Convention Report: Sakura-Con 2012

Bronte and Jill arrive at the convention center

Sakura-Con is a three-day event that unofficially lasts four days, since so many people arrive on Thursday, the day before the convention starts. For some of us it lasted five days, because I drove from Portland to Seattle with two cosplayer friends on Thursday (Day 0), and we returned on Monday (Day 4, or Day +1 perhaps). Every bit of that trip felt like it was part of Sakura-Con, even the parts that occurred outside Seattle on days before or after the convention. For example, we continued taking photos and talking about anime, manga, art, food, video games, and music, even when we were in Tacoma on Monday afternoon. Sakura-Con is more than an annual event on one specific weekend; it is an important catalyst for a culture that lives on outside that time and place.

So it’s not just that I went to Sakura-Con with some friends, and saw some other friends there. Rather, we became friends in the first place because of events like Sakura-Con and Kumoricon. Sakura-Con is a great social scene for people interested in animation, comics, cosplay, and video games. On Saturday I wore a shirt from the video game Mass Effect 3, and many people approached me to talk about the game and its controversial ending. It was great to see how people were willing to come up and start a conversation based on liking the same video game. For those going to Sakura-Con for the first time, I’d recommend wearing something that expresses your interest in a favorite game or show.

One of the old traditions still going on this year was the practice of giving high-fives to strangers. It wasn’t as widespread as in some previous years, but the people who did it seemed to really enjoy it. I think it’s one of the nicest traditions, because it represents the spirit of Sakura-con friendliness, but it can easily be ignored by anyone who doesn’t wish to participate. This started out as something to do while on the escalators or standing in lines, but this year I also saw a large group of people asking for high-fives while sitting down along a wall. I walked by and gave them all high-fives, and they cheered.

Homestuck cosplay by Maddy

My Little Pony cosplay by Chelsea

My Little Pony cosplay

Adventure Time cosplay by Nikki

Of course, cosplay is a huge aspect of Sakura-Con, and as usual the vast majority of attendees were in costume. Some of the big cosplay trends this year were Homestuck, My Little Pony, and Adventure Time.

Madoka Magica cosplayers at the Aniplex booth

Madoka Magica was also popular for cosplay, perhaps in part because the Aniplex booth had some Madoka events and items, and the writer and producer for Madoka Magica were Sakura-Con guests.

Madoka parody cosplay group

Madoka Magica is popular enough to have an online parody “Meduka Meguca,” and a group of cosplayers portrayed the parody “gangster” versions of the characters.

Katie as Barnaby from Tiger & Bunny

I saw some of the well-established cosplays like Black Butler, Vocaloids, and Naruto. I also expected to see a lot of new costumes from Tiger & Bunny, because it is a recent series with memorable character designs. In fact, I was prepared for that show to be the kind of trend this year that Panty & Stocking was last year, but I only saw a few Tiger & Bunny cosplayers. I guess the show has yet to attain the popularity it deserves.

Working! cosplay group

Sakura-Con cosplay had a huge variety of costumes offering something for everyone. There were huge groups like the Homestuck cosplayers who must have had over 100 people, and smaller groups like the one above that assembled all of the characters from the series Working!

Haley as the Gold Robot

Katie as Chicken in a Biskit Miku

And there were also more unusual costumes, like Haley as the Gold Robot from the Party Rock Anthem music video, or Katie doing a joke version of Miku as if she were the spokesmodel for Chicken in a Biskit.

The age range of cosplayers seemed to be increasing. Though teenagers still made up the majority, I saw more cosplayers under 12 and also more over 20 than I’ve seen in the past. In past years, walking into a bar near the convention center usually caused the percentage of cosplayers to drop to nearly zero, since so few of them were over 21. But this year I was surprised to see the bar at the Sheraton full of adults in costume. (Speaking of the Sheraton, the service there was fantastic as always. I have no affiliation with the hotel, but after many years of having great stays there every time, I have to recommend it.)

Exhibitor at Sakura-Con

Cosplay photography also keeps growing every year. I was amazed at the number of photographers with really high-end camera gear. I happened to meet some other photographers on Thursday night and we spent some time wandering around together and taking practice photos, like the one of the exhibitor above.

Sara as Harley Quinn

On Friday I went to the Aniplex panels. In the first one, Aniplex USA announced new releases like Blue Exorcist, Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Bakemonogatari. They will also be doing a re-release of Oreimo, which sold out last year. Fans asked about the problem of piracy; Aniplex said it is a problem in Japan too, not just in the U.S., and urged fans to watch streaming video from legal sites such as Crunchyroll and Hulu, and to buy the DVDs.

The second Aniplex panel featured Gen Urobuchi, Katushi Ota, and Atsuhiro Iwakami. Urobuchi is a writer who has worked on Fate/Zero and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Iwakami is a producer who also has been involved with both Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica (among many other series), and Ota is a publisher who has been Urobuchi’s editor for 8 years. The room was full of fans of Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica who asked a lot of questions about both shows. When the hosts asked people who had questions to stand up and form a line, about half the people in the room stood up.

Urobuchi said that he originally wrote for games, until Iwakami asked him to start doing other things. He also revealed that he is a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and that some of Lovecraft’s creatures are scary not because they are deliberately evil towards humans, but because they are uninterested in what happens to humans. This led him to create a similar character. (He actually said something more specific than this, but it would be a spoiler for one of the shows.)

One audience member said that Madoka Magica is considered great because it is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, and asked Urobuchi if he is interested in deconstructing any other types of shows. He replied that he had not intended to deconstruct a genre, just to surprise the audience and keep them guessing about what would come next, but if such a deconstruction was the end result of his involvement then maybe other projects he worked on would turn out that way too.

