Monday, July 8, 2013

Reflections of a Normie: David Attends an Anime Convention

David recently went to an anime convention with his sister Erica, who is what those in the know would call an “otaku” (someone who really loves anime and other such things).  It took place over three days, and David attended one and one half of them – Friday night and all day Saturday.  During that time, he attended panels, judged a video contest, and cosplayed. This interview details his experience at the convention.  Keep in mind that David is not an otaku, though he really likes Miyazaki and some other anime he has seen.

So first of all, tell me about this specific convention – where was it and how many people were there?

This particular convention was called “Animinneapolis”, though it was hosted in Bloomington, MN at a large hotel/convention center for the first time this year due to increased attendance.  For a “mid-sized” convention, I was surprised to see what had to be well over 1,500 people there, with an estimated 75% in full cosplay.  Needless to say, it quickly became evident that this subculture is vibrant, large, and actively growing.  This particular hotel, for example, hosts at least three conventions like this throughout the year, and all are well attended.

With 75% in costume, your decision to cosplay probably helped you blend in.  What was the cosplay experience like and why did you do it?

Anime lovers have a word for non-anime lovers – “normies.”  I was at a panel on convention etiquette and they warned against using this “derogatory” term, but I find the term rather endearing, as it recognizes the oddities of the subculture while simultaneously celebrating them.  I can see how such terms could create an “us vs. them” mindset, but I think more people simply see it as a way to celebrate their own uniqueness.

That being said, I was glad I was in costume, hiding the fact that I was a “normie”.  I had made a decision to go on this adventure out of interest in my sister’s life, but also because subcultures in general interest me.  I figured that if I was going to study a subculture, I might as well go out and get the full experience.

And let me tell you, it was a lot of fun.  I chose a cosplay that I knew and that others would recognize (Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid video games, which I used to play religiously), and apparently it was a pretty good effort (thanks, Erica!), because I was asked for my picture more than any other day of my life, including my wedding day!  There was something satisfying about being stopped and complimented.  Such exchanges seemed to take three basic forms:

1) The compliphoto
Sneaky Snake.
“Oh my God, are you Snake!?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can I get your picture!?”
“Of course!”
Make Snake-like pose for picture.

2) The shout-out
- “Snaaaaaaake!” (A repeated line from the games which I did not know how to react to – it is, after all, a line you hear only when Snake dies.)
- “Love the cosplay, man.  Really nice job!”
- “Where’s your cardboard box??” (In-joke about the game.  I eventually found a box for some photos.)

3) The stop-and-talk
- “Have you heard about Metal Gear Solid 5?” (I had not beyond knowing a new trailer had been recently released.)
- “Would you ever cosplay Big Boss?” (Another MGS character.)
- “Has anyone ever told you look like Hawkeye from The Avengers?” (That would be Jeremy Renner, and this comment made me particularly happy because Renner has for years been my answer to the question of which celebrity would play me in a movie.)

Of course, while it was truly fun, not every part of the cosplay experience was enjoyable.  Just as I had an experience similar to a bride in being constantly stopped for pictures, I also experienced some other bride-like things – I was regularly adjusting my outfit and found it nearly impossibly complicated to take a crap.

Do you think you understand more the appeal of cosplay now?  Why do you think people cosplay?

Definitely.  I think people have a tendency to see cosplaying as pure escapism, but I saw few, if any, method actors in attendance.  Rather than escaping into a character, cosplaying seems to be about sharing; a way for convention-goers to say, “Hey, look at what I did!”

We all do this, whether it is in performing songs, making a meal, or writing a blog.  The desire to produce and display our creations is universal, so the cosplay phenomenon is no surprise, especially if you consider the convention context.  Not only does cosplaying mean you are actively participating in and contributing to the quality of the convention, but at a convention, it is assumed that other attendees share and appreciate your interests, so there need be no fear in displaying your “fandom.”

This is, perhaps, also why many traditionally socially awkward types find their way in to this particular subculture.  By wearing a cosplay, you proclaim your interests, and people instantly know something about you.  It is a way to communicate without words; a built-in conversation starter.   Plus, there is always the fun of spotting characters you know and love – a game that I failed miserably.  Luckily, I had my sister by my side to explain the many strange sites.

What were the oddest things you saw?

