Miscellanea and Ephemeron
04/06/2008 Archived Entry: "Con Report: Sakura-Con 2008"
Convention Report: Sakura-Con 2008
By Tom Good
What does an anime convention feel like? Like the opposite of being in an elevator. Take that mysterious force that makes elevator passengers silently ignore each other, reverse it, turn it up to 11, turbocharge it, and you've got something like an anime convention. At Sakura-Con, people smile and give high-fives to passing strangers, they form giant glomp circles, admire each other's costumes and happily pose for pictures. It's a beautiful thing to see. But where does it come from? Could the secret be something about anime itself?
Anime insists that young people have value right now. Not in five or ten years, not after they finish school, get a job and buy a house, but now. They'd better jump into that giant mech and save the Earth today, because the alien invasion fleet won't wait! The radical thing about anime is not the mechs, monsters, or magic; no, it's the idea that society can turn to young people for solutions instead of just blaming them for problems. And in many anime stories, characters discover surprising potential within themselves: some special talent, magic, or destiny. The characters aren't perfect, but they surpass expectations (including their own) in some important way.
What does this have to do with Sakura-Con? Conventioneers usually stay at cheap hotels in the area to be close to the action. The convention succeeds partly because attendees become valued participants in a culture where they can explore, develop, and share their talents -- whether that involves costuming, art, music, photography, writing, or any other part of the vast world of anime and manga. The cosplay contest, where fans take the stage to show off their handmade costumes and perform their own skits, is one of the biggest events of the weekend. People show up to create and become part of Sakura-Con, not just to watch it.
In some ways the convention is a fantastic three day party with many thousands of guests. And as at all great parties, people discover how much fun they can have together. This may seem like something that just happens naturally, but the convention organizers and staff deserve a lot of credit for creating a good environment and treating people well. As Simon Young of the band The Slants commented, " . . . the staff spoiled us more than anyone else ever has before."
Concert: The Slants
The Slants are a Portland, Oregon band that says Sakura-Con was "definitely the largest stage that we've ever played on." Their recorded music has an 80's synth-pop sound that reminds me of Duran Duran, but in the live performance they had more of a hard rock vibe. Their act was kind of wild, and included climbing up onto the giant speakers at the side of the stage. Apparently, they were later asked not to repeat this bit of acrobatics, but it was fairly impressive and added to the excitement.
Scandal said in a panel discussion that they didn't expect so many people to come to their show -- they are just high school girls, so it was amazing and didn't seem real. Sitting in the audience at their show, I felt amazed too, but for a different reason: I couldn't believe that a new and unknown indie band, high school girls from Osaka on their first-ever tour, could play with such confidence and professionalism. This concert, by a band that has yet to release a full-length CD, was pure fun from start to finish. I've seen concerts by famous acts that were disappointing by comparison. It was like watching unknown high school baseball players step up to the plate in a major league game and hit one home run after another.
Scandal plays power pop that reminds me of Avril Lavigne or Green Day. Their arrangements feature some nice syncopation and vocal harmonies. The band says they've been influenced by groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Ramones, Libertines, Sum 41, and Kiss. They observed that they got a "totally different" reaction from crowds in America compared to those in Japan. Whereas the more reserved Japanese fans enjoy the concert more "within themselves," American audiences come together and react to the concert "as one."
Well, it didn't take long for the Sakura-Con crowd to warm up to Scandal, and when the set ended the fans weren't at all ready to leave. I've never seen a convention crowd start screaming for an encore so quickly and enthusiastically. The band returned to huge applause and performed what turned out to be their first-ever encore. The next day at their press conference, they said their recent performance at SXSW had also gotten a great reaction, but here it was even bigger and better.
I asked them what their musical backgrounds were before starting the band. Given the quality of their performance, I expected that they had studied music for many years. Instead, they said that the band had just started a year and a half ago. At first I thought there was a translation problem, or that they had misunderstood the question. I asked again to clarify and got the same reply. Confused, I said to the translator, "Are they really saying they hadn't ever played an instrument before a year and a half ago? How can that be? They are so good." He said, "Yes, that's right. It surprised me too." Even considering that they practice for hours every day, it is still kind of hard to believe.
