Born in Boston in 1974, Victor Lee first got his taste of anime early on, in the late '70s and early '80s. He was young and impressionable at just the right time, when TV landscape was changing and American outlets were looking overseas for content. When Lee first saw Battle of the Planets (the American dub of the Japanese Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) on his local UHF TV channel in 1978, he was astounded.
"Soon after that, Star Blazers and Force Five premiered. Star Blazers, to me, was my seminal show. I knew it was definitely not American. It was clearly Japanese, and as a Chinese-American growing up then, it was so important to see any positive Asian figures on TV," Lee told SYFY WIRE this week.
The experience was so important to Lee that he would go on to dedicate a large part of his life to sharing that same excitement and love for anime with his hometown. In 2003, Lee and several partners launched the first Anime Boston convention at the Boston Park Plaza. A hit with fans and cosplayers from the jump, the annual festival has grown from 4,000 attendees in the first year to the seventh largest anime gathering in America — this year, organizers are expecting over 25,000 anime fans.
Last month, Lee told SYFY WIRE about the first years of the festival, how he first got involved, what he loves about anime, and what to expect at this year's festival, set to kick off on April 19.
How did Anime Boston start?
Anime Boston's planning started sometime in 2001, actually, in the wake of 9/11. We were all readers of the old Anime On DVD website, and were all members of its community. Some us had attended an anime convention in Boston that wasn't well implemented and we felt that we could do better than that! So a group of us formed the founding board of Anime Boston, which included my wife, Rebecca; Adam Ferraro, our first chairman; and Pat Delahanty, our first vice chairman. At first, I didn't see how we could actually pull this off. Where do we start? How do we contact industry and guests? How much would it cost to get this off the ground?
We were fortunate that Anime On DVD's founder, Chris Beveridge, had strong connections in the American anime industry, as we were able the secure the cooperation with some of the biggest companies, at the time. And as luck would have it, at the older convention where Anime Boston became an idea, one of the guests was Scott McNeil, star of Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, which was one of the hottest shows on TV. He agreed to help us secure the other key actors from that series. To my knowledge, Anime Boston is still the only convention to have featured all five Gundam Wing pilots together.
Anime Boston was envisioned as a place for some of our friends to hang out and talk anime. We had planned for no more than a few hundred attendees, but as pre-registrations started to roll in, we had to revise that number to 1,500. In reality, we had over 4,000 attendees that first year, which was a record. On Saturday morning, the fire marshall ordered us to shut the doors and to not let anime more attendees in. We have grown quite a bit since our inaugural event in 2003!
Can you talk about how the festival has grown exponentially in the last few years? It seems like it grows every year.
I think we owe our success to the way we connect with our attendees. I've always emphasized family. I want everyone that comes to Anime Boston to feel like they are home, that they belong and they are welcome. I think this sets the overall tone of our convention. As a non-profit, our number one goal is to share this passion for anime and manga.
What we've noticed is that our panel rooms have gotten fuller. We've also experimented with non-traditional guests as well. For example, we've had Akira Takarada in Boston. He was the star of the original Godzilla. We're also known as a "music" convention. Last year, we had Flow, who had worked on music for Naruto. Previously, we've also had Puffy AmiYumi and Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the Final Fantasy game series. This year, I think we can expect some exciting music again!
How has anime evolved through the years? What are some of your more recent anime favorites?
There have been a lot of changes in anime over the years. Aesthetically, we've seen anime go from hand-painted cels, which spawned a cel collector community, to CG-assisted animation. We've seen an increase in interest from Hollywood, as quite a few live-action adaptations have been produced, like Ghost in the Shell, Alita: Battle Angel, and even Edge of Tomorrow, which is based on a Japanese novel.
But I think what makes anime so popular here is its regard for actual storytelling. Even though anime is still regarded as "for kids" in Japan, we see plots and character development that historically has been missing in American cartoons. Historically, anime was heavily influenced by Disney. Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of anime, took his style from Disney, adding large expressive eyes to his style, etc. We see anime's influence on American cartoons today. Thinking about how the US and Japan influence each other's animation industries, my two favorite shows today are One Punch Man and My Hero Academia, which both turn the American superhero genre on its head.
Why is this festival important?
I can tell you that I never would have expected Anime Boston to be where it is today. We're an all-volunteer event, so no one draws any kind of salary. In my day job, I work for technology companies behind television and motion picture editing and special effects/ It is an incredible experience working on something like this, and seeing how much positive impact we have on our attendees. After all, we do this for them! I've mentioned to our attendees that I wish I had something like Anime Boston when I was 15.