2016 marked the return of the Japanese Animation Film and Anime eXpo (aka JAFAX). JAFAX began in June of 1996 at Kendall College as a one day event. It grew to become a two day event for the next year at that location. From year 3 to 19, JAFAX resided at the beautiful campus of Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. JAFAX 19 was the last year the event was held at GVSU. Unfortunately the event grew too big for the campus, since the attendance level was over 5000 people. JAFAX 20 signaled the transition from a free 2 day event to a 3 day ticketed event. DeVos Hall became the new home for the Grand Rapids anime and Japanese culture event.
On a personal side note, this event was the first expo/con I attended. Prior to finding out about it on a public access show on TV, I was not aware of geek gatherings. After the first trip, I was hooked because I was surrounded by people with similar interests in anime. I would center my yearly vacation around JAFAX from that moment forward. Every year, I would start shaking with anticipation as the event drew near. In turn, I would be bummed when it was over while pining for the next year. Suffice to say, JAFAX holds a special place in my heart. It was weird to be unable to attend JAFAX in 2015. I wondered how the pivotal return of the event would unfold this year.
Plenty of new guests came to JAFAX this year. We were treated to voice actors/actresses Brittney Karbowski, Samantha Inoue-Harte, Jake Paque (Pokemon) and Tyson Rinehart. Brittney Karbowski (Soul Eater) was bubbly and energetic. Samantha Inoue-Harte (from Final Fantasy Unlimited) clearly loves talking to people. We talked for about ten minutes about our mutual love for the Berserk series. I can say I have met a fellow kindred spirit with Tyson Rinehart (Steins;Gate). It’s not every day that I can have a conversation about punk bands with a voice actor. Comic creator duo Comfort and Adam were 1st time guests instead of being staples in the artist alley from year’s past. My favorite Nerdcore hip hop duo 2d6 made their JAFAX debut this year as well.
Dan Houser, James Dawsey, Amy Howard Wilson and David G. Wilson III returned back to JAFAX. Dan remarked about how he was working on a game during JAFAX 19. Two years later , he was selling what became ICONS Assembled and ICONS Adversaries. James Dawsey hosted some gaming sessions in the game room during the weekend. Plus, he was selling his game Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade. Amy Howard Wilson, known for her role as Nova in Star Blazers, was on hand to share her experience of years in the voice acting business. David G. Wilson III hosted his annual Anime Old Fogies panel.
DeVos Hall is quite different compared to the GVSU campus. Instead of having the event in three different buildings on campus, the event was centralized to the back half of DeVos and the Amway Grand Plaza. The main event room, autograph room, registration and dealer’s room were located on the first floor of DeVos. The panel rooms and game room were located on the second floor of the DeVos Place.
The game room had a PS4, PS3, N64, modded versions of a Super Nintendo, Wii, Wii-U and an Atari. Some of the games included were Mega Man 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, and Mario Kart. All equipment and games were on loan from staff for the weekend. The Grand Rapids based video game music concert and fundraiser organization GR8bit Live was helping out in the game room.
The anime screening rooms, maid cafe, table top gaming and cosplay battle arena were held in the Amway Grand Plaza. The Amway Grand plaza was connected to DeVos via a skywalk. Upon entrance into the Amway Grand, there were signs to point to where the rooms were located. However, it became confusing as to which way to go after the initial signs. I had to wander to find the rooms the first time around. Afterwards, it wasn’t an issue since I knew the way. However, more signs at every corner would be helpful if the setup is the same next year.
The dealer’s room was very spacious. It was held in a ballroom instead of the separate classrooms utilized at the GVSU campus. The artist alley portion of the dealer’s room utilized the the 3 to 4 sided approach of placing artists next to each other. Some artists were hidden due to where they were placed. If no one ventured their way, they might have missed out on some awesome art. Having a straight row of tables instead cubes gives off more of an alley approach. Plus, every artist has an easier chance to sell as well.
