Each year, on the last weekend of May, the streets of downtown San Jose bloom into a rainbow of wigs, petticoats and full-body makeup. FanimeCon has sprung, and everyone’s feeling genki.
With photo-ops, pre-games and afterparties, the mood is a bit like a mega-Prom for everyone who hated Prom (if they went at all).
Now on its 29th year—one of the longest-running anime conventions in the country—Fanime draws lovers of anime, manga and more from all over the US. The weekend generates several million annually for the local economy, hosting 34,000 attendees in 2019.
With screenings, panels and signings by prominent voice actors, singers, artists and more, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center transforms into a four-day anime paradise.
Though it’s held down McEnery’s coveted Memorial Day Weekend slot since 2004, the inaugural FanimeCon had much more humble beginnings.
Very little verifiable information exists on the exact students who brought the first Fanime into being in June 1994 at CSU Hayward (now Cal State East Bay). Rather, the university’s anime club gets credit as an entity for organizing the gathering, with help from two other groups: Foothill College’s club and No-Name Anime, a South Bay organization without university ties.
In 1996 the event moved to Foothill’s campus in Los Altos, where school-affiliated sponsors such as KFJC allowed Fanime to grow. By 1997, the volunteer-run organization behind the convention was known as “A.R.G.,” for Anime Resource Group.
Over the next few years, what had started as a couple hundred students screening bootlegged anime series and films grew organically.
Milton Le, the convention’s current co-director of communications and marketing, still remembers his first Fanime––attending with his high school anime club in 1999, the convention’s single year at the Wyndham San Jose before the steadily rising attendee count (around 2,000) necessitated a move to Santa Clara Convention Center.
1999 was Fanime’s third consecutive year hosting Hiroyuki Yamaga, founding member of iconic animation studio Gainax; five years into programming, the convention saw enough success to secure repeat engagements with a major name in the industry.
“I remember saying ‘What’s a Fanime?’ and someone answered that it was an event for fans of anime. Cultural attitudes around both Japanese and Western animation were not what they are now. “They were just silly cartoons on TV,” Le explains. “I knew my friends liked [anime and] cartoons in general, but, you know, when you’re a teenager you think you’re unique, you’re the only one who knows what cool things are.”
High school and college anime club members of the South Bay had a bit of advantage on the rest of the United States: their local PBS affiliate, KTEH-54, aired shows such as Tenchi Muyo and Urusei Yatsura at least a decade before programs like Cartoon Network’s Toonami began to broadcast anime nationwide.
The network’s programming department head, a lifelong San Jose resident (and SJSU alumnus) named Karen Roberts, also made KTEH known for its acquisitions of international titles, broadcasting cult-favorite British shows like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf as early as the 1980s.
A 1999 announcement from Anime News Network on KTEH’s airing of the show Please Save My Earth notes that “the station […] has shown an increasing interest in the anime scene, offering anime merchandise at pledge drives and attending conventions such as Fanime ’99.”
Though few know her name, Roberts left with her passing in 2006 a legacy of anime fandom in the US. One national premiere of particular note was the game-changing, notoriously dark and still-popular Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose 26-episode run began airing on KTEH in March of 2000 (four years after its original Japanese release, fairly impressive for the time). In-the-know otaku may have caught the series two years prior on the campus of Foothill College––the 1998 Fanime Program Guide reads:
The latest series from Studio Gainax.
The world is being attacked by a series of
creatures called “Angels” and only Ikari
Shinji and a handful of other special children
can pilot the Evangelion mechas to protect
the world. This intense series based on many
religious myths runs on many different levels
and is loaded with symbolism. Definitely not
your average mecha show.
While the teenage Le originally began volunteering for Fanime as a way to save money (attending for free meant more cash to spend on anime and gaming merchandise), what kept him going was realizing the joy in “promoting this thing that isn’t just silly, that kids do enjoy, and I thought that would be very beneficial to others and to myself. I can enjoy these things, but I want to know that people out there also enjoy these things.”
