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Feature Wed May 02 2012
Celebrating its 15th anniversary, Anime Central (ACen), the Midwest's largest anime convention, does not so much arrive as it does engulf. Even in the convention-prepped, O'Hare-adjacent village of Rosemont, where hotel rooms outnumber residents, a noticeably odd blood type runs through the city's veins for three and a half days as it receives a transfusion of 24,000+ niche hobby fans of all ages, heights, weights, costumes, handicaps and weapons.
River Road's adjacent lineup of Stephens Convention Center/Hyatt/Rosemont Blue Line/McDonald's is Anime Central's chief corridor, a mile-long stretch of costumes and con-goers spilling off sidewalks and into police-managed traffic, tromping to and from restaurants, cars and area hotels, many of whose convention-dedicated room blocks sold out months ago.
Why? Dozens of guests from the industry, whose convention involvement ranges from autograph sessions to fan meetings to Q&As to sitting on various topic-driven panels with topics ranging from Ninja Weapons to Writing Comics. The non-celebrity guest panels number in the low 200s, all volunteer staffed and wider and occasionally odder than their guest-led siblings. You can attend Anime Name That Tune, Cosplay for Fat People, Everything Pokemon, Fight Like a Jedi, Murder Mystery, JRock Heaven Part 1, Occult in Anime, Pearler Bead Fun, Ren Faire Basic Sewing Q&A and many many more. The actual activity of a panel spans lectures, discussions, games, crafts or anything really, anything you want to pitch and have approved by the convention's staff a few months in advance.
There are three dances -- Hardcore Synergy, a seven-hour rave featuring a dozen DJs, where more glow sticks are tangled than spun, the Soap Bubble, the "longest running anime convention dance party in the United States," and the Crystal Ball, a formal affair with strict dress guidelines and a tickets to which cost an additional $25.
There are six concerts -- mid-level Japanese pop stars, video game orchestrations, and one costume and makeup-driven "electrock" act kicking off a world tour.
And the convention does not stop. There are five dedicated anime viewing rooms -- smaller spaces with a few dozen chairs featuring round the clock programming, sampling a few episodes of around 150 series. There are separate 24-hour facilities for console video gaming and arcade gaming, rooms open specifically for table top gaming, trading card gaming, pencil and paper role play gaming.
Maybe the convention's most obvious feature, or at least the one most responsible for the scrunched-up confusion present on the face of those driving by, is the vast number of attendees who don armor, costumes, wigs, accessories and all matters of get-up, the scale and variety of which is hard to overstate. Cosplay is the hobby of dressing as a character from anime movies, television and comics, as well as other related interests that may have little if any connection to the convention's greater focus. Some costumes look the result of a closet scoured for a garment closest to something a character wore, while others are the 36-hour showcase for eight to twelve month of hard work -- meticulous crafting, stitching, painting and even welding. There is all manner of dull-edged swords, scythes, and daggers, orange-tipped assault rifles and revolvers, elegant dresses, sports-mascot size suits, headwear, tails, ears, resin-cast LEDS and body paint. It would require a Brittanica-length volume to cover just this year's variety of dress and craftsmanship, much of which is tremendous.
Photo by Emily McQueen
Even on a 46 degree late April day, some costumes reveal more than would be appropriate at the beach, and often, both the amount of skin showing and the attention it attracts is unfortunate. There is rampant shirtlessness of both genders, and that many of the costumes require reproducing of an animated character's hyper-sexualized outfit never meant to be realistically feasible, much less recreated by a hobbyists who may or may not share the inspiration's body type, is not ignored or tolerated, but embraced. The entire convention's atmosphere is abundantly judgement-free, a stark contrast to how the regular world treats interest in such pursuits, and it quickly becomes clear why many anticipate conventions months in advance, looking forward to the Christmas morning freedom to flaunt a passion usually sneered at.
The atmosphere also explains why so many pay $60 for a weekend badge who have no interest in specific guests or programming, treating such features as secondary bonuses, mostly there to hang out. To anyone who's attended a panel or guest session, it's obvious that the 24,000 people must be somewhere, and it isn't there. The perimeters of hallways and lobbies are lined with con-goers sitting and slumped over various handheld entertainments and social circles. Huge masses of people simply loiter, making and meeting friends -- some of whom only see each other annually at ACen or other conventions.
Meeting new people is surprisingly easy when obsession and fandom are embraced, the shared cultural experience an easy social avenue. Of the dozens of conversations I overheard, I remember zero in which the participants discussed relationships, jobs or personal lives, instead exchanging thoughts and opinions on the convention's hobbies of focus. This resembles fan-gatherings of any other hobby or interest, sure, but it isn't unreasonable to assume some of the socializing released at ACen is the accumulation of 11 months of frustration, most anime-fan networks sparse on a local level, many resorting to online gatherings.
There is also a startlingly high number of men wearing heavy knee-length "utili-kilts" of black fabric with snap-closure cargo pockets on either side.
