Sunday, June 30, 2024

Rosemont: 1999

As occasional historians of North America's anime fandom, sometimes we're called upon to make our research available to the general public. Gerald Rathkolb of AWO has been doing this over at the Internet Archive for a while, and when I got a request for the Anime Central program book from their 1999 show, I did the same. As I was watching the scanner do its thing to this 25 year old document, it occurred to me that what we have here is a unique snapshot of anime fandom at a critical juncture. Pokémon and Sailor Moon and Cartoon Network's Toonami block were forging new otaku out of channel surfers, the home video market was filling the shelves of Best Buy and Mediaplay and Suncoast Video with product, and all this was driving more and more people to the anime conventions that were cropping up everywhere a hotel ballroom lacked cosplayers. So let's look at the Anime Central 1999 program book, and let it tell us about anime culture circa 1999. 

Well, first off we have the bikini area of All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku-Nuku, hurling itself at the unsuspecting reader. Perhaps this amount of displayed cartoon flesh was business as usual to anime fans, but might have been a bit lurid for the public at large. This artwork was used for the ACen 99 t-shirts, leading to a lot of hasty explanations about what exactly was happening down there in Rosemont, was this some sort of X-rated adults-only thing? No, it's just that Japanese anime fandom in the 90s was still a very male, very male-gazey, fan-servicey, Gainax-bouncy, horny nerd culture that only an incoming crowd of Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon fans - that is to say, girls -  could mitigate.

Sakura Wars is a Taishō period Sega game that since 1996, has appeared in seven different animation projects and 17 different video games across multiple platforms. Were any of them available at Cyberzone in Shaumburg? Probably!

Pokémon-filled note from the con chairs, back when you could throw licensed characters in your program books without somebody's lawyer showing up to harsh your buzz. Actually I don't think anyone in anybody's legal department really cares what we put in program books. The first Anime Central in 1998 drew 1200 attendees, and it really felt like it, it felt like Chicagoland anime fans were chomping at the bit to finally get their anime con scene started. See also Anime Boston, which also started strong out of the gate. Was ACen '99 the year a big rainstorm moved through and one of the stairwells got flooded? I forget.

The Alternative Video Warehouse spent who knows how much on a full page ad promising 1000 titles, discounts and immediate shipping, and yet forgot to include any way to find them or get in touch with them at all. Whoops. 

I always enjoy these Chamber Of Commerce style "about our city" blurbs, but come on, this isn't Des Moines or Erie or Louisville, this is CHICAGO. There was a whole musical about that toddlin' town! On the other hand, Rosemont itself is a self-contained municipality created specifically to house conventions, a rare, fascinating case of FBI-investigated single-family machine politics.

Guests of Honor include Project A-Ko's Yuji Moriyama, Bubblegum Crisis' Kenichi Sonoda, and Tsukasa Kotobuki, whose oddly proportioned skulls perhaps were the pivotal element driving me away from the Japanese animation of the 1990s. Also appearing are Jan Scott-Frazier and Doug Smith, two names that will be familiar to anyone who attended late 90s anime cons, because they were at all of them.

Toshifumi Yoshida moved from Viz to Pokémon where he continues to keep those pocket monsters a part of pop culture, while AnimeEigo recently changed hands but is still committed to bringing anime to English-speaking audiences. Chicago native Crispin Freeman is still voicing and producing in the anime field today!

I was at this Anime Central but I didn't go anywhere near the Masquerade. I'm pretty sure I spent Saturday night sampling a selection of Midwestern craft beer. 1999 was actually the last time I had anything to do with any anime convention costume contest anywhere; I MC'd the AWA 1999 costume contest and it was a nerve-shattering, demoralizing experience that caused me to question most of the life choices that had led me to that point. No more, I said. Since then it's been 25 wonderful, cosplay-skit free years. 

I'm pretty sure I was on the Corn Pone Flicks panel, and I believe there was some sort of history-of-fandom thing I was on at a shockingly early, hung-over hour. There definitely was an Anime Hell happening at this Central, though it didn't make it into the program book. 

I'm pretty sure this is the 1999 ACen Anime Hell flyer, but I could be mistaken. The flyer is definitely 90s vintage, however, designed as it is to meet your needs in a world of crisis.

