Anime Fan Fest 2016: General Impressions

hisui_icon_4040  Kate and I balance each other out in our convention reports. When we both attend a convention it is not just an incremental improvement in the coverage but an exponential one. With two of us at an event we can cover more ground, view the same things at different times, and run in different circles of the attendees. But it is more than just having two sets of eyes. A good example is the fact that Kate is far more insightful on Artist Alley. While Artist Alley tends to blend all together to me, Kate has a trained eye thanks to her education and profession that sees a good deal of nuisance in what people are selling and how it stacks up to other offerings at previous years or other conventions. But even when we attended the same things we usually have similar but distinctly different perspectives on panels, guests, concerts, and events. I have done convention reports on my own. I think my coverage of Castle Point and Providence Anime Conference was solid but both of those reports could have been even better had Kate been there as well.

I’m going to bookmark that thought as I think it says a lot about Anime Fan Fest as well. But let me talk about the convention first and then I think it will all make much more sense.

Anime Fan Fest is the latest anime convention to pop up in the North East. Since AnimeNext has gown to a size that it could no longer be held Garden State Exhibit Center it seems that a new convention felt that the old venue would make the perfect area for a new convention to make its debut and fill a niche. I have talked to several people who have not been thrilled about AnimeNext’s move to Atlantic City. While I understand, and even support the move, it leaves a fairly sizable hole in landscape of the Tri-state area convention scene. Anime Fan Fest clearly hopes to step in and make a name for itself thanks to this opportunity.

While it seems like an open and shut matter of a new convention soothing an old itch it is not that simple. It is not like AnimeNext gave up the ghost, is being held during a completely different time of the year, radially changed what sort of convention it was, or moved to another state. If anything given that they are only a month apart so it seems more like they are in some degree of competition. It is not a crazy Anime Expo vs. AM² head to head contest but they are close enough in time and geography that while a lot of people can easily go to both some people are going to have to choose which of the two they will be able to attend.

Can New Jersey support these two anime conventions right next to each other? Will AnimeNext feel a pinch during their critical move to Atlantic City? Will there even be an Anime Fan Fest 2017? These are all questions I don’t have the answers to. But I feel the roots of all of the answers will be 100% visible with hindsight. Lets examine these roots, make some predictions, and then see how many of them are accurate.

hisui_icon_4040 The first thing that hit me looking at Anime Fan Fest was how much smaller it seemed than AnimeNext. For the last few years AnimeNext has felt like the convention was far too big for the space it was placed in. At points it seems like you are in the middle of a scene from Soylent Green. I’m guessing that MAD Event Management assumed that a majority of that same crowd would also turn out for Anime Fan Fest. That seems to be a bit of an overestimation.

Friday the crowds seemed sparse. The hallways, panel rooms, and dealers room were never empty but by the same token they were never even close to bustling. It was above the infamous Star of the Giants birthday party but at the same time even Castle Point Anime Convention seemed far more busy on its first preview day with far less going on. The most telling sign was that I saw more dealers playing on their phones with nothing else to do than talking to customers on Friday. People were attending panels, talking to people in artist alley, and showing off their cosplay but despite all of that it felt rather empty.

Saturday felt more like a regular convention. I would say that Castle Point Anime Convention still felt far busier on Sunday but at least there was a vitality to the crowds. Panels had a far better turn out, the cosplayers were out in force, the dealer’s room and Artists Alley seemed to actually have some real business going on, and overall it did not feel like a warehouse district in a city on the decline.

All of that feeling disappeared on Sunday. It was not anywhere as empty as Friday but it feels like any momentum Saturday had built up was broken. The general siesta of Friday had not fully taken hold again but it still did feel like you had more room to move around than you needed. Sunday is usually a lazy day for anime conventions but this seemed a little more than the usual drop off.

On a certain level that seemed unfair. Anime Fan Fest is a first year convention and I have been comparing it to conventions that have been running for several years. Despite being a small college con Castle Point Anime Convention has been running for almost a decade. Even instant successes like Anime Boston or New York Comic Con has a far smaller attendance as compared to the numbers they draw today. Conventions always need a few years to get to what you might expect from such an event.

