Saturday, July 30, 2022

Anime North: Dateline 1997

1997 was the year Titanic broke box office records, Seinfeld and ER battled for the top TV ratings, and Japanese animation like Princess Mononoke and End Of Evangelion solidified the medium’s grip on an international audience starved for that brand of entertainment. Meanwhile in Toronto, a province-wide coalition of anime fans were gathering to start what would become Canada’s largest anime convention, and indeed, the largest not-for-profit fan event in the entire country, Anime North. 

 

Recently the convention held their first festival since 2019, coming back after two years of pandemic closure. The question of whether or not the show would survive was answered with a resounding YES, with record-breaking attendance numbers proving Anime North’s resilience.

Myself, I didn’t get up here until Anime North was well under way. So, I missed the first Anime North, which happened on August 9, 1997 at the Michener Institute of Education, a specialist post-secondary institution devoted to applied health sciences education, just north of Dundas and west of University, three blocks from the AGO, six blocks from where the Beguiling is now, and just around the corner from where the bus station used to be.

It’s been twenty-five years since the convention began, so I reached out and asked some of that Class Of ‘97 about their Anime North experiences. This is what they had to say.


Karl Zaryski (attendee of the first and every subsequent Anime North): In 1994 I got to university, and I immediately joined the anime club (CTRL-A - The Club That Really Likes Anime) and for the first time had internet access and was able to read things like the rec.arts.anime newsgroup. I devoured what information I could find, I downloaded anime scans from FTP sites and printed them on the university's colour laser printers for $1 per sheet, and I got into VHS fansub trading.

CTRL-A held (at the time) three shows per term, six hours per show. I got introduced to Ah, My Goddess! (which was playing when I arrived at my first ever show), Ranma ½, Appleseed, My Neighbour Totoro, Giant Robo, and all sorts of amazing new stuff. (I asked my parents to order a copy of the Totoro dub at Christmas 1994, and it came with a mail-in offer for a Totoro plushie. That plushie is on the shelf above my head as I type this.)

 

Greg Taylor (Attendee of the first and 20+ Anime Norths): I heard [about Anime North] through the local anime club... which I'm FAIRLY sure was the one in Ottawa (Club Anime) since I was on a work term there in Summer 1997. A bunch of us drove down to Toronto for it (someone rented a van). Though it's possible I heard about it at CTRL-A in Waterloo first (where I was at University in Winter 1997). 
 
Karl: In May 1995 I had a co-op term working at the Ministry of Transportation in Toronto, so I was living with my grandparents near Bathurst and Wilson. I posted a question into rec.arts.anime as to whether there were any anime clubs in Toronto, and got a response back that a new one was just about to hold its first show. So, I was at the first UTARPA (University of Toronto Anime and Role Playing Association) show, which I believe counts as the beginning of organized anime fandom in the city. I counted a total of 16 people in the audience.
 
There was a bit of other anime going on in Toronto in those early days. In June 1995 there was the Ad Astra science fiction convention, which had an anime video room. I remember watching Luna Varuga, Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, and maybe Dragon Half and Vilgust.



In Fall 1995, the DIC Sailor Moon dub started to be broadcast on YTV, and it was being heavily promoted and put into premium timeslots which brought it, and anime at large, into the spotlight. This really added to UTARPA's numbers; I think they were getting a couple hundred people out to their shows by mid-1996. During that time, I was back in Waterloo (or at my parents') but I was able to get to a few of the monthly UTARPA shows by bus or car.

CTRL-A was at a peak of its membership; I know that in the Fall 1996 term we had 396 members, making us the second-largest club on the Waterloo campus behind the Chinese Students Association. This was back when anime was expensive and hard to locate, so getting three or four evenings of it in a term for $5 was a pretty good value.

