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Animecon 2015 - "Do NOT try this at home"



Feeling a financial pinch from an earlier holiday, I skipped the expensive and nearby hotels this time in favour of an attic room in a small Best Western hotel, a 20-minute walk away from the World Forum. Given my bad health, this was a mistake - after the con and the journey home, I was in bed for a week, recovering - but to a healthy person amused by an elevator that seems built for construction work, and instantly stops moving when you take pressure off the button (apparently most guests, used to pressing the button once and then zooming to their floor, are panicked by this, the receptionist explained), it's a good tradeoff between luxury and economy. The room is long and narrow but comfortably furnished with a nice view; the hotel is quaint (glass-in-lead hall windows) and has a cute little garden, more an expanded flowerbed, at the side of the entrance with a babbling fountain in a little pool, quenching my mental thirst, as the weather on the day of arrival was tropical. Luckily, it cooled off over the weekend.

I'd also found a cheaper way to travel: as opposed to two 25-euro single journeys, I used a special offer, valid until the end of June, to buy two return tickets from any railway station to any other railway station in the Netherlands, including a free sandwich and small drink from any "La Place" restaurant, for 18 euro each. I'd already used this special order for aforementioned previous holiday, unclogging the least broken printer in the house to print out the ticket, because train tickets are no longer sold at stations; travel is by "OV chipcard", and anyone who doesn't want this public transport debit card that lets the transport companies trace their passengers, will have to order a train ticket online and print it at home. Welcome to the Netherlands! The only problem was the possible loss of time involved in making a detour to a Vroom&Dreesmann warehouse where La Place is usually found (like a typical Dutch skinflint, I was determined to score that free sandwich, besides which, any food collected on the way meant less food to lug in my backpack) but I was in luck: Den Haag Centraal Station has its own La Place, close to the train platforms, so the time lost was about 5 minutes. The journeys to and from the con, something I really don't look forward to, were also remarkably harassment-free, except for the start of the first journey when I was waiting for the bus in Overschild, the village where I currently live, and a woman who I neither know nor want to know asked me a "friendly" question which implied that she either snooped in my shopping bags, peeked through my windows or exchanged observations with my nosy neighbours. Never buy a house in Overschild or any other village in Groningen, the people there are creepy. Hell, all Dutch villages are creepy. No exceptions.

Well beforehand, I checked the video programme which, since the last few years, is put online as it develops weeks before the start of the con, and was pleased to see gaps in the small hours; the con has passed the 10-year mark, its original organizers having grown from the age of "stay up all night" to "turn in at 10pm", and the "activities" part of the timetable dwarfs its "anime" part anyway (which reflects the attendance; this year, too, I had no problems finding a seat in the film rooms). Taking a peek just before I left, I saw my conclusion had been premature: fully completed, the anime timetable was as round-the-clock as ever. Fortunately, said small hours were reserved mostly for live-action shows, 18+ material and golden oldies like Akira (shown every night and I missed both times, nevermind, I think there's a fandub in my old pile of tapes somewhere), Bubblegum Crisis (which I remember from the "disaster" con of 2012), Full Metal Alchemist: Conquering of Shamballa (seen at the con of 2006 as Full Metal Alchemist: the Movie), Gunbuster (of which I have the official sub, again on tape somewhere) Gunbuster 2 and the next-generation sequel, Diebuster. I don't like the screechiness of FMA and was happy to skip anything Gunbuster, as its "ganbatte ne" attitude, complete with bouncing boobies, raises bile.

The con started showing anime from 14:00, which was also the earliest time I could check in at the hotel, so despite arriving early enough to spend only an hour in line to validate my ticket - during which I saw food stands being set up outside that offered obentos, Japanese snacks and something called "bubble tea", their signs stating that they accepted PIN or moolah - and run straight to the first showing, I necessarily lost more than an hour running to and from the hotel to also validate my reservation, and dump two bags, partially filled with food. The candidates were 10 Episodes an Hour, a collection of 6-minute episodes which was likely to have almost finished by the time I returned to the con, besides which it was scheduled to be shown again later, and KanColle, about girls in armour fighting aliens. The latter, I would probably not mind missing the start of.

So I was dropped into the middle of a battle in Kantai Collection, as the full title reads. Girls on self-powered water skis, wearing armour, mostly shoulder plates, that won't get in the way of panty shots, carrying various kinds of guns, zoom in formation across the surprisingly smooth surface of the ocean. Except for one ugly duckling that stumbles about and ultimately falls on her face (yet doesn't sink). They fire at huge brick-toothed shark-mecha operated by impassive women in black. Backup arrives from more advanced girl units who fire arrows from quivers on their back: the arrows change into completely autonomous fighter planes. Clearly, science has no place in this series. Humiliated by the sorry performance she gave, the ugly duckling - name: Fubuki, this will later be shortened to "Bucky" - who should not even have been sent out yet as this was her first experience with battle, is determined to improve and avoid being kicked off the team. Bile rises as the "ganbatte ne" (literally, "do your best") element becomes clear: she is one of those apparently hopeless cases who will, through insane amounts of training which will somehow not physically or psychologically wreck her, pupate into a Mary Sue. Her problem is that the kind of artillery she carries makes her top-heavy, so she has to work on her balance. What makes her training insane is that three sisters undertake to train her, each without knowing about the other, so she's worked around the clock, and sleep becomes a luxury until she starts dropping off in class, and the sisters meet to sort things out. (One of these girls is an idol singer, something she never lets the audience forget, and her training consists of a karaoke session.) Her two friends and bunkmates - one of them a lazy dumb blonde who ends every sentence on "poi", even when one angry teacher threatens to "poi" her into next week - also join in the effort, resulting in a battle where she almost doesn't screw up as badly as the time before. But it doesn't matter that she still can't pull her weight, because she has the spirit of a warship. No, that's not metaphorical, apparently warships have spirits which have reincarnated into a collection of girls called Kanmusu. But then, angst looms as the "commander", a shady, unseen character who is the only male in the series, has decided to shuffle all the military units, breaking up friendships in the process. Bucky ends up with a mismatched bunch of girls, most of them better than her at what they do, yet none of them suited to lead, so she becomes the unit's Flagship as well as Battleship: the Mary Sue is beginning to shine through. Between their battles with easily defeatable cardboard villains, they angst, giggle and do all the other things that teenage anime bimbettes do, to the point of making me prefer the villains for, at least, not spouting emotion all the time. According to the Kancolle Wiki (kancolle.wikia.com/wiki/Kancolle_Wiki) this is in fact "an online browser game in which one assumes the role of an admiral, assembles a fleet of kanmusu ('ship girls' based on World War II-era ships and submarines), & battles against fleets of unknown warships." That would explain the cardboard villains.

