with a $3,000 registration fee or a fan-run anime convention. But the anime con has to deal with something a conference might not: fan forums and mailing lists and online discussions. And so, sure enough, the “official” numbers may be there: 25,000 “unique attendees” at Anime Expo and 22,149 at Otakon (and, for the sake of the comparison, 9,450 at A-Kon, the next on the list)... but what do the numbers actually mean? Do they include staff (with staffs growing to two or three hundred people at many of the larger conventions), guests, press and media? How are one-day attendees counted? And, in the case of AX, do these numbers include attendees who have bought the discount passes that only allow dealer's room access? I'm sure AX and Otakon staff have answered these questions and adjusted some of the numbers accordingly. And I'm certain that this was not the first year the attendance question was raised. But 2004 was when the attendance question was raised loudly for the first time by a wide variety of fans, and the key issue remains: from this point on, every time a “largest anime convention in North America” is announced, the announcement will be immediately challenged by (relatively unbiased) fans and (quite possibly biased) staffers of the other cons.

For years, since the very first anime cons back in the mid-1980's (to put the We Were Here First! arguments to rest once and for all, please refer to the excellent anime-cons.com: The first US convention entirely devoted to anime was Yamatocon 1, held on August 13, 1983), the basic convention staff structure has not changed. From the convention chair down, every staffer would be a volunteer, devoting time off from work or school to his or her hobby. Recently, there have been exceptions to this—there is a persistent rumor that at least some AX staff are employed (in reality or in effect) on a full-time basis by the convention's parent organization. And certain specialist functions, like security and legal services, have always been outsourced. But it wasn't until D20, inc., a Miami-based professional event management company, announced over the summer (though the official press release came out in late October) that it would be planning and organizing OtakuCon, "an exciting, new convention experience," that another one of fandom's eternal questions—whether or not a professionally-run convention can thrive and keep the fans happy—got a chance to be answered. D20's original plan for OtakuCon was, to say the least, revolutionary: rather than simply managing the convention and negotiating discount room rates with the hotel, it planned to offer all-inclusive packages that would cover the cost of the convention registration, a hotel room, and food—essentially, offering the same kind of deal to the con-goer as people going on package vacations trips have always enjoyed. To back this up, OtakuCon boasted an extremely impressive guest lineup—especially for a first-year event. Fans were uneasy, as they are every time a new convention comes around, but willing to give it a chance.

Unfortunately, no matter how good a convention's program seems to be, what makes any con sink or swim are purely operational factors. How much is the schedule off? Does sound bleed over between rooms? What are the acoustics in Main Events? According to most reports published so far, OtakuCon, held on December 17-19, was a failure. The programming side of things seemed to be fine enough, but the operational issues—the same kinds of operational issues common at every first-year con—persisted. It didn't help that the registration numbers OtakuCon staff released were quickly challenged, or, for that matter, that the very name "OtakuCon" almost immediately led to a protest from Otakon (and presumably, Otakon's legal counsel.) By trying to do something different, OtakuCon invited being held to a much higher standard, a standard it failed to reach. What must be kept in mind, though, is that the failure of OtakuCon was not the failure of the concept of the professionally-run convention, but simply another anime con that overreached and went down in flames. Anime East, Aka-Con, C-kon, Katsucon 8 (not a failure, but close)... until proof to the contrary is seen, it looks like OtakuCon will join this list. However, at least as far as that goes, the chance to present proof is not too far off. Subarashii Nation, as D20 is now known, is putting together anime conventions in the St. Louis, San Diego, Atlanta and Denver markets, under the common brand name KuniCon

Through the late 1990's, as anime conventions began popping up in every corner of the U.S., one assumption that held true was that New York City was not a very good place to hold a con. Anime East '95 is equal parts legend and late-night party tale, and it wasn't until 2000 that anime cons came back to the New York area. Just as the dot-com boom saw growth—very frequently against such trifling concepts as 'good sense,' the early 2000's saw New York suddenly become one of the hottest regions in the US, as far as anime cons went. Shoujocon, the Big Apple Anime Fest, Anime Next, Anime Expo New York... and then, the crash. After wandering through three hotels in four years and suffering an attendance drop of at least 50% between 2002 and 2003, Shoujocon 2004 was cancelled; a short time later, Shoujocon chair Angela Washington announced that Shoujocon 2005 was being cancelled as well—and initiated one of the more bizarre incidents on the con circuit in recent memory, as just a week later, another Shoujocon statement, signed by the president of the Shoujo Arts Society, SJCon's parent organization, retracted the cancellation. According to other staffers, the original statement Ms. Washington made was not authorized by other senior staff. What happens next—whether SJCon 2005 manages to rise from the ashes and the confusion, or whether it remains an interesting experiment but a project whose time has not yet truly come, is uncertain, and really, anyone's guess.

