ALA 2012: A New Home

via Post Planet Port by Dasuken Revolver

Saturday, January 7, 2012 LAX Marriott HotelI walk down a carpeted hotel hallway that is bustling with the energy of a spirit bomb (genki doma). To the left and right of me are fan boys and fan girls (the vast majority much younger in age than myself) doing everything you would expect such epic nerds to do- a young man on my left is sprawled out on a pile of beanie bags screaming, “They took my sweet rooooolllls!” A scantily clad girl dressed in blue laughs, “My costume is falling off my boobs!” A group of teens walk past me shouting out, “Does anyone have a flame red 3DS?” All very typical sights and sounds as I’m sure you would agr- wait, what’s that? You say these aren’t sights and sounds you expect to experience? Then you must be new to cons, or more specifically ALA, as was I not long ago.

I cosplayed as Takashi Komuro from HOTD. That's a Saya stranger.
The Pool Deck was the best place for taking photos. See what I mean by overwhelming?

Let’s rewind to other instances of walking in my life. This time a year ago I was walking in another crowded area with a very different feel- Time Square. Braving the freezing cold weather in a scarf, Uniqlo thermal underwear and ear muffs I bought off the street for five bucks. The entire time I lived in New York, I never got tired of the lights of Time Square or watching people rush off from point A to point B within the cultural capital of the world. In this busy metropolis, I felt at home.

Rewind a year more. It’s evening and I was braving the cold in a scarf, my Uniqlo thermal underwear and some ear muffs I bought at the 100 yen shop.  I was walking down a sidewalk  after having gone through the Inuyama train station. You needed to go through the station if you wanted to reach the konbini, Sunkus. That’s where I usually purchased some Pocari Sweat and Calorie Mate. The streets were practically empty. The only lights came from the local pachinko parlor and the 24 hour manga cafe. In this peaceful little Japanese town, I felt at home.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present, January of 2012. I’m in the LA suburb where I grew up. I’m not walking on a sidewalk because people don’t do that here. They drive. It’s winter, but it’s 80 degrees outside so I wouldn’t be able to wear my thermals or cheap ear muffs unless I wanted to be really uncomfortable. I spent most of my life here- I know the rhythms, the sounds of the birds chirping, the sight of the open brownish blue sky up above, the radio rotation that plays the same five songs every hour. As familiar as all this is, I feel displaced. I don’t feel at home. I feel like my adventures living in distant lands are finally over, succumbing to economic hard times like everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that I have parents to take me under their roof once more and support me. However, my unease stems not from settling back in this physical space, but from pressing the reset button on my social life for the fourth time.  My years away from LA had eroded local fair-weather friendships, as and such, a social butterfly like myself was in need of new circles.

Enter the anime scene. The video game scene. The comic book scene. If I could no longer frequent trendy New York night clubs or Japanese summer festivals, I would now begin to find solace in the hobby havens that I held dear all my life.

In my youth, these scenes did not exist as they do today and I faced different circumstances. I was introverted and didn’t have a driver’s license. So I played video games in my living room. Alone.  Anime was hard to come by as “streaming video” was unheard of. And X-Men 1 had not yet hit theaters, so the comic book movie boom had not begun. Who of my friends could I seriously converse comics with when none of them cared for or knew the comedic stylings of Deadpool? Yes, for better or worse, my passions were nerdy. They had nothing to do with sports, a pastime that most everyone followed, allowing athletics  discussion and debate to break the ice for new friendships. Nope. I was a nerd. A fanboy. Not exactly the most popular lifestyle, but it was me. It was who I was and I accepted it. And while not as introverted as before, it’s who I still am.

Changes to the ALA scene

Only in my 20’s did I finally learn the joy and excitement of comic book and anime conventions. Places where like-minded individuals had no problem expressing their love for fanatic hobbies.

I already had multiple visits to giant cons like SDCC, AX, and NYCC under my belt, but I had never heard of Anime Los Angeles (ALA) until recently. When I asked around what ALA was like, I was told that it was different. It was smaller than AX and in a hotel. Okay, I thought. That doesn’t sound too different. A smaller space. People still cosplay. There are still panels. Why the buzz?

I'm not sure who she is, but she was quite popular for photos ;)

I was determined to experience it all firsthand by attending two of the three official days of the con. I made the lengthy drive to the LAX Marriott and passed through the automatic sliding hotel lobby doors into another world. Colorful eye-popping costumes surrounded me. Lying down on fancy sofas, blogging on laptops plugged into every available outlet, fire-hazarding escalators to take pictures- it’s as if these young folks had vehemently declared to the usually stuffy business-oriented LAX Marriott, “This is our world now, bitches! Cosplay FTW! We can haz this hotel!” Truly, a Mad Max- like world where the Mayan apocalypse had come and gone. Okay, not really. But you get the picture.

