August 13th, 2013 - 5:42 pm

Twenty Years of Weird

Photo: Zoe DiGiorgio

Summer intern Zoe DiGirogio went to Otakon this past weekend and filed this report.            

The lines started Thursday night, wrapping through the Baltimore Convention Center to keep guests out of the blazing midday heat and the powerful evening storm. While there were a few sightings of wigs, cloaks, and interesting hats on Thursday, Friday was the day the Inner Harbor exploded with color as more people began to congregate. Throughout Saturday and Sunday you could spy the ruffles of homemade dresses, spiky tresses, and the telltale red lanyards as far away as Harbor East.

And with all this came the whisperings: “What is going on this weekend?”

Those who have spent some time around Baltimore in late July or early August for the past several years know: It’s Otakon, the East Coast’s largest and longest-running anime and Japanese culture convention. Though the convention has not always been in Baltimore, this year Otakon celebrates it’s 20th year with a list of events big enough to match the immense crowd, which well exceeded last year’s attendance record of 30,000 guests.

For the uninitiated, Otakon is a three-day celebration of Japanese culture, including music, anime (cartoons and animation), manga (graphic novels), art, and fashion. Attendees come from all over the state and country (and even from different countries, according to some whisperings) to be a part of the events, which started with the free Thursday matsuri at the Inner Harbor. Some come in Kimonos while others come in costumes or fan T-shirts to celebrate more than just Speed Racer or Pokemon; while a large part of the convention is focused on celebrating Japanese pop culture, many guests come for the camaraderie and the comfort of being with others who share their obscure tastes.

The three days are packed with panels and workshops that explore many different aspects of Japanese culture and anime fandom. There are events on fan fiction writing, learning Japanese, sewing cosplays, K-Pop dance, the history of Nintendo, making your own manga, and even an appearance by Uncle Yo, the geek comedian. For those willing to wait in one of the many enormous lines around the conventions, there are also panels and autograph sessions with the esteemed convention guests, including voice actors, anime writers and directors, and scholars who study Japanese culture. This year, some of the biggest lines were for autographs from voice actors Vic Mignogna from the show Full Metal Alchemist and Crispin Freeman from Naruto.

Nick Anstett, who has been going to Otakon for four years, explained that the first time attending Otakon is "like walking into Magic Kingdom and seeing Mickey Mouse,” or “some kind of nerd-ish candy store.” Even though the programming and events are geared toward Otaku (the Japanese term for anime fans), the convention appeals to geeks and nerds of all types, and it shows.

“At its heart, it’s supposed to be a, like, a celebration of Japanese culture, but because that relates to so many different things, you get a very wide spread of different people who come to celebrate similar interests in this one place,” Anstett said.

This year, the convention crammed around 34,100 attendees into the Baltimore Convention center and several of the meeting rooms in the adjacent Hilton, and this additional space still isn’t enough for all the fans.

“We’ve had to turn away so many people from so many great events just because don’t have any more seats,” said Jennifer Piro, vice president of Otakorp, Inc., and associate chair of the convention. “It’s been hard.”

Otakon has struggled to deal with the attendance growth in recent years, which seems to be a far cry from the first Otakon. Originally held in 1994, in State College, Pennsylvania, the convention attracted only about 350 guests and “two and a half dealers,” the former convention chairs joked at the “By Fans, For Fans: 20 Years of Otakon” panel. Otakon grew enough to warrant a move to the Baltimore Convention Center in 1999.

Though it was announced Sunday that the convention will be moved out of Baltimore in 2017 due to the renovations on the Baltimore Convention Center, Jennifer Piro said that Otakon has “a great partnership with the city,” noting the way the town was “painted blue” just for the convention with local hotels and businesses showed their support for the convention’s 20th year with blue lighting and decorations. The Downtown Partnership even had a “blue carpet” event on Thursday to kick off the event.

“We get each other,” Jennifer Piro said. “We have this kind of shared culture that has evolved together. . . . We have these great inside jokes that only work because it’s us and Baltimore.  It doesn’t work anywhere else.”

 Of course, what most Baltimoreans know Otakon for are the eye-catching and often-bizarre costumes spotted around the city. Costumes include characters from major anime and movies as well as minor characters or characters from more obscure properties, though the possibilities for costumes are not restrained by the convention’s Japanese focus. This year, I encountered several characters from Les Miserables chatting with Spider-Man villains. The attendees are in character, too; if you ask one for a picture (as many Otakon-goers do), they will often strike a character-related pose. It’s all part of “cosplaying,” or costumed role-playing, and according to many con-goers, it’s one of the best parts of the convention.

