Our Con Reports continue, this time with AnimeFest! Caitlin and Amelia traveled to Dallas, TX, to hang with anitwitter pals, wince at chaotic autograph lines, and come face-to-face with Sayo Yamamoto. They have the scoop below.
Like many con-goers, this was my first year at AnimeFest. Like many con-goers, this was probably my last year at AnimeFest. It’s not that I had a bad time—in fact, I had a great time. I spent a wonderful weekend with some of my favorite people in the world, met people I’ve respected for a long time, and went to some great panels. The con had a number of issues throughout, but nothing that would make me stop attending if it were a local convention. It’s just that, without the draw of this year’s guest roster, there’s little to draw me to a midsize con in Dallas, Texas, far from my home turf.
I suspect this was the case for at least half of this year’s attendees. The Japanese guests included some of the biggest names in the business, such as shoujo veteran Arina Tanemura; the ever-reliable production staff of studio Production IG, including Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama; the innovative and unconventional Eunyoung Choi and Masaaki Yuasa of studio Science Saru; the main trio behind the creation of last year’s mega-hit Yuri!!! on ICE, and many others. That final trio drew a massive crowd that the con was completely unprepared for, leading to a convention experience for many defined by either the joy of seeing and meeting their idols in person or the frustration of capped lines, panel delays, and disappointment.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend most of the guest panels I wanted to, outside of a few scheduling issues. Tanemura’s panels weren’t particularly interesting to me, mostly a Q&A session while she drew manga pages, and I never felt like I was getting insight into her thoughts and motivations in her work. The only Science Saru panel I managed to attend was “Making Movies,” where they discussed their two latest films, Lu over the wall and The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, both of which were screened later that weekend.
The Studio Saru team talked about how they animated Lu over the wall using Flash animation, which has never gained much traction in the pencil-and-paper-dominated anime industry, and its potential to change how anime is made, including demonstrations of the process from rough sketches to the final rendering. Yuasa was also a remarkably good sport, bobbing along with the music from the YouTuber singalong next door that bled into the room so badly the translator was almost totally drowned out.
The Yuri on Ice crew was, of course, the main draw of the weekend for a huge number of attendees, and their presence created some of the weekend’s highest highs and lowest lows. The three had great group chemistry, joking around with each other about things like character designer Tadashi Hiramatsu’s great skill at drawing male crotches while Mitsurou Kubo posed a Makkachin tissue box cover suggestively, or writer/director Sayo Yamamoto’s figure skating obsession.
At every panel, the con played the opening theme “History Maker” as an introduction, and the way the entire audience sang along every time was a wonderful reminder of the show’s power and meaning to such a wide audience. In one of the con’s most touching moments, Yamamoto admitted that Yuuri’s discouragement was in part inspired by her own struggles in the anime industry, and how she was ready to quit just before her pitch was greenlit.
For all the joy the team created, there were some dark moments as well. Like I said, the AnimeFest organizers were totally unprepared for how popular the Yuri on Ice team would be. The Japanese guests were all scheduled to do group autograph sessions, once per day during the con, for an hour at a time. After the first day, when the queue capped first thing in the morning, the staff decided they wouldn’t allow anyone to line up until an hour before the scheduled time. This resulted in a complete mob scene as people tried to gather before they were allowed to line up, with staffers on megaphones shouting at the crowd to disperse and giving conflicting instructions.
The mood among the fans was dark as well, with the crowding sometimes escalating to shoving and even kicking as they fought for a chance to meet the creators of their favorite series face-to-face, while others broke into tears upon realizing they wouldn’t get a chance. The whole thing was horrendously mishandled, and there are rumors that the con higher-ups thought nobody would “show up for gays in tights.” The whole thing was an ugly moment that this year’s attendees are unlikely to forget.
I was lucky—those moments were not convention-defining for me. For me, the most memorable times were the ones I spent with my friends. I’ve been fortunate enough to make some great friends in the Anitwitter community, and I got to spend time with a lot of them between Otakon and AnimeFest, and make new friends as well. I managed to connect with Susan Napier, one of the leading American scholars of anime and manga studies, and even got coffee with her and Rose Bridges as we talked about anime fandom and academia. Sayo Yamamoto waved at me, which is a memory I will treasure forever. Our enormous hotel suite made it possible to host a party, which was punctuated by champagne toasts, discussions about some truly bizarre doujinshi, screenings of Space Dandy episodes directed by this year’s guests, and people doing the Sophist’s Dance from The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.
The people truly make the con, and that made AnimeFest 2017 magical.
My second US con! I was here with Caitlin only from the staff, but we roomed with contributor Megan and patron Micchy, both of whom promoted us at the end of panels they hosted, to my surprise and gratitude.
As I was there for AniFem, I prioritised attending fan panels of feminist interest. I was pleasantly surprised to find that AnimeFest had many more explicitly and implicitly feminist panels than Otakon, including those by Caitlin (Romance and Abuse in Shoujo Manga, Is This Feminist or Not? Examining Anime Through a Feminist Lens and Trapped in Another World: Isekai Shoujo Manga of the 1990s) Micchy (Female Anime Directors: Yamamoto, Choi, and Beyond) and Megan (The Josei Renaissance, based on her piece published on AniFem). I made it to as many as I could, and generally found it easy to create full days of feminist-relevant programming at AnimeFest.
Disability, mental health, and race
I arrived a day after the con began so sadly missed a panel called “Non-Visible: Nerds with Disabilities,” but I’m so pleased that it was there. I did make it to the panel “Positivity and Support in the Cosplay Community” which I was pleasantly surprised to see led by three men speaking openly about their struggles with depression, anxiety, and experiences of discrimination in cosplay. Mental health continues to be a prime example of “The patriarchy hurts everyone,” and it’s an area where men can make great contributions to de-stigmatise speaking out for other men.
