SMASH 2018- TL:DR it was fine but 2019 could be great

For the weekend of August 14th-15th 2018, I got to go to SMASH– the Sydney Manga and Anime Show. Have been to every one of them since… 2014? 2012? Saw them at the old Sydney Convention Centre, Rosehill Gardens and now Sydney’s new ICC. Well, the Exhibition Centre part of the ICC (as opposed to the Convention Centre which I assume the ‘CC’ part of ICC stands for)

As an aside, the ICC is an absolutely garbage venue. It is some modern architecture bullshit of looking cool above any sort of functionality. The signage was non-existent and as SMASH has the joy of being on the top level (Level 4&5), you had to go all the way to one end (the west end?) of the building to slowly rise up the sloping staircases/ramps to find the entrance on the opposite side of the building (the east end)? Because simply having the access at the point where you go into the fucking building is too boring.

The part of the venue SMASH was in suffered from being a multipurpose box- as in it was a giant box that can be used ok for any sort of event and is thus not very good for any type of event. It has dirty scuffed floors, no natural light and this very bleak artificial light which didn’t really look nice. Compared to Rosehill Gardens, which as a racecourse are quite pretty, very disappointing venue.

And as an aside to the aside, the drop in food quality/options/prices in the ICC compared to Rosehill was perhaps the worst thing in the new venue. The food vans at Rosehill and their different options made it easily the best food/drink available at a convention in the country.

Now to talk about the actual event. Which I should preface by saying, despite what follows, was overall a pretty good and fun event.

The primary issue with SMASH was how mostly everything was in the one giant box. This included three separate stages, one of which had bands playing on it, meaning that there was a cacophony of noise all through the room. The sounds was also really bad- I stood in front of the stage watching a pretty good band Wasabi Galaxy and couldn’t hear the vocal. But across the hall (behind a “sound containing wall”) I could still hear the base guitar at the gaming area.

Similarly, when I went to the Screening Area, despite being given aset of ear covering headphones to listen to the screenings I could still hear the sound from the main stage bleeding over. And it wasn’t entertaining sound.

I do give SMASH props for their screening set up though. rather than having this big screen with speakers blaring more noise into the room, you surrendered your pass and were given headphones and a radio receiver. Which then let you listen to whatever was being played and moderate your own volume. Then you returned it when you left and got given your pass back.

Well, got given a pass back. Interestingly SMASH didn’t have weekend passes. If you had a weekend ticket and came on Saturday you were given a day pass and had to then line up again the next day and get a Sunday pass. Amusingly, both of my convention companions forgot to bring their ticket print out on Sunday which caused a small delay in checking in.

But yeah- after watching screenings you just got given back a random day pass. I’d be interested to find out whether this system was designed before or after they decided to not give out weekend passes. Because having a mix of pass types would make the system a complete mess.

I was super pleased with the attendance at the Code Geass screening. Was packed full. Good to see that people appreciate quality anime. Also saw a short movie called HoneyWorks and the first couple eps of FLCL. Will talk about those a bit more in my next anime review post (probably).

In general terms, the screening selection was fine. Which given SMASH’s history, is kind of disappointing. I watched stuff for a few hour chunk Saturday arvo and then had nothing of interest in either of their screening rooms for the rest of the convention.

I suppose the elephant in the room was the ticketing failure on Saturday. As with their previous venue changes, the SMASH homebrew ticketing system died on day 1. This meant that despite opening at 9am, people were still waiting to be let in at 11am. One of my companions had planned to rock up at 9am to get in straight away but myself and the 3rd person convinced them that was dumb. Nonetheless, we rocked up at 11am and still stood in line for an hour.

A fairly obvious solution to this would be allowing people to check in and collect passes on Friday night. Aside from lessening the pressure on the big opening and having some people being able to just walk straight in, it lets them iron out all the kinks in the system. And then have a smooth opening the next morning.

Was a bit salty that the presale line appeared to be moving slower than the on-the-day tickets line. I strongly feel that if someone pre-purchases a ticket they should be let in first. Priority/confirmed access is the whole reason you prepurchase tickets.

And I think that’s important for SMASH- I would speculate that they had a smaller overall floor area at the ICC than they did at Rosehill. On Saturday I reckon they were very much pushing venue capacity, you could barely move through parts of the Hall (especially the Artist Alley) there were so many people.

Also the presence of three stages inside the venue and then nothing on the outside… floor area(?)… was silly. Rather than standing in line being bored for an hour, I should have been standing in line listening to the the bands who were on a stage set up outside. Aside from reducing inside noise pollution, encouraging attendees to get some vitamin D and entertaining the people lined up outside; the music may have attracted more randoms off the street to check out the event. Easy and obvious solution.

Despite the number of stages, I can’t recall much of interest happening at them. SMASH had an oddly high proportion of their events being either Guest related or Cosplay related (or for cosplay guests, both of those things). Guests are always hit and miss depending on if you like what they are associated with (and for me, they were all misses) while Cosplay is largely boring and unentertaining hacks (with a few notable exceptions- AK Wirru is a fucking legend).

