The last time I went to an anime convention was in 2002. I suppose considering that in the meantime I've had two children, gotten a Master's degree, and started full-time work as a pastor, that's not horribly bad. But as someone who's truly interested in the industry, I really want to see exactly what's happening in the world of anime today...and so, thanks to the gracious folks at Youmacon 2008, I was able to attend on a press pass. And I tell you what...the anime world has changed. Not that this surprises any of you out there, loyal readers that you are who are probably much bigger otaku than myself, but I was stunned. Stunned by the scope of the event, stunned by the sheer numbers of folks that were in attendance, and stunned by the complete and total shift in demographics. Anime now almost completely and totally is the realm of teenagers. Now that I am old enough that (had I started early enough, which I didn't) I could be the father of a teenager, this is a paradigm shift. But you aren't here to listen to me gripe about being an old codger in the anime world at the age of 34 -- and if you are, well, it'll probably seep into the rest of the article.
Youmacon is held each year in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, which is a western suburb of Detroit. This year, over 5000 people were in attendance at the gigantic Hyatt Regency in town...which all things considered has become a small to medium size convention. For those of us who haven't been to a convention in a few years, it still feels huge, but it's not the 20,000+ at the biggest cons on the coasts. On the whole, though, it felt like the perfect size to me. Events extend from Thursday night, which requires no admission and features primarily a few big-screen films, through early Sunday afternoon.
I arrived on Friday to find that events were well underway. Getting my pass was easy; though they had problems actually getting a hold of the press badges, I got one very quickly. After wandering for a while, I realized that perhaps 80% of the attendees were in costume. Take a bunch of anime fans who cosplay anyway and put them at a convention on Halloween night, and you have a formula for the biggest costume party of the year! While there were a variety of events one could attend, many people were simply hanging out and enjoying seeing old friends, making new ones, and spying out all the anime-inspired attire. I have to admit that I was very impressed...while there were still a few outfits that had obviously been made on the cheap, most were nice and some were stunning. The world of cosplay has changed dramatically over the years, but particularly in the care that costumers now take.
The only problem that was a constant at the convention was something that reared its proverbial ugly head right from the beginning when I attended the opening ceremonies. They started late...not just a few minutes late, but 45 minutes late, which can be frustrating when there are other things to see and do. The crowd who had waited over an hour and a half for what turned out to be a lackadaisical 15-minute presentation was none too pleased. While musical guest Lemon Demon helped created a song for Youmacon, it was not performed live, and a technical delay (and an incorrect announcement) had most folks heading to the doors before a Lupin video played that introduced the weekend's special guests. Sadly, these kind of delays due to technical issues popped up in almost every major session I attended that required A/V beyond a TV and a DVD player.
After the issues there, I went to check out the dealer's room and the artist alley. The dealer's room was not unlike many I'd seen before...that is to say, far too crowded to really appreciate all the wares for sale. I'm not quite sure why dealers bring a lot of DVDs that can be purchased at any Best Buy for $10 less, but perhaps they sell. I was far more interested in the unique items, such as the posters, stuffed animals, figures, and general Japanese interest items (ala Pocky). But as it was, there was plenty of variety available for purchase, and my only wish would be that the dealers would be given a little more room to breathe. I'm sure I missed seeing some good deals and exciting items because there just wasn't space to see everything. Of course, this is not a fault of Youmacon in particular; dealer space is always at a premium, it seems.
The artist alley was a mix of a variety of styles and interests, which was fascinating. I struck up a brief conversation with a 30-something woman who was busy sketching a Superman picture on commission (quite to her own surprise at an anime convention). However, what the variety in the artist alley showed was that the current generation of anime fans are not so interested in keeping anime compartmentalized from other interests and art forms. It used to be that American characters were frowned upon as "simplistic" at anime gatherings, but now it seems that quality material of all kinds is more accepted. I'm somewhat ambivalent about that -- I'm interested in anime conventions for the anime and not for D&D and American superheroes -- but perhaps it shows just how accepted anime is becoming in teenage circles. Meanwhile, I have to say that some of the artists are really pretty amazing. One booth offered to create anime-style characters of your friends and family based on a picture or brief sitting, and seeing examples, I was floored. While a full-color picture was $40 and thus out of my price range, I have to admit that I was very tempted to have them create a new mascot for the site based on my wife. Maybe next year!