Once the bile had risen to no longer tolerable levels, I walked around the hall until the start of The Chronicles of the Going Home Club, a goofy show along the same lines of Lucky Star (con of 2008). Part of the hall is designated "food court", and, as outside, promising stands had been set up, as opposed to the junk food (oh, and noodles) of previous years; finally, the Japanese buffet of Theaterhotel Almelo would get a worthy successor. The only problem was that the "moolah" needed for payment was not actual moolah, semoleans, dosh or what have you, but a special kind of plastic coin buyable at the reception desk, or so the con booklet told me. I still had a food stash of my own, and so decided to look into the moolah matter later.

As any long-time watcher of anime may have noticed, anime schoolchildren spend a lot of time on after-school clubs and extracurricular activities, so much so that school seems to last one hour a day and the rest of the day is "afternoon". This is because real Japanese schoolchildren are not allowed to go home, kick back and relax after a hard day's grind in the classroom, but must join and sacrifice their precious spare time to school clubs, to practice the suffocating lack of freedom that awaits them in their adult life. In real life, growing numbers of children, called kitakubu ("go-home club") are saying "bleep that" and going straight home after school. In this series, there is an actual "go-home club", which rather defeats the purpose: the members still have to assemble in a club room after school, but at least they can decide for themselves what they do there. And what do they do? Hang out and engage in silly, surreal stuff. Made more surreal by the fact that the episodes were accidentally played in the wrong order. In the right order, I would first have seen the girl canvassing for go-home-club members tottering in a seal suit before falling over, noticed by a "normal" girl (who will spend the rest of the eps screaming about how "abnormal" the others are) and a moe-looking younger girl who simply joined out of curiosity.

As in a dating sim, the personalities of the five members are soon established. Making the deepest impression (even physically, when she pops a top off a coke bottle and embeds it in the ceiling through her sheer strength), the martial artist: Botan, who has trained not only her body to Pippi Longstocking levels of strength, but also her mind, to the point where she can let others read her diary (written in her emo years) without turning a hair. The readers of this diary are not so lucky; they faint from the ordeal, until Natsuki snatches the diary and reads it aloud to see what the fuss is all about. Next, Sakura, the club president, first shown sitting at the head of the table with the seal suit hung up beside her, dishevelled from the earlier fall; she and Botan are responsible for most of the drama and acting-out. Then there is Claire, with her styled honey locks, who is so rich, and consequently estranged from reality, that she joined to see what normal people do in their spare time. Next, the innocent, helpless little freshman Karin that the previous three dote on, and finally the ever-exasperated Natsuki, who only joined by accident and has a hard time understanding the club's principle of "do what you like in your own time". Not having watched that much anime, I can only suspect this series is full of parodies and shout-outs to other series and dating sims, as with the test where club darling Karin, to finally develop some sort of independence, has to - wait for it - walk up a flight of stairs. Claire, crying at the unfairness of such a cruel test, pleads Karin to ascend - Karin tries, but fails. Sakura encourages her to try; again, failure. Like a Prince Charming in a dating game, Botan, surrounded by twinkling stars, offers Karin her arm. "You walk up those stairs all the time during school!" shouts Natsuki, almost pulling out her hair in frustration as Prince Botan carries Karin up the steps, bridal-style.

Comedy is always a good start to the day, one that I was hoping to see continue in Moyashimon (also called: "Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture"), the story of the boy who can see germs. And not only see them, but hear, talk to and grab them, disregarding the enormous disparity between the Lego-block-sized tiny talking things he sees float around him, and very very much tinier real viruses, fungal spores and bacteria. This permanently disgruntled boy's name is Tadayasu (full name Sawaki Souemon Tadayasu) and the name of his dark-haired, light-voiced, much more optimistic friend is Kei Yuuki; their parents are miso producers and sake brewers respectively, ensuring plenty of microorganisms for Tadayasu to play with. As a teenager, Tadayasu has become used to being considered mad or a liar for talking to his invisible friends, and has adopted a grouchy demeanour to keep people at a distance. Still, his dismay on entering the superficially disorganized mess that is the University of Agriculture - the speech to welcome new students is even interrupted by a police bulletin about a missing student, Hasegawa Haruki - is understandable. He quickly finds professor Itsuki, the teacher his grandfather told him to meet, and even, in the very first episode, seems about to solve the case of the missing student, through his ability to see a large number of microorganisms coming out of a hole in the ground with headstone beside it. His friend, realizing that no one here would believe the true reason, says he found the grave through his acute sense of smell; Itsuki laughs that he can't tell the smell of rot from the smell of fermentation, as the exhumed body is not the missing student, but a dead seal filled with dead birds. The professor takes out one of the birds, explains the how and why of kiviak, bird entrail paste as made by the Inuit, and demonstrates by taking one of the birds and sucking its liquified insides out through its rectum. I am now as grossed out as the two new students, when he offers them a sip from the bird. The "missing" student, wearing what could almost be a dominatrix outfit, stamps into view, furious that the professor should be stealing the results of her experiment: the headstone was there to indicate ownership. Professor Itsuki has an absolute belief in Tadayasu's ability. Not so Haruki, who has to be persuaded through several tests. Two other pupils of the professor that share his belief are the comic relief duo that try to illegally brew sake for quick profit; when their plan goes awry, mainly due to an organism that turns sake bad (one Yuuki is very familiar with), they clamp onto Tadayasu and his ability in an effort to recoup their losses.