Although the bands were good and I did like the MC on that smaller stage (not so much a fan of the MC on the Main Stage).

Annoyingly I didn’t get to any of the AMV events… mainly because I wanted to see how many people were actually going to the AMV events? There were like half a dozen of them and I feel AMVs went out of fashion a decade ago. I’d love to know if people actually went and watched them.

Also there was so much Trivia on. There was a permanent trivia set up down the back of the venue and there was something going practically every hour. Too much. I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to go to and ended up doing none of them. I thought it seemed like a dumb use of space but the handful of times I walked past it it seemed pretty full. So maybe it was good.

I found the Panel and Workshop selection a bit bland. Or pehaps just poorly timed. There was one interesting thing on Saturday- a Mahjong Riichi Workshop where the hosts were well intentioned but clearly unprepared for how popular the workshop would be. it was pretty full and they only had enough Mahjong sets for maybe half the people there. Was still a fun workshop.

The only panel I went to was one by the VA Spike Spencer. Mainly because the last English VA actor I saw do a panel was… some american dude… at Manifest 2013 in Melbourne and there was literally 6 people in the audience. Which was really awkward for everyone (the guest, the audience, the organisers). So I wanted to a) maybe stop that happening or b) relish in it if it happened again.

The panel was fine. I guess. Mainly Spike sharing stories and stuff that i wasn’t interested in. Also a chunk of fawning over his 11 month old kid which i suppose is fair enough. I was bored shitless in the panle but the rest of the audience (which was a couple dozen people) seemed to enjoy it.

The rest of the interesting panels and workshops were all early on Sunday morning. But on account of an awesome football match, my recent introduction by convention friends to Produce 48 and rampant alcoholism; we didn’t go to sleep until about 6am and thus didn’t get to SMASH on the Sunday until about 2pm. Thus all those interesting panels lost out to sleep.

That being said, the Sunday content was overall less interesting than the Saturday stuff. And Saturday wasn’t that interesting. I spent like 2 hours watching 1v1 League of Legends with a buddy explaining to me how the game worked. It was kind of interesting but also very one sided so not super fun to watch.

Did a bit of shopping and… well… was also a bit disappointed by that too. The Artist Alley at SMASH has an international reputation for being great- a lot of people come from overseas to showcase and sell their stuff. But something felt super off about it this year. On hone hand, the yuk venue (bad floor, bad lights) didn’t help. The layout seemed fine objectively (like, everything was spaced out enough and laid out sensibly) but at the same time didn’t seem to work well.

But more so than that, the actually art on sale/display was kind of lame. It took meĀ  a while to figure it out, but a friend observed that everything seemed out of date. Like it was all of stuff from maybe 2-5 years ago. (Alternatively, it seems the only recent franchise covered by the art community was Darling in the FranXX). There was also a huge proportion of people doing ‘their art style of famous characters’ rather than the ’emulation of character original style but mixed up with new people or situations’. More generally, I suspect that after buying stuff at the last few SMASH-es, I’ve emptied the well dry of the artists who do stuff I like.

The Exhibitors were fine. The end of convention sales were great, as was the weird inconsistency in some pricing. I got a Konosuba figure and a Gurren Lagann figure at one store that had them listed as nearly 20% cheaper than two other stores AND THEN got a further end-of-convention discount.

This was a very big year for SMASH. As volunteer events struggle across the country (and the commercial ones too), they needed to firmly establish themselves as the Sydney event… especially with the recent confirmation that MadFest is coming to Sydney in 2019. There were also a few rumours of financial issues due to the ICC being a horrifically expensive venue (as well as just a horrific venue).

Taking a step back from my insider knowledge/experience from conventions (which leads me to focus on how things were bad/could be better rather than what was good); I think SMASH have done a pretty good job at the end of the day. Given the situation they were in with the rumours of MadFest, they had to move away from the superior Rosehill to cement them as the Sydney event. Most of the issues were the teething ones of a new venue and should be resolved for the next one. And judging by the packed attendance they should be financially solid for at least one more year (unless there has been some horrific financial mismanagement).

But they need to need to decide if they are going to stick with their market differentiation of Japanese culture or go the broader ‘pop culture’ angle. (Personally, I like their Japanese focus compared to Supanova and Oz Comic Con). League of Legends isn’t a Japanese game and while Indie Devs are cool, they are also not Japanese. They don’t really belong. I think embracing gaming is a must; but Japan is incredibly prolific with their own games and systems so the focus should be on those. And the over reliance on B-level guests and cosplay rubbish (particularly in their panel/workshop areas) is a missed opportunity. Filling that stuff with a broad range of (Japan focused) community stuff makes the event way more interesting and opens the event to attendance by a larger number of people.

In summary:

SMASH 2018- 7/10… but for potential for a 9.5/10 in 2019.

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