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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Androids and anime: a day at MechaCon (slideshow)

Posted By on Sun, Jul 31, 2016 at 1:23 PM

click to enlarge Costumed con-goers strike a pose.
  • Costumed con-goers strike a pose.

The scene at MechaCon check-in is bedlam. A man in a glittery green bowler hat, possibly left over from St. Patrick’s Day, jostles a woman with blue and purple hair, who consoles her crying sister. A girl in a metallic red and blue jacket, matching bikini bottoms and black high-heeled boots shivers nearby. Other people in varying degrees of costume stand around the registration desk in vague gestures toward lines; the confusion seems to stem from the fact that there are multiple registration levels. Red-shirted volunteers keep trying to line people up based on the first letter of their last names (“N through Z!”) 

Behind me, a young man in an electric blue wig, a red fedora with playing cards tucked into the band and goggles seems indifferent to the chaos. He’s carrying two boxes at about chest-level. 

“What’s in the box?” I ask. 

The first box has a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards, he says. 

“And the other one?”

“It’s a box of string.”

"And what is the string for?

“No one is supposed to know what the string does.”

Shyly, he opens the box’s lid to reveal a tangled nest of extension and power cords.

Just what is a “con,” exactly? Like other gatherings of its kind, MechaCon is a mix of trade show, seminar, geek networking event, cosplaying bonanza and general hangout. It can be as structured or unstructured as one desires; there are panels every hour on topics such as “Beyond the Costume: A Cosplay Sociology Panel,” “Furry 101,” “Transformers: Transforming Through the Ages,” “Buffyverse Fan Panel,” “K-POP Dance Tutorial Worshop,” “Goggles, Corsets and Top Hats,” “Steampunk vs. Dieselpunk vs. Cyberpunk,” and any number of show or comic-specific themes. There also are celebrity appearances by former Power Rangers, the Lolita-style fashion designer Tomomi Nakamura, “YouTube Personality” Caleb Hyles, and voice and TV actor Garry Chalk. (These names mean nothing to me, but they’re welcomed with cheers, thunderous applause and much stamping of feet at the con’s opening ceremonies.) Con-goers can spend time gaming, shopping in the high-intensity Dealer's Room or the somewhat more low-key Artist’s Alley, or just hanging out. 

Between its activities, MechaCon takes up three floors of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, which makes for some delightful absurdities throughout its first day. The hotel is a frequent host to traveling business organizations and conventioneers, so it’s a great place for a large group to convene  —  but MechaCon must be one of the few visiting groups requiring posted signs warning cosplayers to mind trailing skirts and dangling tails on escalators. The impersonally-outfitted meeting rooms, with unrevealing names like “Elmwood” and “Belle Chasse,” fill with costumed con-goers playing tabletop games or watching anime marathons. Hotel employees in crisp suits continually roust My Little Ponies and Inuyashas off the '80s-graphic-print stainproof hallway carpets. 

Though MechaCon isn’t large, as cons go  —  the convention’s website reported 7,555 registrants in 2015, which is less than a tenth of the size of better-known conventions like Comic Con  —  it’s the longest-running anime convention in Louisiana, and it’s grown at a rapid pace since its 2005 inception. Founded in Lafayette, the convention moved to New Orleans in 2010, and will move again to the Hyatt Regency in 2017. Next year, the con will takes on a new, science-fiction oriented theme, transforming the vertiginous elevators and ultra-modern hallways of the Hyatt Regency into the “Crescent Station” space station. 

One doesn’t get the sense that this pivot toward sci-fi, while still catering to fans of the strange fruits of Japanese animation, will hurt the con. Modern fandom is a bit of a rabbit hole. Not that it comes from Alice in Wonderland, though Alice, along with the Teletubbies, the Princess Peach Toadstool from the Mario franchise, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Sailor Moon, Pikachu, Gumby and any number of branded characters both familiar and obscure wander through the con during the day Friday. Rather, it has a wheels-within-wheels, or worlds-within-worlds aspect that’s easy to appreciate. Though MechaCon is officially an anime and manga con, all fandoms  — from Star Wars to Marvel to My Little Pony  —  seem to be represented and welcomed. 

Before the con begins, I meet Star Trek aficionados Randolph Allen and Shannon Cory, who will run a convention table despite Star Trek’s perhaps tenuous connection to anime. That's where I learn it’s very common to belong to multiple fandoms; one show or series often functions as a “gateway” to others.

