Following my visit to Anime Central in 2004, I looked forward to returning again in 2005, hoping to get more out of the experience than the initial taste I’d had. Having to play “spirit guide” to my lost and bewildered friend, leading him through the strange and sometimes frightening world of anime fandom, probably held me back from geeking out to the extent that I’d wanted to, but I’d make sure that wouldn’t be an issue again. Yet as the springtime rolled around once again, I found myself in financial ruin and unable to cover the single-day admission fee, let alone any of the other likely expenses that a budding otaku would try to budget for. This happened more than once, and I didn’t find myself back on my feet until 2008, ready to give the convention another go. This time, however, I had a trustworthy companion every bit as primed for the day as I was. Mandy had attended a con somewhere out west several years ago and was new to ACEN but was ready to brave the crowds, explore strange new panels, seek out new DVDs, and boldly go with me where no couple quite so nerdy had gone before. We arrived in Rosemont, parked in the massive garage, and made our way to the convention center.

At this point in putting together this entry, I began to recount the experience of arriving at registration and waiting in line for two and a half hours, only to find ourselves less than halfway through the queue before giving up and leaving. It’s probably best to skip the details of the notorious “Linecon ‘08” and skip directly to the next year, where we pre-registered in advance and arrived on Friday morning to a pleasantly-empty registration area. Organizers had fortunately remedied the technical issues from the year before, and it’s likely that lots of other visitors had decided to avoid the process altogether by registering ahead of time as we did. Getting in was a breeze, but what to do next? It’s been about eight months so my memory isn’t as precise as it probably should be for my purposes here, but I’ll try to recall as much as I can.

One of the first panels we visited was “An Introduction to the Animation Process,” run by “Gold Digger” creator Fred Perry. I was vaguely familiar with his work and enjoyed the short but fun clip he shared with us of his characters come to life in animated form (a clip similar to this, likely from the same work). Demonstrating the process via simple stick figure computer animation, the panel was a brief but interesting look at an art form once out of reach of the average person, now apparently available to anyone with a personal computer. A few technical difficulties aside, I enjoyed just getting a chance to listen to an artist talk about his work and the creative process. From there we proceeded to the “How to Create AMVs” panel, which I’d been looking forward to ever since the convention schedule was released online. AMV-making was a hobby I’d been interested in for several years and I was hoping to witness a demonstration akin to the one that Mr. Perry had just hosted. Unfortunately, the hosts never showed up, leaving a handful of editors already on hand setting up for the evening’s other programming to throw together a quick introductory panel on the spot. They did the best with what they had, and all things considered they put on a good presentation, showing a handful of videos and answering everyone’s questions as best they could. To be honest, their improvised panel was probably better-informed than whatever the original host had prepared (which was probably nothing at all). After this we watched the first half of the AMV contest entries (the best of which being “A Feel Good AMV,” definitely worth watching or even downloading if you can) before we stepped out for some fresh air.

A trip to the dealer’s hall netted me nothing this day. Mandy got a couple of shirts, but neither of us bought any of the usual swag that people supposedly stock up on at cons. We finished browsing and headed back to the hotel, where the next panel we wanted to attend was being held. “That Troublesome Naruto Fanpanel” was right up our wheelhouse, or so I thought. Finding ourselves in what would be the white-hot center of Naruto fandom on the entire planet, if only for an hour or so, was one of those strange experiences I just had to have for myself. That’s not to say that my interest was born out of any kind of ironic fascination; we’d both been heavily into the series for almost a year, tearing through the DVDs at frightening speed. I anticipated a healthy number of “Narutards” to be on hand but who was I to judge? Besides, I probably wasn’t as personally disgusted with them as much as I was bitterly jealous of their carefree lack of self-awareness. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?

What I witnessed that afternoon was a total and complete disregard for social norms, an eager and energetic fulfillment of every negative and embarrassing stereotype surrounding anime fandom, and perhaps even a glimpse of the downfall of Western civilization. The panel hosts, cosplaying as various Naruto characters (Choji and Hidan, if I remember correctly) showed a PowerPoint presentation, bringing the audience up to speed on upcoming plans for manga publication, DVD releases, and streaming episodes online. The audience didn’t seem particularly interested in any of these details (likely perfectly content to continue reading scanlations of the latest manga chapters from Japan and downloading fansubbed episodes online) but was incredibly eager to shout at the hosts and at each other, screaming about their favorite characters and couples, acting out the characters they were cosplaying as, and butchering the Japanese language (in the midst of excoriating English translators for alleged mistakes, no less). At one point a kid (who looked like an emaciated Andrew W.K. with tattoos) was handed the microphone and proceeded to passionately rail against the Nickelodeon network for a laundry list of crimes against its anime properties. The hosts had to cut him off in mid-rant and several times had to implore the hyperactive front row to calm down. The floor was opened up for questions, at which point the panel became a contest among the audience to see who could yell out the most revealing spoilers the loudest. I won’t reveal what was said at this point, but to this day neither the English release of the manga or the latest episodes of Naruto Shippuden has arrived at some of the plot points that these maniacal fans apparently devoured in advance and violently regurgitated upon everyone else that afternoon. The panel was stopped to allow fans who didn’t want to discuss spoilers to leave the room. Immediately, I told Mandy that I simply couldn’t stay for another minute, and I bolted to go wander the hotel for a half hour or so until it was over.

