Manifest 2008by Mark Sombillo,
The Melbourne Anime Festival, Manifest for short, is Australia's largest and longest running anime convention. Traditionally set on a weekend in early spring, this year marked Manifest's ninth rendition, once again choosing to settle in the beautiful architectural backdrop of the University of Melbourne. For all these years, Manifest has arguably dominated the Melbourne anime convention scene as the local otaku's most anticipated occasion in their event calendar, and no wonder. With its main event shows like Cosplay, Iron Chef AMV and Anime Idol filling up theatre seats in the blink of an eye, its myriad of cultural events providing insight into the Japanese way of life and over a hundred of hours of anime screened non-stop over the course of the weekend, it's plain to see that Manifest has always given what the fans wanted. But after all these years, dissenting voices have grown louder and there's a question that many people are now asking; is Manifest's dream run at an end? I came to Manifest 2008, my sixth ever and my first since becoming part of Anime News Network, to find out just that.
The bulk of Manifest's events occur from the Friday evening, but as I quite enjoyed the festivities last year I decided to attend the Amaranth Anime Ball. Looking back on the night, despite how much it actually cost, I'll say it now that it was worth it. The location was a restaurant in the charming waterfront of the Docklands precinct, a short distance away from the CBD. It offered a night of good food, good company and lots of merry making.
Technically, the Amaranth is the start of Manifest 2008 as it is funded by the convention as much as any other of its events however it's probably the only event that directly earns its keep. Consequently the group putting it together, which comprises of Manifest committee members, actually runs an autonomous committee of their own. This all equates to a very different thing to what you'd expect to see at Manifest. Everyone was very relaxed; from the chats to complete strangers, to the dancing on the floor, all the way to the hosts introducing themselves in rather ridiculous but ultimately entertaining musical soundtracks.
Besides the dancing and the food, the guests were also treated to live performances by GPK singing original material and the Marshmallow Massacre playing cover songs that many of those in the crowd knew and loved. There was also a raffle and something no ball will be complete without; a King and Queen contest. Apart from unfortunate venue problems such as the less than accommodating waiters and an unexpectedly small dance floor, I think the sell out ball of over 200 guests will agree with me in saying that once more Amaranth was a success and my Manifest was off to a good start.
A few years ago, Fridays were generally just the day that Manifest used to let those eager to pick up their badges get in early but apart from some small band performances, you couldn't really call Friday as an event day. More recently however, on top of getting your badge, it's become a half day with actual, fully run events.
It was common knowledge that this year's Manifest's registration system was put under a big renovation in light of the fiasco that was the “Line Ride” last year. Judging things from Friday's performance, I was easily optimistic when I saw the queue moved so much faster, with people at worse waiting no more than 20 minutes. The use of databases meant that once you got to the registration tables, pre-registered memberships clocked an amazingly fast minute or less to be processed.
I didn't have much time to marvel at this seemingly big improvement because although I wasn't committee anymore, I still volunteered my services to run the AMV related events. Soon we were off to enjoying the run-off videos that people submitted for the AMV competition which didn't quite make it to the finals. The screening had a good turn out and it was over all too soon, giving me a chance to more keenly observe how Manifest was looking when we once more emerged out into the registration area.
One thing which I had missed when we first entered was the show bag, from which I generally assumed the program book would be. No convention goer should be without this valuable resource as it lets people know what's going on as well as where they're held with the helpful maps and event information. This was why I was very concerned indeed when I was told that no such book was created. Mismanagement and people leaving their roles are attributed as being the causes of this kerfuffle. Regardless of the reason, the patrons were immediately inconvenienced and even the supplementary schedules printed on the day weren't a 100% fix as they contained un-rectified inconsistencies and worse still, no map. Further to what went wrong on this day, a last minute hiccup with the venue meant that not all the hired rooms were available to Manifest from their advertised opening times, pushing back some events and room set ups.
Other events that ran on this day were the FRUiTs Fashion show and the Anime Idol heats which thankfully ran according to plan. This was to be a pattern for the rest of the weekend where events by themselves ran quite well, but the administrative things behind them were disappointingly lack-lustre. Friday was over, but Manifest was just beginning.
