Ari Rockefeller presents: Zenkaikon 2011 — The Convention Formerly Known as Kosaikon (and Zentrancon)


                If you’ve been following my deviantART activity, then you’re aware of what is easily the most heavily edited deviation I have on there—a photograph of my numerous convention badges hanging on the wall in a rather large frame. Even with the addition of my badge from Zenkaikon ’11, there is still a lot of blank space waiting to be filled. Almost every badge from every convention I’ve been to is represented, with only two exceptions: Otakon ’04 and Kosaikon ’04. The former was the first convention I ever attended, the latter was the second. For whatever reason, they were lost. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would realize conventions tend to be a little bit bigger; MangaNEXT was a small convention, but you couldn’t fit the entire weekend affair into a single computer building on a college campus and have the whole thing be over in one day.
                For those of you curious about the sudden history lesson, allow me to elaborate. Zenkaikon in its current form used to be two separate, smaller conventions, Zentrancon and Kosaikon. After a few years of independent operations, they decided to pool their resources and form Zenkaikon, and suddenly Philadelphia had itself a bona fide anime convention scene (okay, technically it’s in King of Prussia, which is just outside of Philadelphia, but the commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been described as “Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, and Alabama in the middle; Philly’s outlying suburbs are generally treated as inclusive to the city itself). I was only at Kosaikon once, and it was the last year before the announced merger. My experience with Zentrancon can be readily summed up as, “Wait, there was another convention?”.

                Zenkaikon followed the same example set forth by Katsucon, in that I went to it once and stopped going to it for an extended period of time. But this absence wasn’t due to any bad experience. I stopped going to Zenkaikon because…well, to be honest, I don’t know. Maybe it was that the last time I was there, it was a one-day event, and I had been accustomed to entire weekend excursions; maybe because I was still grooving on much bigger cons like Otakon, and thought this was minor league in comparison (I was still relatively new to conventions, so I had limited info to go on). And it’s not like it was a massive drain on my budget, either; King of Prussia is about a half hour drive for me, and the hotel the convention was using is reasonably priced. The real reason escapes me, so for the longest time, I simply ignored Zenkaikon.

