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Now, then. Convention stories!
My wife and I have been staying at bed & breakfasts since our honeymoon. Usually we select a B&B based on some combination of unique character (eg, a castle built from found materials, Halloween decorations out the wazoo), scrumptious breakfast options (eg, a rotating menu prepared by a legit pastry chef), and fun perks (eg, cats on the premises, homemade shortbread at all hours). When my wife booked the Carisbrooke Inn, only three things mattered: it was close to the convention center, reasonably priced, and still available.
Had we not been conventioning, we would've gotten more out of our stay. But the designated breakfast times of either 8:30 or 9:30 AM didn't mesh well with our optimal timing for getting into costume and getting out the door. The paper-thin walls put a damper on coming back from the convention around midnight and discussing our plans for the next day at normal volume levels. And we certainly weren't around to take advantage of the free wine at 5 PM.
Our particular room met our needs: it had a comfortable bed, a full-length mirror for checking costumes, enough space for us to lay out all our stuff and maneuver around each other, and a place to sit. Parking was offsite in a tiny lot around the corner, but the neighborhood seemed safe enough and the weather was nice. Overall, our stay was fine, just not ideal for the weekend we had planned.
One anecdote worth sharing: We were showed to our room by a summer intern, who had some difficulty demonstrating how to turn on the TV. When it finally came on, there was some infomercial about—I swear I'm not making this up—butt surgery. With color diagrams. And either he didn't notice or was unsure how to turn it back off. My wife and I had to hold in our laughter for a good 2-3 minutes while he finished giving us the tour of our room with the TV on at full volume.
Our meal planning at last year's convention is best described as "winging it." That is not to say we only ate chicken wings; nay, my vegetarian (now vegan) wife would have protested. Rather, we failed to scope out food options in advance—basically the opposite of how we normally plan our trips.
Last year's impromptu dining decisions took us to Tun Tavern (more my kind of place), where I bumped into the host of the fun voice acting Q&A panel we had just attended; to Cavo Crepe Cafe (more my wife's kind of place), where we hurriedly ate outside as the staff started to close up shop and the wind nearly swept us away; and to one of the many food kiosks at the convention center, where I ate a mediocre pizza. Wait, I wasn't going to tell you that last story.
This year, we identified several restaurants within 10 minutes of the convention center, making note of their business hours. Given that my wife only eats during a convention if (a) she's about to pass out, and (b) there's nothing else of interest on her schedule, I knew I'd be fending for myself a lot of the time.
Still, my wife and I joined up for a hearty Saturday dinner at Los Amigos, a Mexican restaurant that appealed equally to both of us. We also had a supremely enjoyable Thursday dinner at The Continental. I had French onion soup dumplings, which were incredible. We loved the decor: our "outdoor" table (technically indoor, because we were in a mall) was next to a fire pit on a little island surrounded by water, and the rest of the restaurant was some combination of the original Star Trek, original Battlestar Galactica, vintage Doctor Who, and a David Lynch film. Very cool.
We also had breakfast together every morning. The B&B had a set menu of a half-dozen options—pancakes, eggs, bacon; all the usual fare. This was fine for me, but my wife was restricted to avocado toast because she's a filthy Millenn—I mean, uh, vegan. Actually, my wife informs me it was avocados and oatmeal. Either way, our hosts were very accommodating, and the orange juice was on point, so that's what really matters.
I ended up having all my other meals at the convention center, but I was smart this year: instead of sodas and greasy grub, I opted for Powerade and vaguely healthy sandwiches (vaguely healthy in that there was a lettuce leaf on top). Physically, I felt much better this convention, what with being properly hydrated and not traveling everywhere with a lead stomach.
I think that pretty much covers everything. AnimeNEXT 2019 was—oh, I guess I missed some stuff.
