Convention Report: AM2

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On July 1-3, the new convention AM2 (Animation, Manga, and Music) took place at the Anaheim Convention Center. The convention had an unusual model where the events had free admission, but convention-goers could optionally purchase a “Passport” that would allow them to have priority seating at main events and concerts. This is a great system, because it encourages people who may not have been to an anime convention before to give it a try. From the lengths of some of the lines that were specifically for pass holders, quite a lot of people bought passes. AM2 announced that they had over 8,000 unique attendees over the three day period.

We arrived on Friday morning and the line for registration was very short. We got our passes within 5 or 10 minutes, and although we had press badges, we got them from the same location that other people got their passports, so I think this short wait was typical. When I asked some of the fans how long it took them to get their passes, they confirmed this.

Events were spread out over the large convention center area, which did not feel very full. This was nice in that it was easy to get around quickly, without feeling trapped in a huge crowd. But the drawback, I think, was a feeling of somewhat less excitement and activity compared with some conventions that had fewer people, but a denser population in a smaller area. This year AM2 took place at the same time as Anime Expo, which must have reduced attendance, but AM2 staff mentioned that they do not intend to have the schedules conflict again if they can avoid it. Next year if fans do not have to choose between two conventions, attendance should increase dramatically.

Schedules were available online and also as an interactive schedule through the “Ani.me” iPhone app. I like having an iPhone app based schedule because I won’t lose it, and it’s nice to be able to use the interactive features like browsing events by category. However there were a few details missing from this app that I’ve seen in others, such as the ability to show both the start time and length of the events instead of just the start time. Maybe that can be improved for next year.

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I took my Nintendo 3DS along to AM2 because it has a feature called Street Pass, where it will exchange data with other 3DS owners when you get into close enough proximity, and their avatars will appear on your 3DS and become available for mini-games. I expected that at an event like this there would probably be plenty of other video game fans who would try the same thing. By the end of the weekend I had collected over 30 new avatars from people at the convention, including one person from Tokyo (users can optionally supply information about where they are from). The Street Pass feature can also be configured to send a very short message along with the avatar, and I noticed that some people used this to broadcast the name of their Twitter or DeviantArt account.

The fashion shows and concerts seemed like the main attractions for many people. Things got started with the fashion shows from Hangry & Angry and Sixh. The lighting for these shows really confused me. Often the models were in near darkness, back lit, or lit with oddly colored dim lights. Worst of all, sometimes the lights from on the stage were aimed directly into the seating area, blinding the audience. This made it hard to see and appreciate the clothing. I think anyone who wanted a good look at the fashions would have been better off going to the dealers hall and seeing some of it there.

The visual-kei band “heidi” performed next, and unfortunately it had the same blind-the-audience approach to lighting as the previous shows, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, and people got very excited. I heard that one group of fans rushed to the stage near the beginning of the concert. This caused an incident where, according to AM2 representatives on the forums, the convention center threatened to call the police and shut down the convention if they perceived anything like a “riot” taking place. AM2 then made the fans sit down for the remainder of the concert, and for all other concerts they announced new rules: standing was allowed but nobody could leave the immediate area of their seat.

Of course AM2 had to act quickly to prevent the convention from possibly being shut down, and concern for safety is very important, but I can’t help wondering if a few people had overreacted to this. I was sitting near the center, only a few rows back from the stage, and at no time did I notice anything that seemed all that unusual for what a crowd would normally do during a rock concert. I certainly did not notice anything resembling a “riot.” Maybe I have different standards, since I’ve been to some very rowdy concerts where the crowd’s behavior was truly wild, but in my experience, the fact that people would stand up and try to press closer to the stage during a rock concert is completely normal, and fans would not have necessarily known that doing so would cause any problem. In the end, there was a perception of a potential problem, and it was handled reasonably, but I don’t think anyone should have anything to fear from the crowds at these concerts.

Kanon Wakeshima also performed, both as a solo act and also as part of the debut of the duo “kanon x kanon,” where she performed together with the bassist “Kanon.” (Because they are both named “Kanon” their panel had a funny “Who’s on First?” quality to it at times.) Her music combines cello with vocals and goth/pop/rock influences, and it reminded me of the American violinist and singer Emilie Autumn. During the break between Kanon Wakeshima’s solo performance and the “kanon x kanon” concert, they showed an instructional video for a dance called “Otage” which involved swinging glow sticks around. Later the crowd was invited to dance along with this and the performers even tossed some glow sticks out to the crowd. Starting with these performances, and continuing with all the rest that I attended after that, the lighting improved and did not detract from the show. (We asked about the lighting at a feedback session and were told that AM2 does not have much control over the lighting issues, because each performer does whatever they want.)

