Kool Kat of the Week: Jason Merrill Talks Japan Retro at Anime Weekend Atlanta – Jazz, Swing-Dancing, Tuxedos, Burlesque, Giant Rubber Monsters and Much More

DragonCon may be Atlanta’s best known and biggest pop culture convention, but this weekend more than 10,000 Japanese anime fans will descend on Cobb Galleria Centre and the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel next door for Anime Weekend Atlanta (AWA). The four-day pop culture convention kicks off tonight and runs through Sunday afternoon (Sept. 29-Oct. 2,2011).

While all ages attend, the AWA crowd tends toward the young (predominantly high school and college) and effusively enthusiastic in their costuming and passion for anime (for the uninitiated, a uniquely Japanese genre of animated TV shows and movies). Go, SPEED RACER aside, you might not think there’s much Retro about AWA. However, while some kids do go to lock themselves up in a room and watch anime 24 hours a day, thanks to the creativity of the con’s organizers, such as Event Director Jason Merrill, even casual anime fans like us can have a great time. After all, where/when else in Atlanta can you pretend you’re shopping a Tokyo flea market for vintage kimonos and Godzilla and Ultraman toys without spending a fortune on a plane ticket, as well as enjoy live concerts with bands from Japan, a burlesque show, a black-tie ballroom dance with a string quartet and a Saturday night vintage jazz Bebop Lounge?!

ATLRetro recently caught up with Jason to find out not only why anime has such a passionate following but also to get the full scoop on the many fabulous Retro connections and happenings at AWA. To find times and locations for the many fun things he mentions, check out the full weekend schedule here or download the new AWA app for Apple iPhone/iPad or an Android browser version.

How did Anime Weekend Atlanta get started, and how does today’s AWA compare to your early days discovering and enjoying anime?

My brother, Dave Merrill, and I grew up watching PRINCE PLANET, SPEED RACER, STAR BLAZERS, ULTRAMAN and SPACE GIANTS. It was hard to find new items unless you had the right connections. Dave got very active in the tape trading and convention communities so he had a steady stream of new and unusual anime to watch. He and his friends used to gather at my parents home to watch anime. That group became the fan club Anime X, which later threw the first Anime Weekend Atlanta, 17 years ago. I have to admit, I’m kind of glad they decided to throw an actual convention, because I don’t think my parent’s family room could survive this kind of thing.

The difference is night and day. Just the technology alone has made the entire experience so far removed from the old days. We would get untranslated anime on fifth-generation videotapes with bad tracking issues months (if not years) after the show first ran. So keeping up with the action would take a lot of effort. Now shows appear subtitled within a week of the original air date.

At first glance, AWA might seem to be all about the latest Japanese animation and manga, but that’s not so. There’s plenty for people who like vintage series, too, isn’t there, such as a couple of voice actors for the original STAR BLAZERS?

Amy Howard Wilson, who was the voice of Nova in STAR BLAZERS is one of our favorite guests.  From Japan, we have Naoko Matsui who voiced Azusa Shiratori in the classic RANMA 1/2 (and was the Japanese voice of Daphne on FRAZIER).

Other VAs this year include Todd Haberkorn (Death the Kid from SOUL EATER), Brina Palencia (Ciel Pahntomhive in BLACK BUTLER), Vic Mignogna (Edward Elric in FULL METAL ALCHEMIST) .

Retro anime isn’t the only thing that’s Retro about AWA. At the Saturday night Bebop Lounge, the soundtrack is mid-century jazz from Dizzy Gillespie to Eartha Kitt, and attendees are encouraged to dress in ’40s/’50s formalwear. Isn’t that your baby, what it like and how does it fit into an anime con?

Several years ago someone asked us to theme the Ball around the jazzy Sci-Fi Anime COWBOY BEBOP. That would not work for a formal ballroom dance… but it was perfect for an alternative to the Saturday Night techno dance. So the “Bebop Lounge” was born. We have a packed house of folks dancing to big band swing and other mid-century jazz or just hanging out enjoying the atmosphere. This is our fifth year and it seems to get more popular all the time. It’s one of the few events where we really have to kick people out of the room when we shut down for the night. It’s my chance to relax on Saturday night (and to keep me out of the way of the concerts, dances, karaoke and other higher energy events).