The title had an "I" inserted after it, since the con would also be showing the first episodes of Moyashimon II, and a live-action version. Both were scratched off my to-watch list for, sorry, not being funny enough. Sure, it's very educational, but I'm annoyed that the boy with microscope eyes only sees microorganisms when they happen to further the plot, even though in reality the air is always full of them, so he should be walking through miasma all the time, and then there's the size issue. Inaccuracies like that could only be made acceptable by gut-busting comedy. And not gut-sucking comedy. Ew.

A lack of gut-busting comedy, on the other hand, can be made acceptable by amazing animation. The sort of animation where every bit of the detailed backgrounds seems (and may well be) painted in. The sort that is not wasted on girly panty-shot series where all characters have the same face with different hair styles and colours, and almost the same soundbytes, but reserved for films lasting anywhere between 90 minutes and over two hours, typically with a decent plot, complex and believable characterization, and possibly a deeper meaning. Disappointment with the previous show was the only reason why I would go and watch something as obviously steampunk as Steamboy (yes, Victorian England really did have steam-driven machines, and development on any machines except train locomotives was stopped because they tended to explode, messily, with many fatalities), but when I saw the thatched-roof house and lane and circular vehicle being tested by a very young inventor and his sister, I was sold.

Into this faux-historical scene rolls the horse-drawn carriage of the mailman, delivering to the boy's house a crate containing what seems to be a cannonball with a valve on top, some sheets of blueprints and a letter. Not five minutes after, two visitors knock: they come from the Foundation, an American company that the boy's father and grandfather work for, and their faces proclaim them villains. Also on the way to this address are a distinguished British gentleman and his freckled, bespectacled, mild-mannered assistant. Smiling, the villains ask if a certain package arrived, and on assuring the boy that they are, indeed, agents of the Foundation, he defiantly holds up the letter that tells him to under NO circumstances give the device to the Foundation, and runs off. His grandfather turns up out of nowhere, too, tells the family that his father is dead, and fights off the goons to help the boy escape. The one-wheel vehicle that the boy worked on for so long, is finally forced to function when he uses it to flee the Foundation's steam vehicle, which tears off the front of his house - like many impressively animated Japanese films, this one also features impressive amounts of damage; at the end, London Bridge will be destroyed, along with a swathe of the city - and chases him towards the railroad tracks and onto the train, where he runs into the British gentleman, also an inventor, and his assistant. Meanwhile, a third set of visitors has arrived in London; a spoiled girl in bloomers and frilly dress, who wrinkles her nose at the smell, then punches the chihuahua that she totes around because it starts to bark and growl, and her entourage of men in black. She is the heiress of the arms-manufacturing company that calls itself the Foundation, although it's clear throughout the film that she's just a rich brat, and has no idea of the realities of warfare. On the train, the Foundation goons have succeeded in ripping off the top of the carriage in their attempt to catch the boy and the device he carries before the train pulls into the station. Despite valiant resistance, the boy is kidnapped and taken to the Foundation's base of operations, the Steam Tower, which is also their contribution to a prestigious exhibition. Here, he meets the spoiled girl, and, surprise, his damaged, now partly cybernetic, but very alive father. Who persuades him to return the device, and help him finish the Steam Tower for the sake of Science. All seems well until the grandfather pops up again, and starts to sabotage their efforts. The British authorities are also quite aware that what the Foundation has to offer is not scientific advancement, but death machines offered to the highest bidder, and the military is gathering to strike. I'm not going to spoil the ending by giving anything else away, but it's worth watching for the animation alone, the rising and ultimate destruction of the Steam Tower - there is even a fairground with a merry-go-round on its roof, the work of granddaddy - being especially spectacular. The ending is not predictable: apart from the boy and his seemingly crazed grandfather, who persists in committing sabotage until the very end, everyone is a villain, and, at the same time, only working for an imagined Greater Good. There is even implicit comedy, for instance, in the selfish, but not really wicked or even savvy heiress, who thinks she can walk out and call for her assistant in the middle of an armed assault; her long-suffering pooch, who is put in a jar during mealtimes; the Queen who, being supposed to open the exhibition, is quickly removed from the scene when the Foundation starts to demonstrate its new weapons; and the Londoners who are unsure if all this firework is part of the show.

Beginning to feel tired, yet wanting to see some items on the timetable that stretched from midnight to 4 am, I walked to the hotel for an hour's rest and returned just after eleven, while Jormungand, a series about the danger-filled life of an arms dealer and her rag-tag band of protectors (including an apparently emotionless young boy who's in it for revenge), was still playing. Knowing it would be reshown later and intrigued by the title alone - Jormungandr, in Norse mythology, is the serpent whose body spans the world - I popped in to see if it was worth reserving time for. It was not. From the crazy guy with shark teeth who guns down an entire theatre while seeming bulletproof himself, to the frequently smirking arms dealer and ditto secret agent chasing her down and tangling with corrupt cops in the process, every character has furry eyelashes and a repulsive character, made worse by the version shown being a dub. One that clearly uses American voice actors. Given the reality of a succession of Gulf Wars, provoked by the USA, in which the USA's arms industry is the only real winner, I really don't need to hear this pseudo-conscientious arms dealer explain to the boy that the world's governments are still spending more money on weapons than on food and education in a pronounced American drawl.

