On second thought, this post is kind of embarrassing. Well, hopefully it’ll tickle all the N’s out there.
[First a bit about that picture. As far as I know Otakon is the only large anime convention that allows its attendees to select from a set of image badges every year. Reason being that it is extra work for the registration folks, slows the registration lines down, and cost more money--why would you do any of these things? I guess because it's awesome? And I think it's driving/driven by con badge culture. As a beneficiary of custom badges over the years (I probably show take a picture of that too) I can't say I want Otakon's choose-your-own-badge thing to ever go away. Also, at around 2003 they started doing the badges without lamination, which makes for a duller but more standard (and more importantly, faster) registration process/badges. Imagine that, laminated badges for everybody...]
I ask myself this question all the time at a con. Being at a con feels just so contrary to my nature that every time I find myself in that situation I ask why I’m at a con in the first place. But since I hit so many cons and thus have such moments on a regular basis, maybe I should change the question: When an anime con goer turns 30, does he become a magician?
Short of making this into a joke the truth is this fandom is aging and all my friends are not getting any younger. Some of us are married and/or have children. Others are settled with mortgages, ongoing job responsibilities, and having to walk that work-family balance. And then there’s me, who has gone to about 5 cons a year for the past 4 years. Anna might have started in 2002 and she went to her first because her friend asked her to go; my take is more of the person doing the inviting.
I remember my first Otakon, in 1998, very clearly. Part of that has to do with it being the most strange con experience I’ve had. Part of it has to do with it being my first anime con (although not my first con of any sort). I still remember wearing the same t-shirt I wore 24 hours ago, in an elevator somewhere in Northern Virginia, going back to my hotel room and running into Shoji Kawamori in the elevator. That was also partly the reason why I remember my first Otakon so well. It was suppose to be a day trip but my friend and ride was too toasted to drive, so we crashed in a hotel room of someone who knows someone who knows my friend. Cons are sometimes great because these kind of things happen–I mean, things like meeting friends-of-friends and getting along and crashing. In this case there were something like 6 other people in that room. I think it went as well as having a bunch of teenage guys in a hotel room without adult supervision, when half of them are tipsy. Thankfully that was one part of my con experience that I never really repeated. Perhaps that also made it memorable.
It was a mix of youthful enthusiasm and curiosity that brought me to the con for the first couple times. Today, cons are all about making memorable memories. For the first half dozen years as an anime con attendee, there was just something thoroughly enjoyable being submerged by that convention atmosphere. It was not so much the part where I’m surrounded by fans who watched the same shows I did–truth is most people didn’t watch all the shows I did, even at a con. Other than the folks I hang out with, I’m often not surrounded by like-minded folks at a con, which seemed contrary to popular expectation. The economics of time and money do not favor those of us who voraciously consume anime and go to a lot of cons. Often we only do one or the other. I remember having a discussion back when Momotato was blogging, and he mentioned something to the extent that a con is like, the cost of a TV series in R2 DVDs! What a lousy value proposition for the introverts out there, myself perhaps included. All of that just contributes to the way I feel as an outsider; but that enhanced the contrast–it was the pure otherworldly environs of cons that somehow tickled my fancy. It made a good existential trap. I remember sitting around the 300 level at the BCC on Saturday nights, a couple times, watching the crowd. I would ask myself, “why am I here?” Why did I put myself through this?
It’s under that context that I found some personal relevance with anime cons beyond the city-block costume party that it seems to be for most people.
Looking back, I think I felt most “at home” only when I was in some large viewing room, laughing at the same jokes. I remember the first time I saw Karekano; it was at a fansub screening at Otakon, and that was such a fun way to break into one of Gainax’s best comedies that I still remember how the room reacted to the first episode, and the 4th. I remember watching Battle Royale for the first time in a standing-room only screening at Otakon (’99 IIRC), and how much fun that was. I remember Otakon’s MST3K feature, that was pretty good during its relatively brief run, even if I only attended it twice. For its 20th anniversary they are bringing it back, so I hear. Perhaps it’s better to let you guys know that I typically do not attend such events at cons now; I can barely remember the last time I sat in one of these–probably the screening for Hoshi o ou Kodomo last year. Screening often do not hold any transactional significance for me anymore; what comes out on video at a con often will come out on video elsewhere (save for the occasional 35mm screening). There’s usually not enough time in the day to do everything I would like to do, or everything I like to do is scheduled for the same time as everything I have to do. It still doesn’t make sense to go to a con and do things I would do at home, even if it’s a lot of fun.
