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Animecon 2012 - "Apocalypse Cow"



This theme referred to the bovine sidekick of the clog-wearing Dutch anime mascot, Magical Girl Marieke; promised plenty of that dystopian, apocalyptic, Tokyo-has-been-destroyed-AGAIN anime; and begged fate for disaster. Fate delivered. Not only did the video shows go even more horrendously wrong than on the first con I ever visited, but the hotel surprised us on the third day with a real blackout. For me personally, it was a con of great good luck counterbalanced by ditto bad luck; in all - to put a positive spin on it - an unforgettable experience.

To start with my own misfortune: illness-related fatigue had struck extra hard and kept me dozing in bed for more than a month beforehand, so I waited until I had only one day left to print out both the hotel reservation letter and the anime ticket, and the printer, which before had printed only in red tones since the blue nozzles were clogged, now printed (fuzzily, of course) only in blue. Using the black cartridge was not an option, as the printer had started rejecting black cartridges long ago. Hoping the barcode's alphanumerical code would be accepted, I took the earliest bus of the day, which should arrive at 10:16 since, on the day after Ascension Day, the neighbourhood bus rides by the Saturday timetable: one bus in the morning, one in the afternoon. The weekday timetable has buses leaving at around 6 and 7 a.m. which would give me plenty of time to get to the con hotel before the start of the con at 14:00, but leaving at 10:16 meant I would only just make it. I was at the stop just after ten, which was just as well since the driver apparently used the weekday timetable, where the bus leaves at 10:06. If I'd missed that bus, the first day of the con would have been lost to me.

As it was, arriving at the train station ten minutes earlier than planned gave me more time to buy a ticket before the train arrived, only, it turned out there was no train traffic towards Groningen for the entire day. Looking for a wall to bang my head against, I heard an announcement that the trains would be replaced by buses, and within minutes, a bus headed for Groningen pulled up. Unfortunately, inside sat a woman who represented everything I despise about the Dutch. As she simultaneously stuffed her face and gossiped with the driver in a harsh, strident voice for the whole journey, I mentally massacred her with every weapon I could pull out of Hammerspace. My ears were still ringing during the blissfully quiet train journey to Almelo. I made it to the hotel at 14:00 exactly and my luck turned again; rather than having to stand sweating in a mile-long line, it took some five minutes for the con registration desk to issue me a ticket and booklet. Checking in at the hotel led to another nice surprise: as if the staff had ESP'ed that my legs are unreliable these days, the room was close to the lift. Although the con was officially open from 14:00, video showing didn't start until 15:00, so I had an hour to dump both bags, rest and read the programme. With five lines of "events" to three lines of "video", the con timetable showed how much the original con activity of showing anime had taken a back seat to other Japan-related activities. Why am I including all this? Because it set a trend that continued in the con, to the point that I could suspect the con was jinxed by my presence.

(It was not, of course. The con organizers just had a run of rotten luck. It's an honoured con tradition that every time, despite all efforts, some aspect of the con goes screwy.)

For when, on the hour of 15:00, the three video rooms were to show Bubblegum Crisis (of which I own all eps on tape or DVD), the first set of remade Evangelion episodes (wow, must see!) and Appleseed: Deus ex Machina (seen in 2008 as Appleseed 3), two out of three found their equipment malfunctioning, and, once it did function, their files broken. The Evangelion eps were to be shown in video room 2, a traditionally cursed room as far as hardware problems are concerned, so I wasn't surprised that it took almost an hour to even get the projector working, after which the video files themselves proved unplayable. This was true for several shows - possibilities being a black screen, pictures but no sound, sound but a black screen, sound and pictures but no subtitles - and whereas in the earliest cons the organisers would improvise and slap some other show in the slot, today's tight planning and emphasis on showing only with explicit permission of the copyright holders meant that the person operating the video equipment could not simply pull a DVD from their private collection as replacement. Therefore, whenever a video file failed, another, working file from the programme was pre- or re-shown, which was great for anyone who had missed that show the first time, but caused discontented mutters from the audience - especially those with one-day rather than all-weekend tickets - over the fact that the programme was only half of what it purported to be. So, set 1 and 2 of the new and better Evangelion, and the promised Appleseed XIII, ended up unshown. I used the time to book a room for an extra night after the con (no buses to my neck of the woods on Sundays, and a taxi would cost the same) and then watched some eps of Bubblegum Crisis in video room 1, justifying to myself that these were eps I only had as tapes, one even subbed in English. This room, also called "Archonia room", is the hotel's theatre, with staggered rows of seats, the best form of seating when you don't want the subtitles hidden behind rows of heads, and it was hit even harder by the Curse of the Con than VR2: I've been told by other con-goers that, as opposed to VR2's, its projector had been out of order for several hours.

