Going METRO in the Sunshine State
Cat Girls and School Girls make for one exciting weekened down in Tampa, FL
Ah, summer time. That special time of year when school is out, the sun is up, and every anime convention under the sun is trying to compete for your weekend off. I was fortunate enough to get to talk with a number of the press liaisons behind virtually all of this year's summer conventions and each of them had something unique to offer. Sure, a hefty guest list and a humongous dealers room is a key draw for some, but I tend to like my cons a little more on the fan-friendly side, with a bit of the exotic thrown in to give it a little something different.
For METROCON, held July 9-11, 2004, that extra something was the promise of a no-holds-bar showdown between School Girls and Cat Girls in a little something called the Anime Human Chess Match. Talk about unique. School Girls Vs. Cat Girls?! I'm so there!
Yet Tampa is about a six hour drive from where I live and if were not for the awesome work by METROCON's very own media relations and press liaison, Alison Roberts, I would not have made the trek at all. To say Alison that wowed me would be an understatement. She floored me with her professionalism. METROCON might still be considered a newcomer, but in a few years time, it just may dwarf many of the other east-coast cons.
With that said, this intrepid reporter had a rather unique con experience this go around. This time I brought along my best friend, Matt Pollock, to play the part of Jimmy Olsen to my Clark Kent, because pictures and cons just never seem to mix well with me. Interestingly enough, Matt never quite "got" my obsession/profession up to this point. Sure, he got Pocky, anime music videos and even the concept behind keeping manga right-to-left, but would he get the whole con thing? Only time would tell.
Ah, Tampa. Words cannot describe how utterly confusing and bewildering the streets of Tampa can be for a non-Tampaite. Sure, the cop-free trek from Albany, GA to Tampa, FL was uneventful, but in Tampa I had all sorts of problems...chief of those being the need to perform about ten U-turns every time we left the hotel.
Anyway, we made it to the con, and after being passed around various con staffers still trying to gain their bearings themselves, we managed to snag our press passes and meet up with Alison for our first major briefing and a general clue as to when I would get my chance to interview Ninja High School writer/artist, Katie Bair before we were to be let loose upon the con.
The first thing we did was stomaching about five minutes of the tail end of a Magical Emi before bolting to the dealers' room to scope out the rather cramped terrain. I spotted a few trinkets, but held off buying anything for fear of weighing myself down too early in the day.
For some reason that escapes me, Matt wanted to know just what the heck Yaoi and Yuri were all about. I think it had something to do with the fact that I know a bunch of girls that are into the whole Yaoi scene. Honestly, I think we were two of the four males actually in that room, and all of us were too afraid to even talk after hearing about the relationship between Sirius and Remus (Harry Potter). Yep, this is one panel that could have used a tad more Yuri discussion.
After that eye-opener, we had to catch our bearings. While I scoped out the events schedule, Matt decided it was time for a drink. I'm all for peer pressure, but a word to the wise... don't ever have a drink in a hotel. It's as bad as buying something from a theme park.
Our next major panel wouldn't be for another forty-five minutes, so we wasted that time in the game room. Now this was a game room done right. It was spacious, dark, and had a real, honest-to-god Dance Dance Revolution Extreme machine and a Dance Maniax machine just screaming to be played. I can play DDR anywhere, but it is a rare treat to play the four-sensor goodness that is Dance Maniax, Konami's Para Para predecessor. I even got to have my first real taste of Pop'n Music (number 9!) on a home-brew arcade style controller. I failed miserably, but this one taste would lead me in post-con withdrawal to splurge on my own custom built Ransai controller and all four of the PlayStation 2 releases.
Then came the Pocky and Ramune panel. Now this is one panel that just grew and grew as the hour ticked away. Can you guess why? Two words: free samples. Of all the delicious flavors that I was able to taste-test, by far the two that stuck out were the tangy, pumpkin-chocolate flavored Pocky and the god-awful, seaweed flavored Pocky. Yes, seaweed. The over-sized stick tasted like a cross between a crouton and grass. And the after-taste...yuck! I had to finish off a tin of Altoids to just to get my mind off the gut-wrenching taste.
