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An Animated Gathering of Fans in Anaheim

Expo: Thousands of aficionados snatch up Japanese anime products and news at three-day event.

July 19, 1999|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Production of both animated features and television series in the U.S. has reached record levels, but that output is still dwarfed by the staggering volume of work turned out by Japanese studios.

Americans' growing hunger for Japanese animation, usually referred to as anime (AH-nee-may), was evident over the weekend at the Anime Expo in Anaheim. More than 4,500 animation fans crowded the Anaheim Hilton and Towers and the adjacent Convention Center for the three-day conference, exhibition and sale.

With a few notable exceptions--the popular "Pokemon" series on WB and Miramax's scheduled theatrical release in the fall of Hiyao Miyazaki's record-breaking "Princess Mononoke"--Japanese animation is rarely shown on television or in theaters in the U.S.

The feeding-frenzy mentality on the floor of the Convention Center reflected the difficulty U.S. fans have finding it. To see anime here, they must buy videocassettes, laser discs or DVDs from a small number of stores and online sources.

Most of the exhibitors' booths were devoted to video in various formats, and buyers were grabbing cassettes and multi-disc sets like kids in the proverbial candy store. T-shirts, posters, tchotchkes and toys (some not yet officially available in the U.S.) also sold briskly, as did Pokemon key chains, Pikachu alarm clocks, production and serigraph cels, "Sailor Moon" figurines, CDs and trading cards.

Things were a bit calmer inside the Hilton, although problems with the computer registration system resulted in block-long lines and sore tempers.

During informal panels devoted to favorite series and artists, visiting Japanese directors, designers and voice actors talked about their careers, dropped hints about future projects and answered questions.

Speakers from major video companies noted that many Japanese studios are reluctant to release films in DVD format because Japan lags behind the United States in adopting the new technology. (The limited capacity of the remaining laser disc plants in Japan has caused additional problems.)

U.S. studios, on the other hand, have lagged behind Japan in the direct-to-video market, and only recently have begun making video-only sequels of major theatrical hits ("The Lion King," "Aladdin"), films that were moderate successes ("The Land Before Time," "All Dogs Go to Heaven") and even some box office flops ("The Swan Princess").

Direct-to-video animation has been a mainstay of the Japanese market for years, and such popular series as "Tenchi," "Ranma 1/2" and "Urusei Yatsura" have been made into theatrical features, television programs and the direct-to-video sequels known as OAVs.

The liveliest session on Friday was a trivia contest with a "Jeopardy!"-like format. Four contestants vied to be the first to answer such posers as "What is Ryoko's occupation in the 'Tenchi' series?" or "Who does Ash lose his first Pokemon match to?" (The answers: space pirate and Ajay). Audience members shouted encouragement, hooted and offered corrections when anyone missed a question or a detail.

The Anaheim Expo suggested that anime fandom is largely a Gen-X phenomenon: Some teenagers, a few families and a handful of graying Baby Boomers were present, but the overwhelming majority of attendees were in their 20s.

Men outnumbered women 2 to 1, and although large numbers of Asian Americans were present, the makeup of the crowd showed that the appeal of anime transcends ethnic lines. A few people came in costume as a favorite anime character; others affected kimono or vaguely Japanese robes, but the overwhelming majority opted for T-shirts with jeans or shorts.

Anime Expo '99 included panel discussions, screenings, an art exhibit, a masquerade party and a charity auction to raise money for the City of Hope in support of its research into childhood diseases.

The Expo was one in a continentwide series of programs: similar expositions were held earlier this year in Illinois, Washington, Texas and Maryland; additional events are scheduled in coming months for Toronto, Colorado, Georgia and Virginia.

Now in its ninth year, Expo is sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to popularizing Japanese animated films and manga (comics) in the U.S. and to facilitating communication between animation fans and professionals.

At this time, the influence of anime on American animation has largely been restricted to a few TV programs, notably "Batman Beyond" and "The Powder Puff Girls." If its influence is to increase, the SPJA should consider inviting American artists to participate in future Expos to foster dialogue among the artists.

Anime Expo offers a chance for potentially exciting artistic cross-pollination; in its present form, it's essentially a meeting for a rapidly growing fan club.

Charles Solomon writes about animation regularly for Calendar.

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