Bubblegum Crisis, then. This is a classic that everyone has seen, right? So spoilers shouldn't be a problem. Tokyo has been destroyed AGAIN, but by the time the story begins, it has been rebuilt with help of GENOM's boomer technology. Boomers are cyborgs that can look like humans but, when they go into battle mode, burn off their plastic skins and turn into mechanical blue hulks with cannons for mouths. This can happen when a boomer goes berserk, because although GENOM made use of Tokyo's dire straits to firmly entrench itself in the world economy, its president's real aim is world conquest by cyborg, and in the course of developing the ultimate war boomer, accidents happen. Like the lab accident that killed the father of Sylia and Mackie Stingray, and a later accident that wipes out a team of scientists of which one was engaged to a certain Irene, who is too stupid to live - she thinks she can singlehandedly expose GENOM - and consequently dies on the stiletto fingernails of one of the rare female-shaped boomers. GENOM has bitten off more than it can chew there, because her sister is idol singer Vision, secretly leader of a crime syndicate. Anyway, when the accident is a boomer running amok in the street, a job for the AD police if the AD police were up to it, four women appear in flying robot suits and dispose of the threat: Sylia, "rock" singer Priss, fitness instructor Linna and dippy pink-haired AD policewoman Nene, known to the public only as the Knight Sabres. Their uneasy alliance with the AD police - hothead police officer Leon tries to chat up Priss, and while following her around, slowly but surely clues in on her secret identity - is made more complicated by the fact that they also accept missions from the military; apparently Sylia's highly profitable lingerie business doesn't cover all the costs of their robot suits. The Knight Sabres never actually achieve their aim of ridding the world of GENOM's threat, and the whole series is more about visual appeal: the dated "rock star" glamour of Priss and the even more dated fan service of jiggly boobs in aerobics class, young women running in very silly ways, and Vision's boobs practically dropping out from under her top while (what an inappropriate moment) she bends over in grief after rewatching a video message from her dead sister. And there are comic moments, and there's Engrish... why was this a classic again? Ah yes, because it was one of the first of its kind.

Steins;Gate is not the first of its kind, but follows a by now hackneyed, if complicated formula: magic and/or impossible science, time paradoxes, cutely clueless girls and slapstick. Arriving mere minutes after the time the show should start, I was dismayed to find myself in the middle of the ep; apparently it had started ten minutes early to make up for the delays and cancellations. How was I to follow the plot now? The "I had too much coffee" main character wasn't helping. Pretending to be an evil scientist bent on world conquest, he is just one of three geeky adolescents - himself, a corpulent hacking genius he keeps calling "haker", and a silly girl only interested in sewing her cosplay suit - hoping to strike it rich with some freaky invention. He feels that, besides his normal name, he needs a fancy name for his villain-inventor alter ego. I can't be bothered to remember either name and neither can the girl, she just contracts the mess of names into "Okarin". I walked into a ridicious faceoff between a female student and this Okarin, who insists that she must be on his trail, while she doesn't understand what his problem is. Not that it matters, as later he finds out she's been stabbed. Aghast, he sends a message from his mobile phone to "Haker". There is a time lapse where everyone is gone, Okarin's friends later tell him he did things that he can't remember doing, and it appears the message he sent went backwards in time. It's time to consult what the girl calls the "llama man" appearing onscreen in a microwave turned time machine, the titular Stein's Gate, and their first attempt at a world-changing invention. The geeks try to solve the mystery by microwaving a bunch of bananas. Between these confusing plot twists, the Organization which Okarin wants to overthrow, and the humour, mostly in the form of Futuristic Gadgets like the Microwave Phone (Name Pending), it's too headache-inducing to follow if I've missed the beginning, and not funny enough to watch for laughs alone. Besides, it was dinnertime, and I knew that after eating I'd have to rest. So, after less than an episode, I left for munchies and a kip.

The hotel's traditional Animecon buffet was rapidly losing its Japanese feel. Where were all the fish dishes they used to have? My favourite seaweed salad, labelled "wakame", was still there, but watered down with cucumber and, bleah, raw onion. The rest was non-Japanese dishes, minced meat sauces, vegetarian tomato sauces, a wokked combo, salads containing oriental vegetables, and one Japanese cow curry which I didn't try. So I just gorged myself (modestly, stomach sensitivities permitting) on said seaweed salad, minced meats and very buttery baked chicken.

Refreshed, I sat down to Fate Zero, which seems like a sequel but turns out to be a prequel to Fate/Stay Night, shown at the con of 2006, where a humble, self-sacrificing type who combines magic with technology becomes involved in the wargame of masters and servants fighting for the Holy Grail. The "servants" are the spirits of past hero figures - Hercules, CuChulainn, King Arthur - summoned by "masters", magic users powerful enough to retain their loyalty, into barely recognizable form, with code names to hide their identities. Although it is the masters who crave the Holy Grail - since winning it entitles them to one wish, after which it disappears for the next battle - the servants do the real fighting, only relying on their masters to maintain their physical form in this dimension. In its prequel, the alliances have been shuffled like cards, and Sabre, the incarnation of King Arthur and the real main character across the series, now works for the pale small giggly girl who later commands Hercules. An albino, this girl is revealed to be a homunculus, meaning, an artificial form of life created to gain possession of the Grail, much like the servants. She is also the wife of Emiya, the magic-hating foster father of the next series' pacifist dweeb. If Emiya hates magic users, a terminally depressed priest hates Emiya, and gets in Sabre's way by muscling in on the fight to destroy him. Another character to get in her way is the grisly incarnation of Gilles de Rais (the first servant of whom the series won't even pretend it's a hero), who decides that she must be Jeanne d'Arc. As with the other series, Fate Zero irritates me with its procession of stupid characters valiantly or sadistically doing pointless things, and is only vaguely interesting for its (inaccurate) historical references.

I much preferred Persona 4, which starts out as cheesy horror with a touch of comedy and turns into a study of human psychology with Sailormoonish elements. Some general information: the Latin word "persona" means "mask" and is used in psychology for the various personalities, or facets of a human's identity. As the origin of the word implies, a personality is seen as an outward appearance, covering up something real. This will become important early on in the series.

