Originally, we did not plan to attend Anime Expo (AX). But when Hitomi heard at Sakura-con that her most favorite singer in the world (Momoi Halko) was attending AX, we asked James to book us a room in Long Beach. James helps out Sakura-con and is a long time friend. He also runs a booth at many anime conventions, and was coming down with his crew to man his store. James is also a big fan of Momoi Halko, since he even released a fully licensed DVD (subtitled) of a concert she did as "Under17". (In fact, I believe Hitomi got hooked on her music because James was playing her in his booth and Hitomi ended up liking it so much.)
The initial plan was to attend Momoi's events and hang out with James, and make an attempt to see whatever other events and guests might come. And later, we found out our friend (and Sakura-con regular guest) Mr. Nagahama was appearing as an industry guest. We hoped to meet him sometime during the weekend. Mr. Nagahama was coming again to AX to promote the English release of Mushishi. (As an industry guest, he would be more free to go as he pleased and talk to attendees without AX guest relation security getting involved. And being a "Guest of Honor" means less time as a guest to do whatever you want, such as visit friends or wander about.)
Thursday night, I left Oakland and flew to Long Beach directly. Hitomi was flying in from Seattle at around the same time. We took a shuttle, which happened to be with other AX attendees from Victoria, Canada. The group was of people about 10-15 years younger. They had that excitement that reminded me of my earlier days attending AX.
We stayed aboard the Queen Mary, the floating hotel where James and his crew were. The old ship has much of the original interior intact on the inside, but the rooms had a bit of mess left by years of incremental remodeling and redecorating. The lighting seemed a little gloomy and the furnishings a bit cheap. Two round windows opened out to the dock, and we let in a bit of the sea air.
I put my bicycle together as Hitomi and James chatted. Perhaps I would ride this weekend?
I took a shower, after spending some time figuring out the plumbing situation: They kept the original four valves in the bathroom from the old cruise ship days, where cold+hot salt+fresh water was used for baths, depending on if at sea or port. Curious, I tried to use them. One actually did put water in the tub, but it was cold only. The actual water controls were on the shower nob, which for some reason took some time for me to find. As for the toilet, the valve used a push-and-hold type valve which seemed to be original or at least quite old. Did they fill the toilet with salt water? I did not sample it.
Friday was the opening of the convention and usually on the first day, we spend a good deal of time gathering information and access control tokens: badges, tickets, stamps, etc. There were about 5 major concerts scheduled for some famous bands, as well as the usual programming and animation company guests from Japan and the U.S. Hitomi and I waited in line for about an hour to pick up about $200 in concert tickets. (They could not mail them?) James was kind to provide us with extra exhibitor's hall badges, otherwise we would have had to wait another 2-3 hours that morning to pick up our badges. (Supposedly, there was some delay in mailing the badges out ahead of time, caused by their printer, etc.)
We got hungry after all that running around. Unfortunately, none of the local food areas outside the convention center had prepared for the onslaught of 30,000 hungry fans. Hitomi and I waited in line (in the sun) about 20-25 minutes to order, and then, after discovering it would be probably 30 minutes more to get our order prepared, we decided to go to another place which seemed not to have quite the queue. Which place? Most everywhere else was hammered, one place was closed because they ran out of food. And in addition to feeding ourselves, we had agreed to feed James and his crew, which made food selection difficult, and getting our order slow, obviously.
After getting our order in, I was hot and tired. The heat was annoying me, being hungry I felt bad. And Hitomi's "managing" was annoying me. I went to get some water, the most convenient was water I got from the bathroom tap. Hitomi does not like "bathroom water", and Hitomi complained. Frustrated, I then tossed the water outside, which splashed near some stranger's legs who was coming in. Of course, I didn't realize I splashed him, and he came in and got mad, since I should have apologized. After being threated by some random thug, who explained if it were a month ago he "would have kicked [your] ass", and then waiting a long time for our food, we finally got to leave. Our chicken sandwich turned out to be seriously dry and overcooked, and our toasted bread was charred black.
The main event Friday was the S.K.I.N. concert. We were in a bit of a time crunch to get in, luckily they started about three hours late. Hitomi and I had, again, bought premium tickets. There was a line to get in, and the security staff after checking our bags and patting us down, tore my ticket, but not Hitomi's. For premium tickets, we were supposed to actually be a different line. Hitomi was told to go to this line. Since they weren't supposed to tear my premium ticket there, I was escorted over to the other side of the arena, and had to get an arm band. The purpose of the armband was I supposed to indicate I could sit in the premium seating area, though all tickets had seating assigned anyway.
I was ready to go in, but Hitomi trapped in line wanted her Nintendo DS. She asked me, via her cell phone, to walk over to her to hand her DS to her in line, but at that point I was told (repeatedly) I couldn't leave the building. They said they would kick me out and not let me back in if I did leave. (Lousy treatment for customers paying $40 for a ticket.) Hitomi was furious at me, she was stuck in the sun without a book or something to do. I tried to call her via my cell phone, but she didn't pick up. Did she leave and not come in? I waited inside for about an hour and then took my seat.
