Last year we sent our Costume Contest winner to @AnimeExpo. Here’s what happened!

Each year we try to come up with creative prizes for the Florida Anime Experience Costume Contest.  In 2013, our Grand Prize was trip to Los Angeles to compete in the Anime Expo® costume contest.  The winner, Ben Albert, wrote a short article about his experience – so we thought we’d share it!  Check it out and check back soon (as we will be announcing the grand prize and rules for the 2014 Costume Contest.)

At Anime ExpoIt’s funny; the one major overlooked advantage to a giant mecha cosplay is that no one can tell what you are feeling or thinking. Expressions are hidden under a half-helm and body language is muted under layers of plastic. So, by the time Florida’s Anime Experience 2013 costume competition was underway, outwardly GaoGaiGar sat stoic and pensive as it hunched over, supporting itself with weapon of choice, Goldion Hammer. Inwardly, I was anxious and probably dehydrated from sweating bullets. Slowly the categories were called and winners announced, and after what felt like eternity, the winner of Best in Show – holding my breath, hoping – GaoGaiGar, King of Braves by none other than myself, Bennie Albert. I think I squee’d and my smile beamed like an otaku in Akihabara – again, thankful for that one overlooked advantage.

Months of hard work for this moment, for this prize: a paid plane trip, hotel room and tickets to Anime Expo in California, the largest anime and manga convention in North America, and what the majority of North American otakus wish to someday attend. But not only did this serve as a weekend getaway, it was a mission that I chose to accept: I would represent Florida cosplayers in the California circuit; specifically AX’s Masquerade. Of course, such missions usually call for a partner, and I couldn’t be happier to have one within my girlfriend, Shirley – she is also my handler and official hammer holder; I honestly can’t think of anyone who would put up with even a fraction of what she does, and I owe her so much of my thanks for that. So together to California!

But first order of business, how to get GaoGaiGar there. Luckily, certain united packing shippers don’t ask questions when you are shipping mecha pieces across the country. Shipping container contents: 1 Brave Robo

GaoGaiGar ready to ship

After a pre-extended stay in sunny California, Anime Expo came on Fourth of July weekend. What better way to celebrate the independence of this country than by immersing yourself in the culture of another. And like all conventions, the sure fire way to confirm you are in the right place is the sudden influx of otakus in costume. And what a crowd it was! Even for pre-registration tickets, the line extended out in loops and waves, back and forth. It is a jarring realization just how small we are!

AX Main HallEven before the official opening of the con there was so much activity and so many impressive costumes and cosplay – some from obscure anime, manga, and games, and others that took it old school. People who just met had conversations as if they knew each other for years. Regardless of what interests you within the anime culture, there were so many people who would share your same interests. I always felt the mecha community in south FLA was always lacking, or so obscure I couldn’t even find it; but at AX the mech community is strong and I had so many people compliment and fawn over accessories and items I had on my person that I did not otherwise get back home.

Though I have to admit, the minutes just before the official con opening, and when the doors to dealer’s room open, are extremely tense. It’s just a hoard of us at the base of the stairs waiting, talking, anxious. Then finally the signal was given and the flood gates opened. We swore we thought we would be trampled! Luckily, the wave of otakus move in uniform fashion, so no one was left trampled under hurrying feet.

The dealer’s room, which was an experience that can only be topped by actually going to an anime convention in Japan. Four whole days, and we still don’t think we managed to cover everything. Most on the conventions we have attended prior could probably fit in the dealer’s room alone. It was also the first time we were able to get AX exclusives straight from AX. We hope it wouldn’t be the last time.

One major downside to Anime Expo however, is that there were far too many panels we wanted to attend, and many of them happened simultaneously. Ultimately we had to pick and choose, and while we enjoyed every panel we did manage to attend, we still kicked ourselves wondering how the other ones could have been. We also established quickly that AX is a “con of lines.” You don’t always have the luxury to just walk in a panel to see how it’s going. Some industry panel lines extended down the hall, around the corner, out the back double doors, swerving around a few times outside the convention building. And even though we may have been a half hour early, we wouldn’t be able to get a seat until 15-20 minutes after the panel had already started!

