Animazement Adventure (Part 1)

I was at Animazement over the weekend!     

Animazement is a huge anime convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, and lasts for three days. I’ve never been to any sort of convention before, let alone an anime convention, but I was very excited when my sister invited me to visit and go with her. I have a lot to share about it, so let’s start with a tiny bit of background before diving into what I actually did at the convention.

Why an anime convention? I’ve mentioned anime a few times before in blog posts, but, as weird as it may sound to those not “into” anime, anime itself is near and dear to my heart. Many of my favorite stories, shows, and movies are anime, and they’ve had a huge influence on my storytelling. Even just in Greysons, the Summons and especially Delilah’s Felines from Great Feline Adventures were subconsciously influenced by Pokémon, what with all of the different creatures and the collectible aspect of them. Dragon Ball Z was my first introduction to the idea of characters training to prepare for the fight against a major foe, and training scenes and sequences have been a favorite of mine in all stories ever since (I’ve been recently watching the Rocky films for the first time, and I can’t even express how much I love the training montages in those). Hunter x Hunter and Full Metal Alchemist both had a strong influence in my approach in Greysons to the magic system and different characters’ abilities. (Roy Mustang from Full Metal Alchemist and his Flame Alchemy was an obvious inspiration for Chelsea’s Fire Magic)

More than that, anime in general, alongside video games, have always presented me with worlds and totally crazy and amazing things that you never see – and perhaps can’t really be recreated – in live-action. I’m convinced the most visually creative minds are primarily working in animation, rather than live-action, so that they can fully realize their crazy, amazing ideas. Anime isn’t just cartoons, or stuff for kids, but a whole medium that allows for wildly free stories unbridled by the many restrictions found in live-action.

Don’t take that as a knock against live-action films and shows. The Lord of the Rings, while originally books, came to life for me in the films, and I can’t imagine those being done to the same impact in another medium. True-to-life films as well, dramatizing true stories from history, really need to be done with real actors and made as “real” as possible. Hacksaw Ridge needed real actors, real mud and explosions and dirt and grime to get the proper feel of what Desmond Doss’ experiences in World War II must have been like.

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But we could spend all day lost in arguing over different mediums and all that. Suffice to say, I love animation, and Japanese anime constantly seems to be offering stories and visuals you don’t get anywhere else. So I love it, and I loved being able to go to my first anime convention.

Although… I didn’t love my first moments at the convention.

Animazement is packed with panels, lecture-style events where a speaker (or multiple speakers) presents on a topic of their choosing. I looked at the schedule beforehand, and was very excited to attend a panel Friday morning titled “Flights of Fancy: Fantasy in Anime.” It’s right up my alley!

Only, it was a very poor presentation. The presenter simply played clips from different shows, and in between each show offered a one-liner, usually a cheesy attempt at a joke that never landed for me. I left early, thinking “this is it?” I had hoped for an in-depth look at the different types of fantasy genres used in anime, maybe even learned about a few great shows to add to my list of shows to watch. Instead, I left disappointed. Was this all I could hope for from Animazement?

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Luckily, that wasn’t the case. The next panel I attended on Friday was “Anime Shorts: Big Ideas in a Small Package.” I was interested in it because I’ve always struggled with short stories, condensing ideas into a small package. Could anime have any hints for me to learn from? And, more importantly, could the panel actually be well-presented, informative, and interesting?

Yes, to all of the above. The presenter (whose name was told, but I didn’t catch) was excellent and articulate, with a lot to say and a passion about anime shorts that was apparent from the very start. I also got to be exposed to another world – the wild, experimental world of anime shorts. In anime (and I’m sure many other mediums), shorts are often used to test out ideas, to do weird stuff that couldn’t get funding as a major project, or to do silly things or ideas that would wear thin over a normal, extended runtime, but work great in short bursts.

Many of the concepts anchoring anime shorts I think can be applied to short writing or other projects, and I left feeling very excited about what was next, and also about how to apply what I learned to writing.

The next panel – Friday was very heavy on panels for me – was “Rural Japan and Anime.” I’ve been watching a lot of videos about Japan on YouTube lately, and I find myself quite fascinated by the culture and lifestyles there. What I always find breathtaking and wistful, in a way, are the rural parts of Japan. Maybe it’s from watching My Neighbor Totoro, set in a small Japanese town in the countryside, surrounded by nature and farming, but the landscape and sense of adventure and “peace and quiet” in the rural landscapes of the world is fascinating to me.

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This panel was another well-presented one, and dove into “slice-of-life” anime, or, as the presenter described them, “stories about nothing.” I prefer “stories about ordinary life.” They’re stories about something, but that something is often just… people living life. There’s rarely much intense drama, there are never any huge, world-ending stakes or wild action, and they’re often very peaceful, relaxing, calm, fun, and cheerful. They’re a “slice of life” of the protagonists, a glimpse inside ordinary life for them, rather than grand adventures.

But a big focus of the panel was on why these types of stories are so fascinating and popular to the Japanese people. Why are shows about farming, or ordinary school days, so well-loved?

In short, it’s because Japan has a lot of problems.

