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Anime I Saw and Other Good Stuff from Otakon 2006

This is my fifth full year in a row of going to Otakon, the East Coast's biggest anime con, and as always it was a blast. I'll get to other details later–one of the reasons I go to Otakon is to try and see as much anime as I can, new and old, on the big video screens. So let's get to my brief reviews of the anime first–even if you don't care a smidge about Otakon, maybe you want to know what I thought of the stuff I saw (if ya didn't, why are ya reading this?).

Here are the highlights of the anime I saw:

Fullmetal Alchemist: the Road to Shambala:
Since it was a week before its U.S. theatrical release, this was more or less a premiere of the FMA movie. Woot! By the time I've gotten this up it's already out in its limited theatre run, but it'll be out on DVD soon (September 12 or thereabouts). I enjoyed this movie but discovered it really is a direct sequel of the TV series. Not having seen the whole TV series, I basically pretty much got spoiled about its end. That said, I found I didn't mind too much. The script was tight, suspenseful... as what makes FMA great is the mix of action and soul-searching character development, the movie kept to the spirit well of the series. On the other hand, much of the premise has to do with the "world" of FMA meeting "our" world (albeit in the World War II era), and I find I enjoyed the idea of the FMA world much more when it was standalone. It's somehow less interesting when what you originally sensed was a vague parallel just gets thrust down your throat. Honestly, and this has nothing to do with the movie itself, but I really could have done without the eight trillion fangirls screaming at the top of their lungs every time a character returning from the TV series showed up or Ed did something alchemically neat (and I am not exaggerating; I do mean every time). It was annoying, earsplitting, and well, embarrassing. But it in a way sums up the best and worst of the FMA movie–a truly exciting film, but definitely for preexisting fans only. Someone who came into FMA via the movie would be hard put to appreciate much of what was going on.

So I said to my friend John, "I'm really sick of kid-oriented anime, you know, 'junior high kid discovers he or she has superpowers and has to save the world, but is reluctant to, blah blah blah.' I need to see something darker and more mature." I was thinking maybe, you know, it was time to get back into dystopic future type anime like Ghost in the Shell or at least, you know, something where the heroes are actually maybe only slightly younger than I am. So following this, I fell completely in love with this anime, which is about a junior high school girl who discovers she's a god and becomes responsible for caring for her town, though she is unsure of her powers and her purpose. I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. Screw dystopic future. Kamichu is sort of a magical girl anime meets Spirited Away. Typical school action (complete with unrequited crush, which is the only part that makes me gag, only because I'm sick of it) but meshed with a very mystical, mythical world. We see schoolgirls running around, with whimsically (and beautifully) drawn Shinto spirits lurking in every corner. What caught me right away is the character design and the character development–while recognizably schoolgirls, none of the characters are cookie-cutter or cliched, and the heroine is charming without either being arrogant or chokingly cute. I was also impressed that there's tinges of real world consequences and politcs in the story as well; it is cute but can get pretty deep. AND after I found myself falling in love and marvelling at the fantastic designs and character development and realistic personalities-meets-fantasy powers (and the fantasy powers are "low key" in terms of you are not bombarded with magical effects every ten seconds)... I read at the end credits "Screenplay by Hideyuki Kurata, Design by Taraku Uon." The masters behind my biggest current anime obession, the Read or Die/R.O.D series. Damn you, Kurata! DAMN YOU for writing wonderful anime.... (not to mention... since the show is for younger folks, they were showing it in dub and I immediately recognized the voices of at least three of the R.O.D the TV VAs; this series is also being distributed by Geneon).

