Story and photos by JUSTIN ZACK
Every year in August, the world-famous Tokyo Big Sight in Ariake, Tokyo, turns from unassuming convention hall into a battlefield filled with cosplayers, sweaty otaku (obsessive fan, usually of manga and/or anime) and the odd lost tourist.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Comiket, the world’s biggest biannual fan-made comic convention, with an average of half a million visits over three days. This year, the summer convention was from Aug 14-16; another event will take place in December.
Comiket is the Holy Grail of all things anime and manga. If you have any interest in the two, there is no better place to be. Entrance is free to anyone, but do buy the catalogue beforehand; navigating the halls without it is near impossible.
It all started in 1975 with a circle of friends, including the late manga critic Yoshihiro Yonezawa. Slowly, it grew into the convention we have today, with many professional manga artists like Ken Akamatsu, creator of the widely acclaimed series Love Hina, getting their start in the industry there.
Every iteration of Comiket features a different artist responsible for creating the cover of its catalogue (a highly collectable item). This August saw the return of veteran Kaoru Shintani – famous for fighter pilot manga Area 88 – to print when he took on cover art duties.
These guides generally are only sold two weeks before the event and are notoriously hard to buy if ordering from overseas, mostly because of difficulties in getting the book on time before flying off to Japan. Don’t worry – you can find it for sale at the convention itself, though the catalogue is in Japanese only.
Debuts are common in Comiket, from new anime to manga, games to official merchandise. This year, all eyes were on the early release of Touken Ranbu Kenran Zuroku by Nitroplus, a visual guide to the popular online game Touken Ranbu. For everybody else in the world, the book could only be obtained after Aug 28, but the lucky few (myself included) who braved the insane queueing time and the ¥3,000 (RM106) price tag had the pleasure of leaving Comiket with this elusive book.
It was so sought-after that when a few copies went up for sale at various second-hand bookstores a few hours later, prices tripled.
For all the fan frenzy, there are many accompanying horror stories. Heat strokes (average temperature in summer is 32°C, with an average of 70% humidity in the halls) and getting swallowed whole by the crowd are hazards that keep visitors on constant alert.
Hardened veterans prepare themselves early on; a lot of planning is needed to buy limited-edition comics and posters if you don’t want to go home empty-handed.
Order amidst chaos
But while the long lines can give you cold sweats even in the summer, it is still organised by the Japanese. So that means order within the chaos.
Groups of people walk in formation, led by teams of volunteers. The unknowing observer could easily mistake this for a military operation, with battalions of “troops” moving in orderly fashion.
There is a large number of convention-goers selling their self-published fan comics (known as dojinshi) and most of them only get their spot inside the East Hall for a day; someone different occupies the same table everyday.
The only permanent booths are in the West hall, reserved for big-name anime and game companies like Atlus, Gainax and the like.
But good luck getting to one of those! I tried getting into the booth operated by Nitroplus – the company behind the online games Touken Rambu and Super Sonico. Total wait time was five hours to get into the hall, not counting the two hours of queueing up before the doors opened.
Still, the allure of exclusive convention swag is too sweet to resist for fans. Lines for the halls start as soon as the first train rolls in ... at 5am (the halls open at 10am).
When you do get inside, there are certain rules to follow. The main one is to always follow instructions from the volunteers. When they (politely) ask you to move, you had better. Because there could be literally thousands of people waiting behind you!
Owing to the growing number of foreign visitors, Comiket has an international help desk in the East Hall, with volunteers proficient in several languages; most will know enough of the Queen’s English to point you in the right direction.
Cosplay is taken very seriously at Comiket. Fans from all over the world work tirelessly to perfect their costumes and poses, and stand stock still while photographers line up and snap away. Looking the part is just half the battle; character mannerisms and catch-phrases must be perfected to complete the illusion.
You may think that because of the weather, these cosplayers will dress for it. Not necessarily. Cosplayers in full three-piece suits and army fatigues can be seen within the throng, all for the sake of keeping in character.
Newbies might notice little signs on the floor next to the cosplayers themselves. Those are just Twitter accounts for you to keep in contact with them. It’s considered good manners to share your pictures with them once the event is over. For some reason, Facebook never took off in Japan, but Twitter is used by almost everybody.
The more serious cosplayers even have business cards just in case you ever need a model for studio work; likewise for the photographers. It’s common to see people exchanging contacts in the middle of the busy convention floor.
As mentioned earlier, everybody here has a love for anime and manga, so chances are you’ll make friends despite any language barrier.
Out of the thousands of people there, I stumbled upon 22-year-old Kazuki Soejima, a native who spoke somewhat fluent Bahasa Malaysia, having spent four years as a student here in Malaysia. After exchanging pleasantries, he enthusiastically asked “Dah makan?” before insisting on speaking Bahasa for the remainder of our conversation.
After 4pm each day, Comiket winds down. A bell chimes to signify the end of the day. Almost instinctively, everybody claps. For the volunteers who graciously give up their own time, the cosplayers who brave the sun and stand around for hours, just for that perfect picture.
A most gracious way to end things, in the midst of all the madness that is Comiket.
Just try to keep me away from the next one.