Convention: Sakura-Con
Location: Seattle, WA
Dates: April 18th-20th, 2014
Report by: Caitlin Moore


sakuracon 2014The Washington State Convention Center is a mile and a half from my apartment and I’m not sure whether or not that’s a good thing.

It may seem like it would be very convenient. It does save me the expense of paying for a hotel room – one that I can’t really afford – but it makes the con experience considerably less immersive. Instead of spending the entire weekend surrounded by my fellow fans in an area I rarely go to otherwise, I take the same bus that I use to get to work and go back home at the end of the evening. Yes, I can use my own shower and shampoo, sleep in my own bed, eat my own food, but it doesn’t feel like a miniature vacation like it once did.

Ah, well. Such is life.

Last year, I attended Sakura-Con for all of two hours before I had to go to work the dinner shift at a nearby restaurant. This year I work a full-time job Monday through Friday so, while I did have to miss the first day, I was completely free to spend Saturday and Sunday however I wished. I could have attended Friday evening, I suppose, but that was spent frenziedly sewing a dress for my Ramona Flowers cosplay that I had procrastinated quite severely on. I finished at 4:30 AM.

The next morning, clad in a royal blue dress with my hair dyed teal, I boarded the bus down to the con. As I rode over, I got a text from my only other friend who planned to attend that he was having car trouble and would have to miss it.

Well, then. It looked like I was going it alone.

I got there at around 10:45, just in time to wander around hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine convention center for a half an hour before finding my way to the “Crossdressing for Fun and Profit in Anime and Manga” panel. The title made me skeptical, but the description sounded good – there’s a lot of ignorance about gender-related issues in anime fandom as well as a good deal of ethnocentrism and things can get ugly pretty quickly. Luckily, the panelists had related graduate degrees and handled the potentially sensitive topic with grace and expertise, covering the cultural context of cross-dressing and trans-ness in Japanese culture before delving into how it is dealt with in anime and manga. Even though I consider myself better-educated than most people about Japan and gender issues, I learned quite a bit and was able to catch the panelists – Kathryn Hemman of the University of Notre Dame and Leah Zoller of The Lobster Dance (odorunara.com) for a quick chat after the panel!

After that, it was time for the “Body Positivity and Bullying in Cosplay” panel in the same room. I’m not proud of my old attitudes regarding cosplay – I was judgemental and elitist and I ran with an unpleasant crowd – so attending this was a sign of how much I’ve grown since then. It started with a quick Powerpoint on what exactly body positivity is and how it relates to cosplay, and soon moved on to the panelists and the audience exchanging stories and advice on how to handle these issues. Tips on when to engage bullies and when not to (don’t engage if you’re by yourself, in an isolated area, or the person behaves intimidatingly, or if you feel unsafe for any reason), phone apps that will alert friends if you don’t make it home safe, and groups dedicated to body positivity were among information shared.

I then opted to simply wander the con for a bit. I stopped to check out the dealer’s hall, which had your usual variety of merchandise and a number of cosplay-related booths, and watched the cosplayers go by. I was pleased to see that the cosplay wasn’t restricted just to newer shows, as is frequently the case; the 90s and 00s were as well-represented as newer hits like Attack on Titan. I was hoping to attract some attention with my own costume but, alas, no one recognized me. I blame my lack of Ramona’s distinctive purse.

Something possessed me to go to the panel on harem anime. Maybe I was hoping it would criticize the genre. Maybe it was morbid curiosity. Maybe I wanted to get a look into the brain of “the enemy”. Maybe I’m just a masochist. Or maybe all of the above. In any case, I knew exactly what kind of experience I would have the moment the speaker took the table. As he showed clips of various harem shows, talking about the hallmarks and structure of the genre, the audience responded very positively, laughing hysterically at nosebleed jokes and cheering loudly at a panty shot. I felt like an illusion had been shattered. I had wrapped myself up safely in my own anime community among the kind of people who disdain and criticize that sort of thing. I suppose intellectually I knew there were people who enjoyed these elements – after all, they keep making them – but I didn’t want to really believe. But no, here they were, a huge panel room full of them, laughing and cheering. At the end, I did take the mic to criticize the speaker for using the word “trap”, which is a transphobic slur when used to discuss effeminate or transgender characters. He dismissed my objection as saying it was an almost direct translation of a word used identically in Japanese fandom which…

Okay. First of all, that sprung from a meme based on Admiral Ackbar, and second of all? Still a slur. He said he had to move on to his panel on objectification, and my blood froze. I had been looking forward to that panel. If he was leading it, it would probably not be what I expected.

I went anyway. I had to see what was going to happen. And what happened was horrifying and heartening at the same time. The main thrust of the man’s panel was that the ones primarily harmed by objectification in anime are men, not women. His primary example of nudity used to market something was Free!, and dismissed fanservice of female characters as “escapist fantasy.” He dismissed the male gaze as a “slippery topic” while discussing how harmful and prominent the female gaze has become. This audience, fortunately, was mostly women and not receptive to his claims. By the end, I stood up and told him exactly what I thought of his premise and of his presentation, and received applause and cheers from the rest of the audience. When I went to con ops to report his misleading panel description and the use of R-rated anime in a panel ostensibly rated PG-13, the panel coordinator assured me that with all the complaints they’d been getting, he would not be allowed to host panels at Sakura-Con again.

Later that evening, I went to the “XX without the XXX” panel, also on women in anime. The panelists had excellent Archer cosplay as Pam and Cheryl/Carol, and the panel was fun and interactive. Among topics we discussed were character and costume design, fanservice, and the way that female characters are treated by fandom and the narratives they’re in. One of the panelists had gone on to message boards and asked how fans felt about a few different female characters, including Lucrecia Crescent of FFVII: Dirge of Cerberus. The results were a little shocking as fans described laughing at these characters’ deaths, blaming them for everything that goes wrong while excusing the male characters’ actions, and callous dismissal of their feelings, in one case saying a character needs to just “get over” the anger she harbors at her father’s killer.

After that panel was something of a low point. I’d decided to attend the panel “You Suck: What’s Wrong with Otaku Culture”, but it wasn’t due to start for a little while longer. I was feeling the previous night’s lack of sleep, I was lonely and disappointed that no one had recognized my costume, and I really didn’t have anything to do with myself. But I made it through, and showed up to the panel. Unfortunately, due to the guy’s computer dying, it ended up being a vaguely-moderated discussion that mostly consisted of people saying, “Yeah, anime is sexist but WHAT CAN YOU DO!!” It was frustrating, but after the panel finished and the convention staff kicked us out, several of us ended up staying and talking after the panel for over two hours.

It’s a small thing, but it reminded me of what I really love about cons: connecting with other people over a shared love of the medium. As I hailed a cab home, long after the buses had stopped running, I was happy with the day I had spent. I look forward to the next Sakura-Con, which I hope I can attend more fully.