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-ohki 3rd OAV (Episodes 1-3):
This is the sequel to the original 13 OAV episodes of Tenchi made in the 90s; this disc has been out in the U.S. for a year but I hadn't seen it because I was waiting for them to finish putting out the series before I got it (it's coming out this October). I am a long time Tenchi fan–it was one of the first animes that really got me utterly obsessed. I was excited and yet also trepidatious about seeing this–there's been a long time to build anticipation about this. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised... there's a LOT going on but for the most part, it does recapture the spirit of the previous series while moving the story in an intriguing direction, picking up from the dangling plot threads left in the original series regarding issues with Jurai's royal family and with the goddess Tokimi's plans. Only thing I don't like (and always suspected I wouldn't) is they've added several more important characters to an already large ensemble cast. This constantly threatens to take the spotlight from the previously established main characters. One gets the sense that in the 10 year hiatus between OAVs, the creator and director got bored with the original cast and really wanted to make an anime about the "background" characters they made up instead (and to an extent, they did with Tenchi Muyo! GXP). Instead of getting back into the game with Ryoko, Ayeka, Mihoshi, Sasami, and Washu and highlighting them, the gals (not to mention that main character, whatsisname) constantly get shoved aside by new arrivals like the grandmothers Seto and Airi and Seto's adopted daughter Noike, especially since they all seem to be a gaggle of Mary Sues out to outdo the original cast in being the coolest and most powerful. It's fun to learn more about the background of the main characters (which is the ostensible purpose of the new characters), but not at the expense of actually getting to see said main characters in the spotlight. With all the whackjob alien women running around, there really is no need for Tenchi. Nonetheless, the story remains interesting, with many mysteries yet to be solved (and of course our favorite harem does get to have some fun), and I certainly do want to see its conclusion.

Tenchi Muyo GXP:
Otakon showed the first disc or two last year and followed up this year with the middle of the series (I believe the third or fourth disc). My second impression of the series is much better than the first–after a lot of starting fluff, it's clear they have settled down a bit to develop the characters more. Although still in many ways "Tenchi Lite," GXP definitely has a flavor of its own. It gets a lot into the background politics and legends of the Galaxy Union, which is intriguing–though as serious as the backdrop gets sometimes, the main characters tend to be borderline silly with little notable depth. A fun space opera,but not much more, and not really for folks who aren't already familiar with the Tenchi universe, even if the series is about an entirely different group of characters.

Tenjho Tenge: I saw the first few episodes of this anime last year and was on the border of liking it or not; like with GXP Otakon followed up and showed episodes from the middle of the series this year. It follows the tradition of "fight school" anime, where the main characters go to a "high school" that teaches different mega fighting styles. Said genre doesn't really appeal to me, especially since they tend to nothing but violent with little else to show for it. The interesting thing about Tenjho Tenge is that while it is very graphically violent and quite over sexualized to boot, it still manages to also have consistent character development and an actual plot–and not just a basic plot, but one with quite a bit of mystery and intrigue to it. I was pleased to see the story to continue to unfold and even get stronger; you care what happens in the fights because of why they're happening. It's not that I don't like boobs and blood; I just need some kind of emotional investment to go along with them. Oddly though, if I have a complaint about this it's similar to my one about Tenchi–some of the characters originally introduced as seemingly "main" characters have faded into the background as new folks show up. On the other hand, this was only a few in a long TV series, so there's a lot more time to weave in and out of different characters' plot threads. I think I'd like to see the whole thing eventually though I'm no rush to collect it or anything–even with plot, it's still largely an exploitation piece and there's other stuff that's higher on my to-be-collected list. On the other hand, it's pretty unique, and the animation is absolutely STUNNING.

Negima!: I enjoyed some of Love Hina! (loved the manga); Negima! is Hina creator Ken Akamatsu's story about a young wizard who is assigned to teach a class of all girls. I didn't exactly learn why, but his doing this has something to do with his earning his full wizardship. Basically, it's Harry Potter harem anime style. Akamatsu's character designs are always cute and the many, many girls are nicely fleshed out considering how many there are, but in the end, it's still pretty much a generic harem anime. All the girls love the boy; in Love Hina tradition, the girl that seems destined for the boy is of course the one who's nothing but nasty and abusive to him. It was fun to see a couple episodes, but not worth collecting, in my opinion, as it gets old fast.

Those were the animes I felt worth commenting on; in brief, a few others:
Bastard! (meh; cute fantasy but misogynistic and overly silly) Record of Lodoss War (for old time's sake; Otakon marathoned the whole series and I only got to see a little bit of it, but I'm glad they did it; this is a classic fantasy anime)
Gankutsuoh: The Count of Monte Cristo (This was highly recommended to me by others but I had trouble getting into it; not sure if it's because I missed part of the first episode or because it's just too trippy in both plot and animation style, the latter of which seems to scream "our colorist died, so we just hired someone off the street to screw around in Photoshop)
Nana of Seven (this one _was_ too junior high girly and much too squeaky) Descendants of Darkness (I only saw 10 minutes of this, but it was enough to show me I didn't need to see more. If I want to see two women be all overly angsty over each other, I want them to actually be women).

