Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
The surging popularity of anime in America is attracting more and more avid fans every year as evidenced by the growing crowds at Anime Expo. But the fervor of fans, who dress up and masquerade as their favorite characters, is what sets conventions like the AX and anime apart from more casual entertainments.
AX: It was never for kids (Part 1)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 2)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 3)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 4)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 5)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 6)
Part II: The Growth of AX
In all fairness, you would think Anime Boy to be the typical grownup fan of anime. And for the most part, you would be wrong. Though deranged fellows such as Anime Boy exist in abundance at the annual Anime Expo, by no means is the demographic so limited any longer.
Started in 1992 by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA), a non-profit organization run by volunteers, the Anime Expo, also known as AX, was originally just a small forum to gather together fans of a cult that few in America knew anything about. Registration cost roughly around $30; attendees were mostly male, having been weaned on cult classics shown stateside, such as Robotech or Speed Racer, and convention space was limited -- the entire Expo confined to a single hotel in Northern California. In its second year, it expanded slightly to include a convention hall to accommodate exhibitors and store vendors for attendees’ shopping whimsy.
The project didn’t start with the exponential growth evident today. For its first few years, held on every Fourth of July weekend, AX had difficulty taking off, attracting roughly a couple thousand attendees each year. When AX made the strategic move to relocate to Southern California in Anaheim in 1994 -- where it has spent the majority of its residence ever since -- attendance began rising. Though the convention has since been held intermittently in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and even the Disneyland hotel, for the last three years AX has found a convenient home in Anaheim’s Convention Center, Hilton, and Marriott. The con provides a massive boost to the local economy, though it is a bit unfortunate for unsuspecting families who plan for months for a vacation at Disneyland during the same weekend. One year at Long Beach, I remember a Hispanic family deciding to hold a couple’s wedding in the same hotel where most of the convention’s activities took place. The groom seemed especially displeased, smoking a cigarette in the lobby of the hotel despite the “No Smoking” signs, while standing next to a man in a robot costume eating a croissant. Such scenes are wonderful AX memories.
Every year, AX has expanded its range of activities for its attendees. Annual staples of the con include: at least five cleared-out ballrooms and halls turned into giant projection rooms with rows of chairs to view anime episodes and films; the largest exhibit hall in America, stocked with anime distribution companies and vendors hawking exclusively anime-related merchandise; a mixture of panels hosting “Guests of Honor,” which are usually industry professionals and artists like manga creators, anime directors, character designers, voice actors. And then there's the masquerade, the most popular event at the con.
Some years there are extra activities. When I first attended ages ago, while attendance was still in the low thousands, a meet-the-guests reception was available so attendees could have a chance to drink and hobnob with the guests. Now, such an event is no longer possible with the exploding attendance figures. Some years there are concerts. I fondly remember legendary anime music composer Yoko Kanno holding a piano recital to scenes from assorted anime that featured her music, which she followed up by shaking the hands of a few lucky attendees, yours truly included. This year, there were a couple concerts, one by pop vocalist Kotoko, and the other by singer and voice actress Maaya Sakamoto. Also new this year was a manga library for attendees to check out their favorite comic for a couple hours.
The successful path of AX, however, is not as clear as it would seem to be. In 2003, many of the original staffers of the first AX, led by the founder of AX, Mike Tatsugawa, split due to conflicts in the direction of the con. Many of these SPJA staffers went on to start a new anime and Japanese pop-culture-related convention, the Pacific Media Expo. As a result, in the last couple of years, fans and exhibit hall dealers have complained of poor treatment and shoddy organization. Last year, lines for registration were horribly long, many attendees waiting most of the first day just to pick up their badges. This year, registration was handled by professional hotel staff and was thankfully much more expeditious, though for some strange reason pre-registered guests had to wait in longer lines than those who came to the con without pre-registering or pre-paying.
Now, AX can once again boast the honor of being the largest anime convention in America, a distinction it lost to Baltimore’s Otakon -- held annually in August -- in 2003 when the Maryland convention eclipsed that year’s AX attendance by several hundred. In 2005, however, Otakon will be imposing a cap on attendance of 22,000 to control for fire safety. The final estimates of this year’s AX, on the other hand, were 33,000 guests, a 32% increase from last year’s record 25,000. Women make up nearly half of the con’s attendance now, and while most attendees are primarily Asian or Caucasian, there are now many other African-American and Hispanic guests attending.
Date Posted: 7/21/2005