What had to be the oddest thing was what is called “furrydom.”  These cosplayers are not necessarily in costume as anyone in particular, but simply like to don full-body, furry costumes similar to what you would see at an amusement park or a high-school basketball game.  There was a panel on this practice meant to explain its appeal, but I was not able to attend, so I am still at a loss.  As these cosplayers have their face hidden and are not cosplaying recognizable characters, it is hard to think of reasons analogous to other cosplays for why people would do this.

What panels did you attend?  What did you find interesting and not so interesting about them?

Panels were almost entirely devoted to specific aspects of the anime culture.  There were fan-run panels meant to give crash-courses in specific series or mangas, anime voice-actor celebrity panels, instructional panels on relevant skills (makeup, drawing, voice acting), and comedy routines.  I went to a lot of panels so here I’ll give a lowlight, highlight, and favorite moment.

Lowlight: Disorganized Fan-Run Panels
These were usually devoted to specific “fandoms” and were attempts to convince others attendees to enjoy the things they have come to love, and also geek out with others who already share their love.  Unfortunately, most of these panels followed the same format: first, there was five minutes of cursory descriptions of an anime or manga, then there was five minutes of pleading to watch/read it, and then there was 50 painful minutes of struggling to fill space, mostly involving trying to remember and describe specific scenes or story arcs to support their arguments.

Highlight: Misogyny Panel
This panel proved that not all fan-run panels are so bad.  Run by a grad-student researching a paper, this panel focused on trends in women-written fan fiction.  The specific focus was on misogynistic trends in women-written “Yaoi” or “Slash” fan fiction.  This specific brand of fan-fiction involves writers making two straight male characters fall in love with one another.  It was a brainy reprieve from the rest of the happenings, and covered topics of contemporary feminism and gender roles.  It was compelling to hear both the concerns and rationalizations of those in attendance.  It would have been interesting to have similar discussions of other troubling aspects of anime culture – mainly the rampant objectification of women and the glorification of violence.

Favorite Moment: LittleKuriboh and Marianne Miller After Dark
Dave's first celebrity shout-out.  Badass indeed.
LittleKuriboh (real name of Martin Billany) creates YuGiOh! The Abridged Series and ran an informal panel with his wife and American voice actress Marianne Miller.  (Abridged series are shortened and exaggerated anime series re-voiced for comic effect, and Billany is behind one of the web’s best and most entertaining abridged series.)  Their late-night session was mostly fans asking provocative questions (“Do you two ever slip into character voices in the bedroom?”), but the highlight was when the panel ran out of time.  Billany and Miller decided to continue until told to stop, and as some in attendance began to leave, they took it as an opportunity to call attention to this.  When my sister and I decided to leave, Billany called out, “And where are you going Snake?”  I responded by ducking down snake-style and sneaking out.  As soon as I exited, I heard the voices of over 300 fans: “Snaaaaaaaaaake!!”

Alright, let’s switch gears.  Tell me about the video contest.  Describe what it was, what was your role?  What were your impressions?

I assisted my sister in running an AMV contest (Anime Music Video), participating as a judge and general helper.  AMVs consist of repurposed footage from various anime series set to music.  Prior to the convention, I watched 35 of these videos (averaging about four minutes a piece) and assessed them based on technical skill, creativity, and overall effect.

For the most part, I was impressed with what I saw, and most editors seemed to understand the importance of editorial rhythm.  Yet, I have to admit that after watching these 35 AMVs all over again at the convention, I have probably had my share of such videos for a long while.  As the videos more often than not rely on a prior knowledge of the footage to draw viewers in, I was mostly lost and found my mind wandering amidst of all the mayhem and sentiment. ("Best in Show" winner below.)

What was your overall impression of the people there?  What did you find good and bad about it?

David and his sister Erica, enjoying a much needed drink.
If there was anything I would take away from the experience, it is that this subculture is filled with people who may seem strange on the outside, but are much like everyone else on the inside.  People generally search for community, and conventions are a way to facilitate this community.  There is something appealing in having commonality in groups, and conventions such as this are a way for people with specifically defined interests to convene in the comfort of peers.  Chat forums and online gaming do not, it seems, eliminate the deeper desire to make personal connections face to face (even if that face is covered in makeup and topped with an oversized wig).

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