[as of January 18, 2005, while the Shoujocon name has been retired, a new "anime and manga by, for, and about women" convention, Onna!, is being organized by SJCon's parent organization, the Shoujo Arts Society, in association with Yuricon. Onna! will take place on October 8-10, 2005, at the Gateway Hilton, in Newark, NJ, the location of the inaugural 2000 Shoujocon]

The Big Apple Anime Fest was everything Shoujocon wasn't. Sleek, professional-looking, boasting an attractive guest list... and deeply flawed. The more obvious problem was the fact that a convention, if it is to follow the accepted paradigm of anime cons in the US, needs filled hotel rooms, a common space and a significant percentage of attendees that are not day tripping. Given NYC hotel rates, this was largely impossible to accomplish. The less obvious—but quite possibly more serious—issue was that for all of its (relatively brief) existence, BAAF existed as a spin-off of one of the NYC-based anime companies. Unless a convention specifically presents itself as a “guerilla” event that does not care for things like intellectual property rights, the cooperation of the other players in the industry is essential. And how could there be cooperation if these other players saw the convention as first and foremost a marketing vehicle to promote the one specific company? And so, really right from day one, there was quite a deal of discomfort and general disappointment with the BAAF business plan and operational history. In the end of things, the official reason for the cancellation of Big Apple Anime Fest 2004 was quite understandable: the Republican National Convention, with its tens of thousands of hotel rooms booked and the dozens of blocks cordoned off by security, would be the one and only event in town on Labor Day weekend. But despite the official reason, there are quite a few people out there who are convinced that BAAF was already crashing; the RNC simply provided a convenient and timely way to avoid having to cancel the 2004 event outright. So, within a year, from three anime conventions, the NYC area is back down to one, even if it is a good one.

However, to every issue, at least two sides... A metropolis like New York may be uniquely unsuitable as the location of an anime con (although the success of Anime Boston has done much to show what can be accomplished in a the downtown area of a major city given the right amount of planning), but on the other hand, the infrastructure is there to host other kinds of anime-themed events. University student activities centers, libraries, art galleries and performance spaces, museums, movie theaters, even clubs are as much options for holding events in as is the usual hotel. And so it went: an anime film festival in Dallas and another one in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery (to coincide with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival), a one-day “anifest” on the campus of Villanova University, a “masked anime ball” in Providence, and in New York itself, an “anime and game festival” were just some of the events of 2004 that, while foregoing the standard trappings of anime conventions, still achieved the basic goal of bringing fans together. What works for one place will not work for another, and if there was one thing this past year demonstrated, it's that the convention as we know it is far from the only way of doing things in the world of anime-related events.

Finally, 2004 was the year of—to use a cliché that is, nonetheless, relevant—synergy. That is, whereas previously, anime licenses were almost always announced at anime conventions, 2004 saw this trend being bucked. One of the most anticipated announcements of the year, FUNimation's acquisition of Fullmetal Alchemist, was made at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), while Geneon announced its rights to another hot title, Samurai Champloo, at the Licensing International Show. Just as the sheer growth of convention attendance indicates, this is another sign of how anime and everything anime-related is breaking out—maybe not into the “mainstream”—but into the entire vast and sometimes vaguely defined space of popular entertainment.

Looking at 2005, it's hard not to be excited about some of the plans conventions have in mind. Anime Boston and Katsucon are moving into new hotels, even if both are just a few blocks from their 2004 venues. Otakon continues to find ways to creatively utilize its location... and book more and more hotels throughout downtown Baltimore. The Southern California/Los Angeles area is finally awakening to the feasibility of more conventions than just the huge Anime Expo once per year. Denver gets its second con to balance out Nan Desu Kan. First-ever anime conventions will be held in states and provinces all across North America: Arizona, the Florida Panhandle, North Dakota, New Brunswick, Minnesota. It would be foolish to expect that all will achieve the same degree of success. But at the same time, each has a good chance of becoming successful, and there is no real way to find out just how successful any given con is until you give it a chance and attend.

As some readers may recall, Anime Expo Tokyo, held in January 2004, was in part developed to introduce Japanese fans and convention organizers to the concept and execution of an American-style convention, in connection with Japan's bid to host the 2007 Worldcon. As ANN reported in September, the bid was successful; the 65th World Science Fiction Convention will be held on August 30–September 3, 2007 in Yokohama. At least one anime industry guest, Yoshitaka Amano, has already been confirmed and a congratulations is certainly in order to everyone involved in what is likely to be an extremely interesting five days.

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