Years ago, New York City, touted for its multiculturalism, was as much an anime wasteland as any other city, with anime-related activities few and far between. Recently, though, the city has seen an explosion of anime events unlike any other, driven by movie theaters, comic shops, bookstores, and conventions. Last weekend, I tried to get my own perspective on this "Big Apple Anime Explosion."
To begin my mini-tour of the "new" New York City anime fandom, I stopped by the IFC Theater on the Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.). Here, my friends and I sat down for a packed showing of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Playing alongside independent films from all around the world, TGWLTT drew crowds of all different ages and genders. Not only that, but it also drew in viewers who were most surely not otaku. (For the unintiated, otaku means anime fan) One little girl, a casual fan of Hayao Miyazaki's films, said the movie was "awesome," while her mother lavished similar praise.
Next, we took a trip down 6th Avenue to the new Kinokuniya. This huge Japanese bookstore is hidden across from Bryant Park. Unfortunately, it has very little window space compared to its previously glamorous position in the center of Rockefeller Center. Reed Expositions, organizers of the New York Anime Festival later this month, were holding a special release event for the Death Note live-action movie at the store, a part of their ongoing series of events at Kinokuniya.
Filling the hallways of this rather spacious store were what must have been at least 200 teenage and adult Death Note fans, decked out in cosplay and anime paraphernalia. Standing in that sea of people, it was hard not to notice that the landscape of anime in New York City was beginning to change. The "greatest city in the world" just might be coming into its own within this Japanese world of ours.
To get a better idea of how this Big Apple Anime Explosion is panning out, I spoke with John Fuller, Store Manager at Kinokuniya, and Peter Tatara, Conference Manager for the New York Anime Festival and organizer of the Death Note event.
Kinokuniya has been around since the 1970's, and yet Mr. Fuller feels that they have not exactly been driving the explosion. Instead they were "dragged into it kicking and screaming" by overwhelming consumer demand. The store also seemed to pick just the right spot in New York City's little anime world, not altogether intentionally. "This is where a lot of things were already beginning to happen," explains Fuller, regarding nearby comicbook stores and Asian cafes. Not only that, but Kinokuniya is "on 6th Avenue...across from Bryant Park...right here in the middle of everything!" That's a helpful thing for a store leading the revolution of a medium.
Even more pivotal to the Big Apple Anime Explosion is New York Anime Festival's Conference Manager, Peter Tatara (pictured at right). This longtime anime fan cut his otaku teeth on Vampire Hunter D, and since has dedicated himself to bringing anime to as many fans as possible. When the Big Apple Anime Fest sputtered out three years ago and New York Comic Con started up two years later, Peter and his associates knew they had to bring a new convention to anime fans in the area - the New York Anime Festival (NYAF).
"All of these events at Kinokuniya are part of [NYAF]," explains Peter. "The Anime Festival is three days a year, but I don't want to say 'see you next year.' I want to make an event every month or two months for fans to get together." While the New York Anime Festival has been the most prominent leader in the Anime Explosion, Peter says that this newfound interest "just sort of happened because of groups like New York Anime Festival, ImaginAsian, and Kinokuniya having anime on our minds and feeding off of each other."
Mr. Tatara has never heard of any other conventions trying a revolutionary system like this, but he feels that "now is a time when everyone is realizing that anime is a gateway to Japanese culture. I'd love to see other cons do this." When asked about anime's growing mainstream penetration, Mr. Tatara noted "stuff like Death Note, Bleach, Naruto, and Pokemon that have entered the mainstream mind. It's great to see 200 people showing up for a Death Note day!"
The New York Anime Festival isn't the only convention working to expand anime's popularity in the New York City area. AnimeNEXT recently spun off MangaNEXT, so that now the New Jersey convention maintains a year-round presence. Coupled with NYAF's plans, Kinokuniya's courting of American otaku, and anime/manga expansion at theaters and comicbook shops like IFC and Midtown Comics, New York anime fans have a lot of activities open to them on any given weekend.
To help speed along the growing explosion, Tatara and Reed Exhibitions are in the process of launching NewYorkAnimeFans.com, a comprehensive year-round calendar documenting all of those anime events in New York City. Nevertheless, according to Peter this explosion isn't just about large groups bringing anime into the limelight. "What's most important for anime right now is having a passion. That's what links Kinokuniya to the New York Anime Festival to the fans. It's something we're all passionate about."