I had been invited to host a Q&A with renowned “Gundam” creator and sci-fi novelist Yoshiyuki Tomino at The New York Anime Festival. But when my handler and I arrived at the designated room, we found it empty and dark. “Over here,” a staffer called from across the hall. “Too many people.”
The auditorium we entered was cavernous — the largest room in the city’s biggest convention venue, the Jacob K. Javits Center — and its seats were filled from front to back, with a string of fans and photographers lining the perimeter. My handler escorted me backstage to greet Tomino, who was squinting through the curtains as he scanned the room. He turned to me and said: “I am very surprised.”
The standing ovations and thoughtful silences accompanying our onstage conversation seemed to indicate that anime fandom was alive and well in the New York City area. While “Gundam” is a consecrated classic in Japan, it’s hardly the title that brings out the “Pokemon” and “Naruto” legions in the United States. Yet here was a full house for the man who had decades before created one of Japan’s most iconic and beloved giant robots.
That was four years ago. Today, the stand-alone New York Anime Festival (NYAF) is no more. One year after Tomino’s appearance, the event was folded into the now 8-year-old New York Comic Con (NYCC), an umbrella gathering that spans Marvel and DC comics, among others, sci-fi and blockbuster Hollywood movies, television series, novels and artists, game developers, celebrities and cosplayers — with a smidgen of anime and manga on the side.
Last month’s 2013 NYCC drew an estimated 133,000 attendees, up 17,000 over last year, making it by far the largest popular culture event on the U.S. East Coast. During the busiest of the Con’s four days, it was nearly impossible to move through the crowds gathered in the main halls. Escalator travel was uncomfortably intimate, frequently broke down, and often felt close to collapse.
“(We’re) now at the upper limits of what the Javits can hold,” said Peter Tatara, international director of content and marketing for ReedPop, a division of Reed Exhibitions, the producers of NYCC. Reed is looking to expand the Con’s dates and locales, exploring venues in other parts of the city.
But gripes about skimpy anime and manga offerings this year reached me even before I received my press pass. “I’m boycotting (NYCC),” one local Asian-culture journalist and anime and manga aficionado told me. “A lot of us are. They don’t care about anime fans anymore, it’s obvious.”
Statistics bear her out. At this year’s NYCC, a mere 9 percent of the vendor booths, panels and presentations had anything to do with manga or anime, according to Tatara. And the graphic on my press pass was not a doe-eyed “Madoka” schoolgirl or swashbuckling “One Piece” pirate, or even a hard-bodied Marvel “Ironman.” It was furrow-faced Rick, the live-action lead from the U.S. TV megahit, “The Walking Dead.”
“We’ve not done the job we need to do courting (the anime industry),” admitted ReedPop’s global vice president and NYCC show manager, Lance Festerman. Festerman met me in a private office several meters above the Con’s pulsing maze of dealer booths and fans. “I think this year in particular, we’ve had kind of a dearth of anime content. I don’t think we’ve put enough emphasis on developing the relationships that are necessary to land the content that’s going to ‘wow’ things. And that’s a commitment on our part. We need to recommit to that fan base.”
NYAF was launched in the late 2000s, just as the anime industry, and the global economy, were going into a tailspin, Festerman explained. The old model of physical sales was disintegrating, and the new digital-delivery model had not yet been monetized. “(NYAF) just wasn’t working from a business perspective. It was great for the fans, but it wasn’t enough premium content. The show was turning into a raft of (independent) dealers selling cat-ears and swords and kimonos. That’s fine, but that’s not premium. We need screenings, guests, large booths promoting games. Cat-ears are important, but they’re not exclusive content.”
After-hour chatter among anime-industry veterans and journalists in bars adjacent to the Javits bordered on being bitter. “One of the biggest artists in the business offered to come this year,” a prominent editor told me, “but the NYCC staff had no idea who he was and dropped the ball.”
Both Festerman and Tatara are keenly aware of the growing disenchantment among anime fans in the U.S., and both separately assured me that Reed will refocus its efforts on anime and manga fans, producers and publishers for NYCC 2014. But they are also focusing on other markets. Tatara recently traveled to Dubai and Singapore to explore opportunities in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And Festerman promises a big announcement before the end of this year of a Reed-produced Japanese pop-culture convention in Asia — most likely, China.
“We took our video-game expo, PAX, to Melbourne this July and sold it out three months before the show,” says Festerman. “We’re moving on from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies to the TIME (Turkey, India and the Middle East) economies, but we like the BRICs, too. We’re active in all of those spaces with three buckets — broad-based Comic Cons, Game Cons and Japanese Pop Culture.”
Reed’s strategies for tapping fans beyond the North American market echo much of the talk in and around Tokyo. The rising wealth and consumer passion for Japanese culture has anime producers and manga publishers focusing on fans in New Delhi and Shanghai over New York and San Diego. Officials at METI, the Japanese government ministry overseeing the recently launched, ¥50 billion “Cool Japan” fund, which I’ve mentioned before in this column, told me that they’re now more excited by promotional activities in Singapore than in San Francisco. And Crunchyroll.com, a successful online anime portal that debuted its digital manga site two weeks ago, is fast developing non-English products to expand its reach.
“Anime and manga are a priority for (NYCC) in 2014,” says ReedPop’s Tatara, “and we’re starting conversations on commitment, content and talent before this year’s end.” Perhaps. But like the aging and overstuffed Jacob K. Javits Center, the North American market for Japanese pop culture may have hit its upper limit.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.