Convention Report: Sakura-Con 2009

by Tom Good
Photography by Gregor Torrence and Tom Good

“I like getting to hug people.” That’s how one young woman answered the question, “what do you like best about Sakura-Con?”

“What is it about an anime convention that allows you to hug people?” I asked.

“It feels like we’re all one big family,” she said.

The convention keeps growing, with this year’s member count at 16,586 — up from 13,600 last year — and a “turnstile” count of 45,560 for the weekend. Can 16,000 people really feel like a family? Yes, at Sakura-Con they can. The convention takes its name from the Japanese word for cherry blossoms, which fits well with the blossoming anime subculture.

The outdoor “glomp circle” (an activity like spin-the-bottle, but with hugs) grew so large that with only one bottle, people would have faced a long wait for their turn to arrive. Logically, the solution was to add more bottles, and so sometimes 6 or more bottles twirled at once. A different sort of crowd might have split the large circle into many smaller circles with 1 bottle each, but that wouldn’t have shown the inclusive spirit of one giant circle.

More than just the rising numbers, Sakura-Con showcases the growing sophistication and maturity of the anime scene. As a subculture presents itself with more and more confidence, poise, and artistry, its members start to look like ambassadors for a set of ideals that outsiders have not yet achieved.

“This is better than a show,” said a man in a nearby restaurant. “Watching these people, this is great!” Another woman said she “felt like a tourist in her own town today.” I think this meant that the anime fans seemed like the ones who were the comfortable, confident native inhabitants.

Indeed, the convention-goers quickly took over the “normal” role and made everyone else seem, if not out of place, then at least lacking in imagination. When several people in swimsuits stepped into the hotel elevator at the Sheraton, for a split second I wondered which characters they were supposed to be, then realized they were really just on the way to the pool.

Some costumes were funny, others just gorgeous, with new surprises around every corner.


High-Five Monogatari, or The Night of 1001 High-Fives

After the 20th consecutive high-five from a stranger, it started to become a mind-altering experience. It all began when I stood by the entrance to the dance on Saturday night, to take some photos of people walking in. But as soon as the line started to move, a couple of guys said, “Dude! High-five!” and gave me a high-five as they walked past. Seeing that, a few more people behind them did the same thing. I looked out at the giant line snaking off into the distance, and wondered: if I kept my hand up, would I get to high-five every person in line? As it turned out, most people were up for it, and even enthusiastic.

(The custom of high-fiving strangers at Sakura-Con began before this incident. Last year some people did it on the convention center’s escalators, for example. And this year one participant identified herself online as “high five girl.”)

I got hundreds and hundreds of high-fives that night, which is a very funny and wonderful feeling. Some people went all out with a firm smack, others lightly patted my palm, and one person even head-butted my hand. By the end my arm ached from holding it aloft for so long, but by then I couldn’t consider giving up before the last person went by. I had more high-fives that night than in the whole rest of my life combined. If more people realized how much fun this is, there would be high-fivers at every line at every event. Now the secret is out.


Dancing

The dancing followed the familiar pattern of Sakuracon in general: people display considerable skill and artistry, but in a way that is inspiring rather than intimidating, so everyone feels welcome to participate. After seeing some mind-boggling great dancing, one might ordinarily think “that’s a tough act to follow,” and become reluctant to take the floor. But some dancers made an effort to encourage others into the circle to show off some moves, and it was clearly all about having fun. It’s amazing how it only takes a few people to do this instigating, but it can change the mood of the whole room.

There were lightstick twirlers, breakdancers, shufflers, giant conga lines, and at one point a group started a limbo dance and even a high jump.

(See more of our Sakura-Con dance pictures at Flickr: Photoset 1 | Photoset 2)


Concert: Hangry & Angry

According to their promotional materials, Hangry & Angry “came from the H44 Star Nebula in order to save the world from global warming.” I expected them to look good (and they did), but I wasn’t sure how they would sound. The sound quality of the compressed music on their Myspace page was not that impressive, though the songs seemed fun. (It turns out that the iTunes samples are better quality.) In concert they sounded much better than those samples, and the music was very danceable J-Pop. They definitely had a style and stage presence that was perfect for Sakura-Con. I’d recommend their song “Angelia.”


Concert: Smile.dk

Smile.dk is a Swedish dance/pop group best known in the U.S. for their songs in the video game hit Dance Dance Revolution. They released their first album in Japan in 1998 and the song “Butterfly” became a huge hit. It was used as a theme for a weekly TV series, and then Konami contacted them about using it in the first Dance Dance Revolution game.

They performed a concert on Friday, then played again during the “Starship Sakura” dance on Saturday night. Sakura-Con was their first visit to Seattle, and only the second time they had ever performed in the U.S. They went out for some local sushi, their favorite food. They said they liked to watch the Sailor Moon anime, and that they would love to come back to Sakura-Con again.

