Otakon 2009
Con Sketching Blog

by Evan Miller,

Con Sketching: Otakon '09 Day 3

Apologies, everyone: my camera decided to cease functioning on Day 3. As a result, this entry will be more "texty" than the previous ones. Don't worry folks - we'll get through this together.

Quote of the Day

"It's like everyone ran away as fast as they could. It's sad."

- anonymous congoer
commenting on how fast the Baltimore Convention Center cleared out

In a word or two

Convention was: pretty swell
worked hard
Artist Alley drama: mostly nonexistent
Food: crab cakes
Mostly friendly
People walking around with the "you lost the game" sign:
forever single
Weather: warm, sticky
Guests: awfully friendly
Next year?: hell yes

Con Review

At Anime Expo, we talked quite a bit about the noticeable decline in industry attendance at conventions. Otakon was no different; at this point, it's pretty easy to tell that the North American Anime Industry is barely scraping by. While it is important to discuss this issue, another change in the air caught my attention at Otakon, and that is what I'd like to cover here.

It all began on Saturday morning, as I found myself dashing through the hallways of the Baltimore Convention Center, coffee in hand, trying to make it to the Naomi Tamura panel that I was asked to report on. Expecting a pretty full room, I ran as fast as I could, worried that I wouldn't be able to get a seat. I ran into the room just as the panel began... and the sound of the door I opened echoed across the room. Before me stood a room with no fewer than 600 seats. At most, only 60 were filled. As Tamura put on a winning smile, her manager looked flustered and began asking her client questions - the kind of questions that a larger audience would ask, perhaps. As I recalled the Lolita fan panel I hit on day one, where it was impossible to find a single open seat, I began to wonder just what has happened to the North American fanbase for anime. How come fan-run interest panels had lines flowing out the door, but Guests of Honor from Japan weren't able to come close to filling their rooms?

I still don't know the answer to this question, but I feel like I got a hint about it as I attended the con feedback session on Sunday. As people lined up to offer praise and criticism, the second person in line registered a quick complaint about panels: "I was going to attend the Bleach panel on Saturday, but it turned out to be a 4chan panel," said the congoer, clearly distraught that the 4chan nerd army had rained on their parade, asked that it never happen again. After the Programming staff apologized to the congoer, the next person in line stepped up to register his complaint: "Why did you guys shut down the other 4chan panel?" he asked, in reference to a different panel that was shut down because it featured adult content, but wasn't marked "18+" on the schedule.

If Otakon showed me anything, it is that anime fandom in this country has reached a turning point. Gone are the days of everyone knowing who Ranma-chan is and why "Dirty Pair" has nothing to do with those Hanes briefs you wore yesterday. These days, anime conventions feel more like a melting pot of fan groups wrestling for the right to define just what "anime fandom" represents. People aren't coming to conventions just to see Guests of Honor anymore; they're here to meet with people in their circle of choice, put on a panel about who they are and what they do, and see how it goes. It's not that all of these fans are egotistical drama queens (although I will say that the 4chan-ers are doing a crappy job at staying "anonymous") - they just want to be recognized for who they are.

Ironically, the person who put it best this weekend was Kannagi director Yutaka Yamamoto, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing on Saturday Afternoon*. As we discussed the changing shape of the fan community, he offered a solid interpretation of the crowd at Otakon. "In Japan, otaku tend to split into their own groups and there's little interaction," said Yamamoto. "Here, everyone seems pretty happy having this convention cover everything - anime, J-pop, internet subcultures, and so on." I think the director is onto something here. Even though the convention has become clique-ish, people are still here to do what they always have: interact. Some groups (lamentably) prefer to do this by holding panels to get attention, but in the end, there's still a lot of crossover between groups. It's still remarkably easy to make friends at Otakon. If you are the kind of person who has no friends, congratulations - there are groups of cosplayers, net addicts, artists and other groups vying for your attention.

Otakon's staff has gone out of their way to keep this show fan-friendly. The events of the weekend were geared towards making sure that everyone had a good time, and everyone went home happy (if the lack of huge complaints at the con feedback session are any indication). Although some people complain it is "ghetto," Baltimore's friendly atmosphere certainly helped as fans took over the Inner Harbor and chatted away with passers by, who were left to wonder just what was going on in the middle of their city.

The challenge for Otakon going forward is this: to keep bringing Guests of Honor that the fans will rush to see, but not upset the balance between the fan circles who pack the convention hall every year. Although the industry is in a rough spot, I have the feeling that Otakon will continue to be a place for fans to gather, have fun, and learn more about each other. You might not like every single kind of fan at the show, but it's still pretty certain that you'll have a good time.

*this doubles as my excuse for why my panel reports were late on this day. ^-^

Con Sketching: Otakon '09 Day 2

A quick shout out to these random fans I found in the hallway, who were more than happy to have me join them for a few rounds of the card game We Didn't Playtest This At All. If there's one thing I love about Anime cons, it's that you can walk up to random groups of people you don't know, say "can I join in whatever the hell you are doing?" and usually they'll let you.

For the record, I almost won the second round when my opponent was eaten by a shark. The only way it could have been dorkier is if I was using a 20-sided die.

Quote of the Day

"It's okay, but look at the ass. It's, like, two feet too high."

