For those of you who regularly attend Anime Expo, you know exactly what to expect: Manga, Anime, crazy fans, long lines, unique merchandise, big production announcements, themed cafes, screening events… well the list goes on. The program boasts 100 scheduled events on the first day alone. For those of you who have never attended, it can be a bit overwhelming. The guide suggests following a “Programming Track,” of which there were three: “Kid’s Day,” “Cultural Workshop,” and the “AX Anime & Manga Studies Symposium.” The decision to peruse a more complex side of the expo was an easy one to make. I only hope to do justice to this truly rich, weird, heady, and critical study of this complex media.
started my quest.
There were quite a few “line-con” issues that first morning. Considering that the expected volume of the con was 90,000 participants, it’s no surprise that it took us awhile to get inside. I would later discover that the final count was approximately 98,400 attendees. While I sweated my way through a Zelda T-Shirt, my first impulse was to be a little upset about waiting outside. In reflection (and air-conditioning) I really have to thank all of the security who worked the expo. They did a tremendous job keeping everyone safe.
It was here that I meet up with my party. They consisted of a group of admittedly obscure acquaintances from high school, who I hadn’t seen or even contacted in many years. We had discussed Anime occasionally in class and rarely heard from each other after graduation. It was perhaps by chance, and a through a common interest in all things nerd, that we reunited to tackle Anime Expo. I felt a slight sense of unease, knowing full well that the other guys were much better acquainted. I began to think of myself like Cid from the Final Fantasy series, I wasn’t a main character, but I would show up during an important battle or give advice when needed.
We immediately rushed to the Force Of Will booth to acquire some rare exclusive playing cards. The Exhibit Hall was a nearly impenetrable clusterf**k of cosplayers and fanatics. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. After purchasing new wares, I decided to break from my party and attend some panels. The others made their way to a gaming hall and started challenging eager card players.
I finally found myself in LP4, a lecture hall that would house all of the Anime Symposium events. It was a large stadium style room that featured a simple table and a large projection screen. The seats were comfortable and they had lecture hall style writing surfaces attached to the armrests. A thin man with glassed introduced himself as Mikhail Kouilkov, the producer of the symposium. He welcomed everyone to AX with open arms and excitedly explained the scope of the weekend’s events. Essentially these lectures were designed to bridge the gap between academia and the general public, regarding the scholarship that is growing around Anime and Manga. He also explained the importance of rigor, academic research, content and context within the discussion.
The first presentation opened with a discussion by Ellen Seiter, a professor at USC. Her presentation was really well received as it discussed how to structure a syllabus that addressed various genres and heavy themes. Imagine reading about The Existential Cyborg, Adolescent Killers, and other unique thematic analysis as part of your major. Slides flew by and I noticed that it reflected a literature or film syllabus rather well. It was no surprise that these themes appear in American cinema, for instance: “The Existential Cyborg” Ghost in the Shell (JP) vs A.I. (AM). Her syllabus deficiently inspired me to consider some abstract themes in my writing.
I won’t take time to unpack many of the themes discussed in each panel. After all, there were dozens of them each day. But there were a few that struck me as interesting. Dr. Seiter also addressed something that had been burning in my mind for years: “why is Anime so abstract and experimental?” or put simply, why is Anime so damn weird? The answer is actually quite simple; Anime is cheap to produce. Many Anime feature long introspective monologues, recurring symbolic establishing shots, and (especially in the case of Dragon Ball Z) heroic standoffs. All of these things can be done with low budgets because they reuse animation. In turn, there is a richness that is inherent to the genre. Production companies have quite a bit of creative freedom because they are gambling with very little on each project.
Later, Mia Lewis gave a wonderful presentation on the way Manga is produced, sold, and marketed to boys and girls. I was surprised to hear that Japanese bookstores sell their comics in segregated girl and boy sections. This also leads to marketing problems and gender issues when it comes to writing both Shojo and Shonen Manga. If I remember correctly, Mia Lewis presented last year and has a knack for using feminist or pansexual lenses in her research. There is a trend in many humanities disciplines that embrace feminist theory, and I myself enjoy the work of Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency. To those not familiar with academic criticism, feminist deconstructions are actually quite common, it really means to bring attention to certain sexist tropes that tend to be problematic. It’s true that Anime gets a bad rap for overly sexualized characters. In fact, Hayao Miyazaki in an interview once said that he doesn’t like having his works referred to as “Anime” because of the negative stigma surrounding the genre. That’s right, the creator of My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t think his work is “Anime” … let that sink in for a bit.
Unfortunately, like most academic deconstructions, there is never a clear answer about what is to be done to reverse or contextualize some of the more squeamish or sexist themes in our media. To me the answer is actually rather simple, if you don’t like something, then don’t buy into it. Production is also driven by consumerism. If people didn’t want to see cat girls fighting to the death, production companies would stop selling stories about it. I think it’s up to the viewer to find value in whatever they enjoy. Try to appreciate the diversity that Anime offers. Sometimes that means sifting through a sea of comical boob physics and shameless fan service to find something worth watching.
started in the usual way, stuck in a big ass line.
