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The Art of the Con

By Janet Houck     October 11, 2006


Nan Desu Kan
© NDK
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my local anime convention, Denver's Nan Desu Kan. Now in its tenth year, Nan Desu Kan (and yes, that is Japanese word play) has grown into a multi-faceted festival of Japanese culture, including anime and manga as artistic expressions of that culture.

The standard anime con in America today, however, came out of the sci-fi conventions of the 70s and 80s. The first invasion of anime into these stuffy hotel rooms came in the form of bootleg and imported VHS tapes, as well as the rare art book or model. The cross-over audience of general sci-fi fans and mecha anime fans was no small number (remember that this was the era of ROBOTECHand MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM), so the sale of tapes and merchandise, both legal and illegal, became the norm at cons. As well, it can be argued easily that Japan and Japanese goods have always held a certain fascination in the West. (See the bizarre culture around the coolness and ultimate superiority of the katana among gaming geeks as an example.)

Alongside the action in the dealers' room, the more dedicated fans among the convention staff began the tradition of the video room. By simply showing anime to people in a darkened room with comfortable seats, they helped US fandom grow immensely. Con organizers had no problem with this at all; in fact, the video room soon turned into a 24-hour event, where people could freely drop in and out as they waited for scheduled programming or just wanted a quiet place to sit for half an hour. Of course, as awareness of the illegal nature of many of the shows in the US grew, as well as knowledge of age inappropriateness, the rules behind video rooms have become stricter, but this is still a vital part of anime and sci-fi conventions, even in this day of fansubs and a larger quantity of licensed anime. For many, this still is how they preview titles for buying at the dealers' room down the hallway.

Panels and guests also originally come from sci-fi conventions, as writers, artists, actors, directors and other behind-the-camera discovered just how many people wanted to meet people that they already feel that they know through their works. For anime conventions, the biggest draw is the guests flown in from Japan, whether they are upcoming J-pop idols (NDK 2004's Kumiko Kato) or studio CCOs (NDK 2006's Masao Maruyama from MADHOUSE Studios). These are the people that US fans never expect to see outside of a chance encounter in Tokyo; as such, they are a rare treat and worth the price of con admission.

Panel programming at anime conventions also grew apart from its sci-fi origins. Perhaps out of the necessity of educating fellow anime enthusiasts, many panels focus on Japanese culture, from fashion (the Victorian doll-like Gothic Lolita style, the Californian beach girl look of the Ganguro style) to religion, to collecting dolls and making models, to cosplay and writing and drawing manga. Most sci-fi panels keep to topics on writing, drawing, and yes, making models, as well as fandom specific panels ("Learn Klingon in Twelve Steps," "How To Do Realistic Alien Facepaint"), lacking a central foreign element to bind all of the attendees together.

Unique to the anime convention scene are anime music videos (AMVs). The idea probably originated with the homemade MST3K and other humor clips shown at sci-fi conventions for fun and/or promotion. Whoever made the first video of anime footage set to music, we salute you. Most anime conventions host an AMV contest, where much like the independent film scene, creators submit their work to multiple conventions, aiming for a top prize, somewhere. As time has gone by, and computer processing power gone up, AMVs have reached the level of professional animation, with seamless integration of scenes, matching lip flaps to lyrics, and just a general sense of confidence, as opposed to the early video tapes, where scenes were spliced together awkwardly at times and where you have to be using a school's facilities in order to have editing equipment at all.

The image associated with anime conventions is the cute young woman dressed up as Morrigan from DARKSTALKERS, or the complete line-up of the FINAL FANTASY games, posing for the camera. Cosplay isn't merely putting on an outfit though. Costuming is when people dress up as fictional characters, while cosplay proper involves dressing up and acting like that character while in costume. Costumes originally came out of the sci-fi and horror convention scene, but they really didn't fall into popular awareness until the advent of SAILOR MOON on TV. Suddenly, you had beautiful girls wearing short schoolgirl skirts at conventions, alongside parody characters such as Sailor Bubba and Man-Faye. That brought all the boys into the con. Now the various cosplay and costuming contests are a must-see event at all anime conventions, and sci-fi conventions, in turn, have adopted the contest as an event, albeit on a much smaller scale. (Now that's real-life fanservice for you!)

At both types of conventions, you will find art and model contests, games and videogaming, hands-on activities for children and newcomers to this segment of the fandom (at gaming conventions, you will often find 'paint your own mini' panels), and Artist Alley, the division of the Dealers' Room where freelance artists and small/local businesses ply their trade of artwork and crafts.

Although all geeks, otaku or not, enjoy shopping for cool and unique things, I think it is the American anime convention that has taken this tendency of impulse spending to an art form. Dealers and their assistants are often in costume, always friendly, and usually with hard-to-find products at full price. After all, where else can you browse and buy yaoi doujinshi in the flesh? Where else can you buy J-Pop CDs, concert merchandise, cellphone charms and dating sim games in an environment that makes this feel so ordinary? You are one of us, the vibe in the Dealers' Room buzzes. We're all Nipponophiles here. There's nothing weird in paying $2.50 for a small bottle of Japanese soda. Now, don't get me wrong; this happens at all anime conventions around the world, but I feel it's in the US where it's taken to a capitalistic height, where the Dealers' Room is an entire otaku-friendly shopping mall, open for this weekend only.

As in most fandoms, anime goes through phases of what's new and hip. This year seemed to be the Year of the Catgirl and Catboy at Nan Desu Kan. Multiple booths were offering homemade and mass-produced cat-ear hats, cat-ear hairbands, cat-ear hair barrettes, large bell chokers, leading chains (think how you direct your dog during walks), and tails of various thickness and fluffiness. I gave in eventually and bought a fleece cat-ear hat, which led to a hug from a EUREKA SEVEN cosplayer who was collecting hugs from catpeople. The American Otaku is a strange creature, but definitely a fun one if you let yourself open up to the weird pure fun of socializing with people who share at least one interest with you.

Overall, anime conventions are an experience that words cannot convey, and you, the girl or guy on the computer reading this, you are their audience. If you're in Denver during the middle of September next year, come on down to Nan Desu Kan, and feel the otaku vibe along with me!

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