Well in advance of the convention, I had agreed to doing a couple's cosplay with my wife. She reckoned that we'd have more fun and be more recognizable as two characters from the same series. We both had our demands: I required a costume that was relatively easy and unobtrusive; she wanted something that didn't require a wig. We settled on Dr. Mikhail Cossack and Dr. Noelle Lalinde, two scientists from the Mega Man franchise (the latter from the Archie Comics continuity).
I forget what all my wife had to do to pull together her costume, though I suspect there was some sort of Sailor Moon transformation sequence involved (or maybe just lots of sewing).
Now, my wife's intention was to bleach her hair, cut it to the character's specifications, and dye it the appropriate color. She had hassled with transporting, styling, pinning, and enduring the weight of two different wigs at the last convention, and she simply did not have the patience or energy to go through that again. Unfortunately, there was a mishap when she trimmed her own hair. And then another mishap when she attempted to salvage it for a secondary costume that fell through. Instead of looking like a comic book character, she turned herself into Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Of course, costumes alone wouldn't be enough for anyone but the most diehard Mega Man fans to recognize us on sight. We needed props. So my wife went to work on a plushie (well, a round cat toy strung with wire and covered in fabric) of Beat the robotic bird, laminated fold-out "photos" of my fictional daughter (including official art, manga and comic book panels, and a screenshot from OH JOES!), and name badges for the both of us (complete with fake bar codes made of inverted tiles from Pharaoh Man's stage in Mega Man 4). I think everything turned out pretty darn well.
My wife also went to the effort of drafting an essay written from the perspective of her character, and putting it in a binder with robot schematics on the cover. Although she didn't end up doing so, she toyed with the idea of hamming it up and handing out copies of her essay to random conventiongoers to warn them of the dangers of making robots seem too human.
“Playing God: The Ethical Fallout of Endowing Robotic Tools with Sentient, Emotionally Capable AI”
By Dr. Noele Lalinde
Since the dawn of robotics, humans have been using this technology to create the perfect tools and assistants to enhance our quality of life. From clumsily primitive cleaning bots, to household organizers programmed to tell jokes on command, to live-in companions and caregivers, to disposable proxies for hazardous labor, robots have become subtly infused into every aspect of modern human society. Yet we can’t ignore that our advances in hardware have gone hand-in-hand with equal advances in AI programming.
To say we are far beyond the days of pack-bonding with Roombas and laughing at chatbots of Abraham Lincoln is a gross understatement. Our current technology borders on human-like sentience, fully capable of rational thought and emotional desire, fully capable of personhood. If we insist on utilizing this technology for commercial applications, we will have to also own the ethical consequences of those actions.
The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
By knowingly and willingly choosing to install this level of AI into disposable workers, we must accept that we are approving the birthing of a new race into chains. Furthermore, creating a workforce that is human in every way except physically defeats the very purpose of having proxies in the first place - what is the point of creating stand-ins for humanity if the psychological and emotional weight of losing them is the same?
Not only are the ethics questionable, but why give tools emotions in the first place? What is gained by making a tool question its purpose? It is merely human whimsy and hubris that is satisfied by artificially inducing a familial coworking environment with robots. Best case scenario, there is a loss of efficiency in the tool by distracting it with unnecessary data, and worst, the tool ceases to function at all due to emotional instability or interpersonal issues. Why introduce such problems to begin with?
Most troubling of all, advanced AI programming and the creation of robotic persons opens the door to manipulation and corruption by the forces of evil. We have already seen this happen over and over again with Wily’s capture and retooling of service bots, turning them against the people they were designed to help and protect. Non-AI tools that require a human operator, such as ride armor, would not be able to cause such lasting and complete devastation as these sentient robots with a desire to do harm and the mental capabilities to act independently.
We are at the tipping point where we must choose what our legacy will be, and it is clear the only morally responsible option is to abandon our childish notions of playing God and instead refocus on the development of non-sentient tool and augmentation robotics.
