The journey from the first (and ultimately only) Anime Ohana convention in 2015 to the inaugural edition of AO Fest on Saturday has been a rather … interesting one, to say the least.
I’ve covered local three-day conventions since Kawaii Kon launched the modern con era in 2005, and Anime Ohana was the most sparsely attended con I’ve ever covered. Even with Kawaii Kon co-founder Stan Dahlin and anime producer David Williams running the show and voice actors Monica Rial (returning to Hawaii for the first time since 2009), Jessica Calvello and David Matranga as guests, hardly anyone showed up. Those of us who did come became very good friends by the end of the weekend, mostly because we kept seeing one another at everything.
Perhaps it was the show’s venue at the Pagoda Hotel and people having trouble finding it, the con’s position on a very crowded 2015 calendar that included HawaiiCon, Amazing (Holy Cats It’s STAN FREAKING LEE In) Hawaii Comic Con, and McCully-Moiliili Public Library’s Mini Con in September, Kawaii Kon’s Anime Day at Windward Mall in October, and Anime Matsuri Hawaii in November, or the fact that there wasn’t much publicity for it that led to its downfall. But the powers that be vowed that they would regroup and return for more the next year.
They ultimately never did.
About a month before Anime Ohana 2016 was supposed to take place, organizers postponed it to 2017, citing a need to build more awareness with a new marketing and promotions team. About a month before Anime Ohana 2017 was supposed to take place, the show was outright canceled. And that, as some of us in the fan community assumed, was that.
But then in December, news broke that AO Fest — a single-day event, including the Anime Ohana Festival during the day and the Hawaii Anime Awards at night — was A Thing. How could a brand that seemed dead in the water a few months ago suddenly be actively planning a summer comeback?
The short answer: It’s a different path for the Anime Ohana brand, one separate from the original vision for a more traditional three-day convention. And it’s a path being charted by the people who originally came on board to help Anime Ohana with its 2016-17 promotional push, who didn’t want their work to go to waste.
So with the blessing of David Williams, AO Fest was born. And festival organizers Jeremy Lum and Quincy Solano, along with Gavin Shito of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Anime Manga Society and YouTuber Kyuubikaze, have been working hard to make sure that Saturday’s festival is a fun, unique experience for anyone who attends. So while there are several elements that come standard with events of this nature — a cosplay contest, performances by Close the Distance (the three-member group formerly known as EMKE) and the Fresh Preps, a cosplay cafe, and a space for video games and tabletop games — there are other things to see as well.
“A lot of what we’re doing was based off what we were doing for Anime Ohana,” Jeremy said. “We decided to do a lot of activities and events that we thought were kind of unique, or at least things we want to see in conventions, but realize that we were kind of lacking in terms of the other major conventions.
“One of the things we decided to put on was the Anime Awards, and also the Shokugeki competition (a cooking competition a la the anime/manga series Food Wars) and so forth. So I feel like those different elements that we’re creating and planning kind of help diversify a little bit better, giving people more of a reason to turn their attention to Anime Ohana Fest, in addition to all the other major conventions.”
A full schedule of the day’s events is available at aofest.com/schedule/
With a different vision comes a venue change. Forget about the Pagoda; AO Fest is taking advantage of the space at the UH-Manoa Campus Center, utilizing the courtyard, space on the second floor, and the ballroom and meeting rooms on the third floor.
“Where all the other major conventions, they focus on Blaisdell area, the convention center, we’re doing it at UH because it’s a smaller venue, but they are offering competitive pricing, so financially it’s a lot easier and better for us,” Gavin said. “Also, the demographic that we’re looking at, students — you know, high school students, college students — especially during the summertime when most of the high school students may be transferring over to UH, it would be a great opportunity for them to come and inspect the campus and possibly learn their way around.”
