Sunshine. Fresh air. Flowers. These are three things not always associated with the fandom community. But they were out in force this past weekend at the annual Sakura Matsuri Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. This yearly tribute to Japanese culture brings out the fans in droves, and along with them cosplay, gaming, and a healthy love of all things Japan. It’s a lot like a con, just outdoors.
The Matsuri does differ from an event like Anime Boston: first off, there is very little commercial presence aside from the Kinokuniya tent and a few artists. Second, there is no fan programming- all the events are scheduled by the organizers and appeal directly to Japanese culture on the whole. So no forays into show appreciation, but plenty of music, art, samurai drama and geek-specific comedy, with cosplay events broken up over two full days.
I attended this year on Saturday only, so I missed out on the Masquerade (the streak continues!), but I did manage to catch Samurai Sword Soul, some of the musical guests and the always hilarious Uncle Yo as he debuted some seriously funny new material. I also wandered the gardens for a few hours, taking in the meticulous crafting and aesthetic of old Japan that permeated the festivities and brought out a good deal of cameras.
Culture on display. While cons are often criticised for placing less emphasis on the Japanese aspects of the event, Sakura Matsuri’s central focus is bringing new appreciation to some of the “less visible” aspects of Japanophilia. Between game demos, cultural goods and demonstrations the event was a wonderful portal into the wide world of J-culture, beyond anime and manga.
Stuff for geeks to do. Even with the focus placed squarely on Japanese culture, there were plenty of ways for fans to express themselves. Manga demonstrations brought out skilled artists to teach tips on better drawing. Voice actress Veronica Taylor from Pokemon fame spent an hour voicing characters and giving insights into her work. And Karl “Uncle Yo” Custer headlined a stand-up showcase that pondered the popularity of Pokemon, Godzilla’s reactions when visiting New York City and a look into the past of fandom.
Natural beauty. Seeing how crowded the Japanese garden was all weekend, this goes without saying. One downside: the Cherry Blossom trees bloomed weeks ago, so instead of an ocean of pink, it was mostly a sea of green. Blame that on the mild winter.
Samurai Sword Soul. Deserves its own bullet. Kendo masters and choreographers create this unique show each year, usually telling a classical folk tale or some important drama from Japanese culture, then put it on using a variety of flashy sword moves, minimal scenery and costumes and a lot of appreciative overacting. Comic at times, serious at others, this is a true highlight of the weekend for many: the floor was packed to capacity, standing room only. The performance changes yearly.
All told, Sakura Matsuri (and festivals like it across the US) are a great way to experience the rich cultural history and beauty of Japan, without some of the general insanity that comes with anime cons. There really is something for everyone, and its hard to be bored at such a weekend. At the very least, its a chance to wander the gardens and take in the splendor of nature, then watch people whack each other with swords for your general amusement.