Is Fushigi Yuugi the future of anime? I'm going to use 25 years of hindsight and say "maybe," considering how big isekai is now. I will say I love the "anime cel trading session" and we should bring that back, because let's face it, they aren't making any more of those things and if you have some, we should probably set up some trades. 

Take note of the Y2K references in the NekoCon ad - when January 1st 2000 rolls around all the software that wasn't updated for the new millenium would crash and civilization would end. And that's exactly what happened. Anyway, it sure felt like it the next morning, thanks to...  let's just say that New Year's Eve featured a lot of Jell-O shooters.

Oh man, the Con Suite.  Remember Con Suites? That there would be a hotel suite set aside for con attendees to just, sort of hang out in? With snacks and drinks? The Con Suite was a vestigial organ left over from the anime con's evolutionary ancestor, the literary SF convention, which were quieter affairs of a few hundred attendees. Some events naturally scale up as attendee sizes increase, and some don't, and the con suite doesn't work so well when it's expected to provide hotel sofa space for two or three or five thousand. 

Speaking of literary SF conventions; was there enough crossover between the Worldcon audience and the anime convention crowd to justify this two-page ad confusing everyone with two options for hosting Worldcon? I still don't know what a "pre-opposing membership" is. What I do know is that the 2002 Worldcon wound up being held in San Jose, and attendance was 5916, which made it a fairly large Worldcon. Meanwhile, in the 2002 anime convention world, Otakon had 12000 attendees and Anime Expo did 15000 that year. I think we all see where this trend is going.

The dealer's hall is a key part of any anime con, and in 1999 my recollection is that the tables were loaded with VHS and laserdiscs, because the domestic anime DVD market wasn't even a year old at this point. Localized manga wouldn't become a bookstore-filling phenomenon until the early 2000s, so most of the manga you'd buy in 1999 would be Japanese editions, American-style 32 page comics, or Viz graphic novels. Of course T-shirts and wall scrolls and figures and model kits and gatchapon toys snared a good proportion of the ACen '99 attendee's spare change. I'm seeing a lot of familiar names on the vendor list; Houston-based Planet Anime did a ton of conventions before the owners sold the store in 2005. AD Vision had, um, some exciting times on the road to bankruptcy. Norcross GA's House Of Anime went online only a few years back; they still vend at shows, I think. Nikaku Animart is still open in San Jose CA! Musashi Enterprises had amazing vintage anime stuff at their vendors tables and I was *always* too broke. They also developed the Star Blazers Fleet Battle System tabletop gaming system. Anime Pavilion? Still your VA home for anime goods! Manga Entertainment is now owned by Starz. Joy's Japanimation remains a time capsule of rental anime VHS in scenic Greensburg PA. Media Blasters survives, Neko-Con still happens every fall, Katsucon still happens every spring, Otakon happens every summer, Anime Fest is having its last show this year, Fantasticon holds comic cons in the Midwest, turns out AnimeVillage dot com was Bandai all along, and Dan Kanemitsu continues to lecture about Japanese doujinshi culture. And if you were still wondering about how to find Alternative Video Warehouse, they're at tables 5,6,7,8 and 9! 

Look at the staff list and you'll see some con chairs, some manga editors, and overall a bunch of people that I still talk to or toss jokes at across social media on a regular basis. In '99 the scene was still a small community; if you staffed an anime con you probably knew a dozen people who staffed other anime cons; chances are you could poke your head into any event at the show and see someone you knew or at least looked familiar, or who maybe you wanted to avoid. That's one of the pitfalls of a small community; you don't always get along with everybody you're sharing that small community with.

"Animevillage dot com" is no longer totally free, but whatever holding company wound up owning the URL will probably sell it to you for a reasonable price ($12k, last I checked). Instead, why not go back in time and get Mari Ijima's autograph at Anime Expo '99?

