Imagine, if you may, a doorway that can transport a person to a miraculous realm. It’s a place where everything one could love and admire comes together, for a single weekend of unbridled joy. Judgment and bullying have no place, as thousands of like-minded individuals gather to share in revelry and comfort. It’s here that Naruto can run past Monkey D. Luffy, who tips his straw hat to a grumpy Natsu from Fairy Tail. Samurai and warlocks trade war stories with one another, as shocked Saiyans marvel at the spectacle. Phones buzz, as eager Pokemon trainers-to-be gleefully find that they caught that elusive Dragonite.
The best part of all, though, is that this isn’t a land of fantasy. It can be found in hotels and convention centers across the globe, as fans come together for their favorite anime conventions. Every year promises new adventures and experiences, for those who walk through the doorway of events like Otakon, Anime Expo, or in my personal experiences, Anime NYC. People pile into panel rooms, have chance encounters with their favorite characters, and collect treasures over these scant few days, as everyday life becomes something absolutely extraordinary. Without a doubt, conventions truly are remarkable and valuable events, able to capture that special, unmistakable yet indescribable energy.
Sadly, this was brought to a standstill this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world. New York City became a hot zone, as emergency rooms were pushed beyond their limits, and thousands succumbed to the virus. A city that is renowned for its robust and bustling communal lifestyle, was effectively shut down overnight. The city that never sleeps now lay a solemn slumber, wondering when, if ever, the alarm clock would go off again. Just a year ago, residents flocked to stadium-sized concerts, nationally celebrated parades, star-studded galas, and conventions that grew in size every year. Suddenly, leaving home meant risking not just one’s own life but the lives of others as well. As a result, we were all forced to simply exist, in a repetitive mundanity, draped within this tragic and uncertain present.
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend numerous conventions over the past decade, and I must admit that Anime NYC has quickly become a highlight of my year. Since its debut in 2017, the event has become a point of such adoration and joy that I find myself at a loss as to how to really explain the experience to people around me. The event was, in no uncertain terms, a dream come true for me.
In my younger days, I felt alone, isolated in fandom, which was often emphasized by my failed attempt to start a comics and manga club in high school. My first convention experience was a revelation, to say lightly. It was like a meeting of the biggest and best manga club in the world, packed with fellow fans. It was a festival of outstanding cosplay and elaborate booths, attended by the finest artists to grace the medium. Since then, these annual “meetings” have come to fill my life with such pleasure and jubilation, to the point that getting lost in a sea of nerdy energy has become a crucial tradition.
Tradition or not, though, how can anyone feel safe in a space surrounded by thousands of people, when gatherings of more than ten could prove to be fatal?
So many of the best attributes of Anime NYC, and every other convention for that matter, quickly became a terrifying concept. The tradition of squeezing into an auditorium with an enormous number of others seated beside me was now daunting, to say nothing of photo ops and lining up for autographs.
Folks who’ve attended any manner of convention are no stranger to con flu, and this autumn, when Anime NYC would have been held, looks to line up with the widely-projected “second wave” of COVID-19. For many, this is a terrifying prospect in itself. For me, it meant far more drastic. I grew up with anxiety and a propensity to debilitating panic attacks. I haven’t seen friends or family in months, and maintain a distance when interacting with anyone in a social setting. I still can’t begin to fathom what my heart would be doing if I went to a large gathering like Anime NYC, though I know it would involve pumping, pulsating heart palpitations. The event has grown in size every year since its inception in 2017, and quickly became the biggest celebration of Japanese pop culture on the east side.
This year, though, most conventions have shuttered for the year, including Anime Expo, Otakon, and Anime Boston. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before Anime NYC confirms the same. Numerous virtual conventions like Mainframe Online, Anime Expo Lite, and Anime Lockdown have popped up in their wake. And while I appreciate the spirit of the events I’ve attended, it’s difficult to replicate the magic of a con in the living room. Events like Anime NYC are essentially the polar opposite of my natural habitat. They’re enchanting extensions of imaginations from decades of stories and characters we grew up enjoying at home, not stories that took place in my home.
New York State is currently in the process of the third phase of its reopening process, as businesses and other establishments prepare for customers and workers alike. Still, does that mean that, by November, something as big as Anime NYC 2020 could still happen? And more important, even if it did, would you want to go?
Maybe you would, and I don’t blame you. Still, forgive my candor in admitting that I certainly won’t be attending any large gatherings anytime soon. For the moment, the virtual conventions help to fill that specific void. That’s not to say that I’d never want to return to an event of that scale, though. I’m optimistic that we will conquer this pandemic, and cannot wait for another “club meeting” of nerdy kinfolk… when the time is right. When it’s safe to go out, and we’re mostly wearing masks because we’re cosplaying. As Sui of Tokyo Ghoul once said, “human relationships are chemical reactions. If you have a reaction, you can never return back to your previous state of being.” It’s A sentiment I share about New York Comic Con and Anime NYC. I’ve reacted — I’ve evolved. I’ve gone Super Saiyan and these geeky congregations have become my Senzu beans.