Amid a range of society and sporting events, UCC has played home in recent years to Cork’s only anime & manga convention. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Kaizoku-con director Emmett Fitzharris about the growth of the event.
Anime, the umbrella term for Japanese animation, is a pop-cultural force of nature, rising from cult status to become a mainstream phenomenon in the late nineties, and a staple of television and streaming schedules the world over. Looking at its popularity, and the culture surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that it spent most of the eighties and nineties firmly in specialist/niche territory in the West. College societies intrepidly sourced their own copies of television and film from traders, while fans with minimal understanding of the Japanese language ploughed on with subtitling the tapes themselves. It’s this spirit of community in which UCC’s Kaizoku-con (“pirate convention”) finds its roots. With the artform’s popularity tied into the rise of pop-culture in recent years, director Emmett Fitzharris has seen the popularity of the artform change, beyond its core of support in Ireland. “Anime was hard to find back in the day; outside of the rare anime showing on TV or if you were lucky enough to get your hands on a VHS of Akira or Evangelion, it seemed a rare commodity. A lot of people probably had no idea what anime was before the release of Pokémon, and those that were interested began to realise there was a much larger world of it outside of a show about collectible creatures. Like our blockbuster movies, there is an anime for everyone out there, no matter what genre you are interested in. As new media appeared, and more people gained access to the internet, anime went through a veritable explosion of popularity not long after the millennium. Imported DVDs and manga (comics) began to appear in what would have been considered “nerd” stores, but in no time at all chains like Waterstone’s and HMV were carrying them. Crunchyroll, Funimation and other streaming services have had a huge impact on both bringing in new fans and giving old fans a place to watch their favourites. Even Netflix has put together a pretty decent library of shows. Outside of anime, there was a shift in Hollywood towards nerd culture becoming more mainstream , with the Marvel movie franchises, the reboot of Star wars and Star Trek, and then sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory”. Nowadays, nerd is no longer seen as a somewhat ‘dirty’ word and it is far more acceptable to proudly call yourself a fan of even the most obscure media.”
Kaizoku-con is four years old now, a relatively new entry to the subculture of anime fan gatherings in Ireland that has grown a steady backbone of attendance at college campuses around the country in the past decade or so. Fitzharris goes into its foundations and the challenges faced by the organisers of such an event. “Kaizoku-con was started up by the UCC Sci-fi, Fantasy, Anime and Horror society. The society had attended many conventions around Ireland and England, and as Ireland’s homegrown cons began to develop, the dream of running a convention of our own was an inevitability among the committee. Recently we even found some evidence deep in old fan websites, that the society ran a small event called Con-Fusion as far back as 2003. As comic books, sci-fi and anime began to grow in popularity, so too did the society, and during a particularly successful year, while attending UCC’s resident gaming convention Warpcon, we decided maybe it was time to make that dream a reality. We gave ourselves a year to plan the very first Kaizoku-Con, built a committee from members of the society and began to take the first steps to making sure we gave it our best shot. By the time we came onto the scene, there was already a number of conventions running around the country; so we had to put in a lot of work to build up trust, with guests, other cons and attendees. Thankfully being in Cork turned out to be an advantage for us, as there are very few events like this for fans in the south of Ireland. I think it was landing our first major guest, Johnny Yong Bosch that cemented our place in the Irish convention circuit. Many voice actors are very wary about new cons, so it seemed unlikely he would come. But he did, and to this day, we still cannot thank him enough for taking that chance.”
The anime convention scene has seen changes in recent years in Ireland, however. Relatively successful cons like Dublin’s Nom-con have wound down, and arguably the national centrepiece, Eirtakon, announced its end shortly before the final instalment last year. Meanwhile, games conventions and mainstream comic-book events have become big business. Fitzharris maintains hope as to what happens now to the convention circuit. “We had attended Eirtakon and Nomcon for a long time, and they have had a huge role in inspiring our own event. The closing ceremony of Eirtakon was an emotional experience for us last November. We announced our very first guest on that stage, and it has been the site of many important milestones both for the convention and our parent society. There has definitely been an increase in comic cons in recent years, and there is clearly a huge demand for them. They serve an important role, and in a lot of ways they provide things that smaller fan cons simply cannot. Don’t get me wrong though, fan cons still have a big future as far as I’m concerned. There is a lot to be said for the more intimate and relaxed experience that we provide.”