It also did not help that the date and the weather seemed to conspire against the convention. Friday was the premiere of Captain America: Civil War, Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, and Sunday was Mother’s Day. There was always a reason for people not to show up. It also did not help that most of the weekend was a mixture of chilly and drizzly. It was never bone chilling nor did the rain ever turn into a downpour but if you were on the fence about attending the weather almost surely made up your mind. Sunday actually had decent weather but by that point the damage had been done. I can’t say any of those factors were the reason the turn out seemed light. The convention was entirely indoors in one building and none of those events were utterly an attendance killer. I just think while none of those events are a smoking gun I would argue none of them helped at all.

hisui_icon_4040 Despite the sometimes lonely feel at the Garden State Exhibit Center it was not because there was no content to experience at Anime Fan Fest. Thanks to the sponsorship of Otaku USA there were some very prominent panelists as guests. Daryl Surat, Mike Toole, Darius Washington, Matt Schley, Joseph Luster, Jason Thompson, and Charles Dunbar is a lineup you don’t normally see outside of somewhere like Otakon or AnimeExpo. It meant that there was always an interesting professional level panel going on at any given moment. At this point it would be more important to mention if any of their panels were less than amazing because all of these experts are  fairly well-known as quality presenters. Even when Mike Toole had some major technical difficulties that were beyond his control during his Bootleg Anime from South Korea panel he bounced back from it fairly quickly to the point where most people who attended the panel would forget to mention the kerfuffle if they were to discuss their epxeience later on. The Bootleg Anime panel was so entertaining that it made you instantly forget any hiccups that occurred.

The History of Japan panel was worth mentioning just because as a fan of history in general I love it when my interests intersect like this. While Walter Amos and Robert Fenelon were not guests at the convention they are the caliber of presenters that could unquestioningly sit among the featured panelists and no one would object. They took an otherwise silly (but rather informative) History of Japan video from Bill Wurtz and used it as jumping off point to flesh out the quick points he makes about everything from prehistoric Japan up to the modern age. Since that is a MASSIVE amount of time they clearly had three panels worth of content and just ran whatever tickled their fancy while trying to hit as many time periods as possible. I did notice that almost all the ancient Japanese clips were from Phoenix which I think says a lot about the time periods anime tends to focus on more than anything else. While there is anime set before the Heian period it is few and far between when compared to anime set after that period.

On an equally informative tract I went to Charles Dunbar’s The First Anime panel. It looked at what essentially was the prehistory of anime. For the longest time if you asked almost anyone what the first anime was even the most scholarly fan would say Astro Boy but it has become more and more well known that anime actually existed before this point. The major problem is that so much of that material was destroyed in Great Kanto earthquake and WWII. On top of that everything else that survived was often not kept it a way to preserve it to the modern age. That said early anime like Katsudō Shashin and Namakura Gatana have survived in some form and are very slowly becoming more well-known. Charles was able to not only inform the audience of the existence of these precursors to the anime we know today but was able to make it relevant to modern fans. I think that Charles Dunbar is usually known for taking very populist topics and give them a scholarly spin but this is an excellent case of his taking a topic that would otherwise be only for the most academic minded fans and make them accessible for the hoi polloi.

I also finally got to see Charles Dunbar’s Studio Ghibli panel. I think at this point in time it is a known quantity of quality so I was just glad I was able to finally see it.

7o’s Anime Funtime was no longer denied to me. When it ran at Otakon 2015 the room filled up before I could get in. At Castle Point Kate and I were running a panel at the same time. The 80’s and 90’s all have a considerable amount of nostalgia in the American anime community but the 70’s are generally a curiosity at best. One or two shows like the original Mobile Suit Gundam and The Rose of Versailles have gained a fan following but they are more of the exception than the rule. Now it would be nearly impossible to talk about all the shows from the 70s in-depth in a single panel. Therefore Vinnie tried to hit all the highlights like Space Battleship YamatoHeidi, Girl of the AlpsMajokko Megu-chan, and Yatterman and hope that they act as Avatar’s for other similar shows. I was a little surprised Fables of the Green Forest and Grendizer were not in the panel but there are no easy cuts to make to cover as much as you can in a single hour while looking at a decade of shows. If anything it gives the panel some legs so it can mix things up so it is not the same panel every time.

