The sixth annual Anime Punch convention is on tap in Columbus this weekend. I’m not going but here’s my full interview with Michael Beuerlein, the convention’s chair. (I wrote about Anime Punch in the April issue of Ohio Magazine.)
How did you get into anime? What keeps you interested in it?
When I was in middle school, Robotech was on TV and I got sucked into it. My mother had watched Starblazers when she was in college, and said the style reminded her of that, so we rented the box set from Blockbuster. Somewhere between the two I got hooked. What really draws me in is the long-format story arcs. In most western media, we only get a two-hour movie or a ton of unrelated episodes. Having 13, 26, or even 52 episodes, all telling one start-to-finish story really allows for a lot of development in all areas, much like a book. Even now I tend to only really get into the stories that are really plot intensive. Now plot-driven shows (like “24″) are becoming popular, but I still prefer a lot of what anime has to offer. Even within anime, I am fairly picky though, which isn’t to say I don’t like a lot of crap all the same.
Squee!: Why do you think anime conventions are so popular in the United States?
This question is probably more complex than you intended! First and foremost, I think it’s always a lot of fun to get to meet new people who already share an interest. Much like going to a concert or a lecture, you get an easy lead-in to conversation. As anime is, by it’s very definition, foreign, it’s nice to have a place where everyone “speaks the same language,” as it were. There is so much background knowledge inherent to being an anime fan that there is a slight barrier to entry into the fandom, and if it’s your chief interest, there is nothing more fulfilling than being able to skip the 101 shit and get straight to the meat of conversation. I think across all eras and sub fan cultures, this is a universal truth.
Back in the early days of fandom, it was relatively obscure, if not unheard of. Even huge chunks of the sci-fi community were unaware of it, so being able to meet other fans face to face wasn’t just refreshing, it was a once-a-year opportunity. Even as late as the early 2000s, running into someone at the mall with a Ranma 1/2 shirt on or a Kenshin pin was a glorious encounter and regardless of your differing demographics, you said hi to that person and were best friends. Anime cons back then were both recreation and almost necessity to stay involved in the fandom.
Today, anime is far from underground. Most kids in America grow up with anime shows as their very favorite cartoons (Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, etc.), many teens watch shows late at night (FMA, Death Note), and there is a relative awareness of where the shows come from. It’s not like before, where anime was that “dark, mysterious” entity that was rumored to be all hack-and-slash pornos.
Even still, there is a tremendous gap between the people who got sucked into a few shows and those who are actually interested in the medium in its own right. In the mid-2000s, that line was really blurred, and there were a lot of “Hot Topic” anime fans at cons who had no real devotion to the art and were mostly there to hang out. Nowadays, conventions almost have gone full circle and returned to a launching point for those who want to expand their horizons. They’re a great place for older fans to share their favorite shows with the newer fans, and in a lot of cases, to get swept into new shows by younger fans to keep their interests from stagnating.
Squee!: I understand your convention caters to older fans, right? How is that experience different from conventions that draw more young fans?
A lot of conventions are blessed/plagued with tons and tons of teenagers hanging out all over the place. They tend to just sit in the halls, ignore the events schedule, and interact in their own goofy ways, which in its own way is pretty cool. At the same time, for an older fan, it’s hard not to feel like a weirdo when you are surrounded by half-naked teenagers and you’re the only guy old enough to drink.
At Anime Punch, we really push the programming, so the halls (while still busy) aren’t just full of people holding “hug me” signs. The age range is far more diverse. We still have oodles of kids, but they are really good at rising up to more collegiate level of attitude. This makes interactions between age groups way more natural, puts everyone on the same playing field, and creates an atmosphere where adults are more comfortable. It also allows us to host much more complex panels, avoid any issues of censorship, and talk indiscriminately on any topic without having to dumb things down or gloss over the icky stuff. We also have a more active night life with parties lasting until dawn and some really wild events.
Squee!: Do you think there’s a “tribe” mentality among anime fans? A sense that this is a place where they belonging?
Certainly. There are a ton of “in jokes” in the anime world, and fans do tend to take a lemming approach to things where they will follow trends pretty emphatically. At the same time, fandom can faction as well, which is really tragic. One thing we stress pretty hard at our event is that we are all fans, and we all like a lot of stupid, weird shit. As such, it’s important to respect and like each other for our differences, not to disassociate with people who like different stuff. For better or worse, anime as a medium is very diverse, with all the genres of normal media, plus a few extra ones unique to it. There are going to be a lot of fans whose interests don’t intersect with other fans. After all, this is a genre that includes both a kids show like Pokemon and adult animation where girls and filled in every orifice with tentacles. All the same, many fans seem to wave both as banners and icons of their fandom.
Squee!: Do you think there’s a stigma attached to being into anime? Why or why not?
I know in the past a lot of people thought all anime was porn, but that has long been laid to rest by Spirited Away and the like. I’d imagine that in a lot of high schools, the really dorky anime kids who wear fleece bunny ears and punctuate with various Japanese words probably have a stigma attached to them, and probably aren’t doing the rest of us any favors. At the same time the pretentious art-film crowd tends to really respect the anime genre for the really amazing movies and shows that are occasionally produced. I think like most things we’re probably judged by which element of our world the outsider has had the most exposure to. If they got lassoed into watching Akira or Millennium Actress they probably think we are pretty neat guys, if but a little out there. If their only interaction has been with super hyper, socially awkward kids or overweight dudes obsessed with schoolgirls, their opinion is probably less favorable.
Anime Punch! is April 22-24 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus. You can find more info at www.animepunch.org.