With a badge purchase you are also granted access to the Exhibit Hall, where 150+ vendors hawk their wares. And there is so much to buy. Wigs, wings, weapons of all size and dangerousness, corsets, kimonos, posters, books, DVDs, CDs, animated pornography, plush toys, plastic toys, scale models, actions figures, t-shirts, board games, video games, psychic readings, phone charms, grab bags, body pillows featuring barely-dressed animated ladies, pins, keychains -- so, so much stuff, much of it available several times over, and it's smart to shop around the 250,000-square-foot Hall A the vendors share with Registration and Artist's Alley.
A bellhop rolls a luggage cart across the Hyatt's lobby, brimming over with cases of root beer and Mountain Dew, cheese balls and ramen, a 46-inch flat screen television. Evidence of con-goers' longstanding effort to skirt hotel and convention center markup on stale basics, it's standard to live on coffee-maker ramen and Asian-themed snack food. Part of both the Hotel and Convention Center's policy is that the convention itself cannot retail any food or drink, the source of frustration for many in attendance who clamor for an Anime Central-run traditional Japanese cafe.
Tensions between hotel staff and the convention date back to Anime Central's inception -- a list of infractions can be gleaned from the ever-growing list of rules in the Program Guide: DO NOT play fight in convention spaces (far too many disturbances caused by strangers costumed as an anime's rivals) DO NOT drop anything form the interior or exterior balconies of the hotel (last year, a glass bottle was tossed some eight stories down from the atrium's walkway, shattering a large glass panel), etc. Add an almost-annual emergency vehicle visit and an entire section in the Program Guide dedicated to the Hyatt's elevator policy (usually all out of order after being overloaded to mechanical failure, but this year staffed with a convention volunteer overseeing each), and there is an at times palpable tension obvious to those sensitive to that sort of thing. There's also an often obvious puzzlement on the faces of cleaning staff, desk clerks and cashiers, many spending more time observing the guests than they usually do.
This year, though, the hotel has made some obvious attempts at an olive branch -- classroom-size whiteboards litter the halls with softball prompts like, "What is your favorite Japanese movie?" and "What anime character are you most like?" markers underneath for responses. The gift shop/coffee bar is also offering sushi alongside its sandwiches and scones, the quality of which I wasn't convinced to explore.
Hitting the Panels
After drenching a coffee stain out of my shirt in the men's restroom, I sit in on "Creating Your Comic/Manga." Attendees are few -- maybe 20, which is surprising considering this is one of the few events focusing on participating in the industry people have convened to celebrate. It's the first of three parts, led by a husband and wife team responsible for three self-published comic series. Their talk today explains concept and writing, but much of their presentation is lost to the blaring sound effects from the fighting game tournament across the hall, rushing in each time the door opens or closes. When not leading a panel, they occupy a table at the Artist Alley -- a grouping of 227 booths, each featuring the work of amateur to professional artists, their merchandise ranging from fan renditions of well-known characters to original creations and even commissions from con attendees. Not all paint or draw -- many booths are exclusively crafts, such as stuffed toys, Perler Bead art and jewelry.
When they've finished differentiating plot from story -- mocking Michael Bay, praising Star Wars, and ignoring frequent interjections from a fidgety kid in the front row -- my shirt looks passably dry and I leave.
In accepting a press badge, I agreed to attend two press sessions of my choice with various guests, which I picked haphazardly -- looking more for convenient windows than engaging speakers. On Friday I sat with nine others and spoke with Chris Sabat, voice director and voice actor for the English-language version of "Dragonball Z." Our personal exchange ran thusly: "Did you have a question?" "No I was just biting my nails." "Oh. You look a lot like my step-brother." "Yeah?" "Yeah, I could show you a picture."
The second session is with Angelic Pretty -- the representatives of a "pop & cute princess" clothing line founded in 1979 and now retailed worldwide. Three heavily made-up young Japanese girls represent the brand, their hair is set in large, lacy pink bows that match their sprawling and elegant dresses -- many outward-flowing layers of pink silk with elaborate lace frills and patterns, bows all over. Angelic Pretty is one of the leading brands in "lolita fashion," an entire fashion category that's a sort of Victorian-era dress-up and young girl princess-fantasy collision. This is to say nothing of the movement's sub-genres -- sweet lolita, punk lolita, gothic lolita, each of which has specific tropes and legions of followers.
For them, the press room is nearly full, the interested spanning genders and age brackets. An older balding man asks serious questions about appeal and branding, a young girl about the style's ability to empower, and one man in front chomps an unlit Black & Mild for the session's duration. The designers speak quietly and through a translator. The room is taken aback when it's revealed the girls are unfamiliar with the lolita aspects in Gwen Stafani's act, following which the balding man demands that someone with internet access shows them ASAP. I feign busyness at my laptop and avoid all eyes.
Lolita has a sizable presence at Anime Central -- in cosplay, guests, panels, artists, vendors -- much of the costuming being exorbitantly expensive, a dress picked at random from their booth in the merchandise hall costing $390, and the movement's sum total represents one of many sub-cultures that finds community under the Anime Central banner, being too small to sustain itself independently, albeit maybe slightly annoyed it's forced to play second to something it isn't directly connected to.
