The Japanese Animation, Film, and Art Expo (JAFAX) is a yearly event in Grand Rapids, MI which occurs on the grounds of Grand Valley State University. This Japanese Culture-celebrating event has been running since a man named Rob Grimes decided he wanted to share his love of everything in the event's name way back in ye olde 1995. You can find out more about JAFAX, it's history, and what to expect when you're expecting to attend at www.jafax.org.
2012's JAFAX event booklet (thanks Aaron!)
I've been attending infrequently since JAFAX 6 back in the Summer of 2001. When I first went to check it out I found it to be a wonderland of things Japanese and geeky. There were incredible DVDs of exciting anime I'd never seen, Japanese action figures and model kits which triggered immediate salivation in all but the most staid of Otaku, wall scrolls I deeply coveted, anime screenings, and even events for gamers like myself. It was absolutely a wondrous place to experience a culture not often allowed out to breath in regular day life along the Grand River in the not-so-grand Midwestern town of Grand Rapids. JAFAX was known to provide a wonderful escape into a realm where one could wear a tail or their favourite animated character's costume. Freedom and freshness could be found in good old Henry Hall and its surrounding buildings out in the hilly land on which GVSU lies.
Where the show used to go on
Times change, though, and something happened to the Japanese culture the event so fantastically celebrated. It blew up and splashed over everything in American culture in a very short period. Suddenly an interest which would at one time cause a person to receive insults and derision was being proudly aired by major cable networks, sold on pricey shirts at fashionable mall stores, and adopted by those pathetic, hollow fools who everyone at some point in their lives must abide, the bandwagon riders. JAFAX, alone for the longest time in what it represented, naturally attracted the fadsters who were responsible for the post-coital-like boom-splatter of J-Culture all over the hungry, unnaturally maintained, excessively stylized face of American culture. It was when those bastards reared their ugly, rosacea-marred faces that JAFAX lost its appeal and became as shallow as those aggravating Pop Culture disciples.
On Sunday, June 24, 2012, the last of the two-day event that is JAFAX I allowed myself to forget all of this for a moment and chose to venture out into the valley near Allendale, MI to see what there was to see. As I expected there was an incredibly large crowd grazing the grounds around the main buildings of the university. Had this been a zombie scenario I would have written off the area as a place to avoid at all costs and assumed something incredibly and unusually wrong had occurred after seeing all of the walking corpses so brightly and cartoonishly dressed. Anyway, it was effing jam-packed.
I sped through, blaring Anamanaguchi's "Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues" to see if I could draw any stragglers away from the main herd...okay, enough with the zombie comparisons. I wandered into the event grounds near the door to the building which had historically been the core area for geeking out Otaku style. There were cliques of people dressed as this or that character (a majority of attendees were costumed), some going so far as to need help moving because they were dressed in giant god damned Pokemon costumes. I snapped a few pictures, one (below) of an adorable Pikachu statue, and then entered at my own risk. I found nothing. The surprise was an annoyance as I wandered into the building believing that I had arrived long after most vendors packed up shop. Apparently my lack of research before attempting this year's JAFAX neglected to inform me that the event and its ever-growing space requirements caused yet more changes.
They call him Welcome-Chu
It was 2:30pm and I, a rotund and easily winded chap, hustled over, gasping, to a building which was said to hold the vendor crowds. It did indeed. Just to get into the building and still after I gained entry I was forced to wade through several layers of costumed fan kids and the occasional adult who was way past their prime and yet still finding the courage to be this year's oddly arousing Japanese schoolgirl (these was mostly older males...brrr!).
They're pasty and spendy
The air conditioning of the building offered some relief as I continued into the bowels of packed-beyond-capacity Mackinac Hall. To my surprise again I discovered that the hallway vendor presence was light to almost non-existent, but that's because the expo staff finally found a use for all the classroom space. In each of the rooms of higher learning, many of which over the course of the school year played host to one of several History courses I attended, I found instead hoards of pasty, mostly white kids in too-tight costumes forking out shamefully expendable, sickeningly large sums of money for plushies, t-shirts, Doctor Who memorabilia and collectibles (I'll come back to this), and other bits of random Japanese culture-themed products. It was an orgy of consumerism which swelled and flagellated disgustingly before my eyes like Burroughs' overly-sexual typewriter. I casually snapped a few pictures like any perverse curious-type would do and then shamefully ducked out into the less-crowded hallway. After visiting several rooms filled with the same types of kids and pretty much the same type of over-priced merchandise I decided it was time to escape back to the sanity of my home and the loving, splendiferous arms of my wonderful wife.
