As appeal of anime and manga widens, South Bay continues to be a hot spot for fan communities

The Crunchyroll Expo in San Jose is returning as an in-person event after two years of being virtual due to the pandemic. Photo: Crunchyroll

The South Bay is home to many cultural innovations and movements, from tech startups to skateboard tricks to mystery houses to La Victoria Taqueria’s Orange Sauce. But in the world of anime and manga, the Valley of Heart’s Delight has proved to be fertile ground for Japanese animation, comics and graphic novels to flourish and grow.

San Jose, in particular, is a prime destination for fans of the genre. It’s already home to two huge anime-friendly conventions — FanimeCon and SiliCon With Adam Savage — which crowd downtown San Jose streets with professional and civilian cosplayers. The next big convention, Crunchyroll Expo, arrives at San Jose McEnery Convention Center on Friday-Sunday, Aug. 5-7.

Crunchyroll, the popular streaming service that specializes in Asian entertainment, launched this event in Santa Clara in 2017. After going virtual the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the self-proclaimed “hypest event in anime” returns in person with exclusive premieres (the first two episodes of “Mob Psycho 100 III”), appearances by voice actors from “Jujutsu Kaisen” and “My Hero Academia,” and other special guests.

There will also be a music stage, a gaming area, a Hololive meet-and-greet experience (in-person interaction with VTubers like Mori Calliope and Takanashi Kiara), and “districts” devoted to art and shopping. And, if you have ever wanted to see a sweet potato rendering of Grogu (aka Baby Yoda), professional vegetable carver Okitsugu Kado will be there. The expo will be streamed online as well.

How did San Jose become a global destination for anime and manga fans? The reflex answer, of course, is that San Jose and Silicon Valley equals lots of nerds (I live in and defend San Jose all the time and can attest).

The real answer, of course, goes a bit deeper.

The Crunchyroll Expo in San Jose. Photo: Crunchyroll

Mary Franklin knows a lot about fandom. As head of events for Crunchyroll, Franklin oversees the team that puts on the San Jose expo (a second expo is scheduled for Melbourne, Australia, in September). She joined the company after helping launch comic-cons overseas, as well as working for 14 years at Lucasfilm, where she led events and fan relations, including the Star Wars Celebration fan festival.

Franklin admits she wasn’t knowledgeable about anime and manga before she arrived at Crunchyroll three years ago, but her previous experience helped get her up to light speed with how passionate fan communities can be.

“Something I love about both Japanese animation and ‘Star Wars’ fandoms is their attraction to the community,” Franklin said. “They are not passive fans; They create their own communities, connect with people passionately and share information.”

When asked what makes the South Bay an attractive destination, Franklin points to logistics: easy access to three airports; a good convention center staff; and a managed downtown area filled with hotels, restaurants and gathering spots. And, of course, a fan base: “We’re very fortunate to have a lot of anime fans all around the Bay Area,” said Franklin.

Down the road from McEnery Convention Center in San Jose’s Japantown neighborhood is Nikaku Japanese Arts. The modest shop above Minato Japanese Restaurant has been in the anime and manga game since 1986. Nikaku is a family-run business that primarily sells Japanese crafts — decorative plates, tea sets, figurines — but also houses a hefty stash of anime and manga merchandise . It does brisk business online and was one of the early supporters and vendors at local conventions like WonderCon (held in Oakland and San Francisco from 1987 to 2011) and sci-fi focused BayCon (first held in San Jose in 1982).

The Crunchyroll Expo in San Jose. Photo: Crunchyroll

Nikaku manager Tyler Kogura feels Silicon Valley’s mix of tech workers with disposable income and suburban families with kids age 16 to 20 offers key demographic fits. It also helps that the content has gotten more accessible and mainstream. Mall standby Hot Topic stocks anime-related merchandise alongside Nirvana T-shirts. Even Target sells manga, toys and posters from crossover successes like “My Hero Academia,” “Demon Slayer” and “Haikyu!!”

“Many of the stories are more complex and sophisticated than people might first think,” Kogura said. “There are genres for everyone: horror, romance, action. There’s manga for girls, guys, kids and adults.”

The new generation of Japanese animation fans are starting their collections early. For six years, the Santa Clara City Library has hosted its own one-day Comic Con. The free event features guest speakers, vendors, panels, even lightsaber lessons, and has grown in scale and scope. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 22.

Librarian Danny Le helps put on the family-friendly event. He said the goal is to offer the community, especially those who can’t afford to attend the bigger and splashier conventions, a welcoming place for them to explore their passion for the culture.

“It’s not just for kids,” said Le. “We provide a one-day convention for all people who enjoy the culture — anime, manga, gaming, ‘Star Wars’ — to experience it on a local, more personal level.”

Being at a library, SCCL Comic Con also functions as a space to educate and to normalize comics and graphic novels as a literary genre. Millions will line up to see the latest Marvel or DC movie, but many balk at openly reading the comic it’s based on.

Le believes that comics are still stigmatized as fare for children.

“This broad oversimplification doesn’t give the creators, writers and artists the respect and credit they deserve,” said Le. “The need to feed our imaginations with allegory, with intellectual understanding, can come from anywhere stories are being told. Western comic books, and comics from Asia like manga, are a medium that houses great storytelling. It’s just that they also come with visual aids.”

Crunchyroll Expo: 10:30 am-9:45 pm Friday; 10:30 am-9:15 pm Saturday; 10:30 am-5 pm Sunday, Aug. 5-7. $25-$135. San Jose McEnery Convention Center, 150 W. San Carlos St., San Jose. www.crunchyrollexpo.com



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