Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Convention Bestiary: The Glomper

While glompers have become rare in recent years due to cons increasingly cracking down on over-exuberant behavior likely to cause injury, they still occasionally turn up. Of all creatures in the Convention Bestiary, the glomper is among the most physically dangerous, so vigilance remains important despite its increasingly endangered status.

Identifying Features: Glompers are typically younger and female, but both older and male glompers exist. Identifying a glomper by site is extremely difficult, but they are easily identified by their behavior.

Habitat: Convention center and hotel hallways; anywhere that cosplayers congregate.

Notable Behaviors: Upon sighting a cosplayer dressed as a favorite character, the glomper will immediately emit a high-pitched squeal and attempt to hug the cosplayer, without regard for personal space or safety. There is at least one documented instance of a glomper tackling a cosplayer at the top of a staircase, throwing both of them down it.

Effective Countertactics: The only certain way to avoid glomping is to not cosplay. However, if you still wish to cosplay, your best option is vigilance. If you hear the distinctive shriek of the glomper, locate the glomper, wait for them to start their attack run, and then step out of the way. If you're lucky, they will go down the stairs instead of you.

Cautions: Do not attempt to use poor hygiene or direct violence as a defence against glompers. Poor hygiene is simply not effective; anyone unobservant enough to tackle-hug someone at the top of a staircase is not going to notice even the most powerful con-stench. Violence has a tendency to get one thrown out of cons, even when in self-defense against random glompings.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Katsucon Post-Coma Report

I think Katsucon may have been the most tiring convention I've ever been to. I slept for fifteen and a half hours after I got home! I don't think I've ever slept that much straight through without chemical assistance or being seriously ill.

Anyway, Katsucon was fun, but had serious flaws. Let's start with...

The Good

Some of the good things at Katsucon were the typical good things at any con: Seeing con friends like Charles and Aaron and Tom (no Jeff, bastard went to the Doctor Who con instead), feeling like an accepted member of a community even when surrounded by strangers, not feeling threatened when people I don't know start talking to me and I don't know why, all that stuff was out in force. Also, I don't think I heard any meme kids all con--the only time anybody tried that obnoxious call-response shit was when Charles did it to make a point about fan culture.

Some high points specific to the con:
  • I never went to the video rooms or manga library. As I believe I've mentioned before, I don't go to cons to watch anime or read manga, because I can easily (and much more cheaply) do that at home. I will only go to a video room or manga library if there's nothing else to do, and that never happened at this year's Katsu.
  • We Con, Therefore We Are: A debate of sorts between an elitist jackass who was offended that anime cons don't consist entirely of scholarly gentlemen sipping tea and smoking fine cigars whilst comparing and contrasting Tezuka's linework to Miyazaki's, and Charles, who argued (rightly) that cons are and should be more about the fandom than the anime itself. Very entertaining, and the elitist jackass argued his point well despite being massively wrong and facing quite a bit of hostility from the crowd.
  • My Panels: All of my panels went off really well. Analyzing Anime 101 was a resounding success, despite the terrible time slot, and I am immensely happy with it. I am already making plans for a less anime-focused version to pitch to multi-fandom cons. Judaism and Anime went well, but still ran a little short even with the new content. I will have to add still more before I try again.
    As for my panels with Viga, the Madoka panel was immensely successful but we were unable to film it. We promised we would record a version at home and put that up on YouTube, but we will probably not be able to until some time in March. Anime of the West managed to blow some minds and hopefully help people understand that animation is animation no matter where it's from. Finally, My Little Panel: Friendship Is Magic went amazingly--our revised material was strong, our discussions of pony biology and the Cutie Mark Crusaders generated a lot of response, and the audience was extremely enthusiastic (some of them waited in line for two hours)!
  • Charles' and Aaron's Panels: I finally got to see Charles' Pokemon panel after missing it two cons in a row, and it was everything I had hoped for. He even gave Vanillish some much-needed love! I also finally managed to catch one of Aaron's panels (two, actually, The Life and Works of Hideaki Anno and Evangelion, WTF) and both were quite good.
The Bad

Despite having a lot of good, there were some serious issues with Katsucon this year, and they pretty much sum up to one word: Scheduling. A lot of people (including at least one guest I know of) had complaints about the scheduling of their panels, which seemed to be done without any regard for when might be an appropriate time (the middle of the night is not a good time for any panel that expects its audience to think!) or the effects on panelists and attendees. For example, my panel schedule was:
  • 2 a.m. Sunday: Analyzing Anime 101
  • 7 a.m. Sunday: Judaism and Anime
  • 9 a.m. Sunday: Madoka
  • 11 a.m. Sunday: Anime of the West
  • 1 p.m. Sunday: MLP:FIM

Kindly explain to me when the hell I'm supposed to get some sleep while giving those five hours of panels? And seriously, Analyzing Anime at two in the morning? What were you thinking, Katsucon!? I basically had to miss busiest part of the con because I spent Saturday afternoon and evening asleep in preparation for this absurd schedule.

