Seeing dozens upon dozens of people dressed in elaborate handmade costumes may seem odd to some. Watching people gush over small plush figures of their favorite characters from anime and games might strike people as overreacting. Seeing entire rooms filled with young people with their eyes following the virtual pen of an artist, studying each and every move in absolute silence could seem eery. Listening to adults and children argue about which characters would beat another character even though the two are in completely separate universes would probably draw questionable stares.
At an anime convention, however, these are just the normal expectations. Kikori Con took place here in Flagstaff for the second year in a row. It garnered a crowd that amassed over 700 guests that graced the halls of the Little America Motel that held in all the otakus, gamers, nerds, geeks, artists and fans that came with smiles on their faces and left with even larger ones. All graced in costumes and gear from all their favorite shows, anime, manga, comics and cartoons. It was a regular cluster of fandoms all squeezed together to learn more about other mediums and skills from some of the guests who took the time to teach those young and aspiring members of the crowd.
I have been to this event both years and find that it is a brilliant way to remind myself of all the times I was a child and lived a carefree lifestyle. It relieves me of stress that my work and schooling cause me and takes me back to the mornings I would wake up on Saturdays bright and early rather than sleep in until my mother forced me up. Even the moments where I would come home from school at 2:30 and finish my homework at 3:30 so I would have the time to watch the latest adventures of Sailor Moon, Pokemon and Gundam Wing. Last year I made a decision to try Kikori Con out. Once I realized how great it made me feel and how relaxed I was afterward, attending the next year's event was not just a decision. It was a necessity.
Very rarely in this day in age can you go up to somebody and ask them what their favorite anime is without some kind of mocking laugh in response. Even now, people are unsure of who to talk to about the latest chapter of their favorite manga or some recent happening in a comic book they have been enthralled with since their youth. Thankfully, for these moments there are gathering places to be found where all of the discussions that others would place in the “nerd” category are welcome and the norm. And one of those gathering places has found a home in the city of Flagstaff.
Now in its second year, Kikori Con is an event which attracts many different groups of fans to join in festivities about things such as Japanese anime and manga, American cartoons and comics, as well as tabletop and virtual gaming. Events like these take place all over the world, with many prominent ones that are held here in the United States such as Kumoricon in Vancouver, Washington and Anime in Los Angeles.
The local convention is something that I love seeing in the city as a member of this small group that seems to be growing larger as the years pass. Gone are the days when I rarely notice something from a show I recognize. I notice shirts, bags and other things that carry some form of symbolism or logo related to a game I have played or a show I have watched. Being around others who share the same kind of enjoyment out of these simple connections makes me always look out for the next and closest convention when I have the time to enjoy myself.
Last year I went to Kikori Con simply as a fan and enjoyed so much of the atmosphere. Going back on November 7th through the 9th I expected more or less the same kind of experience with a packed Little America Hotel and lines of people dressed up as their favorite characters. When I entered the path leading to the main hall of the event I saw everything I expected and it made my smile. It was exactly what I wanted and needed going into the weekend with new and old friends also attending the convention. I almost want to compare it to an old high school reunion. I was able to see old acquaintances again and we had a whole year’s worth of shows and comics that we needed to catch up on. Afterward I wanted to find my old friends in the artist's alley I had met the previous year, as well as enjoy all of the wonderfully fun events that would be held throughout the hotel over that weekend. But in order to do any of that the Con still needed to exist, a task that convention chairman Greg Fennell took upon himself and his staff to do.
Fennell has been preparing, planning and opening conventions for many years now and while this is only Kikori Con's second year in Flagstaff it is not the first convention to be hosted in Flagstaff. The previous one, Anime Kaigi, no longer exists and has been replaced by Kikori. Many would say it could be a risk to host an event like this in a place like Flagstaff because the town doesn't have the draw of a Phoenix or a Tucson with the big city and large venues. Yet when Fennell talks about the initial stages of opening Kikori Con here the year prior he says that the size of the town meant nothing, only that those in it keep something that they cherish so deeply.
“It (Anime Kaigi) was run by two of my really good friends,” says Fennell. “What happened was that at one point they decided to cancel financially. They couldn't run a convention any further. Again they are really good friends of mine and they were working my convention down at Albuquerque that year.” Fennell spoke as the halls still held some wandering people looking for their next event to take part in. “My wife and I sat down and we talked and decided we would talk to them in Albuquerque and let’s say okay, we want to start a convention in your stead. First we would like your approval, and second we would like you to work for the convention and do the things you like to do and let us do the things you really didn't like. They were ecstatic. Really my goal for Kikori was to give the anime community their convention back. I felt bad whenever they had to cancel and this is a great community. A community that can keep on growing. I just wanted to give something back so really this convention is all about me just making sure that a community doesn't lose a convention that they lost.”