- congoer in the hallway
reading a yuri doujinshi based on Yu-Gi-Oh

Back in the day...

One of the more intriguing panels on Saturday was group of self-pronounced "old timers" who held court to discuss the way anime fandom used to be. All of the panelists paid respect to Fred Patton, the "mega fan" who helped anime fans network and share tapes back before the internet was around.

One younger panelist asked the panel about their feelings for the way Anime was edited in the past. One of the panelists answered frankly that the point of broadcast - to promote the show - was exactly what anime needed back then, and that many shows edited content to comply with broadcast regulations. "Star Blazers was edited to remove the violence, but the story was still there," said one panelist, adding, "back then, all cartoons were episodic. The fact that Star Blazers actually had a story arc was almost revolutionary in its day."

Otaku Orchestra

Otakon's dance/rave/let's-watch-people-try-to-have-fun-while-creeps-hit-on-them event has always been huge, but what you might not know is that the room near the dance hall had live music going all day Saturday. Considering how many bands there were - not to mention all those cosplayers playing instruments in the hall - I think it's only a matter of time before someone attempts to form some kind of Otaku Orchestra. If any convention finally manages to do this, I'll be there with my kazoo. I'm certain that famed translator Taka Karahashi could conduct the whole thing with his ukelele.

Come on guys, let's do this. Who's in?

Stuff I can't quite understand

I'm not quite sure what makes the center of the Otterbein Lobby the "Area of No." I thought the room holding the hentai panels were the "Area of No." Shows you what I know, I guess.

More pictures can be found below. We'll be back later with a con wrap up in the Day 3 report!

Con Sketching: Otakon '09 Day 1

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Baltimore and to Otakon 2009. I'm not sure what else to say here, so here's a Toad smoking a cigarette.

He's quite the looker, no? He'll be at the con all weekend, ladies! Just look for a badass dude in a mushroom hat. Of course, it seems as if every anime fan in the universe is in Baltimore this weekend, so he may be a little tough to find. The search should be worth it though, right? Yeah, I thought so.

Quote of the Day

"We're a very diverse fandom. We're all different, but everyone can come to the table because we all wear poofy poofy dresses."

- panelist at the "American Lolita" panel
talking about the diversity of the "Lolita" fanbase in the United States

Crowd control

Otakon might not have the attendance numbers that AX does, but if you were in Baltimore today or yesterday, it probably felt like they do. The hall was packed, rumors of line limitations outside of the Exhibit Hall (due to fire codes) were rampant, and the registration line was snaking out the door all day long. While the crowds were especially unbearable for those outside (especially when it started raining), one thing continues to amaze me about Otakon: how much this convention seems to take over the entire city. Not only has the Inner Harbor area been overrun with anime fans all weekend, but every single light rail train from the airport from Thursday onward seemed to be carrying another ten or twenty people who were convention bound. No wonder the city of Baltimore likes having Otakon around - it feels almost as if the population of the entire city has doubled.

So what kind of panels are these people here to see?

The Lolita Learning Curve

If there was one thing that disappointed me about my blogging efforts at AX, it was that I didn't get to hit enough random panels. Determined to fix that, I decided that Otakon - with such well-crafted panels as "Whack a Catgirl" and "How to Heckle Anime Good" - would be where I found redemption. So, eager to learn... stuff, I headed to a panel that I selected with a painstaking process of elimination*: "Freedom of Fashion: The American Lolita."

Before I went to the panel, I had no idea what an "American Lolita" is supposed to be (unless we're talking about the Stanley Kubrick film). However, I did know that it was popular just by walking up to the door of the panel room. While guest panels at Otakon had plenty of seats available, the "American Lolita" panel was standing room only. The flustered looking person at the door waved me towards the wall, where other people were standing to watch. On stage, three girls in "poofy dresses" (as the panelists called them) were giving a PowerPoint presentation on the ins and outs of the "Lolita" fashion trend in America. I couldn't stay long, but here's what I learned:

  • If you order a dress from Japan, you can take it to this magical place called a "tailor" to get it resized to fit you.
  • You should always be nice to other people and congoers, because stereotypes lead to stereotypes, and anime fandom has more than enough of those as it is.
  • Most sane "Lolita" people act like normal people, and the people who act like they are from the 1800s should be told to lay off a bit.
  • There are people in this world who don't know what a tailor is.

All in all, it's nice to see that the panelists were reminding the attendees to act sane and providing helpful tips and advice, instead of taking the stage and screaming into the mic for an hour. While I'm not going to invest in a poofy dress anytime soon (although I have been told that I would look very becoming in one of them), the note about stereotypes is advice that a lot of haters at events like this could stand to hear.

Parting shots

As usual, there are a few random extra photos at the end of this article. Here's a sampling of some of the other wonderful stuff I witnessed today:

Try harder, dude. You're not even oriented properly, according to your box.

We went out for a nice crab dinner tonight, which was swell - until my boss came after me with a hammer. Check out the grin. I think this is revenge for that one time I turned in The Gallery late. My bad, Chris. My bad.

Apparently in the middle of a hall at 3PM is a fine time for a nap.

That's it for Day 1! More madness on the way tomorrow!

*darts and a blindfold. I also had a cocktail beforehand. Quite the interesting method for selecting panels, trust me. As long as you're 21 and older, that is.

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