After standing in line (a comically long line extending the entire length of the convention center, down the stairs, and back up the same stairs) to pick up our badges on Thursday night, we spent some time poring over the program and schedule. I had already downloaded the Guidebook app (a precaution after last year's scheduling problems), but I was pleased to discover that the print schedule completely matched up with the online one, at least for everything I wanted to attend.
Unfortunately, everything I wanted to attend was distributed in the worst way possible. Either there was absolutely nothing of interest, or 2-6 really compelling programs all happening at the same time. I had wanted to see the film Summer Wars, for example, but it would've required me to give up a panel on Lupin III (my favorite anime franchise), dinner at a reasonable time, and two competing events that I was tossed between. And if I gave up on Summer Wars after a few minutes—which would be consistent with the "not really feeling this" and "can't read the subtitles from my seat" reasons I had for abandoning videos the previous year—the Lupin panel would be half over and probably filled to capacity anyhow.
So, here's how my Friday went:
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water: I wasn't thrilled about starting my day with random video programming, but the dealers' room wasn't open yet, and most of my other options were introductions to things outside my sphere of interests. So, I watched an early '90s adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It filled the time just fine, but I wandered off after two episodes to go find my wife.
Anime Car Show: I think it's cool that there were half a dozen cars on display from Initial D or with anime-themed decals all over. But Doc Brown's DeLorean, KITT, and my personal vehicle when it's carrying newly purchased dessert are about the only cars my wife and I get excited about. The fact that we showed up, even briefly, to look at cars that didn't travel through time, talk to the driver, or contain dessert should indicate how our morning was going.
AnimeNEXT Family Feud: Family Feud is my favorite game show and one of my favorite TV shows in general. There was no way I was missing this. Disappointingly, the organizers were running on little sleep due to unforeseen circumstances, hadn't had a chance to test the technical equipment, and kept forgetting how certain elements of the game were supposed to work. The pace was slow, and most of the questions were either too broad ("Of all the Gen 1 Pokemon, which would you want for a starter?") or too narrow ("Name a Devil May Cry character with white hair"), and the majority were gaming questions instead of anime questions. The high point was playing rock-paper-scissors against our fellow audience members to gain a seat on stage, and tying about a dozen times in a row with the person behind me. Ridiculous. Also, I lost.
Dealers' room and artist alley: With nothing else on the schedule until early evening, I strolled through aisle after aisle of manga, plushies, keychains, tiny boxes from Japan containing models of the Fisher-Price Enterprise from Star Trek (2009), and any other merchandise you can think of. As with last year, I didn't want to bring home much more than a book full of sketches (more on that later), but I allowed myself a few purchases over the course of the weekend—mostly video game art prints for myself, but also a Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai art print for a friend, and a few varieties of Pocky to share at my workplace.
Lupin the 3rd With Various Guests: This panel was hosted by Richard Epcar, Lex Lang, and Ellyn Stern, who had lent their voices to various Lupin III dubs over the years. Now, I've only ever watched Lupin (and most anime, for that matter) with subtitles, but I was hoping that my passing familiarity with these people (who've played bit parts in such favorites as Heroes of Might and Magic III) and our shared interest in Lupin would be sufficient to enjoy the panel. In retrospect, I really should've gone to Summer Wars; there was a lot of discussion about the Blue Jacket series on Cartoon Network that I haven't seen, and it seemed like Ellyn and Richard weren't in sync about how structured or serious the panel was supposed to be.
Companies That Knew Nothing About "ANIME FAN WANTS": This was a treasure trove of hilarious horror stories and unbelievable anecdotes from now-defunct companies in the anime industry. George from Land of Obscusion regaled us with tales about everything from DVD production ("No, we totally didn't charge money for a DVD set that just sloppily ripped a fan translation from the Internet") to subtitles ("Hey, when you translate this anime, could you avoid using words with the letter 'Y'? The keyboard I'm using to type the subtitles doesn't have a functioning 'Y' key"). Tight presentation of interesting material.