Tom, a first time convention-goer from outside of Philadelphia, chose not to dress up, but still appreciated the effort that went into many of the homemade outfits. “It definitely adds a distinct taste. The whole thing is made by the cosplay, in my opinion. It’s like, if people weren't cosplaying, it’d be a bunch of people walking around buying stuff, really. But it’s definitely the most unique thing about this place.”

Alexis Morgan, who was dressed as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games in a red dress decorated with flames, explained that cosplay is important for social element of Otakon. “It’s a way to represent who you are and what you like,” she said. That could not be truer than it was for Metal Gear Solid cosplayers Steven Anderson, Skye Crabill, Sarah Maguire, and Ian Deppa. Sitting together on the ledge of the indoor fountain wearing military regalia, it looked like they had been best friends for ages, but in reality, they had only met recently in preparation for the large Metal Gear photo shoot. As Crabill put it, “You make friends because, ‘Oh my god! You like that series? So do I!’”

Morgan expressed similar sentiments. “You can almost sense more of a person’s personality by who they cosplay, or what they’re into or what they can do,” she said, praising the work that goes into some of the costumes. Morgan described the “fuzzy feeling” she gets when people ask for her picture. “It’s really special,” she said. Anderson noted that the cosplay experience is the main reason he comes: “How often do you get to be somebody other than who you are and be taken absolutely seriously for it and praised for it?”

For many, cosplaying at conventions can be an intro into crafts and sewing. Sarah Maguire said she has picked up on sewing and costuming since her first experience cosplaying at Otakon 2010, while others, like Ian Deppa and Skye Crabill, have family who help them construct their complicated convention wardrobe. It’s challenging to not only make the costume, but to make sure it’s wearable, detailed, and comfortable enough to keep on for three days. However, when wearing something you make yourself, there’s always bound to be a few difficulties. Frequent Otakon attendee Toasty Kuta has started the Cosplay Medic corps, bringing sewing kits, safety pins, clear nail polish, hairspray, gum, and more to those whose cosplays have “broken down” in the middle of the convention.  

Not everything is always so hospitable outside the Convention Center doors, though. Many cosplayers, like Anderson, Crabill, Maguire, and Deepa, meet up through photo shoots, which are themed photo sessions for all the characters from a particular series. There can be well over 100 cosplayers for a single themed shoot, so some groups move around the inner harbor to get the best spot to accommodate everyone. Maguire notes that while she can be uncomfortable with the strange stares she gets walking downtown in costume by herself, she said when she’s with others, she doesn’t mind as much. “It’s fun walking around with friends.”

Alexis Morgan would agree. No matter what people think outside the Convention Center, she said that at Otakon, “I can cosplay, I can be myself, and nobody’s going to judge me for it.”

At the end of the day, it seems that the people, even more than some of the events, are what draws people in and brings them back year after year. For newcomers Alex Booth and Alex Szwarc, their friends were the major reason they attended. Szwarc says she was drawn to Otakon “by a bunch of friends who say it’s amazing,” while Booth kept hearing about it from friends. He decided to go because, as he said, “you gotta see what it’s like.”

For Anna Hiser and Nick Anstett, who have been going with friends for years, spending time with them in the convention environment has become very important. Hiser said she loves “the camaraderie that you feel with the people around you. Just at this Otakon I’ve made three or four new friends, which is really awesome.” Anstett agrees, adding that he enjoys “hanging out with like-minded people, and experiencing things that I didn’t get to see in my everyday life.”

Though there will probably always be a lingering perception that Otakon attendees are “weird,” that doesn’t seem to phase anyone. Whether dressed like a character from Homestuck or Bioshock, Hetalia or Daft Punk; whether with parents or wandering with friends; playing DDR in the game room or 3DS in the hallways, Otakon people were just happy to have a place to let their freak flags fly.

“People get to be themselves for just a whole weekend. They do what they want and love what they love and dress up like cartoon characters. It’s fantastic,” Hiser says

Anstett said that after going for several years, the experience of attending becomes less about the awe and amazement, and more about “familiarity and comfort.”

“It’s weird,” he admitted. “But that’s okay.”



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