Flashback 1996: Anime America

Twenty years ago, the fourth and final year of Anime America — a short-lived California anime convention that competed with Anime Expo — kicked off.

Although I’m not entirely clear on the fan politics behind it, what I’ve gathered is that Anime America came about after convention staff fractured in the aftermath of the Gainax-sponsored AnimeCon ’91. One disenfranchised group started Anime Expo, the other followed suit and launched Anime America. Anime Expo beat them to the punch in 1992, but in 1993, both Anime America and Anime Expo went head-to-head in California’s Bay Area, holding their events on subsequent weekends just 40 miles apart.

If you were bumming around northern California during that particular week, Yasuhiro Imagawa (Giant Robo, G Gundam), Hiroyuki Kitazume (Char’s Counterattack, Robot Carnival), Makoto Kobayashi (Venus Wars, Dragon’s Heaven), Monkey Punch (Lupin III), Kenichi Sonoda (Otaku no Video, Bubblegum Crisis), Haruka Takachiho (Dirty Pair, Crusher Joe), and Megumi Hayashibara (seemingly everything in the ‘90s) were just some of the guests you could see. That kind of direct competition between conventions seems odd, even by today’s cutthroat standards of seemingly any reasonably-sized town able to support a convention or two, but in 1993 it must have been crazy to have two large-scale conventions featuring that caliber of guests from Japan held just a week apart.

It didn’t last.

In 1994, Anime Expo relocated to the town Disneyland built just outside of Los Angeles, and Anime America was on its own, albeit with a greatly reduced guest list. Though they still managed to snag Go Nagai (Devilman, Mazinger Z) and Akemi Takada (Patlabor, Kimagure Orange Road), which wasn’t too shabby. To this day I’ve heard fans discuss the deep-rooted problems among Anime America’s staff, and while I can’t confirm anything (nor do I particularly want to delve into decades-old fan beef), circumstantial evidence and the convention’s declining fortunes certainly support this.

A year later, Anime America’s Japanese guest list had dwindled to just two, although it was an admittedly impressive duo of Monkey Punch and Megumi Hayashibara. In 1996, there’d just be one, Gainax’s Toshio Okada. Hinting, perhaps, at the convention’s long-running ties to AnimeCon ’91.

What stands out while flipping through the convention booklets for 1996 is that the fourth Anime America looked remarkably similar to the smaller local cons that now take place around the country: A guest list comprised mostly of domestic (well, mostly Canadian, oddly enough) voice actors, lots of workshops about how to get into voice acting or cosplay, and, of course, a panel by Viz.

That change isn’t just obvious in retrospect, because Frederik L. Schodt specifically called it out in his Manga column for the August 17th edition of the Mainichi Daily News, titled “Anime America ’96: A New Generation of Fans.” In it, Schodt mentions noticing a “generational shift” among fans who no longer had to go to extremes to access anime and manga. He writes that the lack of Japanese guests was balanced out by “better organization and less chaos.” Supposedly the workshops and panels started on time, something certain major conventions still struggle with today. Even though Anime America wouldn’t survive, Schodt’s point holds remarkably true today: With an ever-growing domestic anime industry, conventions don’t need Japanese guests and can instead attract fans with local talent.

But hey, not everything about Anime America ’96 was forward-thinking. Ryoujin Z, MD Geist II, Super Beast Machine God Dancougar, and Armored Trooper VOTOMS were just some of the big premieres from Software Sculptors and US Manga Corps featured in the programming schedule.

Despite an optimistic staff recruitment panel for Anime America ’97, it never happened. Whether it was born out of desperation or rational restraint, Anime America 96’s format looked a lot like what would be used by countless successful anime conventions over the next two decades. Pioneering programming or not, Anime America’s failure illustrates an important lesson for aspiring convention planners: Even the best ideas can be ruined up by fan drama.

Big thanks to Frederik L. Schodt for sharing his column with me.