Here the ACen book takes the bold move of making their back cover look like the front cover of a magazine. AWA did this in 2005 and the print shop put the covers on backwards. Oops. Seems to have worked out for ACen and Planet Anime and whoever that is from whatever anime that's from, though. One thing that stands out when looking at this program book is what's not in it - for one thing, there's a definite lack of mecha. No robots, no transforming jet planes, no super mechanical fighting machines, not even a stray Scopedog, Giant Robo or GaoGaiGar. Absent are mentions of the shows we now regard as emblematic of 90s anime - no Dragonball Z, no Gundam Wing, barely any Evangelion. The name "Hayao Miyazaki" never appears. However, let's remember this program isn't representative of anything other than a con committee trying to put together what turned out to be a really slick, professional looking publication on a deadline and a shoestring, so you can't draw too many conclusions from what made the cut and what didn't. Sometimes it just comes down to what's available at the moment; anime cons haven't the luxury of waiting around for things to be perfect. Perfect is for next year, let's get this year's show out of the way first.

I went to the first six Anime Centrals before life scheduled me away from Chicagoland, but the show continues to fill Rosemont with midwestern anime fandom every spring. Why not drop into the convention next year and let me know how it compares to 1999? 

-Dave M

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Anime North 2024


Another year has rolled around and before you know it, it's time to pack up and head out for Anime North! Since 1997, AN has been Toronto's number one anime fan convention, moving from collegiate institute space to interstate off-ramp motels to where they are now, filling the North and South buildings of the Toronto Congress Centre as well as all of the Delta Hotel Airport with thirty five thousand fans enjoying each other's company in the late spring/early summer Ontario sunshine.

It literally seems like yesterday, but the fact is it's been almost two decades since I first talked the Anime North people into letting me do panels. I guess I'm doing something right because they haven't told me to quit yet!  So what am I up to this year?

Friday night at 10 it's time for Anime Hell, my late night two-hour confabulation of clips, shorts, ads, fakes, and whatever else I can snag ninety seconds of that's about Japan or Hell or Anime or all three or sometimes neither. 

At 1:30pm Saturday afternoon Neil Nadelman and myself look at the pioneers who blazed the trail of anime localization in North America and brought us Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Kimba The White Lion, Prince Planet, Marine Boy, Gigantor, 8th Man, Amazing Three, and other groundbreaking works of cartoon entertainment. 


This year we dealt with the sudden loss of legendary mangaka Akira Toriyama, and we'll be looking back on his life and career Saturday at 4:30.

Saturday night means it's time for Neil Nadelman to bring the Totally Lame Anime to a packed house of fans ready to have their sensibilities offended by some of the least successful Japanese cartoons ever animated. 

All day Sunday Anime North turns the Paris room into the home of Old School Afternoon, six hours of classic anime, all currently unlicensed here and yet deserving of our attention and appreciation.


At noon Sunday I'll be joined by Neil Nadelman and Shaindle Minuk as we discuss the saga of Candace White Adley and her struggle through the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century while simultaneously entertaining an entire generation of 1970s fans worldwide.


Ninety minutes later anime expert Mike Toole and myself will wander through a forgotten graveyard where lie the corpses of anime dubs that once entertained millions and now lie neglected, disregarded by time and progress. Dub disasters or secret masterpieces? They'll all be uncovered by our shovels. 

It's been fifty years since Space Battleship Yamato premiered in Japan and that means it's time to take a 148,000 light year journey through the epic voyages of this iconic anime legend. Without Yamato there's a good chance none of us would be here talking about these Japanese cartoons, and a panel at 3pm on Sunday is literally the least we can do. 


And that's not all that's happening this weekend! Game shows, screenings, cosplay, improv, a vast vendors hall, a giant artists alley, a gunpla model kit exhibit, guest autographs, the yard-sale Nomonichi event, dances, musical performances, fashion shows, video and tabletop gaming, workshops, panels, and events of every description are happening at Anime North 2024. See you there! 