I decided to go solo day two. I had a good time with my party, no doubt, but I had some ground I wanted to cover. It’s always easier to move around these things when you are alone. I found myself standing next to a handful of parents who had brought their daughters to the expo for their first time.
I was standing next to the girl’s parents, the first one to broach conversation had a look of frustration (it was 9:30 and the main exhibit hall was still closed). She turned to me “what is this damn line for anyway?”
“It’s the main expo hall, they sell everything inside and have a ton of stages and merchandise.” I don’t need to tell you it was her first time here.
“So do you tend to consume the same media as your kids, I mean do you watch Anime with them?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
A father answered me with a grin, “Me and my girl actually really enjoy Death Note.”
I replied, somewhat surprised, “The themes are rather dark. Murder, death, the afterlife…”
“Oh my girl is mature for her age, besides, we watch detective shows like the new Sherlock. I kind of wish she didn’t read the comics though, but her teacher says she is performing at a college level in reading comprehension. I just wished she liked real books.”
I tried to hold my opinions about graphic novels having literary value, instead I mumbled, “Whatever gets them reading.”
I paused for a moment and considered the age of the group of girls he was with. They couldn’t have been out of middle school, some of them looked like 6th graders. I took a deep breath and asked my second question. “Do you ever worry… um notice that female character designs tend to be somewhat risqué? Do you worry about how it might affect the way they dress or act? Feel free to not answer.”
One of the moms stepped forward to respond, “I do worry about one thing. My daughter is a little heavier, she has just started to notice that she is bigger than her friends and the skinny girls in the shows. But I think that is just due to T.V. in general. I have sat her down and explained the difference between fantasy and reality. I think she gets it. But it’s important as a parent to talk about this stuff. I let my girl dress how she wants, but there is a line, of course.”
I nodded and thought about how difficult it must be to monitor a child’s media consumption these days.
The dad added to my aforementioned question, “My girl watches a lot of stuff. I try to watch an episode here and there to check the stuff going on, make sure it’s appropriate. Well the stuff she tells me she is watching, she might be finding stuff online I don’t know about. I actually worry more about the chat rooms on these Manga sites. How do I know she isn’t talking to some 40-year-old pervert?”
The other parents nodded in agreement. “And some of the YouTube guys (he shook his head and whispered), they just cuss and cuss on there. It would be nice if they had some kind of rating system.” Again the parents exchanged glances of understanding.
“Well I can tell you that by high school they either know how to navigate the internet safely or not. These habits start early,” I said, thinking of how difficult it is to monitor Chrome Book usage in high school classrooms.
One of the mothers spoke up, “But they are such smart girls and all her friends are really into this stuff. I like some of it too. My husband was the one who really enjoys it, but he had to work. I like seeing my girls happy.” It was true, they were giggling and screaming at the top of their lungs (not unlike the adult otaku a few rows in front of us).
“Well you are some cool parents for bringing your kids to a place like this.”
The dad leaned in and jokingly asked “Where can I get a beer around here?”
I laughed and said, “Lounge 21.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Yeah. It’s a good place to rest your feet too.”
The line started to move and I wished them a happy con.
I spent a few hours with a friend from college who is also a cosplayer. We toured the Artist Alley together and enjoyed each other’s company. Evidently, the artist participation was so high this year it had to be moved into an entirely different hall. It looked like they had converted a portion of the parking lot for the weekend. We stopped occasionally to admire the artwork and made our way through some incredibly beautiful and unique pieces. But as time drew on I had to wave goodbye to Wonder Woman and find my way back to the symposium.
I finally got to “class” as I started identifying these presentations in my head. The panelists covered some amazing topics. One in particular was a Marxist analysis of Attack on Titan by Trace Cabbot. The reading worked incredibly well. The world of Attack on Titan uses an economy that is both classist and communist in the sense that each wall provides various levels of protection based on your standing in society. There is also the subject of rationing and militarization of all resources in the Anime. Humanity is united through defeating the titans and self-sacrifice is expected for the betterment and protection of the entire society. Some viewers of the show might also be surprised to learn that Mikasa, the main character, gets her name from a famous battle ship. This is one of many militaristic references in the show. I could go on, but the analysis made some amazing points.
Verna Zefra gave us a look into “Food and Film”. Her perspective on food in animation brought about some fascinating points. Food can be romantic, relate to the success of a family, indicate a connection between characters, and even act as a form of communication. By the end of this lecture I was craving a street dog, the native food of L.A. You don’t have go far to find one, many vendors capitalized on this fact each night as the Expo let out. I imagine this might be indicative of my own social standing. The lecture left me feeling intellectually full of ideas for new articles and analysis. In the interest of time I will just say that the other presentations were equally fascinating that day.
was a success.