The panellists created exactly the positive and supportive environment they intended and invited audience members to share their stories on topics like ageism, body image and impostor syndrome if they felt comfortable doing so–which, to my frustration, a few white attendees took as an opportunity to share their feelings on white people being called out for cosplaying dark-skinned characters. In an expression of White Lady Feminism™ so overt it could actually have been satire, the white woman who started this line of conversation commented that a child who said “Your character’s supposed to be black!” had hurt her feelings. A literal child.
Fortunately, another white audience member talked of her POC husband’s experiences being asked to stay out of group photos because “That character’s not supposed to be black.” It was frustrating to see the panel instantly derailed to talk about race from a white person’s perspective, but I very much appreciated the counterpoint–even if it came from another white woman. There were multiple POC in the room, including on the panel, but I don’t blame any of us for not wading into this poorly framed and off-topic discussion.
My only criticism would be for the AnimeFest programmers putting it in a room directly connecting the Yuri!!! On ICE event taking place at the same time. It was such a shame that these men had to share such personal and emotional stories over an audience singing “History Maker” and screaming when Kubo, Yamamoto, and Hiramatsu took the stage. It also meant that some people were initially blocked from even getting to the panel room, as the other line was so long that volunteers assumed people trying to get past it to the cosplay panel were pushing in. However, the panellists persisted and created a worthwhile panel which represented the cosplay community at its best.
Women in Industry
In general, I try to make it to the “Women In…” panels, to hear women in the comics and animation industries talk about their experiences and share advice. My experience so far is that the panellists prepare only self-introductions and begin taking questions as soon as those are over, which has felt like a missed opportunity whenever I’ve seen it. I think there would be value in preparing 10 minutes of women-in-industry highlights, summarising present day accomplishments and challenges to a) set the tone and b) give people a starting point for questions. How much more timely and less generic a discussion could they host if they gave people a little more context to start with?
In the worst-case scenario, it ends up as chit-chat between friends on topics that have little or nothing to do with the specific situation of women in the industry. In one particularly embarrassing incident, an audience member came up to the microphone to ask when they were actually going to talk about the topic of the panel… to which the panellists asked her to read out the panel description as they had no idea what it said. To make matters worse, they then proceeded to “What about the men?!” their own panel.
Thankfully, AnimeFest was not that experience. While the word “feminist” was never mentioned, the Women in Voice Acting panellists were candid about the difficulties they have faced, improvements they have seen, and areas that still have a long way to go. The first question was on whether there’s a glass ceiling for voice actors, to which the panellists said there’s no shortage of parts, in part thanks to harem anime, but “there are fewer cool parts for women. I don’t get to be a cool shonen hero unless they’re five years old, and then it’s just mimicking someone else’s performance rather than creating a character.”
Apphia Yu and Monica Rial talked about their experiences as directors, noting that women directors need to be twice as good to achieve the same recognition as their male counterparts and that there is still an industry imbalance. “At Funimation the ratio is getting better, but it’s not even yet. You help people who are like you, which is fine, but if it’s all guys they’re more likely to help out other guys. Right now I feel like we’re not telling stories on an equal level.” Monica told an anecdote of attempting to direct a group of men–who began to speak amongst themselves in the booth while she was still talking. Apphia related one time an actor walked in and greeted his new boss with: “Oh my goodness, I’ve never had a director who looks like an anime character!”
Perceptions within the industry are different from those of consumers and fans. One audience member questioned the need for a Women in Voice Acting panel at all, noting that Monica Rial is the most prolific voice actor in anime and that the closest male voice actor is a few hundred roles behind. In response, Monica said that while this may be true, organisers of signing events still tend to put her on a table out of the way and with other people, while giving prominent male voice actors tables of their own with plenty of space for lines, only to be amazed when Monica (who has voiced over 500 characters) turns out to be so busy.
Monica also put the panel into historical context. “There was a time when that was a big deal because there were so few women at conventions and we’d all have a moment, but it’s not the case anymore that it’s something we need to do.” However, she immediately followed up by pointing out that there actually is a “men in anime” panel; it’s just called “The Totally Best Friends Who Don’t Hate Each Other” panel, deliberately opting for the “chit-chat between friends” dynamic I referenced earlier and nothing more. On a more sobering note, Apphia pointed out that the Directing in Anime panel had four panellists–all men.
Finally, I was fortunate enough to catch all three film screenings: Napping Princess, Lu Over the Wall, and The Night is Short, Walk On Girl. Each of these merits a complete review through a feminist lens in its own right, but I just want to make a note on Yuasa himself.
Masaaki Yuasa is now something of a darling in anitwitter circles, and rightly so. I’m not a sakuga person in general, but his bold, dynamic approach to animation is both striking and expressive, style conveying substance. Before the screening, Yuasa requested that we not take this “silly story” about students “too seriously.” Hmm. This request inspired low-level alarm bells, which thankfully prepared me for what I was about to see.
I enjoyed The Night is Short, Walk On Girl a great deal, from the moment it turned out the protagonist was a hard drinking young woman on an impromtu night out after a wedding in Japan–been there! However, I’d find it hard to recommend to a non-anime fan due to its reliance on mining tired anti-feminist tropes like “sexual assault as entertainment” for comedy. No creator is above criticism, even if they request it.
Overall, I found AnimeFest to be a more overtly progressive con, and I appreciated how many female creators were in attendance, from Japan and otherwise. Caitlin asked some excellent questions and got some fascinating quotes from some of the creators in attendance. I’m certain AniFem readers will enjoy her interviews as soon as they are available.