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June 12-14, 2009
Garden State Exhibit Center
Somerset, NJ, USA
There is little to say about AnimeNEXT for those who have never attended the New Jersey convention. That's not because there was nothing to do; in fact, quite the opposite. The reason is that AnimeNEXT is a fan-run convention that feels less like an organized series of events, and more like a giant, three-day party. It's an experience like no other.
Those who have attended previous AnimeNEXT conventions will know the crowds sprayed across the grass, taking cosplay photos and fighting with their newly-bought wooden swords. The panels, run by an ever growing crowd of intelligent and funny panelists both young and old from around the tri-state area, will also be familiar. Then there is also the huge concrete convention center, filled with cosplayers in its massive open area.
The difference is that the lawn, the convention center, and the panel rooms were all new this year, a change that came with the convention's move from the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus to the Garden State Exhibit Center in Somerset. The move brought the AnimeNEXT about 45 minutes southwest of its previous location, which posed a significant problem for New York-based convention-goers. Driving to the con was impractical, and public transportation could only get one as far as the New Brunswick train station (though AnimeNEXT kindly provided a shuttle bus between the train station and convention center in the absence of taxis). For lucky folks like myself who live in the suburbs of New Jersey, the drive was relatively short and painless, clocking in at around a half hour in my case.
Prior engagements unfortunately got in the way of me attending the convention on its most densely-packed day, Saturday. But during Friday and Sunday, I did my best to get an accurate picture of this year's three-day-long anime party. First on my list were the panels, which never fail to impress at this convention. Friday night featured a string of panels run by Walter Amos, Rob Fenelon, and Brian Price, who I praised for their wonderful presentation at AnimeNEXT 2008. This year, they ran "Anime Princesses Rule, Disney Princesses Drool," a new panel revolving around the idea of powerful, political female royaly in anime versus flowery, helpless female royalty in American cartoons. I didn't catch very much of the other two late-night panels, but they were "My Stereotypes Are More Offensive Than Yours" (a new one about differences in cultural stereotypes) and the three panelists' old classic, "These Are a Few of My Favorite Scenes" (a clip show).
Voice actor Kyle Hebert and his co-host Marc Swint showed up at the con for a live episode of The Big Bald Broadcast, and even invited voice actors Bill Rogers and Michele Knotz to join in on the show. While I wasn't able to attend most of the events, I know that Kyle, Bill, and Michele ran tons of events throughout the weekend, from storytime for kids to Gravitation open discussions. (Wanna hear more about Kyle Hebert? Check out his appearances on Ani-Gamers Podcast episodes #006 and #015!)
One of the most surprisingly enjoyable panels at the con was something called "Otaku Perceptions and Misconceptions." Run by the "IchiP!" anime dance troupe, I was quite honestly expecting a very silly, inconsequential discussion at the panel, considering the group hosting it. However, they really wowed me with some serious discussion of the way in which people view anime fans, and how those perceptions are at times correct and at times woefully misinformed. They opened the floor for questions and comments throughout the panel, which resulted in some very off-topic discussions as well as thoughtful commentary. The "IchiP!" girls definitely have some room to improve their concision and crowd control, but I can't say that I'm not looking forward to seeing their next panel.
The funny thing about AnimeNEXT, though, is that much of its charm comes exclusively from its attendees and panelists, who form a generally friendly and fun-loving group that is always a joy to be around. As such, this year's convention was still lots of fun despite being even more dreadfully disorganized than the year before. The location, as mentioned before, made public transportation difficult, but the big problem was in scheduling. Most panels that I attended were moved to new times and/or locations, which cut down panel attendance significantly. (The blogging panel, for example, was attended almost exclusively by... fellow bloggers.) There were also some less significant panel scheduling problems, as Walter, Rob, and Brian pointed out when they noticed that their panels had been inexplicably given an 18+ rating. To the convention's credit, they published a sheet of last-minute scheduling corrections, but this noble attempt was made mostly useless with all of the new corrections being made mere hours before panels started.
As was the problem last year, there was no Guest of Honor for this year's AnimeNEXT, resulting in a decentralized feeling that left the convention with a list of main events that did not capture as much attention as it should have. Of course, it didn't help that the convention center was new and events were still scattered into various nearby buildings, further confusing convention-goers looking to check out all that AnimeNEXT had to offer.
Regardless of these defects, I continue to promote AnimeNEXT as a fun New Jersey convention, especially now for those living too far to make it to New York Anime Festival. It might not have been well organized, but there was "usually a lot of stuff to do," as one attendee remarked. If you can't make it to a bigger convention like New York Anime Festival or Otakon, AnimeNEXT is certainly a viable alternative for those in the area. It might not drag in the big guests of those cons, but what it has is heart. And that is something that money, organization, and reputation just can't buy.
Oh yeah, and finally, my highlight of the con...