Then there were the opening ceremonies, a quasi-mesh of introductory speeches and music videos. To just feel the sheer excitement in that room when the fansubbed trailer for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children blazed onto the screen was a thing to behold. I had seen it online, but having an audience cheering is something in and of itself. The laugh-out-loud hilarious Naruto "Ninja in the Night" and sequel AMVs, as well as the cute "Safety Dance" were also crowd pleasers.
There were a number of "technical glitches", however, that plagues this and other events. The biggest was that if the bass on the speakers ever peaked, the DVD player would literally skip. Combined with some minor microphone snafus, METROCON 2004 was given the nickname "DoomCon" by its hosts in order to keep everyone in high spirits.
The many guests of honor were given some brief time to say a few words, and towards the very end, master-thief Lupin III crashed the event and stole the much-lamented Cosplay Contest gong. Bounty Hunters Spike and Faye Valentine were called upon and were quickly challenged to a game of chess. Thus the seeds for the next day's signature event had been sewn.
And now, five semi-fun things to do in Tampa when not conning...
5. Try in vain to find the beach, but find the bay instead and be overwhelmed by the rotten smell. 4. Go to the mall and have someone hit the back bumper of your car and not leave a note. 3. Go into a graveyard at dusk in hopes of capturing ghosts on camera. 2. Go to a liquor store and buy some rum and coke, and have pizza delivered to your hotel room. 1. Try to write-up your first day experience at a con only to realize the next day that, just like driving, you should never write while intoxicated.
The early mornings at a con can be a mixed bag. On one hand, the hallways barely have any congestion, but on the other, it means that there isn't that much to watch. For this reason, I made it a point to subject my photographer to the bizarrely charming and strangely addicting Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon live action series. And yes, half the room did burst in snickers and muffled laughs at the sight of the semi-CG/plush doll reject Luna. We won't talk about the latex monsters though.
And then came the main event...the Anime Human Chess Match. Boy, was it everything I thought it would be and a little bit more. What exactly was the Anime Human Chess Match all about though? Simple, it was a scripted Cosplay event where various key anime characters were pitted against one another with comical results. I mean where else, aside from fan fiction, could you ever expect to see Excel go up against Alucard? Or how about Chi versus Ed?
The pairing that absolutely stole the show though was Yugi pitted against Ash as they mindlessly threw cards at each other. Who would ever thought that Pikachu's Seizure Attack could take down a Blue Eyes White Dragon?
There were almost too many pairings to name, but the final showdown down came as Dorathy/Lupin/Vash (Cat Girls) faced off against Spike/Faye (School Girls). Spike poisoned Vash with some mold-encrusted doughnuts from the death trap that is the Bebop, and Lupin was forced to call upon his ace, Faye Valentine, who in turn double-crosses Spike for Fujiko's place at Lupin's side. Some mushroom hijinks ensue, and soon after the Dirty Pair arrive along with Zenigata, and everything works itself out into a bit of a draw. The gong is recovered, and the event wraps up rather nicely. Dorothy is even reunited with Roger in the end. Sure, the signature School Girls and Cat Girls may have been the main title match, but the unofficial pairing of ninjas against pirates was where the real action was.
In retrospect, there are really two things that I wish could have been done differently. One is that I wish the main Ballroom had been big enough to fully accommodate everyone who wanted to see the Chess Match. I was literally the last person let in, and even then I was separated from my photographer, who wasn't even let in. If there was one black mark on the con for me, it was that.
The other things I wish that could have been changed were the video room line-up. One look at the schedule showed that the really good stuff was mainly shown in the pre-dawn, A.M. hours. There were four main video rooms down past the room for registration, and only one of them played anime. One was a request monitor room that let anyone pick something to watch, and the others were live action rooms. The problem was that if the request room wasn't playing anime, then three out of the four rooms were playing something other than anime, and even the one room playing anime didn't really have an appealing line-up in most instances. This left me with no other choice but to play games in the game room or waste time in the dealer's room.
Getting back on track, the ADV panel was a nice treat. It wasn't as lively as previous ones I have attended, but it was definitely one of the more personal ones. Having been eclipsed by Anime Expo just a week prior, there were no new announcements to be made, and the lack of a preview reel meant the panel was to be a question and answer with ADV's trademark giveaway at the end. Luckily, ADV had brought in its staple of voice actors, so we were graced with the talents of Greg Ayres, Luci Christian, Vic Mignorgna, Monica Rial, and of course, directors Don Rush and David Williams.