Once more my day starts with the AMV events, this time it was the finalist screening for the fan favourite votes. After getting everything set up to the point where all that was left to do was press the play button, I surveyed the theatre and noticed a distinct lack of audience for what's supposed to be a fan voting event. Delaying things for a few minutes, I decided to check outside to see what the hold up was. I was dismayed to find that the Line Ride was back. The pre-registered members were being handled as expected, but the number of on-the-day registrations seemed to have doubled from last year, possibly in response to the fact that back then, it was the pre-registered line that took the longest to process. Couple this with some minutes lost when the database crashed, and I found myself thankful that I delayed the showing.
Manifest has always attracted some fantastic entries into the AMV competition, both locally and internationally. As the AMV screening got underway, the theatre slowly began filling up and soon had a full crowd enjoying themselves. After the fan vote screenings, the Iron Chef unveiling immediately followed causing further excitement in the air. The contestants were made to edit with their given sources to a song that they picked randomly. Suffice to say, the next 24 hours which they had to create their videos was a task in frustration as they battled sleep, time and an overwhelming urge to inflict pain on the person who gave them the songs, namely me.
After my part in the Events Theatre was done, I proceeded up to the Trader's Hall to scope for some merchandise fantastic enough for me to part with my hard earned cash. Upon reaching it, I very soon found myself squashed in a hall that I would hazard to guess was well beyond its maximum safe capacity. Speaking to one of the organisers, I was taken aback by the fact that had I been there earlier, I would have actually had to wait in a line outside the hall in order to get in. I didn't stay there for long nor did I at this time find something I like because all I was really able to do was inch my way in between gaps in the crowd to finally make it outside and get air.
Soon, I was once again heading to the Events Theatre for the Cosplay competition that was about to start. I was mystified yet again when I found that there was now a new line that had formed outside; this time for people desperate to see the Cosplay show. Lucky for me, press and organisers were being allowed in straight away. As the Cosplay started, it had become apparent that this was a different and admittedly even better event than it has been in previous years. There has always been a strong culture of cosplayers in Manifest so it wasn't hard to get a packed competition. The introduction of a pre-judging session, tighter restrictions on performance times and a more vigilant tracking of the number of people entering the competition ensured that the event ran smoothly and on time and it was obvious that the people in the Events Theatre had a blast.
The same cannot be said however for those that managed to make it only to the streaming theatre. The video was there, but the audio was not. Pretty soon, even the enthusiastic volunteer trying to keep the audience entertained gave up while the techs desperately tried to fix things, leaving the audience to use their imaginations and put words in the silent mouths of the cosplayers they were watching. As this was unfolding, I was also interested to find out how things were progressing in the AFL Grand Final. The schedule indicated that a theatre had been reserved for fans of the national sport, but I was quite dazed to find that the organisers assumed they would be able to find a website out there broadcasting live streams of the game. A few minutes of waiting confirmed for me that I wasn't going to see the game today. And while on the subject of “technical difficulties”, anime screening cancellations seems to have happened frequently throughout the weekend too, adding extra dissatisfaction to the attendees.
As the day wore on, I found my adrenaline fix watching the video games tournament. Soulcalibur 4 was the game I witnessed in which excellent matches, friendly hosts and abundant sportsmanship paved the way for a very good event, and allowed me to leave Manifest for the day on a positive note. A quick peek into the Anime Idol competition happening downstairs and pretty soon, Saturday had come and gone.
The morning event for Sunday Manifest was the ever popular Auction. Anything from someone's no longer wanted DVD collection all the way to complete sets of Manifest badges were up for grabs. Oztaku's Iron Artist competition was the next main event shown, unfortunately I had to give this a miss, though one can say I wasn't entirely heart broken because I was going to the AMV panel. Manifest ran a satisfying range of panels this year that delve into different aspects of the fandom. It was regrettable that the panels theatre were not in a more high traffic area but perhaps with the relative crowds they actually attracted, this wasn't really that big a deal.
At various moments during the weekend, I also popped by the Fan Traders Hall which was located adjacent to the Commercial Traders this year. Although the two halls were next to each other, it was easy to miss the Fan Traders as they were actually opposite to the direction the crowd entered into the building. Thankfully on the Sunday, and I would suspect later on Saturday too, the volunteers manning the Commercial Traders entrance actively pointed out to people that behind them were the Fan Traders. During my visits, there was quite a variety of original and derivative works available for sale and it was nice to see that they were attracting a good number of customers.
By mid-day, the line to get into the convention had just about died out, indicating to me that Manifest didn't quite sell out of passes. This wasn't the case the day before when by mid-afternoon, there was still a full queue of people wanting to get in to Manifest, many of whom were unfortunately being turned away in the end despite already being in line for more than an hour already. As usual, there was a whole heap of cameras flashing all over the place as cosplayers began to converge once again to the Events Theatre for the Cosplay competition.
