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Anime Expo 2013: The Guard Changes, the Con Mutates

posted Jul 13, 2013, 10:37 PM by Douglas Sun
Judging by the Anime Expo just gone by, it's getting harder to stand by my opinion that the market for anime, manga and Japanese pop culture in general has crested. According to the SPJA press release bragging of the success of AX 2013, the convention drew a record 61,000 unique visitors — certainly an impressive figure. To put in in perspective, that's no better than half the number of uniques that San Diego Comic Con will draw this coming week, but about half again as many as GenCon draws at its very best.
The storm gathers: South Hall Lobby, 11 a.m., opening day. The exhibit hall has yet to open to the general public.

I'm too lazy at the moment to go through my past posts on AX, but my sense of stagnation in the anime and manga business goes back at least several years, when the big publishers that served the North American market started to disappear from the exhibit hall. I go back far enough with AX to remember the anime boom of the last decade, when the likes of ADV, Geneon, Bandai and Tokyo Pop dominated the hall with huge booths that loomed like fortresses over the smaller vendors hawking cells, art books and UFO Catcher plushies. Then the big publishers stopped taking out those huge booths, and then they started going out of business all together. When Bandai America closed up shop last year, that left Viz and Funimation as the only survivors among the colossi of those earlier, headier days.

But after this year's AX, I have to acknowledge that a second wave of publishers is stepping up to fill the void, and that they're doing so with a show of confidence that they can do just as well as their predecessors. NIS America, previously best known for porting the Disgaea video games to English, made a splash at AX 2010 when they brought over Eri Kitamura and the ever-adorable Yui Horie to promote "Toradora." In 2013, they brought over Kazuhiko Inoue to promote "Natsume's Book of Friends." I sat in on Nozomi Entertainment's panel,
Prinnies! NIS America will never be able to escape Disgaea — nor should it try to do so.
in which Right Stuf CEO Shawne Kleckner enthusiastically ran through their planned releases for the coming year, including a remastered version of the Osamu Tezuka classic, "Princess Knight." Aniplex (which seems to have liberated the distribution rights to "Rurouni Kenshin" from Media Blasters) and Sentai Filmworks both had large booths in high-profile positions at the front of the hall. So, we are not seeing a decline in anime publishing so much as a changing of the guard, with new publishers (and streaming services like Crunchyroll) stepping up where the older ones have faltered. Now, if someone would only grab the English rights to "Lucky Star" (the complete series is selling for as high as $225 now that it's out of print) and "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya", both of which were orphaned when Bandai America folded….

Even as interest in its longtime anime/manga core remains strong, Anime Expo seems to be pushing  harder and harder with each passing year to bring in J-Pop and J-Rock events. When the popular idol group Morning Musume came to AX in 2009 as part of its American tour, it seemed like an amusing diversion for the convention — a high-profile sideshow, but a sideshow nonetheless. In 2010, of course, the Vocaloids packed Nokia Theater to the rafters. The number of musical acts at the convention has only increased since then; this year, the musical guests included PORNOGRAFFITI, Aya Ikeda (who sings many of the theme songs from the various Pretty Cure series) and several other bands whose names registered with me only faintly at best. On top of all of that, the convention also added some K-Pop-related events, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see at least one Korean musical act at next year's show.
Good Smile Company's line of Vocaloid figures is absolutely delightful... but shouldn't you double-check your display if you're going to show them off at a show as big as Anime Expo? Just sayin'.

However, the music component was of less interest to me (frankly, if it ain't Hatsune Miku, I'm probably not listening) than the explosion in tabletop gaming activity at this year's con. I haven't seen analog games take such a high profile at AX ever, not even during the heyday of the Naruto CCG, or the Inuyasha TCG, or even when Wizards of the Coast tried to push its Maplestory TCG. Somehow, someone managed to scrape together enough people for a "Settlers of Catan" tournament on the first day. But relatively new two publishers drove the bulk of the activity. One was Japanime Games, which has had a bit of a sleeper hit on its hands with Arclight's maid-moe deck-building game, "Tanto Cuore." They had booth staff dressed as French maids running demos of "Tanto Cuore" at their booth throughout the show. The other was Bushiroad, the insurgent CCG publisher who has done a gutsy and skillful job over the last few years of taking a hunk out of the market dominated by Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh with Cardfight Vanguard and, more recently, Weiss-Schwarz. Bushiroad is now doubling down on the North American market (they'll be at GenCon this year, too), as they have just started printing an English edition of Weiss-Schwarz. They had geeky-looking guys in t-shirts running demos of both games at their booth. I will have more to say about Weiss-Schwarz in a follow-up post; for now, I'll just say that I sat in on a demo and find the game intriguing in various ways.

The downside to any convention that serves a growing and dynamic market, of course, is that the physical experience of the event tends to degrade in lock-step with increases in the size of the crowd. But on the whole, I felt that AX staff did a solid job of managing the mass of humanity, many of whom wore costumes that took up as much space as two or three normally-dressed people. I had to wait in line for over two hours during pre-convention badge pick-up, but anyone who has been to GenCon in the last few years knows that  they have similar problems even though their attendance is substantially smaller than AX; it is also certain that I'll face an even more severe ordeal on Wednesday, when I pick up my Comic Con badge.

Once the con began, I had, generally speaking, an easier time navigating the public spaces than I thought I would, even on Saturday. It probably helped that AX set up a

"Accumulation" by Jenn Kim won the fan art contest, and deservedly so. It's a lovely peice of work, not just for its aesthetic and technical qualities, but as a whimsical display of erudition.
dedicated area in the West Hall for cosplay photography, and left the Concourse Hall open for similar activity. I suspect that just enough people made use of these expedients (rather than block traffic in the Concourse and shut down aisles in the exhibit hall) to make a difference in the traffic flow. The Viz-sponsored manga library also allowed a decent number of people to take a load off in a dedicated room rather than constrict the Concourse and other hallways. These were smart strategic-level arrangements, and I hope that, if anything, they are expanded at next year's con.

The less oppressive the physical environment of the con, the more leisure I have to check out the cosplay kids, As I have said, my interest in who is dressing up as whom is only partly aesthetic; I also like to draw a bead on which characters and shows seem to be hot at the moment. I have seen Inuyasha, Naruto, and Haruhi Suzumiya enchant the cosplayers, all in their turn. This year, however, was the first in which non-Japanese characters stood out so much among the cosplayers. The first picture I took that weekend was of a couple dressed as the Doctor (David Tennant-vintage) and the Tardis. Furthermore, dressing up as Finn from "Adventure Time" is now officially passé. It's even passé to dress up as Fionna. It's so common that nobody gives you a second glance, However, if your entire family dresses up as different "Adventure Time" characters, then people

To my surprise, I saw two or three No-Face from Spirited Away, and I'm reasonably sure that they weren't the same guy seen two or three different times. I should check my photos from AX 2010, because these folks look like the same couple I saw waiting in line for the Yuu Asakawa session that year.

will notice. Such was the case with one clan, in which the father came as the Ice King and the mother as Beemo. I saw several very creditable Ice Kings on Saturday alone, including one gentlemen waiting in line for Kazuhiko Inoue's session who dressed as Ice King's Simon Petrokoff incarnation. What this means for the future of Anime Expo cosplay, I cannot say, except that it suggests to me that the audience for anime in America is dynamic, always changing and growing and mutating, like the largest convention that caters to it.