Goin' Kuni in St. Louie
Midwestern combined with anime fandom - and David Carradine!
At the beginning of March, the Kunicon crew made a stop in St. Louis, giving them the distinction of being the first dedicated anime, manga and gaming convention to grace the city's convention scene.
Kunicon itself is rather new, so attempting to bring a large convention to a relatively untested area was a little bit of a gamble on their part. However, in the end, I believe it was worth it - both for the enthusiastic organizers, the special guests, and of course, the thousands of con-goers who made the trip to see what the hubbub was all about.
This was, in fact, my first real anime convention. I've never found the time (nor had the money) to check out an out-of-state convention (which they all would been up until Kunicon), so I had my own set of preconceived notions of what I should expect.
My fiancée, Lauren (I popped the question on the 20th of March) came along, working double duty as a photographer and strategist. Lauren had the rough job of scouting out events that she knew I'd like - many of which I might not have noticed without her keen observational skills. She also handled the task of performing the pre-con scouting - skulking about in the Kunicon forum to see what went wrong and what went right during the previous engagement. I was content enough to be going.
As a St. Louis resident - and one who not only lives within the city limits, but who also works downtown - I think I had an unfair advantage in some ways over those who came in for the convention. Most importantly, I knew where to find free parking for the weekend (the open air lot that I park in for work near Busch Stadium is only manned on weekdays) and inexpensive, edible dining only a few blocks away (such as the St. Louis Bread Co. - also known as Panera Bread elsewhere - which isn't bad when compared to hotel prices). I was able to walk from work on Friday to the convention, though people who were actually staying at the Millennium Hotel certainly had the ability to stay at the con longer than we did. We skipped out on the all-night parties that were going on at the hotel in the interest of driving home for the wonderful part of the day known as a "shower."
The St. Louis area population is scattered across the region, and obviously Kunicon's location couldn't be close to everyone, but for me, it was practically perfect. Sadly, the heart of the city isn't where all the action is in the St. Louis region, but for us, that just meant that we didn't have to worry about crowds of weirdoes approaching us on our quarter-mile jog to the parking lot.
A lot of uninformed people think that the downtown area of the city is a dangerous place, but it's far worse than that.
It's downright boring.
Yet the Hotel offered a relatively full range of amenities, and the prices weren't nearly as bad as I feared them to be. Altogether, I was happy with the location. I can't speak for the room charges - I don't travel enough to know what's good - but as usual, the best source of detailed information is the Kunicon website. The forums are still pretty active, and I suspect they'll stay that way for a while - especially now that we've found out that Kunicon is coming back next year.
So, on to the actual con itself!
When I arrived Friday (around 1pm), I was immediately presented with my first challenge. Apparently, the registration desk didn't have my name on the list of expected members of the press - a potentially sticky situation. However, they let me in, anyway. I warned Lauren, who was coming later, and she tracked down a copy of the confirmation email from the all-powerful Adam Arnold and printed it out. We just showed the email to the registration person, and Lauren got in fine.
The staff didn't give us any trouble whatsoever. Personally, I found all of the con workers - both professional and volunteer - to be very friendly. I'm not usually the type to stir up trouble anyway, but they didn't give me a reason to.
Many times throughout the convention, I heard people say that members of the press made a stink in the past. I'm not really sure what went down to make these comments linger all the way to St. Louis's Kunicon, but I don't believe anything terrible happened this time around.
It was pretty slow when I first walked into the artists' area of Kunicon - but then, this was midday on Friday. The first booth I stopped at belonged to Dirk Tiede (http://www.dynamanga.net/), where he was showcasing Paradigm Shift, an original Amerimanga written and illustrated by himself. It was certainly one of the most professional releases at the show, and even though it was essentially self-published, the book didn't skimp in quality.
Despite the small amount of traffic at 2:00 pm, Dirk said that he had already sold enough books to cover the hotel cost, which was certainly a good sign, considering how many people stopped by his booth throughout the weekend.
