Otakon 2004
Con - Writeup

by Mikhail Koulikov,
When, five years ago, in the summer of 1999, Otakon 6 opened in a new downtown Baltimore location, anime was still a novelty on the American cultural landscape. Anime conventions, for their own part, were few and far between – one or two per major geographic region, no more than a couple per season. For all most of the world cared or noticed, Otakon was just another event filling up a couple of halls and a few function rooms of the Baltimore Convention Center - nothing unique, and certainly nothing remarkable.

Well, the nature of things is to change. The big things change, the little things change, and everything in between changes. America in the summer of 2004 is not America in the summer of 1999, anime fandom now is not anime fandom then, and for its own part, Otakon has changed too. Has grown, has expanded, has lost some events and gained others. From a global point of view, the big thing about Otakon 2004 was that it finally - inevitably - outgrew the BCC – but that was also merely the most obvious feature, by far not the only.

Five years of trying out different floor configurations has come to mean one thing - that the current Otakon room layout is tried and true. The dealer's room, videogame room and artshow/artist alley are all in halls that are more than adequate for them, and seem to allow at least another couple of years of growth. Unlike other conventions that still rely on airwalls to separate larger spaces into function rooms, each one of Otakon's panel and video rooms is in fact a separate space, and there is thankfully no sound bleeding whatsoever. As far as the size of the rooms goes, it's a tough call, and things could easily have been much worse than they were. Panel attendance - for all types of panels, whether they be voice actor interviews, company announcements, or fan-led discussions of topics of interest – was excellent, but at times, it also felt like a thousand extra attendees, not a large number given that the total attendance was in the neighborhood of 25,000 would have pushed the situation from merely occasionally unpleasantly crowded to full-out chaotic. However, and the Otakon program staff definitely deserves applause for this, panel and video room content itself was many things, but never boring. In terms of its video scheduling, Otakon solidly bucks the trend. Whereas other conventions increasingly show licensed titles only, the Otakon video schedule included a variety of unlicensed titles, both classics like Alakazam the Great and more recent titles like Hunter x Hunter and Cromartie High. Limiting several of the seven video rooms to specific types of content (music videos and fan parodies, children's shows, classic anime) was an excellent idea as well. And, as Otakon is not merely an anime convention but the "convention of otaku generation", there was also a surprising - and pleasing - amount of live-action content that was not limited to Japanese, Hong Kong, and Korean films, but also included recent Thai and Indian (a first for Otakon) features. The panels themselves ran the range from relatively sober discussions of weighty topics like fairy tales in the works of Hayao Miyazaki and the back-and-forth relationships between philosophy and anime to the requisite - and very, very loud - yaoi and hentai discussions.

With its combination of a downtown location and attendees scattered over multiple hotels, Otakon is unique. The word of advice goes out to all Otakon attendees, and every year, as more and more hotels are added to the convention room block, it bears being restated. Otakon means you will have to walk, and walk a lot. From the hotel to the convention center, from the convention center to restaurants, from the restaurants to the hotels your friends are staying at. In fact, by now, the convention center itself, the ten or twelve official convention hotels and the dozens of restaurants and eateries that are overrun by attendees starting Thursday evening are spread out over a square of downtown Baltimore that is at least ten blocks long on each side!

One thing that definitely makes Otakon unique is its size, or rather the benefits of its size, The first and foremost effect of last-year attendance numbers that approached 20,000 is that for this year's convention, the organizers were able to attract guests that went beyond being merely household names. Currently, L'Arc~en~Ciel is probably the single most famous active J-rock group out there - and when, working together with Sony and Tofu Records, Otakon was able to invite them for a concert, this announcement immediately made Otakon the preeminent Japanese popular culture event in the United States. No surprise, then, that while most of the attendees came in from the states of the Atlantic seaboard, others flew in from across the country, and even from Europe. Trying to squeeze the concert into one of the BCC function spaces would simply not work, for reasons of acoustics as much as crowd control. But, again, the effect of such a high attendance and the associated revenue means a whole new range of options, and the downtown location means that options can be exercised, not merely considered. And the 1st Mariner Arena, located only two blocks away from the convention center, fit Otakon's requirements perfectly.

So there is that; what started eleven years ago as a small gathering of fans in a Days Inn in a Pennsylvania college town is now, according to Otakon publicity materials, the second largest repeating event in the Baltimore Convention Center, and, from all appearances, the largest annual gathering of otaku, anime fans, and simply all those interested in Asian popular culture in the United States.

And the thing is, no matter how huge, how memorable, how awesome Otakon 11 was, there is no reason to assume Otakon 12 will not be bigger, better, and cooler.

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