Saturday, December 8, 2018

Sangawa Project brings a relaxing anime convention to Downtown Pittsburgh

I love all the geeky things to do in Pittsburgh and my all-time favorite is Tekko, the region’s #1 Japanese pop culture convention. The organizers of Tekko, the Pittsburgh Japanese Culture Society, host a sister event called Sangawa Project. Unlike Tekko, Sangawa is 18+ and has previously been held in a venue too far away for me to justify attending. This year, Sangawa was held right in the heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, so it’s time to check in with Pittsburgh’s anime convention for adults.

Disclaimer: I received free admission to Sangawa Project 2018 courtesy of the Pittsburgh Japanese Culture Society.
Opinions are my own.

Tekko is a massive experience filled with so much to see and do and so many people you’ll never see the same person twice while stepping over each other to get anywhere. Sangawa is the exact opposite. It’s small and intimate and a great place to have a more eloquent discussion about children’s cartoon shows from Japan.

Before I go any further: as a convention for adults, Sangawa is known for its events surrounding drinking. They’re more creative than just a big open bar and do feature Japanese beers and wines and they always have long lines. But I am not a drinker so I have no experience with these particular events.

The hotel lobby was filled with Japanese arcade games provided by Tokyo Attack. They were mostly rhythm games and not my cup of tea, but they definitely added to the atmosphere throughout the weekend. There was also a small room full of console games and a tabletop game room - although that one was tucked away in a different hallway so I’m not sure anyone even knew it was there.

There was also a vendor area, but it was only four vendors due to spacing limitations. You could pick up figures, blind boxes, cards, Japanese sweets, and other such fun doodads. I personally didn’t buy anything, but it was a good group and they were fun to talk to. For me, anime conventions are all about the panels.

The first panel I attended was Cool Japan, hosted by anthropologist and otaku mastermind Charles Dunbar. It covered a lot of different ground on how Japanese pop culture first became “cool” in the west, including content from previous Dunbar panels and even hitting on subjects from both of my previous Tekko 2018 panels. Dunbar is a super knowledgeable guy who always pulls the most obscure pieces of pop culture out of the past and relates them to every decade imaginable. I could listen to him read the back of a ramen cup.

I was apprehensive about a panel called Anime for Big Kids as I thought it was going to be about adult/mature themes. Turns out it was actually about the coming of age genre in anime and many of the associated tropes and themes present throughout the coming of age anime and manga. It was really informative - the panelist really knew what she was talking about - and there were plenty of recommendations for anime and manga that I want to check out now.

On Saturday we got in late to Charle Dunbar’s second panel, Anime Mythology: The Third Impact. We missed the first half, but it seemed like an anime look at mythic storytelling archetypes conceived by Joseph Campbell and others. A lot of stuff I’ve heard before, but usually not related to anime and manga. Also, as I said, Charles Dunbar could make a high school paper that I wrote more interesting.

Then we headed to Who’s This For? - Demographics and You which was presented by a friend of mine named Cynthia. It was all about the different demographics in anime and manga and what their themes and tropes are. I’ve obviously heard of words like “shonen” and “BL” but I never really thought about how the demographics and the content aren’t always the same and often reflect on different things. Plus it’s always fun to hear Cynthia talk about pretty boys.

Saturday evening was a special main stage event with the guest that cemented my desire to attend Sangawa: Tony Oliver, writer and producer on Power Rangers and VR Troopers talking about the origin of Power Rangers and revealing some never before seen footage.

As a hardcore Power Rangers fan, I definitely know my fair share of behind the scenes history on the creation and production of Power Rangers. Often, panels on Power Rangers just reiterate what I already know. But when you get the guy who was there from the beginning you’re guaranteed to get stories that’ll blow the minds of any fan.

A friend of mine saw Tony Oliver give a similar presentation at Tekko many years ago, and he always talks about “Tony Oliver’s laptop” like it’s a mythical item hidden at the end of an RPG dungeon. I finally got to see this laptop in person and let me tell you it truly is a thing of legend.

Tony showed us three versions of the original Mighty Morphin pilot. One of which aired as “The Lost Episode” in the 90s, but it was heavily edited then. We saw the original version, plus another version that I’d never heard of that is set in Ernie’s Juice Bar instead of the Lost Episode’s bowling alley, but still featured some violent bullying by Bulk and Skull - and by the Rangers themselves.

We also got to see the final auditions of the original cast, including their acting and physical performances. We also saw licensing promos and featurettes produced back during Power Rangers mania. He also took questions and told stories that I’d never heard before. He even explained that the Red Ranger’s name was changed to Jason because it sounded cooler than his original name: Victor. I’ll never forgive him for that.

On Sunday, I attended a panel on Wolves & Werewolves in Anime that also went into the history and mythology of wolves in Japan. I’d always seen wolves depicted in anime, manga, and tokusatsu - but I had no idea that wolves were completely extinct in Japan. That really puts a new perspective on any wolf I’ve ever seen in Japanese media.

After that came my panel, Power Rangers: 25 Years Later. I can’t really review my own panel but I will say the crowd was smaller than I thought a Power Rangers panel at a con where Tony Oliver was a guest would be. Then I checked the schedule and realized his autograph session was at the same time. I probably couldn’t have done anything about that. It was also the very last panel of the con so a lot of people were probably already headed home.

So that was Sangawa 2018. Can I just talk about how awesome the venue was! The Drury Plaza Hotel offered free WiFi, free popcorn, and free soda - to anyone! Regardless of whether or not you’re a guest, there wasn’t even an attendant. Free popcorn!!! In addition to the usual morning breakfast, in the evening there is a free dinner. FREE DINNER!! The architecture and decor was also just a lot of fun to look at, more than the usual convention center and even more unique than the average hotel. I never saw an actual room but I heard they were super nice too.

The event wasn’t perfect. There was only one panel room plus the main events room, which was awkwardly laid out with a huge pillar right in the middle of the audience. The lack of panel space resulted in fewer things to do for attendees and fewer opportunities for panelists. I’m glad there was free WiFi because I got a lot of work down between panels, but ideally you want attendees to always be engaging with the event’s content.

While there was significantly less content than most conventions of this sort, I still had a lot of fun at Sangawa this year. I attended some cool panels, caught up with some friends that I only ever see at cons, and overall had a great weekend. Is it the life-changing experience that many cons have been for me in the past? No. But it was still a good time and a lot of fun for any anime fan - as long as you’re over eighteen.