Los Angeles plays host to the otaku event of the year...

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Anime Expo is one of the premiere genre conventions in the Los Angeles area each year, drawing crowds of tens of thousands during the July 4th weekend. For the last few years it’s been operating out of the Los Angeles Convention Center in downtown, and more and more it’s taking advantage of the nearby theatres and accommodations. Anime Expo is the place to be for fans of animation, manga, toys, cosplay, and just about anything else from Japan including the culture. I’ve been going for years, and every time I find cool stuff I’ve never seen before and meet interesting people who have traveled from around the world to be there! So what’s there to do at Anime Expo? Glad you asked!

The economic downturn of the last few years hasn’t been kind to the anime industry, just like everything else. Once upon a time the major anime companies and distributors came to AX with huge booths and offered tons of giveaways. In the span of one year, though, several of those companies went out of business, and all of a sudden the exhibit hall of Anime Expo seemed downright bare. Now that some time has passed, the convention has really reached a new equilibrium. While there may not be as many big companies in attendance, dozens of smaller retailers and artisans have filled the gap they’ve left behind to create something new.

Though it’s not exactly the hub of activity in the LA area, there is stuff to do in downtown. Thankfully the convention center is huge, and once you’re there it’s pretty easy to find the registration area and get everything sorted out. Vast improvements over the last few years mean the staff actually knows what’s going on and can answer your questions. Once you’ve picked up your badge, it’s time to head toward the exhibit hall, the hub of all Anime Expo activity! Actually, don’t rush, because once you’ve stepped foot in a two block radius of AX you’re going to start seeing the cosplayers. Guys and gals come to the convention dressed to be seen, so don’t be afraid to offer compliments and ask them to pose for pictures.

The central area of the convention center leads into the exhibit hall, and here AX offers its official merchandise. This year there was also a Toyota display with two Corollas decked out in Hatsune Miku decoration (more on “her” later). Throughout the central areas there were also giant projections of the AX schedule, just in case you lost yours and needed to find out when and where the Naruto screenings were! Head on through the welcoming archway, a portal into another world. The first row of booths inside the exhibit hall belongs to the larger companies. This year, that meant Crunchyroll, Yes Anime, Copic (great markers and pens), FUNimation, NIS, Bandai, Bluefin, Kinokuniya Bookstores, Nico Nico, and Bang Zoom! Entertainment. FUNimation is always a big hit with its photo ops and great deals on their full catalogue. NIS brought their A game as well, and newcomer Nico Nico previewed their new social media site that combines YouTube and Twitter in an interesting mix.

Bandai and importer Bluefin partnered on a huge double booth. As the only major toy company in attendance, they could have phoned it in but instead went all the way with an incredible display of products. Most of it was devoted to Gundams, naturally, in both model and figure lines. Also mixed in was some of their other products like One Piece, Dragonball Z, Kamen Rider, Gurren Lagann, Super Robot Wars, Mazinger, Saint Seiya, Mega Man, Ultraman, Virtual-On, and more. On display were a couple of brand new items like the Kamen Rider Putotyra Combo S.H.Figuarts figure and from One Piece Dracule Mihawk (pictured above) and the “Strong World” versions of Shanks and Portgas.

Past the big guys, there’s plenty more to see and do. Didn’t get your costume together in time? No problem! Just check out one of the many booths devoted to costuming from goth style to fancy maid wear, hats, ears, and more. You can also get armed to the teeth with swords and airsoft guns. Into specific anime or manga? Internet retailers and local stores offer tons of wares including bootlegs, fan subs, and items you won’t find anywhere else. Techies can check out new programs for 3D modeling, creating comics, or photo manipulation. For those with a sweet tooth there was Pocky and Hi-Chew offering prizes for a scavenger hunt and free samples respectively.

Plenty of booths were selling toys and collectibles of all kinds, with cool robots and sexy ladies. Personally, I got a great deal on a box of Bandai’s Macross Fighter Collection 4! Some of the other interesting attendees included Geek Chic (amazing collector/gamer furniture), Warner Bros. advertising Final Destination 5, tribbletoys.com, Cat **** One for sale on Blu-ray, AAA Anime Distribution, and the lightsaber guys of Saber Forge.

Meanwhile, the back area of the exhibit hall was given over to the Artist Alley. More so than at any other convention, the “Alley” at AX has a really interesting mix of artists, and there you’ll find everything from Deviant Art guys to boutique miniatures, crafters, clothing, stickers, cards, and everything in between. It’s a great place to commission a piece of your favorite character (or yourself!), or to support the arts by picking up a print or two.

And that’s just the exhibit hall. When it comes to programming and live events, Anime Expo ranks behind only SDCC. AX has four days of things to do broken down into “Live Programming,” “Workshops,” Video, and more. In the LP rooms you’ll find panels and Q&As with special guests from the anime and manga worlds and panels on everything from the latest studio releases to specific series, games, toys, and more. Other events will offer tips on becoming an artist or voice actor with pros giving their expert advice. Workshops teach dance techniques, cosplaying, and lots of art styles. Video rooms have screenings of anime, live action movies, and other media around the clock, and it ranges all the way from kid stuff to strictly 18+. And if that’s not enough for you, there are even more rooms with console and tabletop gaming, dances, and karaoke.

