I am in no position to call anyone a "nerd." Coming from me -- a mere observer/outsider at this past weekend's Nan Desu Kan Sweet 16th annual Anime convention -- that word would be derogatory...and wrong. Sure, anyone could snag a ticket (or a three-day pass, as I did) to the gathering celebrating anime and gaming of all eras, tropes and worldly origins. But once you were inside the sacred halls of the Marriott Denver Tech Center's full-on transformation into NDK, you were in a safe and sacred space where those who are devoted to the art form congregated to celebrate it -- and you must respect that.
These anime conventioneers, however, can definitely call themselves "nerds" -- a term I heard used repeatedly in self-descriptions over the course of 72 hours of NDK immersion. To put it as bluntly as one of the convention's directors, Jeremy Pieta, did at last night's closing ceremony: "This is what I like, this is who I am and goddamnit, I'm going to Nan Desu Kan!"
Technically, this wasn't my first NDK, but my "N00b's first Nan Desu Kan" experience in 2011 hardly qualified as an experience. The gathering runs for three days and includes raves, cosplay costume contests, panel discussions with leading industry experts and voice actors, auctions, how-to courses, live video game competitions and so much more than I fit into the few hours I spent snooping and judging that which I did not understand last year. This time, though, I was ready to learn.
I opted to begin my journey with a little Gothic Lolita education. It was the first year this subculture-within-a-subculture had a prominent presence at NDK, but the women carrying this fashion movement's flag on American shores were ready to inform the masses.
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Women from the Colorado Gothic Lolita Society ran a Gothic Lolita Jeopardy, in which teams of contestants had to answer questions related to the various brands, sub-styles and defining characteristics of the clothing and accessory-focused fashion lifestyle. While I had no clue what they were talking about the majority of the time, I did learn that Baby, The Stars Shine Bright is the predominant store carrying this childish Victorian-inspired clothing (but San Francisco is the only U.S. city to have one), and that Angelic Pretty is a favored brand throughout the community.
Questions moved too quickly for me to even ingest most of the information, proving that I was the foreigner in this world, but I got to see lots of girls in frilly petticoats with cute wigs and pastel everything, so I was happy. The game was followed by an information session on the fashion subculture, where I learned that Ougi and Kodona are a "boy-style" or more masculine forms of Lolita, and that Spoon, Zipper and Egg are all premiere fashion magazines catering to Gothic Lolitas of many varieties -- Sweet, Princess and Punk styles among them.
I also learned that Gyaru -- the Myspace queen equivalent of Gothic Lolita, with an emphasis on a creepy fake tan -- is out of style. So don't even try to go to a Colorado Gothic Lolita Society meet-up dressed as such, or you'll look foolish. Also, the entire time I was learning about this fashion lifestyle, all I could think was, "Do the women in these magazines work? Or do they just wander around dressed like a candy-flavored doll all day?" Maybe they get to wear their pink patent leather shoes to work...what do I know?
Since day one was just a half-day event, I spent most of it wandering around looking lost and getting educated on extreme baby-doll fashion. I was too tired to stay up for the late night J-Pop concert, but I heard that this was when the festival really got popping. I was sorry to miss it, but I had to get home to get my rest for a full Saturday of events. Sadly, I got to day two too late for the "wig styling" seminar (wigs are an integral part of cosplay, and next to homemade weapons are often the most intricate and awesome part of a cosplay outfit.) But that left plenty of time to wander Artist's Alley and the Dealer's Room, the two parts of the convention meant solely for buying cool stuff like Manga, candy, body pillows and, of course, Gothic Lolita Fashion accessories.
I started my day with the Gothic Lolita dress-up battle. I hadn't intended on going so heavy on the GL theme, but if you've ever been to a festival or convention that serves several thousand people, you know that while you may plan on visiting ten events, you'll probably only get to two or three. This battle involved three women and their own wardrobes, and teams of fellow Gothic Lolitas on a mission to dress them up like living dolls based on themed rounds.