Exhausted con-goers chilling on complimentary bean bags. Pokeballs not included.

You may think that I, the full fledged adult male that I am, would stick out in this atmosphere. If you noticed, I keep saying things like “young people,” and “teens,” and “when I was young” to hint at our difference in age. So if I haven’t dated myself enough yet, I’ll let you know my actual age. I’m 28 years old. But I’m Filipino American, so I don’t look it. And I was in cosplay. Japanese High School uniform cosplay. And I’m short. So no one here gave me a second look.

Which is unfortunate, because that means my cosplay for the most part went unnoticed. SuX0rs. If you’re familiar with con culture, you know that cosplayers HOPE to have their picture taken by strangers. Anime, comics and video games are rich visual fantasy worlds, and cosplay is a way to bring those colorful worlds to life in three dimensions. It’s a place to stand out and be admired. Understandably, your first time being engulfed in this kind of cosplay environment can be overwhelming for the eyes, as it was for my non-nerd brother when I took him to his first con. But if you’re still one of the uninitiated, hopefully now it’s not as weird as it seems. It actually makes some sense. Just imagine that you don’t have to wait for Halloween to have fun role-playing that you’re someone else. While not as intense as LARP, it’s still a very lively and fun  arena- alcohol not necessary.

Assit Me guys! I love these dude's raps. they stayed in character the whole time.

And over the last 15 years, more and more Americans are discovering this cosplay custom and following the footsteps of the original Japanese cosplayers. In fact, they’re taking it more seriously than ever before. A few people I know spend tons of cash and sew or build for months to perfect their costumes and accessories only to be used a few days at ALA. They also workout and go on diets to mimic the sexy or muscular physiques of their characters. Indeed, this isn’t just fandom anymore. This is a modeling photo-op now. Complete with photographers/videographers like FastMatt and ChillyWilly, expensive equipment, and shimmering poolside backdrops. But is anyone getting paid? Nope. Not really. It’s still all for the love of the pastime.

A few stellar steady cam vids of ALA:

Now that you’ve had a crash course in Cosplay & Con 101, you  might be asking where my personal story fits in all this.  Which is apt because I was trying to figure that out myself at ALA. Through a few previous events hosted by Tune in Tokyo at the Royal T Cafe, I had the pleasure of meeting and Facebooking over a dozen cosplay, J-fashion, and J-Pop aficionados. My brethren! People who knew that lolita wasn’t just a book and what the letters in AKB in AKB48 stood for. A number of these folks also happened to be con-goers. As such, I figured great- I don’t have to traverse this con all by lonesome, I’ll have plenty of new friends to hang out with while I’m there.

Sukashi… (And yet…) The truth is I did spend a lot of my time at ALA all by myself. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of the large boisterous groups of nerds all around me who shared the experience with their otaku comrades. But what of those brethren I mentioned earlier? Apparently my ties to those “friends” made on Facebook were not strong enough. On at least three occasions, when I was happy to see someone I regularly chatted with on FB, the person shied away from me. Avoided me. WTF?? We can LOL on-line but in person I have the plague. Why this happened could be due to a number of reasons. I’m much older and that creeps the young folk out. I’m just more friendly, trusting and outspoken than most people in the world. Or maybe con goers are still very introverted, as I was in my youth. Whatever the reason, that’s how it played out. But not entirely.

ALA provided many opportunities for the lone ronin to make new connections. The first night of the con included an Otaku Speed Dating event that had over 100 people in line to attend. I tried to do it myself, but it was just too crowded. That’s all right though, because at around the same time, Cafe Verfuhren held a speakeasy cafe on the 18th floor, where a “Russian” bouncer asked you for a codeword to gain access (the codeword I shan’t ever reveal). At the cafe, I was treated by a hospitable staff of cross-play butlers, each promoting their own special mixed drink. This event also gave me a chance to play Pokemon trainer as I caught a handful of new friends, two of which shared my love for Resident Evil. These two were kind enough to enlighten me to the horn-y Homestuck craze that had dominated the con. And the networking didn’t stop there- on Saturday in the afternoon, the con hosted a very popular scavenger hunt competition, where teams of four people or more had to run around the hotel asking con-goers for the most random of items. Hence the earlier reference to a flame red 3DS. Someone actually had one, by the way. And all of these icebreaking activities were just the tip of the… well, iceberg. Karaoke, cosplay chess, ribbon finding, artist alley, techo rave, masquerade, and scheduled cosplay group gatherings at the pool- there was something fun for everyone. Even me.

