Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Fan Event Report: Madman Anime Festival Melbourne 2017

After going to two fan events in Japan earlier this year, I thought about checking out some local ones. However I am now in my mid 40's and haven't been to a real convention since 2005, a local one which only ran for a couple of years. I was a bit hesitant thinking that I'd be out of place there, seeing as I was generally not in the demographic these things are aimed at. But I decided to test the waters anyway. I also wanted to go to Melbourne again as I hadn't been for more than five years. Madman's anime festival (better known as “Madfest”) seemed to tick all the boxes. As soon as they announced Shinichiro Watanabe (director of “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samurai Champloo”) as one of the guests, I was sold.

The festival is now in its second year. Originally it began in Melbourne in September 2016 as part of local film and video distributor Madman Entertainment's 20th anniversary, with additional conventions in Brisbane and Perth earlier this year. I think it's a pretty good initiative from Madman as local conventions did die off a bit in the early 2010's, possibly due to the expense and trouble in running them, and partly because at the same time anime clubs started to become an endangered species across the country (the main fan organisations that ran the conventions). Certainly Melbourne has a very strong fan community as evidenced by the amount of anime related stores dotted around the city (surprisingly far more than Sydney). This year's festival was being held over the weekend of the 4th and 5th of November at the Melbourne Convention and Entertainment Centre in Southbank, on the Yarra River, only about a 10 minute walk from Southern Cross Station.

You could pick up your wristband early from the convention centre from 4pm Friday, which I did after I dropped my stuff of at my accommodation. I was sort of surprised that only around 30 or so people had also chosen to do this. I suppose I was sort of used to the crowds from Japanese events and expected it to be quite crowded. Regardless, I did arrive about an hour early on the Saturday for the 9:30am opening time. It was unusually cool for that time of year. The temperature didn't get above 15°C on Saturday, and barely got to 17°C on Sunday. However both days were mostly sunny and I personally enjoyed the cool weather. I had chosen the $290 VIP pass, which I know is pretty expensive, but came with a ton of extras, including early entry into the convention (half an hour). Again, I was a little surprised by the lack of people who had shown up at this time, maybe around 90 or so. There was some slight disorganisation by the Madman crew and I was unsure where to line up; there was a VIP entry sign outside the main hall hosting most of the events, yet people had lined up inside the hall near a barrier. I was given my VIP goodie bag which included; Mai Wish maid and butler cafe clear file, an Animelab premium three month voucher, a $50 Madman voucher (for online purchases), a Vicroads faux Japanese licence plates poster (more on that later), a festival t-shirt, a festival branded cyalume glow stick, four single disc DVDs, a box of Pocky and a voucher for one piece of hot chicken at a local Asian take away food chain.

The early entry into the venue wasn't just about seeing all the vendors, displays or the artist's alley before everyone else, it gives you half an hour on getting signing session tokens for the two Japanese guests (Watanabe and seiyu Kana Ueda, most famous for Rin Tohsaka of the sprawling “Fate” franchise) and making bookings for the Mai Wish maid and butler cafe and “Attack on Titan” virtual reality game. There were a number of displays in the main hall including a “Cowboy Bebop” one which included mostly setting materials, copies of cels against backgrounds, life sized standees of the main characters and a shooting game. There was also a small “Your Name” display which mostly had promotional artwork and focused on the characters, a similar “Sword Art Online” display and finally in the same vein, one for “Attack on Titan” which mostly focuses on the manga but included the virtual reality game. In addition to those, there was also a small display of life sized standees of the girls from “Love Live! Sunshine”.

There was also an Itasha display. These are cars with decals covering every panel with anime characters, hence the Japanese name of “painful car”, especially if you own it and drive it in public. Madman did put a call out to owners to register their car to be displayed, but in the end there were only two cars and one motorcycle. In part this was a promotion for Vicroads selling their Japanese style plates, aimed at people who love Japanese cars and fans of anime as seen in their promotional poster in the VIP merch bag which mimics "Initial D". I didn't see many people in the Vicroads booth. Most the time it was empty. Not even an Asuka Langley Soryu cosplayer mounting the “Evangelion” themed bike managed to bring in anyone.

The line for Ely at 9:30am on Saturday
Also in the hall were tons of merchants selling mostly anime related merchandise, but also food, car decals for Itasha, cosplay items, model kits and even a stall for Amnesty International. Even Madman's competitors, Hanabee and Siren Visual had booths, both next to each other. Rest areas such as one for Animelab and a gaming centre were also there as well as the previously mentioned obligatory artist’s alley. Much was made of the top cosplay star only known as Ely, who was one of the guests of honor. From Taiwan but currently working in and marketing her works to a Japanese fanbase, she held photography and autograph sessions and sold her self published photobooks. I decided to get one, but was a bit frustrated at the fact they were surprisingly hard to get. Not because they were sold out, but her table was either crowded or unattended by her or her small entourage. I tried again on Sunday only to find at 9:30am her table was not even set up (I note that Madman made sure everyone else in artist's alley was set up by that time). Eventually she showed up half an hour later, but her entourage seemed disorganised. Slightly annoyed, I sort of butted in to try to buy one and eventually settled for 70 page photobook that cost $40. It is a gorgeous piece of work full of great outfits, fantastic photography and a lot of cheesecake shots, but I was rather irked at lack of professionalism from her crew. It seems the sale of her photobooks was secondary to everything else including hobnobbing with other cosplay guests. This is odd because she’s right in artist’s alley and one would think the point of being there is to sell your works.