The Ugly

Yes, there was worse than the scheduling fail. Much worse, and like the bad, it all comes down to one word. In this case: Communication.

Katsucon staff failed, hard, at communicating even basic information to the people who needed to know it, right from the start:
  • Panelists were not informed of their panels until two weeks before the convention. E-mails to con staff prior to this received no response or unhelpful responses. I understand that this was because they had not yet completely nailed down the guests, but there must have been some point well before the two weeks mark at which they were sure that they would have time for at least X panels, and they could have accepted that many panels while waitlisting an additional Y they hoped to have room for, like Anime Boston is doing this year.
  • The printed schedule handed out at the beginning of the con was an unreadable mess. Every con I have ever been to uses a grid layout: one axis shows the rooms, the other shows the time, and at the intersection you find the name of whatever event is in that room at that time. Katsucon has always had particularly unreadable grids that make it hard to tell whether a panel is on the half-hour or the hour, but this year was worse by far: There was no grid at all, just a list of panels organized by room.
    A list would be bad enough, but organizing it by room elevated the schedule from hard to use to impossible to use. People use the con schedule either to plan their day in advance or to decide where to go right now. In either case, the question is "What is happening at a particular time?" Only after you make that decision do you then want to know what room the event is in. Organizing by rooms makes answering the second question much easier, but at the price of making answering the first question a ton of work. I am quite sure I missed out on panels I might want to see because it was too much work to figure out when they were and whether they conflicted with other things I wanted to see--not that it matters, because thanks to my ridiculous schedule, I probably couldn't have seen them anyway.
    There was an online schedule using the grid format, but as the hotel did not have free wi-fi, it was only accessible to people with smartphones. There was no other attempt to communicate the schedule: No schedule grid posted as a sign at the information desks, and no signs in front of rooms showing the individual schedules for each room. Which leads to my next point...
  • Con staff did a woefully inadequate job of communicating schedule changes. The print schedule did not reflect changes made even before the con started, but they didn't actually tell anyone that unless they asked. They updated the online schedule with any changes, but did not provide updated print schedules at the information desks, which most cons do. Schedule changes during the con were not announced in any form except online--since there were no schedule signs, those could not be updated, nor did anyone post signs on room doors, as I've seen other cons do. Our My Little Pony panel was rescheduled from noon Sunday to 1 p.m., and not only did no one tell Viga and I, no one told the 60+ fans waiting in line for it until Viga and I saw them and started making noise. The former is an annoying oversight, but not disastrous. The latter is completely unacceptable. Oh, and when I asked why we were rescheduled, I got either the blatant lie or the egregious error that it was to give us a bigger space, even though we were still in the same room!
  • The convention did not have a feedback panel at the end. Apparently, buried in the unreadable mess of a schedule, there was one on Saturday afternoon at some point, which is just absurd. How can people give feedback on the con when half of it hasn't happened yet?

I'm still mulling this one over. Viga and I are seriously considering not coming back to Katsucon next year. She wants to make MagFest her winter con, and I am frankly fine with having one fewer con to pay for. On the other hand, if not for the shit-tacular scheduling that forced us to get a room for the weekend, this would have been nearly as cheap as AUSA, so the cost savings wouldn't be that much if I felt reasonably confident that I wouldn't have such bad scheduling. So it's up in the air right now.

Convention Bestiary: Meme Kids

Identifying Features: Meme kids have the same distribution of gender, class, ethnicity, and clothing styles as con attendees in general. However, they are nearly always in the 14-21 age range and without adult supervision. Often they can be identified by their dead, lifeless eyes, manic grins, and slight drool, indicative of their lack of capacity for original thought or anything resembling normal human conversation.

Habitat: Convention center and hotel hallways, as well as the streets immediately surrounding the convention.

