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A Temporary Toon Town Opens Up in Long Beach

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Neither the unseasonable rain nor the 45-minute delay in starting the opening ceremony dampened the enthusiasm of the thousands of fans at AX2001, the 10th annual Anime Expo, at the Long Beach Convention Center Thursday. More than 10,000 otoku (devotees of Japanese animation) are expected to attend the four-day event, which closes Sunday afternoon with a charity auction to benefit the City of Hope.

But most of the opening-day attendees seemed less interested in charitable contributions than in discussing and debating favorite series, finding out what new releases are slated for the coming months, dressing up as their favorite characters and buying anime videos and merchandise.

Over the last 10 years, attendance at the Expo has more than tripled as the popularity of anime has grown in America. Currently, 13 networks and cable channels air Japanese animation, including the Cartoon Network, Fox Family Channel and Telemundo; more than 1,500 series and features have been released on video in the U.S. and new titles appear every week. Although Anime Expo remains the largest fan gathering, similar convocations were held recently in North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, New Hampshire and Michigan.

“Anime is the hottest thing on the market right now. Conventions and underground events have helped to create a community where fans can come, be themselves and show their love for the genre,” says Kenneth Wiatrek, marketing coordinator for ADV Films, the distributor of the popular series “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and “Martian Successor Nadesico.”

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Most of the fans attending the Expo Thursday were in their teens and 20s, but the crowd was ethnically diverse and equally divided between men and women. People who came in costume to the opening sessions were greeted with enthusiastic requests for photographs, and the costume competition slated for tonight remains one of the most popular events at the Expo.

Inside the Convention Center and nearby hotels, fans entered trivia contests, karaoke shows and video-game competitions. Others attended panel discussions of topics that ranged from voice-acting techniques to examinations of anime genres to presentations of work by individual artists. More than a dozen Japanese artists are making appearances here, including Yu Watase, creator of the romantic epic “Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play,” and Toshihiro Kawamoto, character designer on the popular “Cowboy Bebop” series.

Much of the opening-day excitement was focused on the exhibition hall, where vendors were selling DVDs, videos, models, toys, T-shirts, cels, posters and other anime-related merchandise. At times, the hall resembled the Oklahoma land rush with credit cards, as eager buyers elbowed each other in their haste to acquire products that might not be available in American stores.

Away from the crush, attendees had a choice of five continuous film-and-video programs, including previews: The giant robot series “Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team” begins airing on Cartoon Network July 23, with “Gundam 0080" and “Gundam 0083" to follow later this year (there are more than a dozen series and feature films in the “Gundam” franchise), along with “Pilot Candidate"; “Love Hina,” also expected to air later this year, on an outlet not yet determined; “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade”, written by Mamoru Oshii, the director of the cult favorite “Ghost in the Shell,” which will screen in Southern California theaters in late August; and “Escaflowne the Movie: A Girl in Gaia,” which comes this fall.

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AX2001, organized by the nonprofit Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, continues at the Long Beach Convention Center and the Long Beach Hyatt and Westin Hotels through Sunday. Registration fees range from $20 to $50. Information: (626) 582-8200 or www.anime-expo.org.


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