We met up soon afterwards, took another short tour of the dealer’s hall, and watched some more AMVs in the screening room before deciding to call it a day. As we drove home I couldn’t help but feel that the day had gone by far too quickly and that I hadn’t quite gotten my convention fix. Mandy was too tuckered out to come back on Saturday, so I ended up returning on my own the next day. There were just as many panels and events that I wanted to attend on Saturday as there were on Friday, although they were more spread out through the day and probably not Mandy’s cup of tea, so it was probably a more suitable day for flying solo, anyway.

Upon my arrival, having missed most of the early events that would have piqued my interest – my old copy of the schedule has “Living and Teaching in Japan,” “The Tainted World of Jrock,” and “Japanese Pop Culture” highlighted – I made my way straight back to the AMV room and sat in the second half of the AMV contest entries. This screening segued into a panel called “Koop and Atom’s Top Ten Indie Vids.” “Koop,” of course, being the one and only Koopiskeva on, Atomx being the former moniker of editor Arashinome (I think). It was a laid-back screening of ten or so videos from past and present that were very good overall and worthy of showing, and it was just fun to sit and listen in on a few guys who were actually talking AMVs (while riffing on themselves and each other, too).

I spent some time back in the dealer’s hall, picking up Interstella 5555, a copy of Castle of Cagliostro on the cheap, and the four-disc Last Exile set. I spent a lot of time just browsing, watching people, and just feeling oddly caught up in the experience of being at such a strange event, scanning booth after booth for wasteful products I don’t need next to other people dressed in silly costumes who were doing the same. The experience itself was certainly out of the ordinary, but what was probably even stranger was the ease at which I’d so quickly gotten used to it all. Maybe I wasn’t completely at ease; on a few occasions I came close to asking a cosplayer if I could take their picture, but having never approached a stranger with such a request before in my life, couldn’t quite work up the nerve to do so. But I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I bought lunch, a sloppy joe and a cup of coffee, from a vendor in the convention center. I ate at a table with some older adults and a young Japanese couple before heading off once again.

“Creating Electronica” was the next panel I attended, and a pretty apt summation of an interest I’ve held for over a decade but never actively pursued. The description in the convention program promised a demonstration of the Albeton Live software, and that “free versions of the program will be given out to everyone attending.” For someone who needs to be walked through every little step when being introduced to almost anything new or different, and given my long-repressed intent to actually make music in such a way, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Upon arriving, however, we were informed that the free copies had been lost and that technical difficulties would prevent the panel’s special guests (synthpop band The Slants) from showing or playing us any music of their own. To put it mildly, this was a big disappointment, even as the open forum provided the only time in memory that I’ve ever heard people utter the names “Matmos” and “Autechre” out loud in public. After a half hour or so I walked out and headed to a panel already in progress, one I’d really wanted to catch but had unfortunately decided to pass up in favor of the washout I’d just attended.

“An English Major’s Look at Evangelion” might sound like a hopelessly pretentious panel but featured some of the most thought-provoking and spirited discussion of anime that I’ve ever been privileged to listen to firsthand, the complete antithesis of the Naruto panel, to say the least. The hosts’ presentation was well-organized and lead itself well to audience participation, and the conversation was civil and enlightening, even in discussing the most controversial aspects of the series. This was my favorite panel of the weekend, and I made sure to tell the hosts so afterwards. I’d love to be able to discuss anime like this but even after taking college courses in the analysis of literature and film, I often find it difficult to organize my thoughts or to separate my personal feelings from an unbiased reading of the text. What I loved about this panel (and the AMV screenings from earlier in the day) was being able to see and hear other people giving serious consideration to many of my interests, especially the ones that would seem least likely for anyone else to treat with respect and reverence. I’ve always held certain things in high regard that others have commonly dismissed as trivial or worthless, so walking into a room full of other people suddenly willing to affirm the worth of some of my private obsessions was tremendously gratifying.

The Studio Ghibli panel was held in a tiny conference room, leaving no extra room to sit or stand, so I decided to pop back in to the AMV room to see what was going on before heading home. The “Iron Editor” challenge was being held, which initially hadn’t sounded like the most tempting event to catch, but I decided to sit in on it for a few minutes before heading home. I ended up staying for more than an hour. The editors themselves were clicking away onstage, and only occasionally would the MC give us a peek at what they were working on. Most of the time, various AMVs were screened, mostly con-favorites that had the audience in stitches or even singing along. A few years of forced participation in church youth group had burned a severe disdain such sing-a-longs into the core of my being, especially ones involving clapping and silly hand motions. This all melted away as I found myself caught up in the experience of joining the crowd in a momentary surrender to my most regressive, geeky nature. I know I spent an absurd amount of time during the convention watching AMVs (while still only seeing a fraction of what was actually shown) but I really love the atmosphere of the screening room and the experience of enjoying such a solitary pleasure in the presence of so many other people.

Saturday was much cooler than Friday. I wore a sweater for most of the day and was glad I had it as I walked through the hotel, down the long pedestrian walkway to the parking lot and out into the crisp night air. I’d gone most of the day without saying much of anything to anyone, but I felt genuinely happy and oddly content with myself and what I’d been able to take in during the day. I still feel like my experience was incomplete and I might expound on why that is at some point in the future, but my only real ACEN regret was that I waited so many years to finally make it back there. I don’t know if next year is going to bring any big changes, since I’ve pretty much scrapped my plans to actually get a room for the weekend. But I definitely can’t wait to go back again. Hopefully I’ll come back with a more interesting story next time.