                Until this year, when Zenkaikon came up for discussion, and I found myself back at Philadelphia’s anime convention. I’m back, baby!
                I can’t remember the last time our entire adventuring party left for a convention from the same place and arrived at the same time. That’s one of the consequences of living in different areas and having different times when you can arrive, I suppose. Seeing how my convention started on Friday, I made it a point to get up as early as I could, load up the car and drive off. The first order of business before that, though, was to pick up a piece of audio equipment for a member of our adventuring party. Due to some miscommunication, we would be out an audio mixer for our panel, and since our intrepid leader was stuck at the con, it was on me to go to Best buy and retrieve it. I didn’t mind that much. I also needed to pick up a friend who was coming in to the city via bus on my way to the con. Again, no big deal. The problem I had is that Best Buy is a little peculiar in how they handle purchases for in-store pickup. If a purchase is made after business hours, it’s not even touched until the store opens up the next day. And even then, it takes over an hour to process, as, according to one employee, it has to go through corporate, among other nonsense. So to kill time I went over to a nearby Barnes & Noble and purchased a copy of Ender’s Game completely on a whim.
                Once I had the cargo secured, it was on to pick up my friend from the bus station. There are two major bus stations in Philly, and the one he was coming in to was set amidst a maze of one-way streets, and was barely distinguishable from the surrounding buildings. I was fortunate enough to catch him on my first pass, because driving down those streets is an abysmal experience.
                The weather was nice throughout the weekend, which was kind of a drag that we were spending the majority of the weekend in the hotel at the convention. The hotel was the nicest I’ve been in to date. In addition to the bathroom, our room had a separate living room and a separate bedroom, both of which had a TV (they didn’t see much use, but it was nice to know they were there). The hotel’s pool was outside and, being it’s not the summer yet, remained closed. There was also the notion that each hotel room contained a hot tub. When I was told of this (and asked to bring my copy of Apples to Apples), the logical conclusion was “drinking while playing Apples to Apples in the hot tub.” As it turns out, the “hot tub” was just an oversized bath tub that had whirlpool jets built into the side. Nice, but you’re not exactly going to cram five or six people into one of these. Sitting in the tub with the jets on was very relaxing, though.
                The first panel I wound up in during the convention was the tryout for Anime Farkle, hosted by Greg Wicker, who also goes by the handle Greggo. The dice game, which is similar to Yahtzee (in that it involves rolling dice and making matches based on the rolls), involves trying to score matches on the dice for cash and prizes. If you can’t score, you Farkle; you do that three times, you lose. I didn’t know until I got to the panel itself if I made it on the show or not. Later, when I showed up at the panel hours later, I sadly did not get into the main game. The prizes ranged from simple things such as key chains and manga to badges to future conventions. It was an exciting game, with the big winner being a Bridget (Guilty Gear) cosplayer named Micah. I got in on one of the audience participation games, but after pressing my luck, I narrowly missed out on an instant win condition and lost (rolling 1-2-3-4-5-Wild on the dice, with two ones). It was still a lot of fun.
                For a while, there was much ado about nothing at the convention, so I checked out the other features of the convention. There were plenty of video rooms to go around, as well as two Artists’ Alleys. At least, the Dealers’ Room and Artists’ Alley were listed as Artists’ Alley A and B, respectively, for whatever reason. There were plenty of good deals to discover, including Felsic Current by a French-Canadian author named J-F Bibeau.  After talking to him for a little bit, including finding out that he dealt with a 15% sales tax rate where he was from, I purchased a copy of his book, because it always feels good to support independent artists and authors.
                There were two game rooms, one for tabletop gaming, and the other for typical video gaming. The former had plenty of off-beat and unusual games, and I killed more than my share of time there during the con. The other was typical game room fare. However, the room was a tad on the small side. The most current and most popular fighting games were represented (Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Tekken 6, Super Street Fighter IV), even if they only had one setup per game. There were also a few older systems set up, including a Dreamcast with Jet Grind Radio. There was some good competition, but there were some con goers that took the game (especially MvC3) far too seriously. One player I went up against had said, “I was a tournament player.” This is a shorthand way of saying, “If you get any kind of enjoyment from playing this game, then get the fuck out.” I’ve stated in my Katsucon ’11 review my thoughts on the obsession with tournament game play, and my thoughts on how it relates to Pokémon are just as apropos to fighting games. The notion that “games are serious business” sounds like the kind of logical paradox that could unmake reality.
                Later on, I was asked to make a run for food and alcohol. The perils of being the only one with transportation. It’s a good enough time as any to say that driving around the King of Prussia area was an absolute chore. The road construction wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, but the array of one-way streets and turn-off points had a serious Maze of Theseus feel to them. More than once I was directed by my GPS to take a left turn at an intersection that had No Turns signs posted all about. Not only did it feel like my GPS was trolling me, but it felt like that was just one step closer to malevolent sentience. I got to a nearby Wal-Mart and got the food just fine. The alcohol, on the other hand, was another story. Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws are a little wonky. The only liquor stores open in the area sold wine, spirits, etc. and beer was all but impossible to get a hold of. Even getting Smirnoff Ice was a major pain. What’s more is that all the liquor stores are state owned, and the prices are set—you won’t find the same stuff cheaper any place else. I ended up with the Smirnoff, some whiskey, and to change things around, some crème de cacao liquor. Food for our adventuring party consisted of the groceries we got, plus whatever we picked up during runs to the nearby Wawa.