Saturday being Matt's birthday, we decided to call it a day (yes, we skipped the Cosplay Competition and Anime Idol) and to try to actually find the beach this time. We didn't really come dressed for the beach; we just wanted to say that we went. Can't really say that there were many chicks out, but the area was really nice.
Our main plan of action was to explore Old Ybor City and pick up a couple of cigars from King Corona, a swank cafe and bar dealing in imported and domestic, well, cigars. The area also sports a movie theater, FYE, and a ton of other souvenir, clothing and tattoo parlors.
We went back to the mall and I stocked up on anime DVDs. We had some tentative plans to go back and watch some late-night anime at the con, but instead we opted to go to Wal-Mart and buy a cheap DVD player so we could chill in the hotel room with my assortment. The original plan was to buy the DVD player and return it at the end of the weekend, but it ended up proving to be so useful that I kept it for use during any other major cons.
What did we watch back at the hotel? Why the mind-numbing, acid-trip that is Super Milk Chan Vol. 1. Needless to say, the phrases "Belgian waffles" and "let's go get some sushi or something" became part of our vocabulary for the rest of the trip, as did "transgender lipo suction," but we kind of just made that one up ourselves.
Call it bad scheduling, but the turnout for AN Entertainment's panel ranged between three and twelve people for the entire hour it ran. The product reel was screened twice, once for the initial visitors and then again after a number of questions pertaining to just what the heck we had just seen in the Jungle+Guu opening.
Jungle+Guu (the plus is silent) is expected to hit sometime in 2005, but that release date is entirely dependent on how well Risky/Safety and Miami Guns do. Guu Final recently came out in Japan and while AN Entertainment does not have the rights to it yet, they do have first option and will pick it up, more than likely.
Unfortunately, AN Entertainment does not have any current plans to get into the manga business at this time. In fact, the general view is that two nameless companies single-handedly killed the entire manga market. So no, don't expect the Jungle+Guu manga to be coming from AN.
One question that I asked pertained to the relationship that AN and Right Stuf share. It isn't really a rivalry, but rather a symbiotic relationship where they are both similar companies with similar product lines, and they sell each other's products. As a cool plus, the first 10 people nabbed a nifty Miami Guns T-shirt, but it still doesn't explain why the screening of the first two episodes of Miami Guns had quadruple the attendance that of the panel. That said, if you are still on the fence about Miami Guns, just think of it as the next logical series to turn to if you liked Excel Saga and Puni Puni Poemy. Heck, out of all the stuff we had seen that weekend, Miami Guns seems to have become one of Matt's favorites as well. We even watched the second volume when we got back to our hotel room later that night, but let's not skip too far ahead.
One o'clock arrived, and that meant only one thing, interview time! The multi-talented goddess that is Katie Bair awaited, and after yesterday's last-minute rescheduling, I wasn't about to let her slip away again. With the help of Alison, I was able to steal Katie away from her post judging Costume Contest in order to spend forty-five hilarious minutes with her as we touched on everything from how she got started with comics to her passion for music. The complete forty-five minute interview can be found elsewhere in this very issue (see page 2).
And so the final wrap-up began. First up was the Anime Music Video competition. Ten assorted music videos preluded the actual winners as a bit of a warm up. By far Mfoldenauer's "Fairytale For My Beloved Wife" set to the animation of Spirited Away was the most moving of this initial line-up. The actual winners were all enjoyable, but having Yann Jacqmart of France clench two categories did seem a tad excessive, although both videos truly did deserve their places. Be sure to download the following AMV's next time you are on AnimeMusicVideos.org, because they are definitely worth checking out:
Masters' Category: "Kill Spike" by Yann Jacqmart
Technical Editing: "Tsumibito no Kashou" by Yann Jacqmart
Best Drama: "Priceless" by Matt Boone
Best of Show: "Mexican Wine" by Matt Boone
Best Comedy: "Short People" by Linda Clark
That's Just Wrong: "Everyone Is Different" by Joslyn Fitzgerald
Immediately following the AMV presentation was the Costume Contest, a parade of seventy-seven entrants ranging from groups to single individuals who would walk up and onto stage, strike two poses and walk off. Think a fashion show, just without the long stage, and you can pretty much picture this event. Lots of great costumes though, and the lack of the negative karma-inducing gong is always a plus. In some ways though, the eyebrow raising P.D.A. going on in the front row before the show kind of dwarfed the event in my mind.
