Saying I go to a lot of anime conventions would be a serious understatement. Since November of 2008, I’ve been to around 30, up and down the East Coast, from Nashua NH all the way to Chesapeake VA. For me, it’s a mix of hobby, passion and devotion, rooted in my intense interest in people, culture and their own devotions, one I find immensely satisfying…and at the very least sating my own love of travel.
Earlier this month, I had the chance to go back to one of the first cons I ever attended, Anime NEXT in Somerset New Jersey. I’ve been attending this one on and off since 2003, when it was still being held in NY, and have had a chance to watch it grow from a small hotel-based convention into…well, a large hotel-based convention. But one constant that has surrounded this convention is the quality of the event, in terms of programming, events, guests and general fun, all things that are important to the continued existence of such events.
People complain about the “new location.” Since 2009, the event has been held at the Garden State Exposition Center and attached Doubletree hotel, after spending a few years in Secaucus, floating around the Meadowlands. Most of the complaints center around the general “out in left field” nature of the Expo Center, as it is located in a rather “remote” part of Central New Jersey, removed from trains and busses which ran to the old location frequently. Personally, I have never had issue with the location, as it has ample parking, is located directly off a main roadway, and is decently spread out. (I drive in, as it’s actually easier and about the same price, so mass transit options really don’t matter to me.) The con makes good use of the facilities as well, keeping Main Events and Commerce in the Expo Center itself, while spreading out the panels and viewings in the Doubletree. Both venues are connected via a walkway and a rather large lawn that inevitably gets used up by cosplayers, and people who just feel like hanging around outside. While it can be initially confusing, especially to someone who has never been to the con before, it’s generally easy to figure out the layout. Another plus is the space available in the lobbies and walkways, a rarity in most hotel cons. Gaming areas, for both video and tabletop, are in outside buildings, notably the Holiday Inn across from the Expo Center, and have been for a couple of years now. While that saves space for the con itself, sometimes it makes for quite the sight watching attendees first scour the entire grounds looking for the room, then darting across traffic when they realize where it is exactly that they want to go. Since I never partake of the gaming options at ANext, I can’t speak for layout/location of those rooms.
Walkway. Courtesy of AnimeJutsu.com
One downside to this year: in an attempt to increase panel space, the convention decided to move the Artist Alley out of the Doubletree and into the Expo Center. While this is a good idea in theory, it didn’t work out quite as well in practice, as it was situated right next to Main Events and was subjected to a decrease in Artist space and a whole lot of noise. Some attendees mentioned they liked it having been moved, some did not. I was one of the latter, and found the new location a put-off. As someone who is friendly with a lot of artists, I could barely carry on a conversation at all over the weekend. And since I could barely hear myself thinking, I could only imagine what kind of challenge it posed to those artists taking commissions.
AnimeNEXT is possibly the only convention I’ve ever been to with 24 hours of something going on, be it gaming, panels, viewings or whatnot. There is ALWAYS something to do, so, theoretically, boredom is rarely an option. And fortunately, that something tends to be worthwhile. Panel variety is always great, almost on par with Anime Boston, a good mix of fandom panels, fan panels, educational panels and art workshops. And the panels are (usually) well attended.
I only had time to attend 2 this weekend, owing to my time spent giving my own panels. But the ones I did see were well worth the time. “Fandom and Criticism,” which is a panel I’ve been wanting to see since last year’s AnimeNEXT, was hosted by Evan and Ink of Ani-gamers and Hisui from the Reversethieves, and was centered around ideas of “active viewing,” including reviews, multiple views and other topics gleaned towards getting more out of your viewing time. Given the amount of media out there to explore, sometimes you only get one shot at what you’re seeing, so you might as well make it worthwhile. This is something the panelists tried to get across, and they shared from their own experiences as active viewers and reviewers, offering tips and strategies on how to select, view and eventually review new shows.
I also somehow found my way into Bad Anime, Bad! on Friday night, a panel with a long-standing reputation for being, well, bad. But in a good way. Paying homage to the often questionable content, writing and dubbing of anime throughout history, this panel highlighted some of the truly inane, insane and downright head-scratching translations and voiceovers that not many know, but should. And while I admit I didn’t know a lot of what was shown, it made me want to see more.
Edward Cullen confessing his love for "Buffy" and why fangirls scare him.
I ended up giving 4 panels the entire weekend: Con Horror Stories, which turned into an open forum with tales given from “Edward Cullen,” “Pedobear,” and a whole lot of attendees who have been through some truly trying experiences in the name of fandom; Kowai, which was a look into monsters and ghosts throughout Japanese history, and was shoved into a very small room with no AC at all, but somehow turned into a 2 hour retrospective of Japanese sacred culture; Fanthropology, which also became an open forum for fans to discuss issues in fandom, their research and some of the stereotypes and difficulties involved with being fans; and finally “An International Game of Telephone” which was scheduled late but still managed to pull in quite a few people.
Over the weekend, I heard a lot of people remark that the Dealer’s Room seemed smaller this year. If it was, it would have been very hard to notice, as it was packed all weekend with people spending their money on whatever struck their fancy. It was truly refreshing to see so many people there, when at some of the other cons I’ve been to recently seemed to have less vendor presence. And it was just as packed Sunday as it was Friday.
But one notable remark: whereas in previous years there were a lot of places to choose from with regards to media, this year it seemed more focused on collectables and culture goods. This became apparent to me when it took about a half hour to track down 3 volumes of a recent manga. For those interested in collecting things that were not DVDs or manga, it was a solid selection. For those seeking the media that brought them out in the first place, not much luck.
…continue their streak of not catching my attention. Though I did witness gigantic lines for both the Masquerade and the Rave, which I found impressive, especially given the fact that last year they were a whole lot shorter.
Eric Cartman's worst nightmare…LINES LINES, ALWAYS LINES!
There were a lot more people this year. And by a lot, I do mean A LOT. How can I tell? Well, usually by Saturday night the hotel is a bit on the empty side, as people head to the rave or head home. Not so this year, as the lobby of the Doubletree seemed packed all weekend. Add this to the massive rave lines, and it was obvious there were a lot more people than last year. Not that this detracted from the overall experience. Hardly, as I found the crowd this year to actually be more interesting than others. There was almost no meme-shouting to speak of, and the panel audiences seemed genuinely interested in the topics being discussed.
Also of interest, at least to me: after spending two years here with a small presence of dedicated Doctor Who fans, this year it exploded. Which only makes me laugh at how far that fandom has come, especially in relation to anime conventions.
AnimeNEXT is hardly a perfect convention. But in this world, there really aren’t any that are truly flawless. But despite having its flaws, AnimeNEXT manages to keep producing a solid event year after year. I’m interested in seeing where the con goes now, as they appeared to outgrow their location this time around. But I will be attending next year.