Of the three lectures offed that day I was only able to make two. Due to the popularity of the Symposium there was no way to attend every lecture without losing your spot in line or simply missing out on a seat… just like real college.
One lecture, I did find particularly interesting was addressing the use of Anime and Manga in the classroom. It brought about the idea that in a high school classroom one could easily substitute the foreign literature requirement with a Manga. Of course getting approval to use the material could be more difficult and getting money to buy the material was an even greater struggle. One presenter in particular, Stevi Grimm, a teacher of history at Jefferson High School, gave some excellent arguments for using Anime and Manga in class. By introducing material that provides other reading modalities (i.e. a visual component like a picture) the student can engage in a text that would normally appear inaccessible. It’s also important to note that many students are already somewhat familiar with the material, in other words, they actually have confidence in the material because it feels more natural and relevant to them. I had to agree, as I mumbled to the group of parents the previous morning, “Whatever gets them reading.”
I had brought a member of my original party to the lecture. He took a well-deserved nap while I furiously took notes. I had always preferred sleeping through algebra. I have to admit that the academic track isn’t for most people. Some people even took it upon themselves to leave the hall entirely. This is the difficulty of teaching a class no matter what material you choose, there will be students who find it uninteresting. I spent the day on the edge of my seat waiting for the impact of every point, trying the best I could to capture as much information as possible.
The last presentation of the day covered a book called “Manga and Anime in Hollywood: Where Do We Go Next?” The author, Northrop Davis, was there presenting his findings and book. It is easy for most fans to overlook the fact that directors and creators are influenced by each other’s work. For instance, Osamu Tezuka based Astro Boy’s large eyes off of Mickey Mouse. The large eyes that are seen in Anime and often criticized by non-watchers of Anime, actually originated in the United States. The book covers other examples and thoroughly explores the ways that the US and Japan influence each other’s cinema. I’ll admit that I ordered the book online mid lecture. The book addresses other complex ideas that originate in Manga and Anime, while speculating about the possibilities of these media forms in the future.
I spent the evening with my party members, taking in some LA. nightlife. It was nice acting as a local and tour guide. We discussed our favorite Anime over some beer at a local pub on Figueroa. By the end of the night it was clear that we were enjoying the comradery that can only be provided by participating in a subculture together. There is just something about this hobby that brings people together.
was just what I needed.
The last day of AX is, of course, bittersweet. I found out that a member of my original party had attended a Tekken 7 tournament. I asked him if he enjoyed it. He had fared well and took out three opponents, but eventually he was defeated by someone who would go on to be in the top 8. I had never witnessed an E Sports event in person so I decided to join them and see what it was all about.
The electricity of the crowd was insane. It was like attending a real boxing match. With each blow and special move, people cheered on their favorite player. The announcer critiqued the moves of each player and commented on character choices as well as fighting styles. I found myself enjoying each match like I was in the stands on game day. This event was comparatively small to a League of Legends tournament or CS GO, but it had its official commentators and an online audience of about 2,000 people. The winner received a free Xbox and special controller designed for fighting games.
I went to the last two classes and enjoyed the complexity of each presentation. The first was a focus on adaptation and the various ways that reboots are handled. Stories have their own life cycle, just like anything else. There is an organic theory that was applied to the death and revival of various works. As a Neon Genesis Evangelon fan I am very familiar with this concept. Amanda Kennell walked the audience through the various adaptations of Lupin the 3rd while bringing special attention to the way characters change between adaptations.
The other two discussions were very well received. One focused on the importance of archiving and explored the practice of torrenting Anime. The last lecture of the day addressed shared fantasy and cross cultural interaction through digital spaces. Each individual presentation had its own unique spin on theory and criticism as applied to Anime and Manga. I felt like I was in grad school again with major theories slugging it out for attention. It felt good.
I waited in one last line for the closing ceremony. When we were finally seated and the lights were dimmed we were confronted with something unexpected, an “in memoriam” reel. I had no idea that the community recognized people in this way. We held a short moment of silence and moved on with the rest of the ceremony. Alice Underground and a singer Chii Sakunabi both provided live entertainment and awards were announced. The dark lights and high energy created a scene of completion and closure on a high note.
I know that anyone attending next year, the 25th anniversary of the Expo, is in for a good time. There is always something to explore at Anime Expo, no matter how familiar you are with this event. I hope to continue attending events like this and watch the way our industry is growing from the inside and out. Anime, Manga and gaming are bringing people together all the time–I like to think of these things as a conduit for otherwise introverted people to make connections with one another. I hope that as I get older I can continue to engage with the community in a way that promotes the positive aspects of our unique and often misunderstood pastime.