How Much Anime?
This speaks to a greater debate surrounding the convention: how focused Anime Central should be on, well, anime. It may seem obvious, but in the decade and a half since cutting the ribbon, guests and programming have become increasingly scattered in their relevance. Ten years ago, far more panels were dedicated to a specific series or sub-genre, where the schedule now allots many other parts of Japanese culture equal footing -- sessions Japanese rock and pop, Godzilla, further-out bits like belly dancing and zombies.
Whether this issue falls on the side of supply or demand, is anyone's guess. This is my first Anime Central in five years, but my fifth in 10. The landscape has certainly shifted to a broader net, but having not kept up with hits and misses in the interim, I can't vouch for the quality of those shows awarded individual attention; the anime industry, like any narrower field with a specific and dedicated fan-base, churns out a fair amount of schlock and pandering that takes active effort to weed through.
Navigating the convention is frequently a stop and start process, as even the highest traffic paths shut down for 30 seconds at a time near-constantly, as camera-bearing fans stop cosplayers for pictures. Many photo shoots are formally coordinated by topic or series, but there is an ever-present barrage of strangers stopping strangers to snap pictures, to the point that if you're passing through a seemingly too-open space, it's worth looking around to make sure your not blocking cameras. For the better part of three minutes, one-third of a side-lobby waited as two samurai in a fighting stance were circled by a gentleman with a stedicam(!?), and it's largely this striking of poses and postures that brings foot-traffic to a halt.
This arrangement grants an easy social in for a crowd maybe not used to as free of interaction outside of conventions. It's a pre-made conversational path where members can skirt involving themselves and instead talk shows, characters and catchphrases. The unfortunate peak of these conditions can be seen in the now-outlawed but once-rampant "Free Hugs" signs. "Free Hugs" is now something of an underground slogan, appearing on bags, shirts and pins, advertising some off-brand of affection deprivation, encouraged by the many con-goers who don't find the offer too off-putting to snub. Its ugly cousin is "glomping," an unsolicited hug/tackle hybrid launched on a desired stranger without advance warning, much less consent. The bane of delicate costumes and attendees with a serious sense of personal space, the tradition has been decried on the convention's message boards, but is notably absent from the Guide's list of DO NOTs.
At some point, it starts to get warm. Despite being ACen spread across three large hotels and the tremendous Stephens Center, all connected by a labyrinthine windowed skyway, by the second day the most populated rooms take on a thick, french-fry inspired humidity. And this observation is not pickiness or condescension, but rather an issue addressed in the convention's founding slogan, "Got Soap?" -- a motto organizers hoped would encourage the good hygiene many large gatherings take for granted. Featured on the room schedule following more popular events is a dedicated "Air Out" and while filing out of one panel, a teenager toting one of the risqué body pillows shouts, "Someone needs to take a shower!"
ACen After Dark
Late-night Anime Central is a very different scene. Starting around midnight, many of the video rooms and panels take a decidedly adult turn, carding 18+ at the door. Japanese-style animated pornography is called hentai, it's male/male and female/female cousins called yaoi and yuri, respectively. Also highly merchandised in the vendor's room, it's difficult to deduce how much of panels like All Tied Up or Dressing It Up To Be Ripped Off are tongue-in-cheek, and how much they're just sustained group erections. The room-party nightlife, while predictably loud and booze-infused, can also take on a seediness- costumes and boundaries loosening as would be standard anywhere, but with a hint of unsolicited forwardness as the weekend's social freedom takes a less pleasant shape.
Saturday night's marquee event is the Masquerade, a three-hour block of costumes and skits with prizes on the line. Scheduled to start at 6pm, people began lining up at 5pm, but only at 8 does the slow file-in begin, the block-wrapping line threatening to meet the Grand Ballroom's 3500 person capacity. While people take seats, music plays and a few staff camera guys feed live video of people in the audience to the stage's Jumbotron backdrop. A terrific roar goes up when the camera catches a sign reading "I skipped my senior prom for ACen '12." It bears repeating how important central this weekend vacation is for many -- there were two weddings held at the convention this year, both in full costume and results of proposals made here last year.
As stragglers are taking their seats the event staff takes the stage. "There's a fire alarm, and we need everyone to leave the building." The crowd waits for a punchline, but there is none. Slowly, everyone gets to their feet and herds outward.
And it isn't just the Grand Ballroom, but the entire Hyatt hotel -- screening rooms, table top and trading card game rooms, video game rooms, panels, Q&As, photoshoots, all of it -- all the costumed thousands spilling out into the dark 46 degrees, into and across the street, filling the street, a mass shivering exodus stopping and starting as people are flagged down for photos of costumes just now noticed in the chaos.
Emergency vehicles line the hotel's driveway, with all street traffic now paralyzed by the accidental parade, and I slink away, back towards the train station where 18 hours ago I followed a boy in deep eyeshadow and a tail to somewhere I'm more comfortable than most places in my life.