These are the things that I predict will appear in every forthcoming review of Zenkaikon VII: the distance to the location was surprisingly reasonable compared to last year, the surrounding area was the perfect mix of quaint and modern (not to mention jaw-dropping inexpensive), and the venue was near perfect. In short, the gamble of moving westward from JOP (just outside Philadelphia) seems to have been a success. Of course, a lot of work, including a location preview video, website improvements, and a noticeable increase in social media presence, went into wooing previous attendees out to Lancaster – a wise and very necessary move considering the attendance drop after Zenkaikon VI’s emergency venue relocation.
Every assurance was made that the new site for Zenkaikon was 90 minutes west of its former locale. Coming from New Jersey, I got there in a very decent 120 minutes. Ever the cynic, I expected nothing but farms and pastures and the like when I arrived. The aforementioned scenery was definitely seen, but only from the window of my car. Lancaster proper is like a smaller, even more suburban Chicago. There are tons of small shops, good eateries (the marketplace directly across the way from the convention center was a slice of everything pie straight from foodie heaven), and more than a few places serving a goodly selection of tasty craft beer. After all, unwinding with friends and fellow attendees after con activities makes the next day all the more palatable.
Although a wedding largely limited the con to two floors of the Lancaster County Convention Center (LCCC) on Saturday as opposed to the three floors occupied by the con on Friday, the wide hallways and abundance of capacious rooms eliminated any feel of it being a crowded event despite the foot traffic of 3,376 "warm bodies" (up from last year’s 2,736 and just slightly below 2011's numbers). Such spaciousness also helped disperse the presence of con funk; I honestly didn’t notice any offending odors, but friends I talked to said they caught a passing waft here and there. Walls were a little thin, or panelists presenting media with audio went a little too unregulated at points, and consequences ranged from drowned out presenters to volume bumping battles. By and large however, the equipment worked well and I didn’t hear many complaints from those I knew who were presenting aside from scheduling gripes.
It was rather odd that the con started so early; video rooms opened at 10 am on Friday, while panels and workshops got started around noon. There seemed to be ample attendance the first day, but live programming rooms were definitely not full – especially given the abundance of rooms (five for panels and one for workshops). Perhaps that’s a bit unfair to say given the size of each room, but even the smaller rooms were half-filled with empty chairs – a shame given the content of some of the panels seems like it would have attracted and benefitted the crowd still chained to school desks until mid- to late-afternoon. A carryover disappointment from previous Zenkaikons was that the staggered timeslots for live programming still posed scheduling challenges. Starting and ending times once again forced people to either leave midway through or at the tail-end of a panel to catch the beginning of another one, or arrive late to panels in order to catch the whole of the one in which they were already seated.
Panels are the meat by which I judge any con, and Zenkaikon delivered via the likes of featured panelists Charles Dunbar and Doug Wilder as well as many other presenters. A formal panel report will be along shortly. Like AnimeNEXT, Zenkaikon usually has a couple of interesting workshops and other live programming dealing with Japanese culture to complement what basically amounts to a day full of lectures and discussions centered around anime/manga. This time around, workshops were offered on making Teru Teru Bouzu and Edo Tsumami Kanzashi, creating manga, as well as getting started with and perfecting cosplay. Outside of those events strictly labeled as workshops, there was even more to see and do, with a cosplay ball, a burlesque show, and even a demonstration on dressing in a kimono. Sadly, I never made it to the video games area, although there was a retro tournament I was interested in. The tabletop room, however, seemed to have a steady and constantly rotating attendance – sometimes even spilling out into a few tables just off of the main hallway. However, nothing beats laughing your arse off playing Cards Against Humanity with good friends in the hotel room at 2 am with equally good sake and vino...except maybe doing the same in public. Next time...next time.
Guests this year were amazing catches. There were returning favorites: author extraordinaire CJ Henderson, geek-centric comedian and all around host-with-the-most Uncle Yo, and anime-themed game show host and creator Greg Wicker. There were long-time U.S. anime industry insiders Ellyn Stern and Richard Epcar, who are just as amiable as they are filled with stories and insight. Aside from Q&A, Epcar and Stern gave a panel on Ghost in the Shell, and Stern gave a panel exploring the roles of women in anime. Speaking of Q, the multitalented John de Lancie was there answering questions galore in style! Musical guests Eien Strife and The Slants each rocked the Main Events stage twice, and a couple members of The Slants separately presented panels on racism and food. I missed the first concert, but the intelligence and sincerity of the speaker during the panel on his and the band’s experiences with Asian-focused racism actually made me want to catch the band’s show. I’m glad I got the opportunity. Their energy was a much needed injection on Sunday.
There were enough breaks between panels and shows I wanted to see to allow me to wander Artist Alley and Vendor Hall, which were combined in the same large area. Nothing phenomenal really jumped out at me from the vendors. There were your standard offerings of manga, DVDs, figures, etc. I do, however treasure Appa’s Wanted poster from Avatar acquired from the Media Blasters booth. Artist Alley had some more interesting fare. Aside from talented artists selling themselves short on commissions, there were some amazing Claybies (clay miniatures of various characters) by lonelysouthpaw. I bought a No-Face, complete with bath tokens, from Spirited Away, and there were also some very cute handmade plushes as well.
Zenkaikon returns to the LCCC on April 25–27 in 2014, and I’m definitely going to be there. This con has found its home, and I hope the attendance numbers not only support its stay at the LCCC but help the con grow as well. What I like most about Zenkaikon is that it always offers up something interesting aside from the usual, which in and of itself is spot-on. Combine that with the relaxing (and very affordable) atmosphere in which the con is situated, and I feel completely honest in saying Zenkaikon is the only con I’ve been to that feels like a vacation. I'm very much looking forward to coming back. In the meantime, check out some pictures of cosplay, panelists, and events from Zenkaikon VII: