When you walk into a room and witness a fight break out between two men in their mid twenties over the best first generation starter Pokémon (don’t ever say Bulbasaur) that resolves itself with a ‘spock five’, a form of high five created by parting your middle and ring ringer, you know you’re in for an interesting Saturday.
Thus was my introduction to the weird and wonderful world of the London Anime Convention (LAC), a gathering for lovers of modern Japanese culture, computer games, trading cards and incredible fancy dress based on favourite cartoon characters known colloquially as ‘cosplay’.
Held at the Rocket Complex of London’s Metropolitan University, an apt choice of setting with it’s spacious floors and sprawling courtyard complete with a lotus filled pond LAC promised a diverse line up of guest speakers, Japanese style game shows, live music and fashion shows all pertaining to the theme of Anime culture. Opening at eleven in the morning and closing at midnight, it was an exhausting, exhilarating and above all educational sojourn into a culture that has only up until now been at the very fringe of my comprehension.
A sub-par sound system and a less than knowledgeable technical crew was an unfortunate but all too prevalent dampener on the high spirits and passionate performances of the live events.
This was most obvious on the upstairs stage where the Cinnamon Purin Dancers, who had obviously put a lot of time and effort into orchestrating synchronised dance moves to their favourite cartoon themes and J-Pop songs, were let down by muddy sound quality and incorrect songs being played at certain key moments.
Technical issues aside however it was the attendees, as I suspect may be true for all Anime conventions, which created the true atmosphere at LAC. It is not many cliques or sub-cultures who seem so readily willing to accept and integrate an outsider into their curious lifestyles with such aplomb and veracity.
During a lull in the main stages operations I ventured downstairs into the card gaming room to witness the tournaments being played out.
Two of the competitors, Connor and Matt, were just starting a ‘Magic The Gathering’ game and allowed me not only to watch as they explained their play but to keep score as well. To me this was an extension of kindness and integration unparalleled in other competitive games, as my presence was obviously not one either of them had expected.
Despite this, they not only talked me through their style of play and strategic runs, but took the time to keep me engaged, even if it was just to keep track of what hit points they had remaining. Matt won with a pretty flawless victory; by the way, utilising three swamp cards with a muck disease to ‘grave’ Connor’s deadly recluse and griffon, although Connor fought hard to represent his unfortunately stacked white cards and put up a decent struggle. I think. It all happened very fast.
Taking a break from the action I stepped outside to the courtyard where the Ai My Maid Café was serving traditional Japanese teas and cakes. It was there I struck up a conversation with Osei who is a talented young graphic designer and comic book enthusiast who showed me the sketches and ideas he’d been creating in his notebook.
Osei explained to me his love for the particular hyperrealist style of Japanese anime and his vision to recreate it using more western influences for a British audience, citing Final Fantasy and Momotaro as his key inspirations. One of the more fascinating stories he told me was of the utilisation of his drawings and these conventions as a way of evading the harsher realities of London living and was able to enter into a world of pure fantasy and escapism.
Venturing back upstairs to take a seat and enjoy the cosplay fashion show I found myself lucky enough to be sat beside a young fashion designer named Kelly who explained to me the differences in styles amongst the various models. One of the styles in which particularly struck a chord was the one she described as ‘Lolita’, an amalgamation of the classic French maid outfit, a Victorian dolls dress and a wedding cake.
I did ask if Lolita had the same associations within the Anime use as it does with the classic Nabokov novel and expressed my concern at the implicit connotations one may derive from such a peculiar fashion, particularly one that appeals to girls in their mid teens.
Kelly effectively responded that this was a fair parallel and the name does indeed stem from the same story, however defended it’s usage with a very hard lined rule within the cosplay community that “What is fantasy stays fantasy and never crosses over the border into reality.” A reassuring quote indeed.
I was also fortunate in securing a brief interview with David Vincent, a guest speaker famous for his roles in the Anime series Bleach, as well as voicing characters from video games such as Tekken and Street Fighter.
As with the other attendees and performers of the convention Vincent was genial and willing to educate me further into the culture.
He told me that he came from a predominantly theatre and stand up comedy background and was lucky enough to find himself working now within cartoons and video games through a shared agent of a similar voice over artist and found himself very lucky to be doing so.
His explanation for this was the indomitable rise of interest in the Japanese culture amongst westerners, and even though he himself had never attended a convention in Japan it would be a dream for him, having witnessed the surge in awareness throughout the USA, the UK and Ireland from where he had just arrived having attended a similar convention.
So, from the complete ‘noob’ that I was entering the LAC I left with a more profound understanding not only of the rise in popularity of such conventions, but also pleasantly surprised at how much I actually enjoyed myself.
If you’ve never partaken in any of the activities listed above but feel you’d like to try everything at least once in your life I highly recommend giving the LAC or any of the other numerous upcoming conventions a shot. You only live once!
Words by Duncan Stevens
Photography by Neil McComb