The conversation turns from there to the topic of guests. Every year, the convention invites voice actors, “cosplayers” who specialise in elaborate costumes of their favourite pop-culture characters, and other personalities. The niche nature of their resumes and renown makes booking them quite an experience. “So far we have announced J. Michael Tatum and Brandon McInnis as special guests. We are not quite ready to reveal the rest of our roster right now, but keep an eye out for some more announcements soon. Regards sourcing guests, in our first year, there was a lot of “cold calling”. We would email lots of guests we were interested in, in the hopes that one would get back to us. Thankfully, things are a lot easier now. Johnny Yong Bosch (former Power Ranger) and J.Michael Tatum took a big chance on us as we were still relatively small and unknown, and we cannot thank them enough for helping us get started. Since then, things have gotten a lot easier. More often than not we have guests contact us instead of the other way around now. Guests often tell us how surprised they are at the difference between Irish and American conventions, especially with how relaxed we are in comparison. To many they are an attraction to bring in fans, but our main focus is to show them a good time, and introduce them to Irish culture. We prefer to think of them as friends rather than simply business partners. Most of them have stayed in contact, and we’re always appreciative of how supportive they have been throughout the years.”
With the mainstream rise of nerd culture as discussed, has come the cultural phenomenon of “cosplay” – the aforementioned art of detailed costumery, emulating favourite characters and personae. Rather than delve into any stereotypes or old chestnuts about escapism, the question in this regard is why Fitzharris thinks it has lasted past any initial fad. “Cosplay is a huge part of events like this, and while escapism is definitely a part of it for some people, I wouldn’t even say it’s a consideration for the majority of the participants. For some it is about pride in one’s own work, others simply paying homage to a favourite show or game, but I think for most it’s the strong community built around it. There are many groups on Facebook and message boards dedicated to planning and designing cosplay. We have had fans messaging in to tell us about their cosplay plans for next year’s convention, from as little as a day after the event ends. Fans meet up throughout the year to work on their outfits together, and it helps only further bring the community together. That sense of community continues long after the convention shuts its doors for the year; this, I feel is the main reason cosplay has such strong staying power.”
While the big guns of American and Japanese culture are revered and discussed throughout Irish nerd culture, what do you think the community has slowly been working to foster and nurture the creation of Irish content and creativity. “Artist alleys have always been an important part of conventions, and through these, the community has definitely gained access to a lot of our home grown talent. While many of the artists do fan drawings from their favourite shows, a number of them have their own graphic novels and it is great to see a lot of them incorporate Irish culture into their works. Whether it’s a story regarding our mythology or a story of a modern day super hero in Dublin, I think the fact that we have this history and culture to work with makes us stand out amongst the big guns. Ireland is also home to a number of game developers who have certainly put their own spin and twist on their projects, bringing us hours of entertainment and often a hint of nostalgia. Most people probably wouldn’t think that there would be call for such things in the Emerald Isle, but there is a lot of impressive talent here at home that can easily stand up to those abroad.
As the time approaches, and with a little under a month to go, Fitzharris discusses his personal highlights of the upcoming festivities. “Riuchi is always a highlight for me, it is a incredible event; a story told through a mixture of skilled movements, dance an and lights. Guillaume and his artistic director Fernando first joined us in our second year, and every year they have wowed and amazed the audience without fail. Our house band, Factotem, is also a personal favorite, playing a set in the bar each year. The band have been members of the society for a long time and it’s always amazing to see them on stage! Outside of the events however, opening the convention itself on the first day is always exhilarating. It can be exhausting and nerve-wracking in the lead up, but once the day actually arrives excitement overwhelms any anxiety and sleep is long forgotten. For the committee, and myself especially, being able to be the ones who provide this experience is the most rewarding part of the entire thing. It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the anime subculture, all of this might seem wildly confusing, or even somewhat alien. Fitzharris tries to summarise the Kaizoku experience for someone that’s never been to an event like this. “One of the best summaries of the convention I have ever seen had actually come from one of our previous guests, Brina Palencia. She told us, ‘Kaizoku-con doesn’t feel like your typical convention. It’s more like just (being) at a pub with your friends, except some of your friends have cat ears and tails. Everyone was ridiculously nice and Cork is beautiful! I would go back in a heartbeat!’ To us, Kaizoku-con is our way of giving back to a community which has been very important to us. We strive to be inclusive, and cater to fans of all ages and backgrounds. From families to convention veterans, we do our best to leave everyone with fond memories and a renewed excitement for all things anime, science-fiction, and nerd in general.”
Kaizoku Con happens on April 7th-9th on the grounds of University College Cork. For more info on guests and tickets, check out their Facebook page.