The con booklet tells me that there was a calamity, presumably destroying part or all of Japan, and something called "Apathy Syndrome", but I don't get to see any of that; the series starts in a luxuriously furnished room, the so-called velvet room, where a monstrous penguin-faced little man lays out Tarot cards. The camera switches to Shin, a quiet, bashful boy (anime's male protagonist of choice) who goes to live in the seaside town of Ayanagi with his adult brother, a police detective, and his infant sister. His brother is busy and often absent, since strange things are happening in and around the city. For instance, he hears at school that if you turn on the TV at midnight on a rainy night, you will see your intended love. One boy boasts that he saw an attractive TV celebrity. That's not so funny when said celebrity's gruesomely murdered corpse is discovered impaled on some building structure.

Shin quickly runs into people who declare themselves his friends: the loudly cheerful boy whose father is the manager of the local June (a high-class version of Walmart) store, and a loudly obnoxious girl whose other "friend" is a quiet bashful girl (see a pattern?) whose parents run a traditional inn that she is supposed to inherit, meaning she'll be trapped in a kimono and archaic honorifics for life. The loud boy advances the plot in two ways: firstly, the girl he asks out on a date is the next person to fuzzily show up on TV on a rainy midnight, and be discovered as a mangled corpse on the day after. Secondly, after Shin almost gets himself sucked into the too-small TV at home one rainy midnight, he takes him to the June store next rainy midnight where the wide-screen TV in the store display should be big enough to repeat the experiment with more success. The group find themselves in another world with a talking toy bear who complains about all the intruders, and scary evil spirits that take on the form of a person's rejected thoughts and feelings. They become an antithesis to that person's public self, confront that person and, when disowned ("No! You're not really me! You can't be!" etc.) turn on the disowner with a murderous rage. Fortunately, the first of the four friends to undergo this accepts his repressed self, als do the next, and the antitheses become outlandishly garbed helpers which they are given faux-Tarot cards to summon, for the occupants of the velvet room are following their progress with interest. Enough eps were shown to see the last of the four emerge a stronger person from this unusual form of psychotherapy, so I don't know how the story goes from there.

Up to that point, I'd had no luck in seeing what I wanted to see, what with cancellations and replacements, but the turn of good luck starting with Persona 4 continued with the pre-showing of Beelzebub, not scheduled until Sunday afternoon, which would free up that time to watch other animes. The summary: the baby Beelzebub is adopted by, or rather attaches himself too, the worst delinquent at an iffy high school and the only way he can get rid of it is to find someone more evil than himself to take it from him. Comedy gold. Must watch.

Yes, it is comedy and it is loud comedy, for not only does the babyfosterdaddy receive severe electric shocks whenever the baby is more than a certain distance away from him (so mailing it to Siberia is not an option) but he finds it necessary to yell hysterically about these and other setbacks; the baby howls less than he does. The story starts with a swashbuckling teenager explaining to his best friend why he's carrying a baby around: a man drifting down the river split in two, and out popped this baby, which not only clung to him like a limpet but blasted him whenever the little monster got upset and started crying. The audience sees more of where the baby comes from: his father, the demon king, has to destroy the world, but keeps putting it off, so finally he has his son brought to the human world to be raised by a suitably evil human and do the job for him. The little boy responds well to villainy, which is why the high school delinquent has to find someone even more evil than himself (although, truth be told, he's not all that evil) to fob the baby off on: the head bully of the senior class? The gang of shoplifters? He frustrates his own plans when he finds a suitable replacement, then decides he would never entrust the baby to such a ruffian (see, told you he's not evil). Things are made slightly (but only slightly) easier by the maid that is sent to help, but then the baby's destructive potential leads to the burning of his school, so now he has to attend a school of squeaky-clean good pupils, and will be stuck with the little tyke forever... I assume that people with firsthand experience of newborns wrote the script, given the child's Unholy Power of Robbing People of Sleep, and his Golden Showers that have the main character waking up one morning adrift in a sea of urine. Also, for the homophobes: the man who split in two was not just something he made up, but a demon and gay stereotype with pornstache called Alaindelon, whose body is a kind of Tardis, and since the boys need his transportation service from time to time, they've both been "inside" him, so to speak.

The upturn of good luck was followed by a downturn through the cancellation of Bakemonogatari (which was shown in 2010, but I would have liked to see it again) instead of which I got a glimpse of gross boobage followed by suggested boob-ectomy, a slight upturn when the next show, Nisemonogatori, turned out to be a less abstract and philosophical continuation of Bakemonogatari, and a definite downturn when that ended and my quest for the next uncancelled show earned me another eyeful of gross boobage. To say a few words about Nisemonogatori, because, through not realizing what the series was about, I hadn't bothered to mark it on the to-watch list, and had just caught the tail end: its predecessor centers on the perpetually depressed and misunderstood (or so he feels) student Koyomi and the untalkative, stationery-armed student Hitagi who recovers her missing emotions with his help. In this second series, someone who once did Hitagi wrong has come back to town, and Koyomi's sisters have joined the fray. Needless to say, most of what they and the other female characters do is pick on Koyomi, calling him a molester and throwing an outright fit when he doesn't take advantage of any molesting opportunity they offer him. I don't know how he puts up with them. In a masochistic way, he probably enjoys it.