“You’ll have people who will settle on one [fandom], but will diversify out to other interests,” Allen says. “Costume culture’s already here with Mardi Gras, so everything just kind of feeds into the other aspects of fandom … you’re bringing a fantasy element to real life.” 

“I think the popularity [of geek culture] has always been there. It’s just become more mainstream. With all these movies, look at all the comic book movies coming out,” Cory adds. 

Allen explains that cosplaying at cons isn’t just about wearing the costumes. Some members will go as far as acting like their character, which I begin to notice at MechaCon as a flouncing Captain Jack Sparrow photobombs this or that picture. For their part, the pair say they’ll mostly be playing it straight, as cons are important in helping them recruit new members to the Starfleet International fan club and sharing information about the scholarship programs they operate. 

Of course, they’ll be wearing their uniforms. 

After arriving at MechaCon, I cruise the hallways, checking out the puffy plush pineapples, anime-styled paintings and drawings and hand-sewn Pikachu wallets in the Artist’s Alley vendor’s area. More than anything else, I start to notice the crowd's sweet unselfconsciousness, the shrieks of delight when a well-known voice actor walks by or the ecstatic reunions between a Jedi and a girl in a fairy outfit. There are far more teenagers than I expected, with a not-insignificant number of parents in tow. (In line for an event, a blonde mom tells me her 13-year-old son “sleeps, eats and breathes anime” while he stands behind us looking mortified.) Though there’s no shortage of revealing costumes, including short skirts and midriff-baring tops, the hedonic raunchiness of other high-costumed events like Fat Tuesday morning is completely absent. Though perhaps this is obvious for a younger crowd, I don’t see anyone drinking or doing drugs.

Dropping by the smoker’s area outside, I meet 22-year-old Ryan Prater, a skinny, dark-haired kid from Destrehan in a tank top that reveals the outline of a chest tattoo in the works. He’s bouncing back and forth on his heels and drinking a Red Bull, full of barely restrained enthusiasm. He and his friends have been coming to MechaCon for the past several years. They aren’t dressed up, and I ask them about their plans to cosplay. 

Prater assures me that he’ll be dressed later in the weekend. 

“First-timers only wear one costume,” he says, breaking it down. “Two year and plus [con veterans], and three year and plus, wear a different costume every day.”

Apparently, accuracy isn’t always the most important thing when planning a cosplay ensemble. Though some pursue a precise copy of a character's outfit, it's also common to mix it up and  people combine two characters, or do a gender-bended version of a character from an anime or a manga.

Three middle-aged guys, apparently other guests at the hotel, approach to ask why everyone’s dressed up. They seem delighted to hear that it’s an anime convention.

“That’s right,” Prater says. “Nothing but nerdy girls.” 

After attending an early-afternoon panel on Lolita fashion (key takeaway: layers to rival the most buttoned-up and beruffled of Victorian ensembles), I visit the “Dealer’s Room,” where vendors do a brisk business in the trade of Japanese weird stuff. You can buy kirugumis (sort of an adult-sized onesie with animal or creature markings), the Japanese shortbread cookies called pocky or shrimp-flavored chips, figurines, an entire zoo's worth of plushes including tiny stuffed llamas, cuddly sloths and a plush of a whale eating a seal, the aforementioned ultra-girly Lolita-style garments, anime videos, a full artillery of mock swords, faux-military uniforms, baseball tees for what are either real Japanese teams or anime parodies, wigs and more. Several vendors sell “mystery bags” from $10-$30 filled with figurines, snacks and other merch.

The atmosphere in the Dealer’s Room is not pleasant. It’s loud and incredibly crowded, and the flow of traffic stops and starts as people pause to look at this or that item  —  like a Moroccan souk, if that souk were transported to a fluorescent-lit hotel basement. One gets the sense that it’s possible to spend rather a lot of money in a short time in a room like this; some of the Lolita-wear, though it’s obviously very well-tailored, is priced at $200; kirugumi onesies cost $70. Earlier in the week, Allen explained to me that big dealer areas like this are a key way cons make money; the vendors rent floor space from the con while the con acts as sort of a marketing umbrella.

Considering the relative youth of the crowd, I can’t help but feel that this setup is a little bit predatory  —  the hectic ambiance is just the sort of thing that leads to impulse purchases, teens are not known for their reasoned and and thoughtful approach to spending, and there’s really no way some of these vinyl toys are, objectively, worth their $15-$80 price tag. On the other hand, business is business, and teenagers are one of the few market sectors who can be relied on to have disposable income in this day and age. 