Once the parade of entrants ceased, METROCON's official mascot, Hannah Lees, dressed as Yuna from Final Fantasy X-2, took the mike and announced the winners. I bet half of the audience had never heard of the series Malice Mizer until today, but that more than likely planted a seed to find out just where the quasi-goth/clown look came from. Winners were as follows:
Best Group: Erik Johnson, Melissa Hogan, Cassie Lynch, Amanda Leo, Laina Nalivayko, Magan Hogan, Carla Bernal as Naruto, Kakshi, Gai Sensei, Rock Lee, Saurka, Shizune, Tsunde from Naruto
Best Tech: Jennifer Everhart, Rick Everhart as Shampoo and Mousse from Ranma 1/2
Best of Show: Kim Dellner as Myoubi from Alchino
Judges' Award: Jessica Ramsey, Katie Rempe, Corg Herdan, Becky Adams as Yu'ki, Kozi, Mann and Klaha of Malice Mizer
Best Prop: Shiloh Grant as Kamatari from Rouroni Kenshin
Best Original School Girl: Heather Howard
Best Original Cat Girl: Ally Rexrode
Best Individual: Teresa Speidel as Kozi of Malice Mizer)
Junior Winner: Melanie Poston as Sailor Moon from Sailor Moon
As everyone started to pile out of the ballroom, it became apparent that things were definitely winding down. No place was this more apparent than in the dealer's room. Though I had bought a Chobits plush, Miami Guns Vol. 2, Azumanga Daioh Vol. 2, a doll book and an Evangelion jigsaw puzzle in my previous visits, this last visit proved to be the most fruitful. I snagged a Christmas PVC figure of Naru from Love Hina, and a whopping seventeen issues of assorted Shonen Jump magazines ranging from 1990 to 1991 for a dollar each!
And then it was all over. No more School Girls. No more Cat Girls. As we drove away, that undeniable post-con sadness came crashing down on me like a ton of bricks. It's a pain similar to losing your girlfriend and in the case of this con, it stems from knowing that it is time to go back to the real world now.
But wait there's more!
On our initial drive into Tampa, we passed the Museum of Science and Industry (or MOSI) and I just knew we had to at least scope it out sometime before we left. So why not Sunday?
We passed on the kiddy exhibits and instead opted to catch a double feature in the massive IMAX Dome Theatre. Disney's Sacred Planet was almost a complete snooze fest, but Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk kept you on the edge of your seat as skydivers performed one crazy stunt after another.
For me though, I was just glad I got to play some DDR. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you get curious onlookers who have never seen DDR before watching you get your grove on while jamming out on doubles to "Break Down!", "Mutsuri Japan" and "Cartoon Heroes."
Sunday ended with us crashing in the hotel with some more anime. Namely Miami Guns Vol. 2, the 100% whole version of Super Milk-Chan (what a totally different experience!), the first episode of Cosplay Complex, and Saikano Vol. 2, though Matt had long since fallen asleep by that time I got to that one.
Monday would be our last day in Tampa, but I knew I couldn't let us leave this city without at least visiting the place's number one tourist attraction...Busch Gardens!
For those not in the know, Busch Gardens is a theme park that is a cross between a zoo and an amusement park. The main draw is the coasters and water rides, and the jury is still out with me on which of the rides is better. The Montu by far is the most unique with its Egyptian theme and hanging track (your feet dangle out into nothing), but the Kumba has to be the fastest. It is a more traditional downward tracked coaster, but the insane twists, turns, and loops that this baby puts you through is something else. Finally there is the Gwazi, an old-style wooden coaster that was built for speed and some serious jolts.
We also rode the Python and Scorpion coasters, but those were so utterly short that the experiences ultimately slip my mind. The Congo River Rapids though, oh jeez...talk about getting soaked! The contents of my wallet were still wet for three days after that ride. And yes, I did get to play some DDR. That just made my day all the more worthwhile.