For yet another year, Baltimore hosted the largest Japanese animation fan convention on the East Coast, Otakon, on July 20th through the 22nd at the Baltimore Convention Center (BCC). The attendance topped 20,000 eager participants for the fourth straight year, a testament to the con’s staying power and the loyalty of the fans. As always, there were many different things to see and experience, ranging from industry panels where companies displayed the latest and greatest shows on their rosters, to the rocking concerts performed by Eminence and AAA, to the massive Dealer’s Room where fans could spend their hard-earned cash on their favorite Japanese trinkets. The overall experience of Otakon 2007 was, as always, enjoyable, interesting and fun. It wasn’t without its hang-ups, but I still had an awesome time.
Anime is arguably the biggest reason there is so much interest in Japan and its culture in the West today. Otakon organizers know this rather well and had multiple rooms set up just for viewing some of the newest shows to hit the scene such asMushishi and Fate/Stay Night, as well as some golden oldies like Cutey Honey and Urusei Yatsura, with even a few live action programs thrown in as well; Meatball Machine was definitely one of the more eye-opening examples. These rooms were rather accessible as they were sprinkled throughout the convention center. With a venue as large as the BCC, it can be rather difficult to find a particular room if you don’t know your way around, but Otakon attempted to ameliorate this somewhat by putting together a detailed guide and setting up signs outside the rooms clearly indicating them. Naturally, people still got confused and things got moved around, but for the most part, it was as organized as well as can be expected. I still got lost, but oftentimes it was for the better since I often found something new and interesting during my travels.
Every year, I take the little guide thing that they provide and make an outline of all the panels I’d like to go to. Unfortunately, I usually end up going to only half of them, partly because of the aforementioned loss of direction but also owing in large part to panels being rescheduled and shuffled around at the last minute. This year’s version of panel roulette was a tad more confusing than 2006’s, so I ended up missing a few I had really wanted to attend. The staffers eventually had new, updated copies of the schedules, but by the time I’d gotten one, most of the panels I planned on going to were over. I understand the difficulty of organizing such a huge convention and getting everything to fall into place exactly as it should is a fool’s errand, but I would have really liked to have seen more stability in the panel scheduling.
However, the panels I did manage to attend were usually very good. The industry panels were ever informative with companies like Bandai and Geneon announcing the new anime they’d acquired from Japanese airwaves. Free anime merchandise giveaways make sure these panels are always well attended. My personal favorite was Funimation’s Panel, which was pretty tame up until the point they’d announced the licensing of Ouran High School Host Club, my favorite series of the past year (ED note: fanboy, pfft). It was then the entire room exploded in raucous applause, myself included. I also enjoyed the Madhouse panel, even though Maruyama Masao, one of the co-founders and usually an Otakon staple, wasn’t there. He did, however, send the fans a video which was an inside look into the Madhouse studios in Japan, which was a treat. The fan panels were a mixed bag, as always. The panel holders, especially the novice ones, would either use their time as a pulpit and talk at the audience for an hour, or not have any sense of direction at all and just let chaos ensue. The few I poked my head into didn’t seem to be too interesting, save for the OCRemix panel, which tended to be one of the better-run fan efforts.
Despite all the scheduling confusion and lackluster fan panels, the general atmosphere and ambiance at Otakon 2007 was generally excellent. The industry panels were well-run and the Dealer’s Room and Artist’s Alley were welcome retreats from the hustle and bustle of the BCC’s cavernous but oft-packed hallways. Next year, I’m hoping the organizers focus on keeping the scheduling on a tighter leash, which would make the con-going experience that much smoother.
By Lady Sage
After this year’s incredibly poorly-handled Anime Expo, I had high hopes for Otakon this year. With a decent guest lineup, a familiar and well-suited venue, and most importantly, good company, there was nowhere to go but up. Not that Otakon was without its own pre-convention drama – apparently, someone lost the panels schedule and made some rather questionable selections when recreating it. Nonetheless, that couldn’t stop this year’s Tak from being everything a con should be.
The first stop at the con was, as always, the dealer’s room. This year it was brimming with not only the usual anime, manga, and related merchandise, but also a few surprises. All the big companies were out in full force – Funimation’s was loaded with promo goodies, including a packet of seeds; Bandai Entertainment was positively decked out in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya decorations; and Bandai Visual set up a booth screening Freedom, Otomo Katsuhiro’s latest effort, in high-definition – presumably to try to convince more anime fans that they cannot live without the company’s pricey Blu-ray releases. There was also quite a few booths selling Japanese cultural items, including some beautiful and expensive kimono. Also of note was a booth declaring, “Let’s Send Love to Japan!” with a banner decorated with odd illustrations, including a little anime-style black boy with an afro floating in a womb, Bible quotes, and a TV playing Unico. As always, there was plenty of great deals to be found, as all the booths tried to undersell each other, allowing comparison-shopping congoers to make out like bandits.
Panels and programming were, as per usual, a mixed bag. I spent a lot of time in the industry panels, along with my fellow press members – that was really a first for me, since I usually stick to main events and fan programming. Although it may not have made for the most exciting time, it was frequently enlightening – apparently, Bandai Visual’s ludicrously expensive pricing strategy is trying to appeal to collectors, rather than the average fan – and had some really exciting moments, such as when Funimation announced their license for Ouran High School Host Club.
