Nerd Culture

Saboten Con 2015 in Downtown Phoenix: A Field Guide to This Weekend's Event

Greg Fennell sounds more than a little frantic and tired. It's only natural, considering the 42-year-old geek impresario has been spending most of his waking hours gearing up and getting ready for the annual Saboten Con this weekend.

Fennell and his wife Stacy, two of the event's main organizers, still have plenty of tasks on their to do list before the four-day convention — which is focused on anime, manga, and Japanese pop culture in general — kicks off on Friday at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel.

“The last few days have been crazy with loading up trailers and getting everything ready,” he says.

And, needless to say, they definitely want things to go off both fantastically and successfully, especially since this year's Saboten Con promises to be the biggest one yet.

The convention, which is is dominated by anime but celebrates the myriad aspects of J-culture in its many colorful forms, has taken place annually since 2008 at various spots across metro Phoenix, including at the Renaissance Glendale Hotel near Westgate in recent years.

According to Fennell, there's a considerable fanbase for anime and Japanese cultural exports in the Valley that's been growing. And Saboten Con has increased in size right along with it.

Over the last seven years, the number of panels and special guests offered at each edition has gotten larger, as has its ever-increasing turnout, which Fennell predicts will be around 7,500 to 8,500 this year, making it the largest event of its kind in Arizona and one of the biggest in the Southwest. (Fennell also organizes similarly themed conventions in both Flagstaff and Tucson every year.)

As a result of Saboten Con's growth, organizers have had to move the event to larger venues to accommodate its crowds.

“Every year we've grown and we've brought in more guests and bigger guests. Our panel spaces have gotten bigger and our main events room is a little bit bigger,” Fennell says. "As we've grown, we've grown out of places and had to move to new locations."

As a result, this year's Saboten Con — which is scheduled to run from Friday, September 4, to Monday, September 7 — makes its debut in downtown Phoenix at the Sheraton and will feature its largest amount of panels, programming, and guests to date.

As with previous editions of the con, a wide variety of subject related to anime and manga, as well as J-culture in general, will be featured, ranging from animation viewing events and cosplay workshops to karaoke, gaming, and more traditional art forms.

"We're a Japanese pop culture convention," he says. "It brings in everything that deals with Japanese pop culture, so we'll have a lot of maid cafes, anime stuff, some kabukis thing going on, even like a little bit of Godzilla. So it's tying a little bit more of the culture in to the convention as well."

Fennell adds that Saboten Con is aimed at anyone who's a fan of any sort of Japanese cultural exports and most certainly those who are into anime and manga.

“There's an enormous community here and we've focused on them and listened to them and brought in people they've wanted to see. And we're focused on putting on a good show,” he says. “A lot of people won't go back to conventions, and that's why you see some events that don't grow in attendance because they don't make people happy for the most part, and what we do is we've got a really strong base and we don't really lose a lot of people on a year-to-year basis. The same people that came last year are coming back this year and we just keep growing from that base because people just love coming to the show.”

And those who are into the Metal Gear video game series and the influential Japanese cartoon Robotech will definitely want to attend this year's con, since two of its biggest panels will be devoted to each.

“We have a bunch of guests from the Metal Gear franchise this year,” Fennell says. “We have Cam Clark, who plays Liquid Snake, and David Hayter, who is Solid Snake, and Rika Muranaka, who was one of the main music producers for the series.”

In regards to Robotech, the legendary sci-fi cartoon that was imported to America back in the '80s, a slew of voice actors from the show are scheduled to appear at a special panel on Sunday afternoon that will celebrate its 30th anniversary.

"It's the big thing that's happening this year. We have all the main voice cast from the original series. No convention has actually done this for 15 years,” Fennell says. “Actually, Robotech is what got me into anime 30 years ago.”

The rest of the activity at Saboten Con this weekend should be just as action-packed as the Robotech and Metal Gear festivities. And if you need some help deciding what to do (or are new to Saboten Con), we've put together a handy guide to event to help you out.

Dates & Times: The official hours for this year's Saboten Con will be from noon until 8 p.m. on Friday, September 4; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 5, and Sunday, September 6; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, September 7. Nightly events and activities (such as concerts and masquerades) will also take place until midnight or later.

Location: The Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel, 340 North Third Street, will host Saboten Con 2015 and its various vendors, events, programming, workshops, and panels.

Admission: Prices vary depending on how much of the con that attendees want to experience. A full event membership covering all four days is $45 in advance, $50 at the door. If you're only interested in attending for single day on either Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, daily admission is $30 in advance, $35 at the door. Access to the final day of Saboten Con on Monday will be $25 in advance, $30 at the door.

A special “Otaku Pass” is also available for $500 and includes a VIP merchandise pack, the chance to attend a private mixer with convention guests, early bird entry into the vendor hall, premium seating for events, free access to one cafe event per day, and other perks. Only 20 passes will be sold, however.

Age Limits: The convention is open to all ages and up to two children ages 12 and under can get in free with a paid adult admission. However, certain adult-oriented programming and panels (like the Bad FanFic Theatre or the Kama Sutra Game Show) are strictly 18-and-over events.