Despite the long wait and suffering in the sun, it was, incredibly, worth the wait: S.K.I.N. is a "supergroup" of very famous (and top talent) Japanese rock musicians from other famous bands. Though during the hour they played only four (long) songs, it was an impressive performance. At the end they surprised the audience by smashing their guitars and drum set. This was the first rock concert in which I've seen so much stage destruction, and though it seems sort of cliche of bands to smash instruments as some sort of mock sacrifice, somehow I felt I got my money's worth. I suppose they went all out since it was their world debut performance. Maybe it's analogous to smashing a wine bottle on the bow before the maiden voyage of a ship?
Dinner was Denny's. We went to Walmart for snacks and James bought booth supplies. Walmart is a miserable place, especially in the ghetto at the end of the month. We spent 25 minutes in line with our handful of items.
I resolved to go on a bicycle ride in the morning. Maybe karma would send me a truck or bus to run me over, and put me out of my misery?
It was my first time bicycling along ocean. The first 6 miles was fairly pleasant, from the Queen Mary, along the shore to Long Beach beach, which helpfully had a bicycle path through the sand. The wind and light fog kept me cool. From the beach, I entered a bicycle trail inland along the San Gabriel "River". Rather than a river of water, it was a concrete culvert; mainly a river of concrete. To either side was heavy industry (oil refining?) and later trailers and mobile homes, nicer homes with flower vines climbing over their backyard fence. Eventually the landscape transitioned into light industry and car lots. Highways and freeways crossed above. There was virtually nobody 10 miles inland on this trail. It got hot.
An onshore wind pushed me upstream, and I rode in around 20 mph. As I road inland, the wind died down a bit. Returning was difficult; I averaged around 16-18. Total, I managed about 40 miles in about 2:30. I took a shower back at the hotel, met Hitomi for a pleasant early lunch at Gameworks.
Before pocketing my receipt for lunch, I noticed on the bill the following text: "Table ID: Nice Couple" Usually, they identify tables by number, but it our case the distinguishing characteristic was we were the Nice couple. I suppose we are agreeable, but I wouldn't say we were quite as nice to each other. Hitomi takes after her mom and sister in many ways and can be not so nice to me.
Following lunch, we attended a concert of voice actress from the show The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. This included Japanese voice actresses, who performed acting on stage, and several songs from individual cast members. There was also the American voice cast. There were issues with the translator, who was not a professional translator, and was MC'ing on the side. Because of her preoccupation with her own lines, often dialog wasn't translated, frustrating the audience and both Japanese and American guests. But the biggest problem were the audio synchronization issues. I'm guessing the monitor speakers did not work and the singers could not hear themselves.
The event of the night was "Anime Expo Idol", which was to be followed by a mini-concert by Momoi Halko. AX Idol is pretty interesting, as contestants either sing or voice act (VA) on stage. Judging was done by a voice acting studio (Bang-Zoom) and Momoi (both a VA and singer) was invited as well.
Momoi's concert had some of the same issues. She was off about 1/8 of a beat to the music, perhaps because she heard it when it bounced back from one end of the arena to her ears. On stage, what was odd too was how she jumped onto the tables and stage equipment: I found out later that she did this because she was angry that they were planning on cutting her concert because of scheduling issues.
The concert itself was completely unannounced, and was intended as a surprise. And this is probably why they thought they could cut it without complaint. But, still word leaked out, and I and her fans obviously knew of the mini-concert. Or, perhaps they carry glow sticks at all times? Well, many more fans would have come to AX Idol, or at least waited until the end, had they known she was to perform. There was just a skeleton of an audience left after people thought the event was over.
Following the poor treatment of Momoi, at her panel in the morning, she explained she would have to cancel her remaining appearances to concentrate on her concert. (And later on her blog she would slam AX.) I've actually never seen a guest get so upset at a panel before, and especially never heard of a guest complaining publicly. Anime Expo, though, is notorious of being disorganized. Hitomi thinks they never said anything bad to her, but I do think they were thoughtless in their planning and preparation.
There at least was band happy that day. AX invited Oreskaband, which is a Ska band made up of (recently graduated) high school girls, who have played ending theme music for famous anime shows as well as commercials for Pocky in Japan. Their choice of instrumentation is fun, incorporating trumpets, trombones, and sax, mixed in with electric guitar and pop drum beats. Personally, I liked the brass section more than the vocals, which seemed a bit weak against all that enormous sound. The audience sure got into it, and I was hoping Momoi's concert might find the same level of response tomorrow. As a bit of a bonus, the girls tried to teach the audience Kansai (Osaka-area) Japanese dialect. I reminds me of the time I was heading off to Okinawa, and some Osaka girls I met on the ferry had fun teaching me their lingo.
Finally, I met up with Hitomi at Mr. Nagahama's Mushishi screening. It was the English dubbed version, which actually was surprisingly good. Hitomi went to sleep about 10 minutes into the episode in progress.
