Anime Expo came once again to the Los Angeles Convention Center this past holiday weekend, providing a keen reminder to all anime nerds (which admittedly, included myself) that a five-day festival spent buying overpriced Japanese pop culture junk can be just as fulfilling as watching glorious fireworks and loving America in all of its cholesterol-saturated glory. At least, that’s the presented theory. The reality of these large-scale fan conventions, no matter the scene, is that they tend to manifest as a kind of purgatory; the heaven of celebrating a hobby with a shared following being mixed with the hell of endless panel lines, rip-off merchandising and rude patrons. This year’s Anime Expo was no different. In essence, it was a whole lot of fun mixed with a whole lot of pain - and if you were a one-dayer at the event without registering beforehand, you probably got a ton more of the latter.
That said, here’s a general review of the largest American anime con that I, a complete amateur ‘journalist’ with no worthy connections (let alone a press pass for this event), have put together. Best of all, it’s presented in a list format with lots of bullet points, because who the hell reads traditional longform these days? Well I do, but still
This is a bit of a long, fairly scattered write-up though, so here’s some handy links if you just want to jump to points of interest:
1. General organization
2. General atmosphere
3. Convention merchandise
4. Creepy anime dolls
5. Good Smile Racing
6. Super Soul Bros.
7. Neon District
8. And finally...
1. General organization was indeed a clusterfuck. The Day 1 horror stories posted on the likes of Kotaku and Reddit involving endless lines just to get into the event were no joke. Many of those who failed to register their convention badges before Saturday got well and truly poleaxed by AX management’s inept failure to plan a good entrance strategy for the thousands in attendance. Make no mistake, this year’s event hosted over 110,000 con-goers. A hell of a lot, you might think, but it’s only a minor increase from the just-over-100,000 that turned up last year. In any case, this small rise in attendance managed to create bottlenecks even worse than 2016’s mile-long lines. It was a poor situation exacerbated further by the fact that most of the people stuck in line were only coming in on Saturday tickets. Facing delays of up to 6 hours, some individuals were held up so long that they were told, upon entry, that most the events had closed for the day. An unbelievably frustrating experience for sure, and certainly not one becoming of an event aspiring to reach Comic-Con in terms of scale.
Ultimately the combination of significantly increased security checks orchestrated by amateur staffing were to blame for the gridlock. AX, even at its current size, still largely relies on volunteers to run the show. And even though they were able to get the entry situation under control on the days that followed, the general confusion and lackadaisical attitude from supervisors bled into other areas of the convention. Some entrances to the main hall were left completely unattended at times, making a mockery of the security scanning. A lack of good signage or event descriptions - in either the app or the paper guide - also made day-planning difficult. But from my perspective, worst of all was that the curse of the static queues was also to be experienced during Neon District, the convention’s EDM concert - but more on that event further down.
2. General atmosphere, despite the lines, was as exuberant as ever. Far from being a big convergence of jittery kids getting too excited over Pokemon, the AX crowd has long been diverse - a bit like the anime spectrum itself. The teenage element is still dominant of course, but AX’s demographic does extend to numerous other groups: avid gamers, old-school fans now well into middle-age, families with kids and other folks whose love for Japanese pop culture goes beyond just animation. Even with those god-awful lines to get in, most who came to the event seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, from the cosplayers all the way down to the bargain hunters at the Artists’ Alley, and most of them mingled happily in a tremendously friendly atmosphere.
I say ‘most’, because there is a reason why negative stereotypes around anime and its fans still persist - and sadly, a few bad apples did threaten to spoil this jovial bunch. There was the odd moment of people snapping at each other to keep moving in the expectedly crowded Exhibit Hall. Others got pissy if you didn’t high-five them while walking past them in the long, snaking lines for on-site events (and seriously, sod off with that shit, I’m British and old). I can also bear witness to the sighting of one rather large con-goer demanding free hugs from female attendees because ‘he was sexy’ (note: he wasn’t), as well as the generally busy activity around the convention’s ‘safe spaces’. For the latter, I can only hope that was down to things other than the ever-depressing occurrences of sexual harassment happening at some of these events - although thankfully, I did not notice any such occurrences myself.
And at least there was a pleasing lack of body odour in the air this year! On the whole, it was a pleasure to be in and around a crowd largely undeterred by the numerous management failures, and the negativity of a few, to have a good time.
