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