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Mainstream call of anime

Special to The Times

Some come to watch the latest videos. Some come to buy the accompanying merchandise. Some come dressed up like their favorite characters. Some come to meet and listen to the animators and actors who give life to this very particular form of entertainment.

The reasons vary, but come they do to Anime Expo, an annual four-day convention that celebrates the movies and comic books of Japanese animation.

The 12th annual gathering, sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, returns to the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday after a two-year stint in Long Beach.

Mirroring the increasing popularity of Japanese animation in the United States, the Expo has grown from a small get-together that attracted 1,750 people in 1992 to the largest event of its kind in North America: More than 15,000 people attended in 2002.

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As it has grown, Anime Expo has also undergone a shift in demographics.

“Over the last 11 years, we’ve seen Japanese animation move from the exclusive property of a sort of private club to general audiences,” says show coordinator Jennifer Pon. “That change is reflected in the people who attend the Expo -- and in our staff. It’s now about 60% men to 40% women; in the beginning, we would have been lucky to have 10% women. There’s also an exponentially growing audience base of younger viewers. It used to be people in their late teens to early 20s who came; now it includes kids as young as 8 to people in their mid-30s with families.”

“While there are plenty of otaku [hard-core anime fans], anime and manga [comics] are becoming part of the mainstream,” agrees Liza Coppola, marketing vice president of anime and manga distributor Viz. “It’s not restricted to the hard core anymore. Major retailers like Borders, Walden Books, Wal-Mart and Target carry a lot of anime-related material; it’s a rapidly growing area of sales for them.”

Highlights of the four-day event include masquerade and karaoke contests, panel discussions, workshops on cel painting, trivia contests, a charity auction and a concert by voice actor-pop singer Yuki Kajiura.

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Guest appearances are scheduled by directors Kazuki Akane (“The Vision of Escaflowne,” “Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaia: The Movie”), Kazuhiro Furuhashi (“Rurouni Kenshin,” “Get Backers”), Goro Taniguchi (“s-CRY-ed,” “G Gundam”), director-character designer Atsuko Nakajima (“Ranma 1/2,” “Haunted Junction”) and screenwriter Yousuke Kuroda (“Trigun,” “s-CRY-ed”).

In addition to the U.S. premiere of the feature “Junkers Come Here” and a screening of “The Animatrix” (a 90-minute compilation of short animated films inspired by the world of “The Matrix”), dozens of new and classic Japanese features and television programs will be shown on film and video.

Attendees also can shop for DVDs, videocassettes and laser discs, as well as character merchandise ranging from the tiny charms that Japanese kids hang on their cell phones to T-shirts, banners, robot models, watches and cels.

The shopping area, which sometimes resembles a feeding frenzy with credit cards, reflects another significant trend: Like many film festivals that began as showcases for the art form, Expo and similar animation convocations have become important events for people in the rapidly expanding businesses of anime distribution, licensing and merchandising.

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“Anime Expo has become not only the largest convention in North America dedicated to anime but a crucial convention for anime businesses,” says Hideki Goto, Pioneer Entertainment vice president for animation. “U.S. companies are trying to impress American consumers -- and potential business partners from Canada, Japan, Mexico, Germany, England and many other countries.”

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Anime Expo

Where: Anaheim Convention Center

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When: Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (with some night events)

Price: $10-$50

Information: www.anime-expo.org/

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