After reading online gripes about having to pay this year, I wondered what the turnout would be as I arrived on Friday. The sight of a long line of people greeted me as I entered DeVos Hall. The great turnout was a nice sign of interest for the return. However, a series of setbacks curtailed the enjoyment of the event for many on Friday. Registration opened close to 2pm even though it was slated to open at 1pm. The single long line was comprised of people who pre-registered and those who were going to register that day. There were no signs indicating a separate line for the two groups. Thus, leading to confusion and longer waits for those who already pre-regged. For many, the wait in line ranged from 2 to 4.5 hours.
The dealer’s room/artist alley closed promptly around 7pm. The DeVos Hall staff started shutting the lights off in the room with no warning or announcements that the room was shutting down for the evening. I felt bad for the attendees on Friday who waited for hours to get into the convention. Some were able to go to the dealer’s room for an hour or less. Other’s were not fortunate enough to make it to the room before it closed. I have never been to a convention where the wasn’t a few notices as time drew near to closing time. Thankfully, that situation was corrected the rest of the weekend with announcements over the speaker system.
The musical entertainment for Friday night was 2d6. The caveat to their set was no cursing and all their songs would have to be based off of Japanese culture. Even with the lack of expletives, the songs for the set were entertaining. DJ Stuck Down a Mineshaft would throw out candy and engage the audience in singing along with songs. Very energetic set for them as usual. It was awesome to see fellow JAFAX guest Dan Houser stick around for the whole set. Nerdcore hip hop brings people together. I must note the hilarious description of 2d6’s concert to the people reading the program guide. It asked at the end: “Do you just need a comfortable place to chill out and read some Dostoevsky?” Sadly, no one did this during the concert. DJ Stuck would have came over and rapped in their face while they were reading. One can hope someone does this at the next 2d6 show.
Friday evening online, an apology and explanation for the long waits were issued. The staff of JAFAX admitted that they were not expecting a high amount of people due to low pre-reg sales. The initial staffing and number of computer stations for registration was not adequate. Plus, their wi-fi internet connection was throttled. At some point during the day, the internet connection went down. For the people who purchased a Friday badge, they were issued a refund. JAFAX also stated that a Friday badge could be turned in for a free Saturday badge. That was a very nice gesture to help quell the disappointment of Friday.
The registration process was considerably better for the rest of the weekend. More staff and computer stations were present to help with registering people. The internet calamity was corrected as well since they switched to a hardline instead of wi-fi. Through out the day, I was asking random attendees how long they had to wait in line. The longest wait period I heard was 30 minutes. I also did not see long lines either. However, JAFAX at one point ran out of badges due to underestimating the amount of attendees interested. Wrist bands were given out as a substitute.
I paid a visit to the maid café. Upon being seated with my group, we were attended by our personal butler named Ozzy. This immaculately dressed fanged gentleman of the feline persuasion was the consummate professional and entertainer. He was extremely courteous and polite as he attended to our needs. We played a game of Who Am I, wherein he asked us a series of questions in order to guess what Marvel character was on the whiteboard. For the record, he eventually guessed it was the Scarlet Witch. During our meal, a maid named Yuki sang the theme song Departure from the anime series Hunter x Hunter. Ozzy and the maid, K-Rose danced to opening song of Death Parade Flyers. On the way out, I took a photo with Ozzy while I was wearing a mushroom cap. No one can ever say that I don’t have fun at a convention while doing ridiculous things.
The menu for the maid café comprised of pecan cinnamon roll, cherry scones, and chocolate dipped biscotti for the regular attendees. The VIP menu was quite different and featured considerably better choices. However, the Caprese skewers which consisted of a grape tomato with basil leaf wrapped around a buffalo mozzarella pearl with a toothpick holding them together was a point of contention. Disappointment would have ensued if I would have ordered that dish. On a menu that featured spring rolls and lettuce wraps, two cheese balls are paltry in comparison. I ordered the delicious Kung Pao lettuce wraps and the sparkling white grape juice with strawberries. I would say that the dish I chose paired with the entertainment was worth the cost of $10 for admission.
The Fashion show happened on Saturday while the Cosplay contest occurred on Sunday. The fashion show allowed people to showcase their costumes from many facets of pop culture whether it would be comics, video games, anime etc. Sailor scouts, some guy who infiltrated Shadow Moses, and characters from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure were just a few of many who participated in the show.