Of course, the con did suffer from its low points, but they were the sort of problems all cons have. The schedule was extremely unstable, and was frequently changed with little-to-no warning. Panels disappeared and reappeared mysteriously; I, for one, was disappointed I couldn’t find a panel on how to write anime reviews (I was genuinely disappointed when the Romeo x Juliet panel was cancelled). My friend later recounted waking up to go to a Crayon Shin-chan screening, and finding himself watching Hellsing Ultimate instead. Furthermore, there was the disaster of trying to find a restaurant on the woefully inaccurate con map, only to find ourselves wandering through inner-city Baltimore. There’s an adventure I’d never care to repeat.
Two real highlights stick out in my mind. One was the Eminence concert. Eminence is an Australian-Japanese orchestra devoted solely to playing music from anime and video games. They sent a small five-piece ensemble to Otakon this year, and I must say, I feel absolutely privileged to have gotten to see them. Not even the insufferable Piano Squall emceeing could interfere with that. The musicians were incredibly talented and great performers; the first violin managed to handle the air conditioning blowing away his music with impressive aplomb and a sense of humor. The music selection was, of course, wonderful, with a mix of familiar themes every anime fan should know, and fresher material. Of particular note was a medley from My Neighbor Totoro, and a rousing encore of the Super Mario theme, which brought down the house.
The other highlight had little to do with the con itself, but was probably the best part of the whole affair for me. It was, as always, getting to spend some quality time with my fellow Anime Secrets members. Without Otakon, the Dick Move Squad and the Bready Special, both thanks to Le Bread, would never have come into existence. Otakon isn’t just the time to get your nerd on and indulge in unbridled fandom; it’s also a chance to see and meet folks you normally wouldn’t get to.
Otakon! The Marvelous Anime Convention of Our Fine East Coast!
To kick off, I’m going to start at the very beginning of the Otakon experience! Worried about having to pay too much for a room near the Baltimore Convention Center?! Fear not, for Otakon has graciously arranged some excellent discounts on large blocks of rooms in various hotels around the area that will (should you act quickly) secure you a quality room for as cheap as it gets. Speaking of accommodating attendees, I have to mention the registration/pick-up line this year. Compared to the clustered and rushed-but-still-not-fast 2006 version, the line this year was much more organized. So, now that you’ve got a room and your Otakon badge, onto the actual convention!
One of the things I’ve noted in the two years I’ve gone to Otakon is the large array of interests they cater to. I don’t think you can find a better example of this than in the concert selections made this year: Japanese pop band ATTACK ALL AROUND and the “anime-and-video-game-score-performing” Eminence piano quintet. Both put on fantastic shows that I found drew different but equally enthused crowds, giving those who might have decided not to attend one of these concerts with another option. The great performances were only bolstered by the decision to keep the concerts in the BCC this year, eliminating the need for an early morning mad-dash for concert tickets and giving most anyone who wanted to see either concert a fair chance to attend. But let’s say neither performance interested you this year, guess what? You still had two other options! Popping down to the “Otacafe” to listen to some smooth tunes belted out by your fellow convention-goers is always a hilarious and entertaining option, but if amateur hour isn’t your thing, you could always head upstairs and watch the larger than life and louder than a jet plane T.M.Revolution on hi-def Blu-ray. Needless to say, if you couldn’t find something to like, you weren’t actually looking.
This “something for everybody” vibe can be felt throughout most of the convention’s activities. Anime viewing rooms boasted all sorts of content at any given time: ultra-new shows like Hellsing Ultimate, classic anime like Metropolis on 35mm, obscure tokusatsu titles, and even J-drama. Meanwhile, in the Game Room, all the genres were covered, but more impressive was the space-saving organization of the gaming units and the various tournaments they had going on for their titles. The Otakon staffers really should also be proud of their organizational skills. Signs were kept outside every room detailing what was going inside and when, queues were held against the wall or otherwise routed so that the halls were mostly kept clear, and the Dealer’s Room, which was a real disaster in 2006, felt a lot more open and accessible.
Aside from these spectacular highlights, sometimes it’s the little things that count the most. An example of such could be found in practically every viewing room, panel, and workshop at the convention: the water cooler. With bottled water running as high as five dollars a bottle and selling out when priced any cheaper than that, it’s a cool refreshing comfort to know that Tak’s got your back with its steady supply of cone cups and whatever water they put in those jugs. It’s also worth mentioning that not once during the convention did I feel unpleasantly hot! They had the A/C blasting out the cool air in every room on every level to keep the BCC feeling crisp and feeling good, and while I appreciated this greatly, I’m sure that guy in the Optimus Prime suit appreciated it even more.
Ok, so now that you’ve heard all about the things Otakon and its staff did right, here are a couple of things they did not-so-right. The biggest offense this year had to be the constant cancelling and rescheduling of panels and viewings. It might not seem like such a terrible issue if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these problems could have been easily forecasted based on the popularity of certain shows. Also, what’s the deal with press seating at panels? I understand reserving the first three rows for press who may show up, but 15 minutes in with people who’d like to come in and we’re still saving these seats for late press? It just seems a little ridiculous to close off three entire rows for the duration of the entire panel. But I digress, because really for the most part, these people who missed the industry panels they wanted to see missed an absolute snooze fest. Out of all the panels I went to the only ones I found worthwhile were the Funimation panels. My last complaint would have to be about the Dealer’s Room. I know Otakon can’t force people to sell their stuff cheaper, but it’d be nice if the Dealer’s Room actually had some “deals” going on, instead of just being full of industry selling their products at MSRP.
All in all, even with the minor setbacks, Otakon 2007 was a blast. I saw some good concerts, previewed some new anime, and even got 32nd place in a Mario Kart tourney! I’ll definitely be attending Otakon 2008 and hoping that it’s just as good a time.