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There is at least one Japanese animation convention happening in the U.S. every weekend.

Every year, thousands of volunteers (and a few paid staff) put together and run their own conventions. While you can find a convention for just about any sort of hobby, have you ever wondered what it is that makes people want to devote a portion (and sometimes a significant portion) of their lives towards its planning? What is it about a relatively obscure art form that makes running an event for it so popular? The answer, surprisingly, has little to do with the popularity of Japanese animation and more to do with it being a learning experience, a growth experience, and just plain fun.

Japanese animation (or anime) is an animated film style with distinct designs and approaches to storytelling. Currently, over 50% of children's programming on the air today in the U.S. is made up of anime. Pokemon, Digimon, Metabots, Yu-Gi-Oh, Cardcaptors, and Sailor Moon are all examples of popular anime shows that were edited for content and dubbed in English for the English speaking markets.

Anime is the hot new convention on the block, growing in popularity even as other fan-based events such as Star Trek and sci-fi conventions seem to be in decline. Fan events geared towards Star Trek or science fiction often provide barriers to involvement in the form of age, talent, or education. Anime is direct, it's accessible, and its stories appeal to a wide audience. Because many of these shows are successfully targeted to children, anime is often the vehicle for a child's first foray into the world of fandom.

Anime conventions also feature a cutting-edge feel that separates them from other cons. The convergence of sound, print, and visuals into a digital format is readily apparent. With all of the anime distributors having converted to DVD sales only, it's rare to see a VCR at an anime convention these days. Even the DVD player is slowly losing ground to cheap, high-speed computers capable of displaying video direct to a video projector. It's this rapid adoption of a digital format that I refer to as the "New Media" and its influence is pervasive. For example, one of the most popular events at anime conventions is the music video competition. This is an event where people take images from a single anime series (or several) and set them to a song to create a music video. It's a lot easier than you think, and it's gaining in popularity, mainly due to the digital nature of the source materials and ready availability of cheap computing. And yes, you can submit your entry on CD or DVD. It's a brave new digital world out there.

This difference from sci-fi conventions was readily apparent at this year's World Science Fiction Convention, held in San Jose, CA. With hundreds of panels spread out over four days, there was almost nothing devoted to anything New Media related. As an attendee, you could learn how to write, pitch, protect, and sell your manuscript or screenplay, but learn how to draw? Learn how to voice act? All in all, it was a rather "bookish" type of event. Now to be fair, there was one room devoted to anime and it was run by one of the local anime clubs. However, this room was in a forgotten corner off of the kids' section, showing just how much the event organizers misunderstood this emerging art form.

Perhaps the biggest dichotomy between the two types of convention was among the fans themselves. For the most part, the fans at WorldCon seemed preoccupied with the past: reminiscing about old almost forgotten shows, dressing up in Regency garb or SCA apparel, or talking about books long out of print. I personally find this at odds with a medium whose purpose is to communicate the future. That sense of wonder that I had from reading Niven or Asimov had clearly left for more exciting times elsewhere.

"What makes an anime convention better than some of the other types of conventions is because anime itself is a wide and diverse medium," says Jonathan Osborne, who finds work in being the English voice of Japanese characters. Osborne, an anime fan himself, continues, "The people who like one particular show may have a different attitude from say another group who likes a different show. You've got people who like the action, the romance, and even the video games. Oddly enough, even though you would think that a sci-fi convention would have a diverse audience from the number of sci-fi titles; it doesn't feel that way. There was something missing in the feel in the sci-fi conventions I've been to. It's the same with the Star Trek conventions. There's just something about the diversity that's not there. When I go to the anime conventions, it seems that people are a lot more social. I love anime conventions, they're so much fun."

Japanese animators are quick to acknowledge that past and present sci-fi works heavily influence them. They take that sense of wonder they get from sci-fi and translate it into the works that they are currently producing, often slipping in little in-jokes referring to say, Stanley Kubrick's 2001 or Lord of the Rings. While anime is a format encompassing a variety of genres, there is no denying that sci-fi is alive and well in anime and that it's visually inspiring a whole new generation of fans. As history has shown, when fans are inspired, they like to get together to discuss their inspirations. What's an anime fan to do? Go to an anime convention and if one isn't nearby, there's nothing to stop them from putting on their own.

Anime conventions, like other fan events, were once put together as a means for a large number of fans to get together, discuss, view, and trade anime episodes. In the late '70s and through the '80s, anime was fairly rare in the U.S. Several clubs were started for the purpose of showing anime to their members. As these clubs got larger and larger, they eventually started conventions dedicated to making anime available to a wider audience.