                It was also around this time that I had to go retrieve the final member of our adventuring party, known to the Anime Jam Session faithful as Kuro Usagi. I don’t want to give away too many details, especially if she would feel better explaining them herself, but the abridged version goes like this. Kuro had to work throughout Friday, and as a result, could not get to the convention early. She ended up on a bus to Philadelphia, and I was tasked with driving down and retrieving her. After a brief wait and a very strange encounter with some gangbangers at a local Dunkin Donuts, Kuro arrived and I got both of us back to the convention safe and sound.
                I closed out Friday night by attending the panel, “AHHHH! Video Game Cartoons!” The “scream” in the title of the panel implied that they would have horrors among horrors on display. In a roundabout way, they were right. The cartoons were from the late 80s, early 90s, and include such timeless classics as Captain N: The Game Master and Super Mario Bros. Super Show. The cartoons from this era took lots of liberties with the source material, and the characters they were supposed to be looked and acted nothing like how they’re typically known (Mega Man being 2 feet tall and green, Simon Belmont looking like he stepped off of Jersey Shore). They even showed an episode from the cartoon based off of Super Mario World, which was strange even by the standards of the show.
                Saturday morning came, and after getting some breakfast with our adventuring party, the first order of the day was the Anime Jam Session panel. This was my first experience being a panelist instead of sitting in the audience. It was very similar to one of our usual podcasts, with the exception of a live audience watching us and fewer retakes. There was a decent crowd for the duration of the panel, with a few leaving and entering after a while. Our guests, including Greggo and Onezumi Hartstein and James Harknell, were a lot of fun to talk to, as well (Vic Mignogna was supposed to be there as well, but he was unable to attend). I admit that I may have been a little…well, off, during the panel, and even writing about it, it feels like I’m missing stuff. This is because I had heard about our panel roughly 72 hours to show time. Don’t worry; I will be much better prepared if and when I’m included in the next Anime Jam Session panel.
                The next panel I attended was another Greggo-ran game show, Anime Password. I wanted to try out to be a contestant, but auditions closed just after our own panel stopped, and I missed my chance. Maybe next time, perhaps. In any event, the game show was just like the version of Password in the eighties, complete with set design done up in Flash. The two celebrity players were Vic Mignogna and Todd Haberkorn. They ended up playing two full games, including bonus rounds. At the end of the panel, Vic and Todd came together to play a special bonus round, wherein the prize money would be donated by Greggo to Japan Disaster Relief (which Vic promised to match). They ended up winning, with the two of them raising $150.
                Along with bins passed around the event hall, collecting donations for the relief fund, about 2 out of every 3 vendors at the convention were collecting donations for the relief effort. Many vendors, including Uncle Yo, promised to send part of their profits to the relief efforts as well. It was a very touching effort by everyone at the convention, and everyone was doing their part.
                The next panel I visited was one of my favorites of the convention—“Sacred Symbols and Giant Robots: Symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion,” otherwise known as “What do you mean, ‘it’s not symbolic’? – The Panel”. Evangelion has been discussed, dissected and disassembled more times than a typical anime fan can count. This panel discussed the various Christian symbolisms and allegories throughout the series, but what struck me about the way this panel handled it was he really knew his stuff. He went to great lengths to research the subject material. Anno Hideaki probably didn’t know that putting in even the smallest symbolic elements can lead people to analyze it just a little bit—even more so if Christian icons are used. The guy running the panel pointed out that if Hideaki knew Evangelion would be remembered the way it is, he would’ve put in Shinto elements instead.
                I was tapped to record the Masquerade by DJ, and I was immediately thankful for my press pass. The first two rows of the Main Event hall were marked Reserved—MVP. One inquiry to a staffer confirmed that they were not only for people with VIP membership (which were limited to 50 tickets and were first-come-first-serve), but people with press passes as well. Instead of scrounging a seat along one of the aisles and cranking up the zoom, I had a nice seat in the front row and a clear view of the stage. The masquerade opened with comedian Uncle Yo as the emcee. He recited a poem which got the entire audience fired up for the spectacle. The skits varied greatly in terms of quality of the performance, production value, and how nice their cosplays looked. There were plenty of nice walk-ons as well. The winner ended up being “Shonen Jump Bleach,” a skit treating the popularity polls in Weekly Shonen Jump as an actual award show (though a hackneyed Kanye West reference took away from the skit a bit).
                Toward the end of the night, I wound up in one of the 18+ panels, “Guests Uncensored.” If you think this would just be a panel where Zenkaikon guests would fire off lewd responses to seemingly innocuous questions just for the fun of it, well then you’d be half right. People attending the panel were presented with a game of chance. The host would flip a coin, and if you called it right, you got to ask the panelists a question. If you lost the flip, they get to ask you the question. On hand for the panel were Todd Haberkorn, Onezumi Hartstein, CJ Henderson, and Sarah Martinez (Vic Mignogna was seen talking to Todd briefly before the panel, but I wouldn’t find out until later that he was not slated to be a part of it; I had attributed his sudden disappearance to Vic being part ninja). The answers given by both the panelists and the attendees ranged from the R-rated to the completely absurd all the way into the realm of TMI.