At the time Le joined staff, Fanime was quickly growing branches that would remain convention cornerstones for years to come: a gaming area, live programming, art vendors and a “masquerade” where fans could show off their character cosplay (the Japanese/English portmanteau of “costume” and “play,” for the uninitiated).
It would take another decade and a half, though, for anime to reach the mainstream popularity that brought a wave of live-action American adaptations like Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop. Fanime (along with other anime and comic conventions) saw outside protests from Christian extremist groups for years in a row, as recently as 2012.
Le grew into his marketing role on the Fanime board, sometimes acting as ambassador to clueless members of the press. He recalls one such interviewer.
“A very nice gentleman, but you could tell he was not sure [about the culture]. The first thing he asked me was ‘do you think it’s acceptable for guys to dress up as…’ I forget the term he used, but it was something offensive, although he didn’t mean it that way––something like ‘creatures,’ or nasty in that regard. So I asked him if we could stop the interview for a second, and I think he thought I was gonna leave. But I said, ‘Let’s talk off the record, because I don’t think you understand what Fanime or even sci-fi conventions are. We can do the interview, or we can walk around and I can show you what this world is like.’ So I gave him a little history lesson, and he really appreciated that. It opened his eyes a bit more.”
TOUCH A NERV
Kasper Shaddox first attended Fanime in “2011 or 2012,” also a high schooler when they learned about the convention. Now living in Salinas, Shaddox considers Fanime a vital part of their San Jose upbringing.
“If you’re someone who’s even slightly into anime [here], Fanime is your go-to into that whole scene. Which is fascinating now that I’ve met a lot of people who didn’t grow up in cities that have an anime con as one of the big things they’re known for, and seeing their relationship to anime and anime cons. It’s very different.”
Kasper, who is agender and uses “they” and “he” pronouns, felt instantly drawn to the potential for self-expression through transforming into a character.
“Had I grown up in any other town, I probably would have been into anime the same amount as anyone else growing up at that time––a reasonable percentage of us––but getting into cosplay was what really made me want to watch more anime, because I was like: I can play dress-up.”
“That was really it! I can dress up as this character, and talk to people that way.”
Cosplay can be an in to meet fellow fans in novel ways. Shaddox recalls a year where they dressed as the character Kowaru from Neon Genesis Evangelion. A stranger approached them with a gift.
“They just walked up to me and said, ‘Kowaru, here you go’ and handed me a manga of Detective Kowaru.”
The gift-giver had brought the spin-off comic just in case of a Kowaru cosplay sighting; although they live in another state, the two now keep in touch on occasion and see each other at Fanime and other conventions.
Cosplay isn’t limited to anime characters. Shaddox’s current favorite low-effort character to portray is Paulie Bleeker from the movie Juno (“Michael Cera is my favorite anime girl, honestly”), and one of their earliest convention social circles revolved around cosplay of the popular webcomic Homestuck.
Cosplay can be a large group venture, too.
“Last year we did Fanimaid Saturday,” Shaddox explains, “and there ended up being about 50 people in the Discord [server] for it.”
People began asking if such a large gathering held a particular purpose, but there was no reason behind the theme.
“Me and my friends like to cause a little chaos sometimes,” he says. “A couple years we put little plastic babies, like the kind you get at bridal showers, in different places around the convention center. Just for fun.”
FRILLS & ALL
The appeal of a setting to show off one’s stylistic craft goes beyond character portrayal––anime conventions have become popular gathering forums for Lolita, Decora and other fashion subcultures of Japanese origin.
Fanime 2023 features its first J-Fashion Guest of Honor: Jordana Robinson, fashion designer of the brand Mossbadger. Robinson will host two panels, including a tutorial on constructing the ribbon rosette brooches she sells on her website, and Mossbadger will present in one of the convention’s two annual fashion shows.
Divided into the umbrella categories of Elegant (including styles like the Victorian-influenced Gothic Lolita, which Mossbadger’s designs roughly fall under) and Pop! (described by the website as “the fun, kawaii, and colorful side of J-Fashion”), the fashion shows are held on Saturday and Sunday afternoons respectively.