Indeed, the kids also dress up for the AWA Ball, on Friday night which features a live string quartet playing ballroom music and anime themes. We’ve never heard of anything like that at DragonCon, so are black-tie ballroom events a fixture of anime cons or is this unique to AWA? How did that get started?

Ten years ago a group put on a FINAL FANTASY ball at AWA, duplicating an event featured in one of the games. It was far more popular that we had anticipated. The next year someone else ran the event at AWA, but the lack of dress code enforcement and no set playlist meant the Ball became just another convention dance. I offered to host the next year as an experiment. From the comments, it seemed like the audience wanted an actual formal ballroom dance, so that is what I gave them. Eight years later, it’s become one of our signature events. Other conventions have formals, but they all miss the target in one or more areas. We enforce a Black Tie dress code, while allowing for formal cosplay. We have a live string quartet and a ballroom dance instructor/DJ who alternate sets. One of the reasons it works is the fact the attendees really go all out. We like to think of it as the premiere social event of the convention season. The Ball is a ticketed event ($30 at the door), but that helps us maintain the elegant atmosphere so important to the event.

Japanese cinema isn’t just known for anime but also giving birth to an iconic post-Atom bomb monster live-action oeuvre called kaiju eiga, of which the most famous examples are, of course, the GODZILLA films. What will fans of kaiju eigu find to indulge their passion at AWA?

We have Shane Morton coming to talk about his Kaiju experiences while walking the audience through making a monster suit. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with! We have several blocks of live action programming in our video rooms, and the Dealer’s Room always has more Kaiju models and merchandise for the discerning collector.

Many J-Pop bands take their sound from Western rock genres such as mod, garage, glam, punk, etc. Could you tell us a little about the two bands that are playing this year and how their sounds relate to Retro musical trends?

Moon Stream is fronted by Satsuki (vocals) and Tomo (guitar) who both started their careers in “Visual Kei” bands. That style blends glam rock, punk and metal to make its own distinctive blend of Japanese rock and roll. They are the ultimate collaboration of Japanese aesthetics with American flavor.

THE SUZAN are a Japanese all-girl band formed by Rie(Key&G), Saori(Vo&G), Nico(Dr) and Ikue(Ba)-self proclaimed “riot-girls.” They gathered as a band in 2004 after sisters Rie and Saori had created a unique sound more influenced by the dislike of what they heard in Japanese Pop music. The music THE SUZAN plays is an absolutely original sound that takes in every kinds of music; Pop, Wild dance, Punk, Garage Rock, and so on.

Both bands promise to deliver the high energy Japanese rock and roll that AWA fans have come to appreciate year, after year. We also have Sony Music Japan presenting a video concert followed by a live video conference with one of their acts from Japan.

Our Saturday Night Dance features DJ Auptimus, DJ Pixel8 and from DDR fame: DM AShura. They promise to deliver the best high-energy dance night filled with all the flashing lights, thumping beats and anime/game music remixes you could ask for…  And on Friday night, the Video Art Track hosts their usual Anime Music Video dance, while on Saturday it’s taken over by Wasabi Anime hosting the Cosplayback: Revenge of the Eighties! Dance.

The AWA dealers’ room isn’t limited to anime, manga and related memorabilia. Can you share a few examples of some of the other amazing stuff for sale, especially things that Retro shoppers will like, such as vintage kimonos and classic American movie posters?

There are several kimono and poster dealers along with a wide variety of vintage merchandise. Over 100 Dealers provide a one-stop shop for everything from vintage cels, classic toys and merchandise, gaming items, and probably the widest variety of cosplay accessories anywhere.

A gothic design by h.NAOTO.

