Convention Report: Kumoricon 2009

by Tom Good
Photography by Gregor Torrence and Tom Good

This year Kumoricon moved to a new location in the heart of downtown Portland, at the Hilton hotel on Sixth Avenue. The packed hotel lobby on Saturday convinced me of two things: that Kumoricon’s attendance was way up from last year, and that fans of Japanese animation were going to get a little taste of authentic Tokyo-subway-style crowding. Sometimes even getting from one part of the hotel to another was a challenge, especially when the journey involved elevators, but the fans stayed in good spirits.

Some time on Saturday afternoon the convention reached a limit and stopped taking new registrations. I heard that around 6000 people were there Saturday (unofficially). As “problems” go, an unexpected large rise in popularity is a pretty good sort of problem for a convention to have — certainly it’s much better than the opposite trend.

Kumoricon wasn’t just larger this year, it also had a better cosplay contest. The staging was improved by dramatic lighting and a catwalk added on to the main stage. At times it felt like a professional fashion show.

The stream of cosplay fashion flows ever forward at Kumoricon. Some popular costumes from years past had all but disappeared, while new trends took the spotlight. Hordes of Fullmetal Alchemist characters no longer roamed the halls, but costumes based on video games were everywhere. The cosplay contest included costumes from Final Fantasy VII, Legend of Zelda, and a stunning, award-winning BioShock 2 “Big Sister” costume that had great details, lights and a cooling fan.

A classic game like Final Fantasy VII may never go out of style, but there’s always a way to give it a new twist, like turning bad guy Sephiroth into a woman, in a bikini, at the beach. That wasn’t in the game, but it was on stage as a skit in the cosplay contest.

Final Fantasy fans also got to witness a chocobo race, performed by cosplayers dressed as the giant birds and their riders.

In another skit, Legend of Zelda‘s Link had to teach a reluctant Dark Link how to be evil.

Characters from other video games like Street Fighter and Pokemon also appeared. Some games, like Pokemon, also have an associated animated series, so the worlds of anime and gaming do overlap. But costumes like Bender from Futurama and the Flying Spaghetti Monster proved that no direct anime connection is necessarily required. The cosplay seemed to be more about anime-inspired fashion and originality.

Some people created their own original designs (above). The woman on the right said more people asked for her photo in her own design, compared with the previous day when she dressed as a well-known character.

Costume designers took their craft to new heights, sometimes perilous heights. This costume must have been at least eight feet tall (above). Getting on and off the stage looked tricky.

The concert highlight was a band called Last Stop Tokyo, fronted by Simon Young of The Slants. They say they’re inspired by The Ramones, and they entertained the crowd with a down-to-earth rock style. Before things got started, I talked with some of the other photographers up front, and we were all a bit concerned for the safety of ourselves and our gear if the crowd rushed forward in the open space. I’ve been at other shows where getting knocked over was a real possibility. But the Kumoricon crowd was great about giving us space to shoot photos. (See the full set of Last Stop Tokyo pictures on Flickr.)

The downtown location created some amazing scenes of cosplayers dancing, posing and doing acrobatics in Pioneer Courthouse Square while tourists stared, took pictures, and tried to figure out what was going on. The square seemed like a great place to hang out and escape the crowds inside the hotel, but rain on Saturday kept most people indoors. On Sunday the sun came out, and the square became home to a “glomp circle.”

The new venue resulted in a few rough edges. Fans had difficulty finding their way to event locations in the unfamiliar hotel, and hotel staff seemed unprepared for the huge number of people attending the convention. Because of the crowds, some events filled up quickly and were closed off.

During the most bizarre part of the whole weekend, I witnessed some hotel employees yelling at fans and treating people badly. These employees came across like bullies, barking out orders and getting angry at people who violated odd and seemingly arbitrary rules that hadn’t been explained. I’ve gotten a more polite reaction when I accidentally brought a knife through airport security than when I attempted to walk down the “wrong” corridor at the hotel. This attitude felt especially unsuited to an anime convention where most people are so friendly. It’s too bad that a few people created a hostile atmosphere, because other employees in other parts of the hotel were very nice and professional, and the Kumoricon staff was fantastic.

Luckily, a few jerks won’t ruin something as big and amazing as Kumoricon. No organization can avoid every possible problem — the more important thing is how a group reacts when things don’t go exactly as planned. Kumoricon staff responded quickly and openly to complaints on their online forums, and committed to improving the experience next year. And on Sunday things seemed to go more smoothly than Saturday. So I’m looking forward to Kumoricon 2010, and I think it will be even better now that fans and staff will know what to expect from the hotel layout.

Every time I go to an anime convention, I always seem to stumble across something great and unexpected from the fans. This year I found some cosplayers in the midst of the improvisational acting “freeze tag” game. They were just playing in an open area of the hotel, but they kept me entertained and laughing as I took photos of their scenes.

Another rewarding moment happened when some people waiting in line outside the hotel convinced me to take this picture (above). I initially hesitated to try an outdoor shot on Saturday because of the rain, but with people there willing to hold the umbrella for me this shot soon followed, and it became one of my favorite pictures from the weekend. The spiral-pattern contact lenses are mesmerizing.

Other cosplayers spontaneously struck poses that surprised and amused each other, like this “proposal” (above).

All of these moments proved that at Kumoricon the magic isn’t just on stage, it is everywhere. Though the organized events are great, the fun doesn’t stop between them. And even though the convention is growing and attracting new people, that special quality that makes it feel like a big party remains strong.

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