Keeping it kawaii: thoughts on the culture of anime conventions

Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith

In the past year and a half, I’ve been to eight different comic, entertainment, or anime-related conventions. I’ve plain-clothed it at some and cosplayed at most. And the differences I’ve found between the comic cons and the anime cons are, while not entirely surprising, at the very least uniquely significant.

It isn’t just the age difference, which is a point to note right off the bat. At comic conventions, anything goes. You see children who are barely able to walk being dragged about by their parents. You see the elderly browsing the collectibles. And you see everything else in between. As someone in their late twenties, the crowd at an anime convention can throw you for a split second. It’s a more focused age group, ranging throughout the teens, with the occasional millennial, Gen X-er, and the odd middle-ager (often the parents of the younger con-goers).

Not that older people aren’t welcome at anime conventions, but either the majority of Edmonton-based anime fans are in their teens, or the older ones simply aren’t interested in attending conventions, choosing instead to enjoy their Japanese animation in the comfort of their own homes.

Image courtesy of Animethon and Benjamin Sim Photography

While the age demographic isn’t a particularly dividing issue, it does render anime conventions as more of a place to hang out, see and be seen, and spend time away from nagging mothers on the weekend. It fosters more of a chilled out environment in which attendees can spend time with their friends, people watching and comparing costumes—which, incidentally, is extremely easy to do because the percentage of people in cosplay at an anime con far outstrips its comic con counterpart (from what I’ve seen, at least). At the recent Animethon 22 event, it almost became a challenge to pick out the plain-clothed attendees—most of them were hiding in the gaming room or browsing the vendor area.

Outside? On the grassy knoll of MacEwan’s 106 Street building? It’s the place to see, be seen, and get your picture taken. From simple and skimpy to elaborate and most definitely sweaty, costumes riddled the grass and, I’m sure, grabbed the attention of more than a few drivers and passers-by.

I’m the first to admit (and be proud of) the fact that cosplaying can be a fairly (OK, excessivey) narcissistic hobby. And yet, there seems to be less of a need to be seen at anime conventions than there is to see and meet up with friends.  I’ve seen plenty of cosplayers at comic conventions roaming the halls, moving slowly, letting everyone get a good look at their cosplay. And why not, since they work so hard on putting them together? But while there were a scant few of these at Animethon, the majority of people I saw were excited to be there, running after their friends, playing beach volleyball in an increasingly-large circle of people in the quad, and just having fun. There’s something so ridiculous and playful about watching an entire quad full of people yell Shia LeBeouf’s “JUST DO IT” at the man walking around touting a Toy Story alien plush toy and trying to sell his art. It’s almost surreal.

There’s also the issue of body positivity. No convention is perfect, but with such a high percentage of cosplayers, Animethon has a better handle on this than most. The majority of people are respectful to cosplayers of all shapes and sizes, probably because they are themselves a part of this community and understand the negativity that many plus-sized or transgender cosplayers sometimes face.  Since a comic convention like the Edmonton Expo attracts a much more varied crowd, from a whole range of fandoms, it can be really easy to see those people (you know the ones—they just don’t understand that respect doesn’t get put on hold in a convention atmosphere) who ridicule people they don’t think should be cosplaying. They’re openly hostile to people who don’t fit into their ideals of attractiveness. This appeared to be a minimal issue at Animethon and also at Otafest in Calgary earlier this year. That experience was very similar to Animethon, with everyone spending most of the time outside when it wasn’t raining, dancing and listening to music, and relaxing on the grass.

Image courtesy of Animethon and Benjamin Sim Photography

As much as I love the Edmonton and Calgary Expos, I believe that anyone even remotely invested in nerd and pop culture should experience the pure euphoria of an anime convention at least once. For the most part, the inclusivity is overwhelming. The excitement, particularly of the younger con-goers, is palpable. It fills the air and makes a hot summer day feel almost magical and overflowing with joy.

Or maybe it’s just that I can relate to these beautiful nerds. These people who might not be anyone’s definition of normal but who simply don’t care—who celebrate and rejoice in their uniqueness. While comic books and superheroes are rapidly becoming more mainstream, the public interest in anime is taking its time to grow. And even if it never catches up to the Avengers or Batman, I’ve no doubt in my mind that its supporters will continue to do as they do, celebrating their love for Japanese culture as much as they can and perfecting their peace sign selfies for all the world to see.

Cover photo: Vicky Lau (Vivid Vision) and Liui Aquino by Benjamin Sim Photography, courtesy of Animethon.

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