Japan Expo is a well-established convention in France, but in America, it’s still a new con. This year’s Japan Expo USA, called its Second Impact (which might raise a red flag for anyone who watched “Neon Genesis Evangelion”), moved from Santa Clara to the San Mateo Event Center, but brought with it many big-name guests, such as Izumi Matsumoto, Gen Urobuchi, and Shinji Aramaki.
Inside the convention itself, attendees were welcomed to rows of booths about Japanese art, culture, and history. Those expecting a purely anime-centric convention quickly learned that Japan Expo celebrated not only Japanese media and entertainment, and for many, that was a welcome addition. Throughout the weekend, one could watch traditional Japanese dances, giant calligraphy, and martial arts demonstrations.
The martial arts demonstrations, though, happened to be in the same room as all the panels were scheduled, which made it very difficult to hear many of the panels. That was certainly a poor placement issue.
Past the entrance lay the usual sights of an anime convention. The dealer’s hall and artist alley were in a single building in the event center, with all the usual goods on sale. Anyone who frequents anime conventions knows what to expect, and while the amount of vendors was somewhat limited (some refused to return after the costs of setting up a booth last year resulted in little payout), the typical toys, anime, manga, and other assorted items on any geek’s shopping list were available.
The convention extended through more than just the single hall, though, with areas outside for food and entertainment. Two stages faced each other, one showing Japanese performances and dances, while the other was for the musical guests and cosplay contest. This did occasionally result in there being two performances drowning out each other, so once more, placement was an issue. However, there were several food trucks lined up, selling Japanese food such as okonomiyaki and takoyaki to those willing to wait in line for a while.
Although the convention did have a game room, it was rather limited in its options. It had several GameCubes set up for “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” but only enough controllers for two per console, and the controllers were damaged at that. Other consoles were set up for more fighting games, with occasional tournaments throughout the day, but there was little in the way of games that weren’t fighting-based.
There was, however, a good selection of panels to stop by each day, though many of them were, as previously mentioned, stuck opposite the martial arts demonstrations. Of particular note are the ones hosted by Greggo’s Game Shows, where the host runs game shows where audience members can come up and test their anime knowledge and luck for prizes.
Most attendees were there for the guests, because there were some incredible ones available. To get autographs, attendees would first have to line up for tickets, which were awarded on either a first come, first served basis, or through a lottery. Those who were lucky enough to get tickets could then come back at the right time to get in another line for the autograph session. However, there was an error earlier that prevented some attendees from having their badges scan properly, and those who were there on a professional badge, no matter what the reason for it, could not get autograph tickets.
There were some excellent guests in attendance, though, which was the main draw for most of the attendees. I took a few minutes to speak with Izumi Matsumoto, creator of “Kimagure Orange Road,” for a brief interview. He has been in the business for longer than I’ve been alive, and has seen the changes that manga has been through, though he remains optimistic about the future of manga, pointing to series like “Death Note” as an example of good ones to learn from. For those who want to create manga, or anything else, really, he advises to not only practice and take inspiration from the series you enjoy, but to take your other passions and include them in your works, so that you can create something that you love and that comes from your interests.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a convention without cosplay. While there was a cosplay stage, with gatherings organized by American Cosplay Paradise, the gatherings were not well advertised by the convention, and the stage was facing away from the rest of the event. Last year’s, on the other hand, had the stage located right within the convention center, and was easy to spot while remaining placed moderately away from any other stages that might interfere. On the plus side, gatherings in honor of specific guests often had those guests attend, so those cosplaying from a series written by Gen Urobuchi, for instance, got to meet the man himself, and were treated to pictures and an autograph.
The convention also ran two cosplay contests, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, with varied attendance for each.
The San Mateo Event Center, however, was a poor choice for locations. There was no hotel attached to it, so those with multiple costumes each day could not return to their rooms to change easily. (However, there were changing stations set up, and anyone with a damaged prop or costume could get it quickly fixed with help from the Bay Area Propmakers.) The parking lot offered no in-and-out privileges, so when someone arrived, they’d pay $10 to park (in addition to their existing hotel parking fees if they stayed at any in the area), and could not leave and re-enter without paying another ten bucks. That also meant that going to any nearby food areas was out of the question, unless the attendees were willing to take a long walk to Whole Foods; otherwise, they’d be stuck with the event center’s lines, prices, and options.
Though the event ran for three days, Saturday was by far the busiest. The crowds had died down a bit by Sunday, as many attendees had decided there was nothing left to do there. To be honest, there was only so much one could really do for the most part; the exhibits were interesting, but not “three days of looking at them” interesting, while the performances often repeated themselves. While that was great for people who only went for one day, anime con attendees in the area are used to going to conventions for an entire weekend, and the lack of variety or interactivity made many bored by the time it was over.
That is yet another symptom of the convention’s transition from the French style of anime conventions to the type of con California con-goers are used to. Attendees are accustomed to a certain style of convention, and Japan Expo is still learning to adapt to that style. There still remained issues with the location itself, communication (particularly between convention staff and event center security, who were reportedly turning people away for their props or telling them to check their props when there was no peace bonding station), and the placement of certain events, but hopefully the staff will learn from this and work to make the Third Impact a better one.
In short, Japan Expo USA was fine for people attending a single day, but still had many issues in need of fixing, and grew boring quickly for those who went for more than one day. While I remain optimistic for future years, this one was a step down from the last. Still, this year did fix many of the issues people had with the last, such as needing to scan their badges every time they entered or exited the convention (although that was replaced with an issue where some attendees never received a confirmation email for their badges), so it’s clear that they’re listening. We all want Japan Expo USA to succeed, and for that to happen, it has to adapt and grow, but I do not doubt that there is still hope for the con.