Time for a little convention after action report, from The Owl in the Rafters! This past August 3rd-5th marked Anime World Chicago’s first return after its debut in 2011. For now the convention is still small (though personally, I rather like the relative quietness of a small convention) but it showed this year that its staff has their sights set on a strong and steady climb towards bigger and better things.
While the convention’s basic set up stuck to formula, the staff did employ some very clever marketing tricks and tools to turn the convention into a more lively, and more active environment than its size and attendance numbers might normally lend itself to. Contests, events, and services like a con-wide scavenger hunt, phone apps, open professional photo sets and sessions, as well as promises of prizes via contests like raffles, and even a Cleanest Hotel Room Contest (Winners got two full nights on their hotel bill payed for by AWC) prompted con goers to do more than idly wander the hall for the weekend. While some of the tactics came across as a little sneaky, and others almost all too obvious, the end result seemed to be a success, as it kept many con goers’ attentions fixed and eyes open for at least some portion of the convention. It was an interesting experiment and one whose method I hope to see refined in the future, FOR SCIENCE!
Major events and guests this year included American voice actors Todd Haberkorn, (as both industry guest and master of ceremonies) Monica Rial, Alexis Tipton, and Christopher Smith; Martin “LittleKuriboh” Billany, of internet fame; and J-Pop performer, Chii Sakurabi among others. Of all of the guests and events this year however three names in particular really caught my attention:
#1: Kent Williams, who was at the convention most obviously as an anime and video game voice actor, but also as an experienced (22 years worth of it) stage actor, award winning stage and television puppeteer, and theater instructor in puppetry, stage combat, musical theater, and kabuki. I feel it’s almost insulting to even think of classifying him as an anime voice actor first when he has such a strong history of wonderfully diverse artistic acting behind him. This year he appeared at Anime World Chicago as a panelist in a few generic voice actor Q&A sessions (but let’s face it when you’ve seen one of those, you’ve seen them all) and more interestingly as an instructor at two unique workshop panels on the cultural and mechanical basics of Kabuki theater, as well as a workshop panel on some simple techniques of stage combat.
Last year fellow content provider, Molly Rants-a-Lot, did a write up on Kent Williams’ Kabuki workshop panel at the first AWC, which has remained more or less unchanged. This year’s crash course was tweaked to focus more on practicing the mechanical steps and motions at the cost of following a specific story. For the time being I’ll leave you to Molly’s article on last year’s workshop and move one to Kent’s other workshop this year. The stage combat panel is a part of Kent’s convention line up that was absent from last year’s AWC. The workshop covers a few basic practical stage techniques for making convincing looking and sounding combat scenes: throwing safe jabs and hooks, crowd pleasing curls and reels, and some comedic slapstick for good measure. The time constraints unfortunately left only so much time for practice, but the audience involvement made for a genuinely fun filled, hour long introduction to the basics of stage combat.
#2: Samurai Dan & Jillian, who tour the general convention circuit as both a martial arts instructor and the owner of a 700 year old antique katana preserved in working condition. (He is also an all around sci-fi and horror geek and recent author of The Pack by Dan Coglan.) Other than being a martial arts instructor in various different martial arts, many of which are Japanese in origin, his panels show off not just his skill and knowhow but his comedic flare. His comedy routine with his wife Jillian, and on some occasion his son, Michael, have proven consistently entertaining for con-goers all around America. While his talents may go somewhat under-appreciated by the (let’s be honest) pedestrian audiences of most anime conventions, he manages to draw and keep attention by balancing his detailed knowledge of Japanese martial arts and their history with a kind of crude, raunchy, and geeky sense of humor. He is a man I admire not only for his in depth knowledge of a field I have personal interest in, but his tactful approach to entertainment-as-education. (or is that education-as-entertainment?)
Samurai Dan & Jillian run typically busy schedules at conventions like AWC, and this year they had a four different panels over the course of the weekend. Their Friday panel was their usual 90 minute introduction to and demonstration of Japanese swordsmanship. They explain some of the meaty mechanical basics as well as historical context behind the samurai art of swordsmanship wrapped in Dan’s goofy comedic antics. The main act being Dan and Jillian’s demonstration of Tameshigiri (lit. “test cutting”) a practice of cutting through bound straw mats. Once upon a time it was a very different practice, known as Tsujigiri (lit: “crossroad cutting”): a right among the samurai caste to cut down peasantry for the mere purpose of testing the sharpness of their blade. Eventually this was outlawed due to inconvenience and replaced with Tameshigiri, which replaced hapless peasants with the bodies of the dead, and only later replaced human bodies altogether with straw mats bound into rolls around sticks of bamboo (used as a proxy for human bone), and dampened to swell into a roughly equivalent consistency to that of human flesh. Now’days however, the practice is less about testing the sword and more about testing the swordsman: making a clean and fast cut through a straw mat is an easy test to show that a swordsman’s form and technique is up to snuff and capable of what it is meant for.