The make up of the convention was the same as it was the previous year. Panel discussions were held throughout the day and most panels lasted around an hour. Inside you could find all kinds of different discussions between special guests and the fans who paid to get in. Some held discussions between fans and J. Michael Tatum and Caitlin Glass about the work they had done within the voice acting circuit of anime and video games.
I've always loved seeing these voice actors in person rather than just hearing them on the microphone. I hear their voices and imagine them being seven feet tall and muscular. With other actors all I can see them being is a young teenager at times and it boggles my mind as to how in the world they got into the business so early. Then I meet them in person and see that tough and burly sounding man is really just an average looking 30 something-year-old and that little kid is a full grown woman.
And yet with all the fame that both Tatum and Glass have, they were so kind to all the people that were packed into hear their segments. Whenever a fan asked for them to do a voice clip of their favorite character or when the next season of a new show was coming out, they did it with a smile and cracked a few jokes. Those kinds of moments have been some of my favorites at conventions because it shows that some of the idols that we had growing up or our inspirations to go into this field can be related to in some form or fashion. Of course, they are far more successful than us, but nonetheless they are us.
Other panels had Armand Villavert and James Perry II sitting down with young and aspiring artists to go over the skills and tricks of the trade of drawing comics. Whether it was Japanese or American style, they seemed to be able to show every little tool they had when questions arose about how to create amazing worlds and characters that carry the story inside every person's head at one point or another.
The two men had been at the first showing of Kikori Con as well as some other conventions in the Southwest. I got the chance to meet these meet these two great minds in the world of art and comics. Villavert was one of the first I felt confident enough to shoot the breeze with the year prior. I was thrilled to see he was a very open and fun man to chat with. His smile by itself makes the people who come to him boom with joy, and the art he does on commission doesn't hinder that joy either. While he does a lot of work throughout the weekend events he attends, he still finds the time to help show young artists and comic makers the tips and tricks he has developed through personal experience. His love for art shows in the panels he does. He loves spreading what he knows out to those who are just about to get their feet wet in the drawing business.
“Primarily I think the most important thing for me is to tell people what it is like to be an artist,” Villavert explained while snacking on some sweets at his table in the artist's alley. In front of him sat some pencil work that he had been working on the day prior for a commission from a fan. The shading was just about ready to be applied. “I remember when I was starting out and I would go to a panel that had an artist that talked about what it was like to be an artist and what I would have to do and what I needed to do to become a professional artist,” he said. “That helped me out and I just wanted to return the favor to any up and coming artists out there who want to become a professional artist and do manga or comic books. If one person walks away from me learning a little bit of something then I say it’s worth it.”
Perry is similar in his work approach at conventions. He will sit down with the convention goers, host more than a fair share of panels, and also discuss the recent happenings in the world of manga with anyone who wishes to visit his booth. But Perry has also been using the conventions to his advantage in building an audience. Recently he got the rights back to a story he created for TokyoPop, a manga distributor, and created the second book in his series. The series, “Orange Crows,” follows the story of Cierra the witch. She was recently banished from the world of witches into the barren wastelands where terrifying fairies roam the land hunting and eating witches alive for their magic. The world is wonderfully done and as a fan of the story myself I immediately went and purchased the second book. Perry knows the importance of building his audience through the conventions and so far he has found amazing success by doing so. So many people have gravitated to his story and he has even witnessed people dressing up as his characters. It is a sight that Perry still can't really believe.
“It's pretty crazy. It's an indescribable feeling,” he said. “We go to conventions and see cosplay and stuff. We think this is really cool but they'll cosplay from big series and things that people know. But people just really took to my story and they wanted to cosplay from my stuff. That blew my mind. They've come up and asked me to cosplay my characters and I can't think of a bigger honor than that.” As Perry spoke, a girl sitting next to him laughed at seeing his joy discussing the idea of his characters come to life. The girl was dressed as a character from his most recent issue, which was only released a few months prior to Kikori Con. “It's really cool to be able to talk to the community personally and see them and be happy that they dressed as my characters. They're happy they get to meet the creator. Its a great sign of camaraderie.”
Meanwhile, other panels focused on fans of anime or comics discussing their views on their favorite things. These panelists would talk about everything from the top shows from the last year in the world of anime, to why someone's favorite show was not perfect. They discussed the history of certain shows or bios on some of their favorite companies the way average Americans follow the Kardashians. Every panel that took place during Kikori Con had one thing in common: Even though the subject matter constantly shifted from hour to hour, each one had a certain camaraderie to it that made you leave with a laugh in your throat and a new friend that you chatted with on the way to the next room.
One group that I have come to see quite often in the Arizona convention scene is The Mahou Shoujo Defense Force, or The Magical Girl Defense Force for those who aren't in the loop these days. They've been a part of conventions all over the state from Flagstaff to Tucson and all places in between. Every time I see them they always have a new way to entertain the people who come to their sessions, everything from building up shows like some kind of fight promoter from the previous season to ripping apart certain character pairings in games and shows. They always generate discussion or laughter once it is all said and done. The group members presenting at the con included Tim Inserra, Lane Chaffin and Amos Mathews. A lack of diversity in the entertainment at conventions led Chaffin to organize the group around a year ago and try to make up for what he felt was lacking in the convention scene.