3. Convention merchandise is still stupidly expensive.This is perhaps as earth-shattering a revelation for con-goers as the sky being blue and hygiene being an option for some rather than a requirement. But AX’s Exhibit Hall, with over 300 vendors selling everything from action figures to corsets, was as wallet-busting as ever. As usual though, the front of the hall lent itself to the larger companies offering their wares. This meant that you could instead just gawp at the seriously cool toys some of the corporate booths were showing off - and in the process, feel good about your willpower because you know you’ll never, ever be able to afford them.
Case in point: Blizzard Interactive were on site to treat fans of online FPS phenomenon Overwatch with a few displays of the franchise’s collectibles, plus meet-and-greets with voice actors and artists who’ve worked on the game. I never stuck around for the latter because, well, by that point my feet hurt and I couldn’t be arsed. But I was able to see one of the main attractions of the booth, which came in the guise of one rather impressive centerpiece:
As any Overwatch fan knows, D.Va is the best ‘tank’ character the game has (no flames plz). And if the game’s fanbase, plus the amount of cosplayers assuming the role of her at AX was anything to go by, she’s also got quite the following. So it makes sense that a particularly eye-catching model of her sitting atop her mech would garner a good deal of attention at Blizzard’s area. I can only hope the above shots do it justice too, because it really was an incredibly designed, well-characterized figure to see first-hand. The price though? A whopping $450. There’s a lot of other things you can buy with that kind of money - namely, a kidney transplant to replace the one you had to sell to buy this thing in the first place. But if you don’t mind identifying as an Overwatch ultra fan with water retention problems, then I guess this is just as good a way to splurge your money as any.
That wasn’t even close to being the most expensive toy on show though. Japanese smart toy company Cerevo Global were also on hand to show off a rather special offering for Ghost in the Shell fanatics. Followers of that franchise will already be aware of the Tachikoma - a collective of spider-like, adorable little mechs with squeaky voices who serve as a comedy element for the series. At Cerevo’s booth, one could also get the chance to control a minified RC version of one, complete with an array of amusing gestures provided by iPad-based controls. With a full range of motion plus some advanced object and speech recognition features, this little baby is certainly a cut above over other toys of its kind. Which might explain the ludicrous $1,800 price tag slapped on it. But it is cute! Open your heart and allow the robot’s screeching Japanese exclamations fill you with joy. You’re going to need it after telling the wife you can’t afford to pay the mortgage this month. And that you sold the kids to an African warlord.
But hey, luxury is luxury - these items are supposed to be for fans with more money than sense. What really got me was that even in this day and age, Final Fantasy merchandise of any kind still costs an arm and a leg. Especially the bloody plushies. While buying one for my wife, I found that a small-sized stuffed toy of Vivi from Final Fantasy IX cost 45 big ones. The booth operator insisted that this was actually cheaper than the Square Enix site, and I can’t say I’m too surprised. Game companies know what schmucks us nerds are - even if you are doing it for the love (or at least to keep your missus happy).
4. Anime dolls are creepy as hell. In amongst the different booths offering display figures of all shapes and sizes, there was also a little area tucked away for dolls. And in case you’re wondering why I’d even mention it, please bear in mind that my wife and I only came across them by chance! Just because I’m an anime fan doesn’t mean I’ve completely given up on my masculinity and self-worth.
Furthermore, I genuinely wish that we hadn’t:
Eeesh. This just conjures up all the stereotypes of that weird aunt you hated visiting as a kid because you knew she had a ton of the Western variants of these sitting in her living room. Only now she’s an otaku and says ‘kawaii desu’ a lot. Don’t let her turn the room light out, whatever you do! And definitely don’t eat her Pocky.
Not even that ubiquitous digital symbol of all things J-Pop, Hatsune Miku, was safe from Volks, the company responsible for these ‘uncanny valley’ monstrosities. Miku - who, for the unknowing, can be best described as a virtual pop idol with insane levels of popularity among anime and J-Music circles - was apparently celebrating her 10th anniversary as an artist (software creation?) at Anime Expo. The main event for this was actually an all-ages dance party taking place elsewhere on-site, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have her own doll on display too:
All I can say is, thank goodness it didn’t move.
5. Good Smile Racing returned, and that was a Good Thing. At last year’s Anime Expo, the racing branch of Japanese toy figure giant Good Smile brought a few of their fleet over to show off to the convention’s motorheads. It went down an absolute treat. So much so, that they were present again this year to show off a few more of their 2017 models.
Say what you will about Japan’s ‘itasha’ car subculture - it seems to vary between vibrant, creative fun and outright creepiness, depending on the individuals involved. But I do feel that the cars featured at AX for both this year’s event and last looked tremendous. Just goes to show a bit of anime art can double up as some pretty sweet decal fodder for a touring car or two.