Ah, air conditioning...and a few geeks!
I sit here now in the cool, comfort of my geek-fortress reflecting on what I saw. I feel very much like an anthropologist who recently took a canoe ride into the deep jungles surrounding the Amazon and decided to sit in on the rituals of the various cannibal tribes found along the way. The feelings and impressions are still incredibly fresh. There's a bit of disgust, a bit of despair, and a bit of fondness for the comfort of the familiarity strangely found in the most base of humanness.
I deplore those who would proudly boast about being a part of a culture that they know little about and only first dabbled in because it was fashionable. This goes for all of those who support forms of excessive popularization, especially of cultures both unique and isolated for great periods of time. As a dork, nerd, geek...hell, a new word is necessary, a DERK (Dork, nERd, and geeK combined), I find that I'm often confronted, especially these days when Geek Culture has become a focus of the larger, vapid, and more sinister Popular Culture, by many people who perfectly fit the definition of a "Fad-Geek." There was no shortage of these types at JAFAX. I know this because of the conversations I overheard while wandering through and fleeing from the mass of attendees. There were people talking about what they saw on television or stating that they, "found out about all of this stuff online." There were kids with arms weighed down by bags full of newly purchased merchandise, wearing frightening plastic grins, talking about how their purchases have made them the biggest geeks present at the expo. It was horrible and depressing.
Consuming the junk of the vendors.
A sad, thriving economy of garbage.
Though there was much to pick apart about the event such as the poor hygiene of its attendees, the poor choice of dress for certain body types present, the slights and rudeness perpetrated by the many chronic antisocials in attendance, and other obvious and repulsive things, I must say that I did surprisingly find some of my hope for Geek Culture restored. Clearly I understand the concept of a Fad-Geek and have become quite proficient at spotting them, but amongst the gluttonous levels of consumerism and the fakers buying new labels to paste on their chests there were adorable glimmers of genuine geekyness. There were kids who appeared to be truly, deeply awestruck, much like I was way back in 2001, by things they could relate to or were actually obsessed over. These were their things, their items of interest. These were their appleseeds and they were all of them Johnnies. They were members of the faithful audience who gave more than just money to their beloved series and fascinations. It was those true fans, whose honest appreciation for what they were there to celebrate shone from within them, who offered their faith, time, and support. They spent countless weekends watching and rewatching anime, reading and rereading manga. Their sweat, money, and lives went into actually supporting the various series and creators who supplied their beloved Japanese culture. This support was importantly both monetary and spiritual. It's fans like that, honest lovers of cultural items, that put a smile on my face and make me damn proud to call myself a geek...a derk. (it'll catch on, just trust me on this!)
JAFAX was once a home for a neglected and abused subculture. It has in recent days become a center and supplier for those wishing just to look the look or walk the walk. At its core it is something special and worthy of affection, but it is something that will one day have to recognize the importance of the dyed-in-the-wool fans and give up on those fat, contrary wallets desperately wanting, for the moment, to be "in." Here's to the future of this event. I look forward to a day when it's once again just a gathering of the faithful, if ever that time returns.
Regarding the Doctor Who presence at a Japanese Culture Expo, well, let's just say that the good Doctor and the BBC might have struck a chord. Maybe it was just that they were providing quality viewing material that wasn't domestic and Americans who now obsess over it were already the types to look to foreign shores for cultural guidance, being incapable of discovering their own interests and pursuits. I find the culture boom around Doctor Who to be a huge part of the current Fad-Geek Culture and a source of great annoyance for me. This is a show that has been in existence since the 1960s and people are just now noticing its merit and its wonder. I call bullshit on those "new to Who" folks out there voraciously spending their available funds to own as much Who memorabilia as they possibly can. As someone who's been watching the show off and on since 1989 or so I can say that I have a genuine love for the series and feel a duty to safeguard it from the corruption inherent in pop culture's firm, vampiric embrace. I did take advantage of the merchants who were all too willing to feed the hunger the pseudo-Whovians display by purchasing a sonic screwdriver to satisfy a personal craving present in me since my early childhood. Thanks for being enablers, pop culturites!
Since childhood I've wanted one!