Thursday night we offer a treat for our preregistered members who are already on site: SupperHappyFunSale is our anime fan garage sale. Plenty of retro bargains to be had, as fans from all over the country come in early to buy, sell and trade their treasures. Get your laserdisc and VHS fix on Thursday as the bargains go fast…

The Japanese clothing company h.Naoto is bringing in two of their designers, IBI & MINT. The h.Naoto Fashion Show on Saturday will showcase their latest creations. And one of the benefits of being in the Galleria is that we can use some of the Mall space for unique events. We will be hosting Frill, a pop-up Lolita boutique in one of the unused storefronts leading to the Hotel. They have all kinds of events planned for their clientele for Saturday and Sunday.

What else might Retro Revival fans enjoy at AWA? Polite tea-drinking at Maid Café? Sat. night rock and roll party? Wasn’t there even a burlesque show last year?

We have the Art of AKIRA exhibit appearing all weekend, with cels from the classic anime on display.

Our ever popular Maid Café has expanded to all four days this year, with Friday night’s edition being a Cosplay version. Our Maids & Butlers will be dressed as their favorite characters as they serve coffee, tea, desserts while playing games with the customers. The rest of the weekend will find them in their traditional uniforms. The Café runs Friday 5-7, Sat 12-3, and Sun 12-3. Saturday afternoon sees the Café taken over by the Ouran High School Host Club. Those characters will entertain the attendees from 4-6. Sunday we have our traditional afternoon tea starting at 4pm. It’s the perfect way to wind down from the hectic weekend, sipping tea and swapping stories with other attendees. All the café events are $15 per person extra (with a $5 discount during the tea for those properly dressed for the occasion). And if things work as planned, I will take a shift once the Café opens on Saturday…


AWA's Imperial Maid Cafe staff. Photo courtesy of AWA.

The Anime Cabaret is back again, this year taking over the Main Events Stage after the costume contest. Some of the best local burlesque talent (led by Stormy Knight) will again heat up the stage as your favorite anime characters. We also have the “Last

Stormy Knight. Photo courtesy of Stormy Knight.

Change Myu” group presenting a SAILOR MOON musical on Saturday. And Dave is going to do a version of his “Old School Classroom” for those early birds hanging out Thursday night after the SupperHappyFunSell is over. He will show classic black and white anime from his impressive collection of tapes and discs. Stone Age Mecha [handles] all your classic Giant Robot needs. Spooky Classic Anime covers ‘60’s and ‘70s horror shows like GEGEGE NO KITARO.

If the Ball isn’t your thing, Friday night has our famous block of comedy: “Totally Lame Anime” (the worst we can find), “Japanese Animation Hell” (video odds and ends that grew out of the tape-trading culture and the twisted mind of Dave Merrill) and “Midnight Madness” (parody dubbing from the masters).

Jason Merrill happily going black-tie at AWA.

How did you personally first discover anime and what attracted you to it?

My first memory is of PRINCE PLANET, which ran when we lived in Chicago around 1970. When we moved back down to Atlanta, we discovered SPEED RACER and STAR BLAZERS. The world was never the same after that. The whole aesthetic was so different from what US cartoons were like. The pacing was faster and the stories deeper. Once I got pulled in, it was hard to go back to the standard American fare.

What is your favorite old-school anime show and why?

I have to admit I always liked the humor and slapstick in RANMA 1/2.

What do you do when you’re not planning AWA, wearing a tux and listening to jazz?

My day job is that of a database developer. In my free time I… wait a minute. This is my free time. I wish I had free time, but AWA is practically another full-time job.

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One Response to “Kool Kat of the Week: Jason Merrill Talks Japan Retro at Anime Weekend Atlanta – Jazz, Swing-Dancing, Tuxedos, Burlesque, Giant Rubber Monsters and Much More”

  1. Julian
    on Sep 21st, 2014
    @ 6:34 am

    What a grand journey for you, K.T. and Bill! I’ll be in Atlanta this sumemr . my son Stephen moved there from Hawaii . soooo where is this terrific garden???? Are you traveling north of San Francisco to see our lovely Japanese garden in Seattle? I went to a tea ceremony there and the whole experience of the garden and the ceremony was so special! How about the Japanese Garden in Portland? It’s also VERY beautiful!!! I’m enticing you!!!!!

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