I guess it must be pretty obvious by now that I’m not exactly what you’d call – if such a thing even exists – a ‘typical’ anime fan. I don’t refer to myself as an otaku. I hate J-Pop. Mainly due to being a 35 year-old heterosexual man, both Yaoi and Shojo anime holds no more interest for me than an episode of Ugly Betty or Gossip Girl. I don’t collect figures of little girls with their pantsu showing – although I do have a few Gundams, Labors and Totoros lying around the house. Fanservice at the very least bores me, and at worst makes me uncomfortable. I despise, rather than lust after, Asuka from Evangelion. And perhaps most shockingly, until this last weekend, I’d never been to an anime con before.
Not that I’m totally new to the con experience. Many, many years ago I used to go to comic and roleplaying shows, and the last time I was at Excel – the venue for London Expo – I was actually working on a stall running demos as part of my past career as a video games producer. But this was still the first anime-fan orientated event I’d been too, and it was hard to deny the feelings of being an outsider. A friend of mine had forewarned me that it felt a little like gatecrashing your little brother’s party, and despite not having any younger siblings within a few minutes of being there I understood exactly what he meant.
London Expo isn’t purely an anime and manga based event – it also covers ‘genre TV’, comics and video games, but it was clear from just glancing at the hour long queues outside that London’s teenage otaku massive was out in force. Adorned in Naruto headbands and Haruhi wigs, and fueled by Pocky and anxious hormones, they had made their way to Docklands – London’s already decaying shrine to 1980’s capitalism, served by the world’s most rickety futuristic train system – searching for a side order of social acceptance along with their discounted manga. And before they even entered it was clear they were going to find it; there was already a buzz in the air, teenage-geek awkwardness giving way to unbridled enthusiasm as they nervously grasped their ‘free hugs’ signs and shouted out character names to make it clear that they recognised each others cosplay outfits.
As I stood outside the entrance, watching the milling crowds and smoking one last cigarette before I entered, my friend’s comments became even clearer in my mind, and I understood fully what he was getting at. I am old. Many of the kids here had been probably been coming to Docklands for years, and the already dated looking monuments to a now forgotten economic-futurism that towered around us must seem like ancient structures to them. I, on the other hand, can actually remember when all of this was fields. Well, patches of green and some pretty run down looking docks at least. But despite the gulf between my age and that of the majority of the attendees, I still didn’t feel completely alienated. Even though our tastes in anime may very well be out of sync, there was no denying I could feel a certain bond with them – at the very least, I could recognise my own past teen awkwardness, and feel slightly more then a little envy for their innocent enthusiasm.
Skipping the sweaty queues courtesy of a press pass, the main hall was slightly smaller than I’d expected, and suitably crowded. Fighting against the masses to get around didn’t take the edge off the enjoyment – it might not be Akihabara, but it’s hard for any anime fan to not enjoying nosing around stalls full of manga, DVDs, toys, phone pendants, Ghibli plushies and Gundam kits. Despite this I nearly came away empty handed, until I stumbled across the Ilex stall and not just Helen McCarthy’s new book The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga but also the author herself. Helen is one of the few writers on anime to deserve the title of ‘legend’, having written some of the most exhaustive reference books on the subject, and it was great to be able to spend some time chatting to her in person after previously only via the ‘net. She’s not just knowledgeable but charming with it, and made me determined to finally make it to some of upcoming her screenings at the Barbican – details of which she let slip to me, but for now I am sworn to secrecy.
Reading reports of US anime cons always leaves me envious of one thing above all – discussion panels. The idea of being able to interact with other anime bloggers and even to see and hear Japanese creators talking about their work is extremely exciting to me, but sadly was one area where London Expo was lacking. Despite the apparent interests of the majority of the crowd, there was only one anime related panel on the day I attended – an appearance from Masahiko Minami and Masahiro Andō of Studio Bones.
On paper seeing these two speak was an exciting prospect, and my main motivation for getting to Expo, but the reality was slightly disappointing. Marred by sound problems and running behind schedule the panel lasted just 20 minutes, and was focused entirely on promoting the extremely delayed UK release of Ando’s movie Sword of the Stranger – despite promises that there would be footage from their work on the upcoming Halo Legends project. In fact, the highlight of the panel for me was when a member of the audience asked a question about the as yet unreleased in the UK Eureka 7 movie, only for Minami-san to respond with “Have you seen it yet?” The questioner’s response of “no comment” met with much laughter from the Japanese guests as well as the floor, thankfully. At least they recognise the situation UK anime fans are in, and have got a sense of humour about it.
With the panel finished, that was nothing more to do than to have one last wander round, grab some noodles and then head back into town to start the long trip home. Despite my early reservations I had a good time, and more importantly perhaps was able to see others having an even better one. At some point I was going to call this post ‘Fear and Loathing in Docklands’, but that’s not only too much of a cliche these days, it’s also not fair. ‘Fear and Respect’ might have been more apt. I might be too old and miserable to be in their gang, but the UK anime teenage massive has my support. They should enjoy it while they can, and more power to them. Now where did I put my hair-gel and that Naruto headband?