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The Mike Toole Show
Otaku no Video Room

by Michael Toole,

I just wrapped up my umpteeth visit to Arisia, Boston's largest science fiction convention. By and large, sci-fi cons aren't like anime cons-- they skew a bit older, they're a little smaller and quieter, and they're less focused on video games and webcomics and more into actual literature-- you know, books, the paper things we used to read before we all got kindles and tablets and shit. At least, that's the deal with Arisia. Arisia's been plugging along for a merry two decades, a big-tent affair that focuses on fantasy and sci-fi literature, but lends plenty of time to sci-fi TV and movies, gaming (both tabletop and video), costuming, “filk,” a variety of ancillary crafts and hobbies, weird kinky stuff late at night, and of course, anime.

In this here column, I've endeavored to hit convention culture from a bunch of different angles, and I feel like I'm hitting the limit. I've written about cosplay, about cons that didn't quite make it, and touched on where anime cons came from. But a few days back, superfan Michael Pinto pointed out something interesting on twitter-- this past week was the 30th anniversary of Lunacon 1983, which bears the distinction of being the first-ever science fiction con on record to have a dedicated anime video room. Hey, remember anime con video rooms? Well, they were where fans went to see new anime before we all got Netflix and Crunchyroll and shit. It's alright, I can remember ‘em for you.

Before us anime dorks organized and got our own conventions, science fiction conventions were the destination of choice for the burgeoning anime fans of the 1970s and 1980s. Like I said above, they tended to focus on books and fanzines and fan fiction, but in the 1980s sci-fi was in a “cool” period-- the emergence of Star Trek and Star Wars as big, broadly popular franchises brought a lot of shy, goofy nerds together to awkwardly celebrate their shared interests. It was uncommon, but not unheard of, for a single-hotel convention to get thousands and thousands of attendees, one hell of a feat in the days before sprawling convention centers were a common thing. Anime fans were some of those attendees.

Here's how the anime video room worked in its infancy. A single planner with the convention (or maybe a few people) would dig through their rarefied stack of videotapes and program a schedule. Maybe the anime video room would only be open on Saturday from 10am to midnight, or maybe we'd be really lucky and the thing would run 24 hours for the duration of the con. The schedule would be published (or maybe just posted on the door, if the con couldn't afford space in the program for it), fans would pile in, and they'd crane their necks and strain their eyes to look at something that, generally speaking, was this:

Projectors, you say? Hah! Nobody had ‘em back then. Video projectors did exist, of course, but they cost thousands of dollars even to rent, and were effectively out of the reach of just about every convention. What you'd have instead is a small-to-medium hotel conference room stuffed with up to 50 attendees, all jockeying for a comfortable seat with a clear view of the huge, enormous 27-inch television. According to Pinto, this was the state of affairs at Lunacon ‘83-- all weekend, the program's small, 25-person-capacity room was full of more than 40 fans, camped in front of what Pinto described as a set the size of “dad's big TV.” Yeah, in 1983, dad's big TV wasn't all that big, gang. And subtitles, you say? Forget it! Again, technology to produce them existed, but this involved getting ahold of a fancy-shmancy character generator, a piece of tech beyond the ken of most fans. LunaCon settled for employing a guy at the front of the room who spoke Japanese, and would narrate the plot to smash hits like Urashiman and the Queen Millennia movie.

Pinto was quick to point something out about this LunaCon video room-- we were lucky to have it. SF convention organizers can be notoriously conservative and combative, especially when it comes to new stuff that isn't obviously connected to the genre, and not every sci-fi con of the day was welcoming to the small throngs of Japanimation enthusiasts popping up all across the continent. But Lunacon was run by an open-minded coalition of literary SF and Trek fans, who were happy to make room for the anime theatre, and history was made. It would take less than a year for anime fans to organize and create the first anime convention, Yamato-con, in August of ‘83.

Maybe you're still shaking your head, mystified at the appeal of crowding into a small room in a time before con attendees were really that hip to good hygiene just to watch hours and hours of videotaped, untranslated Galvion episodes. The fact is, though, in the early 1980s video recorders were still very much a luxury item, a $500+ appliance that was out of reach of many. Hell, even blank videotapes were still fifteen or twenty bucks each, making the prospect of copying videos not just time-consuming but a question of value. In later years, video hounds would wrinkle their noses at the poor quality involved in squeezing six hours of material onto a tape at EP speed, but for the strapped young fan, it was practically a must. One particular early-80s con advertised the opportunity to watch the entire first season of Star Blazers on video, in a row. Looking back, it's very easy to say “come on dude, that's twelve hours of sitting in a chair-- forget it!” but to fans back in the day, this was an almost unbearably attractive proposition. After all, these episodes weren't rerun often, and were dropping out of syndication, so who knows when you might get to see them again? Get your popcorn, gang, we'll be sitting here awhile!

