Downtown Pittsburgh's Tekko gathering celebrates Japanese pop culture
At a time when comic books are as mainstream as it gets (like Hollywood-blockbuster big), science fiction keeps getting lapped by actual technology and fantasy swords and sorcerers are somehow cool (thanks, “Game of Thrones”), it's hard out there for a geek. How can you keep feeling marginalized when you just keep winning?
Well, the frontiers of nerdiness may rapidly be closing, but there's still a whole world of Japanese pop culture out there to geek out on.
American interest in this isn't new, of course. But it's a measure of how big and how durable the interest has gotten that the Tekko convention — formerly Tekkoshocon — is now in its 13th year. Last year, it drew at least 5,000 people to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and 7,000 are expected this year, on the weekend of April 16 to 19. It's evolved so much, embracing so many different strands of Japanese pop culture, that it's easy to forget that it started as a convention mostly for Pittsburgh-area anime (Japanese animation) geeks.
“We want to get out of the mold that it's an ‘anime convention,' ” says Jack Varney, a retired professional promoter and marketer who's trying to help expand the appeal of the all-volunteer-run Tekko. “That's a component, but there's a lot of gamers. We have a huge gaming room. A lot of gamers wouldn't go to an anime convention.”
Bridging the great geek divide, then, is a goal for Tekko.
“Now, there's a much more general acceptance of geekdom,” says Pete Gaudoin, CEO of the Pittsburgh Japanese Culture Society, which puts on the Tekko convention. “It's different than when I grew up (in the late '70s/early '80s). Now, it's a whole community of people who spend hours and thousands of dollars on costumes.”
“Back in the day, you only had drama club. Now, you have meet-ups where people get together and dress up. Thousands of like-minded people to share what they love.”
The people-watching is sort of unparalleled, unless you count the Anthrocon (Furry) convention, another annual event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
The chance to dress up like favorite characters from “Evangelion” or “Fullmetal Alchemist” or hundreds of other Japanese movies or shows or manga (thick novel-like comic books) is one of the biggest draws to Tekko.
“When you look at a convention like this, you're looking at a group of mostly introverted people,” Gaudoin says. “This is an opportunity — they can get the videos online, now, play games online. This is a place they can come and be themselves with peer-to-peer interaction. Where else can you do that, but at a friend's house.
“The cosplay (costumes) is getting huge. I think people are doing it to be able to role-play their favorite characters. If you're an introverted person and into anime/manga, this is an opportunity to escape to that world, by dressing up and showing off and being proud of it. A lot of people go to the costume shops, buy the material and sew their own. ”
Anime has been crossing over to the States since “Astro Boy” and “Speed Racer,” but now, there's a lot more to choose from.
“Japanese culture, they've taken animation to the next level,” Gaudoin says. “Their prime time shows are animated. They have very drama-centric animation in Japan, with very elaborate storylines, things you'd see in live-action series, addressing human nature. The only limit is the writer's imagination.”
Another recent change is the rise of slickly choreographed, video-friendly Japanese and Korean pop music (J-Pop and K-Pop). Thanks to the Internet, there are pockets of fans all over the world.
“Tune in Tokyo, the dance group, is coming in for the dance competition,” Gaudoin says. “Rookiez is Punk'd don't do many shows in the U.S. They're part of Sony Music — really big in Japan.”
Tune in Tokyo is a pair of promoter-DJs who, in 2008, started a monthly dance event for Asian pop in Los Angeles, likely the first such event in the States. On a different note, ROOKiEZ is PUNK'D is a punk-influenced, three-piece guitar rock band from Japan. It does the theme music for the animated series “Durarara!!” and has songs in many other shows and video games.
Other special guests include J. Michael Tatum, who does the voices for a lot of English versions of anime series and games. There's also model-blogger RinRin Doll, whose costumed appearances at conventions — in the elaborate Harajuku style — ended up netting her modeling gigs in Japan and all over the world.
This year, there's also a “Tekko Gakkou” (School Series) to broaden the connection with Japanese culture a bit, exploring things such as Japanese history, food, school life, fashion and subcultures.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.