Anime fest now attracts more than 80,000

Cosplay duo Hana & Baozi will be making an appearance at the grand finals of the AFA Regional Cosplay Championship.

When Mr Shawn Chin launched the Anime Festival Asia at Suntec in 2008, he expected a turnout of at most 5,000 people. But about 27,000 enthusiasts showed up.

The number shot up to more than 80,000 visitors last year, and he expects to see more than 85,000 people at this year's three-day event, which kicks off at Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre today.

The festival, which celebrates Japanese pop culture, has become so popular that it expanded last year with the launch of editions in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Despite the name, the Anime Festival Asia does not feature only anime, or Japanese animated productions.

Besides the main exhibition area, where Japanese pop culture products such as anime, fashion and technological accessories are displayed and sold, the event also features Japanese pop music in live concert shows.

There are areas that showcase unique Japanese experiences too, such as a maid cafe, where cutesy women donning French maid outfits wait on customers in a sweet, docile manner.

Mr Chin, 40, says he was prompted to hold the festival in Singapore after seeing examples of such an event in other parts of the world.

"I love Japanese pop culture and used to wonder why there was no single big event for Japanese pop culture enthusiasts here, like the Japan Expo in France or the Anime Expo in the United States," says the founder and managing director of Singapore-based events and entertainment company Sozo, which stages the festival here as well as in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

"There are some community-based events here, such as small cosplay get-togethers, but not a single platform where consumers can get access to all sorts of Japanese content. So I thought there would be potential in this idea."

He was right. Besides growing attendance to the exhibition, the concerts are also pulling in the crowds.

Tickets to the concerts are sold separately from those to the exhibition area. During the first year, Mr Chin says "a humble couple of hundred" concert tickets priced at about $80 were sold. This year, more than 10,000 tickets costing $58 to $428 have been snapped up.

This year's concerts, which will be held over three nights, will see 13 J-pop acts performing, including May'n, LiSA, and T.M. Revolution.

As the event has also been bringing in bigger celebrity names for talks and appearances, the cost to stage the festival went up from about $300,000 in 2008 to close to $2 million for the current edition.

Among this year's celebrity guests are the people behind the massively popular anime title Psycho-Pass (2012 to 2013), including creator and scriptwriter Gen Urobuchi, as well as famed cosplayers such as Thailand's Onnies and China duo Hana & Baozi.

Mr Chin says: "When we started, the South-east Asian market for Japanese pop culture was really untested. But now, I can say that the festival has become known among the Japanese entertainment and anime industry as a key platform to promote Japanese content in South-east Asia."

Mr Stephen Li, 46, an anime fan and regular visitor to the annual event, says he can "see very clearly that the festival has grown".

The director of a private education company has attended three editions so far and plans to go again this weekend. All of his previous outings were with his son Ryan, now 10.

"I can tell that the number of visitors has gone up because the festival is getting so crowded," says Mr Li. "But it's a lot of fun to see all the booths and the new merchandise. I have enjoyed watching anime as I was growing up, and now I get to share this with my son too."

He spends a few hundred dollars on anime merchandise, such as limited-edition figurines, T-shirts and wallets featuring the anime Gundam (1979 to present), at the festival every year.

"The great thing about the festival is that the exhibitors always have new launches for merchandise, or offer limited-edition products," he notes. "That's why people keep turning up in droves at the festival. They want to see and get things that they can't get elsewhere in Singapore. It's a special event."

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