Before I go too far, I have to say that all of the artists were very friendly people, and they were all impressively talented. If I fail to devote a balanced amount of information to each one, then it's only the fault of my memory and not because I didn't enjoy talking to any of them or didn't like their work. Each one was really cool.
I ended up picking up a cool Spike print from a talented young artist named Michelle. She was only fifteen or so, and I do hope that I got her name right; I forgot to have her sign the print - but props to her and her dad for making the trip to St. Louis.
After that, I grabbed a couple books from Carly Wagner (good art and nice books, considering they were printed at Kinko's, but some careful editing would make them even better), and another title by written by a high school friend of mine, oddly enough, who now freelances for various anime magazines whenever she gets a chance.
Steve Bennett of Ironcat fame was there, and when I say he was "there", I actually mean he was EVERYWHERE. It seemed like he showed up at every event, and since he's such an entertaining guy, I certainly didn't mind seeing him so often. I grabbed a pile of Ironcat books from his booth - they're hard to find nowadays - and considered myself lucky to have found them.
The four gaming rooms were already up and they ran almost non-stop over the weekend. One room was dedicated to PC gaming, one to console gaming (nothing like linked Halo), another to tabletop gaming (mostly trading card games), and yet another to music games. The rhythm gaming room featured some of my favorites, including Karaoke Revolution, Taiko Drum Master, Donkey Konga, and of course, Dance Dance Revolution.
It was really cool to see all of the great games that they had picked out for the convention, but the lines were too long for me to want to play. I mean, I'm a gamer before anything else, and I already owned all of the games that were featured at the show, so there wasn't any reason to want to stand in line just to play titles that I could play at home without waiting my turn. I'm selfish that way, I guess. One other turnoff for the gaming rooms was the fact that we weren't allowed to bring in our bags while we played - we had to leave them out in the hallway, along with our haul.
Personally, I had already picked up a lot of stuff, and while I trust 99.9% of the anime fan community, I don't like the idea of leaving my stuff sitting in a heavily trafficked area, even if there were staff members sitting out there watching the stuff. I completely understand the staff's reasoning behind keeping bags out of the rooms, seeing as any of the nice games, controllers, systems, or projectors could've easily been spirited away in the large con totes. Distrust was what kept me from leaving my bag unattended as well, so I can't criticize Kunicon for feeling the same way that I did.
I was excited to hear about the DDR tournament, but I'm certainly out of my league on the heavier modes of play - especially on a hard pad. Sadly, my big feet are even bigger when I'm wearing shoes, and it's hard to use a metal arcade pad without shoes on. Plus, I don't know too many of the PS2 DDR songs - I was weaned on the PSX and Dreamcast editions, and lately I tend to play the Xbox versions most of the time. Four players and more songs (after downloading the expansions) just make them more appealing.
Next, we moved on to the dealers' room. The last time that I attended a convention at the Millennium Hotel, it was contained entirely in the space assigned to the dealers, though the vendors only filled about 70% of the available space. I wasn't terribly impressed by most of the vendors, but then, I worked for a store that still has the best in-stock manga selection that I've ever encountered anywhere, let alone in the space that a single booth at a convention will allow. Plus, I'm a bargain shopper. I don't have trouble finding things that I want; I just have trouble finding them at a price that I like.
The most exciting items there are always the imported goods - video game soundtracks, J-Pop CDs, import games, and so on. However, there were too many bootlegs for me to be inspired to purchase any CDs, and I ultimately didn't find anything that I wanted. Actually, CDs weren't the only knock-off items being sold, and I realize that the profit margin on these things is pretty high, but I wish more legal products were available at the convention. Sure, they cost a lot more, but it's hard to respect a retailer that makes money off of pirated goods - not that all of the booths sold illegitimate merchandise. Fast Food Anime was there (I remember them in particular, since they had a little printout using a quote from one of our articles, saying that they were good, which was fine by me), and they had a good assortment of legal, mostly domestic goods and lots of Japanese snacks.
