The lack of a regular New York based anime convention has always been a bit unusual. It seems the perfect place for a major convention to grow out of. NYC has a good amount of schools and anime clubs that could have been the genesis of such an event, there is a sizable Asian-American community, there is a readily available transportation hub, and locations that make it a tourist destination. New York City has always been a place where you could readily get rare anime goods, attend exclusive anime events, and meet fellow anime fans. The problem is no anime convention that has really taken root in the city in a way that has led to the growth of a something like Otakon or Anime Expo. All the little conventions centered around anime clubs in the city have never grown outside of their own little domains and all the big hitters who have tried to start by dropping a big convention in the city have quit after a scant few years. AnimeNEXT has distinctly grown over the years but it has always been New Jersey convention and all the upstate conventions never leave their area. It has always seemed like the idea of a major New York convention was a mirage. Nothing more than a wonderful and inviting illusion that could never actually be.
Waku Waku NYC is the latest contender to take on the Big Apple. It is definitely has decided to take an alternative strategy than Big Apple Anime Fest or New York Anime Festival. Undoubtedly the biggest change Waku Waku NYC has made is starting in Brooklyn as opposed to Manhattan. While Brooklyn is still a prominent borough it is a level less glamorous than Manhattan. On the other hand that also means it is a level less expensive. Also Waku Waku NYC has made a major focus on fashion, art, food, music, and games right from the start. Anime was still the most predominant but it has the spirit of a Japanese pop culture festival as opposed to an anime convention with all of those items blended in like a kitchen sink of toppings. It is clearly not the ambition of a Big Apple Anime Fest but at the same time in is clearly being much bigger and more professional than your local college anime club’s convention.
Can any of these different tactics make Waku Waku a convention that can finally give NYC an anime convention of its own or will it be another entry on the Wikipedia entry for defunct conventions?
In certain ways, Waku Waku NYC is a little hard to describe. It was an intimate affair but had an expansive line-up of guests from many different industries. It was small but also had air of sophistication at times. Waku Waku NYC didn’t feel like a first year convention, it was much more put together than that. From the quality of vendors and events to low-key vibe of the con, it all felt planned. And best of all, I encountered the most helpful staff I ever have at an anime con.
Like Cerberus there were three locations that made up the heads of the convection. The main head was the The Brooklyn Expo Center. The Wythe Hotel, Verboten, and Brooklyn Bowl were a trio of venues within a block of each other that made up the second head. The final head was Transmitter Park. The Brooklyn Expo Center had the dealer’s room and food stands. The trio of venues had the panels, screenings, and music. Transmitter Park had an time capsule art project and one or two small events. You could think of the Expo Center as where you spent your money, the venues as where you filled your ears and eyes with entertainment, and the park where you could relax. The video games, autographs, and main stage were all free at the Expo Center but overall that was the general breakdown.
All of the locations I spent time at impressed me. The Brooklyn Expo Center, the Wythe Hotel, and the Verboten venue were all really swanky spaces. But they weren’t so elaborate that I wondered “Do we belong here?” (OK, maybe I did wonder that a little at the Verboten). I loved the screening room in the basement of the Wythe especially, it felt like we were being given a private screening because in fact we were. It is all too rare for anime conventions to be able to show films with theater seating, but Waku Waku found a space to do it in.
Going back and forth between the Wythe and Verboten to the Expo Center was a decent hike, about 15 minutes on foot. There was a free shuttle which seemed well used by other attendees. It inevitably felt a little disjointed at times; it was one of those instances where I’m not sure all the attendees knew there were places to go other than the Expo center. But each of the areas worked well on their own.
I would not be me if I did not attend some panels at Waku Waku NYC. All of the panels I saw were connected in one way or another to Anime News Network. The Anime Journalism and Anime: From the Creator’s Mind to Your Screen were both Christopher Macdonald lectures with Mike Toole joining in on the Anime Journalism discussion. Mike Toole was flying solo with Anime that Time Forgot. Rounding it out was Roland Kelts with Who is the Real Osamu Tezuka, ‘God of Manga & Anime’? and that had Christopher Macdonald as moderator.
Overall the Anime Journalism panel was pretty much the ANN panel. It just focused on what it takes to write for the site and then writing about anime in general. The main points are what you here at most of these panels: The number of full-time jobs is very few, doing it as a paid hobby is competitive but possible, you need to produce content like an informed writer and not a rabid fan (being a rabid fans is what the worst parts of YouTube are for), and that constantly writing every day and then taking to heart feedback on that work is the key to success. They also made a big deal that the best path to writing about anime for a living is actually writing about anything you can as a general journalist and then working on anime stories when the opportunity allows. The key example of this is Lauren Orsini. While her bread and butter comes from writing about a wide variety of subjects she is also known as the Otaku Journalist for writing about anime when she can.