During the evening, staff held a vigil for the victims of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. The vigil took place at the Walsh Auditorium in the evening. The vigil lasted close to 45 minutes. A tip of the hat goes to the staff for their actions in regard to that tragic event. It is nice to see people coming together to show support.
I attended the Big Sight Dance with DJ AAROCK. I didn’t realize that it was possibly to transition from Silento’s Watch Me (Whip Nae Nae) to Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People and then into Firestarter by Prodigy. At one point, he used the theme song from Beck Mongolian Chop Squad (Hit in the USA). It was nice to see people relaxing and having fun dancing.
After ducking out of the dance, I managed to catch a late night panel by the name of Your Favorite Video Game Sucks. Hosted by the comically talented Derek of m-bro, who was joined by 2d6 and two others. Audience members would state their favorite video game and then it would be deconstructed in a comedic fashion. I was thoroughly impressed with the quick and smooth improve skills that Derek showcased when eviscerating games on the spot in a moments notice. While the other guests made some funny comments, he was the star of this panel. No game was safe. Legend of Zelda? Torched. World of Warcraft? Bludgeoned. Kingdom Hearts? Let’s not get into that because it wasn’t pretty. Clearly, the audience understood that the brutal put downs were not meant to be taken seriously. For the record, I did manage to stump the crew with my suggestion of the great Samurai Shodown 2. The only thing that he could come up with was an insult at me (which I can not mention) instead of the game itself. I will make it a point to go to this panel in the future to come.
Sunday was more of a relaxed laid back day where I attended more as an attendee instead of a journalist. For once, I was able to watch anime. The Devil Is a Part Timer was on my itinerary. Like the name states, Satan was forced to be a employee at a fast food joint in this comedy series. Only in anime, folks. After two episodes, I would be willing to check out more of the series.
In the name of good causes, JAFAX hosted a blood drive and worked with the 100 Tables charity group. The blood drive was held by MI Blood. Turnout for the event exceeded expectations. On the charity side, the 100 Tables Project was present during the weekend raising money for families in need from the Creekside Middle School. Students involved with the 100 Tables Project create tables that will be sold for charity in turn. The tables at JAFAX featured art inspired by My Neighbor Totoro and Inuyasha.
JAFAX hosted an exhibit featuring items from the past twenty years of it’s existence. Shirts from the various years, an autographed Yunmao Ayakawa poster from her visit, programs and badges were part of the numerous objects that were representative of it’s rich history. The JAFAX historian was on hand to answer any questions. Fun fact: the historian was none other than Professor Miyazaki, who would stump people during his annual quiz panel. This was the first time I have encountered a con with a long tenure to feature an exhibit of the past. It would be interesting to see what other conventions would come up with if they did the same.
The cosplay contest on Sunday was strictly for Japanese culture, manga and anime related costumes. Generally, conventions hold the cosplay contest on a Saturday. Saturday is usually the day that sees the biggest attendance number compared to Sunday. Traditionally, JAFAX has held the contest on Sunday prior to closing ceremonies. There was a fair mix of video game and and anime characters on stage through out the contest. Even Lord Sesshōmaru with Rin was gracious enough to allow me to take a photo without killing me for being human.
After closing ceremonies, Door Phil made it’s return. Door Phil is a version of Let’s Make A Deal where an audience member is selected and they get to chose a prize hidden behind two doors. Audience members where selected if they could produce the item (the fastest) that the host was asking for. For example, a Nintendo street pass with the JAFAX mascot Ringo was one of the items asked for. Some of the prizes included figurines, wall scrolls, plushies, dvds and various items. James Dawsey donated a few personalized copies of his game as a prize. The doors of Door Phil were the star of the show. Each door was a comedic reference to pop culture. There were references to Game of Thrones, One Punch Man and Deadpool. Door Phil is an event that I will always look forward to each year.
All in all, JAFAX’s reboot was like the word implies, a restart from years past. It had it’s fair share of problems. Some were fixed that weekend while other factors will need improvement next year. I can’t say I had a terrible time at JAFAX, but I also can’t say I had the greatest time ever either. I want JAFAX to return back to being an awesome convention. In fact, I believe that it can happen again. I am looking forward to next year. Welcome back, JAFAX. You were missed.