24 June 2010

Anime Next: a review

Anime Next was my second anime convention. Prior to discovering the wide world of congoing, I spent the first few years of my expeditions into fandom gatherings at the local science fiction convention, ICON, where I always saw anime as a sort of lesser-thing, relegated to a side track somewhere inside the massive campus, tucked behind the gamers and carnival enthusiasts and ignored.
This was in the late 90s and the early 00s, when I was generally unaware that there were actually conventions dedicated to anime somewhere. I had a passing notion of Otakon, mostly thanks to Metal Gear Solid, but it seemed to me like some sort of Mecca in the Mid Atlantic, where a proper pilgrimage must be undertaken, something I was neither ready nor able to prepare. Then one day, not long after BAAF 2003 (my first “proper” anime convention, a term I use loosely since BAAF was something of a joke), a friend of mine told me that I should look into Anime Next, a small convention then located at the Rye Hilton in Rye NY. He told me mostly because at the time I was a crazed fan of Outlaw Star, and the creator just happened to be there that weekend. So, in a flurry of preparations and cash-stashing, I made the trip via Metro North up to Rye, walked about a mile from the station to the con, and entered a larger world.

I relate this story now because it has been something of a pleasure to see how much Anime Next has grown over the years, from a small hotel in the middle of nowhere, to the Meadowlands (though I admittedly skipped a lot of those cons) and now to the Doubletree and Garden State Expo Center. In a world where the chance to see a con grow is something of an rarity, witnessing how this con has expanded itself is both refreshing and interesting, because I have seen where it was, and now where it is going.

Last year, Anime Next moved itself from the Meadowlands in Secaucus to the Garden State Expo Center, a bit of a distance down the Turnpike and off the beaten path. Since it is no longer located that close to the city, getting there is a bit of a trek, but once one arrives they can find something of a jewel in the rough: a con that is well laid out, with a nice flow, once you get used to it.

It does get some getting used to. While the Expo center is the perfect staging ground for Main Events and the Dealer’s Room, once it comes down to navigating the Doubletree things get a little bit confusing. Panel rooms are very spaced out, with a cluster on the second floor, another next to the Artist Alley, and a few others down side hallways. At first glance, it can be a bit of a challenge locating where one needs to go, especially if there are no signs pointing the way. I myself almost got lost on the way to my first panel, as others did as well, since they trickled in over the course of the hour. The one true benefit of the Doubtletree as a location is that everything on the main floor is somewhat centrally located, so travel from Karaoke to Artists is close and simple to navigate, with food right in the middle.

Speaking of food, there is plenty to go around, if one is willing to look. I had the good fortune of finding the cafe in the Expo Center on my first day, and spent the entire weekend eating there: the food was good and reasonably priced...in certain areas. While drinks were still a bit overpriced, the true deal of the weekend was the pulled pork sandwich, which, at $6, was better than anything else they were serving. Aside from that, there was always hotel concessions, which were predictably expensive. As for outside food...well, without a car there was a challenge to find really anything. Indeed, the biggest complaint I overheard the entire weekend was at least in Secaucus there were food options all around. Here, it was very hit-or-miss, depending on what one wanted and what one could afford.

I suppose the true advantage of the Doubletree/Expo Center is in the large amounts of outdoor space available for gatherings, photoshoots and impromptu events. While walking in between buildings, it was commonplace to see things like cosplay baseball, dancing, duck-duck-goose and whatever else the congoers desired to play. If one could take the creeping heat and humidity, it was a fine diversion from the halls and the masses.

A few downsides: Video gaming and viewing rooms were separate from the main complex, which was extremely confusing for people looking to partake. I found out only on the last day that viewings were across the road in a separate building, and I overhead a good deal of complaining that games were across the street in the Holiday Inn. Also, the air-conditioning in the entire complex was not functioning properly, which lead to a lot of overheating of both people and technology over the course of the weekend. While water was plentiful for the living, the projectors in panel 3 kept going down in the middle of panels, forcing them to stop while the video machines rebooted.

I remember my first Anime Next was memorable because I didn’t do anything. I spent all of that year wandering halls and talking with people, which was a very welcome change of pace for me. Now that I am older, and possibly wiser, I appreciate a good programming schedule, especially if I am attending the convention alone. I am glad to say that Anime Next provides a little bit for everybody.

I must preface my comments with the following information: I spent a good 6 hours of my weekend giving panels. Because of this, there were a lot of panels I wanted to attend, but could not, either because they were scheduled right up against mine, or because they were right after and my body was still trying to recover. But those panels I did attend were often very informative.

