For three days this weekend, the Atlantic City Convention Center will be a hub of all things anime.
If you’re unfamiliar with that word (pronounced an-ah-may), think Japanese pop culture, specifically animation.
The AnimeNEXT convention coming to Atlantic City for the first time today through Sunday is a celebration of Japanese animation, comics, toys and cosplay.
While anime has been around for decades, it keeps gaining new followers and it’s never been more popular.
We talked with organizers of this year’s convention and anime fans to explore the genre and what to expect at the convention.
What is anime?
Anime is animation produced in Japan. For most fans, it is closely related to manga, which are Japanese comics.
The history of anime in America goes back further than you’d probably imagine, said Eric Torgersen, chairman of the AnimeNEXT convention.
“What appealed to me when I was younger, what drew me into that style of animation is a show called ‘Galaxy Express 999’ and ‘Space Battleship Yamato’, which was dubbed in America as ‘Sawblazers’ in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said.
Before that, America discovered “Astro Boy,” which told the story of a young android. The series was called “Mighty Atom” and began in Japan as a comic book in the 1950s. American television started running Astro Boy cartoons in the 1960s, followed by “Tobor (robot spelled backwards) the Eighth Man,” “Gigantor,” which your dad can probably still sing the theme song to, “Speed Racer” and “Marine Boy.”
When Torgersen watched anime cartoons after school, he saw only a handful of shows being brought from Japan to the states. The tip of the iceberg. Public broadcasting stations also would show a block of Japanese animation, at night, some of it undubbed or unsubtitled, he said.
In the 1980s, he said, American companies began releasing anime cartoons on videotape, which caused a spike in its popularity. Cable TV and streaming services offered more channels for watching anime, and the options available now are unlimited.
Today, anime-style characters are all over television, in movies, in comics, online and in cosplay at various conventions. You name it, Jennifer Johnston has looked for it.
“The internet and at conventions, that’s where I’m usually looking for anime,” said Johnson, a 22-year-old Mays Landing resident who has been into the genre for two to three years.
Two of her favorite anime series, she said, are “completely different from each other.”
Which leads us to ...
Who does anime appeal to?
That’s a tough question for Torgensen to answer. Anime crosses a variety of topics, from sports to superheros to space opera and romance, among others.
“It’s hard to say,” he said, when asked if there’s a typical anime fan. “It really depends on what kind of entertainment the person likes. There’s no particular audience. Anime has a broad spectrum and a broad age group of fans.”
Those anime series Johnston likes? the bounty-hunter driven “Cowboy BeBop” and “Fruit Baske,” which follows the relationships struck up between a girl and a cursed family. The curse: When family members are hugged or embraced by someone of the opposite sex, they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac.
While much of American animation is aimed at children, anime appeals to audiences of all ages.
“You’ll have anime with really big eyes that kind of glisten, of you’ll have anime that is more realistic,” she said. “If you have a serious story with cutesy characters, you wonder why artistically they went that way. It grabs your interest.”
A look at the schedule for this weekend’s AnimeNEXT convention shows it isn’t all about animation — although that’s the inspiration for many of the crossover activities.
Creators, voice actors and others involved with anime and manga series will be there as special guests. This year’s guest of honor at the Atlantic City convention is Naoko Matsui, who has voiced Sonoko Suzuki from “Detective Conan.”
When asked about the music that will be featured at AnimeNEXT (both karaoke and live music), Torgersen said there’s an easy tie-in. The convention tries to book bands known for doing opening or closing credit songs for anime series.
Cosplaying, or people emulating characters with costumes and roleplaying, will play a big role in the weekend. Not only are a lot of eventgoers expected to draw costumed guests, but the World Cosplay Summit’s United States leg into the worldwide competition will be hosted at AnimeNEXT. Competitors who win in this preliminary will go on to represent the country in the World Cosplay Summit in Japan in August.
Johnston said she’s already picked her cosplay outfit for at least one day of the convention: Misa Amane from the anime/manga series “Death Note.” She dressed as the same character at Katsucon in 2015 in Maryland.
Both Johnston and Torgersen said a convention is a way to get an immersive experience into the genre, even if you’re a fledgling fan.
“If you’re not familiar with anime, if you want to see what it’s all about, what type of things go on at the convention, we invite you to come by,” Torgersen said.