There was a short Q and A session. Unfortunately, the translator was really just some Japanese person who claimed to know English, so pretty much all the questions weren't translated correctly. And the answers weren't really complete. It's not to say I could do better, but Hitomi could have. But despite that, it was good cheer all around, as Mr. Nagahama, plus Funimation and the lead English voice actor, Travis W. got plenty of praise. One interesting thing was how the audience actually grew over time. Often, the audience shrinks towards the end…
Following the panel, Mr. Nagahama stuck entertaining a few dozen fans, who wanted pictures or an autograph. Hitomi and I sat down and waited patiently: We wanted to see if he was free in the evening. Following the panel, we brought him down to James' booth. Mr. Nagahama had a few purchases he wanted to make, and wanted directions to the local Wal-mart. And later, he wanted to see the new Fantastic 4 movie. He had dinner plans with Funimation later that evening, and he said he might call.
The main event for Cos-Play is the Masquerade. The format is basically 50, short 3-minute skits or "walk-ons", in which the former typically have pretty muddled stories, and usually just has enough time to somehow explain how 4 or 5 different anime shows' characters end up meeting in one place. And if you know the shows represented, and can follow the performance, it can be quite entertaining. AX — being the biggest convention in the U.S. — at least has a fair number of performances that are well-rehearsed, and if not I could at least enjoy seeing the costumes, in which most everyone puts a significant effort into making. Sometimes an elaborate costume can take half a year or more.
Due to the panel, I showed up late. I got a seat somewhat up the second balcony on the side. The two MCs kept the audience in check during the usual technical glitches and delays. I waited for Hitomi to call; she was with James and his crew. There was a half-time show, which was performed by a mixed martial-arts studio, though in costume and faced off ninjas against pirates. The two shows represented were Naruto and One Piece. I got a call: We'd be going to a movie at 11PM.
The Fantastic 4 was playing across the street. I was tired, and so at the theater, I actually bought a Coke. I ordered a small. Instead, I got a large: I then asked for a refund, but was told she couldn't, only a manager could, etc. So I asked for a small popcorn to compensate, and they had no bags. This was sort of the way service was for me in Long Beach: I always got served the wrong thing, and nobody was patient enough to set it right. Mr. Nagahama managed to get his order right.
Despite paying for a 32-ounce drink I would never finish, the movie was entertaining enough to let me forget about it. Yes, the techno-babble was just babble, the acting so-so, but at least the Silver Surfer was cool and so were the fights. Jessica Alba is cute without the glam make-up. And unlike James and Rik, I actually liked seeing her in a kimono. Kimonos are awesome.
Mr. Nagahama enjoyed himself. Rik and him talked about how this-and-that differed from the comic and animation adaptations. I had domain knowledge, myself. We took a 30 minute walk to the Hilton, and said our farewells. He gave everyone a hug and warm goodbye. Like many Japanese, he wouldn't stop waving goodbye while we still were in out of sight range.
It was a long walk back, and I went to sleep around 2 or 3.
Most convention-goers come for the weekend; Monday was slow.
Momoi had her concert and I got to stand and jump around for about an hour. Predictably, most of the audience didn't study the call guide, but with a little help from her loyal contingent in the front row, we a few rows back followed along pretty well. Caught up in all the audience orchestration, as it were, and trying not to elbow either Hitomi or James, I paradoxically missed out on Momoi's performance a bit more than if I was simply still. Too bad there wasn't a dress rehearsal, and so the next time, I could confidently jump and "fuu-fuu" ("hey-hey" in Japanese) the right patterns, and wouldn't have to take my eyes off her.
The funny thing about the event was how tired everyone said they got. The Japanese otaku are, on average, in better shape than us Americans, perhaps thanks to all the walking they must do to get around Akihabara. Personally, I didn't have any trouble with keeping my arms up high, thanks to my kayaking, though my knees were not liking landing on concrete on hard sandals. I should have taken tennis shoes or something.
The day was short. But before leaving AX, Hitomi and I took one more look around the dealer's room. In addition to the usual official anime/manga goods, there were actually quite a few pop artists, i.e. those who sell pop/anime-style goods, like t-shirts, prints, accessories, dolls, etc. In addition to a pop-art print, we picked up a few Nintendo and video-game themed things, and I got a CD from our friends at JapanFiles, who brought us one of our musical guests at Sakura-con. Hitomi promised to work on their parent company's (YesJapan's) textbook, basically their Japanese language books, which use pretty boring stock clip-art, and could use some sprucing up. The Japanese have Moe-tan to teach them English, why can't Japanese language textbooks have cute characters for English speakers?
After 3PM, the dealer's room closed, and while James and his crew packed up, we got some chairs out. We met up with some Sakura-con staff members, those in the relations or publicity departments who come to large conventions like AX for promoting Sakura-con. (I can't say it's entirely effective, but staff like the chance to travel for free.) In the past few years, Hitomi and I have been holding more house parties and inviting relations staff to come over for food and conversation. Though Hitomi suggests that we are "useless" compared to those staff who are more capable of Japanese-English translation. So why bother with a party if they should get rid of us anyway? Regardless of our own reputed utility, it's at least nice to be able to talk about our hobbies to other like-minded people. And it at least makes sense to use the capacity of our big house at least once in a while.
We said farewell to everyone at 4PM.
Goodbye to Long Beach. Goodbye to AX.