Import games were mostly limited to the PS2, which I have not yet modified to play imports. I've heard horror stories from some people who tried modding theirs, so I'm holding off until I can find a cheaper PS2 to enjoy some Japanese gaming goodness on that particular console. With at least one new console coming out this year, maybe the price will finally drop to something a little more affordable for potential destruction.
However, I do wish that we would see translations of the various Twelve Kingdoms video games. I'll have to put those on my ever-growing list of things to get...
There were plenty of neat t-shirts, random prints, wall scrolls, and some figures, though at least one of my friends probably would have dropped a pile of money had he found a better assortment of the latter.
Lauren got an uber-cute Totoro and a Lain-in-Bear-Pajamas plushy, so she was rather content with her findings. It was also nice to get some Pocky (some of the varieties are hard to come by in St. Louis) and Ramune soda. Now there's a market that really needs to be effectively tapped here!
I ended up spending far more money in the Artist Alley, which isn't surprising, since I discovered unique items that I simply can't find anywhere else. Still, it appeared as if most of the vendors were doing okay, though import food items seemed to be the most popular goods with the con attendees. Next year, I'd love to see a larger collection of vendors - even if one of them is a representative of the local Waldenbooks, which was foolishly absent from the convention. I don't know what those guys are thinking now that I've left them, but they should have picked up a booth. Actually, it would be nice to see booths representing two of our best local comic book shops - Starclipper Comics and the Fantasy Shop - as well. Maybe they'll be there next year. All three stores have played a significant role in developing the local anime and manga fanbase, and their absence just didn't feel right.
In addition to the (practically) 24-hour gaming rooms, there was a handful of screening rooms dedicated to showing various episodes of upcoming anime series, as well as a few animated and live-action feature films, such as Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell 2. I was pretty lucky to catch the screening of the first few episodes of Tenjho Tenge - the convention took place about a week after the TenTen controversy was just beginning, so I was very interested in seeing the show. It was pretty entertaining, and definitely not something for children, and unfortunately, it made me want to read the manga. Now I have to either import it or wait until DC releases an unedited edition. Even if it is the only way they can begin to make amends with the fan community, I don't see that happening any time soon. It will take gobs of courage for them to back down now and admit they made a mistake - which they clearly did - but they're a little too new to the market for us fans to know whether or not they'll decide to do the right thing.
We hit the Iron Artist Competition after checking out the dealers' area, which was, of course, exceedingly entertaining. Artists were given random writing utensils and forced to draw their own interpretation of the Kunicon program cover. In a sort of twisted artist's edition of musical chairs, Manny forced them to jump from one work in progress to the other, which resulted in some interesting final products.
Throughout the day, we filled our downtime by watching random AMVs in the main auditorium - always a good time killer. And then, we moved along to Friday's main event.
The opening ceremonies were a lot of fun (especially when you're seeing them in the front row and sitting next to Piano Squall), with David Carradine leading it off by playing a haunting tune from his self-made bamboo flute, and Team Ryouko (Kunicon's featured martial arts group) getting the audience pumped up with their incredible athletic skills. They're going to be at Kunicon Atlanta, and they're a group you don't want to miss. It's one thing to see well-choreographed martial arts on television, but it's far more astonishing to see it in real life. Those guys were really amazing.
We wandered around until things slowed down later that night, and called it a day, dreaming of the fun to come the next morning.
Saturday did not disappoint. I never did take my Japanese version of the Kill Bill DVD to get signed by David Carradine, but there was enough going on that I didn't feel that I could justify standing in a huge line just to get him to say hi and write his name on the case.
The first event that Lauren and I checked out Saturday was "Manga Story Telling", where some of the guests (Piano Squall, Vic Mignogna, Chris Patton, and Steve Bennett) acted out scenes from the Naruto manga. It was hilarious to see the four of them attempt to bring the story to life, and I believe Michael (Piano Squall) was taking it more seriously than any of the other four, but then, he was on stage performing as a voice actor, which I don't think he'd ever done before.