I was amused that both Christopher Macdonald had Mike Toole had to admit that the ANN forums were a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Also Christopher Macdonald teased that ANN was about to start crate content for a well-known website but it was more than an announcement of an upcoming announcement than anything substantial.
The Creator’s Mind to Your Screen panel could have been called “What Shirobako Did not Tell You.” Christopher figured that if you wanted to learn the nitty-gritty of making anime the best instructor would be Shirobako. He instead looked more at production committees since they are the business side of the production of anime that Shirobako most just lightly touches on before moving ahead. The money men behind things are far less glamorous than directors and animators but they are just as much a part of the machinery.
The most interesting thing I probably learned was the reason for the huge delay between the release of Tiger and Bunny and its license in the US was not just Viz anime being slower than molasses in Antarctica. Apparently the commercial branding of the superheroes in the show was insanely successful in Japan. So much that the Japanese production committee wanted to see if lightning could strike twice. They attempted to court American brands to advertise with the American release of the anime. If everything went according to plan they to redo the logos with brands and companies native to the US. Since so much of that was CG it would have been a simple replacement. Apparently not enough sponsors ever signed up so they eventually just gave up. The problem was by the time they came to that conclusion a good deal of time had passed and everyone was left wondering what caused the delay.
Anime that Time Forgot is exactly what you except from a Mike Toole panel. A series of clips from very obscure anime with a commentary track. Some of the titles were series that fell trough the cracks like the disavowed 1973 version of Doraemon, Lensman, and Future War 198X. Other times it was older anime that has just been lost to time due to the fact that TV stations did not think shows were worth preserving. I think my favorite selection for the panel was Eagle Sam which was an anime based around the adventures of the 1984 Olympics mascot. The main bad guy of Eagle Sam was an evil roach and Sam has a slightly disturbingly curvy human assistant. You can’t make things like that up. Apparently the International Olympic Committee has thrown the series in their vaults and has no interest in doing anything else with it.
Penguin Memories was undoubtedly the clip that go the biggest reaction. I know it probably traumatized Kate for life. It is hard not to be at least a little shocked when you see a gritty Platoon styled Vietnam war drama with the cute Penguin mascots from Suntory Beer company. You can’t watch an American helicopter mow down injured civilians penguins as a group of penguin GIs falls into an ambush and not wonder, “What the hack am I looking at and who in their right mind green-lit it?”
Roland Kelts did a fairly strong Tezuka panel. Roland did a good job but it only came in second place to what I have seen from Frederik L. Schodt. Then again Frederik actually worked with and developed a friendship with the God of Manga himself. Unless you have a time machine you will always come in second place to Frederik.
The biggest thing I took away from the lecture was what a dichotomy Tezuka was. He was an innovator and trailblazer but also a copycat and trend chaser. He nurtured new talent but could be ruthlessly competitive. He was humble and kind but could be egotistical and promote himself in ways that would make P. T. Barnum blush. All these seemly contradictory aspects actually made one very unique artist.
My favorite fact was the fact that apparently Hayao Miyazaki actively tried to not be like Tezuka because he thought the man was too dark and cynical in his personal philosophy. That seems really like a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
If you want to see the Tezuka panel it is currently online.
Keiji Inafune along with Aurora Thornhill of Kickstarter hosted a panel early Sunday morning where he discussed the process of putting the Mighty No. 9 KS together. One of the major topics that came up, and one which Mr. Inafune spoke passionately about, was the ability for creators to retain their rights with a process like this. I was glad to see this issue that’s had a spotlight shone on it so significantly is being thought about around the world. He also talked about starting out in the video game industry working in a small creative team and his joy at returning to that now.
Mr. Inafune had many events over the weekend. He hosted a demo of Mighty No. 9 where he invited audience members up on stage to try it out. No one was able to beat the boss, but more than a few people got the audience pumped! I was a little disappointed that Mr. Inafune himself did not play the game, that would have been really special to see.
The big anime guests were The Koyama’s, a father and son, who have made a name for themselves as screewriters for many anime most notably for their contributions to the Dragon Ball franchise. Mr. Koyama senior worked on the original TV series and many movies while Mr. Koyama junior is currently working on Dragon Ball Super.
During their panel, how the older Koyama entered the industry and the ups and downs of it was fascinating. He worked on the rather infamous Don Dracula anime and found himself strapped for money after the bankruptcy of the company. But this desperate time was actually what led him to working on mega-hit Dr. Slump for Toei. Toei then rolled much of that production staff over to Dragon Ball. Had Mr. Koyama never lost that previous job, he probably never would have made it to the Dragon Ball series.
I would like to use this space to personally apologize to Kate. We participated in the “1000 Treasure Hunters” event that was run at the convention. It was a treasure hunt run by the Escape the Room NYC people. But in this case it was solving puzzles around the convention to find a prize box as opposed to trying to break out of a room. We tried to do the event as a team but only got about half way through before Kate had to go to the Chibi Maruko-chan screening which effectively meant that we had personally run out of time even if we could have spent the rest of the day on the event. I really felt like she was doing much more of the heavy lifting on the event. If I had been more helpful we could have easily finished the event. I think we both had a good time but I wish we could have finished the event.