There was something else we saw a preview of before the FMA film which looked vaguely intriguing, about an occult photographer and a vampire girl, but damned if I can remember the name of it.

More on Otakon and the Stuff I did There

I love Otakon. It's always fun, and there's always more stuff to do than I can ever squeeze in. The con wasn't much bigger than last year (only about 300 more people showed up than last year, for a total of 22,300 or so), but they did a much better job making lines move and keeping walkways as clear as possible. They disallowed signs and a lot of other stuff which is disruptive and causes traffic jams around the entrances to most of the video rooms. Kudos to the staff for improved crowd control.

That said, I think 2004 and 2005 were better. I don't know if it was just my luck, or Otakon staff were lacking, but Friday and Saturday morning were fraught with rescheduling issues and technical difficulties. The first few animes I tried to see either the projectors weren't working or something was starting late. A scheduling gaffe put the Negima! panel and the Negima! premiere in two different rooms at the same time, when both events required a copy of the DVD and they only had one (and this subsequently got the anime started late and put everything else after it off schedule as well). An overzealous projectionist shut off Tenchi Muyo! before it finished so they could start the next anime on time–but the next anime finished its run 15 minutes early–clearly, the programmer had put the two together so it would ultimately finish up on schedule, but it wasn't clear in the program and no one had told the projectionist. And there was a great deal of confusion regarding video and workshop rooms switching, etc. Mind you, they did eventually get it right and from Saturday afternoon on everything seemed to go smoothly, but Otakon's been running for 12 years now and they should not have taken till halfway through the con to get everything working proprerly; they know better. I know they do, because they've gotten in right before. Again, maybe I just had bad luck of going into the places where stuff went wrong, but it seemed pretty ridiculous for awhile.

There were a lot of interesting workshops this year and I only got to a handful (the joyful problem with Otakon of course is that there's usually several good things going on at once at any given time). I went to a Shiatsu massage workshop, which was fascinating. I did this last year too, but it was good to go again, especially since I'd forgotten a lot from last year... they explain a lot of basics of Chinese medicine which is very interesting, and moreover often use anime concepts to show how these ideas are often reflected in Japanese pop culture. And of course there's a large hands-on component, which is always quite nice. *smile*

I also went to a comic inking and paneling workshop led by the VG Cats artist and another webcomic artist. Did pick up some useful tips, though the workshop was more of a lesson in, "Just because you know how to do it doesn't mean you will be good at teaching it." At least his comic is good, but he needs to speed up the Q&A and SLOW DOWN the actual demonstration. There was a lot of banter between the panel leaders and fans about random stuff, but when the time came for him to show the process of what the panel was actually about, he just clicked through without explaining adequately what it was he was doing. Much of what I learned was just what I managed to notice him doing by accident. Still, since this is something I've been interested in learning, picking up at least a little is helpful.

Didn't go to any guest panels this year. I'm not obessive about keeping up with new animes and wasn't familiar with most of the guests (except Caitlin Glass, the dub actress for Winry in FMA), and usually when there was a guest panel there was something else I preferred doing instead. This isn't a criticism here–I think the guests looked like they were a diverse bunch; I just don't watch enough anymore to have heard of everything everybody is in.

Ah, the sweet sweet dealers room. I found the elusive R.O.D the TV Keychains of the Paper Sisters, and bought all three to hang on my Shrine to Chicks who Kick Ass, and in an act of ultra geekitude I also bought one extra Maggie to actually use as a keychain (they may all get used as keychains as somepoint).

The Love Hina Novel, because I was having trouble finding it anywhere else. It was okay, but the manga is still definitely the best iteration, IMHO. The novel just makes me feel like Keitaro's an abused child who needs therapy, and that Naru needs to be locked away before she kills someone.

My ultra geek money spending attack! Was on a jacket with Yomiko Readman's face painted all across the back... custom done by an artist who's come to Otakon several years whose work I've always liked. This one was a total impulse buy but probably my favorite purchase. It's a basically one of a kind thing and actually reasonably priced for what it was.  

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