(See more of our Smile.dk photos on Flickr)


Concert: Myuji

Myuji is a Hawaiian-born musician who is known for his theme song “eX Dream” for the anime “X.” He has a very appealing, good-natured personality on stage, and his performance at Sakura-Con was well received.

(See more of our photos of Myuji on Flickr )


Concert: girugamesh

Japanese metal band girugamesh previously toured the Japan, the U.S. and Europe. After playing at Sakura-Con, they will go on their European “CRAZY TOUR 09” in May, then continue on to the “SUMMER EVOLUTION” tour in August and September of 2009.


Concert: The Slants

Portland, Oregon’s The Slants has become a regular performer at the Sakura-Con and Kumoricon anime conventions. They seemed comfortable on the giant stage at Sakura-Con this year.

(See more of our photos of The Slants on Flickr.)


Roland Kelts

Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded The U.S., hosted a panel about Japanese pop culture. He talked about how the “misreadings” of one culture by another can increase the attraction between the two, and noted that an artful or beautiful misreading is not necessarily a bad thing. As an example, he explained that the largest anime convention in Tokyo does not allow amateur cosplay, and only the professional models hired by the exhibiting companies are allowed to attend in costume. But in America, he said, a rule like that would be disastrous for an anime convention.

He mentioned that Sakuracon had set an attendance record this year, but that almost every anime convention he goes to in the U.S. has had increasing attendance. Meanwhile, the sales of actual anime DVDs have fallen, so increased interest does not necessarily translate into increased sales.


Yoshitoshi Abe

Anime creator Yoshitoshi Abe, who has been involved with projects such as Serial Experiments Lain and Texhnolyze, explained that he is working on a new video game for the Nintendo Wii called Martyr to Duty, which will be released in Japan within the year, and he hopes for a U.S. release to follow. The player takes the role of a policeman who gets killed in the line of duty. It is designed as kind of parody of a popular drama in Japan.

Apparently in this game there is no way to avoid dying, instead the question is whether or not your character’s death accomplishes something worthwhile. When your “fate meter” decreases to a certain point, you have to use the Wii remote to take out the criminal with your last strength. If you “die well,” your remaining power will move on to your partner, and in this way you can progress through a series of 12 characters.


The Costumes
Naruto and Death Note remained popular for cosplay this year, but there is so much variety that no single anime dominates the costumes. I was excited to see a bunch of Sgt. Frog cosplayers and a cool Hellsing “shadow arm” costume. The cosplay contest featured a lot of dancing, including a nice ballet sequence; it was great to see the diversity of talent.


(See more of our cosplay photos on Flickr: Photoset 1 | Photoset 2 | Photoset 3 )


Changes This Year

The organizers made some clever changes this time around. The large fourth floor hall that held the exhibitor booths last year became the main concert and dance venue this year. In previous years when the concerts and dances were up on the sixth floor, the whole floor sometimes shook and bounced under the weight of all the energetic fans. Exciting, yet a bit scary. The fourth floor hall felt more solid and secure during the big events. This year also featured more spots to buy food and drinks. Several temporary “mini-restaurants” were added to the convention center for Sakuracon, and the fans appreciated it.

The new location for the exhibitors was a large hall across the street, but still connected to the rest of the convention by a wide skybridge. The independent artists’ area was actually within the skybridge, which, made the “artists’ alley” feel like a very cool place. It put the artists in a prominent spot, while the main exhibitor hall felt as busy as ever, so it felt like a win-win situation.


Allison Theus

I always like discovering artists I didn’t know about before at conventions, and this year’s find was Allison Theus and her book, A Book of Mostly Creatures. Her amazing illustrations can be found at OblivionUnleashed.com and on her deviantART page.


Conclusions

Sakura-Con 2009 proved that the convention can grow while still keeping the qualities that make it special, in fact it can grow and improve at the same time. It has become the type of giant cheerful party that exists mainly in the movies, and is only rarely seen in real life. If you have a chance to go to the next one, even if it’s your first-ever anime convention, it’s an opportunity that you shouldn’t miss. And between now and then, I’ll look forward to seeing some of you at Kumoricon in Portland.


(All the Flickr Sets are here: Page 1 | Page 2)

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4 Responses to Convention Report: Sakura-Con 2009

  1. Pingback: Topics about Capones » Blog Archive » Convention Report: Sakura-Con 2009

  2. Linda Yau says:

    Ahh.. that last comment was for this post. But it looked like you had a good time.. ^_^

  3. Tom Good says:

    Linda – it was a great time. Smile.dk were very nice, I got to talk to them in the press room. Also they are really gorgeous close up and in person, maybe even more than the picture suggests. You asked which cameras we use. Gregor uses a Nikon D300, and I use a Panasonic DMC-FZ7.

    Tom

  4. Linda Yau says:

    ^_^ That’s great to hear… I liked how the concert pictures took. I am trying to see how my camera can go over the fact that concerts are in a darken arena. Did you have a speed light? I imagine it would be a similar thing at Otakon this year. They’re having a straight three days of concerts..

    -Linda

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