AnimeCon ’91: A Japanese Convention Report

AnimeCon ’91 wasn’t the first anime convention held in the United States, but it helped define the large-scale, corporate-sponsored events that have become the norm for the last 30 years. Co-sponsored by Gainax and local Bay Area sci-fi convention BayCon, AnimeCon ’91 had an incredible lineup of guests, panels, a dealers hall, and a costume contest. In other words, everything you’d expect from an anime convention.

Johji Manabe, Haruhiko Mikimoto, Toshio Okada, Katsuhiro Otomo, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, and Kenichi Sonoda were guests of honor (Leiji Matsumoto was advertised but wasn’t able to attend, other notables like Hideaki Anno did attend but weren’t heavily advertised) alongside a host of guests from the U.S. anime industry. Advertisements boasted of multiple video tracks, films on 16 and 35mm, an art show, and numerous events where congoers could meet the guests. By most accounts, it was a pretty good time.

Kevin Seymour of Books Nippan (and later Animaze) in the AnimeCon ’91 dealers hall.
Source: Animag, Vol. 2 #1

It also, curiously, represented an interest in the American market on the part of Gainax and General Products, the latter of which had launched a U.S. branch in 1989. Gainax’s involvement no doubt helped when approaching Japanese guests, but with General Products USA’s imminent demise and the rough times ahead for Gainax, the legacy of AnimeCon ’91 was the company’s only real success in its attempt at Western expansion. AnimeCon itself didn’t last past the inaugural year; convention staff was split and fragmented, with some going on to start Anime Expo in 1992 and others going to launch Anime America in 1993.

The translated article below is a convention report filed in G-Press, a Gainax house organ published in the early ’90s. It’s everything you’d expect from such a source: noticeably upbeat when it suited them (the 3,000 attendees reported was decidedly higher than the 1,700 reported by Animag’s contemporary coverage) while still taking the time to be unnecessarily cruel to U.S. fans. It was the Gainax way.

Panel on English adaption at AnimeCon ’91. L-R: Michael House (AnimEigo, Gainax), Carl Macek (Streamline), Robert Woodhead (AnimEigo), David Keith Riddick (U.S. Renditions), Robert Napton (U.S. Renditions), and John O’Donnell (Central Park Media).
Source: Animag, Vol. 2 #1

This article originally appeared in G-Press, Stage 18
Translated by Maude Duke

AnimeCon ‘91
Aug 30 – Sep 2, 1991
Red Lion Inn, San Jose, California, USA
Sponsored by AnimeCon Inc.
Co-sponsored by GAINAX, BayCon

A huge event held as a memento of a summer gone by. Foreign otaku from all over the U.S. assembled under the blue skies of California. The total attendance was a whopping ~3,000! Even the staff at the Red Lion Inn, which is no stranger to hosting large events, were taken aback by the numbers. Or maybe not, who knows, but at any rate, it was a huge success!!

A skit from the cosplay show. There was a scene where the TV and movie versions of the Dirty Pair teamed up to rescue kidnapped con guests. Kenichi Sonoda is beaming with joy over being surrounded by buxom bombshells.

Greetings from California! Here we are at the Red Lion Inn, about a five-minute drive from the international airport on the edge of San Jose. The current local time is 11AM on the 29th of August. The staff from Gainax and General Products are expected to arrive any minute now. This convention, running a total of four days starting tomorrow the 30th, is the first large-scale anime event to ever be held in the States. Fans are pouring in from not only across the country but even as far away as Europe. Let’s interview one now:

“Where are you come from?” [sic]

“From Texas, but get this, I was coming home from the potato fields one night when I saw this orange shiny object flying south in a zigzag pattern above the mountains. I was astounded. I must have been a UFO…”

Thank you for sharing! As you can see, American fans are enthusiastic and full of expertise! Now, I’ll be handing the microphone back to the studio.