We hung around for Michael's concert, which followed immediately in the main auditorium. You can read about that more in this month's Life on the Fringe. There was such a huge crowd for his show that he wasn't really able to answer questions from the crowd. Instead, he directed us to attend his Q&A session on Sunday.
Later that day, we checked out the AMV contest, which was slightly interrupted by technical difficulties. Nothing like getting random video codecs to play different types of movie files on Windows. Perhaps by next year, Kunicon's technical staff will be able to just burn all of the videos on a DVD-R, with each AMV contained on its own track. That way, it will just be a matter of whether or not the DVD player can play DVD-Rs, instead of spending a ton of time trying to get the show rolling after a few stops.
The lights in the auditorium stayed off during the five or so minutes that the show was halted, which inspired the less mature con-goers to start flashing their cameras repeatedly, perhaps to recreate a well-known Pokemon episode. It wasn't really insulting or anything, but there were certainly times that I felt as if I was surrounded by a bunch of children, and when sixty people start playing with cameras, well, that was one of 'em. In high school, if we ever lost power, the kids in the school would instantly freak out, and this reminded me a little too much of that.
I guess not all of the fanbase has really grown up yet.
At Lauren's request, we then hopped into a screening room to watch the terrible (and terribly gory) Story of Rikioh, an over-the-top drama with awful dubbing and gut-spilling violence. Lauren likes that kind of stuff though, which is just as well. If she didn't appreciate the sight of bloody pulpy gore, she wouldn't be in medical school learning how to save lives and to help people. Those eyeballs were not pulled out in vain!
We left before the end of the movie so that we could do "Hentai Cel Painting with Steve Bennett", but it was apparently cancelled. After waiting for about half an hour in a room filed with others equally eager to paint naughty cels, we gave up and left to try other things.
We wrapped up Saturday night with the "Anime Celebrity Stories Uncensored", a panel that was restricted to those of us who were 18 and older, so that a collection of the guests could freely toss around naughty words. Gotta protect the kiddies, you know. During this panel, a member of Team Ryouko was the most entertaining, but he didn't entirely overshadow Richard Epcar, Doug Smith (of Goldenboy fame, although he's also a respectable artist in his own right), Steve Bennett, Robert and Emily DeJesus, or the other guys.
This is as good a time as any to talk about how much I enjoyed seeing the various English voice actors in person at Kunicon. Many readers might be aware of my preference of the Japanese language track in anime over English dubs. I'm not sure if I've ever given off the vibe that I personally dislike English voice actors, but if I did, I never meant to. I realize that what they do is just as important as the work of their Japanese counterparts, and there's plenty of room for both of them on DVDs.
While I have never actively disliked English actors, I have also never actually had the opportunity to meet any of them in person prior to attending Kunicon. Thankfully, I can say that they are among some of the nicest, funniest, and all-round most interesting people that I've ever met. Chris Patton and Scott McNeil are hilarious, and they cemented the positive impression of them that I had been forming throughout the con in the "Uncensored" panel. Vic Mignogna is a sincerely kind fellow, and his talents go far beyond that of his skills as a successful voice actor. In fact, I can't wait to see the Fullmetal Alchemist fan film that he created - hopefully I'll be able to track it down one day.
Even if I do prefer the sound of Japanese to the sound of English, I will never try to claim that these fine people are inferior to the original actors. They are clearly different, and they end up creating an alternate version of the show that they're working on, but different does not necessarily imply worse. Clearly these people love what their doing, and their passion shows in their desire to reach out to their fans - no matter how pushy the fans may be. It's nice to see them get the attention that they deserve at a con.
Sleep came next (well, we drove home, and THEN slept), and then Sunday began with Piano Squall's Q&A session. Michael is a very charismatic person, and the room was packed with fans eager to talk to him about his work and his influences.
