Welcome to (ようこそ) the Jungle

Paige K. Bradley at the 1st AnimeNYC

Still from video of Hastune Miku Expo 2016 Japan Tour concert at Zepp Tokyo, April 10, 2016.

“THERE WERE SIGNS.” A small Totoro charm hanging off a mini Fjallraven just so, spotted on the Q train; the Shoto Aizawa from My Hero Academia button on a backpack moving along Thirty-Fourth Street. Clearly something was afoot.

’Twas an anime convention, dear reader, the inaugural edition of a gathering of weebs in New York: AnimeNYC. Held for three days last weekend at Hillary Clinton’s Waterloo (though most around these parts just call it the Javits Center), it marked a terrific opportunity for Midtown councilman Ben Kallos (D) to hail the money and tax dollars that this fan base would bring to the city. It was also the first anime convention I’d attended since I was thirteen. Time to reexamine my foundational narrative at the intersection of high and low.

“Anime is trash and so am I.” Now that we got that out of the way, here are some con thoughts. Anime, even if you haven’t heard of it or seen any of it, has at this point probably its greatest global visibility ever. In the past decade, we’ve gone from faceless usernames on the internet swapping DIY-subtitled .avi files and fan-translated scans of manga pages to an impressive—if not always consistent or comprehensive—array of legal, US-based streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Crunchyroll) vying for the loyalty of the English-speaking audience dedicated to this . . . I hesitate to say genre—how about behemoth? Or, a cultural expression that has for some time now not even been made exclusively by Japanese people or for Japanese audiences. The demand for content is high, live-action adaptations are picking up speed but not necessarily enthusiasm, the wages for animators are generally acknowledged to be minuscule, and some people are perhaps dying of overwork.

But I do go on. What did the weekend have to offer? An alley for artists, the immersive runway that is cosplay, an exhibitor hall of well over a hundred booths featuring Blu-rays, books, nail art, massages, snapback hats, plushies, sailor-style school uniforms, exclusive Sailor Moon merchandise (got one), the New York Public Library, kigurumi suits, T-Mobile, and porn—something for everyone in the fam.

Left: Animator and director LeSean Thomas. Right: Councilman Ben Kallos (second from right).

And the panels! Anime cons have come a long way from handing the keys to nondescript meeting rooms over to future election influencers so they could have free rein to troll each other IRL. Here were convocations of major companies in the field, such as Sunrise—purveyors of the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, which has been running since the 1970s and is now an enterprise unto itself—VIZ Media, Kodansha Comics, and the title sponsor of the event, Crunchyroll (full disclosure, I’m a subscriber, as if you couldn’t guess).

Unlike the panel discussions endemic to contemporary art, these affairs are pretty upfront about the fact that they’re there to sell you something: Primarily, release dates for boxed sets were announced. The smell of pretzels and the distinctive sweet scent of NYC roasted nut carts came in from the street, there were gender-inclusive restrooms, and the diversity of the crowding swells was not in itself remarkable considering the demographics of this town, but after spending some time in the ranks of the culture industry it does slow your roll a bit when you realize that across all these rows of folding chairs at the J-pop concert in a cavernous hall, in Midtown, on a Friday night, is a more diverse set of engaged cultural consumers than you might have seen in the past six years together in one place in this borough. Headlining the show were Yoko Ishida, Chihiro Yonekura, and TRUE—veritable celebrities in Japan, brought here to sing what were mostly anime theme songs both recent and vintage. The audience had prepared: Neon glow sticks were held aloft, like a wave of dutiful air traffic controllers bringing bombastic tunes (including this banger from Gundam Wing) in for a smooth landing.

Animator LeSean Thomas hails from the Bronx and is the first American to become a full-time in-house animator at a South Korean animation studio––the places that are actually making many of the parts move for both American and Japanese animation. In an inspiring talk on Saturday afternoon, Thomas quickly dispensed with the speechifying and hustled straight to the Q&A, so that the many people gathered could step up to a mic to ask him about the industry and the future of animation itself, and to seek advice regarding the barriers that kids of color face in achieving their dreams. He invoked the notion of “transgenre” to describe how stories and animation are now made and distributed, and how this is engendered by the turn to subscriptions rather than advertising-based models to generate profit. Realness was served, and the people were schooled. Didn’t hurt that his first sign-language interpreter was a silver fox either.

Left: My Hero Academia cosplayers at AnimeNYC. Right: Sunrise's Toshiro Fujiwara, Gundam executive producer Shin Sasaki, translator Mari Morimoto, and producer Masakazu Ogawa.

Hatsune Miku. Have you heard? It’s her tenth anniversary this year. How are you celebrating? Note, it’s not her birthday, and she’s not married, because she’s not a person but a simulation, a voice bank that Saki Fujita lends her talents to and which goes on tour with a live band sequestered at the sides of the stage, the better to spotlight the forever-blue, forever-star, eternally young and fake Miku. Forget the waffling and proselytizing about VR, here’s Panel Room 3 last Saturday, where a video of her April 10, 2016, live concert at Zepp Tokyo was screened to citizens and aliens of Earth in folding chairs for what felt like both a revival and an annihilation. Revived was my faith, by the fans rushing from their seats and breaking out the glow sticks to mimic the very same hailing gestures of the Tokyo crowd occupying approximately half the screen; annihilated was any remaining shreds of loyalty to the artifice of authenticity. Mic check: This is what democracy looks like. Not unlike the atomic bomb, a digital pop idol is a weapon so effective it is quite beyond humanity. It is better than us—superior to women and too good for men, even the ones left helplessly screaming “MIKUUU!!!” at the end of her live show. A superior technology if ever there was one. Pop stardom is, frankly, inhumane and should undoubtedly be automated and outsourced to the machines.

This is the way forward; we need to detach the image of Woman from women. We can shove an image into performance and track her every move, weigh her every word, and measure her volumes, but we simply can’t do this to humans anymore. The anime girls have come for our jobs, and we must let them have at it, they are so strong. Let human performativity go back to its village-storyteller function. It is imperative that we leave Britney alone, and every other Britney to come. In a detour via a detour, “[Miku] disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind.” Hatsune Miku is the future, the one true way, and I’m ready to glow up. Are you?


P.S. Here is what I’d recommend:

Revolutionary Girl Utena
My Hero Academia
March Comes in Like a Lion
Fruits Basket
Haibane Renmei
Serial Experiments Lain
Mob Psycho 100
Yuri!!! On ICE

You’re welcome!