I’d heard many times, but never seen put into such stark terms, about the harsh working conditions in Japan. People often die from medical conditions related to simply working too hard – not in manual labor or dangerous, poorly structured factories, but in office jobs, or animation jobs, or the types of jobs that many people might think of as mundane or peaceful, and at the very least, safe. Death from overwork is common enough in Japan that they have a word specifically for it: karoshi. People in Japan work crazy hours, and 40% of the working population is constantly going from one job to another, hired for temp work but never finding a permanent job. The disillusionment with modern life and working conditions leads, naturally, to a desire to escape through stories to a more peaceful, quiet life, without all the hustle and bustle of city life and demanding jobs. (I suspect that’s a lot of the appeal of Story of Seasons, one of my favorite video game series, as well)

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Couple chronic overwork with the precipitously low birth rate in Japan, and the fact that a third of their population is over 65 years old, and Japan may be heading towards a rough future. But despite their desire for escapism into stories about rural life, the rural landscape of Japan and the farming industry there is fading. There are over eight million abandoned homes across the rural countryside of Japan, and more than a third of all farmers are over 65 years old, with fewer and fewer young people entering into the farming industry. That situation also accounts for the numerous anime and manga about farming and agriculture, a subtle (or not-so-subtle) way of attempting to get people interested in a struggling industry.

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It all just was very interesting to me, a look at a world different from my own and problems and desires different from what I see around me. It was sad, but there were also nuggets of hope talked about near the end of the panel as well, and there are many people in Japan making efforts to turn things around. It’s interesting to me that so many people would want to escape into stories about rural life and farming, and yet wouldn’t want to physically escape to that kind of lifestyle, despite it being not too far away from where they already live. I don’t remember exactly what Bilbo said in The Lord of the Rings, but he talks about finding somewhere quiet where he can just finish his book. And of course the hobbits in that story were a people that captured an idealistic lifestyle, in Tolkien’s eyes, of a peaceful lifestyle out in the countryside. There’s an appeal to that kind of setting and story that goes beyond just one country.

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But I’m going off on tangents again. I don’t have anything profound to say about the Rural Japan panel, except that all of this was fascinating to me.

Finally, I went to a panel on Friday called “The Far Shore: Noragami and Shinto.” Like the title suggests, the panel was about the Shinto “religion” and its influences on the anime Noragami. I haven’t seen Noragami, but I was interested in both the anime and learning about Shinto. I put “religion” in quotes earlier, as one of the presenters said it’s a religion only in a very loose sense. Different belief systems, cultures, ideologies… they’re interesting to me. How do other people think about the world? Why do they think that way? How does that impact the way they live their lives? Understanding people different from yourself is a vital skill as a storyteller, but also for life in general.

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So those were the Friday panels. Saturday and Sunday I didn’t attend as many, so let’s dive in!

Saturday morning I attended a panel titled “Artist Alley 101.” This was all about “Artist Alley,” a common presence at many conventions where independent artists can sell their wares. I had perused the Animazement Artist Alley a bit on Friday, and there were some amazing people who had made amazing things! I wanted to learn more about this, and see if maybe there might be space for someone whose talents lie more in writing than visual arts. It was an informative presentation, talking mostly about the “business” side of things for artists – how to market yourself, how to get people interested in your booth in an Artist Alley, how to make your displays pop, how to be prepared for a full day of watching most people just walk by without giving you any money, that kind of stuff. It got wheels spinning in my mind, and I’ll definitely be looking more into what it takes to get an Artist Alley booth at conventions, and what I might be able to bring to the table and how to present that.

 A particularly stylish display at Artist Alley

A particularly stylish display at Artist Alley

Next up was “Intro to Gundam and Gunpla.” Gundam is a franchise I’m loosely familiar with through shows like Gundam Wing and Mobile Fighter G Gundam, but it’s a massive franchise that, in a nutshell, is about people piloting giant robots in various intergalactic wars and conflicts. They talked about almost every series in the franchise and what they bring to the table, and then went on to talk about Gunpla.

Gunpla is short for “Gundam Plastic Model,” and it’s like the name sounds – plastic models of the giant mobile suits – Gundams – found in the franchise. I’ve seen figurines, action figures, and other sorts of collectible figures and toys, but I didn’t know there was this whole crazy world of model building. While it’s not something I want to get into – it’s a major time-and-money-sink – it was amazing to see the kind of skill and craftsmanship that goes into making some of the most impressive Gundams come to life in model form.

 I was quite taken by this tiny Gunpla, though

I was quite taken by this tiny Gunpla, though

Finally on Saturday was “Gundam Over the Decades,” which was actually part of a collection of panels looking at “100 Years of Anime.” So the panel opened with a long video set to music that showed the development of anime over an entire century, starting from the simplest anime out of Japan, and making its way to the highly polished anime series and movies of today. It was amazing to see the change put together into one video like that, and I’ll admit I got quite excited, and perhaps a bit misty, when I saw some of my favorite shows in there. That was all of note for me about that panel – the rest was I’m sure very interesting, but also steeped in the parts of the Gundam franchise that I’m not familiar with, so I didn’t really get much out of the rest.

Finally, we come to Sunday, and the only panel I attended on Sunday was “Touken Ranbu: Behind the Blade.”

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It revolved around the video game  and anime franchise known as Touken Ranbu, a series where all of the characters are personifications of historical and mythical Japanese swords. It’s a wild premise, but totally fascinating to me (I love swords and medieval Japanese history, it’s a good combination). The presenter was also really quite fun and was clearly very passionate about the series, getting very excited about every single thing she talked about. She looked at every single character in the franchise, and it was amazing – and at times hilarious – to see how the people behind the characters had incorporated so much of their research into a single human character. Real life and history are strong influences for some of the best fiction.

And those are all of the panels I attended over three days of Animazement! It’s all very strange and eclectic, I know, but this probably gives you a good peek into the kinds of things that interest me and inspire my storytelling. It was also a rather long piece, so I’m going to split up my musings on Animazement into two blog posts – the second will be talking about my experience as a whole, as well as the wild, crazy worlds that are the Artist Alley and the Dealer’s Room. See you in the next one, and thanks for reading!

Read Part 2 ->

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