Next, about the double dose of boobage: I left very quickly from the video room where a nasty highborn female with armed attendants bursts into a house of peasants to see "if the rumours are true" by ripping open the peasant daughter's clothes to reveal what can best be described as melting bags of lard with nipples on them, only to chuckle that such assets are wasted on a poor man's daughter, after which the camera pulls away and there is much screaming. Later, roaming from one video room to another to see if anything interesting was playing, I met with an entirely different scene: waitresses in a tea house starting the day with a prayer before opening time, wherein they juggle their breasts and rub them together while intoning that the sound of their mammary wobblings is a divine gift. A new employee, visibly embarrassed, is told by the veterans that she'll get used to it. Mmmyeah. Both scenes are from Manyuu Hikkenchou, telling of an era when a woman's social status was determined by her breast size, which makes me wonder whether being a waitress was considered a high-status job at the time. Such niggles probably don't occur to the show's target audience: lonely male otaku with one hand down their pants.

From there on, the shows continued to be silly, with the exception of one gritty theme-related item that disappointed all the same. In Uta no Prince, a country girl whose musical knowledge amounts to having been taught to play the piano by her grandmother, nevertheless goes to a prestigious music & performance academy - more exactly, a school for idols - because she is a devoted fan of a popular idol singer, and her dream is to someday compose a song for him. That this series would be more entertaining as a dating sim, and might be based off one, becomes clear when many dashing young males befriend her, even snarling among each other a bit for this supposed prize. That she is as dumb as a post is made obvious when she has to play a piece in class, and it turns out she can't read music. While borderline acceptable for a gifted musician, this is unbelievably stupid for someone whose dream is to write music. She even thinks she sees her idol at the school, but it's his identical twin brother, who is sick and tired of being confused with that shallow limelight-seeker. Since anime smiles on braindead women, they will no doubt end up in each other's arms after countless episodes showing the stupid girl being excruciatingly stupid.

Possibly revenge for the boobie shows, but still: when Infinite Stratos is summed up as "one boy at a school full of girls", you know that it's either harem anime, or the boy will be running for his life non-stop while subjected to many wardrobe malfunctions. There is a military academy to train recruits in the use of the Infinite Stratos weapon system, which can only be used by females, because, ehm, it has been scientifically proven that females look more pleasing in the skimpy skintight clothing that this weapon system also requires. So far, it's a series like many others (last year's Strike Witches comes to mind) but it has something extra: one boy who, for some reason, also has the ability to use this system. And he's joined by a new arrival, also male! Accustomed to getting extra military training in the form of running to protect his virginity, he shows the fresh meat how to either pacify or evade the clone-like girls, whose only distinguishing characteristic is their hair. Wardrobe malfunctions aren't really needed, since the boys wear trousers instead of the regulation hipboots and miniskirt, and so, to meet the necessary percentage of skin showing, have tops that leave their midriffs bare.

Those who love any of the following: Pokemon, Digimon, Magic: the Gathering, or pointless high-school drama, will undoubtedly love Cardfight! Vanguard. At a game shop with a terminally bored shop asistant, a quiet boy beats a noisy boy with "bully" written all over him and two henchmen by his side, at a game of cards, of the M:tG kind. The interesting thing about this show is that although the real action takes place at a table with a gameboard on which cards are laid out in a certain way, and the only requirement for winning is having the highest total of points, the players are seemingly transported into another world where the cards become living entities that are blasted when their opponent has a higher score. Determined to beat the quiet guy, the bully is very interested in the card that drops out of a book of a smallish shock-haired boy with "bully bait" written all over him: the Vanguard Blade Fighter, a card so powerful that now he will surely have his victory. Ignoring the smallish boy's pleas that the card has sentimental value to him, he pockets it, sets off to the game shop and... loses. Since it had been decided that the Blade Fighter would go to the winner, it is now in the possession of the quiet guy, and the shock-haired boy who goes to him to ask for his card back, is told that he must win it back in a game. He agrees to a game, and... wins. He also recognizes the quiet guy as the childhood friend who gave him the Blade Fighter and got him interested in the card game to take his mind off the school bullies. Gosh, how will the plot develop from here? Not that it has to develop at a fast pace, since this is Dragonball Z with cards: each fight lasts at least an episode.

Ao no Exorcist ("the blue exorcist") was the first vaguely interesting show since Persona 4, though still with many annoying elements, notably its cheesy Christianity. Christians claim they can exorcise demons (whose existence is debatable) by waving religious paraphernalia at them, and since a similar claim is made by Buddhists and Buddhism is a major religion in Japan, the Japanese believe them. My problem with this is that Buddhism is comparatively sane. Because the premise is that demons can only enter the human realm by possessing a human within it, which rules out Satan, since he is so powerful that no human can contain him, so, Satan somehow has a son by a human woman (hey, isn't that sort of how Jesus was made?) who will be strong enough to contain his spirit and channel daddy into Tokyo-world. What happened to the mother I don't know, but the mother's husband and therefore the boy's stepfather, a clergyman and high-ranking exorcist, brings the boy up as his own and tries to instil human values into him, so that he may make his own choices and maybe even thwart Satan's plans and become his arch-enemy. This sounds like the sensible and humane thing to do, but I want to see a real-reality John Hagee or Fred Phelps or other bible-thumper say: "Yes, I realize this is the son of Satan, but I've decided to love him and treat him like my own child anyway." That's right: it's not going to happen. It's the most wildly unbelievable thing about the whole show, which, considering the show centers on a Hogwarts for exorcists, is saying something.