Notable Behaviors: Shouting out call-and-response memes is the only form of communication of which meme kids are capable, and they indulge in it continually. Their cries have been theorized to be a form of asserting membership in the herd, or possibly some sort of echolocation. Suggestions that it may be a mating cry have been met with horrified outrage, as it implies the possibility of meme kids reproducing at some point.

Effective Countertactics: There are only two known ways to stop meme kids, and both can only be accomplished by convention organizers and staff. The first is a zero-tolerance policy: Anyone caught shouting memes has their badge taken away and is immediately expelled from the convention. The second is to simply price the convention out of meme kids' range, either by making tickets very expensive or by holding it at a very expensive location. The second strategy has the unfortunate side effect of preventing lower-income fans from attending, so the first is heartily recommended.

Cautions: Despite all indications to the contrary, meme kids are still considered human beings by most jurisdictions, and so indiscriminate slaughter may result in arrest, jail time, even execution or expulsion from the convention! Even in those few jurisdictions that rightly classify teenagers as wild beasts, animal cruelty laws may still apply. Above all, do not try to make meme kids or point out that they are incredibly annoying. If they were capable of reasoning, they would not need to constantly parrot memes, and the entire point of their behavior is to get a response--yelling at them is simply rewarding them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Convention Bestiary: Conversation Guy

Going to be starting something new. It is, perhaps, a little mean-spirited, but very cathartic. I am going to start chronicling the... let's say "less than perfectly socialized" people you tend to meet at cons. Since I mostly go to anime cons with the occasional cross-geekery or sci-fi con thrown in, the list will be skewed in those directions. For our first entry, let's all meet...

Conversation Guy

Identifying Features: Conversation Guy is always a white male in his 20s or older, usually bearded and overweight, and always poorly groomed. There is no particular reason why these features should be so, but I have encountered many different Conversation Guys, and the patterns are consistent.

Habitat: Any panel, but especially ones to do with a technological or science-fictional topic.

Notable Behaviors: Conversation Guy's primary characteristics are a total lack of consideration and an inability to distinguish between a panel and a personal conversation. Conversation Guy will thus respond to every single thing the panelists say as if the rest of the audience were not in the room and instead he and the panelists were hanging out together, shooting the breeze.

Effective Countertactics: Snark. Conversation Guy is typically desperate to prove his knowledge of the panel topic, so puncturing his fragile little ego is a great way to shut him down. If you are in the audience, and Conversation Guy is disrupting the panel, ask him why his name isn't in the program, since clearly he thinks he's on the panel. If you are a panelist, try pointing out that you don't go to his panels and talk over him.

Cautions: Do not set your Conversation Guy sensors too high! Bearded, poorly groomed, overweight white dudes and people with poor social skills are both fairly common at cons, and so is the intersection. Don't immediately jump down the throat of anyone who, in a moment of passion, responds to or corrects a panelist, especially if the panelists seem okay with it! On the other hand, if an audience member seems to be talking more than any of the panelists, you have a case of Conversation Guy on your hands. Shoot to kill; you are doing everyone a favor.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Analyzing Anime 101 Notes

Below are my notes for my upcoming Analyzing Anime 101 panel at Katsucon 2012. The aim of the panel is to provide an overview of the techniques and approaches of textual analysis as applied to anime. It assumes a level of knowledge equivalent to a high school education, which is to say no prior knowledge of textual analysis (hence the 101).

I welcome comments, suggestions, and criticisms, as I want to do the best job I can of presenting this. In particular, if anyone can suggest good introductory books or books for laymen on general analysis, film criticism, or anime criticism in specific, I would be most appreciative--all of my knowledge comes from the textbooks I used in college, which were expensive to begin with and now mostly out of print.

Warning: Major NGE spoilers, minor spoilers for Madoka, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Slayers.