Anime 18+ (the 10 Episodes an Hour eps that were suggestive enough to get a separate slot) was also disappointing, but that had to do with the subtitles frequently dropping off, so that I couldn't follow half of what was said. The eps were not terribly explicit: one with an infant soldier body-searching the teenage schoolboy she was sent to protect, looking for explosives and finding... a rocket in his pocket. That's what you get for groping his crotch, little girl! Turns out his accountant father signed some wrong papers and is now a military mercenary. And a few eps about the young man who rescued what seems to be a victim of near-drowning and is in fact a merman who fled the polluted river, and now hogs the bath because he needs to stay moist at all times. When the young man says that he, too, would like a bath, the merman invites him to hop in. Two naked men in a bath, how shocking. The merman is later joined by a one-tentacled octopusman and an anthropomorphic jellyfish, who, as opposed to the fishmen and their clamouring for food and entertainment, would only like a glass of mineral water, and considers this a luxury. And here the quality of the recording began to falter again, so, too tired to even consider staying up any later, I left.

The next day, hoping to snatch some extra afternoon sleep so I could stay up during the night, and maybe try out some foods sold in the food courts when they were less crowded, I made a mistake. I took my rucksack, containing my purse, umbrella and coat, to the con and left it in the Cloak and Bag room, after taking out a bank pass to put in my pocket, as I dimly remembered some food stands accept PIN. Knowing that it would rain later today (hence the umbrella, duh), but as yet blissfully unaware of my mistake, I arrived in time for a show I remembered from a previous con's timetable: Time of Eve. It started with hiccups, apparently showing the dub version, with lots of giggling, and when the film was replayed from the start, now subbed, the subtitles started to drop off again. Still, it's obvious that we're in a police station, and that communication across a network is being traced. As if investigating terrorist activity, the police are monitoring messages between androids, spreading from a certain location. Mention is made of an inventor and a forbidden AI.

It's the year two-thousand-and-something, and humans are served by androids, who look exactly like humans except for the circular green hologram above their heads. Given their likeness, it's not surprising that some humans should start to feel affection and love for their mechanical slaves; those humans are regarded, with disgust, as android-philes. In one android-owning household, the teenage son is also investigating the odd behaviour of their android, by downloading her logfile. Amidst the technical gobbledegook, he is struck by a sentence: "Are you enjoying the Time of Eve?"

With a friend whose family doesn't own an android, and who consequently is more laid-back about them, he goes to investigate and finds that the Time of Eve is a cafe where humans and androids enter on equal footing, the androids switching off the green holo-halo over their head so they can no longer be identified as such, and discrimination is forbidden. Since the normal behaviour of humans against androids smacks of apartheid - earlier, the boy sent the house android to bring home his sister after a party, and she complains how mortified she was when "that thing" came to pick her up - the boys break this rule a number of times. Regulars at the cafe are a talkative little girl, an old man with his bratty granddaughter and a romantic couple. Tortuously slowly, the boys discover what I saw coming a long time ago: the romantic couple are both androids. Could it be that androids have... feelings? That they are people too?

Okay, so here's how it goes. Humans are controlling assholes. Other humans tend to punch them in the face for this behaviour, so the controlling assholes build machines, that won't answer back, in the form of humans, to enjoy their little fantasy of oppressing actual humans. They then find it necessary to program "emotions" into these machines, the better to enjoy their fantasy, but also, out of guilt, further fantasize that these machines will now revolt. Seriously, real-life AI scientists want to build sex robots, then program feelings into sex robots, then get legislation in place against the rape of sex robots. As well as accidentally revealing their true intentions in this way, these scientists are trying to do something as pointless as creating a beer glass that gets drunk when filled with alcohol, a pan that blisters when heated, or a bicycle that feels pain when its tire goes flat. Moreover, actual oppressed humans who have to suppress their feelings (like, say, most of the population of Japan), start to identify with these pseudo-humans and project on them, protesting: "Androids are people too!" which is like saying that books, cars and houses are people too. Besides, if androids were people, they would no longer be able to mindlessly and uncomplainingly serve humans, and the effort put into producing them would become pointless. Finally, before a truly lifelike and fully operational android is even produced in real life, anime is already being made about this concocted drama.

Besides android-philes (who, despite being presented as an alarming new development, are as old as antiquity, see the Greek myth of Vulcan and his mechanical handmaidens) there is also a less feared, but still somewhat despised class of society: men who prefer dating sim characters to actual girls. Enter Tomoya Aki, the unattractive, unremarkable nerd of Saekano - How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend. One day, walking home through a sunny suburban scene with blossoming cherry trees, he sees a young girl lose her hat, and retrieves it for her. The situation so resembles a dating sim cutscene that he is determined to create a new dating sim based on this single encounter. His friends cautiously suggest that this is not a lot of material to go on, and the two artists he tries to enlist - Eriri Spencer Sawamura, a hot-tempered blonde who secretly draws juicy hentai manga in her spare time, and Utaha Kasumigaoka, a distant, always-tired dark-haired girl who is the anonymous author of a successful series of romance novels - cut him down, but when he invites them to meet with him and discuss the project further, they turn up at the proposed time and place anyway. He even makes them wait, since he unexpectedly meets Megumi Kato, the girl that inspired his endeavour, on the way. He doesn't recognize her when she thanks him, nor even realize that she's been in the same class as him all this time. On sizing her up, he does conclude that she possesses a classic sim-girl beauty, so he asks her out on a date, during which - gasp - she doesn't act like a dating sim character at all!! In fact, she points out to him that his own dating-sim personnage: the plain nerd who mysteriously attracts beautiful girls, is a far cry from reality as he is the school's most famous otaku, known for his fervour in spreading anime culture to the masses. His two main artists and admirers, although he seems to be oblivious concerning the latter, are likewise acting out dating sim roles, and although Megumi does agree to help with the game and becomes more involved with its production as the series progresses, she remains the sanest and only normal person of the group. This series, gently taking the piss out of dating sims, must be hilarious to people who eat, drink and breathe dating sims and are well versed in all cliches and stock situations of the genre. Since the above does not apply to me, I found it a tad disappointing.