In August 1995, I see that Don Simmons made this post in rec.arts.anime.fandom to advertise the beginning of the planning for what would become Anime North.
 
the Toronto fan convention scene in the 1990s

Donald Simmons (first chairman of Anime North): In the mid-90s there were five anime clubs in the Toronto area, three SF cons [Ad Astra and Toronto Trek joined by media convention Primedia] and anime cons were starting to become a thing in the US. I thought that there was certainly enough interest in the city now to support an anime con of our own. I had a few years working at Ad Astra as the Dealer's Room organizer, and several helping to run UTARPA [and] had been thinking of volunteering to join up in the major planning of Ad Astra, but decided instead on founding a new anime con.

 
I had a flyer made up (by Shaindle!) which I distributed around to the anime clubs suggesting we start an anime con in Toronto, and arranged a meeting of everyone who was interested in helping. I was the con chair, several of the UTARPA staff joined up, and we got volunteers from other clubs and fans at large. Some of us knew each other, some of us didn't. I think I met [Anime North Programming Director] Eileen McEvoy at a Primedia.

the first moments of Anime North 1997

 
Karl: I don't recall any major problems like overcrowding, but I think that everyone's expectations were moderate. It [the first Anime North] felt mostly like an extra-large, extra-long UTARPA show, plus a dealers room, some panels, and I think there was at least a modest cosplay contest.


 

Because [the Michener Institute] was an academic building, the spaces we were using were parts of the first two floors and then part of (I think) the ninth floor, which was a bit of an odd spreading out.

 

Anime North 1997 costume contest



Greg: No big expectations that I recall. I'd hoped to pick up some merchandise. (And I did get some CDs.) Possibly was interested in seeing fans and cosplay (certainly took some photos of that). And since it only ran on Saturday, it let me visit with my parents on Sunday (they live not far from Toronto) before heading back. 
 
I'd only been to one Toronto Trek previously. As I recall that [convention] was more about the guest stars (at least for me), whereas here it was more about the fan community. (It's not that Toronto Trek didn't have community, it's just with Voyager running as the 3rd Trek series of the 90s, Trek was more visible than anime. It was bigger, you didn't have to hunt for it.)

 

Anime North 1997 panel

 

Donald: That we were doing something new to a lot of us was one of the big reasons I wanted to start small with a one day event, which limited the amount of work required and the things that could go wrong. 
 
We based the con off of how fan-run SF cons ran, as that was what we were most familiar with. Panel rooms, video rooms, convention lounge for attendees (that got dropped after a few years), an Art Show rather than the Artist Alley that's popular now. I'd been to a Creation Con or two and didn't like them much, they were all about everyone sitting down and consuming content. I think something we've tried to emphasize over the years is making the con a fan participatory event, something with events people can take part in, rather than just sitting (and spending). 


Sailor Moons Over the Michener

Karl: I remember at one point there was a lineup for using the washrooms, and so I decided to sneak onto one of the floors which the con wasn't using to find a washroom there. As I was about to go into the men's room there I bumped into a girl dressed as Sailor Mercury who was just coming out of it... She was quite embarrassed, and asked me to wait until her (also female) friend inside finished changing into her costume.
 
I seem to remember Derwin Mak was presenting some (cosplay) awards, and was in what looked like a military dress uniform. He wore that uniform (or something similar) for many many years after... I have no idea if it's a real uniform or cosplay. 



 

Norm McEvoy (Anime North Video Programming director): Telling people the medical specimens in the lobby were an Evangelion display and they believed it. 
 
Greg: Partly amazed it's endured (particularly after the Regal Constellation issues, and now the pandemic). I think that's in part due to keeping up with the times. Sending out the passes in advance was huge when that started, since now that I live in Ottawa, Friday night became an impossibility for making the drive there in time to pick them up.

Anime North 1997 programming schedule

 

Attending also became more of a chance to meet up with old friends (like Karl) versus getting to see shows, buy merchandise, or even be on panels. But the latter was obviously still a draw, since I went for over 20 years straight, even with there being the local AC-Cubed convention in Ottawa for a few years in there. Oh, and I'm partly amused now that AN has shifted back into July.



