On June 8-10, 2012, AnimeNEXT was held at the Garden State Convention Center in Somerset, New Jersey.  This event featured Berryz Kobo’s second appearance in the USA.  I was there, sporting a homemade Momochi Twintails t-shirt.

Here are the things I’ll remember most about that weekend.

The Lines

“What’s this line for?”  That’s the question we heard over and over again from passing AnimeNEXT attendees as we waited in various Berryz-related queues.  I think I spent most of my waking hours standing in one line or another. AnimeNEXT had probably never seen so many people lining up so early, and for so long.

As often happens at idol appearances, the lines began forming around 5 AM, even for events that wouldn’t take place until late afternoon.  The AnimeNEXT staff were impressed by how orderly and self-organizing the Berryz fans were, and they did their best to work together with the line makers to ensure that “the list” would be respected (although the transition from the Q&A session to the autograph line didn’t quite work out as planned.)

The one event we didn’t have to line up hours ahead of time for, was the concert itself.  That’s because a few weeks earlier, JHouseRock Entertainment (the concert promoter) sold “premium passes” online for $30 a piece.  That seems like a lot of money to pay for a free concert, but it bought you your own reserved, numbered spot at the front of the line, along with a chance to win a backstage pass to meet Berryz Kobo and get an 8-shot with them.  You also got a nifty special-edition badge with a camo-style lanyard.

Sadly, I did not win a backstage pass; however, I did get the 28th place in line, which was good enough to secure a spot in the front row for the concert!  Thirty dollars very well spent.

The Dinner

While we were in the pre-registration line to pick up our badges on Thursday evening, a bunch of us made plans to meet up at Ruby Tuesday for dinner afterwards.  Why Ruby Tuesday?  Because it’s the only halfway decent, large, reasonably priced restaurant within easy walking distance of the convention center.  (The same reasons we ended up eating there again on Saturday night.)

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I and many other people had no idea Berryz Kobo would be at that restaurant until we arrived there ourselves.

Given that this restaurant is very near the convention site, and attached to a hotel, it’s not surprising that there were convention goers and Berryz fans there.  I’m not sure why the Berryz entourage decided to eat there, when they could have had their drivers take them anywhere else instead.  Maybe there were scheduling constraints, or maybe they just wanted to have an authentic American dining experience (mediocre food at a chain restaurant.)

In any case, although their presence created a buzz in the air, for the most part the fans behaved themselves and left Berryz in peace to relax and enjoy their dinner. Berryz were seated in two adjacent booths along the back wall of the place, and their staff were located at the tables directly across from them.  Furthermore, their section was separated from ours by a half-height wall topped with some intermittent columns, so they did have a little bit of a buffer zone between themselves and most of the other diners.  Even though my chair was facing in their direction, my view of them was mostly blocked by the half-wall and one of those columns, except when they occasionally stood up.  I did see Momo and Yurina once or twice, and I also saw Miya as she walked to and from the ladies’ room.

Later, as they were leaving, they all walked past our section, but they weren’t looking around or waving at fans inside the restaurant, and no one was calling out to them or trying to attract their attention (except for one person standing by the salad bar, who had a brief friendly exchange with Captain.)  I heard that once they got outside, though, some smiles, greetings, and hand-hearts were traded between the girls and a few fans.

The Goods (or lack thereof)

I was planning to buy a lot of merchandise, because the goods were priced so low (except for the CD, which was standard price for a Japanese import) and also because the more you spent, the better your chance of winning the autographed banner that was hanging in the booth.  But I guess everyone else had the same idea too, and since I was #93 in line, by the time I got to the booth there was nothing left but a few CDs.

It turned out, though, that even people who were much further ahead of me in line ended up disappointed.  Apparently, the first one- or two-dozen people each bought truckloads of goods, so some items sold out very quickly.

Not only that, but the line was moving incredibly slowly.  At one point, they split the line, and moved the back half from the dealer’s room (where we were blocking up the aisles too much) to a dark unused hallway between the dealer’s room and the main auditorium.  After they put us out there, I don’t think we moved an inch over the course of the next hour.  I was seriously beginning to wonder if they had forgotten about us.

After much confusion and frustration, we finally started moving again, and eventually I was able to get my CD and the accompanying “priority autograph wristband” (which was not even guaranteed to actually get you any autographs, but would only allow you to get into yet another line the following day.)

So that’s how I spent my Friday morning-to-early-afternoon.  The long wait might not have been so bad if there had actually been some merchandise available at the end of it.   But whoever stocked the goods and set the prices miscalculated badly, and missed an opportunity to satisfy more fans (and make more money.)

I was also disappointed that there were no special items exclusively made for this event; no official “Berryz at AnimeNEXT” t-shirts or photos, for example.  And the signed booth banner they were raffling off didn’t even have the girls’ pictures on it. Overall, it seemed like a rather lackluster effort in the merchandising department.

Momochi!

Unlike last year in Seattle (when she apparently wasn’t feeling well) she was in top form in NJ.  I could tell right away that she was excited to be there, when I saw that her twintails were at their maximum perkiness.

Then when she introduced herself, she said in perfectly understandable yet adorably accented English: “I am number one idol in Japan…  No! No! No! … IN THA WAAAAHHHHLLLD!”

And then there was this gem from the Q&A / Gift-giving session:

Priceless!