As time marched on and the 1980s became the 1990s, things slowly but surely got better for anime fans. Dedicated cons like Project A-Kon and AnimeCon started to emerge, and the SF con anime room went from a luxury to an ongoing tradition at many events. My friend, translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman, ran the anime video room at Arisia for a number of years in the 90s, and recalls crowds of fans piling in to watch the latest hits on not one but TWO 27-inch TVs, chained together with an RF splitter. It was during this period that I hit my first anime con, and walked into my first anime theatre, to see my very first anime at a convention with a crowd of strangers: La Blue Girl. Hey, I was curious, OK? I ain't proud! The funny thing is, even in 1995, I didn't have to deal with stuff like squinting at TVs-- AnimEast's video theatre was rocking one of these babies:

Sixty pounds, hot as hell, and required popping the top off and using an actual screwdriver to manually focus and converge the red, green, and blue lenses. I miss the excitement and community of 90s-era anime fandom, but I sure as shit don't miss the technology! Anyway, I'd go on to spend years not just attending video theatres, but programming them myself. But hey, this can't all be about me, so I hit up another buddy, Anime Weekend Atlanta's longtime video chief Darius Washington, himself an accomplished anime critic. Darius remembers being a young fan in St. Louis, walking into Archon in 1987 to see a slice of untranslated mystery called Gall Force - Eternal Story. He was very impressed-- but when he started loudly comparing what he was seeing to Robotech, the other fans in the room sure weren't!

In spite of anime's broad availability nowadays, video rooms are still a convention staple. Sometimes, I walk the halls, peeking into theatres that are curiously empty, wondering if it's all worth it anymore. But the thing is, two factors keep video rooms relevant. One is pretty obvious-- it's way, way more fun to watch this stuff in groups. Even with distractions like food and drink noises, cellphone lights, and the occasional chatterbox, there's something magical about a packed room whooping it up to a brand new hit or an old favorite. Madoka Magica was a year old when it got its official premiere at Otakon 2011-- and even though you could tell that half the room had seen it already, the room was packed full. The other factor is the fact that, even the internet's instant gratification factor can't account for shit like premieres; that same Otakon had breakout screenings of Children Who Chase Lost Voices and the last Fullmetal Alchemist movie, fare that was guaranteed to draw full houses at the convention's hilariously large main theatres.

When I ran good old Arisia's anime room, a stretch of years between 2004 and 2008, the standout screenings were Read or Die, which drew a spirited Saturday night mob that spilled right out of the room's back entrance, and INTERSTELLA 5555. The latter was an interesting phenomenon to watch, as it began with a half-empty room that rapidly filled up as word of “that Daft Punk anime” spread across the convention floor. Katsucon's biggest hit during my tenure was an even greater surprise-- a screening of the Detective Conan movie The Time-Bombed Skyscraper that filled up the biggest video room in the place. Naturally, I had to know what AWA's all-time champ was. Darius comments, “the most popular showing we did was when we got our hands on Final Fantasy: Advent Children... we'd planned for a single screening in our main video room but way more people came than could fit in there. We canceled other screenings in other rooms, and scrambled to show it as often as possible. I think we showed it 4-5 times that night. It changed the way we did big screenings at later AWAs, in terms of scheduling and crowd control.” Man, all that for some pretty CG?!

And then, you have the other end of the spectrum. I was practically giddy when I scheduled Mad Bull 34 for a 1am screening at Katsucon one year, with visions of throngs of restless, vociferous fans streaming in to laugh at the old favorite's camp and crazed violence. But when the time came, the room was empty-- the damn charlatans stayed away! Darius has an even better story: “At AWA 5, we had planned a screening of the Revolutionary Girl Utena movie just after the costume contest. But someone took over the DJ console, and for whatever reason a dance broke out... We arranged the room back and tried to get folks back in to see the movie but no one was interested at that point. The kids wanted to dance!” Maybe the best solution would've been to allow kids to dance while screening the movie. That sounds like a great plan!

To me, video rooms are still great features of conventions, a chance for fans to enjoy anime in a social setting and stumble upon awesome stuff that they might not have heard of before. I sneaked into Arisia's theatre during a screening of the new re-release of Serial Experiments Lain and hung around long enough to discern that a.) most of the people in the room had never seen it before, and b.) they were using a projector that could only output 1024x768, so it wasn't TRUE high density. But putting my pathological tech nitpicks aside, it was neat to see this in action. Some of my best convention memories involve just watching anime with peers-- a newly-fansubbed Berserk episode at Otakon 2000, a semi-private screening of Dragon Half with the voice cast, an open viewing of a Beck episode with lead Greg Ayres providing live commentary. I get a great buzz from these experiences, and I like to think that the original mob of fans in the LunaCon got that same buzz.

Once again, it's time to turn it over to you guys. What's the best time you ever had at an anime con screening? How about the worst time? Did you ever find something really amazing at a con video room-- or something really awful? Do any of you weirdos go to those late-nite con hentai screenings on a regular basis? Because man, even as dirty-minded as I am, that one La Blue Girl experience was enough! Let me know in the comments-- I'll be in the fourth row, right behind the projector.

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