6. The Super Soul Bros. are awesome. Over at Lounge 21, the Expo’s long-running alcohol bar (which also serves as a welcome getaway from the hordes of over-stimulated adolescents running everywhere), there was a chance to experience a bit of live music. Music bands aren’t anything new to the convention - from J-Pop, rock and electronica, fans of any such genre are more than catered for with various performances from a plethora of artists. But not often do you get the chance to listen to a jazz band basing their whole repertoire on the video games and cartoons of your youth. But that’s exactly what the Super Soul Bros. do - and they are bloody wonderful for doing it.
Sadly, my useless potato of a phone was unable to save the video I so painstakingly recorded of their live set (no seriously, I held that camera up for a whole ONE minute). However their site, plus other sources aroundtheYouTubes serve as great reference. Other songs performed that aren’t highlighted here include the Zelda theme, a number of classic Sonic levels and - best of all - the theme tune to Hey Arnold!. Because let’s face it - if you’re going to play in a band performing jazz renditions of well-remembered tunes from childhood, you might as well go for the ones that actually were jazz to begin with.
7. Neon District lived up to the hype, but only if you don’t like alcohol. There was an awful lot of anticipation, at least from those into the scene, surrounding Neon District - the Anime Expo’s first-ever attempt at a full-on Japanese EDM concert. I actually went to this even though I knew very few of the artists involved, primarily because a) curiosity got the better of me, and b) my mid-life crisis demands I go to events that I’m probably too old for. Luckily, from a music perspective, things turned out to be pretty stellar, although the organization woes that had been a bane to the entire convention did rear their ugly head once again here.
But still, the likes of Taku Takahashi, TeddyLoid, YUC’e and Massive New Krew, plus last-minute addition Slushii - all big names to those in the know - came together for an immaculate night of trance, Hi-NRG, house, dubstep and trap music that I’m sure the kids in attendance would have described as ‘lit AF’. Just check out some of the videos I got below if you’re skeptical:
I should have also mentioned that the on-stage graphics were a frequently mesmerizing accompaniment as well.
Apologies also for the less-than-clear sound. As you might expect, the decibel output was occasionally a little too much for my hapless little Samsung Galaxy S5 (no, that ‘5’ isn’t a typo). But it was still able to capture the mood of the night in general, which was boisterous, euphoric and welcoming for anyone.
All in all, the night would have been perfect for any EDM fanatic - if they weren’t also a drinker. For the inebriated punters, the efficiency in the outside beer garden was utterly abysmal. The wife and I queued up twice to pick up one beer and one cocktail each - and were met with a 1-hour wait each time. In a line of only 20-25 people. I definitely understand that wait times for booze during live events are completely dependent on crowd load, but even if this was Glastonbury, I wouldn’t expect such a long bloody wait. I couldn’t tell if it was down to slow-moving bartenders or customers asking for things that just couldn’t be provided, but still - it was a black mark to add to all the others regarding AX’s general coordination woes.
8. And finally… the most blatant cash-in by an anime franchise ever. A bustling little board game vendor at the back of the Exhibit Hall was offering this, erm, fine item for sale:
That’s right - you may well own a particular edition of Monopoly that you deeply regret buying. Perhaps that licensed version for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? Maybe even the Bass Fishing edition? Either way, I’m pretty sure Dragonball Z Monopoly tops them all. But if you ever wanted to build hotels on the planet Namek (lol), or purchase Master Roshi’s house, I guess you can now do that, to the bemusement of your board game adoring, non-anime loving friends.
In fact I’m pretty sure that out there somewhere, there is that one Monopoly collector who literally has every version of the game in existence - even the One Direction version - and even they’re looking at this and thinking, “Nah, too far.”
(Actually I take that back - there’s a bloody Yu-Gi-Oh! edition to the right there, and that’s way worse.)
Anyway, that’s it for Anime Expo 2017, and I barely even touched the surface of the amount of events that went down there. Will I be back next year? I don’t know - I’m fast approaching my mid 30s and I’m not sure if I can be bothered to deal with the crowds any more. But this year’s show definitely had some great moments. Whether or not it proves to be a better experience than the San Diego Comic-Con remains to be seen, but I will be reporting on how that one goes too. Stay tuned for that!
Anime Expo 2018 will be held from July 4th to the 8th 2018 at the Los Angeles Convention. Thankfully, they'll also be mailing out the registration badges this time...
Media utilized in article is property of: Anime Expo / SPJA