The other room I frequented on Friday was the gaming room. Now I've participated in lan gaming before, but the setup was very impressive and included everything from popular American XBox 360 titles to imports from Japan like Initial D. Watching a few guys with feet flying on DDR was really something! But what was most striking was that there were many games you couldn't play anywhere else (except perhaps at another convention). With the advent of online downloading of shows and retailers that sell most anything by mail-order, a lot of the shows and products available at the con could be found elsewhere...but that's not true with many of the titles you could put your hands on in the gaming room. And even if Japanese fighters aren't really my thing, I still found myself drawn to the room inbetween other points of interest during the con. This was easily the best-run part of Youmacon, from what I experienced.
While there were plenty of panels and showings throughout the convention, I found it difficult to get to all the ones that interested me, while a number didn't excite an old-school fan. Again, though, I am no longer the target audience, so this isn't really surprising. I also popped my head into a few different events like live-action Mario Party, and it was a clear hit, so I don't think many attendees would complain. I also have to give a shout out to the Spoony Bards, who regaled those in the hotel lobby with songs from "Kona wa Hurricane" from Bubblegum Crisis to "duvet" from Serial Experiments Lain and every show in between. They were extremely talented, and I have to say that I never minded listening to them in my down time.
Saturday was the strongest day in terms of panel content, and I found plenty to keep me busy then. One of the best bits was the ADR Boot Camp, which pulled a number of people out of the audience to create an "instant" soundtrack to an anime for young children. The presenters, Michael Sinterniklass and Evelyn Lantto from NYAV Post, did a great job of getting people involved and showing folks just how voice dubbing is done. (Those paying attention would also see just how difficult a job it really is, too.) This was followed by Voice Actor Radio, which brought a huge number of the convention guests together in a single room to act out a 1930s Flash Gordon radio show. Not only was it utterly hysterical, it also showed that the majority of VAs are trained actors who love to improv and work in a free-form setting very unlike that of a typical anime recording session.
Later in the afternoon, I participated in a panel called A Parent's Guide To Anime. Being a parent now, I thought it might be interesting. As it turned out, there was a lone mom in an InuYasha costume leading the thing. The panel evolved on the spot as a couple of us turned out to be "ringers" who actually write about anime, and we were able to answer a variety of questions for the folks in attendance. It was actually pretty rewarding for me, though I don't know if the parents who came agreed!
My Saturday wrapped up with two panels led by Toshifumi Yoshida from Bandai Entertainment and his wife Trish Ledoux, who is rather legendary in older anime circles for her work on seminal fan publications like Animag and her eventual move into the anime industry proper. The first panel, which was on translation issues and why some manga seem far more competently rewritten than others, was a gem. Although my specialty now is in Greek and Hebrew rather than Japanese, many of the issues carry over. The truth is, many translations are now farmed out to folks with barely more Japanese language background than myself to save money, and they stumble through their dictionary to come up with something passable. In the process, of course, nuance is lost. Was it an encouraging seminar? Nope, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The second panel was simply on new Bandai releases, but Toshi was a fun host who genuinely seemed to love his job. I got the chance to speak with both briefly before and after the panels, and they are a class act. Look for them at the next convention you attend, for these are folks who know what they're doing.
While there was plenty more at the convention to do and a handful of things on Sunday that I would have loved to have seen, my regular job beckoned. But the truth is, one could have done a ton at the convention on a completely different track. A friend from THEM Anime Reviews who goes by the call sign "X-Sesshoumaru-X" wrote to me after the convention telling me of his experiences. It turns out that we never met because our paths never overlapped. We both experienced some of the same frustrations -- short panels, tech problems and delays, overlap between panels of interest, the dinky sales room -- but we also found the convention to be enjoyable overall.
If I were to be honest with myself, I think that Youmacon 2008 proved that my days as an American otaku may be numbered. Not my days as a viewer, mind you, and probably not as a reviewer. But it seems that anime is becoming the realm of teens almost exclusively. When I went to the Youmacon forums to check some facts after the convention, I found the profiles of some of the folks I met; in almost every case, they were younger than what I had thought...14 and 15 rather than 18 and 19. And moreover, the shows that I loved from a few years ago are nowhere to be found. It used to be that anime was a hobby where timeliness didn't matter. No more! The latest and greatest is on display and the rest (save perhaps for a few standards like stuffed items from the Miyazaki films) have vanished.
That said, if you're a teen in the Detroit area who loves anime, this is the perfect 4-day hangout. Back when I was watching Robotech in 1986, I would have loved something like this. And for its problems, Youmacon 2008 was worth attending even as an adult. There's more than enough for any fan, whether new to anime or a longtime aficionado. Just be prepared...if you're old enough to remember VHS, you may feel a little out of place.