by Tom Good
This year’s Sakura-Con was the largest ever, with an attendance of just over 18,000 people at the Seattle Convention Center. The convention provides an amazing variety of things to do, combining educational and cultural events with pure fun and entertainment. Fans can learn how to waltz or learn to dance ParaPara, learn to sew costumes or learn to draw comics, go to a martial arts demonstration or a video game tournament. And just walking around between events is enjoyable in itself, because there are so many great costumes to see.
The Seattle Sheraton was filled with anime fans, but also hosted an Air Force ROTC convention going on at the same time as Sakura-Con.
This provided some interesting visuals when men and women in real military uniforms shared hallways and elevators with cosplayers dressed in fantasy costumes (including fictional military uniforms). And speaking of elevators, at least one ride seemed to last about as long as my typical commute to work, with a stop at every floor so that more officers and/or Pikachus could attempt to squeeze onto the already-full elevator.
There are high-energy, loud, active events like the rock concerts and Club Sakura dance parties. But those in a quieter mood can go to mellow panel discussions that feel more like a bunch of people hanging out and talking in a friend’s living room.
One such event was a fan panel about Star Wars, a panel with fabulous prizes that were introduced with the qualification, “I’m not gonna lie, I’m kinda re-gifting some of these.” People tried to answer all kinds of Star Wars questions, including absurdly difficult trivia questions like “how many segments of a bantha’s horn grow each year?” The audience posed other questions that were more open to interpretation, such as “when was the definitive moment when George Lucas went batshit insane?” (The creation of Jar Jar Binks was offered as a possibility, as was the casting of Christopher Lee.)
I learned here that nobody knows what species Yoda belongs to, and that the reason Obi-Wan Kenobi seems to have aged so much between episodes III and IV is because “those twin suns of Tattooine must be hell on your skin.”
When asked to name the best fan-created Star Wars material, the group mentioned Chad Vader and the Red Letter Media reviews of the Star Wars prequels. [Warning: the Red Letter Media reviews are funny and make some good points, but they also contain foul language, pointless violence and disturbing scenes.]
At one point, a man in the crowd asked the panel leader if she was just “some random person,” to which she replied “no . . .” Then another fan piped in with “But I am!” And yet another answered: “Me too! Nice to meet you!” This little exchange captured a lot of the flavor of Sakura-Con: it’s informal, fun, friendly, with lots of audience participation and people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
I also attended a panel called Anime Art Basics: Inking, part of a series of art lessons during the weekend. The panel covered subjects like drawing software, graphics tablets, pens, line and shading techniques. I’d recommend the art panels even to non-artists, because they offer a step-by-step look at how anime art is created.
One of my favorite events of the weekend was a lecture called “Hidden Away by Gods – Folklore in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” This was so packed with interesting information that it was like taking a college class in anime. I loved Spirited Away but assumed that a lot of the unusual visuals simply came straight from the artists’ imaginations. This panel explained how most of the imagery comes from specific characters and ideas in Japanese folklore. Not only did the lecture impress me, but I was also struck by how well-informed the audience was. People discussed Buddhist and Shinto imagery and debated the best English translations for various Japanese words.
The Folklore lecture also mentioned that Miyazaki had been influenced by Alice in Wonderland. This was fitting, because this year’s Sakura-Con had quite a few cosplayers dressed as characters from Alice.
As Sakura-Con grows, it also keeps getting more technologically sophisticated. This year the video camera work during the cosplay contest was impressive, including some overhead camera shots of the sort sometimes used in professional sports coverage.
Fans carried plenty of digital cameras and more unusual digital devices like pokewalkers, but I was surprised at the relatively small online presence during the convention. A few people posted updates to Twitter and Flickr, but not nearly the number I’d expect in a crowd so large. It seems that most people wait until after they get home from the convention to write about it online.
Sakura-Con is more than a set of organized activities, it is also a meeting place for a great subculture. The formally arranged events are an important aspect to the fun, but the convention also benefits from a self-reinforcing feedback loop, where Sakura-Con is fun because you get to be around the type of person who goes there.
The convention culture changes a little each year. Last year a lot of people high-fived strangers on the escalators, and publicly played The Game. This year during an escalator ride someone commented that those things weren’t happening much any more. But there were other bits of fun going on. A small group of people stood between the sets of escalators, just off to the side of the flow of pedestrian traffic, and announced “We love hugs! Free hugs!” Any passer-by could choose to go over and get a hug from each person.
I thought this was a very sweet thing to do, and it also probably took some courage to offer hugs to strangers. Naturally I wanted free hugs and I went through the line. Though a saw quite a few people stop for hugs, they were a small percentage of the crowd. I expected more people to do it, but on the other hand it probably would have created a horrible traffic jam if everyone had stopped for free hugs. (I told this story to a friend, who said, “Aren’t all hugs free? Do you pay for hugs elsewhere?” Good point. I guess “free” refers not so much to the price, but more to the lack of rules and restrictions.)
After I left the rave on Saturday night, I spotted a guy wearing a black Mad Hatter style outfit who was leading a line of people around and telling everyone to “Join The Line!” I joined, and noticed that some people would immediately join without question. Others asked, “where is it going?” to which he would reply “everywhere!”
The Line paraded around the convention center, and every so often the leader would see people and compliment them with proclamations like, “This guy is awesome, look at his hair, it is great!” Then The Line would cheer. It was like the opposite of a riot — a mob of people going around being nice. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Line high-fived lots of people on the escalators, and got many amused but puzzled looks in return from people who had never done the escalator high-five before. A few smiled in recognition of the tradition. Eventually The Line was asked to disperse, and everyone went their separate ways.
Of course, standing in lines is an unavoidable part of conventions, so The Line also served as a clever parody, where being in the line is the whole activity, not a prerequisite for something else. Being in The Line was kind of like getting caught up in a live Monty Python skit.
Sakura-Con is reliably great. I plan to go again next year, and you should go too.
Tips for next year:
Pre-register. The registration line is huge and the wait can be long.
If possible, plan to stay for all of Sunday. In previous years, Sunday seemed pretty quiet with not a lot going on, especially later in the day. So I planned to leave early in the afternoon, which turned out to be a big mistake. There were plenty of cool things to do on Sunday including the Lolita Fashion Show, and a concert that I couldn’t stay for. I’ll know next year to stay later on Sunday.
Plan out your schedule. Download the event schedule a day or two before the convention and spend some time deciding which things you’ll want to do. The smaller rooms can fill up fast, so it’s good to know ahead of time where you’re going next.
More Sakura-Con photos:
- Sakura-con cosplay photo set
- Sakura-Con cosplay contest photo set
- Friday dance photo set
- Saturday dance photo set
- Lolita Fashion Show photo set
(Please note: all photos in the above photo sets may be freely used by the people depicted and by Sakura-Con.)