As I noted earlier, the convention has expanded to include the nearby Club Nokia and Nokia Theatre. Here AX offered concerts and special events like a Battle of the Bands, AX Idol, and a costume Masquerade. The biggest event this year was Saturday night, “Mikunopolis!” A major concert event at Nokia, this was the North America premiere of Hatsune Miku, the world’s first fully holographic live performer. Tickets for this premium event sold early and quickly.

With dozens more fan meetups, panels, photo gatherings, etc., there’s always at least three things going on at Anime Expo; the trouble is figuring out which to do! Here are a couple of the most noteworthy events I was able to attend on Saturday. The Production I.G. panel is always a hit, and not even just for its announcements and previews. No, it’s the hostess Maki who really draws the crowds. Blunt and hilariously funny, the mistress of I.G. tells it like it is with nothing held back. She talked about Avi Arad, now the Chairperson of Production I.G. and one of the people behind the Ghost in the Shell live action film. 2011 will see a bunch of new properties including Solid State Society 3D, Basara: The Last Party, Blood C(lamp), Appleseed XIII, Usagi Drop, Cyborg 009, and Letter to Momo. As Maki put it, I.G. is embarking on more “cutesy” stuff than they usually do, but there’s still plenty of action and blood. Along those lines is another new release, Oblivion Island.

At Bandai’s panel the audience had to wait through some frustrating technical difficulties, but once all was said and done we got to see some cool previews and were given tons of info:

* 5 Centimeters Per Second – a new anthology of love stories, the title refers to the rate at which cherry blossoms fall.
* The Girl Who Leapt Through Space – a sci-fi series featuring girls piloting mecha in space.
* The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – the film about a girl who learns to manipulate time is now available on Blu-ray!
* Tales of the Abyss – based on the hit video game, this new series is full of cool medieval action.
* Gundam oo the Movie – the first all new, all original Gundam movie in 19 years. Available now on DVD and Blu-ray. To coincide with this and other Gundam properties Bandai hosted multiple events at Anime Expo for the fans. Also shown were previews for the third Gundam Unicorn volume, newly remastered Mobile Suit Gundam (the original series that started it all), and Turn A Gundam.

On the softer side of things were The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya and the musical K-ON!

The Tekken film series returns with Blood Vengeance, the latest CG feature. This action extravaganza features two new characters (Ganryu and Lee Chaolan) and will debut in theatres one night only on July 26th.

Right Stuf/Nozomi had a preview event showing the entire first episode of their remastered Revolutionary Girl Utena series. The anime that first premiered in 1997 is back in limited edition box sets available through the company’s website with new boxes, art, etc. The first two are on sale now, with the third coming soon. If you order all three together online you get a bonus signet ring! Also shown at the panel was Sound of the Sky.

FUNimation always packs the house when they show previews, and it was no different Saturday night. On tap was a wide variety of shows and movies, but first the presenter announced upcoming titles: Cat Planet Cuties, Steins;Gate, Deadman Wonderland, and more. Then the previews (all titles currently available) began:

* Chobits – a re-release of the now classic series
* Ga-Rei-Zero – a cool paranormal detective story involving friends who grow apart, one turning evil
* TO – sci-fi drama that takes place on a space station where scientists are studying spores that kill people. The government wants to blow it up and it’s up to the scientists to find a cure first.
* Hero Tales – from the producers of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a Japanese legend about families tied to constellations, each holding power when theirs is in the sky. But what happens when two appear at once?
* Goemon – live action re-telling of a Japanese legend that’s part Robin Hood, part ninja. Stylistically similar to 300 with lots of CG blood.
* Eden of the East – the “Jason Bourne” of anime. Set in modern Japan it’s the story of people chosen to save the country. They’re given cell phones and money and can make calls to have anything happen... for a price. If they don’t save Japan, they’re killed. If someone else saves Japan, they’re killed. If they run out of money, they’re killed...
* Rideback – after dedicating her life to ballet and then getting injured, a girl comes across a special “Rideback” (a sort of motorcycle/mecha). Something about it is different, and everyone from the government to terrorists tries to get their hands on it.
* Dance in the Vampire Bund – “True Blood for the anime crowd,” this series features an 800 year old vampire queen (who happens to look like a 12 year old girl) trying to bring her species into the open. Facing opposition from all sides, her main ally is her bodyguard/werewolf/boyfriend.
* Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts – in Japan a test is administered to determine placement in the following year’s classes, so when two otherwise smart kids flunk theirs they find themselves in a rough neighborhood. A silly and fun classroom comedy, this one features an interesting group of characters and their trials and tribulations in school.

Check out FUNimation.com for free episodes all summer long.

Despite its size (this year AX racked up 47,000 unique attendees), the convention really does have the feeling of community. It’s anime and manga fans from around the world, all eager to see what the studios and distributors have coming next and looking to spend some money on cool stuff. Whether you’re a casual fan watching some anime on Cartoon Network or SyFy, or a hardcore otaku with a basement full of subtitled DVDs, Anime Expo is the place for you. Next year’s event will take place once again at the Los Angeles Convention Center, June 29th – July 2nd. Hope to see you there!

-Scott Rubin