Lastly I wanted to mention The Class of 1986 panel. While Darius Washington is someone I have heard of in fandom I had never attended one of his panels before this point in time. The panel had a simple premise. It looked at some key anime that came out exactly 20 years ago. That means it was just at the era where OVA were becoming popular so enough material was coming out between what was on TV, in theaters, and on tape that you could easily examine a whole year and not cover everything. If anything the panel had a very personal touch in that respect but Darius pretty much admitted that up front so he contextualized how all the titles he were talking about were important to him. That means there was a greater emphasis on titles like Area 88MD Geist, and Dirty Pair: Project Eden and not really any The Story of Pollyanna or Maris the Chojo. It would be interesting to see five or six different panelist run this panel and see what they looked and what they ignored.

hisui_icon_4040 I wanted to mention that I missed what could be easily seen as 2/3rds of the convention. 1/3 of the convention was the cosplay tract. Every day Anime Fan Fest had a room that was running panels related to cosplay. As 16 of the 35 guests were cosplay related they were no small part of the draw of the convention. Since I only have a passing interest in cosplay I did not attend any panels or events related to it but I would be extremely remiss if I did not point out how prominent it was. The other third was the American voice actors. While they did not have as many panels as the cosplay section Mike McFarland, Vic Mignogna, Aaron Dismuke, and Lance Heiskell as a Fullmetal Alchemist reunion is nothing to scoff at. Since dub actor panels invariably get coverage I would rather leave that content to press people who would be enthusiastic about it.

hisui_icon_4040 I was really surprised that there was no musical act. The lack of a Japanese anime or manga production guest made perfect sense. They tend not to have any mainstream popularity and take a good deal of effort to get. Your average attendee is going to be far more excited to a single mid level American voice actor than a dozen high-profile Japanese guests. But Japanese bands are a horse of a different color. They have been known to draw in a bigger audience and even get people whose sole purpose for attending the convention is to see whatever band is at the convention. Now there might have been a lot of reasons that Anime Fan Fest did not have a band. They might not have had the space, they might have estimated that boost in attendance would not have justified the cost, the bands they were negotiation with might have dropped out, or it might just be something they planned to add down the road. I’m just more surprised because it seems that a Japanese band is now just such an expected piece of any convention that I was slightly caught off guard by its absence.

hisui_icon_4040Overall I could nitpick some criticisms about the convention. I would have liked them to have an app for the schedule but the guide books were plentiful and robust to the point were the app was generally unnecessary. It is more something that they should think about going forward. I also feel like the sonic bleed over from room to room was pretty common. It pretty much is guaranteed to happen whenever you attend more the four panels at any convention but I felt like it happened a little more than usual at Anime Fan Fest 2016. But that was sort of the price of having so much content in a rather small space and it was never anything that ruined a panel. Other than that I felt the convention was very professionally run.

hisui_icon_4040 So let’s get back to my story at the beginning. How is Anime Fan Fest much like my review of the convention itself? Both of them are fine but they are missing the depth and breadth that people might be used to. I don’t think I’m going to get any major complaints about this report but at the same time without Kate’s insights into the convention it does not have the same weight that our normal convention coverage would have. Anime Fan Fest seems fine but it also feels so very light compared to comparable conventions in the area. It never felt like Anime Fan Fest felt poorly run. They went out of their way to have a robust panel selection, a good amount of guests, and polished experience. But overall it felt like one of those very fancy versions of common food. Presented very well but a smaller portion of common items than you would probably like.

That said I see lots of potential for the convention.  MAD Event Management clearly saw what other anime conventions were doing and took a lot of their best practices. This was a first year convention. Waku Waku NYC and New York Anime Festival tried to run with the big boys right out of the gate and both of them suffered for it. Anime Fan Fest felt much more managed in its expectations. I just wonder if even that measured planning was overreaching given the time and location they chose.

The guidebook for the convention made it seem like Anime Fan Fest 2017 was a done deal. I look forward to seeing if that was a promise or just wishful thinking.

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