More than a tad disappointing was Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, although I should have expected it, considering my lukewarm reaction to the FMA movie. But since this is the series, I was expecting a little more humour. Well, if loud equals funny... The premise is, two brothers called Edward and Alphonse try to resurrect their dead mother using alchemy. Edward, the eldest, loses two limbs in the process and Alphonse his whole body, only surviving because his soul is attached to a suit of armour. How did this ever spark a rash of yaoi doujins? Anyway, they set off on a journey to find a way to recover their lost flesh, making a living the way that travelling truth-seekers usually do: as mercenaries. Where movie-Edward was a serious character, series-Edward is a short little guy, especially in comparison to his suit-of-armour brother, covering up his insecurity over this juxtaposition by acting like a man with a teeny weeny peenie. Do not remind Edward of his shortness, or he will FACEFAULT! And YELL!!! Oh, and there's typical anime-style weirdness going on. I never did get to see the Seven Sins, some of which make a frightening appearance in Full Metal Alchemist: Conquering of Shamballa, but one ep that sticks in my mind features a cult leader whose miracle-working power comes from a gem that Edward would like to get hold of. The brothers are introduced to him through a devout follower and all-out stupid woman who seriously believes he can resurrect her dead lover; he insults Edward's size, of course, and they enter an ego-fuelled battle ending in the destruction of the gem, which was apparently fake, the woman finally coming to her senses when she realizes that this jerk wouldn't bring her lover back to the living even if he could.

Oh, for some genuine comedy! Or Love Lab, that's close enough. The setting is Fujisaki Girls Academy, where posh girls get their education; the starting main character, a school club president called Maki, nicknamed Miss Fujisaki for being the most distinguished, the most demure, the poshest of them all. The wildest girl in school (ooh, she has short hair in a ponytail on the side of her head and a short skirt, so rebellious!) and her apparent opposite, Riko, becomes vice-president as a special favour, because Maki isn't so demure after all. Under her mask of composure, she's really a fatuous girl dying to experience the throes of love, and surely "wild" Riko knows all about that, right? Um, no, not really, but while they are arguing, a shy, clumsy, unintelligent girl called Suzu sees Miss Fujisaki with her hair down and faints from shock. It would hurt Maki's reputation if the school found out she'd been acting silly, so Suzu is gang-pressed into the club and becomes its dogsbody. Two more members join, one a money-crazed sociopath who only wanted to be in the club for the post of treasurer, and they set about testing scientifically, and in the most uninformed way possible, how to catch a boyfriend. The funniest scene is when they test the theory that if you drop your handkerchief, a handsome man will pick it up, return it to you and ask you out on a date. Acting out this scene with her clubmates, Maki drops a handkerchief on which she has written her name, address and phone number, and drawn a few hearts. The other club members agree among themselves that this may be a bit transparent.

And now for something totally different: The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the retelling of a folk tale, with some adaptations. To illustrate just how different it is, it's drawn like a watercolour sketch, the character design a mixture of normal and caricature. In the mountains lives a small community including a childless couple, the husband making a living by cutting bamboo. One day, he sees a sparkle in a bamboo stalk and a sprout grows upwards near it, opening like a lotus blossom to reveal a mini-woman in a robe. Amazed, he carries home the sleeping mini-woman in his hand. Once home, the mini-woman wakes, sheds the robe, suddenly grows into a normal-sized baby and starts crying. Reluctantly, the man hands the baby to his wife, who knows better how to deal with this situation. He later returns to the sparkling bamboo stalk and, cutting it, finds it filled with gems, which he pockets. From that day on, he makes many secretive trips to the nearby town.

The baby grows at an abnormal rate, with fits and starts, into a young girl who happily plays with the other children, only surprising them once when she adds an unfamiliar couplet to a known song. Scavenging for food is an important activity for the mountain community, and one day the children, now mostly adolescent, strike it rich by catching a pheasant and finding a patch of mushrooms on the same day, and the girl expresses her happiness at the feast they will enjoy that evening. But it is not to be: that day, she is ordered into a cart and taken for a long journey to a sumptious mansion in town, where, to her relief, she is greeted by her adoptive parents, now in fancy costumes. Her foster father, convinced that she must be a princess, is determined to give her a life befitting her station, and has procured, using the supply of gems, a big house, a set of servants and a teacher from the imperial court of Japan. And so begins the unintended betrayal by well-meaning parents.

Throughout the upbringing that follows, the courting by high officials, the party in her honour where she can't even be present because she has to hide in a room behind a screen, these parents can't seem to see how unhappy she is, although she lets her heart's desire shine through by creating a garden that is an exact miniature of the mountainside she left behind. During the party, she escapes and runs off to the mountain, only to find it deserted, as the mountainfolk move on every so often to avoid exhausting the natural resources; then she wakes in her room behind the screen, as if it was only a dream. The mystery building up around this secluded beauty leads to an unexpected and startling visit by the emperor of Japan himself, after which she becomes more depressed than ever: she reveals that she is a moon princess, that she came to this place to experience human life, but that she accidentally called for help to the moon when the emperor grabbed her from behind, and now the moon-people will take her back home, where life is cold and without emotion. Her foster father arms the mansion to the roof with archers, but when the celestial chariot descends, its Buddha-like passengers sing a song that sends them all to sleep, and amid much crying, the moon princess is separated from her parents, and the mantle that will make her forget her earthly existence is laid over her shoulders.