The Concert

It was fantastic!  They chose a great set list, and they delivered an exuberant performance.  Being so close to the stage, I could see every little expression that crossed their faces, and catch every fleeting moment when they interacted with each other.  The little winks and funny faces Captain exchanged with the other members… the playful hip-check Chinami delivered during one of the dances… it seemed like they were really happy and having lots of fun up there.  The chemistry and camaraderie they’ve developed over their eight years together was readily apparent, and that really made the show so much more joyful and special.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the sound during the concert was pretty bad, but to be honest, I never even noticed.  I was just so happy to be there, watching a Berryz Kobo performance take place mere feet in front of me.  No negative thought stood any chance of entering my head!

For me, the pinnacle of the concert was Yononaka Barairo.  The song and the dance just radiate joy, so it was a perfect little encapsulation of the entire evening’s atmosphere.

The Meet & Greet

On Saturday afternoon, there was a Q&A panel followed by an autograph session.  I was hoping we’d all be allowed to hand them gifts personally during the autographs (the way it was done in Seattle) but that was not to be.  Instead, people would have the opportunity to give their gifts during the Q&A session.  The rule was that you would have to wait for your turn at the microphone, and then you could either ask a question or say that you wanted to give a gift to one of the girls.  If you chose to give a gift, you would then walk up to the foot of the stage and hand it to whomever you requested.

A lot of people wanted to give gifts.  You might imagine that it wouldn’t be very interesting to sit and watch so many people walk up to the stage and hand over their presents, but it was actually very heartwarming to see how happy and excited the fans were to be able to do this, and how loving and appreciative the girls were toward their fans.  I know some people who put a lot of thought and effort into finding or creating the perfect gifts for their beloved idols, and I was very happy to be able to witness the giving and receiving of those items.  Between that, and the four year old boy who asked Chinami to marry him (and was then ushered to the stage so the two could do a little hand-holding) I must admit I found myself wiping away a few tears at times.

This session also afforded the perfect opportunity for a public presentation of the “USA ♥ Berryz Kobo” banner that so many of the fans in the audience had signed during the weekend.  It was so nice that everyone could be there when the girls received it, and it was a great moment when they all held it up for us.

At the end of the Q&A period, we were told to line up to the right of the stage for autographs.  You would have thought someone had said, “Ready, set, go!” and fired a starter’s pistol… it was a free-for-all as everyone rushed over.

There were some anxious moments for those of us who ended up toward the back, as we wondered whether we had a prayer of making it to the table before the hour was up.  But the girls and their staff worked hard to move everyone through quickly, and in the end, everyone was able to get their autographs.

The girls were seated in order from oldest to youngest:  Saki, Momo, Chinami, Maasa, Miyabi, Yurina, Risako.  When I got up to Captain, we greeted each other, and I said, “Nice to see you,” but either she didn’t understand me, or she didn’t know how to reply, because she hesitated for a second and then just smiled and nodded a little before signing her autograph. Then she noticed my shirt, pointed at it, and asked, “Momochi?”  I smiled and nodded, and she nudged Momo’s arm to get her attention and point out my shirt to her.  Momo looked at it and kind of went, “Oh!”  I actually don’t remember her reaction very well, because I was preoccupied with moving my badges out of the way so she could see it (which, as I think back on it, probably wasn’t even necessary, because I believe the badges were hanging lower than the design anyway. Oh well.)

As Momochi signed her autograph, I told her that I thought she was very funny in Suugaku Joshi Gakuen, and we shared a laugh about “Tomochi”.

Then I moved on to Chinami.  For weeks, I had been planning to try to speak some English with her, but when I actually got up to her, for some inexplicable reason I tried to speak Japanese to her instead (which I really have no business doing, because I haven’t progressed very far beyond the “nice weather isn’t it / where is Ueno Station” phase of my Japanese studies.)  I guess standing in line in the heat all morning affected my judgment.  Anyway, when I uttered the first half of my sentence, she suddenly realized I was speaking Japanese, and she looked up in surprise and anticipation and went, “Oh?” Then as she smiled at me, I confidently delivered the rest of my statement… and I must have completely botched it, because she just sat there with a frozen smile and a look in her eyes that seemed to say, “Ummm… what?”  But she was very gracious as I slinked away in embarrassment.

I don’t remember anything about my encounter with Maasa, but when I approached Miyabi, she looked at my shirt and burst out laughing.  Then when she finished signing her autograph, she made a nyan gesture to me as I moved on to Yurina.

By the time I got to Yurina and Risako, I was completely overwhelmed and dumbstruck, so I didn’t really say much to them; I just smiled and nodded, and then went on my way.

But that wasn’t the end, because the raffle of the signed booth banner was going to take place in that same room right after the autograph session, so we were allowed to sit back down and wait for it.  During this time, we could still see the girls through gaps in the autograph line, and some of them would wave to us when they had a free moment.  At one point, Chinami was looking around and waving to people, and I decided I wanted to get her attention one last time.  So I suddenly jumped up, flailed my arm around vigorously, and shouted, “WOOOO!” And it worked; she saw me and waved back!  She probably thought I was nuts… but she did wave back. 🙂

And no, I didn’t win either of the raffle prizes, although for the smaller item, my ticket matched every digit except the last one… so that was pretty exciting as I listened to Chinami read off the numbers.

The Fans

It wouldn’t have been half as much fun without being able to share it with all the amazing fans who showed up from America, Canada, Europe, and Japan.  With all the great Berryz cosplays… the handmade gifts… the glowsticks… the cheers… and the banner, t-shirts, and notecards that were covered with fans’ handwritten sentiments and presented to the girls… Berryz Kobo surely knows just how much we all love them!

 

Note the America-themed hair accessories… nice touch!