…And so, after an eventful trip, here we are. We’ll begin our report with the events at the main hall. Here we had panel discussions with various guests, Q&A sessions, and lessons on how to draw manga. There were also lessons on character design, fanzines, and aniparo1. Among the Japanese guests were Haruhiko Mikimoto, Kenichi Sonoda, Johji Manabe, Hideaki Anno, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, with support from manga authors Mako Takaha, Nao☆Minda, and Kimiko Higuchi.

The top picture is one corner of the art show. The bottom one is a booth at the dealer’s hall. For some reason, a 1/6 sofubi kit of the Daicon IV girl was being offered for cheaper than General Products’ own price…

The fanzine discussion touched on the state of affairs surrounding Japan’s Comiket, and the audience went wide-eyed hearing about the crowd of 200,000 people packed inside the Makuhari Messe. [laugh] American fanzines closely resemble the Japanese ones of 10 years ago. The contents are usually character bios and plot summaries for different anime. However, Americans are surprisingly knowledgeable, as when the tag-team of Minda and Kimiko talked about SD Gundam during the aniparo discussion, many of the people there were already collecting merchandise.

The topic that shocked and captivated the American attendees most of all was that of the inside stories from the anime industry. Many fans were surprised to hear about the hardships faced by production companies in Japan in spite of the current animation boom. The overwork, slave wages, and jam-packed schedules of animators and studios came as quite a shock.

The art show featured production artwork from Nadia, Gunbuster, Wings of Honneamise and more, plus original sketches from guests and manga authors. Drawings by amateur artists were on display as well, and frequent auctions were held.

The all-star cast of the cosplay show. There was a hilarious Ranma family and a mustachioed Lord Dessler. It looked hot in the Gargoyle costume.

In the dealer’s hall, you could find anything one’s heart desired, from manga and anime to tokusatsu, video cassettes, laserdiscs, plastic models, and garage kits. Who knows where they obtained it from, but one store was selling a Police Spinner from General Products for $200. Shirts made for the convention, featuring shows like Gunbuster, Macross, Nadia, and Gall Force, were selling like hotcakes. Notably, the first to sell out was the XXL Gall Force shirt, making it apparent that “Sono-yan’s2 fans are all fatties.”

In the theater, a rotation of ~200 titles were being screened on 32mm and 16mm film as well as on video, 24 hours a day for all four days. In addition, two of the hotel’s TV channels were rented out for anime, so we were saturated with it every waking hour. A portion of them had English subtitles, but all had Japanese audio. Does it not really matter whether they can understand the dialogue?

The top picture is of attendees lining up for the event hall. The bottom picture is Sono-yan’s signing event. Since it was a special occasion, he fulfilled all sorts of ludicrous requests.

In the space between events at the main hall, the guests held autograph sessions, but many of the requests were completely ridiculous, with artists being asked to draw characters and mecha that they had absolutely nothing to do with. For example, Anno was told to draw a Gundam, so he gave his best effort to do it from memory, but at the end he was told to tack on bunny ears! “I don’t understand Americans’ thought processes…” he said, afterward.

After sundown, a cosplay show began. It consisted of various short performances put together by volunteering cosplayers among the attendees. Though we didn’t understand the content of the skits, the energetic vibe was the greatest, as one would expect from Americans. There were two Dirty Pair duos, one from the movie and the other from the show, and there was even a perfect doppelganger of Lupin who put together his costume on the spot after someone pointed out his sideburns. It seems a fun time was had.
For your information, none of the staff at General Products or Gainax speak a word of English. Everyone was a nervous wreck the whole time and was dog-tired at the end. But America has a lot of crazy sweet food, so it wasn’t so bad.

The top picture is of Mr. Mikimoto in between Misa and Eve. The bottom picture is Anno being thrown in the pool after exclaiming “if you don’t drop me in, I’ll jump in myself!”

Special thanks to KithKanan for Animag photo scans.

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  1. Parody works such as SD Gundam, Minipato, CB Chara Go Nagai World, et al.
  2. Kenichi Sonoda