Like the main character of Beelzebub or, to take a much older show, Yuu Yuu Hakusho, Rin, the Satan's son, is an "evil" boy who isn't evil at all, just rather rough and clumsy and quick-tempered. He doesn't know about his parentage yet, and is simply the eternally chided twin of a bespectacled model student and weak crybaby who nevertheless treats him like a cherished younger brother. His marks are low, his looks are unkempt, he can't hold down a job because his rotten luck always catches up with him. After he sees that a girl brought to church because she claims to be bullied by demons, really is bullied by little demon-thingies, one of the demon-thingies causes an accident that gets him fired from his latest job, and sent to bed without dinner. This will be the last time his "father" punishes him, because Satan organizes an offensive to reclaim his property, killing Rin's foster-father in the process. This quashes any desire he might have had in helping Satan out, and when a Mephistopheles-like shapechanger offers him a position at an exorcist school, he accepts, even though if he lets the other students see his satanic blue aura (hence, the blue exorcist) they will kill him on the spot. He then gets a second big surprise: his crybaby brother is teaching his class. Another riddle is solved: having shared a womb with a demon-child, the brother was born weak and traumatized, but with the keen senses needed to become an expert exorcist. As said, their school is Hogwarts for exorcists, teaching normal lessons by day and exorcism in the evening, sealed off from the normal world with spells to keep out anything Satan-related, and in the dorm room shared by the brothers, meals are cooked by a jolly little imp who becomes a monstrous big imp when some spiteful schoolgirls break in and throw his lovingly prepared meals in the bin. The class of exorcists is joined by the daughter of the school's herbalist, a pathetically sweet and submissive girl who triggers some drama for the class's overachiever. This classroom drama is made funny by the fact that all while arguing and befriending and challenging each other, the students are having to deal with one demonic monstrosity after another.

To my extreme disappointment, Deadman Wonderland, the first serious show in a row of comedies, is not about being trapped in a nightmarish virtual reality. The nightmare is real. And the show fits this animecon's theme very well.

As in Persona 4, the backstory is that Tokyo has been destroyed, but when the series begins, it's all been built back the way it was, with the implication that whatever caused the destruction is still there and lurking in the dark. In this case, it comes out of hiding when Ganta, your very average high-schooler, is attending class with his friends. He sees a figure in blood-red rags, just before it attacks the building and those within, destroying all like an earthquake. Ganta watches in horror as his friends die, but when he thinks his time has come, the figure in rags instead shoots what looks like a red crystal splinter into his chest, and leaves. From there on, he enters the world of Kafka. The mere fact that he survived the attack is taken as proof that he caused it, and the smiling lawyer that promises to put matters right, instead gets the boy convicted using a fake recording where he gleefully admits his guilt, and more. The only punishment severe enough for such a little scumbag, the court decides, is a life sentence in "Deadman Wonderland", a prison which oddly is also a circus, and to which his class had been planning to go on an outing.

Yes, Ganta gets to see this very special prison, which does not require state funds as the prisoners earn their own money putting on carnivalesque shows, from the inside. And so, when these prisoners run an obstacle race with slicing axes and arrow traps and other deadly constructions, and the audience on the tribunes marvels at the special effects of convicts exploding and being impaled and sliced in two, he knows that it's real. What he doesn't know is that this time round, the race has been set to the highest difficulty, by the head of the prison who is also the smiling lawyer of the fake recording, to bring out his hidden power. It doesn't; the reason why he survives the race at all is the help he gets from Shiro, a pale red-eyed girl in a jumpsuit that he befriended earlier. Of his own age, she behaves like an innocent feral child, ignoring any rules and treating the prison grounds as her home. She is connected with a large bird and something called a Wretched Egg. He himself is connected with something called a Branch of Sin. Spotting the figure in red rags again on the prison grounds, he sets out to find it in a hidden part of the prison complex with the help of Shiro and Yakumi, a prisoner who befriended him but who is in fact spying on him. They are captured, it turns out the girl is not registered as an inmate (surprise!) and Ganta is locked into the secret building and forced to fight others like him: those who have the ability to solidify blood into a weapon. Their dogfights are the most exclusive entertainment the prison has to offer, the public race's carnage paling in comparison, and the other contestants don't seem to have the problem with mutilating and killing that he does.

Freezing is the silliest series I saw at this year's con, and not in a humorous way. It illustrates mainstream anime's principles of "increasingly ridiculous technology" and "when in doubt, add boobies". I'll skip the background story as it really doesn't matter, and describe what was going on when I walked in: girls with huge boobs wearing miniskirts and only distinguishable through hair colour/style and skin tone (ie. the usual lazy one-face-fits-all chara design) are involved in superpower combat. They jump through the air and whizz past each other, slashing one another with weapons. The girl who seems to be losing, as she can't stop her opponent from slashing her miniskirted school uniform across the skirt and chest so that her tits hang out, notices that the winning girl is momentarily duplicating herself, and it's the duplicate that slashes her while she fends off the other one. From the hateful dialogue, I gather that Satellizer, the loser, is a junior at some futuristic martial arts school who foolishly challenged a senior and is being put in her place. Though beaten within an inch of her life (as shown by the dangling boobies, and some superficial scratches) Satellizer refuses to admit defeat, for reasons explained by a flashback to the time when she was younger, and still called Satella: her mother is the lover, and she apparently the bastard, of some rich man who, on his death, leaves them his home and fortune, plus a hateful servant and even more hateful legal children, of which the boy starts bullying her and moves on to sexual harrassment as her boobs mature. (The rest of her does not. Ever.) It's a nightmare she can't escape from, because when she goes mewling to mum, her mother asks her to please put up with it and not cause her dear mummy any trouble. Only when mum is about to kick the bucket herself does she change her tone and charge her daughter to always fight and never give in. So, fuelled by the trauma of having been groped - but apparently okay with boob-exposing catfights - she draws on all her reserves of strength and defeats her opponent by not duplicating but triplicating and quadruplicating herself, after which both battered contestants are dragged off to the medical ward. Yes, very convincing. Let's see, what else is on?