Analyzing Anime 101

What is Analysis?
  • All art is collaborative process: Even when there is a singular artist, there are still two people involved in the experience of art: the artist and the viewer.
  • Most viewers usually are passive consumers of art, with the interpretation occurring mostly automatically and subconsciously. Few works provoke the general viewer into actively trying to construct meaning, usually by aggressively posing questions and providing ambiguous answers.
  • Analysis is the active, conscious participation in art. It consists of taking conscious control of the process of interpreting art, observing one's own automatic interpretations and subjecting them to test or intentionally trying different interpretations.
  • Analysis begins with "close reading," the careful and attentive study of a text with a focus on identifying what is actually in the text itself, rather than what is constructed by the viewer.
Why Analyze?
  • Because it is fun: the more effort you put into the things you enjoy, the more you enjoy them. Good art becomes better; bad art becomes tolerable, or at least instructive.
  • Because it adds depth to your experience of works: The passive consumption of a 22-minute episode takes 22 minutes. The analysis can take as long as you want it to, which means you get to enjoy it that much longer. You can also discover things to appreciate you never knew were there.
  • It gives you new things to think about, talk about, and explore: Analysis can lead you down new and interesting paths to learn about things you never thought you would be interested in, and give you insights into other works. For example, I learned about Kabbalah primarily because I wanted to understand Neon Genesis Evangelion. I learned about Jung's use of alchemical symbolism because I wanted to understand Xenosaga. And when both showed up together in Fullmetal Alchemist, I understood.
Basic Concepts
  • Art as Process, not Object
  • Multiplicity of Perspectives
  • Close Reading
  • Pattern-Forming
  • Interrogating the Text
Art as Process
  • Any work of art begins as thoughts, feelings, images, and concepts in the mind of the artist(s).
  • The artist expresses these thoughts, feelings, etc. through some sort of medium, for example a painting, a book, or film.
  • The chosen medium informs and contains the expression. There are things a painting can do that a film cannot, and vice versa. This is why, when a film is based on a book, adhering too closely to the book often results in a bad film, even if the book was good. Because the artist's expression is filtered through the medium, the text is already moving away from being a pure expression of the artist's intent.
  • The viewer experiences art through the medium.
  • The viewer interprets and filters the art through their own ideas, experiences, and current state.
  • As time passes, the viewer's imperfect memory further distorts the text, while at the same time the viewer continues to interpret and re-interpret it each time they think about it. The viewer constructs an interpretation and understanding of the text, forms opinions and emotional responses, and creates the final form of the experienced text in the viewer's mind.
Perspectives on a Text
  • Doylist vs. Watsonian: Who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories? In real life, Doyle did. But in the stories themselves, they are accounts by Watson of his adventures with Holmes. The Doylist perspective on a text looks at it from outside, as an artificial work created in a real-world context, and all the characters and events are creations of the author. The Watsonian perspective on a text looks at if from within, as a reality of its own, and all the characters and events are real, with motivations and causes. For example, a Doylist explanation of the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion might be that they were a cost-saving measure forced by the studio's near-bankruptcy. A Watsonian interpretation might be that they represent Shinji's attempt to interpret events beyond human comprehension. A spectrum, rather than a binary, and most of the following perspectives can be placed on that spectrum.
  • Psychological Perspectives: Focus on the characters. What drives them? Why do they make the choices that they do? What are their personalities, and how do they reflect the way real people behave and think? For example, one can view the magical girls in Puella Magi Madoka Magica as exploring different responses to child abuse: Kyoko oscillates between acting out and denial; Homura detaches and tries to shut down her emotions; Sayaka becomes violent and self-destructive. A mostly Watsonian approach.
  • Historical/Cultural Perspectives: Focus on the time and place in which the work was created. How does the work reflect the concerns, ideas, and controversies of its time? Does it embrace any trends in other works from the same time/place? Attack such trends? For example, Sailor Moon blends the traditionally feminine maho shojo genre with elements of the traditionally masculine sentai genre. One can argue that this was a trend in the 90s of adding shonen elements to shojo series and vice versa. A mostly Doylist approach.
  • Social/Values Criticism: How does the work reflect the social and political structures and conflicts of its time/place, or how can it be applied to the social and political structures and conflicts of the viewer's time/place? What values does the work express and explore? For example, one can explore Cardcaptor Sakura from the perspective of queer criticism, and look at how it depicts both a romantic reciprocal relationship between two young men (one clearly bi and the other gay or bi), and a one-sidedly romantic relationship between a lesbian or bi young woman and her apparently straight friend. Tends to blend Doylist and Watsonian perspectives.