Aniplex also announced a special screening of some new episodes of Fate/Zero Season 2, which would be shown at Sakura-Con even before they had aired in Japan. This was a great way to do something special for the convention. I came away from these panels impressed with Aniplex and their way of reaching out to American fans.

Stereopony concert

Stereopony

Stereopony concert at Sakuracon

Concerts are always a big draw at Sakura-Con, and Friday night’s concert was Stereopony, a Japanese pop/rock band whose music has been used in anime, including the series Bleach. They got a great reception from an enthusiastic crowd. I’ve heard that many Japanese bands are not used to the energy and excitement of American fans, because Japanese crowds tend to be more reserved. This may have been the case here, because although the first few songs sounded great, the band’s on-stage presence started out fairly subdued. But by the end of the concert, both the band and crowd reached a high level of energy, and bassist Nohana Kitajima even jumped through the air at one point.

Saturday night had more concerts which fans really enjoyed, but I did not go to these because the cosplay costume contest was held at the same time. The contest was entertaining as always, and it was great to see some new costumes I hadn’t seen before, like those from Dragon Age and Game of Thrones. The show moved along at a brisk pace and finished ahead of schedule. The only problem with this event is that it has been held in a space that is not ideal for viewing costumes. The room is large and most of the audience is very far away from the cosplayers most of the time. The lack of a raised stage means that people who aren’t in the front row have a partly obstructed view. It may not be easy to fix this, because of the size of the convention and the lack of suitable rooms, but it could help to add a raised platform, or a large screen showing a live video of the contestants.

The main complaint I heard this year was about long waits for the registration/pre-registration lines. More than one person told me that they spent 4+ hours in line to get their badge. It is always better to pre-register, but this year even the pre-registration lines were very long at times. (For other people who arrived at other times, the wait was only minutes, though. It had a lot to do with when people arrived.) This year the convention stopped offering single-day passes, which probably contributed to the problem by causing more people to show up to pick up badges all at the same time. All of this was discussed at the feedback panel at the very end of the convention, and the staff said they were aware of the problems and would fix things next year.

On Sunday I attended a panel about Japanese voice actors with Michihiko Suwa, a producer who has worked on anime such as Detective Conan and the Inuyasha movies. He said there are over 2,000 professional voice actors in Japan, maybe 10,000 if part-timers are included. And about 1,000 new people enter the field each year, but very few are really successful. Not many people are able to make a living solely from voice acting — he estimated that only 200 to 300 people were in that category. On the other hand, some of the Japanese star voice actors are extremely popular, and give live performances to halls full of thousands of people. Many people are attracted to the idea of voice acting as a career.

Suwa pointed out that Japanese voice actors are not exclusive to anime, they also dub the voices for American live-action TV shows that air in Japan. He said he thought that the Japanese voice actor for the part of Jack Bauer in the show “24” was better than the original.

He talked about how voice actors get cast for a role. For the series Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne, some of the voice actors who got the parts were still in high school when they applied. More experienced actors also tried out, but they wanted to use actors whose real age was close to that of the characters.

Mr. Suwa explained that he had recently finished working on a live-action movie about Japanese voice actors called Kami Voice, to be released in Japan on May 2. Suwa also appears in the film in the role of a TV producer. We got to see a trailer for this movie — the first time it was shown in the U.S. The movie is about a voice acting school in Akihabara that has a battle with a rival school. While researching the movie, Suwa discovered that there are around 250 voice acting schools in Japan. Because real voice actors are in the movie, and they have very busy schedules, the big scene where all of them appear had to be planned months in advance. The trailer and discussion made me very interested to see this movie, so I hope it gets released in the U.S.

Funimation booth

Nico Nico Douga interviews

I had a lot of fun wandering around the Exhibitors’ Hall this year, more than in previous years. It felt like a lot was going on there. The Artists’ Alley area was large and was included as part of the main Exhibitor’s Hall, rather than off in a separate area. The Aniplex booth had an organized Madoka Magica photo shoot. Funimation’s booth had cosplayers dressed as the samurai warriors from Sengoku Basara. The Nico Nico Douga booth interviewed convention attendees on a live video stream. These interviews were very popular and added a lot to the atmosphere of the hall.

Near the interview area, I discovered a demo of Neurowear’s “Necomimi” product – wearable cat ears that move in response to your brain waves (necomimi.com). I tried these out and found them to be a lot of fun. I felt like a cyborg. It feels kind of like wearing headphones, but there is also a sensor on your forehead and another one on your ear that sense changes in your mood. You can feel the ears move. I was told that the ears can make different motions, and for example if you become very calm and relaxed the ears will flop down. But I was unable to be so calm in a big crowd of people while wearing cyborg cat ears. I was laughing and feeling energetic, so for me the ears kept twitching occasionally. One person said that with practice you can learn to consciously control the ears.

This year Sakura-Con did a great job with the convention schedule using the Guidebook app for smartphones. This application provides an interactive convention schedule that makes printed schedules obsolete. It can pop up reminders when an event you want to see is about to begin. It also allows the organizers to push out updates to the schedule, so your view is always up to date. For this year’s Guidebook schedule, Sakura-Con went far beyond the basic “name, time, place” information and also included detailed descriptions and photos. This made the Guidebook schedule very fun to use. One person at the feedback panel said it was the best implementation for the Guidebook app he had ever seen.

Though the official events were great, some of the best moments for me involved meeting new people and having fun with friends. I mention this because it is such an important part of the atmosphere. I think it’s very common for people to form friendships there that last beyond the convention, and that may be one of the most valuable things that Sakura-Con contributes to the community. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Vivian as Poison Ivy

See my full set of Sakura-Con 2012 photos here.

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