Also totally different, but with a much less passive and suffering female lead, is Paprika, named after the virtual-reality redhead who is helping a police officer to solve both a crime and the mystery of his blackouts, by entering his dreams. He regularly has these not completely legal psychiatric VR sessions, under the supervision of Chiba Atsuko, the cool, professional therapist-slash-scientist who, in the form of Paprika, enters dreams to find out who's messing with people's minds, using the DC-mini, a brain-reader and mental interface designed by her incredibly fat (he's first introduced asking for help, being stuck in an elevator) manchild colleague Tokita Kosaku. A genius in his field, as well as a typical otaku, he didn't make the device all by himself, but his fellow genial scientist and manchild has disappeared, apparently run off with an advanced model in order to invade and destroy the minds of people from afar, although Tokita says it couldn't be him, as he's just not that kind of guy. Chiba, usually assisted by a quiet young man who's lower in the scientific hierarchy, has a meeting with another scientist, a sprightly old professor, and their boss and financer, a man in a wheelchair, over what to do about this mind-entering device: is it too dangerous to keep working on it? Paprika has her work cut out for her when the mind-invader attacks the old professor, who starts spouting cheerful gibberish, then sinks into a coma. Entering his mind, she sees an unsettlingly colourful, happy procession. This procession later enters yet another dream session with the police officer, proving that the invader doesn't just enter minds, but knots them together. The puppets in the procession lead her to a theme park, where she tries to cross a fence, but she's still in the dream, so what the sleepwalking Chiba almost does is vault over the balcony of her high-rise apartment. Her manchild colleague recognizes the theme park from her description, and takes her to the now abandoned place where she crosses the fence - it's real, this time - and finds the comatose, near-dead body of the rogue scientist, an advanced DC-mini model on his head, pulsing and practically eating his brain. As it seems he is just another victim rather than the perp, she dives into his mind as Paprika, and resurges to find that the barrier between reality and the world of dreams is dissolving, and not only does her manchild colleague get sucked into the happy procession, but the quiet colleague and wheelchair boss are playing a role in this reality warp too. In conclusion, the story is engaging and free of cliches, the animation is great, and all ends happily.

I'd seen Bakemonogatari at the con of 2010, right up to the ep where a little girl with a huge rucksack is drifting through town, looking for her mother's house but unable to find the address. When Araragi Koyomi, the show's morose, nerdy hero who keeps bumping into supernatural girls and helping them, asks her what she needs, she tells him not to talk to her, and although she does trail after him in the end, their relationship is a spiteful one, with regular biting and punching. At this con, I saw how it ends. He tries to take her to the right address, missing the street every time; runs into the formerly weightless girl, now his platonic but teasing girlfriend, who also tries to help, without success; and finally, via a funny phone conversation, consults the homeless priest that he's contacted for all his bizarre problems so far, who says he should ignore the girl, and she'll disappear. This reminds him of the girl's first reaction when he met her: that he should just ignore her. The girlfriend then reveals that all this time, she saw him talking to empty space, but assumed he had a good reason for it. The little girl is a ghost, born out of the depression of a child who could not find her mother's house, and in a last-ditch effort to fulfill her wish and set her free, they find the address, which is now a building site, the house long gone. This does mean that the little ghost is no longer bound to haunt the streets looking for an address, but doesn't make her disappear; from now on, she's part of his growing circle of unusual friends.

I assumed that Cute High Earth Defence Club LOVE! would be like Parody Earth Defence Force Mao-Chan (con of 2004), only with boys instead of girls. Wrong. Rather than super-deformed preschoolers, these superheroes in disguise are teenage boys whose various looks and characters scream "boy band" or "dating sim". And, rather than whacky, the humour, or what I saw of it, was a bit off-colour. Entering half-way through, I saw one of the boys gasp in horror as the sweltering weather had made their professor go all mouldy! Oh no, now they would have to throw him out! The older boys reassure him that after a bit of cleaning (mostly, getting the green fuzz out of his hair) the prof will be perfectly respectable again, ready to teach class in the morning. How does a stiff teach class? By having a pink wombat sit on its arm and and animate the dead body. What is the pink wombat doing there? It came down to Earth to give these boys magic bracelets so they can protect the planet under a secret identity. Protect the planet from whom? Maybe I'll find out if I stick around after the domestic and bath-house scenes. How secret are their identities? Not very. How funny is a bunch of teenage boys hiding an alien and a corpse in their dorm room? Not.

After this disappointment I went back to the hotel in a deep funk, as not only was I unable to buy "moolah" coins for the food stands (I'd taken an ATM card, but the ATM doesn't work anymore and the coin sellers wanted cash), but, to mock me for leaving my umbrella at the hotel, it had started to rain. So I lunched on my hotel room stash while my clothes hung to dry over chairs and radiators. Not ready to give up for the day, I returned to an actual boy band anime, Uta no Prince Sama Revolutions, revolving around the three members of STARISH and their experiences with love, life, and cold film stars who gradually thaw out. The series can be described as "beautifully elaborated cliches". No fan of cliches, I poked my nose in the other video rooms.

A Miyazaki movie by the looks of it, Giovanni's Island features one of Miyazaki's stock ingredients: a bratty younger sibling. Oh, and tragedy. Not wanting to watch it since it's about the forced relocation of the Japanese inhabitants of a particular island by the Soviet troops in WWII, and Russians have great track record when it comes to human rights, I stumbled in on it between shows anyway. For anyone who's made of sterner stuff than me: the animation, particularly the scene and lighting, is great. And I entered at a sappy moment, too. The Russian commander and his family who have taken over the house of two little boys and their father (their mother seems dead, their father is in a resistance movement and smuggling ring that seeks to provide the islanders with food, their uncle is a no-good smuggler and a fellow resistance member is hitting on dad) have invited these same boys to dinner with music and dance afterwards. The older boy befriends the commander's daughter, even making a sketch of her in a Titanic-like scene (no, she keeps her clothes on) and all seems well until their father is arrested, which the older boy blames on the Russian girl, but the real culprit is the no-good uncle who got caught, lied his way out while implicating his brother, and had undue confidence in his brother's ability to lie his way out as well. Not that it matters, as next the entire island is evacuated and its residents shipped off to Siberia. There's a poignant scene onboard the ship as one soldier chucks overboard a baby that died while the other restrains the wailing mother, both expressing their sympathy for the islanders. Because this is a Miyazaki film, the Russian soldiers are nice people who didn't want to do such harsh things, they're just obeying orders, and even the no-good uncle has a heart; on the other hand, when the uncle buys bags of sugar from a street vendor to cheer the boys up, they soon start choking because under a thin layer of sugar, each bag contains sand. Finally, because this is a Miyazaki film (is it even? I don't know), the bratty younger sibling develops a cough which he claims will get better if they find daddy, so the two boys go to the station to board a train and infiltrate whatever prison camp their father is being held in, because gulags are very healthy places, especially for preteen boys with racking coughs. Not wanting to know how that would end, I tried a different video room.