Getting There: Given that this year's event is happening in the heart of downtown Phoenix, you might want to consider taking the train. Various park-and-ride lots are available along the light rail route — including those at 19th Avenue and Montebello, Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road, and Washington and 38th streets — and several light rail stations are within walking distance of the hotel. Fares are $2 for a single ride, $4 for an all-day pass. 

Parking: Since some Saboten Con attendees, including those with more elaborate costumes and gear, might need to drive to the event, there are multiple places to stash your vehicle in downtown. Parking at the hotel itself will run you $29 per day, while rates at nearby garages and lots range from $10 (CityScape, Jefferson Street Garage) to $20 (Collier Center, Chase Tower) per day.

Street parking is also available throughout downtown, but you'll have to pay up to $1.50 per hour from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. If you use the Pango Mobile Parking app, however, you can preselect and prepay various spots in order to avoid the risk of a ticket or having to keep going back and feeding the meters.

Weather: It's going to be hot, but not as hot as you'd expect. The forecast for the weekend calls for daytime temperatures ranging from 90 degrees on Friday to 100 degrees on Monday. Needless to say, you'll want to stay hydrated, especially if you're in costume.

Food and Drink: The Sheraton offers a couple of eating and drinking options for con attendees, including a casual restaurant (District American Kitchen & Wine Bar) and an outdoor cocktail spot (Breeze Bar). If those don't suit your fancy, however, there are also numerous restaurants, bars, and other spots around downtown that are a short distance away.

Exhibitor Hall: Practically anything and everything relating to anime, manga, or J-culture in general will be for sale in Saboten Con's expansive exhibitor hall at the hotel. More than 70 participating vendors and booths at the event will offer a wealth of cosplay items and costuming, as well as artwork, books, DVDs, games, music, books, collectibles, toys, and other playthings.

Programming: To put it mildly, there will be a lot happening at during all four days of Saboten Con, according to Fennell. “We'll have 14 things going on at any given time or any hour of the day,” he says. “You can't get there and not find something interesting that you can have fun doing.” The programming schedule features more than 300 different events, including such pursuits as anime viewing parties, gaming battles, lip sync battles, maid cafes, fan fiction readings, dance parties, trivia contests, animated music video contests, art workshops, and karaoke sessions.

Live entertainment is also planned, such as traditional kabuki performances, karaoke sessions, and concerts by such special guests as Ai Maeda, a renowned seiyuu voice actress and singer of Digimon Adventures fame, and legendary video game soundtrack composer Rika Muranaka, best known for her work on such Konami titles as Silent Hil and both Metal Gear Solid and its sequel, Sons of Liberty.

Special Guests: Speaking of Metal Gear, this year's convention will feature a few special guests connected to the hit video game franchise, including voice actors David Hayter, best known for playing Solid Snake, and Cam Clarke (a.k.a. Liquid Snake). Both will appear along with Muranaka at a panel on Saturday afternoon that's focused on the series.

Clarke is scheduled to participate in the aforementioned celebration of Robotech's 30th anniversary that's scheduled for Sunday afternoon and will also feature voice talents featured on the show, such as Tony Oliver, Dan Woren, Melanie MacQueen, Richard Epcar, and Rebecca Forstadt.

Other special guests at the con will include cosplayers Chris Tang and Liui Aquino, singer Kanako Ito, and artists like Ryan McMurry, Susan Lake, James Perry II, and Aimee Lee Lucas.

Costumes: One of the cornerstones of Saboten Con is the vast amount of cosplay that will take place at the event. Not only are costumes worn proudly pretty much everywhere throughout the event, there will be more than 100 different panels and workshops dedicated to cosplay-related topics. Want to learn how to get into the pursuit and create your own costume? There are several instructional sessions on how you can do just that, as well as tutorials on how to construct armor, learn embroidery, develop a character, build your cosplay self-esteem, stay within a certain budget, network with others, and accessorize with style.

One of the biggest cosplay events of the weekend will be the annual Saboten Con masquerade on Sunday afternoon from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Valley of the Sun ballroom, which will feature skits, performances, and some of the most impressive and elaborate costumes.

As with any event involving costuming, however, Saboten Con requires a certain level of respect for cosplayers, so be sure to ask permission before taking photos of anyone. 

What to Bring: Given that thousands of people will be in attendance at Saboten Con, having plenty of patience and a cool head is ideal. Comfy footwear is also an excellent idea, as is an ID if you'd like to get into any of the adult programming, and a camera to get pics of all the memorable costumes and experiences. And if you're planning to pick up a few things in the exhibitors hall or buy some water from a vendor, cash is always good and an appropriately sized bag to carry your haul is event better.

Organizers also recommend checking out the event's programming guide (either the online or printed versions) before doing anything else, as it will help you prioritize your time.

“Get the programming guide early and start looking through and figuring out what you want to do since there's a lot that happens over the four days and there's a lot of things to see and we run until it gets late every night,” Fennell says. “Find things you like and pace yourself, since you want to make sure you're not doing too much or getting too crazy running around.”

What not to Bring: Since respect is sort of a big thing at any event like Saboten Con, leave any sort of disrespectful, intolerant, impatient, combative, or creeper attitude at home. And while prop weapons are most definitely encouraged, you should refrain from bringing any actual weaponry to the event.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.