Noein (should be written as "no e in", according to the subtitles) is a show I'd already seen, and been unimpressed by, in 2007, and again I yawned through the "dragon coil" CGI effect, and ground my teeth extra hard through the "don't cause your dear mummy so much trouble" routine of Yuu's mother. This time, I watched far enough into the series for it to get interesting. Last time, the mysterious time travellers who call themselves Birds, and who include an adult Yuu code-named Karasu, seemed to come from a distant future; but this future can't be so distant, since it includes adult versions of all of main character Haruka's current friends. Yet, there have been significant changes, as dress and hair fashions have changed completely, and Haruka, having been abducted into this future, is served a TV dinner of living grubs and other unappetizing stuff as if these constitute normal food; I'm relieved for her that, after the first cautious bites, she decides it's quite tasty. Also, in this quite near future, the world is in ruins, and people live underground, although Haruka is determined to go up to the surface. Back in her own time, the spidery doll-faced man with the Clockwork Orange eye who, in previous eps, turned on Yuu/Karasu and went insane at the sight of the dragon coil on Haruka's neck, has unplugged himself from the Birds' transdimension equipment and gone AWOL, planning to cause as much trouble as he can.

Tiger & Bunny is for people who love superheroes, superhero spoofs, CGI effects and transformation scenes. While I don't like any but the second, the animation, especially the character design, is nice too; the characters have proper lips and nostrils and the superheroes are recognizable in and out of costume. Which was important for the one episode I saw, in which a young woman called Karina - or Ice, in her blue hero suit - only agreed to become a superheroine to advance her singing career. So, although she does well in the commercial ads that the city superheroes have to be in as part of their job (hence, superhero spoof), she's not that much use in actual danger. After messing up yet again, she considers her limits and priorities, puts her foot down and walks out. Yet, in the end, she somehow combines both roles again.

Mardock Scramble is very intriguing indeed, combining a general and deeply personal sense of nightmare. In a futuristic city with green plexiglass highways, Shell, a playboy type, picks up an unhappy young prostitute called Rune Ballot. She asks him if he will love her and he promises that he will, but his love is subject to rules. After some undeniably romantic lovemaking, he locks her in the car, gasses her and sets the car alight. All this time, he has been tracked by a special police force with an even more special member who remains unseen, but who can tell people's emotions by how they smell, and who could smell that the playboy experienced fear. For good reason, as any strong emotion he feels destroys some of his memory; but the blue diamond he intends to create from the girl's ashes will compensate for the loss.

Only, his trackers have rescued the badly burned but still living girl from the car and taken her to a secret lab to regenerate her. Not quite successfully, as she still lacks a voice and has to communicate through mechanical means, but that's good enough for the previously unseen member and her new partner, a golden-furred mouse named Oeufcocque. Obscure science has given Oeufcocque human intelligence and the ability to change into absolutely anything, including clothes and guns that fire bullets. I call bullshit, but in this series' universe people are more likely to call: "A witch! Burn it!" so the poor mouse has to make himself useful to the police to validate and thereby protect his existence. As of now, he is part of Rune's witness protection programme, as she is to testify against her would-be murderer. Shell's bodyguard Boiled (the names do have an eggy theme!) warns her to drop charges, and also threatens that he will have Oeufcocque back. She doesn't, and in court, Shell's lawyer drags up her sordid past to discredit her; her father sexually abused her, so her brother shot him, and she took to the streets, since that is the place for girls who have lost their virginity. Oefcocque praises her for the strength with which she undergoes this ordeal, but Boiled makes good on his word and sicks on them a gang of extremely disgusting people who collect and enhance themselves with body parts: a man with a finger fetish, a woman with a boob fetish, a skull-faced little girl who likes to try other people's faces on, and, last but not least, the leader who enjoys implanting vaginas in the palms of his hands. His brand of ick sends the former prostitute into a ballistic rage, shocking her mouse-turned-gun so much that he stops firing. After a tense battle in which Rune narrowly saves Oefcocque from a messy death, he confesses that he, too, has a trauma: his former partner was Boiled, then working for the police, but abusing the wondermouse's artillery feature to indulge his own sadism.

Somewhere after this watch-worthy show, the last of Saturday evening and very early Sunday morning, I saw that it was time to check out and take my bags to the bag room. My plan was to check into the new room at around four in the afternoon, near the con's end, which would give the staff plenty of time to clean both rooms. Having breakfasted and deposited the bags, I looked forward to spending the last day of the con in a relaxed way, watching whatever was on, then moving the bags to the new room, grabbing some dinner and tucking in early. Since the hotel buffet was only open on Friday and Saturday, for Sunday's dinner I'd promised myself a treat at a nearby Turkish snackbar that served "kumpir", a big potato baked whole, cut open to have the inside mashed up with sauce, and served with more sauces, meat, and five salads. Many cons ago, I'd picked up a brochure detailing all the salads that this kumpir was served with, and reread it whenever I felt hungry. The snackbar was still in business, so, finally, those glossy photographs of yummy food would become reality.