Saturday was a busy day for Samurai Dan, with both the 60 Minutes With Samurai Dan panel, and the 90min Samurai VS Ninja Sword Class workshop. The 60 Minutes With… panel was actual something of a last minute gig, with Dan being asked to fill an otherwise empty 60min slot with his general entertainment. Given the short prep time this resulted in more comedy than education, but given his personality and sense of humor, none of the con goers seemed to mind. Later than evening was his Samurai VS Ninja Sword Class workshop. Given obvious time restraints, a more or less clean slate of students, and a limited amount of equipment, Samurai Dan made good use of his time by skipping some of the more essential basics in favor of more exciting, stick swinging practice. Skipping over basic stance and grip may not be the best way to teach, but omitting it was a wise choice on his part, forgoing some of the more tedious and less entertaining material for something he knew would be sure to keep his audience engaged: swinging sticks at one another. His crash course on samurai technique appropriately emphasized defense and the minimal movement used to compensate for the weight of armor, while his ninja techniques showcased the ninja’s use of mobility and the exploitation of openings in an opponents line of sight and range of movement. None of the students walked away with any deep grasp of the arts, but it left a strong impact of excitement and fascination on many.
Then on sunday, Samurai Dan & Jillian hosted the Fear the Anime Chick workshop panel, which addressed basic karate self defense methods in the context of sexual harassment: a very pertinent issue among con goers in this day and age. It was a little less comical than his usual panels, but appropriately so, and I actually found myself very deeply respecting his approach to the subject. (The fact that he fully understood how to turn off the funny for the sake of addressing a serious subject displayed a level of self-awareness and self-control that I’m not often used to seeing at anime conventions.) The hour long introductory course to self defense took some time to ease the audience into a comfort zone where torquing each other’s arms came without awkward delicacy, but I think the class really got into the swing of things by the time it was over. And, save one ass in the audience passive-aggressively heckling Samurai Dan throughout a fair portion of the panel, it seemed to go over very well with his audience.
And lest, but by absolutely no means least…
#3: Don Hyun K. and the 312 Action crew, his Chicago based martial arts stunt team. Don himself is a student of martial arts film star, Donnie Yen, a gold medalist in Chinese Martial Arts, the motion capture model for popular Mortal Kombat video game character Scorpion, a licensed attorney at law (and adjunct professor thereof), and most recently author of the book Discover Your Dragon: a book applying the philosophies of Asian martial arts to everyday life. Generally, Don and his team of martial artists tour around various conventions to perform some marital arts demonstrations, answer questions about themselves and their work, and sometimes to give sort of impromptu, high energy motivational speeches. Don himself, as you can see, is a multi-talented individual with a powerful charismatic personality and it shows in how he leads his demo team and the 312 Action company.
Don’s team had a number of appearances over the weekend, including a demo during the opening ceremonies on Friday, the Discover Your Dragon: VG Mocap and Martial Arts Lifestyle panel on Saturday, and book signing for Don’s new book, Discover Your Dragon. His panel went over a good portion of his usual explanation of the core of Asian martial arts as a philosophical and lifestyle pursuit and not just a sport, and another live demonstration by the 312 Action team. In past con appearances he has spoken about martial arts as a hobby, the personal involvement of both he and his close friend, Taylor Choi-Marquez (3D motion capture model for Mortal Kombat‘s Kung Lao, and son of Anthony Marquez, the original 2D photo capture model of Kung Lao) in martial arts related pop culture. A truly talented group of marital artists and performers, as well as industry professionals.
This really sums up the highlights of my Anime World Chicago experience this year. Some other events that I had looked forward to and enjoyed were the Mahjong Tournament in the tabletop gaming room, which was unfortunately canceled but instead converted into a tutorial for new players that proved to still be entertaining; the Big Damn Gameshow, hosted by green plaid coated, convention circuit regular (more like marathoner with the way he gets around), Wheldon Smiley; and two different Anime Name That Tune panels, one of which was hosted by a friend of mine. (I’m a sucker for gameshows, could you tell?) Weldon’s Big Damn Gameshow generally covers a wide range of geek trivia with cash prizes, while the Name That Tune panels were both equipped with a random assortment of anime/Japanese paraphernalia.
All in all, for what is really quite a small convention, this year’s Anime World Chicago sported a surprisingly strong turnout. my only big complaints might be that most cosplayers that weekend seemed to have come equipped with only one costume a piece for that entire weekend (a very irregular trend in my experience) and that one of the biggest cut backs in this year’s arrangements saw the dealers’ room take a massive hit, with no major DVD or manga tables at all. (another highly irregular occurrence) Apart from those two small draw backs, it was a fun convention, and given it’s still relatively fresh presence on the convention scene, I look forward to seeing how it and the Anime World chain as a whole grows over time.