One thing that has to be understood about anime conventions and the like is that the people who frequent them will bend, reshuffle and/or manipulate their schedules however necessary to clear time and acquire funds to get there. This can and will involve calling out from work (or at the very least hope a con falls on days they are scheduled off), but is typically used as an “Oh, fuck it,” response when every attempt at placating and negotiating with the bosses. So it is with that mentality that my story of AnimeNEXT begins.
AnimeNEXT happened in Somerset, NJ, in the same hotel and expo center as it has the last couple of years. Con goers were stuffed into the same two or three surrounding hotels as before, though one of them changed their name to something far less inspired during the interim. Those who are familiar with the hotels in the area or have gone to AnimeNEXT along with the rest of us (or have read my prior report/s on the convention) will know what they’re all about. So let’s get to the interesting parts of the review, shall we?
Unfortunately for me, I could not secure an early release from work, and was stuck at essentially the exact opposite point in New Jersey from the convention. So I did what anyone else would do in that situation—go about my job, only occasionally paying attention to what I’m doing and biding my time until I can get out. Once done, I gassed up and took off up the Turnpike in the Glorious Crimson Bullet™ towards Somerset. For those of you not familiar with the New Jersey Turnpike, here are a few quick facts about it: 1) it covers less than ½ of the state, so the “What exit?” joke loses even more weight than it already did; 2) the middle section or so of the Turnpike is undergoing a massive overhaul expected to last several years; and 3) rush hour traffic is infuriating as fuck-all. Nothing gets me in the mood for a convention like going 30 miles an hour down a highway for half an hour. Still, these setbacks would be mere minor gripes when weighed against any other problems I’d have with the convention.
I got in at around 5:30, and settled into our room. It was here that I met my roommates for the weekend, one of them being very much into elaborate cosplays. And as soon as I saw one prop over in the corner, the first question out of my mouth was, “Who’s cosplaying as Avacyn?” You mean not only is someone gonna be cosplaying as a Magic: the Gathering character, but they’re actually rooming with me? This convention is shaping up to be fantastic!
Speaking of cosplay, it was about goddamn time for me to get back in the swing of things; for this was the weekend that I gave my new Hoenn!Ash cosplay a spin. I had commissioned it from a mutual friend of the show, and after a bit of a logistics clash, my new costume was with me in my hotel room. I waited until Saturday to wear it, though I did try it on, much to the delight of the rest of my adventuring party.
With everything situated and me settled into the hotel room, I put on my journalism hat (complete with “Press” placard in the band) and took to covering the con. My first stop was at the “Tekken X Street Fighter” panel…at least it would have been, had I not gotten lost trying to find the room and showed up late, and was told the room was filled to the point that not even my legitimate press pass would get me in. All I managed was a brief glimpse at the inside of the room, which was dark as a projector shone gameplay footage of Street Fighter X Tekken played by Kyle Hebert and Michelle Knotz, while they gave running commentary on their matches. Granted, I wasn’t expecting (too much) insight into Tekken’s take on the crossover, but it could’ve been a little more inspired.
On the plus side, another member of my adventuring party gave Kyle a pound of candied bacon during the weekend. He got a massive kick out of it.
I wandered around the convention a little while longer, idly killing time, until I came across a panel called “Epic Con Stories.” It was exactly what you thought it would be—tales of daring-do, hilarity, and utter absurdity as told by not only the people running the panel, but by those in attendance as well. There wasn’t any real format to it; whoever had a story simply raised their hand and spilled.
Saturday came, and the night before we all informed one another when we had to get up. This also meant that the aforementioned Avacyn cosplayer had to get up early to get into her costume. Unfortunately, because of a very shitty in-room alarm clock, we all ended up getting up at the same time. I wasn’t bothered by the ordeal that much, as I’m used to getting very little sleep at conventions. Still, the gang was abuzz about the two cosplays (the Avacyn cosplayer having a few minor snags with hers). We both looked immaculate in our outfits, if I do say so myself.
That morning, before we really got going, a few of us went down to the Tuscany Restaurant for breakfast. It was a breakfast buffet, which had the usual accoutrement of breakfast foods—eggs, bacon, sausage, fruits, cereals, breads, etc. All good stuff, but at $17 (which includes $3 for the tip), it was a little pricey. Still, it was good food, and it fueled us up.
The first panel I intended to cover wasn’t until later in the afternoon, so I spent the time checking out the rest of the convention. The Artists’ Alley and Dealers’ Room were right next to one another, but as both were close to Main Events and one or two of the video rooms, the combined noise made it a little hard to hear yourself think, much less try to hold a meaningful conversation with anyone. The game rooms were in their same spots, in the Holiday Inn across the way. It was, again, a bit of a hike, but it wasn’t as hot and muggy as last year, so it wasn’t that much of a hassle to get there. As always, there was plenty of fierce competition to go around, both in the video game rooms as well as the tabletop/card game sections. I had lunch at one of the restaurants at said Holiday Inn, which, while costing as much as the breakfast buffet, was a far better value than the overpriced a la carte serving the con (or was it the hotel?) offered in the hallway leading to the game rooms. From what I gleamed, the people running those sections were actually very nice—a very welcome breath of fresh air considering the last con I went to.