First off, I woke myself up early to attend the “Otaku Perceptions and Misconceptions” panel on Sunday Morning. I was greeted by a room full of enthusiasts who spent an hour in lively discussion, mostly on the stereotype of what an otaku is, how they identify themselves, how they invoke (or disavow) membership in the group, and where they might be going in the future. I always find these panels to be insightful and entertaining, if a bit off topic at times. This one was no exception, and the girls presenting it were well informed and more than capable of relaying that information.

On Saturday, I swung by “Conventioneers”, “War Stories from the Conventions” and “Shame of the Otaku.” I love panels like this, because they are a main source of not just information for neophyte congoers, but because they are often hilarious sessions of sharing the types of stories only congoers can have. In particular, there was a moment at the War Stories panel where American conventions were being compared to one in China, which was described as “you could put the entire Javits Center (in NY) into the ground floor of this convention center and wheel it around,” which illustrated the enormity of the foreign convention and how it dwarfs anything we might have here in the US. I did get some good stories from those panels.

There were plenty of other panels that I heard about through the grapevine, but was unable to attend: “Fandom & Criticism, The Art of Active Viewing” was right after “Inside the Lives of Congoing Otaku” and by the time I got there it was more than half over; “History of Mecha” was plagued by technological problems early on and never quite got off the ground; “Anime/Manga Influence on the US” ran into “Dead Like Us”; and I died just as “Changing Faces of Anime” was starting.

I suppose one of the more interesting moments for me, at least, was during my Miyazaki panel: just as it was starting, everyone was yanked out of the room and moved down the hall to the larger panel 2. There, the room was filled to the brim, and the doors left open, so people could attend and contribute. I will say, it was probably the most satisfying moment of my weekend as a panelist. I also learned that I can indeed give 5 panels over the course of one weekend...but I probably shouldn’t.

Anime Next has a decent sized Dealer’s Room, larger than Nekocon or AMA but far smaller than Anime Boston, NYAF or Otakon. That said, the selection was both solid, and a little disappointing. While there were a good deal more vendors, many of them sell the same wares as others, making price comparisons much more necessary, but variety a bit quelled. After three of four rounds of the room, I discovered a lot of what I had been looking for (mostly multi-fandom items like board games and steampunk gadgets) were either in short supply, or missing entirely. While I was able to track down a good deal of the manga I was seeking, and I got a great deal on a box set of “Beast King: Golion” (aka Voltron), I found a lot of the room very redundant. I suppose my standards are probably a bit high, seeing as how I hit a lot of cons and have a lot to compare with, but after two or three visits, the room had lost its novelty.

Fortunately, the Artist Alley completely made up for it. While I had to force myself to reign in my natural tendencies to spend, the variety, and quality, of the art was very high, and I still managed to spend some dollars there. Seeing as how there is a general trend moving away from the Dealer’s Room, artists have seen something of an increase in their own wares, and they continue to give the community what it wants, in terms of fanart, commissions and nifty crafts.

Events and Guests
First off, I often say it’s not really a convention without Greg Ayres. And this convention had Greg Ayres. Eternally a good sport, especially at the charity dunk tank, Greg brings a flavor to the con that is easily identifiable...mostly because he DJs the rave, and is an awesome DJ at that. I found myself, leather jacket and all, inside the rave for at least a half hour Saturday night just to listen to him spin.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the rave, but I didn’t have any myself. But I did witness a lot of “impromptu” raving going on outside Main Events on Saturday night, featuring both staff an attendees.

I didn’t attend many of main events, aside from the AMV contest, but it was hard not to notice the lines snaking around the expo center (and even into the Doubletree at one point) waiting for the fun to start.

I don’t know how to best describe the energy around Anime Next. It varied a lot, from spastic and aggressive to mellow and relaxing. Indeed, Anime Next is one of the few conventions I attend where energy is all related to where one happens to be at the time. The most palpable areas are, of course, Main Events and the Dealer’s Room, but there are times when the hallways are full of excitement. Likewise, you can feel the vibe of a good panel often within moments of it beginning.

I suppose the best way to describe the feel of the convention is energetic. Whether it be excitement, anxiety, anticipation or whatever, the halls are always full of energy, and it never dissipates, not even at 5 AM. Anime Next is truly a 24 hour convention: no matter when you’re there, there will be something to do.

This went on longer than I thought...I suppose I need to address a concern a lot of people give about Anime Next- was the move worth it? In my opinion, emphatically yes. What they sacrificed in terms of layout and location, they gained in exactly the same way. Space is well utilized now, everything is close together, it’s easy to navigate once you get used to it, and there is still room to grow. Last year I was told things were a little shaky, but that’s to be expected. This year things were flowing far more smoothly.

I hope Anime Next continues to grow and thrive. It is one of those conventions that seek to provide a quality experience for their attendees, and for the most part, they succeed admirably. There will, of course, always be challenges and little things that need improving, but that is a truth for any event or gathering of a community. Look past the blemishes, though, and there is a wonderful experience waiting for you.