“I've been running panels since 2013. Then we met each other Taiyoucon this year and decided there is a lot lacking in the programming department. We all have great ideas, why don't we create our own panel group?” Chaffin explained as he looked back on the origin of their group. “Our unofficial debut was Conichiwa 2014 but our official MSDF debut was the Phoenix Comic Con where we had five panels.”
“We sat there and literally spit balled for what was like two, almost three hours just coming up with panel ideas,” Inserra said. The hotel waiting room nearby still held a few convention goers waiting for their rides or recapping their favorite moments as the clock read midnight over the fireplace. “That's how our first panel came about which was '#ShipIt'. We all love pairing characters together so we figured we'd seen dozens of shipping panels so lets have us run one and see what we could do with it.”
“We want to run panels or a select few where we could educate some of the more mainstream audience. There's not just what is shown on TV or what is put on the internet,” Matthews added later on as the night continued and the lights seemed to grow dimmer, as if signaling us to leave. But we ignored it as the discussion continued. “We wanted to show everyone that, hey, this is airing from this season from Japan. This has aired from this season. Everyone needs to know that there is more than just Dragon Ball Z, Cowboy Bebop and Naruto. Guys, there are other shows like this. That was one of our missions when we first formed. So far we have succeeded based on the results we’ve seen.”
Sitting with the three of the group members and hearing their love of talking about their favorite shows and comics made me realize how lucky I was to be able to go to conventions like this. Conversations about what characters made the best couples, what fantasy sword was the most powerful or which character served their series the worst were debates and talks that I could never bring up as a child at my school. Ridicule was common for myself and many other young children in my school who enjoyed the media that came from the land of the rising sun, or if we idolized a person that was introduced to us through dried ink. But with these conventions today, it opens the door to being comfortable discussing these kinds of things and the entire MSDF group agreed with the sentiment.
“You can walk into a Circle K and see someone wearing an Attack On Titan sweater or a Kill La Kill shirt or just something anime related. Driving down the streets and seeing decals of their favorite animes and things like that,” Chaffin said, pulling up examples he had seen over the recent years. “Even customized license plates for anime like AOTAKU or EJAEGER. Yes I think that fear is gone and people can go out in public and say I am an otaku and like it or not that's me.”
Matthews though was not that concerned growing up about how others would view him for his feelings towards the more niche market in the gaming and anime universe. Growing up I had almost trained myself to keep my mouth shut about my favorite shows or games simply because I didn't want to draw the extra attention. Liking Sailor Moon as a child meant that you were more of a girl than a guy. Liking Pokemon meant that you were dumb because those weren't real animals. Now I can say I am more like Matthews in the fact that he carries his otaku title with pride. He is proud that it has grown from just being a hobby to a full blown lifestyle. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
The feelings of acceptance and inclusion in the group is almost a staple of a Fennell run con it seems. I've been to more than a few conventions run by the man, and each time I attend I come away with the joy of knowing I made a new group of friends and felt completely normal rather than like a sore thumb. While he admits that organization is his best trait when planning a con, I would have to disagree. The way he is able to organize an event so that it is not all about one medium is his best trait above all other things. Fennell does know that this is a very important aspect for his cons to have and they always come away with a job well done in that facet.
“Be with like minded individuals,” Fennell tells me while pointing out a few people in the crowded room next to us. “That's why you run a convention. People have all different reasons why people think they run conventions. I run conventions for the looks on everybody's face when they walk out the door for closing ceremonies or even before that with a smile.” People inside are playing a game of cosplay chess where people in costume are the game pieces. Each and every person on the board is smiling as they wait to be moved by the board master. Even people sitting on the floor watching the match were grinning from ear to ear. That in turn made Fennell smile as he continued to talk. “It's all about the community. Focus on the community and make sure you give them a chance. This is three days out of the November time frame that you can get a whole bunch of people together of like minded individuals and just have a blast. That's what these conventions are for.”
When I left Kikori Con last year as a fan after closing ceremonies I wasn't thinking about how cold it was outside. I didn't think about how to explain to everyone what all I did over the weekend. I wasn't thinking about how to justify to my friends at KJACK radio that I decided to take time off from calling hockey games to go and learn about drawing or the shows I should start watching. The only thought that crossed my mind was when to plan my next con weekend vacation in November 2015. Once I learned the date for this gathering, I made sure to circle 7th through the 9th.
This year I enjoyed the event even more than I had expected. Seeing old friends and making new ones, taking home brand new gear and figures from my favorite shows and games -- the whole thing just brought a refreshing sense of joy. Will I be there to take part in Kikori Con again? I feel that I can only answer that question in one way. Believe it!