Two members of Cafe Verfuhren treating VIP to specialty drinks
I loved meeting these girls. They were very friendly.

I participated in the scavenger hunt, and while it wasn’t planned, I teamed up with two cosplayers I met at Royal T- Jessie, AKA OhHaiThere and Win, AKA Win is my Hero. Jessie wore Danny Choo’s space marine Mirai while Win wore a sleek black coat and a grayish white wig. But with a limit of four people, we were in need of one more. And as luck would have it, Pops from Speed Racer, AKA Gil, sat next to us at the start of the game and was glad to join our team. I coincidentally interviewed Gil the night before. An interesting fellow who’s gone to SDCC 18 years in a row and cosplays  as a Homer Simpson Vegeta with a  light-up donut accessory.

And so team Russia was born. We worked really hard, wracked our brains, ran around, scared a few people, got all hot and sweaty, and obliterated the easy-level scavenger list. This was probably the most fun experience I had at the con. I mean, who doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt? And even after the hunt was over, I spent some time hanging out with my teammates. Friends get!

I took my jacket off because I was so hot from scavenging. Picture from Win is my Hero
Had to include this pic of my friend. Epic action shot by Nelson Castro

The next few hours after the hunt passed quickly because I spent it taking pictures of my favorite cosplays. Before I knew it, it was time for my own cosplay gathering: A High School of the Dead photo-shoot. This was my first time I participated in a cosplay photo shoot, and I had a blast with all those involved. HOTD is a very over-the-top anime, which lends to several fun and embarrassing action poses. Or maybe it was just this particular group of HOTD heads who had no problem with risqué shots. While looking for photo backgrounds in the parking lot, we discovered a full jar of peanut butter on the ground, possibly left by con stoners. We all had a good laugh about it. There were about 10 of us, much smaller than a Vocaloid or Naruto gathering. Our smaller gathering meant everyone had a chance to get to know one another. We vibed so well that night that we’re currently Facebooking and organizing a photo and video shoot/picnic for next week! Friends get!

It would be hard to get to meet everyone in a cosplay gathering this large.
For a few seconds, I was the luckiest Takashi there.
For once, humans outnumber the zombies.
Oops, everyone died and it's just me left. Spoke too soon.

I have many more personal anecdotes from ALA that involve making new connections- the two kind ribbon hunters I chatted with at the Saturday evening penthouse cafe, the total stranger I formed a duet with to sing Utada Hikaru’s “First Love,” my lobby talk with EJ of Cosplay in America  fame. The last one really deserves to be shared.

EJ Chuang is a photographer and author who had the brilliance and determination to make a book about cosplayers in America. He has gone to cons from coast to coast during the 00’s, documenting the cosplay culture and experience. I share in his fascination with this growing pastime. In our talk, EJ bestowed two bits of wisdom on me. I’m paraphrasing here but, I believe he said, “You don’t need a fancy camera. I use my HTC smartphone for pics. And I can upload them right away to the net for up-to-the-minute coverage.” This statement came after I confessed how inadequate I felt taking picture of hot cosplayers with my dinky point-and-shoot, while photographers beside me brandished ginormous zoom DSLR’s. The second nugget of wisdom? When I shared that I was alone at the con, EJ put it quite simply, “Just do what I do. Mill around. Talk to people. Everyone’s nice. This is the most cosplayer friendly con I’ve ever been to.” Considering this is the guy who’s attended conventions all over the country, and who literally wrote the book on cosplay, I decided to take his words to heart.

Poison from Final Fight. Another popular cosplayer. Can't imagine why...
A gathering in pajamas to draw. DRAW?? Right on, artists.

And as you’ll see, my video interviewees echoed that sentiment. Being a much smaller con than AX, you felt more at home. Here, everyone knew each other. If you were a regular con goer, you reunited with friends at ALA. And if you were new to ALA, you made new friends, just as I was fortunate enough to do.

My time adapting to foreign lands or gallivanting in over-populated metropolises may have come to an end. For now. But I’ve always been the kind of optimistic to make the best of wherever he lives. And right now, that means embracing this American otaku lifestyle and sharing my passion for it with new friends. The kind of friends you can make at ALA. So I hope you decide to attend ALA 2013. If you do, don’t hesitate to say hi and chat with me. ^_^

For more picture coverage, check out my Flickr HERE

For live tweets from ALA and other cons, follow me @Scardeno

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