It's typical how, when a sex comedy focuses on a male rather than female character, it becomes less bawdy and more genuinely funny. By this time so many shows had been cancelled that I knew I couldn't rely on the timetable and would just have to enjoy whatever was running, or retire for a nap; and so it was that I sat down to R-15, the story of an angelic little boy who has been admitted to an academy for gifted children due to his very special literary gift for writing... pornographic novels.

Most of the pupils are, of course, female, and very suspicious of that dirty little lech, either whacking him around the head or running away screaming when he appears. And it doesn't help that whenever he has a naughty thought (which, in that environment, is often) his pen leaps out, however inopportune the moment, and starts writing passages of steamy love. Oh, and his friend, one of the few male pupils at the academy, has a secret crush on him and often misinterprets what he says. However, his troublesome relation with a musical genius, one of the shyest girls in his class, causes his writing style to gradually steer away from steamy and towards love.

For those who care more about spectacular fight scenes than plot, I recommend Onigamiden, since, despite having wandered into the middle of the story and consequently having no idea what it was all about, I found the fight scene spectacular. Also, the bit of action I saw did nothing to enlighten me, so either the plot is complex and convoluted or, as in the case of the boobie shows I saw before, barely present. Two friends who are fooling around at what seems to be the entrance to a bandit's hideout, are admitted and apparently start preparing for a battle. Elsewhere, a boy rides on the back of a flying dragon. In the hideout, a priest and some men undergo a transformation into dark ogres with glowing eyes. Next, they're all on the battlefield with some samurai type and his warriors, and the boy on the dragon returns, interactions happen, the dragon is wounded and some other dragons come out of the water, or rather, the water changes into dragons. And, oh yes, the story? I'll quote the one-line summary from the con booklet: "The film's story revolves around the war between oni (demons) and humans in the former Japanese capital of Kyoto, 1200 years ago during the Heian period."

Untypically, Sket Dance started on time, and I was almost on time to catch it from the beginning. Things seemed to be looking up, both for the con schedule and for me; this was the last-but-one show, preceding the ending ceremony and the mystery movie. Surely nothing else could go wrong now. Since this show was funny and light-hearted, I decided to sit it out, and transfer my bags to the new room during the ending ceremony before watching the mystery movie. I'll just assume that this decision had nothing to do with the subsequent blackout.

Being a tad late, I fell into the middle of a chase scene: a new pupil is almost bowled over by a girl who claims that she's running from thugs who want to kidnap her and sell her into slavery. Taken aback, he says that things like that don't happen any more, and she tells him to just shut up and run as the "thugs" - a redhead with goggles and a nerd with a laptop - appear round the corner. They make a mad dash for the school's shop/cafeteria, and it turns out that their aim was to get the new pupil to the shop on time, but it's too late as a huge crowd has already assembled at the entrance, and there's no chance he can buy whatever it is that he came for. Bosun, the boy with goggles, introduces himself as the president of the school club "S.K.E.T." (the letters stand for something, but I forgot what - something to do with care) whose purpose it is to help students with their problems in, clearly, unorthodox ways. His club members are the girl Himeko, more often called Onihime (demon princess) for her fierce temper (and she doesn't even have red hair! But she's hot-tempered because she's a foreigner, so it's still a stereotype) and the glasses-wearing, laptop-toting boy Switch, who is so nerdy that he never speaks, instead communicating through speech synthesis software. A true nerd is also a hacker, so Switch has all data on everyone in the school, including (and this is dangerous information!) Onihime's weight and measurements. As the club's existence is in jeopardy, the new pupil is asked to join. He declines, but later has reason to thank them for dealing with a bully that followed him to his new school.

The show's opening sequence shows a collection of strange or unexpected characters, like the girl with a huge rack who, when the camera zooms in, turns out to be huge all over. The humour is slightly off, the jokes at times flitting by so fast that it's easy to miss them. The second episode introduces the club sponsor, who is as naff as its members and never shows up at meetings, preferring to do experiments of the explosive kind in his lab. He orders the members to dispose of a baseball-shaped bomb he accidentally made, but a pupil has already left a monkey with them to babysit, while another pupil, who dresses and speaks like a samurai and is member of a sword-fighting club, has asked them to help him win a tournament. Of course the monkey puts the bomb in his backpack and scampers to go look up girls' skirts - an ecchi monkey, what are the odds? - and in the chase, the bomb ends up in a big pile of real baseballs. The third ep started with an interview of the Sket club members, conducted so awkwardly that when the screen went black, I thought it was part of the show.

