It would probably be better for everybody if New York Anime Fest ceased to exist. I don’t mean that New York Comic Con should throw out 20,000 anime fans and establish an embargo against Japanese pop culture. I mean that New York Anime Fest and New York Comic Con being separate entities works only to the detriment of Japanese animation, comics, their fans, and perhaps all nerd-dom.
The decision to combine NYCC and NYAF was pretty obvious for their handlers at the for-profit Reed Exhibitions: attendance at NYAF had peaked, and NYCC (which, as many have noted, is well on its way to becoming San Diego East) is a far glitzier and more successful convention held in the same high-rent building, the Javits Center. The small, suffering US anime/manga business could never hope to match the combined efforts of every other geek field in the country, so assimilation was the best choice.
As you walk into the Javits, there isn’t a sign for NYAF to be seen. This is New York Comic Con: your badge just happens to get you into some Japanese stuff too. NYAF is labeled as a separate convention in the same building, but NYCC is so massive that there isn’t really room for the two of them. A few of the bigger Japanese anime producers (Bandai, Aniplex) were out there in prominent spots on the show floor, but most of New York Anime Fest took place far from the eyes of the average visitor, in what I and many other commentators have nicknamed an “anime ghetto.”
The first indication was along a wall at the furthest edge of the show floor. It was a tiny, narrow aisle— probably the worst real estate on the floor— where all of the usual dealers you’d expect to see at any anime convention were packed together. Unfortunately, there was much more interest in the aisle’s offerings than physical space in the aisle. You could get in, but once you did, the bodies of other nerds would snap together all around you and lock you down: a friend told me the sad tale of how he saw an item of interest three tables away, entered the aisle, and gave up on ever reaching that table fifteen minutes later.
Far from the exhibition floor, there was an invisible line in the Javits Center that weekend: one that denoted where the comic con ended and where the anime con began. I marked this line down in my mind late in the first day, when I stopped to make a phone call and saw my first pack of running, screaming Hetalia cosplayers. This display was immediately followed by a creepy girl who was going around the hallway alone and serially glomping any character she recognized. It had taken me all day to get there— NYCC offered me more as a gamer than NYAF offered me as an anime fan— but there was no mistaking that I was now in Anime Country.
Not too much further from where I was standing was the full-fledged anime ghetto: the area containing the “anime artists’ alley,” the maid lounge beyond that, and the panel rooms all the way in the back. This stuff was on the other end of the con center from NYCC, far enough from anything of note that you’d miss it if you weren’t specifically looking for it. The average visitor probably didn’t notice that there was an anime anything going on.
NYCC and NYAF have two distinct artists’ alleys. I don’t know what the criteria for placement are; whether the artists apply to a section themselves or whether they’re sorted by style. I do know that if I were an artist, regardless of personal affiliation, I’d much rather be placed in the NYCC alley— well-populated, spacious, and quickly accessible from the main show floor— than across the building, down an escalator, and packed in as tightly as space will allow.
Now the maid lounge, on the other hand, was ingenious. I loathed it, but its function could not be questioned. At NYAF’s inception, this was intended to be a “maid cafe,” Akiba-style: the only problem was that the local law didn’t actually allow the girls to serve anything, thus leaving only tables and maids. As the con went along, a stage for performances was added, and this year the whole area was an always-running performance space.
You know how the masquerade— that unbearable marathon procession of the most obnoxious in by-fans, for-fans live entertainment— is the most popular event at every anime con, no matter what? This was a masquerade that ran all day. Cosplayers would come up to some music and do a little shuffle on the stage for thirty seconds at a time, to the overwhelmed delight of a vast, constantly expanding crowd that stayed above a hundred decibels no matter how many times they saw the spectacle repeat.
This was when the situation really started to make sense. Yes, the anime business is poor (if you’re ever wondering “what’s the anime business got to do with me?” please remember the anime ghetto), and it makes sense that they’d be pushed back while Hollywood and videogames took the good spots. However, it just so happened that this arrangement was very good at keeping as many anime kids as far away from the proper event as possible. It was a playpen. The difference between the atmosphere and behavior in the anime ghetto versus the rest of NYCC was night and day. Anime fans were just such a pain in the ass to everybody around them that herding them off someplace remote (even though it was probably accidental!) wound up being a service to everybody else in the building.
At first glance, or if you’ve never been to an anime convention, you might want to feel insulted by this. Resist that impulse. To risk sounding like an old man worried about his lawn, NYAF was like a daycare missing its nanny. Anime fandom has skewed young for years (Sailor Moon, Pokemon, the manga boom, take your pick), and on one level I think it’s great that we’re the geek subculture that’s getting all this new blood. Even though they don’t stay. This stuff’s for kids, right?
Meanwhile, there’s something about anime fandom that pulls folks of all ages over the line from youthful enthusiasm into just being obnoxious. If I knew exactly what that factor was, I’d already have exploited it and I’d be throwing a Gundam-themed cocktail party on my boat with the other billionaires. But I don’t.
Between the squealing, the chasing, and the desperate pleading for attention with paddles and signs, I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 16 sticking around longer than five minutes after stumbling upon this place. As an adult I felt, as usual, like I was at the wrong nerd party. As an anime/manga fan I merely endured the place, because that’s where the panels and the showings were. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to walk down into this ghetto— like my generation walked into the Animation aisle at Blockbuster Video— and meet and fall in love with anime. The niche culture is too deeply entrenched, and the scene on the con floor exemplifies anime’s image problem with the geek mainstream.
It’s deeply frustrating that it’s come to that, because Friday night a damn good sci-fi movie premiered for the first time anywhere at the very back of the anime ghetto. Inexplicably scheduled against an otaku blockbuster, perhaps sixty people were present out of the nearly hundred thousand people who attended that weekend. I believe its appeal could have been a little wider than that. In Japan, America, or anywhere, something is wrong with this picture.
I’m not convinced that anime/manga or their fans are better served by labeling NYAF as a distinct entity from NYCC, even if the two cons were given an identical amount of space to work with (and that’s not happening). Would it be so crazy to run events about Japanese cartoons and comics at, uh, Comic Con? Ryu Moto and his friends (pool pool) were Japanese folks with comics to sell. They went to the Comic Con artist’s alley. There was no separate “anime industry” show floor because the big companies like Bandai and Funi and Aniplex understand that exposure is to 80,000 potential new fans is important and the sanctity of a fan-created label is not.
What exactly has separating Japan’s animation and comics from everybody else’s done for us? The whole phenomenon is a construction of the Western fanbase (on both sides!) that’s done nothing but force us deeper and deeper into ultra-niche irrelevance. NYCC’s show floor had room for every kind of nerd. By no means did the show limit itself to comics: people were shilling absolutely anything they thought might sell to a geek. If we insist upon being the anime ghetto at a show like this, all we’re doing is holding ourselves back.
On the way out of NYCC, banners make clear that NYCC/NYAF is how it’s going to happen again next year. This is unfortunate: the current setup fails at promoting and advocating for anime/manga, while disappointing fans who might have expected a truly distinct convention. NYCC should be straight with anime fans and swallow up NYAF and its branding while still running anime/manga content, rather than offer expectations it can’t exactly follow through on. The first year of this is one thing— nobody knew how it was going to come out— but I don’t see nearly as many anime fans being willing to bring another $50 for Anime Ghetto 2: Don’t Call It A Comeback. Does NYCC need anime fans? Not particularly. But anime fans don’t realize that they need NYCC, and badly.