The first panel I went to that day was “Never Give Up! And Other Life Lessons Learned in Anime.” It’s a fairly simple concept, really—the creators of certain anime and/or manga can and do insert some morals an lessons into their works…and it’s not always the author’s view on the world force fed to the readers Objectivist filibuster style. They can be, actually, quite endearing—things like “There’s basically nothing you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it and have the will and courage to back it up,” (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann), “Even people not fighting in the war du jour are suffering through it,” (Grave of the Fireflies), and “Take care of your closest friends.” (One Piece). There was also a spoof lesson of “Never ask Sango to bare your children.” (Inu-Yasha) From my vantage point in the audience, I could see the setup of the girl running it. It was clearly her first time running a panel, and she was very nervous; she was reading directly from her copy as she worked the PowerPoint presentation, and her hands were shaking. I still say she did a great job, though, and would like to see her do more.
After a little more dicking around in the game rooms and taking a few more pictures, I managed to make my way back to the main convention (on, surprise-surprise, the shuttle service!) for the Pokéholics Anonymous panel…only to find out it was cancelled. Why was it cancelled? Good question; I was never given an explanation.
One dinner run later, and I was at perhaps my favorite panel of the con, “50 Years of Anime Openings.” The first part of the panel ran down a what’s-what of anime opening from the past, and the panelists were quick to point out the evolution of styles and themes (visual and song) used throughout. Numerous famous openings on display were those of Astro Boy, Speed Racer, the first opening to Dragon Ball Z, and Outlaw Star, a personal favorite of the panelist, which he described the anime as “not aging as well as the opening.” He also introduced an “obscure anime that not a lot of people saw,” and dropped the first opening to Pokémon on us. And I was cosplaying as Ash. Hilarious. He then discussed opening whose emphasis was on atmosphere (Paranoia Agent), characters and narrative (Azumanga Daioh), music and style (Cowboy BeBop, BECK Mongolian Chop Squad, Samurai Champloo), and symbolism (Neon Genesis Evangelion [of course], the first opening to Death Note). And then came the openings that were square in the “WTF?!” column, which had little to no relation to the anime at hand (Berserk‼, Excel Saga).
While many of my compatriots were at the rave (which a] I always end up feeling terrible at and b] have said is always better on Saturday night), I was off playing games, and was playing EDH Magic until after 3:00 in the morning. When I walked back to the hotel, I was greeted to the sight of fire trucks and ambulances littering the main entrance and everyone pouring out of the doors. We were wandering around for about at least half an hour waiting for the all clear to go back in. There was a myriad of stories/explanations as to why it happened. Did someone decide to smoke pot and didn’t aerate their room properly? Did someone play around with a fire extinguisher? Or did some asshole just pull the fire alarm? One thing about it, though, was that one elevator shaft was (apparently) cut open in the interim, and the day after, was covered up in places with a piece of plywood and yellow caution tape.
I hope someone got a discount for being inconvenienced for this…
Sunday was the calmest day of the con, and while videos were being shot for the site, I was doing more wandering around—though not in cosplay; that outfit went straight to the cleaners when I got home. The last panel I attended was, “AHHHH! Video Game Cartoons!” It was about exactly what you’d expect—the rash of bad cartoons based on great video games that aired in the late 80s to early 90s. You know, when the creators had some strange ideas as to the characterizations of the main characters. Seeing Simon Belmont in Captain N: The Game Master looking like he just walked off the cast of Jersey Shore made me die a little inside. They also had an episode of the Legend of Zelda cartoon on display for us—for those of you who don’t remember, when Friday came about on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, they showed Zelda cartoons instead. They also had a trivia contest, and denoted who answered however many questions right by tossing them mini-peanut butter cups at them. The guys also had tons of “prizes” gift wrapped for people who “won.” I unwrapped one and—after being told to hold it up for all to see—revealed a copy of Shark Tale for the GameCube. Yay. Sorry, guys, but that went straight in the recycling bin when I got home.
We parted ways in the afternoon, and while the rest of the gang went north, I hung around and hit up Eight on the Break, one of the best arcades in the country. I had lunch while I was there, and hung around for a couple of hours and played games, shit like that. I was all too glad to spread the word about Anime Jam Session while I was there as well. I also decided to make this into a tradition whenever I’m closing out a convention weekend in the area, one I hope to share with the rest of my AJS brethren.
Much like last year, AnimeNEXT was a very good con, though not without its flaws. The seemingly whimsical way in which panels were cancelled or shifted around, often with little explanation, did grate on my nerves just a bit. The placement of the game rooms so far from the heart of the con was another sticking point, but since the heat wasn’t as bad as last year, I won’t begrudge them for it too much; plus that particular hotel is the closest one aside from the Doubletree, but merely asks questions about why they can’t just clear out space in there, or use one of the neighboring office buildings like they do with the video rooms. New Jersey is a very populous area—more so than people think—and it’s good for New Jersey to have a defining convention like this…until, of course, my dreams for a convention based in South Jersey and around the Shore area ever move out of the “dream” phase and come to fruition (possible names: CasinoCon, ShoreCon, BoardwalkCon…).