The 18th annual Anime Central (ACen), North America’s third largest anime convention, is underway this weekend in Rosemont, near Chicago. Last year’s event drew a record 29,000 unique attendees, tallying 81,000 in total over its three full days. Organizers expect to breach those figures again in 2015.
ACen is something of an oasis for anime fans in Middle America. While official celebrations of Japanese popular culture take place across the United States nearly every weekend of the year, many of them are modest affairs, geared toward less populated regions and local fans, sometimes hosted by municipal libraries and schools. The larger conventions and expos, with their bus-loads of cosplayers and A-list Japanese guests, tend to be coastal events, hosted in urban centers such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and New York.
But ACen is held in the heart of the American Midwest. Chicago hugs the shores of Lake Michigan but is otherwise landlocked, a city surrounded by forest and farmland with a reputation for plain-speaking, hard work and killer blues.
“Being in the Midwest, we have a unique feel to our event,” says Jesica Ward-Schmidt, a member of the Midwest Animation Promotion Society’s (MAPS) Board of Directors. MAPS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering an understanding of anime and manga as art forms, and to the broader appreciation of Asian culture and art. MAPS has staged ACen since its inception in 1998.
“Many attendees refer to ACen as their home convention. They save up for it all year. It is their vacation. The community that takes part in our event is a huge part of what makes us different from the coastal cons. If you look at the numbers, we basically sprout a city of people each year, people who come together to share in the love and appreciation of anime, manga, and Japanese culture,” says Ward-Schmidt.
That vacation is also an opportunity to encounter and meet major Japanese artists and entertainers in the middle of America. Shinichi Watanabe (“Cowboy Bebop”), Yoshitoshi Abe (“All You Need is Kill”) and veteran voice actress Yu Asakawa are among recent ACen guests. This year the con will host director Akitaro Daichi of the seminal “Fruits Basket” anime series, and the all-female rock band, Scandal, whose theme songs for global mega-hits “Bleach” and “Fullmetal Alchemist” have won the members an expanding international fanbase.
“When Scandal debuted in the U.S., they were wearing their school uniforms,” says Shingo Arakawa of Epic Records Japan, the band’s label. “We looked around at the audience and saw that most of the fans were anime fans.”
The anime song tie-ins have been critical to Scandal’s overseas appeal, according to Arakawa. But he adds that their current tour, with its ACen concert, is a step in a new direction.
“The girls have matured in both their looks and performance styles,” he says. “(Unlike most pop music girl groups from Japan) this is an all-female band whose members can all play instruments, and I think that’s another key reason for their increasing popularity. In the Japanese music scene and abroad, they have gained attention from serious rock fans as well.”
“The guest lineups have shifted in the past couple years as we try to capture the expanding interests of our attendees,” says Ward-Schmidt. “We bring at least two musical acts each year, and then divide the rest of our list among voice actors, directors and creators, artists, illustrators, and educational and cultural guests.”
Over the past three years, one of the most prominent of ACen’s cultural experts has been British writer Helen McCarthy, coauthor of the recent “Anime Encyclopedia” and author of the forthcoming “A Brief History of Manga.” McCarthy has been spreading the gospel about the glories of anime and manga since 1981, and has been a guest at anime conventions worldwide. For her, ACen and its Chicago locale are unique, even wondrous.
“I love Chicago,” she says. “It’s a city that balances hard work with a good time and welcomes strangers. Its energy is really positive and the convention has the same outgoing, make-the-most-of-every-minute vibe.
“The ACen convention hotel is situated on a river in the belt of forest that surrounds the city on three sides. Chicago is like a walled castle, with the lake as one wall and the forest for the others. You can see it clearly from the air, and when you look out of the hotel toward downtown Chicago the city floats above a sea of green, like a magical island.”
McCarthy has become a celebrity among staff and attendees at ACen for writing and reciting haiku on the convention floor at all hours, and sometimes upon request. I will be appearing with her on a panel this weekend, so I asked her if she would donate a Chicago haiku for the event.
“I go around the convention reading haiku at every opportunity, and sometimes if I’m asked for one I can compose it on the fly,” she says. “Haiku are like dragonflies — you can’t always catch one at will. But here goes:
with the song of frogs
long hot night
Both of us under
a green tree and a blue sky
half a world apart”
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.