There are a lot of things to do at Anime Expo, which takes places every year around the 4th of July. You can wander the hallways and admire some beautiful cosplay, shop for some cool and exclusive merchandise, or visit any number of panels covering a variety of subjects. Last year, I spent a lot of my time covering industry panels, but this year I decided that I wanted to do something different.

If you’ve never been to Anime Expo before, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA) who operates the convention started a new initiative in 2011. The goal of which was to bring academic discussion to an otherwise pop culture focused event. The Anime and Manga Studies Symposium program has been somewhat of a success. Over the years, the convention has hosted a number of panels from speakers at a number of schools across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan.

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This year brought with it a number of interesting topics from a number of schools. Among them USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and even Meiji University. There were a total of ten academic panels this year, and unfortunately I didn’t get to go to all of the ones I had planned, but it was nice to break the monotony and experience something different for a change. I’m not well experienced with academia, but I can appreciate a good presentation with an academic focus, so it’s nice to know that Anime Expo has this program on offer for people who are interested in something beyond the pop culture aspects.

Unfortunately, I only made it out to one of these panels because of the busy schedule I had for the weekend, but it felt like enough to give me a feel for how these things play out. The panel that I attended was titled Examining and Questioning Japan’s Place in the World, but as it turns out, actually included several different presentations. That’s because unlike most panels at the convention, academic panels typically contain several presentations over the course of an hour.

For this panel in particular, the first presentation dealt with Gatewhich premiered last year before wrapping up in March. I hadn’t seen Gate, and at the time of writing I still haven’t gotten around to it, but the presentation from Paul S. Price which delved into the politics behind the series certainly made me want to. That’s because the presentation, titled On This Side of the Gate: Politics and Geopolitics in Contemporary Anime, did a great job of explaining the subject at hand.

As it turns out, the author of the series, Takumi Yanai, has military ties in real life. Yanai spent time in the military, where he wrote Gate. This was the starting point for the presentation, which then discussed the history leading up to Japan as it is now, and how that plays into Gate. After World War II, Japan was no longer allowed to have their own army or participate in international warfare, but they could maintain a military for defense.

That’s what the Japan Self-Defense Force (JDSF) is for, an organization which plays a large role in Gate. Gate isn’t the only anime to be influenced by the JDSF, however. According to the presenter, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle were also influenced by the JDSF to some extent.

While the first of the three presentations seemed interesting enough, the other two also delved into the history of Japan while tying it to anime and manga. The second presentation titled The Real Limit on the Cult of Speed: Attack on Titan‘s Ambivalent (Anti-)Fascism dealt with the anti-fascist themes of Attack on Titan, and while that might sound interesting, I felt that the presentation itself lingered on the history aspect for too long before getting to the comparisons. With the first presentation, it was clear from the beginning how Gate played into it, but the comparisons between fascism and Attack on Titan didn’t quite seem to connect.

This isn’t a slight on the presenter or the presentation itself, as any lecture will typically be hit or miss depending on the subject matter, the individual presenting, and the person who is sitting in to listen. History is actually one of my favorite subjects, and I do like the explore the undertones of a good story, but I didn’t leave with much of an understanding as to the connection between the two.

There was a brief mention of some other anime that have fascist themes, like Akira and Hajime no Ippo, as well as a few anime that presented anti-fascism themes similar to Attack on Titan. On that front, the presenter noted High School of the Dead, Gate, and of course, Attack on Titan. It was unfortunately at that point I decided to head out, but it was largely thanks to time constraints. When you’re covering a convention like Anime Expo, there’s a lot to keep in mind.

After briefly exploring the academic panels at the convention, I think it’s safe to say that Anime Expo really does have something for everyone. If you’re not only interested in anime and manga, but Japanese history and culture, I’d recommend at least giving one academic panel a try when you visit next year. It might be hit or miss, but you might learn a thing or two that will spark your interest.

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Adam Capps

About Adam Capps

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Adam Capps is the editor of video games at BentoByte. He spends his days playing video games and his nights writing about them. He's also an avid fan of anime, manga and music.

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