Also in the hall, right in the back corner was a stage which mostly had various fan groups such as a band which played mostly songs from "K-ON!", dance cover groups such as the "Love Live!" themed A-Muse (doing their best on a small stage not fit for nine people) and tutorials and panels from fans and professionals alike. Also in attendance was a dance/cover song idol group from Sydney called AGS 102. These seven (supposedly) Japanese girls perform at the Angel Garden cafe, which is part of rather popular worldwide chain of cheesecake shops from Fukuoka, Uncle Tetsu, which its Sydney shop often has a line up right out the door. Closer inspection of the flyer I given by one of the girls reveals that the chain is opening two shops in the CBD of Melbourne this month and next. That night I had a quick look online to see what it was all about and unsurprisingly discovered that it is nothing more than a blatant promotion for what is a terribly overrated cake shop and was originally trialed at their store in Toronto, Canada. I suspect the girls who make up the group aren't Japanese and are playing stereotypical idol roles, but I can't be sure (I know, I'm rather cynical). The group even brought merchandise to sell and took photos with fans.

At 10am the horde was let in. Despite what certain people in anime fandom will tell you about a lack of diversity in that fandom, I noted the con goers were a wide range of ages and ethnicities, divided pretty evenly between the sexes and even quite a number of families with young kids showed up. There were also a couple of con goers in wheelchairs and quite a number of poor fathers dragged along by teen daughters. Sure, the bulk of attendees were either teens or young adults of either descended from a white European or Chinese background, but you could not claim that the con didn't include a diverse range of people from society. It kind of annoys me when certain people within our fandom assert the opposite is true. Of course there was lots of cosplay everywhere and by the early afternoon of day one I noticed a few worn out teens who went too hard too soon, zonked out like zombies sitting against the hall’s walls. Madman claims the con draws in 10,000 people. Because the convention is spread out over a really wide area, it was a bit hard to tell, but I think over the two days they probably went close to that.

"Fate" fan meetup group photo with Kana Ueda and Ely
For me, the main objective of Saturday was getting my “Maria Watches Over Us” DVD box signed by seiyu Kana Ueda who played the lead character, Yumi Fukuzawa, in the series. About 60 or so people had lined up for autographs with only about five VIPs including myself. Kana came out in a red kimono (which is the predominant colour that her character Rin from the “Fate” series wears). She said hi, asked me if I wanted my name on the box and signed it. I thanked her in Japanese and it was all over really quickly. A couple of hours later there was a talk with Kana hosted by Andy Trieu of SBS Popasia and of course an interpreter. Though Kana was asked about and mostly talked mostly about the “Fate” franchise, which I really don’t have any interest in, it was still quite entertaining hearing about her work as a seiyu. The fans loved it as well. Afterwards a Q&A session was held with questions from audience members. This was all fairly normal until a transgendered young woman took her turn and talked about how she was bullied because of who she is. Her conversation then immediately nose-dived into quite disturbing ranting and raving about her suicidal thoughts and talk about self-harm. She was cut off, but Kana responded eloquently and with great empathy saying to the young woman will always be remembered by her and not to give up on life. I was really impressed at how she and the interpreter defused the situation not only calmly and quickly, but didn't brush her off at all. I really hope the young woman in question gets some help for the problems she's going through. Later in the afternoon there was a fan gathering right outside the convention centre between the Yarra river and the pier where the Polly Woodside is permanently docked. Kana and Ely posed for a group photo with the “Fate” cosplayers.

Next on my list to do was Shinichio Watanabe's talks (again hosted by Andy Trieu with the interpreter). The first one on Saturday was a general overview of his work and the second session the following day focused on “Cowboy Bebop”. Most of the stuff Watanabe talked about is pretty much in the public domain already. However he did say one of the reasons he wanted to come to Melbourne was because of the music scene here and he wanted to find some inspiration for a new project he was working on. Watanabe said not to be surprised if you see bits of Melbourne in his new project. Other titbits I learnt were that “Terror in Resonance” was delayed three years due to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami (because of the nuclear references) and Bruce Lee was partly an inspiration for Spike in “Cowboy Bebop” (with “Enter the Dragon” being Watanabe's favourite film). Watanabe also recounted a story from the production of “Blade Runner Black Out 2022” where a producer asked him to remove sequence with mushroom clouds because he thought North Korea might bomb US if they see it. Watanabe pretty much ignored the request. He also said he was a bit wary of going to Madfest as he thought the name of the con might mean the attendees might be a bit crazy, and due the fact his only real contact with Australian culture was the “Mad Max” films. At the second autograph session for Watanabe which I attended on Sunday, there was a ton of people there. I had my “Macross Plus: Movie Edition” Japanese movie programme signed. Watanabe was really intrigued and initially didn't know what it was or where it came from. I showed him the reverse cover of the program which had a visual for the short movie “Macross 7: The Galaxy is Calling Me”, which was was paired with the “Macross Plus” movie in Japanese cinemas. This amused him and he wanted to know where I got it.