Well, I said to myself when it became clear that the projector would not be showing anything until a fuse somewhere had been replaced, that leaves me plenty of time to check in. Unfortunately, the power outage that had struck in the room where I was watching (VR2 if I remember correctly, so I wasn't too surprised) also affected the reception terminals, so I had to wait until the system was back online. I took a stroll outside in the warm sun, noted that the Turkish snackbar had a new and even glossier brochure which I leafed through to whet my appetite, spotted an ice cream parlour, went to the bag room, asked for my bag so I could get my purse, returned to the ice cream parlour, and had myself a lemon-banana-coconut-flavoured treat. (Or it might have included melon; I can't remember exactly, because I was overwhelmed by the choice of flavours.) Just outside the hotel, con visitors in cosplay were indulging in a little karaoke. Lounging around, waiting for the terminals to start functioning, I heard that one third of the power was out; many fuses must have burned through, because there was no power to any of the video rooms, the computer system, the garage and the lift, meaning that several guests had been stuck in lifts for a few hours, and were deeply relieved when the lift doors opened. Feeling lucky to have been spared that fate, I experienced some bad luck myself: going to the new room, which I fuzzily remembered as being at the beginning of the 600 range, I thought the new and cheaper "Economy" room was just as luxurious as the "Luxe Comfort" room I had left, as well as much nicer, with an old-fashioned feel to it, as if all textiles in the room had been crocheted. It was in fact just as luxurious, because I'd entered, deposited my bags in, and left, the wrong room. The door that was seemingly opened by the keycard had been open all along, and once I'd shut the door of the more expensive room 601, as opposed to the smaller but similarly cosy room 602 which I should have entered, it stayed shut. I had to return to the reception desk to ask for someone with a skeleton keycard, as it were, to help me retrieve the bags. After all this trouble, I made sure to tell the hotel staff on leaving that I'd enjoyed my stay.

But before that, there was one last item on the programme: the Mystery Movie. Now I've said in a previous writeup that the con tends to end on a show that is underwhelming. But last con's introduction of the end-of-con mystery movie changed that. The strength of ending on a film instead of the first few eps of a television show is that the introduction, plot progression, character development and final wrapping up of loose ends all happen in the same viewing, so the audience leaves with a sense of closure; and the films chosen are rather splendid. This year's choice was King of Thorns, taking a bit of Western culture and completely turning it inside out, the way anime tends to do.

The story starts inside a mall. A big, luxurious mall, in a big city with tall buildings. Off one of these buildings jumps a young woman who, on impact with the ground, shatters like a statue. A bouquet of roses drifts down on her.

Three years later, the mysterious disease that turns human tissue to stone has become an epidemic. There seems to be no hope of a cure, but the head of a large industrial company (producing either arms or pharmaceuticals, I forgot which) offers a temporary solution: sufferers of the disease are to be preserved in cryogenic units in a complex called Venus Gate until the cure is found. Unfortunately, there are only 160 units available, so a raffle is held. The lucky winners are transported to a Scottish castle on an island in a convoy of buses. Among them are a boisterous convict, a nurse reading the story of Sleeping Beauty on the bus and the little boy in her care who is playing a video game, and a girl with glasses, one of a set of adolescent twins. Her supportive sister accompanies her right up to the check-in desk, although she is constantly on the brink of hysterics at the thought that this sister, who is also infected but didn't win a place, will be literally stone dead when she wakes. The girl's name is Shizuku. The convict's name is Marco Owen, and given the effective way he deals with the pandemonium that will later ensue, it shouldn't be too much of a spoiler that he is a special agent, planted there to investigate the claim that the company behind the cryogenic units is also behind the disease itself. The 160 people are given white hospital clothes, implanted chips and a bracelet. This bracelet, it is explained to them in a church converted to briefing room where they sit on rows of wooden benches, Shizuku looking uncomfortably at the empty spot beside her as her sister stands outside near the island's craggy edge, show which of its three stages the disease has reached: white is safe, spotted means petrification is setting in, and the third stage is obvious from the patient's body itself. One of the listeners sees spots on her bracelet, starts screaming and is quickly removed from the room. The remaining 159 people are reassured that their cryogenic units will be controlled by an operating system called Alice, which even monitors their dreams to prevent nightmares. Finally, Shizuku climbs into her unit, putting her glasses on a ledge inside the pod, and counts down until she loses consciousness.

And then she's awake. Her pod has popped out of the wall and opened its lid. What happened? Has she been asleep for many years? Has a cure been found? More pods pop out of the wall and their sleepers wake, asking themselves the same question. Disturbingly, the inside of the cryogenic hall is overgrown with thick thorny stems. A funny little bat-bird flutters past. And another. And it turns out all the funny bat-birds have a taste for human flesh. The crowd of humans surges towards the elevators to get away from the murderous pests, only the elevators have gone, leaving just a deep hole that the foremost of the crowd are pushed into by the pressure coming from behind. At the bottom of this hole is the huge mouth of a flesh-eating plant that swallows them up in one gulp. Now, there are suddenly very few people left in the complex, including the nurse, the boy, the pseudo-convict and, of course, Shizuku. Their first concern is to get out of the building. The little boy proves useful when he identifies each threat they face and how to evade it, treating the building, which is overgrown with what appears to be a giant, moving, intelligent rose bush (the "king of thorns") like a video game with levels. They fight and run their way out with much screaming from the women and bellowing from the men, the little boy showing himself to be in fitter condition than Shizuku who is constantly having to be rescued by the special agent. Thinking about the fairy tale of the princess asleep in a castle protectively covered with thorny rosebushes until her prince came to kiss her awake, she wonders if the Sleeping Beauty wasn't happier in her coma, where nothing could harm her, and a sudden realization drives her back into the castle to face a horrific truth. At last, one of only two survivors, she returns to the inhabited world where only hours have gone by since the unlucky 160 were brought to Venus Gate, its experiment a failure and a cure still nowhere in sight. So, sadly, no wrapping up of loose ends.

And that was the end of another con. I went to the Turkish snackbar, stuffed my face, walked back happily full and collapsed on the bed, to return home on Monday and type in the first rough draft of the writeup.

The kumpir was delicious.



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