-Dave Merrill

Monday, April 15, 2024

With An "E"

Let me start with a personal note. I grew up in the US, but twenty years back I moved to Ontario to begin a new adventure north of the border. As a new Canadian, I lacked the cultural background that informed the upbringing of many of my new friends and coworkers. I didn't know Mr. Dressup or The Friendly Giant. I was sadly unaware The Littlest Hobo was, in fact, a dog. I'd never been to the Pop Shoppe, didn’t know who Tim Horton played hockey for, never watched Late Great Movies On Citytv. But there was one Canadian cultural giant that I and millions of others were aware of, one that predated SCTV, Celine Dion and the Kids In The Hall. Perhaps the biggest early Canadian pop culture export? An orphan girl named Anne. 

my Anne LDs

The story of a child finding a home and a life in turn of the century Prince Edward Island, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne Of Green Gables has sold fifty million copies, been translated into 35 languages, and has been the subject of films, TV shows and stage plays. This red-headed heroine appears in a bewildering variety of media including dolls, toys, picture books, musicals, museums, costumes, even license plates for the fictional Anne’s very real province of PEI. L.M. Montgomery was from PEI herself and used her childhood as inspiration for what would eventually become a series of Green Gables novels, even as she moved to Ontario and what we’d now call the Greater Toronto Area.

drive carefully, Anne lives here

There's a part in Montgomery's novel where the fire in the Green Gables hearth on a November night is described as "the sunshine of a hundred summers being distilled from the maple cord-wood" and I'm reading this and asking myself, did that L.M. just get away with this? She did, didn't she. The prose of Anne Of Green Gables is filled with minute, evocative, almost-sentimental touches of descriptive poetry - certainly in keeping with the Gilded Age provenance of its origins - and it speaks to the determination of Anne and through her, Montgomery, to find the beauty and wonder in what at first glance might seem to be unexceptional places, humdrum tasks and the sometimes tragic moments that make up life, a tall order for an unwanted child in a world that has almost no sympathy or resources for anything other than itself. 

Anne begins with middle-aged siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert requesting a boy orphan to adopt to help out around their Avonlea farm, as if they were buying a draft horse or ordering a new plow. When Anne arrives instead, there’s some clinical calculus as the Cuthberts weigh their agricultural needs against the literal welfare of a child. At this time, Canada was seen as a convenient destination for the unwanted children of late-period British Empire; from 1869 right up until the late 1940s the UK sent something like a hundred thousand children to homes across Canada. Most would spend their remaining childhood as de facto indentured domestic servants or field hands. The reality is that most of these children weren’t actually orphaned; most had parents overcome by financial or personal disaster, forced by circumstances to break up their families. Anne’s orphan drama played out in real life for decades on train platforms across the country from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

my Anne cel

We first see Anne as an awkward tween, sometimes overwhelmed as her overclocked imagination battles her desperate desire to belong.  She matures to become a self-disciplined young woman determined to make something of herself, along the way, pulling Marilla and Matthew out of their gruff, glum routine and into a more fulfilled, if less orderly life, while making friends and rivals alike at the local school. Anne's overworked sensitivity shows its negative side when she overreacts to minor things, exploding them into major life-altering events as only a too-dramatic teen - which is all of them - can blow ‘em up. 

that girl is trouble, and is IN trouble

Cheerful perseverance in the face of hardship and an ability to tease the fantastical out of the everyday spoke to audiences around the world, even early Taishō era Japan, which is when the novel was first published in Japanese. Though suppressed along with other Western literature during the Pacific War, during the Occupation Anne Of Green Gables was put on General MacArthur’s Recommended Children’s Literature list, along with another classic of rural kid-lit, Little House On The Prairie. Both series would inspire enduring fanbases and Nippon Animation anime series. And that’s where we here at Let’s Anime come in.

Fifty episodes of Nippon Animation's Akage no Anne (“akage” means “redhead”) would air on Fuji-TV from January to December of 1979.  Anne was the first series under the banner of World Masterpiece Theater, a showcase that started as Calpis Comic Theater, then became Calpis Children's Theater and then 1978’s Perrine Story saw the title remixed to Calpis Family Theater, and then next year somehow changed again to World Masterpiece Theater for Anne. In 1986 the banner changed yet again to House Foods World Masterpiece Theater. Stay tuned, who knows what they’ll call it next? Anne of Green Gables would join Nippon Animation’s roster of exports, airing in Korea, Spain, Germany, Portugal, the Arabic world, the Philippines, Italy, France, and French-speaking Canada. A South African English dub would broadcast in Taiwan and South Africa. 