As for what you can expect during the day, Gavin and Jeremy offered the following narrative:
Gavin: Well, first up, when you’re walking toward Campus Center, you’re coming from the main parking lot, the parking structure, the first thing you’ll see is the open courtyard, where we’ll have the Manoa Medieval Combat Club doing their demos … what else do we have? We have the taiko drummers …
Jeremy: We also have iHeart Media, they’re gonna have their radio personalities. We have a lot of things planned outside, a lot of things to attract people in, like YouTube meetups and different things like that, kind of having something that’ll always be active outside. It’s kind of cool because … I guess different from most conventions, we’re going to have a lot of activities that are going to be happening outside.
And then most of the major attractions are going to be inside, on the stage. We have a full schedule from beginning to end, which includes the Shokugeki. It includes Ohana Feud, which is like Family Feud. We have the cosplay contest, and we’re going to be doing panel guests …
Gavin: From there, second floor, we have a lot more YouTube meetups, talking, just meeting people off to the side, coming in. And from there, they can go upstairs to the third floor, where we’ll have the main events with the guests, the panels talking, along with the vendors.
So we’ll try to move people up along as they come in. They’re going to go to one attraction, then be pulled to another attraction, and just keeping them flowing up and around to the entire area. And from there when they finally reach the third floor, from there they can go and explore the different rooms, and then also come back down or go back up. So we designed a flow that’s easy for the customers to look around.
And then there’s the wild card in the equation, something that’s never been attempted before on the local fandom circuit: the Hawaii Anime Awards, honoring local artists and businesses, YouTubers, and even anime itself. The evening awards show, hosted by Remy Zane and Rei Jun, will also feature a buffet-style dinner catered by UH-Manoa campus food provider Sodexo.
AO Fest organizers see the awards as an opportunity to showcase local talent and recognize their hard work in making the local community, well, the local community. Quincy Solano has organized his share of awards ceremonies over the past 9 years, honoring experts in business and social media, and he’s seen how awards have stimulated confidence and good feelings within a community, raising it up as a whole.
“Maybe there’s an artist that’s undiscovered, but by bringing them to the limelight, then all of a sudden they really feel confident in their skills,” Quincy said. “And I’ve just seen it — once it’s done and executed well, you just get a good feeling from throughout the community. Then people want to try out for next year, and then people are like, ‘Oh, how do I make it, then,’ they look at themselves like, ‘oh, maybe I just need to do better,’ like, ‘this is what I’m up against.'”
As for anyone wondering why AO Fest is debuting a local anime awards show now, Quincy asked in response: Why not?
“It’s never been done, we have the expertise to pull it off, and our venue is fiscally, financially within reason, range, so we can do something on a small scale, but make it big,” he said. “Start it off, make it big, expand it. If it does need work somewhere, it’s still small enough that we can adjust. We’re not going completely all out at the convention center or the Blaisdell and putting all this hype into it. But we’re starting small.
“It’s a really noticeable event, but we’re starting small to gain recognition and just to have people just try it out. If they want to try it out, OK; if they see it and they see that they want to try out next year, OK, we can add more to it, they can try out next year; and we can just continue it, on and on.”
If you’re interested in attending, you have a few more hours to buy tickets online at aofest.com; general admission is $30 ($35 at the door) or $50 with VIP seating. Cosplay cafe tickets ($10) and tickets for the Hawaii Anime Awards ($15 general seating only, as the awards dinner is sold out) are also available.
Oh, and one final note: AO Fest also happens to be on show host Kyuubikaze’s birthday. And he’s pretty excited about that.
“Me being host for it, it’s something that many people would dream about, you know, getting to host or even getting to work with or participate in an event that’s just starting, as such, so that’s one part to it,” he said. “The other part would be that I am a very hard-working social media influencer, and I know that I’m getting to see my close fans and my friends. I’m also expecting a lot of family there, too, because it is my birthday.
“Just seeing them all mingle together in a community that I’ve tried to grow into and sharing my interests with so many people, that whole aspect is what draws me to what I can expect the most from this.”