If nothing else it was a good diversion. It was like there was a Professor Layton game happening inside the convention.
If I have any complaint about the screenings I attended, it would be there was no one there really introducing the showings. I would have liked to hear some insights, especially on The Nutcracker as Sebastian Masuda was a guest.
While there were a panels before the DBZ movie showings, they didn’t really discuss that films themselves at those either. I wasn’t able to stay for the Q&A after the screenings so perhaps there more specifics were discussed.
The part of the convention that stood out the most was probably the Savory Square. You can eat well at a convention for sure. It just either requires you to bring your own food or travel a bit for food away from the convention center. The food inside the convention is usually overpriced cafeteria food. Mediocre dishes at best with prices you would pay for a meal you would actually want to eat. This was all circumvented with the Savory Square. It was filled with Japanese street food with a bit of an artisanal touch. So you had ramen, curry, tonkatsu, and yakitori as well as tea, ice cream, pastries, and chocolate. It was very convenient to just be able to have a meal at the convention that actually tasted good especially considering how much time was otherwise eaten up traveling back and forth between the two branches of the convention. Plus it is the sort of food most kids at the convention would have wanted to eat anyhow.
I myself had a tsukune rice burger one day and a tonkatsu burger another day. I liked them both a lot although I think the rice burger was my favorite. I think the fact that the rice burger has a bit more of a savory flavor helped a bit. It sort of reminded me of when other conventions get food tucks to show up to the event. The food tucks love the business and the attendees appreciate the convenience. Due to deals with convention centers it is not the sort of setup every convention could do but if it is possible it is totally a great idea to borrow. I hope any other iterations of Waku Waku NYC have this again. I will definitely go again just to eat here.
I sampled takoyaki, curry, tonkatsu, yakitori, and shaved ice. There was so much more than that but sadly I only brought one stomach with me. Since I love meat on a stick, my favorites were the beef skewers from Teriyaki Boy and the tonkatsu sticks from Katsu-Hama. Both were cooked perfectly and retained their natural juices well.
The prices weren’t great, but if you remember at-convention-food is usually higher priced anyway, then Savory Square is a much better deal because it was actually good food. Not only was it all very convenient, but it is exactly in tune with what American otaku would want to see at their anime con. One need not live on pocky and ramune at Waku Waku NYC!
Plus, having a pleasant food experience makes the day better overall. Savory Square was definitely a highlight that I just kept returning to. We’ll never get better convention food than the delights of Savory Square.
I can’t say for certain if there will be another Waku Waku NYC. As of when I am writing this I have not seen the date for Waku Waku NYC 2016 nor have I seen an announcement that states that there will not be a second convention. I saw a good deal of people each day but it was never insanely packed. It felt like a good turn out but am I never a great judge of that. But on a certain level all of that is inconsequential. It might not seem like it but it is. The real deciding factor all comes down to attitude and preconception. How much of a success did Waku Waku NYC assume the event would be?
Most of the big mega conventions we think of today started off small and slowly but steadily grew into giant events. There are a few exceptions like New York Comic Con and Anime Boston but they are more the exception that prove the rule. The problem is most of the conventions in NYC have assumed that they will just drop down in the middle of a city that wants them and start off as a medium to large-sized convention. Anime and Japanese pop culture is still too niche for that to happen. It is not that an anime convention could not grow into something huge in New York. It just won’t start that way. Smart budgeting, clever promotion, good planning, and momentum can grow a convention but it takes years for word of mouth about past successes to grow a convention into a colossus. Rome was not built in a day and neither was San Diego Comic-Con International.
If the management of Waku Waku NYC came in with reasonable expectations for the event I think there was a lot to see from the event that was encouraging. The event was well run, the panels were informative, the guests were entertaining, and the food was delicious. Not everything was perfect but none of the flaws were deal breakers or clear signs that the idea was inherently flawed. The event did not feel huge but it felt robust for a convention with no previous history. It was a very strong freshman effort.
If they can get Kenjiro Hata, Takashi Takeuchi, or Kinoko Nasu I would love that so much. But I think at this point I end every anime convention report with that request. It might as well just be my signature. But even if they can’t get my dream guests if they announce Waku Waku NYC 2016 I will surely attend.
A really cool side effect of the intimacy of this convention was seeing the guests out and about a lot. Saturday morning I saw Kenji Inafune just sitting at one of the outdoor tables; Sunday I saw the Koyamas sampling the food in Savory Square.
The price of the con was steep though ($65 for the weekend) if you didn’t get a discount code or do the group rate. That seemed like a lot for two days and there were certain events like the concerts and the Real Escape Game which cost extra.
That said, I would definitely attend again and hope it returns next year with even more content.