AMV Contest Screening: I missed the first half because of the previous program, but my wife saved me a seat. I arrived in time for the beginning of the Dramatic/Serious category, which hit me right in the feels with the likes of "Parallel" (Violet Evergarden + "Restless Soul" by Flor). In the Artistic category, I was captivated by the psychedelic "Pachyderm Panic" (Puella Magi Madoka Magica + "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo). "The hero we need" (Astro Boy + "Captain Underpants Theme Song" by "Weird Al" Yankovic) was an amusing surprise in Fun/Upbeat, and funnier (to my tastes, anyhow) than anything under Comedy. Shockingly, last year's trend of everyone using the same two songs from The Greatest Showman continued unabated.
AMV Sing-Along AFTER DARK: Our first choice was the too-popular-to-get-into panel on hilariously bad anime, so we settled in for a less restrained version of the family-friendly AMV sing-along that cheerfully capped off last year's convention. Notably, this was not labeled as an 18+ panel, but it was late enough that the hosts felt comfortable with just giving a warning before any video with questionable content. There were gems such as "Clubbin' with Lupin" (Lupin III, One Piece, and others + "Jack Sparrow" by Lonely Island feat. Michael Bolton), plus a few of the bawdy AMVs you'd expect from an "after dark" panel, but there were also some horrifically gory ones. Like, "how did my child get into this without a wristband" gory. And I am supremely squeamish. I spent what felt like a quarter of the sing-along looking away from the screen.
Richard Epcar's Famous Outtake Panel (18+): I think this is what I wanted out of the Lupin panel earlier in the day. Richard Epcar, accompanied by Lex Lang, showed a multitude of voice acting outtakes (audio paired with the video clips they were trying to dub) from Lupin III and other anime they'd been involved with. I could've done without so much locker room humor; my favorite outtakes were the flat-out silly ones, with actors catastrophically stumbling over their lines, making up random nonsense, or breaking the fourth wall with absurd observations about the show.
Thursday/Friday cosplay photos:
This was hastily taken as my segment of the snaking registration line curved around a corner, briefly matching up with where these cosplayers were. Left to right, we have Rin Hoshizora, Nozomi Tojo, Umi Sonoda, and Maki Nishikino from Love Live!
By the time we got back to the B&B, it was technically Saturday. Our biggest mistake was staying up past 2 AM trying to reassess our initial program selections now that we'd been conventioning for a whole day.
Even without getting up early to don a costume, I was exhausted when I woke up. In large part because of that exhaustion, Saturday ended up being the least enjoyable day of the convention, though not without its high points.
Experiences as an Anime Singer Songwriter With Shihori Nakane: Although I was unfamiliar with this person's work, hers was the one and only morning program that wasn't an educational workshop of some sort (tough luck if you're not interested in crafting, cosplay, or putting your brain to work before lunchtime!). I'm glad I tagged along with my wife; I got to hear some fun stories, including one about meeting the legendary Yoko Kanno. Nakane idolized Kanno and was giddy and nervous when meeting with her to collaborate on a song. Kanno introduced herself by offering a bag of snacks to Nakane. Awestruck, she thought to herself, "God gave me snacks!"
AMV Contest Screening: As the arts and crafts programming continued into the lunch hour, I got caught up on the AMVs I had missed the previous day. Trailer/Parody is usually my favorite category, but this crop of AMVs relied on being familiar with a bunch of series I've had minimal exposure to. Romance/Sentimental gave my feels no chance to recover from the previous day, assaulting me with "Happy Little Clouds" (various series + "Bob Ross Remixed" by Melodysheep) and "Chihiro in Wonderland" (Spirited Away + "C'mon" by Panic! at the Disco). Action didn't seem as action-y as usual, but I enjoyed "The Deciding Moment" (Haikyu!!, Ace of Diamond, and Kuroko's Basketball + "Seki-ray" by Gackt). I'll refer you to this playlist for all the AMVs I didn't mention; there were a lot of good ones.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: "Slice of life with a sci-fi twist" is one of my favorite anime genres, and my wife and I enjoyed this tale of a girl...well, you read the title. Lots of clever surprises and fun character interactions, and the ending gave us plenty of conversation fodder. Probably the best part of the day for me.