"I know that the initial reason was the obscurity of anime. There weren't that many people watching anime and it was a way of getting people together with the same interests. Now that anime is becoming more popular and more people are watching it, the convention still brings all these fans together," says Osborne.

However, these shows tend to be geographically far apart. As Revell Walker, the chair of Ani-Magic, puts it, "I own an anime shop here and I have a sort of 'woodstove in the middle' area where people would gather each summer and talk about the distance or the inconvenience of going to some of the larger shows in San Jose and Los Angeles. They said, "Why don't we do our own convention?" and I said, "Well, let's look into it." I did our studies and found out that there was a need for a local convention in the fall. People just hadn't had enough. Because of our location between the north and south [of California], and because we knew so many people, we said, "Sure, let's try it." It was the local Lancaster fan base that got it going, and everybody magically came into it."

That was the beginning of Ani-Magic, an anime convention located in Lancaster, California. This year marks its third year and as conventions go, it's a relatively young one, both in the age of the event and the age of the staff. Walker explains, "For them, its a leadership experience, to help them grow. There are people who are with us who started at age 14 and they are about to graduate from high school. Working on this event is their senior project. A lot of them are growing and maturing out of the whole experience. They are working on something bigger than themselves and they are seeing the fruits of their labors."

Other parents seem to agree. "Our young people today have so little to do in the way of activities that help them promote themselves into the workforce. This is something where they learn organization, where they can start with an idea and see that idea come to fruition by the end. The convention is the culmination of all of their ideas put together. They can see how everything works," says Melinda Pappa, one of several parents who became involved in the convention because of their child's interest. Melinda is in charge of coordinating the guests.

Her daughter, Athena, agrees: "I got involved because a couple of my friends decided, "Hey, lets see how a con actually works" and so we decided to come here and work. They went to Anime Expo and saw it and it was kinda like 'Wow!' I was also asked three years ago by the con chair to work [at] the convention too. After my friends decided, 'Hey I want to do it' then I went, 'yeah.'" Athena, a high school student, is in charge of the convention's registration process and desk.

While peer pressure may be enough to get some fans involved, there is usually something else that keeps people caught up in putting on an event year after year. Jason Ebner, chair of Recca Con, puts it best, "The rush, the absolute thrill of doing it, the acceptance that it brings, the legitimacy that it [makes] you feel and above and beyond all of that, is the sense of accomplishment. I did something that for the longest time I felt was totally out of my reach." Recca Con will be entering its second year as an anime convention in northern California.

As anyone who has ever planned a party or a wedding knows, things can and do go wrong: equipment breaks, supplies go missing, a guest has car trouble. "I have seriously been blamed for people's hair not turning out properly. Scary," confides Athena. "We're the first people that everyone sees, so we're an automatic target." Curious, I asked her how she handles such things. "Smile and nod," she says, "smile and nod."

Walker has a more pragmatic approach to the vagaries of human nature: "These convention organizations are a hodge-podge of human nature study when it comes to trying to run one. I don't think any convention is exempt from the things we went through, in one way or another." But Ebner likes to remain upbeat: "I think the number one thing is that it's fun. They [the staff] get a blast, a kick out of what they're doing. They get the same sense of pride that I do. 'Wow, that was our show.'"

Perhaps it's that sense of accomplishment that inspires people to put in the long hours and effort required for planning and execution of an event. Melinda Pappa seems to think so: "Every single kid you see here, they are my heroes. This is teaching them to go ahead and take the initiative and to [make] their own judgment calls. It shows them that it's okay to pat themselves on the back. Self-assurance and self-love are very important. Being able to give yourself a high five is extremely important. This is one of those events where it's okay to pat yourself on the back."

It certainly seems to be a reward for everyone involved. Back at Ani-Magic, I caught up with Walker as he was watching the dance getting under way. The music was thumping, the lights were flashing and the attendees seemed to be having a great time. With a sort of shine in his eyes, he turned to me and said, "All of the headaches I've been through this last year have been vindicated tonight."


Copyright © 2002 Glenn Schmall

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Glenn Schmall has been volunteering and organizing anime conventions for almost 10 years. He is a currently an executive member (meaning he gets to make some of the decisions) for two conventions and is the process of starting a third. In addition to running conventions, he runs a successful news site called Anime Tourist that reports on the business and fandom of anime.

Bio to come.
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