We did agree that it was still worth it. We were able to witness huke, the Japanese illustrator for the original Black☆Rock Shooter, draw live. We also listened in to GoodSmile representative as we salivated to upcoming merchandise. There was even the Gundam Unicorn panel, with surprise guest Michael Sinterniklaas, and I kicked myself over and over since he is the English voice actor of Gai in GaoGaiGar and I was nowhere near my costume. At least I caught him at a later date at another convention while in costume. After that panel a raffle was had to get a signing by one of the directors of Gundam Unicorn; Kazuhiro Furuhashi. I was one of the lucky few to win! But I handed my winning ticket to an all female Gundam cosplay group to get their already Gundam actor signature laden Haro signed. Luckily, my girlfriend also won shortly after me, so no loss on my part. I got my Gundam shield backpack signed, and he was very impressed by it considering most others were just having DVD’s signed.

Myself at the Gundam Unicorn DisplaySo while the first few days of the con was fun, exciting, and a whole new experience, the Masquerade event made me buckle down for some serious business. I went over my costume with a fine toothed comb to make sure any damage from the shipment was repaired and even did some last minute paint touchups after a quick run to Home Depot.

If I thought maneuvering through previous conventions was tough, at Anime Expo it was nearly impossible. Me and my girlfriend found ourselves stuck near the cosplay repair area for a good few hours that day; though that was good fortune in disguise as I had to make quite a few stops there for impromptu repairs. And lucky for us, the cosplay sets were nearby! They were very well done, quite a few sets, as well as enough space for everyone. No one was rude or cut in on any sets with shoots. But when I got on a set, I was usually surrounded by crowds and lights that flash constantly. Again, still very thankful for my girlfriend/handler who would hold a 35 lb hammer throughout the day with no complaints. This was very fortunate, because it made her easy to spot in a crowd when I was swarmed, the hammer serving as a beacon. I am impressed and still don’t understand how the other huge costumes there do it.

While I waited for judging I got to meet and talk shop with cosplayers from all over the country, which is always something I look forward to. Finally after a lengthy judging process, video interview and rehearsal it was finally time for the event. Backstage I was so nervous my helmet was fogging up. My feet ached from being in my suit for so long and I received a better understanding for women in heels. I was sweating bullets, nervous, and anxious; once again thankful that my helmet prevent anyone from noticing. Due to the size of my costume I had to be lifted onto the stage by two wheelchair lifts stacked next to one another and I only just barely fit inside the lift!

When Kyle Herbert, the events MC called my named I slowly and carefully walked onto the stage. Falling now would be the most embarrassing moment of my life for sure! The GaoGaiGar theme song started playing as the lights came up. The crowd cheered as I went through some of the mechas signature attacks and poses. When the right moment in the song arrived my girlfriend rushed onto stage with my hammer weapon and gave it to me. I swung the giant 35 pound weapon menacingly at the crowd several times. My arms started to shake from the combined exhaustion of the day and I was praying that nothing broke on the costume while I was on stage. The song ended and the crowd cheered as I struck a final pose before bowing and leaving the stage. Once backstage I quickly removed my costume as I feared I was in danger of passing out! After all the other participants had preformed it was time for the awards! I was so excited that the Judges had picked my suit as “Best Intermediate Craftsmanship”! Not bad at all for my first time competing at such a large convention with so many skilled cosplayers! Mission success with minimal injuries.

Afterwards, we enjoyed the little time left of Anime Expo that weekend, wishing we could have done everything. But doing everything is nearly impossible, and we understand why one would want to go back the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that. While this was our first trip ever to AX, we have no intentions of letting it be our last. Our goal will be to one day hold the “Best in Show” award – looks like I better start building that next mecha.

We would like to thank everyone who made this trip possible. The collaborative effort between FAE and the AX staff, and of course the judges and attendees who felt that I had a chance for glory among the elite at Anime Expo 2013. That is motivation enough for me to continue and try again.