The Anime Bubble of 2008: What We've Learned: We apparently learned nothing, because I have no recollection of this panel, aside from showing up late and taking a photo of some cosplayers on the way out.
Why Visual Novels: Tales from a Beta Tester (18+): I'm not into visual novels, but I play one on TV. I mean, uh, I know people who make visual novels, I have actual beta testing experience, and I'm interested in behind-the-scenes stories from the video game industry. Mike (I think his name was Mike) was an engaging presenter, and his stories were funny and insightful. He described the workload (tens of thousands of words to review), the wide variations in how tester-friendly games might be, and how testing games with naughty content isn't as glamorous as it sounds.
AnimeNEXT Match Game: After Dark (18+): We attended this last year, and it was the highlights of the convention: Match Game but with audience members participating as the characters they were cosplaying. At that time, voice actor Bill Timoney was on the panel and brought a sense of humor and professionalism that elevated the whole thing. This time, I arrived late and missed the introductions, so I had no clue who was on stage. If I hadn't read the description, I wouldn't have recognized the program as a game show; participants were rambling about NSFW topics (and after Epcar's outtakes, blunt sex jokes were wearing thin for me). I left after maybe 5 minutes.
New Cutey Honey OVA '94: Either I got the wrong room or they switched what they were showing, because this OVA about a crime-fighting android looked an awful lot like a grossly underage busty girl undressing before a grossly underage boy. I left after maybe 5 seconds.
These Are a Few of My Favorite Scenes: Regrouping with my wife, I resigned myself to random video clips for the rest of the night. At its best, the panel was a parade of share-worthy videos, such as a very cool animated Star Wars short film called "TIE Fighter" and the supremely absurd "Daffy Duck the Wizard." Just as often, however, it was a prolonged introduction from one of the four hosts, or an uncomfortably gory clip that once again had me closing my eyes. I'll add that this was not labeled as an 18+ panel. We left around midnight; there was another hour to go, but my exhaustion had finally reached its limit.
Saturday cosplay photos:
I appreciated the double dose of Samuel L. Jackson, with Nick Fury from The Avengers and Frozone from The Incredibles.
I wish we could've started with Sunday's programming; this was the convention I was here to attend. An eclectic assortment of options, timed neatly enough to minimize awkward gaps, gave me the freedom to attend whatever I felt like without agonizing over what I might miss.
How to Panel 101: As a Minor Internet Celebrity™, I've long considered applying to host a panel at a video game convention where people might recognize my work. I've recently been given opportunities to present at small local events, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to brush up on the basics. This presentation was invaluable. A lot of the advice was common sense, but the way the information was organized really helped to emphasize the importance of having someone proofread your application to host a panel, practicing your presentation, and preparing for every worst-case technology scenario.
Creatures in Features with Voice Actors Lex Lang and Sandy Fox: Hands-down the best part of the convention. The first half alone would've been one of the best panels I attended, and accessible even to people with no prior knowledge of these people. The affable hosts discussed how they got into voice acting; some of the roles they've played; and their involvement in loop groups, who fill in all the grunts, gasps, background chatter, and animal noises (you wouldn't believe the training involved for animal noises) needed to flesh out the sound in movies and TV shows. They talked about how Amy Jo Johnson, the original Pink Power Ranger, contributed to getting into that line of work. They played clips from some of the movies they've done and pointed out where you can hear them; Sandy cheered as the candy spectators in Wreck-it-Ralph, and it turns out Lex is my favorite velociraptor in Jurassic World.
