Sunday 5 July 2015

Event report: Japan Expo 2015 (Paris)

Iconic yuru-kyara Kumamon in the flesh
It's been a whole year since I first made the trip to Paris, France for Japan Expo, just to watch Sengoku Basara Judge End a few days early. The event ran again this year - it's now celebrating its 16th anniversary - and given the sorry state of the UK convention scene I decided to drag two of my dearest friends along and give it another try. That's how I ended up making a fast-paced overnight trip to France on Thursday and Friday last week.

Paris - like much of the rest of Europe - is extremely hot this week, and gathering together with thousands of excited fans is never an effective way to stay cool. The organisers had done what they could to warn people to dress appropriately and bring plenty of drinks yet we still witnessed several people passing out in the entry queues and the lines at the stands selling slush drinks and other refreshments were impressive. I dread to think how hot it must be this weekend when even more people will have been descending on the convention halls to see the biggest guests. The dilapidated RER trains back to central Paris were stifling, too. It was almost unbearable.

A significant number of people had chosen weather-appropriate cosplays such as Gray (Fairy Tail) or Ace (One Piece). The bravest cosplayers went all-out in strappy outfits, while others somehow managed to cope with the heat dressed in fluffy onesies or heavy armour. I always like to imagine that people in the wildest costumes have somehow managed to install advanced cooling systems inside them, just for my peace of mind.

Some of the cosplay was seriously impressive

With no Sengoku Basara screenings scheduled for this year, my schedule was free and I felt two days would be plenty of time to soak up everything the event had to offer. This turned out to be overly optimistic; when we visited last year, we'd gone on a half day with early entry tickets, which meant smaller crowds than usual and less queueing. The early entry tickets had all sold out well in advance this time which meant we only had standard tickets. Even after getting up at 03:00 and taking the very first train from London, we were stuck in the entry queue for the first two hours after we arrived.

It was warm in the queue - very warm

I'd hoped to catch the live presentation from artist Kozaki Yusuke upon arrival but there was no chance of that; the whole thing was over before we were able to enter the halls. Several other fixtures passed by as we slowly crawled closer to the entrance, including Kumamon's stage show. Next time, I'm definitely getting premium tickets. Even navigating the halls was harder than before thanks to the swollen crowds. I'm glad that Japan Expo is so popular!

The first scheduled stage performance we managed to attend was the Neko Light Orchestra musical show featuring singer Inoue Azumi. Inoue is the original singer of a few Studio Ghibli songs and that was the theme of the performance; Neko Light Orchestra kicked things off with a selection of covers and then Inoue arrived to belt out Kimi Wo Nosete and other standards. Her daughter, Yû-yu, even joined her on stage at one point to sing Gake No Ue No Ponyo. Yû-yu had an infectious smile and I couldn't help grinning, even though the song drives me crazy and ended up getting stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Outlandish wigs everywhere

I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of Studio Ghibli movies and don't actually know most of the theme songs. It wouldn't have been something I would have gone to if I'd been at the event on my own, but both of my friends are big fans so I went along to accompany them. Still, I'm glad I did; the singing was lovely and even the unfamiliar songs worked well live.

I'm short and couldn't actually see the stage this well

Once the stage show was over we went back to the main exhibition halls and explored a little more. We were quite tired after the early start so wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere was enough for the first day.

A cool Attack On Titan figure display

As the evening approached we headed back out on the train and visited the Paris branch of Book Off, a Japanese secondhand store. The shop was very well-stocked for its size and I picked up a stack of used books. The RER train service had been suspended for a while on the journey back (leaving us trapped in an airless carriage with a bunch of locals dressed as serial killers and Batman villains) so we didn't have time to do much more in the evening other than wander into one of the many Japanese restaurants nearby for some tasty tamagodon.

After a wonderful sleep, we set out again first thing in the morning for the second day of Japan Expo.

I want to watch this anime, grrr

The crowds were slightly thinner earlier in the day so we made the most of it and wandered back through the exhibition halls more methodically this time, enjoying the shorter queues. Streaming services Crunchyroll, Daisuki and Wakanim all had booths to encourage customers to check out their legal anime services. A team from Viewster was supposed to be on site too. I never spotted them.

Upon approaching the Crunchyroll booth I started taking pictures of the GANGSTA. displays because I'm really enjoying the manga. A very friendly staff member came up and proudly told me that they had the streaming rights so I should check it out. If only that was possible - the UK streaming rights are locked to FUNimation in the US so that means no GANGSTA. streaming for me, and the French streams are region locked as well as being language locked. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the current international streaming arrangements suck so much.