                You wouldn’t think that in the dead of night would be a time when someone would score an interview with one of the guests, especially when hot off the heels of a panel he was just at, but things just have a way of falling into place. I ended up making some idle chitchat with CJ Henderson after the panel, with the intention of some idle conversation before moving on to the next panel I wanted to cover. But after a noticing my press badge, he invited me to come and speak with him while being far removed from the convention, so that there wasn’t too much distracting us. I felt a little bit awkward talking to him, as I had not read any of his works (yet) and I wanted to attend his panel, but it was at the same time as the Masquerade and I had to miss his panel. Some of the main ideas he had went over with me things that I needed to hear—you have to be persistent in getting your work out there if you want to be recognized and successful as an author, and that overnight successes are very few and very far between. There were a few things we were in agreement on, such as the American public school system being a total mess, and that we have President Woodrow Wilson to blame for it, since he wanted a nation of factory workers and not men of letters. This led Mr. Henderson to point out the reason for bells in the schools—kids in school would associate ringing bells with the end and beginning of the next class, and as factory workers, they’d associate the ringing bells with the end and beginning of the next shift.
                After a good half hour or so of discussion, I parted ways with Mr. Henderson. I had one more panel I wanted to attend that evening, and it too was an 18+ panel. “Hentai: Harder, Better, Stronger” wasn’t held in one of the video rooms (in fact, it was in the same room as the last panel I was at), but was a brief history of hentai compressed into two hours. The host was boisterous and very enthusiastic about the subject matter, and had done a great deal of research on the history of the genre. There were a few clips played, but they were chiefly used to supplement to the points he was making (well, at least as much watching a woman put on leather fetish gear and a strap-on like it was a transformation sequence, then fucking several women with jackhammer-like thrusts in rapid succession can supplement something).
                We did a little bit of partying, but then it was business as usual come Sunday morning. The first panel I was slated to review wasn’t until noon, giving me plenty of time to wake up, get checked out, and basically make sure my shit was in gear. I did a bit of game playing, even getting an MvC3 match between Uncle Yo and a guy going by the handle Ringtone on video. Noon came around, and I found myself at a panel entitled “Building Compelling Worlds and Storylines.” Maybe it was my fault for not reading the description of the panel, but I assumed it was about writing. Instead, it was for tabletop RPG players, especially DMs, in building a world that’s enjoyable and will keep players coming back for more. Aside from warning potential and current DMs about railroading campaigns, and that DMs had to be on their toes for players who deliberately troll the campaign. One thing they stressed was that every action a player does has consequences. Randomly kill some female NPC? Heroes from a neighboring village will suddenly be breathing down your neck. Take too long going after the villain? Enjoy the villain’s victory!
                The final event I went to that weekend was the last of the game show panels. Greggo was back, offering up “Anime Press Your Luck.” The contestants were chosen primarily by what he called an “exuberance check.” Two were chosen from the audience, while a third was promised a spot thanks to not making it to Anime Farkle due to time constraints. The game followed the format of the game show, right up to Greggo again having a Flash version of the game board (the 80s version). The contestants were incredibly thrilled to be there, and cash and prizes were flying everywhere. Some of the biggest prizes included passes to future conventions, including Sakuracon and Otakon. The big winner was a guy by the name of Barry, who walked off with almost $150 in an online gift card.
                It took some time, but we gathered our party together and took our leave of the convention. The last thing I did before leaving was meeting with Vic and Todd one last time before they left for the airport. I got to shake Vic’s hand, but I doubt he recognized me. I ended up dropping off my friends at the bus station, making sure they left for New York safely.
                My experience with the convention this time around was much better than my last time at King of Prussia. Kosaikon was a one-day excursion, and my last time at the new Zenkaikon was more of the same. They had a small-time feel to them, and I was still enchanted by bigger conventions, especially if they involved a lot of travel. But this weekend, combined with just not being there for several years, has changed my view of the con for the better. The northeast is rather densely populated, and has three of the ten biggest metro areas in the country, and the fact that only one of the areas has a consistent con scene (Anime Boston), the lack of cons in the area is rather unusual. Zenkaikon does have one thing going for it, in that it’s been around longer than New York Anime Fest, and doesn’t have to worry about being treated like an afterthought by a comic book convention. I would love to see Zenkaikon grow bigger and more popular in the coming years, and firmly establish Philadelphia as a must-see city on the convention scene. I know I’ll make it a regular stop of my convention circuit.

When Ari isn’t writing for Anime Jam Session or catching Pokemans, he’s writing for the Philadelphia Examiner, swing by and take a look at his reviews.

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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One Response to “Ari Rockefeller presents: Zenkaikon 2011 — The Convention Formerly Known as Kosaikon (and Zentrancon)”

  1. I apologize for PA’s ridiculous liquor laws.

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