For me, Scandal was the biggest surprise and greatest discovery of the convention. I liked them so much, I went to see them a second time on Sunday. They were great again, and I found myself thinking, "this must be what it's like to see a band like Nirvana when they are just starting out and haven't become famous yet." Later, I noticed an online forum post with the title "Frustrated by Scandal." I thought, oh, so there were also people who saw Scandal and didn't like them? But when I read the details it turned out to be someone frustrated at not being able to buy a Scandal CD immediately. That I can certainly understand.
Concert: Ketchup Mania
Ketchup Mania, from Tokyo, won the award for "Best Japanese Punk Group" in Shojo Beat magazine's 2007 music issue. They put on an energetic show, fronted by their charismatic singer Hiro. The band sings in Japanese, but with very noticeable stress accenting of certain syllables, which is interesting because Japanese is not a stress accented language, though English is. In effect, the Japanese singing sounds just a little bit more like English than ordinary Japanese speech does. Other Japanese bands do this too, in fact Scandal also does it, but I had never consciously noticed the phenomenon until this year's Sakura-Con. Perhaps it came from Japanese artists listening to Western rock music and absorbing the rhythms of the vocals, kind of like the way that some American bands sound like they have a British accent when they sing.
Concert: Ali Project
After the guitar-based sound of the other bands, Ali Project provided a nice change of pace with an orchestral-techno sound that included two violinists on stage. Sakura-Con was their first-ever appearance outside Japan, but because they have recorded many different anime theme songs, they instantly connected with the crowd. After the frantic fun of the other concerts, at first this act seemed a bit subdued. But then the dancers joined in, putting on a kabuki-style drag show that livened things up considerably. (Kabuki began as a female-only format, then soon switched to being exclusively male, so the form inherently contains cross-dressing, much like the English theater in Shakespeare's time.)
Sometimes a dance is just a room full of people hopping up and down, but this one had style and substance: the dancers had some really good moves. Some of the guys weren't in anime costumes, so they wouldn't have stood out during the day, but the dance was their time to shine. One guy had made a glow-stick nunchaku and was whipping it around with real skill like a raver Bruce Lee. Others waved flashing lights or glowing bars in cool patterns, and some break dancers displayed their abilities.
Guest: Caitlin Glass
Caitlin Glass, a voice actress and director known for roles in shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, Gunslinger Girl, and School Rumble, talked to fans about becoming a voice actress at Funimation. She also said that Winry from Fullmetal Alchemist was the biggest challenge among her characters, because she goes through so many emotional situations and has such highs and lows. "Going in to record was like spending time with Winry," she said, and it became like having Winry as a friend. Asked about future anime she would like to appear in, she mentioned Romeo x Juliet.
One audience member raised his hand, and his question for Ms. Glass turned out to be, "will you marry me?" Her deadpan response: "I don't know dude, what does the ring look like?" He reached into his pocket, approached the front of the room, and presented her with something. She laughed and said, "For those of you too far away to see it, this is a key ring!" She then tried it on and proclaimed it to be too big.
Movie premiere: Vexille
When a villain pulls out a knife and cuts off his own leg in order to make an escape, you know he's not just a minor villian, but a guy who's really taking his life of crime seriously. That's just one of the many memorable images in Vexille, a science fiction action movie directed by Fumihiko Sori, who also directed Appleseed. This movie combines computer generated graphics with an anime aesthetic, and contains spectacular lighting effects that make each frame look like a HDR photo. But by smoothing the textures and reducing details on areas like faces, the artists keep the style anime-like, and avoid entering the "uncanny valley," the effect where computer generated faces that are too photorealistic start to look creepy and unappealing.
Vexille borrows ideas from many sources such as Akira, Dune, The Matrix, and Ghost in the Shell. This means that it doesn't have a completely original plot, but then again few action movies do. What it does have is a stunning look, with lighting that often looks like something from a Rembrandt painting. Go see it for the brilliant visuals, and the music by Paul Oakenfold.
Sakura-Con 2009 will be held April 10-12 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, Washington. 2008 proved that Sakura-Con just keeps getting bigger and better, so if you get a chance to go next year, I'd highly recommend it, and I'll see you there.
Click here for ALL the Sakuracon 2008 pictures by Tom Good and Gregor Torrence. You'll be glad you did!
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