Sunday, 26 May 2013

Event: London MCM Expo/Comic Con (May 2013)

Clariecandy cosplaying
an adorable Yukimura
It's that time of the year again. Yesterday I went along to the biannual MCM Expo event known as London Comic Con. Last year's event fell during a heatwave so all of the cosplayers in heavy fur suits were sweltering in the sun; this time they had the choice between the stifling heat inside the London Excel convention centre or the rather pleasant weather outside the entrance.

After last October's relatively peaceful Sunday visit, my group opted to try Saturday again this time in the hope that the stalls would have more to offer. We obediently had our hands stamped for early entry then stood around waiting for a long time in a stationary queue, rummaging through the goody bags which were distributed - apparently at random - to people in the line by some stressed-looking staff. There was no communication and only a handful of attendees were given a chance to get a bag, so it's fortunate the contents were less than inspiring. I received the same dreadful free DVD that was in my goody bag back in October 2012, a promotional game DVD, a Wolverine poster and some leaflets. Oddly, there was no guide to the event itself this time.

I'd forgotten how busy things got on Saturdays; within a couple of hours of the doors opening, it's almost impossible to move around between stalls. There doesn't appear to be a good way to manage it. Either you arrive early and spend a long time standing around, or you arrive late and can't move around freely in the halls at all. It's worse than Comiket.

Once we'd managed to get into the London Comic Con we dashed between all of the booths I wanted to visit. First came the emaciated 'JapanEx' area, composed of half a dozen food shops specialising in Japanese food. There were also a couple of anime booths in the same area - or so I thought. Upon reaching Kaze UK's stand it was evident that they weren't actually exhibiting. The usual tables of French anime/J-pop CDs and imported goodies were gone.

Well, it was a nice advertisement, but nothing more
Anime On Demand wasn't even mentioned. Last time they'd had their own booth and before that they'd been hyping their service with some videos playing to the crowd. Not a good trend.

Anime Limited's booth was surrounded by interested fans
Not far away was the Anime Limited booth, buzzing with life. Anime Limited haven't yet released anything so their main goals were promoting their upcoming Cowboy Bebop sets and selling some of Kaze's DVDs on their behalf. On the other side there was an empty space ready for Watanabe Shinichirou to sign goods for the fans later in the day. As I approached the stand I overheard a couple of guys nearby saying "Anime DVDs? Why would I buy those when I can watch online?". Given the lacklustre streaming situation in the UK, hearing the pair of them preening about piracy so close to a local distributors' table made for a depressing start to the day.

Manga UK's One Piece area
MVM Entertainment were next on my list. Their stand always looks the same so I knew what to expect. In a rare moment of inspired collaboration on the part of the UK anime companies, MVM had planned to get their release of Kids On The Slope ready to tie in with the visit from director Watanabe Shinichirou, except that Sentai's glitched Blu-ray masters meant only the DVDs were available in time. I hope a lot of people realised and bought them anyway to take advantage of the opportunity to have them signed; MVM deserve credit for getting the series out here so quickly after its US release.

Moving on, it was no secret which series Manga UK were promoting most heavily since they had the largest booth of the lot, nestled up against Viz Media Europe's shop full of manga. Both companies were selling their versions of One Piece. Viz had their usual discounts, bundle deals and early releases which attracted a lot of shoppers, and they were also giving away free tote bags to anyone who spent more than £30 on manga. Not to be outdone, Manga UK had created a bundle for customers who purchased the first set of One Piece DVDs (strangely, also including a tote bag) and they were running a raffle for customers who spent more than £5.

Next came the gaming booths - or booth, as it turned out. As expected, Capcom's stand was missing any reference to my favourite series. I had to turn elsewhere for my historical action gaming fix.

The lovely Wang Yuanji on one side of the DW8 area
Tecmo-Koei Europe had a large, stylish stand which was completely dedicated to hosting demonstrations of Dynasty Warriors 8 (Shin Sangoku Musou 7) gameplay. Every time I passed it there were plenty of people waiting for turns on the controllers. The game looks great. I miss the older booths full of merchandise they used to run, though; if anything like that was taking place this weekend it was impossible to find. Staff from NISA were supposedly in attendance too from the US and I couldn't find them anywhere.

My tour of the corporate booths now complete, I headed towards the independent dealers to try to spend some of the money that was burning a hole in my wallet. Yet strangely, I bought less than I'd expected. The dense crowds were part of the reason; the other was more worrying in the long term. It's felt as though the amount of legitimate merchandise on offer shrinks every single time the event takes place.

All of these CDs are fakes
The corporate booths had scaled down the scope of their offerings with several switching from actively selling to demonstrating. And as usual, I found a number of vendors openly selling fake 'Miya Records' CDs and other counterfeit items. My desire to report them to the proper people was stymied by MCM Expo Group's lack of a full list of exhibitors. It was absolutely impossible to identify some of the fraudsters! Pictured below is a tray of fake CDs, including copies of Square-Enix titles which were also being sold by Square-Enix themselves at their corporate booth a few metres away. The brazen attitudes of these counterfeiters trick inexperienced customers into buying bootlegs every time the event runs. It's despicable, and sullies the shopping experience so much that I didn't buy a single item from the smaller stalls this time around. It's impossible to have any confidence in the integrity of the sellers, and consequently the risk of being ripped off is too high.