“People who get into Lolita fashion often get into it through either anime or J-rock, but that’s the funny thing––I’m totally not an anime person!” Robinson laughs.
The creator entered the world of Gothic Lolita and its cousins (the endlessly pastel Sweet Lolita being the other most popular subset) through her hobby of creating clothes for Blythe dolls, a popular Japanese fashion doll. When an online friend of hers traveled to Japan after winning a Blythe customization contest and posted photos with the Lolita designers he met as part of the prize, Robinson was intrigued by their outfits and especially by their shoes. Vivienne Westwood’s “Rocking Horse Ballerina” platform shoes, which debuted in her Summer 1985 collection, had become the shoe to complete Lolita outfits by the end of the ’90s.
“I bought these terrible knock-off Rocking Horse shoes from Ebay,” Robinson says with a laugh. “It was 2007—that’s what you did!”
Taking cues from Japanese street fashion magazines, Robinson began styling outfits around the iconic shoes, and soon connected with other Lolita style aficionados through LiveJournal. Online communities are a longtime tie-in to Robinson’s artistic life: they’ve led her to international friendships, such as with the designer of Finnish brand Cloudberry Lady (who will also walk in the Elegant show), and new creative ventures, like the Saturday morning cartoon slot she streams for a program called Museum of Home Videos, run by another friend she met through Blythe doll collecting.
For fans and artists across the extended web of adjacent interests in East Asian media/subculture, conventions like Fanime are opportunities to meet, reunite and experience the strange magic of finally seeing, in three dimensions, the other freaks who have worn out their real-life loved ones with the same all-engulfing obsession.
Shaddox says that among his con-going friends around the country, Fanime is known as “the Northern California Party Con.” With 24-hour programming and a bevy of unofficial, offsite events, the weekend offers several opportunities to turn up the volume.
Alan Bui, who DJs under the moniker “Mana Soul,” performed a handful of “cosplay rave” tour dates in 2022 with the Houston-based car/streetwear/electronic music collective Senpai Squad, who have booked DJs for anime-related events as far as Honolulu.
Senpai Squad’s 2023 showcase, Play Anime, runs Saturday at The Ritz––close enough to the convention center for any day-worn magical girls to take a hotel room disco nap before their evening transformation sequence. Bui, who grew up and lives in San Jose headlines his hometown show with DJs Sriracha Man, Find The Rabbit and Problematic supporting.
Bui has attended Fanime since 2007.
“For the first few years, when I was in high school, the con scene was very much ‘I’m gonna pull up, get a seat, play some games and read manga to myself.’ Now it’s a large social event––like a family reunion for me and my friends.”
The same goes for Shaddox.
“It’s somewhere I’ve been able to make and maintain friendships––people I started out only seeing at cons, and then as we got older and grew closer [I realized] oh, these are actual lifelong friends. It’s the place I know I’ll be able to see the people I care about at least once a year. I tell my friends if they don’t see me at Fanime, it’s because something is severely wrong.”
This is the attitude Fanime, with its slogan of “for fans, by fans,” has always strived for. The ’98 program guide waxes poetic, and surprisingly tender, on the subject:
“It’s the sharing of an experience that makes it special, not the experience itself. Fanime Con is special for the staff because they are sharing it with their fellow fans. The name of this convention pays tribute to you, the fan. Our name was chosen because the convention staff realizes that without you, none of this is worth doing. The whole world of anime would mean nothing if there was no one else around to watch it with, to believe in it, to share it with. That’s why there will always be anime conventions: there is an endless supply of new experiences to share, new memories to gather. What could be more important than sharing the beauty of anime with other people?”
Le, reflecting on his early experiences of what would become a quarter-century-long working relationship with Fanime, relates a similar sentiment when asked what kept him returning each year.
“We don’t want to be the biggest, we don’t want to be the only anime convention, but we want to let people know: you’re welcome here.”
FLOORED There’s no shortage of treasures for fans on the convention floor at Fanime.
DANCE DANCE It may not be a video game, but there’s still a Dance Dance Revolution to be had at Fanime.