The next anime to stumble into, ALDNOAH.ZERO, is like the previous in atmosphere, but without the impressive animation. On planet Earth, there's a military exercise, but the alcoholic, thirtyish instructor who should be supervising it, is absent, so a younger and more idealistic instructor takes over. She tells him off a bit later, although it's implied that he drinks and shirks exercises because he knows that the intent of these exercises - to defend against the humans who left Earth to set up a space empire, and continually threaten the planet from their bastion - is pointless and doomed to fail. Just as well, then, that the princess of the space humans is a kind, earnest young woman who bears the Earth humans no ill will, and has even rescued an Earthling, who is now her devoted personal servant. Not so well, then, that she is a naive dumb blonde who doesn't realize that she is a puppet, that the real power lies behind the throne, and - something she should have noticed and put a stop to - her scheming nobility are threatening her precious manservant. Oh, the angst. Well, if there's nothing else on tonight, time to go back to the hotel and get some sleep.

Next day, having checked out at the hotel and carrying two bags containing (very important) a wallet and umbrella, I was determined, on the last day of the con, to sample at least one of the Japanese delicacies served on food stands throughout the main hall. But first: Akame Ga Kill, set in a feodal Japanese fantasy past. In the capital, demons have taken over, or humans have turned into demons, I'm not sure which; at any rate, city life has become gruesome and full of atrocities. In a village, three young warriors, two men and a woman, are sent out to put things right. They set off, each in their own direction. One of them, a charmingly simple-minded type, goes to the place where they're supposed to meet, but the other two are absent: lost? Looking for a way to enlist in the army and fight demons from there, he goes to a pub where a busty woman promises to teach him a valuable lesson - by conning him out of all his money. As he sits in the road, hungry and penniless, a kind daughter of rich parents invites him to dinner. Her parents smile over what a good heart their little girl has, and the father hears out the young warrior's story of seeking employment in the army but being brusquely turned down, and promises to use his influence to do something about it; for the time being, he may spend the night at their house and enjoy their hospitality.

Imagine his shock, therefore, when a motley crew of assassins that includes the busty woman, turns up that night to kill the guards and servants of these perfectly nice parents, and then the parents themselves. He tries to protect the daughter, so they take him to her hidden torture dungeon where, amongst the bodies, he finds his companions, one dead, one dying. The daughter starts screaming that they were only peasants and she had the right to torture them any way she pleased, especially the woman whose hair was so much nicer than hers, and no commoner has the right to have hair like that. Justice is exacted on this closet psychopath, who is the kind of "demon" referred to in the series' prologue, and the warrior, seeing that joining the army is useless because the system is corrupt to the core, joins the assassins instead. Their leader, a cold woman with a robotic arm, is not convinced of his qualities, so his starting duties are in the kitchen. The rest of the eps shown swerved between the comedy of the new member being hazed by the mostly female assassins, overblown fight scenes with oversized, overpowered weapons against blustering cardboard villains, and the occasional, interesting juxtaposition between how people act, and how they really are.

Next on the timetable, Nisemonogatari, the series following Bakemonogatari, was not something to miss, so my stomach, producing its first grumbles, would have to wait. I'd caught a glimpse of this series in 2012, where it seemed to boil down to "Araragi gets kicked around by girls for doing something hentai when he really didn't". But hoo boy, it's much darker than that. To start with, the first episode focuses not on him but on his two sisters, an agressive athletic type in track suit, and a sleepy, simpleton geisha doll who can't even master the basics of sitting on a couch. The interior of his house is as wide, empty and seemingly floating in space as the streets in the strange and estranging suburb where he lives. A magical conman, who did something to someone in the previous series, has come back to town. The sisters have noticed this because... things... are happening to children in the neighbourhood. The aggressive one locates the conman's hideout, a place with swimming chiaroscuro wallpaper, and enters to confront him. Mistaking her (or pretending to mistake her) for a customer, he offers to fulfill a wish... at a price. She tells him point-blank to pack up and leave. So, smiling evilly, he says he has just the gift for her, and opens a small box containing an invisible firemoth. It bites her, causing a fever that will kill her unless a cure can be found. It's up to the girls in the neighbourhood - Araragi's sisters, his deadpan girlfriend, the lolita-type vampire that once bit him, the little ghost with the rucksack and whatever other oddball friend he made in the last series - to stop this conman, while he stands around trying to be useful, whether by spongeing the sweat off his feverish sister or by attempting to comfort the sex-kittenish older girl who is weeping with mortification because her grandmother walked in on her while she was naked.

20 Episodes per Hour featured 6-minute episodes, three minutes of which were used up by the opening and ending credits of each ep, and with subtitles dropping off again, I had no idea what was going on, except that it was the usual shouting and slapstick violence of comedic anime, and there was a kitty-girl thief who kept forgetting to make that big heist because she'd run off to buy fish-shaped waffles instead. Time for a break. Also, time for lunch, and this time I had my wallet, and bought the plastic coins called "moolah" with which to buy one of the Japanese bento boxes: stuffed omelet with rice and garnish. I was determined to use the chopsticks included, which turned out for the best as, when I used the also included plastic spoon to carve the omelet into manageable pieces, it broke. Various snacks were sold as "matcha"-flavoured, of which I tried the ice cream. Matcha, it appears, is the finest cut of green tea, and it acted as a digestive, soothing my overfilled stomach. The many flavours of bubble tea, I skipped because I had no idea whether the bubbles were edible, but I was happy to see a stand selling fish waffles (let's see what kitty-girl's obsession was all about!) and ordered one in each flavour (cheese, red bean paste, and two more I can't remember) after which another matcha ice cream was needed to calm my increasingly irate digestive system. As well as the food, I tried another new feature of the con - storage lockers, as an alternative to the Cloak and Bag Room - and fitted both my bags in one locker using brute force. Finally, I used up the last moolah coins on mochi, a slimy-soft ricemeal cake (it's steamed rather than baked) with filling, choosing the green filling, said on the wrapper to be Yomogi, the Japanese version of mugwort. Full to the brim, I went off to watch the last shows of the con.