Marilla, Matthew, Anne, and PEI's Strategic Potato Reserve

Directed overall by anime legend Isao “Horus Prince Of The Sun” Takahata, Anne’s character designs were by animation director and fellow anime legend Yoshifumi “Future Boy Conan” Kondo. Reference for the wonderful backgrounds, art-directed by Masahiro Ioka, was provided by a July ‘78 research trip to Prince Edward Island by Kondo, Takahata and Nippon Animation producers Junzô Nakajima and Shigeo Endô. You’ll swear you hear Joe Hisashi in the soundtrack but that’s all Akira Miyoshi there, bringing Anne's fantastical imagination to musical life in a beautiful Hayao Miyazaki-animated OP. 

sure, just put some airplanes in there, Hayao

Miyazaki did layouts for the first 15 episodes of Anne, perhaps repaying Takahata for the help Takahata gave on the recently completed Future Boy Conan. But Takahata’s realistic, textural vision for Anne was at odds with Miyazaki’s desire to expand upon the source material, as he did with Conan. Soon Hayao would leave the show and Nippon Animation entirely. Watching the series with 2024 eyes, we see what legions of internet memelords would later call “the Ghibli aesthetic” are all present in ‘79; the cozy fires, the tempting food, the homey overstuffed sofas and Victorian comfort of the giant overcoats and pinafores and moustaches, far enough in the past to be hazy and nostalgic but not so far in the past that we can’t enjoy ice cream or trains. 

the aesthetic in full force

This nostalgia helps the show - and the novel -  breeze past some of the more brutal realities of the era, the first of which is how orphans were treated like one more exploitable natural resource. Pay attention to how Anne talks about her life before Green Gables, it’s a life of constant toil, either caring for somebody else’s children or cleaning somebody else’s house or trying to keep somebody else from dying from some Victorian illness. It’s no wonder the girl would spend as much time as possible conjuring up fanciful stories about trees and rocks and streams - 19th century reality is harsh. Like the Little House series, Anne seems to work as a subtle hint to modern readers that no matter how awful their own childhood may be, at least they weren’t stuck doing farm chores or battling cholera in a time before Hot Wheels and Barbies. 

before Green Gables, things were a little grim

On television as in the novel, we see a hopeful Anne arrive at the train station en route to surprising everyone at the home she’ll soon name Green Gables. Anne makes a friend in Diana Barry from the next farm over, and a fierce rival in dashing local boy Gilbert Blythe. She meets her own personal Nellie Olesons in the spiteful Pye sisters, charms the various busybodies and old biddies of Avonlea, wins an academic scholarship to Queen’s Academy in Charlottetown, and from there wins another scholarship to a mainland university, forcing her to consider leaving Green Gables behind forever. 

Anne's Style Adventures

Anneheads and Gable-otaku, rest assured all your favorite story beats are in the show, whether it’s the part where Anne dyes her hair green or the part where Anne defies death by walking across the ridgepole of the Barry’s roof. We indeed see Anne conjure up a rich fantasy life as the tragic, raven-haired beauty Lady Cordelia Fitzgerald, which leads to the tragic loss(?) of Marilla’s emerald brooch. Anne gets Diana drunk, Anne bakes the cough-syrup cake, and then Anne gets trapped on the pond, only to be rescued by the last person on Earth she’d ever want to rescue her.

they grow up so fast

Seemingly overnight, Anne transforms from a gawky tween into a Young Lady as the rest of her body catches up with her once oversized skull. The last quarter of the series is a show about an adult (teenagers hadn’t been invented yet) dealing with isolation, aging parents, career choices, tragedy, and the kind of exam anxiety staring Japanese viewers right in the face. Also anxious was the Nippon Animation team producing the show. Whatever slack they’d had early in the production was gone thirty weeks in as the crew dealt with an exodus of talent pulled away to work on Galaxy Expresses, Lupins, and Bannertails, not to mention subcontractor issues and staff downtime due to illness. However, the Anne anime remains entertaining even as the animation quality suffers, due to its firm foundation of gorgeous background illustration and solid character design.

will the princess be forced to marry someone she can't stand?

