A little known fact about Fresno: The city was a hub for fans of Japanese animation — known as anime — in the 1990s. In fact, Fresno had one of the first major anime clubs in the country, according to Antonio Airoso, founder of Ani-Jam, an annual convention that's dedicated to the cartoon-art form.
The gathering, which comes to the Fresno Convention Center Saturday and Sunday, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and continues to see growth in the genre and its fans.
When Airoso started Ani-Jam in 2003, it was a test. He knew fans were here, but he wasn't sure whether they would support an event like this.
"It was only a six-hour event, but it brought more than 500 people," Airoso says.
Since then, the event has moved from the Ramada Inn to the Fresno Convention Center, extended its schedule to a full weekend and more than doubled its annual attendance.
"One thing that has not changed is the fact that the convention still keeps our local attendees in mind," Airoso says.
Amine — and Japanese pop culture in general — has gained more popularity in recent years. So have conventions like this. California has several, including what Belle Morrow calls the "mega-conventions."
Ani-Jam bridges the gap between those conventions, says Morrow, the event's chairman and guest coordinator.
"Not everyone can travel to a convention hours away and afford all the costs that go with that kind of a trip, especially families," she says.
Organizers here try to keep costs lower than conventions in other cities, while bringing in the best possible speakers and guests. This year that includes several voice actors from the popular series "Bodacious Space Pirates," Robert Axelrod, who some will remember as the voice of Lord Zed on the "Power Rangers," and Aimee Major Steinberger, who worked as an animator on "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."
Ani-Jam is really for fans of Japanese pop culture, Airoso says. That includes anime — and its comic-book counterpart manga — but also Japanese pop music (J-Pop), cars and cosplay.
Cosplay is short for "costume play," where participants dress up as characters from a work of fiction. There's a dedicated cosplay page on the event's website, with links to local costume makers and rules for Ani-Jam's Cosplay Masquerade, which takes place Sunday evening.
So, while fans can see exclusive screenings of anime films such as "AKB0048," or take part in panel discussions ("Creepers: How to Avoid them and Not Become One Yourself" sounds particularly fun), there are also DJs, performances from the band Valkyrie Kiss and a video-game tournament.
The car club Team LoveHATE will have several Itasha cars on display. Itasha is a Japanese fad where cars are decorated with anime images.
Demographically, anime belongs to the youth.
The majority of of those who show up to Ani-Jam are younger than 25, Airoso says. But as anime gains mainstream popularity, it's becoming more accessible to all age groups — a fact the festival acknowledges with its parents-in-tow program (for adults getting dragged along) and free admission for children 10 and younger with paid registration.
"[Amine] holds something for everyone and all ages. Everything from child-friendly shows such as 'Pokemon' to more adult themes in shows like 'Naruto' and 'Cowboy Bebop' and everything in-between," Morrow says.
If you go
Ani-Jam 2013, starts 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, and Sunday, Aug. 18, at the Fresno Convention Center. On-site registration is $35 for the weekend, $30 for one day. Details: (559) 213-6315, ani-jam.com.
The reporter can e reached at (559) 441-6479, firstname.lastname@example.org or @joshuatehee on Twitter. Read his blog at FresnoBeehive.com