Metropolis, which I walked in on when it was well over half-way, is a film done in the old-fashioned Osamu Tezuka style. The theme seemed to be (how appropriate, for something done in the style of "Astro Boy") robots, and how they have Feelings Too, and also what amazing powers they have. A boy and a blank-faced girl (what are the odds she's an android?) flee from a bunch of thugs and an action-figure-like teenage boy, who doesn't look like a villain but acts like one anyway. Robots bravely protect them and allow them to make a getaway. They run through a sprawling futuristic ghetto to an underground rubbish dump where the girl, not seeming to understand the situation, fiddles with the radio she found until it starts playing, the thugs are alerted to her presence and the duo is on the run again. Elsewhere, rebellion in Metropolis - the futuristic ghetto - foments as its ruler, Duke Red, increases the city's poverty by yet another notch to build the Ziggurat, a tall structure that will give him ultimate power, somehow. The two fall in with the rebels, who, oh tragedy, destroy the robots sent to keep the peace, but are decimated in turn by the Duke's military. The boy, who notices that the girl's hair has grown, and the girl, who has nothing more intelligent to say than "would you like my hair long or short", end up in the clutches of Duke Red, who looks like the love child of Captain Hook and a cockatoo, just before being shot at by Teenage Action Figure Boy, who is the Duke's son and feels that robots should not be allowed to rule the world - yes, she's an android!! For his part in trying to destroy a valuable piece of technology, Teenage Action Figure Boy is disowned by his father and sent away in disgrace, while android-girl is led to a luxurious bedroom, because robots care about that sort of thing, and also have real hair that can grow. Blank as ever, she has no idea that she's the last missing piece of the Ziggurat, right up until the moment where the Duke connects her to the machinery. With all the data streaming into her android-brain, she goes into emotionless robot mode, while the boy, who has climbed up to the top of the building to save her, cries out to her to reawaken her human (?) side, and gets badly hurt trying to pull her out of the machinery, and I assume it ends well, because at that moment I'd had enough of robots who have Feelings Too, and walked out.

Speaking of golden oldies, the surprise movie on Sunday was Wings of Honneamise, a film that I have seen subbed and dubbed and don't like (warning: the dubbed version changes the premise of the story and censors out a scene that was vital in the original), leaving me free to go and see Food Wars (Shokugeki no Soma), the story of a boy, his small restaurant, and the local mafia who want to close him down. It's actually his father's restaurant, but daddy has to be someplace else, and his son Soma Yukihira, who has the same culinary gift, relents under the pleading of locals who can't bear to see their favourite restaurant close. The competition, who would have been happy to see it close, spraypaint the shopfront, and Soma's first job is scrubbing the paint off. Then, a saboteur sneaks in and switches off the fridge, so when Soma arrives next morning, all the meat has gone bad. In comes the competition in the form of a bitch in high heels and her three chunky bodyguards in black, demanding a meat dish from the menu and insisting that Soma close the restaurant if he can't deliver. Like the kitchen wizard he is, Soma combines bacon, the last meat he has, with potatoes, onions and mushrooms to create a dish so mouth-watering that although Bitch In Heels turns it down for not containing the meat promised, the proprietor's insistence that she taste it before passing judgement makes her take one bite, a bite that so thrills her taste buds that she experiences a foodgasm, drifting through the air naked with sparkles over the naughty bits. The bodyguards also take a bite each, resulting in three more foodgasms, although of course only the female gets a nude scene - oh, wait. But as luck would have it, at the end of the last ep shown, daddy returns to shut the restaurant down anyway, as he's enrolled his son in a culinary school that is so difficult, only ten percent of its students graduate. Rats!

Another show, another boy. This one, asleep, sneezes away the funny cockroach/centipede thing that wanted to climb in his ear (tough luck, he's wearing earphones) and then his nostril, before giving up and burrowing into his hand. The next day, when he wakes up, his hand looks funny. It has an eye now. And a mouth. And after some efforts, it can talk. Thus begins Parasyte - the Maxim, the story of the aliens who descended to Earth to burrow their way into, and eat, humans' brains to take over their body, except when they fail and have to settle for a hand. Migi, the hand-mimicking parasite, is lucky that it only ate the hand of its host Shinichi, who retains most of his nervous autonomy, because now it can feed itself via his body, whereas the brain-replacing parasites have to eat other humans, or, if they accidentally ate their way into a dog's brain, other dogs; it always has to be the same species. Shinichi panics, of course, and Migi has to use some force to make him quiet down, listen, and accept that this is not just a nightmare. Migi, on the other hand, constantly needs to be reminded not to take on funny shapes in public. Whatever frightening forms this hand-parasite can assume are peanuts, though, compared to what brain-parasites can do; when going hunting, the heads of their human hosts explode into toothy anemones. One of their targets is, strangely enough, Migi, although the Migi/Shinichi duo find an odd ally in a parasite whose human body conceived before it was taken over, and who wants to keep the baby. To add to the angst, Shinichi has sent his parents, who know nothing, on holiday for their own safety; given that the aliens are everywhere, this proves their undoing.

So, was this con enjoyable? Thanks to the improved food court, moreso than the last. The moolah coins were a bit expensive, but the con organizers stated on the forum afterwards that the price would be lowered next con. The attendees were still the same, though: not only did visitors behind me in the ticket line practically rest their phones on my back while passing the time playing phone games ("personal space", people, look it up) but the streets surrounding the World Forum building were littered with sticky, half-empty ditched bubble tea cups. But this is The Hague, where that sort of behaviour is normal.



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