The more established sellers such as United Publications and Otaku.co.uk are still reliable, thankfully. I noticed that they didn't seem to be carrying as much stock as usual - or perhaps it sold out more quickly than expected the day before. United Publications had prioritised bringing NISA special editions and figurines to the convention this time with a relatively small selection of standard anime releases from the two biggest US publishers (FUNimation and Sentai). A good strategy, since people will be more tempted to buy limited edition items on the spot. Seeing the large NISA box sets on sale in person makes them look far more attractive than they do as part of an online shop listing. In contrast, Otaku.co.uk seemed to be pushing books rather than DVDs.

After failing to spend much money, next came the stage events.

Manga UK had combined their podcast recording session with the first half of the UK anime industry panel and arranged for it all to take place on the main convention stage, making the whole panel feel more like a Manga UK event with the other company representatives appearing as guests. The main speakers were Jerome Mazandarani (Manga UK), Tony Allen (MVM Entertainment), Andrew Partridge (Anime Limited) and Sarah Anderson (Viz Media Europe). Manga UK's Jeremy Graves acted as MC.

A very overexposed shot of Jerome filming the crowd
Unfortunately, the Expo staff had set up the acoustics in the large main hall so poorly that it was very difficult to hear anything that was being said into the microphones! My friend advised that it was better in the middle bank of seats where the sound had presumably been tested properly. Some people who weren't stuck straining to pick up what the guests were saying were able to summarise the key points that were made. Other things I remember were that the very first question asked what the panel thought about the new anime streaming service Daisuki, opening up potential for a discussion about legal streaming and its growing importance in US anime distribution today (why are we lagging so far behind?). The question was ruined when one uninformed fan authoritatively shouted that Daisuki was a paid service and immediately convinced half of the panel members and listeners that this was true.

The main reveal was Manga UK's announcement of Attack On Titan for UK home video, which again got me thinking about how the UK companies are sitting in an awkward position. While there's no doubt that the show is doing well on Crunchyroll and FUNimation's US region-locked streaming service, I'm not sure how this benefits Manga UK. If they aren't getting a share of the Crunchyroll stream, then it makes sense that they aren't going to be trying to push customers that way. Surely there should be a UK stream as well to capitalise on the initial excitement, ready for the hardcore fans to buy the Blu-ray release in a year's time. Otherwise, by then the majority of customers who were sitting in that panel today will have already seen the series elsewhere and moved on. They'll be relying on the dwindling number of casual buyers once again.

My personal misgivings aside, I think Attack On Titan was a very strong license to announce. The other exciting one was Anime Limited's surprising acquisition of the Tiger & Bunny movie. Snatching the movie from Kaze (who have the television series) was another sign that Kaze's future in the UK market might not be assured.

After battling through half an hour of distorted audio, the panelists left to make way for the next presentation: the first UK appearance for Watanabe Shinichirou, acclaimed director of the massively popular titles Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Kids On The Slope (Sakamichi No Apollon). He was lovely and addressed the swollen crowd in English several times. The panel flowed well even with the live translations between each question.

(L-R) Andrew Partridge, Watanabe Shinichirou, translator
We took a picture (without flash) because a number of people were doing the same thing; as far as I could make out from the garbled audio, still pictures were fine and only video recordings were forbidden. I'm repeating myself but the sound during Watanabe's panel was even worse than before as the organisers had scheduled a louder stage event somewhere else nearby in the convention. The sound coming from their speakers was audible over the ones close to my seat in the main hall. Trying to make out what anyone was saying was terribly frustrating - the MCM Expo team really let down the staff who'd arranged this amazing visit.

Fantastic Aniki and Oyakata-sama cosplay
I must emphasise that the panel was still interesting. It was merely unfortunate that things could have been so much better with more planning from the exhibition hosts. I'm going to watch it again once the video is available on the MCM website.

By this time the atmosphere inside the halls was stifling. Tired and desperate for some space, we headed outside to the London Excel's entrance area to take a look at the cosplay - the biggest highlight of Comic Con for the majority of attendees.

Almost as soon as we passed through the doors we saw that the UK cosplay community was out in force, including a number of Sengoku Basara fans! I was pleased to see some of the nonexistent male devotees were present too and secretly hoped they'd swing by the Manga UK booth to show the company that the series has a mixed fan base over here. As well as the three cosplayers pictured in my blog post, we spotted a small group made up of Masamune, Magoichi and Tenko Kamen dashing around excitedly.

(If you're one of the cosplayers in my pictures and want me to either remove the shot or link to your website, please let me know who you are. Edit: Sanada Yukimura at the top of the page has been identified as cosplayer clariecandy via a picture on her Tumblr account. Thank you for letting me use the picture!)

Other series with strong turnouts included Vampire Knight, Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji), KuroBas, Street Fighter and Sailor Moon. The most amusing costumes were the 'sexy' versions of a moogle (Final Fantasy) and a companion cube (Portal), and someone had styled his hair (or more likely, wig) quite impressively to pull off an accurate Phoenix Wright. The ubiquitous Vocaloid, Super Mario, Naruto, Bleach, Team Fortress 2, Kingdom Hearts, Batman and Pokemon fans added splashes of colour wherever there was a crowd. If it wasn't for the thick cigarette smoke it would have been fun to spend longer watching everyone fooling around outside the building.

As usual, heading back home on the train I had mixed feelings. I come home from every MCM event wondering why I went in the first place; if it wasn't for the handful of legitimate anime booths and memorable participants I probably wouldn't keep turning up. It would be wonderful if the MCM Expo crew improve the organisation next time around to make the whole thing less stressful. What would be most helpful would be splitting the event between the two halls they use (one seemed to contain a couple of fast food tents and nothing else). If stalls themed around anime, cosplay and games were arranged in one hall and those for movies, actors, artwork and comics in the other, everyone would have more room to breathe.

Next comes July's Hyper Japan. Let's hope it's less chaotic!

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