In essence, I feel like a well-practiced stranger at Otakon these days, and plain stranger at other cons. I don’t quite feel at home, even if sometimes everything is familiar. I don’t even find that sense of camaraderie that many people do at cons, the usual “stranger at home” trope. I’m not sure why; probably because my own sub-genre niches are, well, kind of niche! But also I think I’m just kind of shy when it comes to making friends; it’s about spiritual familiarity rather than subcultural familiarity that matters to me. But I think that is what keeps me going to conventions: that on every trip, I was entering a strange and fanciful world where I can again ask myself: why the hell am I here?
Of course, over the years I’ve made friends at cons and bonded; but I think a big part of it has to do with the internet. Cons do double as offkai at least by proximity–a lot of online communities have meet up during a con, after all. The shared context simply makes it much less awkward beyond the two-bird-one-stone effect of attending a con where there will be some people you are looking forward to seeing. It’s when I can communicate to these kindred spirits over the course of the year, the space between cons, that I can have any kind of claim of actually befriending them in a real way. Without it, it’s just some guy who always show up in the same lines and panels that you go at the different cons.
And if that wasn’t the case, maybe I wouldn’t have gone to so many cons like a lot of the people I know. The truth is, there has to be a reason that motivates you to go to a con. If we go just for the people, people will come and go; that’s why these people stop going to cons. But that’s not enough for me. For example, I had a hard time deciding to go to Anime Expo this year. I ended up going and I enjoyed my time there greatly (enough to buy a premiere badge next year) but I had difficulties finding a reason besides to make this an expensive offkai and eat with @cowboybibimbap and hang out with all those guys who drove or flew in for AX. As much as I like all these people it is tough to justify the expenses. I mean, I’d rather travel and go all these guys in Japan or something, it would have been more of an effort in terms of time and money, but I will also get more out of it. A “downer” AX is not great bang-per-buck; or as you get older, bang-per-PTO. I don’t regret going to AX but I probably wouldn’t have regretted not going either.
In other words, “go to cons because of the people you hang out with” only works to an extent. The adage about cons and going to them for friends is not going to fly well once you get old enough. You need something more. For some of us, it’s stuff like this. For others it could be very different things.
The thing is, I’m at a stage in my life where I really need to spend my vacation time relaxing. Work takes its fair share of toll on me, and time off becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. It’s just that cons are the opposite of relaxing. In addition, given the amount of “work” that I’m slowly taking up for cons, it’s not even that I get tired purely from partying too hard. Maybe that’s also another reason why I go to cons: for press crap, to sate my hunger for knowledge about the scene and about the fandom, and to regurgitate it. It’s like, I might be interested in how cons run, but I will probably never staff one. It’s the reason why I don’t do the panel stuff that so many bloggers I know do.
Of course, not all cons are super hardcore tiresome experiences. Some cons can do it right; that’s why Animazement is one of my favorite anime con now–you can just show up, relax, hit up most of the content I like (much has to be said that a con has content I look forward to, at that pace), and enjoy some southern hospitality and that slower pace of life. There’s something in the water that make you want to take it easy, I’m not sure why. And it’s probably not the only con out there like that.
In the end, none of what I have said above downplays at all some of my most memorable con moments involving, say, breakfast with Yui Horie and Eri Kitamura. Or seeing Besame Mucho during their ROD days. Or fielding questions for Tomino. Or meeting bkub. And that’s the tip of the iceberg of past memories. And it’s made possible, thanks to the people I travel with, the con organizers for listening and making things possible, and the anime industry for hustling and paying up the dough. It’s those kind of experiences I chase after; that’s what gets me to plan a trip out to LA or Chi-town.
As Omoikane would say, it’s all about those unforgettable days. Or that was probably just the unforgettable Mac & Cheese talking? Man, that Poole place, it’s great stuff.
PS. Even if I do write up the cons I went to via this blog, there’s probably lots of stuff that I could write down as a matter of retrospective criticism. I guess when the mood strikes I ought to write more.