Given free rein with Anne, Hayao Miyazaki probably would have placed more emphasis on fantasy segments conjured out of Anne’s more whimsical notions. But Takahata - whose own daughter was Anne’s age -  put his foot down, keeping the show firmly rooted in PEI’s famous red soil, perhaps hastening Miyazaki’s exit towards TMS and the direction of a popular Lupin III film. Akage no Anne shares the same sensibility as the rest of the World Masterpiece Cinematic Universe; action and spectacle are underplayed in favor of characters and feelings, set against well-researched architecture and lush watercolored backgrounds. Takahata’s quieter, grounded Anne has an emotional weight it might lose if set amidst Miyazaki’s trademark contrabulous fabtraptions and death-defying action sequences. Anne would also be Takahata’s swan song at Nippon Animation; next for him would be Chie The Brat for TMS.

Anne merchandise includes this bicycle (bicycle does not fly)

45 years later Akage no Anne still entertains. There’s a double hit of nostalgia, both for the original property and for its 1979 version, which gleams with those wonderful Masahiro Ioka landscapes and Kondo’s characters. At the time it was up against shoujo opposition like Candy Candy, Lun Lun the Flower Angel, Rose Of Versailles, and Haikara-san ga Tōru, and sequels to Space Battleship Yamato, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Cyborg 009, and Star Of The Giants. And there was something called Mobile Suit Gundam that came out that year. But even without a tacked-on animal companion, New Type powers or cybernetic augmentation, Green Gables welcomes and rewards repeat visits.

keep your dreams in your Anne Dream Can

Everyone, that is, but the North American viewing audience, which has seen Anne as the star of silent films, musicals, the Megan Follows CBC show and a Canadian cartoon, but so far hasn’t been permitted to see this anime version. The absence of Nippon Animation’s Anne is a loss for us all, whether we’re students facing book report deadlines, executors of the L.M. Montgomery estate, or the hardworking staff of the PEI Ministry Of Fisheries, Tourism, Sport, and Culture, who’d probably appreciate an extra bit of attention come vacation booking season.

visit PEI this summer!

Nope, Americans can’t watch Anne Of Green Gables. Well, okay, you can, the show is up on YouTube with the English-accented English dub, and with subtitles  But there isn’t a legit Blu-Ray set, no official release, it’s not real here in the way the GKids Future Boy Conan is. Absent the anime show or a trip to PEI, maybe all we can do is spend a fall afternoon in the Ontario countryside, visiting L.M. Montgomery’s 1911-1926 Leaskdale Manse home or maybe the park near where she later lived on Riverside Drive in Toronto. On the way you can stop in anywhere that sells books and pick up the copy of Anne Of Green Gables you’ll find there. 

Leaskdale, just north of Uxbridge, L.M. says "have a seat"

An inescapable layer of Canadian cultural bedrock, Anne is so much a part of the landscape here that one could almost believe she was a real person. If we ever needed someone to remind us what it’s like to dream big dreams once in a while, Anne of Green Gables is the person to do it, real or not, whether live-action or animated, whether in prose or radio or film or TV or whatever medium you choose. Can we dream big enough to see Akage no Anne finally return home? 

-Dave Merrill

I am tremendously indebted to Animétudes and their amazingly well-researched and comprehensive look at the production of Akage no Anne.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Jack And The Sonorama

 Christmastime was just here, and for us here at Let's Anime, Santa Claus, or Mandarake's mail order service, was kinda busy. One of the presents under the tree this year was a Sonorama single for the 1967 Toei film Jack And The Witch! 


If you've never seen this film, well, it's kind of nuts. It's a movie about a kid named Jack who loads up his junker car with his animal friends and drives it straight through a house and into a nightmare world of witches and castles and devils and machines that turn little boys and little animals into little demons. 

There are motorcycles made of bones, menacing giant mushrooms, and generally a hallucinatory vibe that seems more at home in a Roger Corman hippie exploitation picture than what's ostensibly a children's film. We wrote about Jack And The Witch a while back, but the movie remains frustratingly unreleased in the West.

At least we can still enjoy the trimmed-down story of the movie as it's condensed into two sides of a 33rpm Sonorama single. You can too, we made a video out of it and it's up at the Mister Kitty dot Net YouTube channel right now for your entertainment!

From us here at Let's Anime (that's Dave Merrill and Shaindle Minuk, for whom this single was purchased) please accept our heartiest wishes for a happy holiday season and a bountiful New Year!

-Dave Merrill

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