The second half is what made this panel truly special: the audience was invited to do the looping for a scene from one of the newer Planet of the Apes movies, with the takes recorded and edited on the spot. A few people were background apes, and Lex coached them on how to grunt and ook convincingly. One person was a more prominent ape who got to shout. I was Breathing Man, as we called him—some poor schmoe who wandered into the jungle for the express purpose of breathing heavily and gasping at apes. I'm plenty comfortable with voiceovers, but I'm definitely not a natural when it comes to nonverbal reactions. Still, between thinking back to my theater days and getting some fantastically supportive coaching from Lex, I eventually produced some usable noises. When everything was spliced together and the music track was added, you could've convinced me that I was watching the actual movie. So, so tremendously cool.
Anime Openings & Endings THE MAN Doesn't Want You to See: I was tossed between this and a workshop on learning to play hanafuda. However, we wanted to wind down with something passive, I recalled how much I enjoyed last year's panel on the best anime openings of the '80s (including one from Kimagure Orange Road that was logistically fascinating), and I saw that George from Land of Obscusion would be hosting. This was an entertaining collection of footage that never made it stateside due to licensing or other issues, such as the Astro Boy opening that doubled as an advertisement for Glico (the Pocky people), or the trio of openings where composer Rui Nagai kept getting in trouble for ripping off other people's songs.
Animation in Anime: After a final run through the dealers' room, where I realized I'd blown my chance at getting a Ridley amiibo, I joined my wife for our final program, already in progress. There were two other panels I was considering attending, but I saw that this was co-hosted by Evan Minto, who ran two of the best-presented panels that we attended last year (one about the evolution of faces in anime, and one about the various appearances of burgers in anime), so that won me over. This was a discussion of the techniques and processes that bring anime to life, and I was especially interested in the part about visual continuity. Apparently, each scene in a show or movie might be done by a completely different animator. My favorite moment was, when discussing the importance of checking for quality and consistency, this image was left up on the screen:
Sunday cosplay photos:
We weren't able to get a clear shot of a fantastic Alex Louis Armstrong cosplay from Fullmetal Alchemist, so you get nothing.
...I'm sorry; I glanced up at that goofy screencap and started laughing again. What am I talking about now? Oh yes. Artwork.
Overall, I enjoyed AnimeNEXT 2019, but it ranks just below average among my convention experiences. I'm grateful that the convention staff listened to last year's feedback about the print schedule, and the program booklet was organized much better than before. I was pleased that every video I watched had subtitles where I could see them. Any other improvements from last year were ones my wife and I introduced: costumes that were more recognizable and fun to wear, planning out our meals better, downloading the Guidebook app to supplement the print schedule.
I wasn't a fan of how the programming was distributed; awkwardly staggered start times and too many panels appealing to the same audience at once (especially when they dominated an entire hour block) made it hard to be satisfied with my choices. My wife reports that most of the many concerts she attended didn't do the performers justice—too large a stage for just one person to command. I intend to have a word with the convention organizers about how graphic violence doesn't suddenly become appropriate for all ages after 10 PM.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for me was that the presenter is more important than the material being presented. Shihore Nakane was interesting because she's fun to listen to, not because I had any connection to her work. Previous attendance at panels hosted by George, Evan, and Lex swayed my decision to attend panels they hosted on Saturday and Sunday, which ended up being some of my favorites. Of the four game shows I attended between this year and last year, the only one I genuinely liked was largely because of the special guest.
Despite the low points this year, a lot of things we liked about last year's convention remained unchanged: great location, perfect attendance size, interesting events with interesting guests, good-quality cosplay, a dealers' room and artist alley with plenty to see, friendly convention staff, friendly convention center staff (those folks don't get nearly enough credit), and a very reasonable entrance fee. We're excited to try our luck again next year.
AnimeNEXT has become our convention of choice, just like Otakon was over a decade ago. Even when things don't go as well as they could, it's nice to have a place to call home.