Following that, we decided to check out Vic's panel (co-hosted with Toshifumi Yoshida, a longtime producer for Viz who now works as a contract translator, writer, and producer for hire) on creating fan films and fandubs. As it turns out, I don't think more than two people in the room were there to learn about fan films, which was a little unfortunate, because Vic really knew what he was talking about. Once again, I was impressed by the wide range of talents that Vic has in his repertoire. He deftly fielded questions from one of the con-moms (a woman who isn't really a fan, but only came to the con because she had to bring her daughter), becoming an admirable spokesman for the anime industry as a whole.
If the video game industry had a person like Vic defending the existence of games made for older players, then I doubt it would have the image that it does today with uninformed aggressors. Vic himself came across as a person with a solid moral background (if you check out his website, he participates in a Christian band and has done missionary work as a part of it), so hearing him defend anime that is for adults means a little more than when other people do it.
The last big event we attended was David Carradine's Q&A session. The lights were so low in the room that we had trouble getting a single good picture, but for this event, we actually pulled out the press badges to get good seats. Security was high for Mr. Carradine, but seeing as there were a few of martial artists surrounding him ready to kick ass, I think he was pretty safe.
It's always amusing to see people mix up actors with the roles they've played, such as when one person asked him, "In Kill Bill, why didn't you just sit there at the end of the second movie?"
Well, I'd guess that would be because Quentin Tarantino TOLD him to get up, but maybe that's just me.
While he didn't show off any martial arts skills, he did exude an aura of calm that couldn't help but evoke images of Cain, the character he portrayed in Kung Fu. That said, he is NOT Cain, but it was rather cool to meet him, and he handled the crowd with ease, though at times, the generation gap between him and his youngest group of fans was painfully apparent. The combined Kill Bill saga is easily one of the best films that I've ever seen, and growing up, both Kung Fu series were favorites of mine, as well. It's hard not to be in awe of David Carradine when he's sitting ten feet away from you.
In the end, he turned out to be a down-to-earth guy. He gave simple, direct answers, and he didn't really try too hard when asked challenging questions like "Who'd win, Cain, or Bill?" (That was a good question, by the way.) He mentioned that he was coming out with a book eventually, and I'll likely pick it up. It seems like he's lived an interesting life, even if it did consist of "five happy marriages and four horrible divorces."
When asked what was his favorite TV show as a kid, he said that he didn't really watch much TV, but if he had to choose a favorite, it was probably the weather girl. She was the best thing he saw on TV when he was younger.
He made for a great conversation topic during other con events, though the wild rumor that he took a swing at Piano Squall was just that - a rumor. As far as who would win in a fight, Piano Squall would most likely kill Carradine with love and friendship (if you knew him, you'd agree with me) before he had an opportunity to Kung Fu Michael to death, but for now, we'll just have to speculate on such a battle.
There were little problems here and there - the AMV incident, certain events getting cancelled (though I wonder how much of that was due to the fickleness of some of the guests), events switching rooms, which they announced by posting signs on the outside door. However, that doesn't work so well when there's already people in the room waiting for the event. Additionally, concert noise easily bled into adjacent screening rooms, and there was a lack of close, cheap, tummy-friendly food, but overall, considering how many Kunicons came before it (one) and how many anime cons preceded it in St. Louis (none), I'd consider the whole event to be a wonderful success.
I think the experience would have been a little more involving if I was staying in the hotel, of course. Also, if we had gone with a large group instead of just the two of us, we probably could've minimized the downtime between events a little more skillfully, seeing as a group of people generates its own entertainment. However, both Lauren and I were glad to be a part of Kunicon, and we certainly look forward to being there again next year when it comes back.
Personally, I'm grateful for having the opportunity to see English voice actors in a more personal light and for getting to know Michael. It was fun, even if I didn't see as much anime, buy as much stuff, or eat as much Pocky as I would have liked.