 

Norm: [I remember] actually being on the very first Anime North panel [“Saturday Morning Fever”, 10am, Main Panel Room]. Lots of Sailor Moon stuff, because the show was then (and still is) popular with Canadian fans. The absolute sense of relief when it was over and it was a success.


Anime North 1997 staff badge

 

Donald: I don't really remember much about how the con ran that day, which I suppose means it ran pretty well. That again is the advantage of a one-day event. We certainly got more people than we thought we'd get, nearly 800 when i was hoping for maybe 500 (needed about 300 to break even), but the space was big enough to handle that. 


Anime North 1997 Programme Book

Karl: Oh, yeah, I should talk about "Convention Anime". A lot of this is vague recollections and second-hand information, so take its reliability with a grain of salt.
 
So, a fellow named (IIRC) Robert Wong had run an anime club at the University of Ottawa, called "Club Anime". Then he was running a club in Toronto under the same name. I only ever dealt with him briefly, but people I knew who knew him tended to speak negatively about him. *After* Anime North's date had already been announced for August 1997, Robert announced that he was going to be holding "Convention Anime" on a date in July 1997, presumably to be able to claim the title of the first anime convention in Canada. There's a usenet post about it here.

My recollection of it was that it was pretty small and disorganized. At one point Robert basically pointed at me and told me to make sure nobody went into one of the video rooms between shows. That was a bit odd since I wasn't a volunteer, but I spent a few minutes doing some crowd control to try to help out. Anyway, after that one event, "Convention Anime" seemed to disappear into oblivion pretty quickly.

Unlike “Convention Anime”, Anime North would survive and thrive. The festival spent two years in the Michener, a year at a Ramada by the airport (attendance 850), a year at a Ramada with “Airport” in its name but not actually near the airport which later hosted comic and card shows and then was leased by the government to house refugees and to quarantine COVID patients, a year at the Marriott by the airport, and then two years at legendary Toronto hotel the Regal Constellation (4900 attendees), which was demolished in 2012.


 In 2004 Anime North moved to its present home at the Toronto Congress Centre & the Delta Hotel. Guests over the years include such notables as CB Cebulski, Colleen Doran, Ben Dunn, Steve Bennett, Fred Ladd, Sailor JAMboree, Scott McNeil, Stan Sakai, Senno Knife, Tommy Yune, Peter Fernandez, Corinne Orr, Haruko Momoi, J. Michael Tatum, Kumiko Watanabe, Robert Axelrod, Noboyuki Hiyama, Helen McCarthy, Hidekatsu Shibata, Neil Nadelman, Yuu Asakawa, and Ed The Sock, and the convention has grown from merely videos and vendors to include doll programming, comedy improv, music and dance performances, late-night parking lot raves, a great food truck lineup, fashion shows, game shows, video gaming, board gaming, and cosplay, lots of cosplay. Paid attendance at Anime North in 2022 was over 30,000 and it definitely felt like it. 

a small part of Anime North 2022

 Anime North will next appear on May 26-28, 2023. See you there! 
 
A big Let’s Anime thanks to Karl Zaryski, Greg Taylor, Donald Simmons, and Norm McEvoy for their recollections and assistance! 
 
-Dave Merrill

 























2 comments:

Lloyd Penney said...

Yvonne and I ran the first Anime North's green room for their guests.

Keith Palmer said...

One reason I read Let's Anime is to learn something about "anime before I was aware of it," but in seeing the comments from attendees of the first Anime North I thought at once "CTRL-A at the University of Waterloo? I was in CTRL-A in 1997!" I don't recall seeing notices of an anime convention in the province then, although once I did know it existed it took me until 2019 to work up the courage and motivation to go for a day trip. Of course, I'm not exactly thinking "if only I'd attended a convention in my first years of anime fandom, I might have built enough interest in it to have kept watching it..."