A panel of GL experts and the audience chose who best represented Lolita in "sports," "in the garden" and "at the club" attire, and this was definitely more fun to watch, since it was basically like playing Barbies. While the girls were tucked away in dressing tents putting together winning outfits, we got to see a series of "Shit Lolitas Say" videos that basically brought home this point: If you're not into the subculture, the shit isn't funny.
After the Lolita battle, I got in line with my sister and her bf for the Cosplay contest. There is a lot of waiting in line at these things, too, but the cool part about NDKers is that they are super nice and super polite. And once we reached the main event room, there was still a lot of downtime while the stage was being set up -- which meant I spent a lot of that time staring more at those super-nice people.
Having never read any manga or watched anime or even owned a video-gaming system of any kind, my frame of reference for most of these elaborate costumes was nil. But I enjoyed the elaborate wig stylings, face-paintings and handcrafted tutus, gowns, weapons and staffs, along with the obviously dead-on recreations of favorite characters' body language.
More than fifty contestants in children's, beginner and intermediate categories brought out their best cosplay attire and on-the-spot acting skills for the competition; one woman took her costume to the next level with an opera aria that was just beautiful. These people were in it to win it, and it showed.
The contest was followed by a handful of Cosplay skits: again, a very well-loved and thought-out portion of NDK. Love stories and fight scenes abounded, as did a clear disdain for the Twilight series. One skit involved name-checking famous pieces of literature, followed by a good audience laugh at the expense of Edward and Bella. But it was all in good fun, and the contest didn't seem too dramatic otherwise.
Day two was over for me then -- and I again missed the best part of the day, the late night Masquerave. But if I was going to wade through hundreds of people dressed in costumes (that by day three would no doubt be smelling to high hell), I was going to need my beauty rest. Speaking of the smell, props must be given to the Marriott DTC for not only hosting this event with love and care, but for providing fans and plenty of air-conditioning in every convention room, big or small. It was noticeably cooler and less ripe in the hotel than it had been last year, making it a pleasant experience for all. (I should also note that NDK is well aware of the inherent stinky nature of costumes and the ability for them to get funky fast, so there are explicit directions in the NDK guidebook requiring guests to shower and be aware of their person.)
Day three was another beautiful one outside, which seemed to keep the party perky inside, too. I started with a viewing of the Anime Music Video contest winners' works of art from the day before -- some of these video contributions had been made on the spot the day before in a timed contest. They were top notch mash-ups of different anime series and music, along with original animated creations.
My favorite was the Death Note/My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic storyline collaboration. The names of these two creations alone should give you a good idea of what the anime/cartoon meld was like -- and it was awesome. Again, I had no frame of reference for most of the comedic aspects of the edited shorts, but it was clear from the audience's shrieks of laughter and joy that this was the good shit.
My friend Ean -- who was along for my entire weekend journey -- was excellent at skimming anime and manga history and giving me enough information at each event so that I could follow along. I would highly recommend a guide of this sort, as otherwise it's easy to get lost in a whole population's passion.
I ended my NDK journey at an auction: Watching other people in a battle to out-spend each other is always entertaining. Two women fought dollar-for-dollar on a piece of signed art, only to find that they were friends who just didn't recognize each other from across the room. I thought things were going to get nasty for a moment, but in typical NDK participant fashion, there was nothing but love. Lots of signed posters, scripts and the like went up on the chopping block, with the final tallies raising more than $12,000 for various charities.
The three-day anime convention ended with traditional closing ceremonies, with voice- acting superstars and other industry experts coming to the stage to say one last goodbye. The audience was then taught a traditional Japanese clapping ritual, which we all did together.
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This was the end of my first full-on Nan Desu Kan experience, and it was totally worth it. Being surrounded by experts in a field you know nothing about keeps you humble, and I could always use more of that.