Outside the dealer’s room, 16-year-old Zoe and 17-year-old Alex collapse onto the floor to inspect the figures they’ve just purchased. They’re dressed in the prim white sailor skirts and bright wigs of Sailor Moon characters, though they’re sprawled out because Zoe’s Mary Jane heels are hurting her.

Zoe tells me she’s been going to cons since she was in eighth grade. 

“Everyone’s just really nice here,” she says. “Even if you have a good or a bad costume, no one judges you … [attending a con] was one of the first times I ever felt pretty.”

I ask if their parents object to them going to cons. 

“Nah,” Alex says. “[My mom] just wants me out of the house and doing stuff.”

Throughout the day, I start to get the idea that this is a very modern, very safe way to be a teenager. It's an oddly heartwarming thought. It wouldn’t have happened, at least on this scale, before the internet could help disseminate information: about different series, costume patterns, cons and meetups. For MechaCon-goers, it’s a safe and welcoming way to try on different identities and experiment during a time of life that’s often very turbulent. Perhaps this isn't true of every con, but here, I start to understand how con culture provides a way to embrace the weirdness and unease of adolescence. If you’re feeling uncomfortable in your skin, put on wig, bedazzle a gown, become a character. Shine. 

Later in the afternoon I talk with a soft-spoken woman with a cool ’90s-Eddie-Furlong haircut who gives her name as simply “Damien.” She’s a tattoo artist who identifies as deaf, but we’re able to talk because she can read lips. 

Damien is in her early twenties, but she’s a lifelong anime fan. She started watching the anime Inuyasha in junior high, then moved on to Bleach, Naruto and the first anime she discovered for herself, Full Metal Alchemist

For Damien, the story and art are both a big part of the appeal of different anime series, but there’s also an element of escapism. 

“[Anime is] a way to experience things you can’t experience in real life,” she says. “Or maybe you can relate to what you see, and you feel your experience is validated.” 

The last MechaCon event I attend is the “maids and hosts” show upstairs, which catches my attention when the maids and hosts do a jazzy dance number, complete with shimmying, sassy finger-wagging and the Sprinkler, during the con’s formal opening ceremonies. 

As maid “Maru” explains, this is is a nod to Japanese maid and host cafes, where the maids  —  wearing an outfit that can only be decribed as “French maid chic”  —  entertain guests with games, conversation and J-Pop dances. Hosts are the male counterpart.

“It’s just fun. They, like, do cute things to your food,” she says, making a heart shape with her fingertips.

Entrance to the maid and host show costs $15, and I’m welcomed by a tall, slender black man in a vest whose nametag reads “Long.” He has shoulder-length braids pulled into a loose ponytail. We sit at a round table with tulle puffs tied to the back of each chair. We’re joined by a Southeastern math professor in Alice in Wonderland garb, her husband and “Starlite,” a porcelain-doll pretty maid with a bright blue wig and stark black eyebrows like the actress Cara Delevingne. 

At MechaCon, the pretext is that maids and hosts are androids, programmed for human enjoyment. This leads to a sort of circular effort at conversation; though Starlite reveals she also worked as a maid last year, Long (as android) was “recently refurbished,” and can’t share details about his past. 

I expect this excursion to be strange, as there are more than a few disturbing connotations to the idea of a robot built for human pleasure, but it's actually kind of nice. Long is good at hosting. He’s a master of the art of impersonal but pleasant conversation, like he’d be the perfect date for your company Christmas party. He asks softball questions about our favorite anime and what the best part of the con is so far while dealing cards for a game of Uno. During the game, we break to watch the occasional rhythmically challenged dance performance by a blonde maid with pigtails and glittery bows pinned to her apron or an atrocious guitar-accompanied rendition of video game theme songs.

It’s weirdly pleasant, this room: quiet, urbane chatter, card games, laughter. A girl in head-to-toe pink Lolita garb takes photos with a professional camera. Our waiter comes by with the drinks we’ve ordered  —  we get ramune, a Japanese flavored soft drink  —  and Starlite tells us how to pop the top. To open the drink, you break a plastic piece off the top of the glass bottle, turn the plastic piece over and punch a hole in the bottle's lid, like a G-rated version of shotgunning a beer. 

I place a hand over the top and press the puncture-top down. At first, nothing happens. Then the top breaks through, fizz spurts, and I let out an involuntary yelp. Everyone laughs.

 I pick up the soda and drink it down. 

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