Throughout the convention I monitored the #am2 hashtag on Twitter to get more information about what was going on. Towards the end of the “kanon x kanon” concert, the band REOG sent me a message on Twitter, inviting me to come downstairs to see them next, after the “kanon x kanon” concert ended. I was impressed that they would take the time to send me a personal invitation, so we went down to see them perform on the festival stage. I had not heard them before, but they turned out to be a really good indie metal band, and I was glad I got to hear them. The amount of good music available was amazing for a free convention.

REOG at AM2

I went to one of the anime screening rooms to watch an anime called “Fairy Tale.” Unfortunately, they were trying to stream the show over the internet and were having bandwidth problems, and this made the show stop and start so much that it was unwatchable. The anime looked promising but I gave up and left. Other screenings I attended did not have this problem, though.

The movie Bunraku proved to be a very popular screening, and we got there just in time to get some of the last seats in the last row. The show started out with spectacular opening credits that incorporated elements of puppetry, origami, and animation. I wished that the stye and techniques of the opening credits had continued the entire time. The live-action portion of the movie was fun, but didn’t interest me nearly as much as the opening. I only stayed for the first hour because I needed to get to the World Cosplay Summit Preliminaries, which started before the movie ended.

Apparently a rumor had gone around that Gackt, one of the stars of the movie, would be a surprise special guest at the screening. This was not the case, and some fans were angry and felt they had been misled. This caused some controversy and I heard a lot of people talking about it, and also saw posts about this on the AM2 forums. AM2 said that they had announced that “a surprise guest” or “industry guests” would be there but not named a specific person, and there were other industry guests there.

My favorite screening was for a movie called Mai Mai Miracle, produced by studio Madhouse and directed by Sunao Katabuchi. Both the director, Katabuchi, and also the head of studio Madhouse, Masao Maruyama, were special guests at the convention, and they hosted a Q&A session after the screening. The movie tells the story of a group of children in a small town in Japan in 1955, and their connection to the people who lived in the same place a thousand years earlier. It is beautifully animated and also a touching story.

In an earlier panel, Katabuchi mentioned that reactions in Japan had been polarized between viewers who thought that “nothing happened” in this movie and those who thought that “so much happened.” He said that things in the film will resonate with you because they remind you of things in your own life, and so everyone will see something different in it and have different parts that they like best. I found that it really reminded me of my own childhood a lot, even though I grew up in the U.S., and at a literal level my childhood had very little in common with that of the characters. But Mai Mai Miracle transcends the facts of its story about a few people in a particular town, to touch on universal human experiences.

In the Q&A session after the film, Katabuchi revealed that the film had been considered a flop on its opening weekend in Japan, but people who saw it and liked it spread the word, especially via Twitter. Its popularity grew, and it wound up running in the theaters for over a year despite its opening weekend. He also said that they had held a special screening of the film outdoors in a large field in the town where the story takes place, so viewers could look up behind the screen and see the exact same hills that appear on screen. That sounded like an incredible way to make an already charming film even more appealing.

Though a lot of people attended this screening at AM2, relatively few stayed for the Q&A afterwards. I found this surprising. How often does one get an opportunity to see such a great film and then immediately talk with the director about it? But this felt like part of a larger pattern at AM2. Though many people showed up in cosplay and seemed to be having a good time, and major events were well attended, the depth of fan participation and excitement did not reach the levels of what I’ve come to expect at other conventions like Sakura-Con and Kumoricon.

Of course, it isn’t fair to expect a first-year convention to inspire the same levels of passion as one that has developed a cult following over many years. What I saw at AM2 looked like the initial seeds that can grow into a dedicated fan base. I met a lot of interesting and outgoing people there, so there is certainly no problem with the type of people who attended; I think it will just take time for AM2 to create the sense of community that other conventions have formed.

World Cosplay Summit Preliminaries

AM2 hosted a preliminary round of the World Cosplay Summit, with the grand prize being a trip to Japan to represent the U.S.A in the finals. The judges said that the level of cosplay craftsmanship was very high all around, and so they made their decision based on the performance. First place went to Ali and Ashe of Fox Gloves, for their XXXHolic cosplay. They had done an intricately choreographed dance to complement their costumes. I would have expected an event like this to be a main attraction, but it was in a fairly small room. It felt like more people came for the concerts than for cosplay events.

In the final event of the convention, the Japanese all-female band SCANDAL performed on Sunday night, with people lining up over 3 hours in advance to see them. It seemed like most (maybe even all) of the people who wanted to go to this concert got in, so the lines were mainly about getting better seats. I had seen SCANDAL before and been very impressed. They were just as good as I remembered, and the crowd loved them. It was a great ending to the convention.

All in all, AM2 offered a huge amount of high quality entertainment for free. The “free or pay for premium” model seems like a great idea, and I hope they can be successful with this and continue to have that choice available in the future. There were some rough edges, but that’s expected for a first-time event, and AM2 was very responsive to feedback both online and in person. It has a lot of potential, and I’m very curious to see what it will be like if it is held at a time that doesn’t conflict with another convention in the same area.

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