(I'm going to keep moaning about this every time I get the chance until someone puts an end to the madness of letting US companies block UK streaming. Your call, Japanese licensing teams.)

In any case, we managed to cover all of the booths this time. There were even unexpected treats such as meeting Kumamon in person at his booth (pictured above) and the strange experience of trying creamy apple-filled gyouza!

Colossal Titan, complete with wall

I've been into Final Fantasy XIV lately and the recent Heavensward expansion has only increased my excitement, so I was happy to see that Square-Enix Europe had set up a massive Final Fantasy XIV area to promote the game. Half of the booth was designed for new players; the staff were helping people create characters so that they could try out a specially balanced fight against Gilgamesh. There was a mysterious activity involving a green screen and a temporary tattoo area. They also had a small bar with slush machines which made me very jealous (the refreshments seemed to be for new players only).

Some of the female staffers were dressed as miqo'te nearby

The other half of the Final Fantasy XIV area was for existing players. Fans were encouraged to queue up and challenge one of two different bosses in order to win a commemorative t-shirt (for those who won) and lanyard (for everyone who attempted the fight). The first day we arrived had Ravana as the challenge boss and my friends were too shy to give it a try, but I wore them down overnight and we agreed to line up for the Shiva battle on Friday.

It was Ravana on Thursday, Shiva on Friday

After joining the queue we were grouped with the five French players in front of us (fortunately, one spoke exceptionally good English so we could collaborate on tactics and come up with a good spread of roles) and a very enthusiastic multilingual girl behind us. She was wearing an 'I Beat Ravana' t-shirt from the day before; everyone seemed encouragingly confident so we began to feel as though we had a shot at winning and earning those t-shirts.

That bravado started to slip as we neared the front of the line and saw another group getting slaughtered repeatedly despite intervention from the Square-Enix staff giving them pointers. We began to wonder whether the difficulty of the fight had been increased for the event - but then the group in front of us went in (there were two sets of challengers playing at the same time) and they had no trouble at all. We anxiously took our positions while the first group was still struggling and set about configuring our controls. This was made unnecessarily difficult by the interface being in French and it being the PC version with all of the controls reversed, western-style. I will never get used to using X for select... and there wasn't enough time to fix it at the expense of whoever used the PC after me, because the other group members were ready very quickly.

Anyway, to cut a long story short the fight went extremely smoothly with only a few minor hiccups, and it felt as though we were all lining up to receive our prizes moments after we began. As an added incentive, people who had participated in the battle challenge were given special discounts in the Square-Enix shop at the event. I picked up a postmaster moogle plushie and CD (the tote bag, sampler CD and sticker sheet were freebies).

Some of the stuff I had to carry all the way back home

Sadly, the brand new carbuncle plush toys had sold out very quickly. I had considered buying them the day before but the topaz (yellow) one sold out while I was making up my mind. On Friday, both were sold out before I even reached the booth. Tragically I mainly want the plushies for the in-game items they include, rather than for the physical toys.

The sign suggested coming back one day later but...

There was also a signing session with Yoshida Naoki (Yoshi-P), the game's producer. Tickets were handed out on a first come, first served basis from the moment the doors opened that morning - which again meant that by the time attendees without premium tickets got there, they were long gone. We managed to glimpse Yoshi-P right at the end of the signing anyway. Here he is accepting a small sabotender plush from an excited fan who called out to him.

Not exactly an authorised picture

The final stage show we lined up for was the very popular Nintendo presentation starring guest of honour Miyamoto Shigeru. He'd brought several friends along such as Tezuka Takashi (producer of Super Mario Maker) and Sakaguchi Tsubasa (co-director of Splatoon). I'm not a huge Nintendo fan these days since their hardware is always region locked and it's annoying, yet there was so much passion and silliness in the presentation that I really enjoyed watching it. Miyamoto and Tezuka both played around with Super Mario Maker on Pac Man and Paris-themed stages and seeing them dying in ridiculous ways was hilarious. There was also a long segment where Miyamoto talked about the new Star Fox, reiterating anecdotes about how he first came up with the idea and how they've updated it to appeal to even more new fans.

After a little more wandering around, we went back into central Paris to enjoy the sights (and the comic shops on Rue Dante) before it was time to go home.

Notre Dame cathedral is really close to the comic shops

I had a great - if exhausting - time at Japan Expo and would love to be able to go again next year. The only thing which would have made it better would have been premium tickets and some slightly less brutal weather. Thank you, France!

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