The 17th annual Anime Expo 2008, also known as AX, reached its greatest attendance numbers yet as 103,000 registered fans of anime and manga came to the Los Angeles Convention Center July 3-6 from across the United States and Canada in what’s become the largest expo for anime and manga in North America. With the future of mainstream entertainment at a crossroads, clearly anime and manga from Japan continue to capture a growing audience of fans in the West, mainly from an audience that is moving younger–now between the ages of 13-25-years-old.

Despite taking place during the 4th of July, hordes of young people dressed either as favorite characters from various anime movies or manga comics, or in their own Goth-emo crossovers, maid caf%uFFFD outfits, or Aristocratic Lolita ensembles made their way through downtown Los Angeles to the convention center to attend the expo which included a wide range of options. The Exhibition Hall, for example, had hundreds of booths including merch-like manga and anime character clothing, which is clearly impacting mainstream fashion today (see related fashion story), plus accessories, character pieces, wigs, toys, Japanese-released anime movies, manga comics, and video games.

Other parts of the conference hosted events and conferences, such as the highly popular Masquerade Ball in the nearby Nokia center, autograph sessions with top anime voice-over characters, singers, and manga artists, including Jyukai, Shoko Nakagawa, Toshihiko Seki, Takada Akemi, Masahiro Ando, and Hiromi Katio, the Anime Music Contest, AX Idol (like American Idol but for anime fans), Battle of the Bands, Midnight Tea, and classes such as Advanced ParaPara Dancing, Otaku Parliamentary Debates, Getting into Anime Journalism, Origami, Voice-over Acting Classes, Cosplay: Overdoing It, and anime movies on view starting from 8:30 a.m. and running all night until 5:30 a.m. the next day -each day.

For industry, conferences such as Anime in the U.S.: FanSubs-The Death of Anime; Manga in the U.S.; and the Future of Anime in Movies, Television, Video Games, Online, and Cable provided excellent insight into what’s shaping this growing segment of entertainment globally. In the Fansubs conference, the panelists including Chris Carlisle from GDH K.K., Jeff Conner from Axis Entertainment, Lance Heiskell from FUNimation, Trulee Karahashi from Society of Promotion for Japanese Anime, Shawne P. Kleckner from The Right Stuff International, and Justin Sevakis from Anime News Network, featured how the exponential growth of fansubs, or anime that has been dubbed with English subtitles and re-posted online for free or low-cost downloads, is hurting the Japanese publishers of the original anime shows. While illegal, fansubs do help promote anime, but the plethora of illegal downloads has resulted in a declining rate of 20% a year in DVD sales in the United States.

The counter-points to the discussion pointed out that there’s a new generation now that has grown-up being used to downloadable music and entertainment for free (often not even realizing it’s illegal), and/or are more apt to download entertainment than buy a packaged DVD. Because anime comes out in Japan the day after a cartoon is created, and the translation version usually doesn’t hit English-speaking markets until at least another 6 months, coupled with advances in technology including usage of Bit Torrent sites and consumer generated content capabilities (known as 4th Generation fansubs), hardcore fans of anime have taken it upon themselves to dub the new releases and re-release them on their own -either for free or for money. Representatives from Japan on the panel said they are trying to adopt to Hollywood entertainment standards that now release movies globally at the same time to avoid bootlegs, but it is still a long way off. Ironically, there were some on the panel that believe packaged goods, i.e. DVDs, are still a part of the future marketplace, whereas others, such as Lance Heiskell from FUNimation made it clear that digital downloading is the future and things need to be available in an iTunes model with global reach.

The other interesting conference was on manga, the print version of Japanese comics, and that most publishers in America only own the translation rights to various manga, not the rights to the stories, characters, or artwork and thus are limited in what they can actually sell. For example, in the music industry, merch makes up a massive percentage of band revenues now since music is virtually “free” in many cases, but the manga publishers in America still don’t really see this as an option for many reasons, such as licensing restrictions with Japanese manga publishers and also, not really knowing the merch-world and how it all works. With the news that Borders is having major cashflow issues and Tokyopop, one of the largest publishers of manga comics in America just cut its staff in half (probably editorial), the manga publishing industry in America has yet to figure out a new revenue model solution -which sounds similar to the music industry.

In both conferences, is was noted that in the past, pulp comics tend to be one form of entertainment that make it through recessions, like the one in the early ’90’s, whereby the comic industry didn’t really see a decrease in sales considering the state of the economy. However manga, with some titles now at $10 or $12 bucks per issue isn’t going to cut it the way the almost-disposable comic scene was in the early years. Also, as one person noted on the second panel, the industry has yet to catch up to how this new generation is coming into manga. No longer is it the old-fashioned way via understanding Otaku culture, but now, as we’ve noted at Label Networks with stories on J-rock and J-pop, this new generation of readers is getting introduced to manga (and anime) often via popular Japanese musicians, video games, fashion styles, and various forms of website access and communication. This has changed the manga audience in terms of who’s reading them and what they like, most notably younger fans, including the accountability, according to the CEO of SPJA, Trulee Karahashi, for higher registration this year of 13-18-year-old girls at Anime Expo.

Overall, Anime Expo provided a wide variety of opportunities to become immersed in this growing and fascinating side of entertainment, not only from a consumer perspective, as young people roamed the convention halls going from one event to another, or checking out the packed exhibitions with booths selling various manga, anime, and related Goth-Loli fashion, accessories, and various lifestyle iconography, but also for press and industry players with conferences about the future of anime and manga entertainment and their impact on global youth culture industries.

See also related story on top anime and manga fashion styles in the Fashion section this week.