Ladybeard and Andy Trieu on stage
The other big guest was alt-idol/wrestler and expat Australian, Ladybeard. I had always been rather dismissive of his shtick and considered him to be a bit of a silly novelty. However I caught the last 30 minutes of his scheduled talk while waiting to see another guest and realised he was quite a genuine guy and wasn’t projecting some cynical one dimensional persona as a gimmick. He recounted how crossdressing was part of his life before his persona as Ladybeard. He began crossdressing as 14, later became a crossdressing pro wrestler and stuntman in Hong Kong, then went to Japan, without really knowing the language to try his luck. He eventually formed the alt-idol group Ladybaby which incorporated death metal, and most recently a new group called Deadlift Lolita with fellow wrestler and gravure model Reika Saiki. The following Q&A session included another transgendered young woman who praised him for his non-conforming gender presentation. Ladybeard told the audience about growing up as a teen and young adult in Adelaide where he wore female clothes to parties and due to his outgoing and loud personality was always attracted the attention of alpha male types who wanted to beat him up. He also told crowd that transgender idols manage to carve their own niche in the underground idol culture in Japan and are accepted there. He later announced that he would be touring Australia in 2018 as part of a promotion for an upcoming documentary called “Big in Japan” which he appears in and he'll be playing Falls Festival in January.

On Sunday there was a 45 minute Ladybeard concert. I missed the first 15 minutes due to the Watanabe autograph session and the fact I thought I wouldn't be able to get in. I tried my luck anyway and was treated to a bizarre mish-mash of part wrestling match (including audience participation to help finish off Ladybeard’s opponent), part idol concert and part death metal concert, complete with a sampling of songs from Ladybeard's short musical career including covers of songs from “Love Live!” and a metal rendition of Justin Bieber's “Baby”. The crowd loved it. One thing I noticed with this convention is how idol culture has seeped deeply into anime fandom in this country. Not only did we have AGS 102, Ladybeard and various idol themed fan performances, one of the recent Aqours concerts was screened (they're the real idols/seiyu behind the “Love Live! Sunshine” anime). A number of fans arrived in Aqours branded happi coats and tour t-shirts as well. There was also several anime films screened including the latest in the “Fate” franchise (attended by Aniplex producer Atsuhiro Iwakami and Kana Ueda), “No Game No Life: Zero” and “Mary and the Witch's Flower”. The first part of the live action “JoJo's Bizare Adventure” film series was also screened.

Madman National Cosplay Championship Final
There was also the obligatory cosplay. I managed to fit into two cosplay performances; the Cosplay Parade on Saturday afternoon and the Madman National Cosplay Championship Final on Sunday afternoon. The former was a less formal affair with a guy cosplaying a character from “Overwatch” (sorry, not sure which one) dedicating it to his father who recently died. The cosplay championship final naturally had some really high production values with full on skits and video on the screen overhead. The winner, a young woman from New Zealand who cosplayed as Naruto Uzumaki, won an all expenses trip to Japan. A lot of the time I don't fully understand the subculture of cosplay within the gaming and anime community and it feels rather insular, but it was fun enough to watch anyway. The only guest I didn't really bother looking into was Bryce Papenbrook, an English voice actor who's most famous for his portrayal of Eren Jaeger in “Attack on Titan”. I caught the end of the two scheduled Q&A sessions he gave during the convention and was impressed at how he wowed his fans.

Fan group Doubutsu Chatto performing anisong covers
The schedule over the two days of Madfest was pretty packed and I really had to pick and choose what I was going to see. For example the Kana Ueda talk and Q&A sessions clashed with the Watanabe autograph sessions, as did some fan performances and gatherings and even some film screenings. In most cases I had to dump the film screenings and fan performances to see guests. There was also really good fan performances such as the impromptu mini concert prior to the convention opening on the Sunday morning, with a Ryuko Matoi (“Kill la Kill”) cosplayer with a clarinet and a Kamina (“Gurren Lagann”) cosplayer with a tuba playing a number of pop hits (starting with the Cantina band song from “Star Wars: A New Hope”) as the very appreciative crowd waited to be let in.

Overall, I really had a lot of fun over the two days of Madfest. Perhaps things could have gone a bit more smoothly and I sort of wish so much competing stuff wasn’t packed into such a small timeframe, but these are minor quibbles. Looking through previous conventions in this country, I really wish I had been proactive over the last five years and gone to more. I will most certainly on the lookout for other conventions around the country and will probably end up going to quite a few more in the next couple of years.

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