  • Death of the Author: Not a perspective per se, but a concept which cuts across and influences many perspectives. The Death of the Author is the notion that, since the work in the author's mind is not the same as either the text or the final product in the viewer's mind, statements by the author about the meaning of the text carry no more weight than any other person's statements. More broadly, the only facts, as far as analysis is concerned, are the contents of the text itself. Everything else is interpretation. It is a historical fact that Hideaki Anno said that the Christian and Jewish symbols used in Neon Genesis Evangelion were just thrown in to look cool and exotic to Japanese audiences, but the only fact as far as interpreting the series is concerned is that they are there. They may be meaningless in the NGE in Anno's head, but that does not necessarily mean they are meaningless in the NGE in yours.
  • No perspective is the best one. If you have a particular perspective you find you prefer, by all means go for it. If you find different perspectives better for different texts, go with that. If you find mixing multiple perspectives most rewarding, go with that.
Close Reading
  • "Reading" a "text": Despite the terms, any human creation can be viewed as a text, from a novel to a film to a painting to the back of a cereal box to a garbage can lid. Any text can be read, which is to say, viewed and interpreted in order to construct and assign meaning.
  • Close reading is mindfulness. It consists of paying close attention to the text, looking for details and patterns, and noting anything that stands out.
  • Close reading is about the text and only the text. It is not about what you think of the text, how the text makes you feel, or anything else about you. It is not about where the text was written or what it implies about the author. It is solely and entirely about getting as clear a view of the text as possible, both as a unified whole and on a reductionist level. It is objective, not subjective.
  • [Example: Show the ending credits sequence of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, guide audience through a brief attempt at close reading.]
  • Humans are pattern-making machines, so sophisticated and powerful we can look at two dots and a curved line and turn them into a face. Pattern-forming consists of finding patterns within the text and fitting the text into external patterns.
  • Patterns within a work can include repeated motifs, parallels between elements, contrasts between elements, and implied comparisons between elements. For example, NGE has a repeated motif of bad things happening to people's left arms, especially Shinji's. It parallels Shinji's troubled relationship with his father to Misato's troubled relationship with her father. It contrasts Asuka's bright colors and brash persona to Shinji's more neutral color scheme and extreme doormat tendencies. By presenting both as possible love interests to Shinji and as pilots, it implies comparison between Rei and Asuka.
  • External patterns a work can fit into include the use of common structures, tropes, and motifs; generic elements that place it within a definable genre; and references, allusions to and parodies of other works. Slayers uses immediately recognizable tropes such as its anti-hero main characters and Manichaean fantasy setting; its story structures, character archetypes, and themes are typical of the shonen fantasy adventure genre; it includes references such as a character in Utena's costume proffering a rose to Gourry or Lina wearing a dress reminiscent of Alice and Wonderland while lost in an absurdist dream world, and explicitly parodies (among other things) sentai teams, the movie Shane, and old Merrie Melodies shorts.
  • [Example: Ask audience to describe patterns within and external patterns influencing the Madoka ending credits.]
Interrogating the Text
  • Does the text ask any questions? A text may explicitly or implicitly ask questions of the viewer, as simple as "What just happened?" or as complex as "Who are you?" or "What does it mean to be good?" These are often a good place to start in asking and answering your own questions of the text.
  • Does it answer its own questions? Most texts will pose and then answer at least some questions, such as "And then what happened?" Some texts will do likewise for more difficult questions. The text may also answer a question, but then call that answer into question. For example, early on NGE poses the question of whether human science can win against a force of nature, and points to air conditioning as proof that yes, it can. Later, however, when the Eva breaks free of its binding this conclusion is denied.
  • Does the text take a stand (implicitly or explicitly) on any controversies? What political positions does it support or treat as true? For example, Hayao Miyazaki frequently depicts anti-war and environmental themes in his films. In Princess Mononoke, the three-way war between Iron Town, the Imperial forces, and the boars accomplished nothing but bringing destruction and suffering to all sides, and the elimination of the industrial Iron Town and restoration of the natural environment it damaged is treated as a happy ending.
  • What does the text have to say about the big questions of life, the universe, and everything? Bakurano depicts a universe that is bleak, hostile, and hopeless, and human existence as tiny and meaningless. Gurren Lagann, by contrast, depicts humans as beings of immense potential to affect change, who can transform portions of the universe to be friendly spaces full of hope.
  • What is the viewer left wondering? Does the text give any clues? NGE's final episodes are notoriously difficult to understand and stylized, but they contain tantalizing glimpses of what is "really" happening and interstitials suggesting a possible interpretation.
  • [Example: Ask the audience to interrogate the same Madoka clip.]
Further Reading (TBD)