You never know what you'll see in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Sometimes you'll see buskers, sometimes you'll see tall ships, and sometimes, apparently, you'll see samurai eating ice cream.
Ever since 1994, anime fans have gathered at Otakon (a portmanteau of "otaku," a Japanese slang term for "fan," and "convention") to share their love of East Asian entertainment. As the convention has grown and transferred from Pennsylvania to Maryland,it has attracted more and more of the trappings of general nerd culture. While Otakon caters primarily to those who love Japanese animation, con-goers can expect to see plenty of Eastern comics, films, and videogames.
The convention this year ran from Friday, July 29 to Sunday, July 31 in the largely-vitreous Baltimore Convention Center. On any given day, a conventioneer could watch his or her fill of anime, attend insightful (or just plain silly) panels, seek autographs from favorite voice actors and pop culture icons, compete in anime trivia or costume contests, test their skills in a football field-sized videogame room, photograph an ever-changing roster of elaborately-costumed characters, peruse a manga library, wander the expansive Dealers' Room and Artists' Alley, or simply mingle with fellow fans.
As with any large convention, panels ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Saturday morning saw panels such as "Anime 101" and "Pop Culture from a Multipolar Japan," but other panels covered everything from "Bad, Anime, Bad!!" (an exploration of some truly terrible anime) and "Dubs that Time Forgot" (self-explanatory). While Western culture was less prevalent at this particular con, there were some panels for fans whose tastes remain on this side of the Pacific. "Birth of a Generation: Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon" explored how two iconic shows got a whole generation of American children interested in Japanese culture, while "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers - How it All Began" saw series producer Tony Oliver explain how a shoestring-budget show comprised largely of recycled Japanese footage became the most successful kids' franchise of all time. Other panels included Q&As with voice actors like Trigun's Johnny Yong Bosch and composers like Final Fantasy's Nobuo Uematsu, drawing contests, fashion shows, and cosplay how-to sessions. The "abridged" community (which makes humorous, shortened versions of favorite anime series like Sailor Moon) also had at least one showing per day, culminating in a packed-to-the-gills 9 AM panel on Sunday.
While Otakon is not primarily a gaming convention, it played host to a huge number of gamers. Their game room, which took up the entirety of an exhibit hall, played host to a number of TVs, consoles, and arcade games. Old favorites like Dance Dance Revolution, Rock Band, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl all made a showing, but the real showstopper was King of Fighters XIII. Atlus brought out a small team to debut the console release of this hotly-anticipated Japanese fighting game, which will see a stateside release this October. While it does not appear to be a radical departure from previous entries in the series, fans will be pleased to know that it upholds the franchise traditions of beautifully-animated graphics, smooth gameplay, and an over-the-top story mode. The rest of the gaming hall was somewhat sparse; while the room was absolutely huge, there were not that many games, and many of the TVs and consoles were off. Still, anyone looking to compete in one of the con's nine tournaments or just grab a quick round of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 in-between panels was definitely in the right place.
No convention is complete without a trip to the Dealers' Room, and Otakon definitely did not disappoint on this level. Located in the BCC's gargantuan Hall F, this year's vendors sold everything from t-shirts to suits of chainmail armor, and everything in-between. Dealers' booths flowed over with anime, manga, statues, toys, art books, cosplay supplies, decorative weaponry, soundtracks, and every kind of knickknack, trinket, and tchotchke under the rainbow. As with most cons, the prices tended to be quite high, but most dealers were amenable to a little last-minute haggling on Sunday afternoon. Huge companies like Funimation and Bandai hawked their wares next to mom-and-pop comic stores while individual artists hung out next door in the Artists' Alley.
Otakon 2011 was a hotbed of cosplay activity, and the general quality was high. Most cosplayers at this convention took their craft very seriously, and the result was two lobbies constantly full of costumed heroes, villains, and quirky intermediaries who had enough pictures taken to fill a small art museum. Anime characters were generally the most popular choice, but the video game contingent put up a respectable showing as well. Dozens of fans showed up dressed as Mario and his cohorts, and an attendee could hardly walk a dozen steps without running into a Final Fantasy or Pokémon character. Western characters like Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, and Commander Shepard showed up as well, but in smaller numbers.
For those of you who missed out on this year's event, be sure to stay tuned to Otakon's website for information on how to attend next year. For those of you who were there, remember the convention's battle cry: "Ice cold water, only one dollar!"
Marshall Honorof is turning Japanese, he's really turning Japanese, he really thinks so. His personal thoughts about Otakon are at http://chronologynut.tumblr.com, if you're into that kind of thing.