The previous year's streaming theatres ran via internet connections, however this year's was through a camera which directly connected to the A/V systems in the Old Arts building. This meant that there realistically could only be one streaming theatre whereas any theatre with internet access could have viewed the main events last year. The Events Theatre's stage also felt a lot more cramped than ever before as giant stage lights were brought in, although the placement of the spotlights was well done this year. The sound equipment was also good though it was unfortunate that I wasn't able to interface my gear with it for the AMV events where it would have probably shown its full potential. From what I gather though, vocal cancellation which has become a natural expectation for Anime Idol and Karaoke also wasn't available. In the end lack of communication and pre-planning forced everyone to run with their own set ups and ultimately led to some fantastic equipment being underused.
I popped in now and then while the Cosplay competition ran, but for the most part I utilised this moment of peace to actually see if I could score something good in the Trader's Hall. As expected, the crowd had thinned down to a comfortable level by now, and I was quite thrilled when I finally secured for myself the last of the Haro mascot toys which accompanied Lockon Stratos in the previous anime season's hit series, Gundam 00. I also found myself in the Video Games room frequently as I chatted to guys from Couch Warriors, a local video game club which ran the room as well as the game tournaments.
The Iron Chef AMV competition judging event kicked off soon after the Cosplay competition ended. For most of the Sunday, we were able to secure a free theatre so those who brought their computers in could edit their videos while at the convention. It was quite fun to see the sanity slip away in some of them, but what we witnessed in the big screen during the judgment was nothing less than inspirational. The local crowd would probably be a bit disappointed that another non-Victorian won the competition, but that doesn't sully the fact that the editor was very much deserving of the title of Manifest 2008 Iron Chef AMV Champion.
The Closing Ceremony soon followed the announcement of the winners and before long, we said our goodbyes to Manifest 2008 and another weekend of anime filled fun closed its curtains.
Speaking to several event coordinators, it seems to be a general consensus that each ran their own shows without any major problems. Everything was actually on or ahead of schedule. Despite the news earlier in the year that Manifest was going to be cancelled, time and resource heavy things like Commercial and Fan Traders came in droves and gave the fans the opportunity to splurge on merchandise. Even with the well known internal disputes within the Manifest Organising Committee, they all teamed up and made the promise of a faster registration system come true albeit it did fix only one aspect of a much larger problem. Lastly, even though there were a few anime dropped from the screening schedule, it is commendable that a lot more effort was made to adhere with copyright and classification laws. Manifest somehow held together. Just holding on however is sadly not enough.
There were queues everywhere, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if the average attendee spent a third of their time in one line or another, which is an obvious failing of the venue. The program book was non-existent, with a quickly made version finally circulating by late Sunday afternoon, probably to satisfy the minimum deals made with the sponsors. And on sponsors, it was disheartening to notice very little in terms of their presence. Only Madman and Supanova made it to the badges possibly because of organisational problems in their printing or that there weren't any other sponsors to start with, the latter reason being a lot more worrying. These were just the major foul ups and listing the numerous others that amount to complaining patrons is a waste of word count.
Above all else however, at the risk of editorialising this report, the problem lies at the core culture that Manifest Organising Committee is operating in. This year's estimated 4800 attendees is far larger than the 200 it started with nine years ago and yet the working ethos of the committee has remained more or less unchanged since then. The committee consists of people who want to help, but when you get this big, it isn't just about the number of people you have anymore but the quality they posses that becomes important. On the same vein and with the push for a law abiding Manifest, the concept of “memberships” is becoming more of a hindrance than help to Manifest. The time to say goodbye to the university is long overdue as the convention has most evidently become too big for it. It is saddening to admit but there were times when Manifest became boring, which wouldn't have happened if the committee could focus on more than just surviving.
I enjoyed the events that I went to. The people in the convention have always been where the most fun could be had. Many of the various other activities and shopping opportunities satisfied the anime nerd in me. All of what made Manifest good still existed in there somewhere, but when organisational problems impede people from enjoying themselves all of the good times seem easy to forget. Manifest desperately needs to be brave and restructure itself, otherwise the last memory people will have of it will not be of triumph, but of how badly it failed.
Thanks to Tim, Himeno, Cary-An, Alan, Avi, Emily and the rest of the organising committee for all the help and hospitality and thank you to Biccy for being my photographer and Danielle for being my lacky here and there.