Sixteen-year-old Anna Hiser has been planning her costume for this month's Otakon since last October. It's only her second time attending the annual Japanese anime (or animation) conference, but the rising senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School has already become fully immersed in the Otaku culture.
Anna fell in love with manga (Japanese comics) five years ago, when her neighbor loaned her one of his books. Last year, she attended her first conference and was immediately hooked. She felt, for the first time, like she was surrounded by thousands of people who simply got her.
"The very idea of Otakon is that there is no judgment at all," Anna explains. "You can show up in the most crazy, bizarre outfit and you would get a round of applause. It's just great energy, and I have never met one unpleasant or unfriendly person there. The craziness just comes out of the walls!"
Costumes, or "cosplay," are a major part of the conference. The main goal is to be able to enter into the character's world and actually become that character for a weekend. Fellow conference goers take pictures, ask for autographs, and even call the attendee by the character's proper name. This year, Anna has decided to dress as "Hungary" from the manga Hetalia Axis Powers. Her costume will consist of a white apron, a bow tie, an olive green dress, and a white kerchief fashioned into a hat.
Since much of her costume is homemade, Anna relies on her mother, architect Helen Hiser, for trips to fabric and craft stores. This resulted in an inevitable crash course in anime/manga for Helen. And while some parents might be freaked out by the outrageous and elaborate nature of the costumes, Helen is impressed by her daughter and her Otakon friends.
"Although there are a few [costumes] that aren't especially appropriate, the vast majority are amazing," she says. "They're very creative; obviously, the wearers put a great deal of thought and work into them."
Anna's father, Fred, also an architect, echoes his wife's sentiments: "The first time I saw Anna in her Otakon costume, I was very excited for her because I know that it is something that brings her great joy, and that she is having a lot of fun."
Lisa and Michael Martin have also kept their hearts and minds open when it comes to their son Luke's passion for all things anime. In fact, they took him to his first Otakon convention seven years ago, when he was just 10. When they were kids, they say, they were more into competitive sports and less into comic books and Star-Trek-convention-type stuff (which they see as the Otakon of their time). However, they have embraced the Otaku culture, for Luke's sake.
"The first year was a little scary because I have never seen anything else like it—ever," Lisa recalls. "My husband at first was like, 'I don't know.' It was definitely a whole new world for us. But this will be his seventh year going, and it is nothing like you would expect. It is so much more about people expressing their creativity and artistic side."
What's more, the Martins are convinced that this is no mere phase for Luke, who will be a senior next year at Loyola Blakefield. He's working hard on turning his passion into a career. This summer, he is taking a three-credit course at MICA in animation and hopes to build a future in the art and design world.
"It is one of the top things I look forward to out of the year," Luke enthuses of Otakon. "It is three days of absolute paradise. I know of 20 or 30 other [kids] that would say the exact same thing."
Anyone who has been around the Inner Harbor on the last weekend in July has already experienced the Otakon conference in some way. Numerous teens roam the streets, dressed up as unrecognizable (and sometimes scary) animated characters—as throngs of people photograph them. It is not uncommon to see swords, tails, 10-inch platform shoes, striped tights, and even stilts.
Baltimore hosts one of the largest Japanese anime/manga conventions in the country. And while the Otakon community is still small enough to remain shrouded in mystery, it's large enough to attract 26,000 people every year and generate $15.3 million for Baltimore City businesses. (And according to Otakon officials, it's not just kids who attend; the conference attracts enthusiasts ranging in age from 10 to 65 years old.)
Last year alone, 4,575 hotel rooms were booked for the Otakon weekend. All three days are jam-packed with concerts, karaoke, art galleries, video game rooms, panels with guest speakers on Japanese culture, and live action role playing (LARP) activities.
Luke's friend Nick Anstett, also an incoming senior at Loyola Blakefield, attended his first Otakon convention last year. He dressed, somewhat conventionally, as Peter Parker from the Spiderman comic. But this year, he's really getting into the spirit of things, dressing up as Nyan Cat, a Japanese Internet sensation with a pink coat and a rainbow tail.
"You are more a part of the community when you dress up," he explains. "It is so neat to be a part of the experience."
Nick's father, Frank Anstett, takes a little credit for his son's involvement in the anime community.
"I am maybe guilty of getting Nick started in it with my interest in '50s and '60s sci-fi movies," he admits. "The Trekkie stuff was always centered around one common theme—but this brings out a lot of different expressions and story lines, which definitely fuels creative expression. I live vicariously through Nick and look forward to pictures of what he saw, what he did, and the panel discussions he attended."
Counselors who focus on adolescent development emphasize that Otakon—and other conferences of its ilk—are a completely normal part of growing up.
"High school is hard," says Dr. Arachchige Muthukuda, who specializes in children and adolescence at Sheppard Pratt. "The transition is difficult. College is in their head, the pressure from peers. There can be a lot of rejection and [teens] become highly sensitive to finding their own identity. It comes down to a matter of being accepted."
And Dr. Linda Baker, the psychology chair at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that finding a simpatico peer group is almost always a healthy step. "Peers play a vital role in socialization at all periods of development," she says. "[High school] is the time when children are actively seeking an identity, and their sense of self includes a social self. Adolescents define themselves, in large part, in terms of who their friends are. Children who are not accepted by their peers typically do not fare as well in school and in life as those who are accepted."
As for Otakon's over-the-top costumes, Baker says that parents shouldn't be in the slightest bit alarmed.
"Teens learn important skills as they devote time and effort into creating the costumes," she notes. "It is important that teens have a chance to find their passion, and to express it, even if that passion is not one that parents can readily appreciate."
And more and more, the parents of Otakon kids do seem to appreciate the conference, and all its trappings—as long as their children take a few precautions.
For one, "the cell phone is a wonderful thing," says Helen Hiser. In the past, a kid at such a convention would have no way of communicating with home. Now, if they need help, a ride, some money, even a safety pin to hold up a torn costume, mom and dad are just a speed-dial button away.
Also, there is safety in numbers. Most of these kids go with groups of friends (or make new friends the first time they attend) and, often, the parents become friends with each other. These relationships help ease the trepidation of dropping a child into an unfamiliar world.
"It's a little unnerving to have your 15-year-old girl going to the convention where there are 26,000 people," says Helen. "It was definitely a little bit of a leap of faith. But the kids were going to go in a group, and I knew the friends and their parents so there was a level of comfort in that."
It helped that Anna's Otakon friends are her "regular friends," Helen says, the ones she brings home after school. "They are, without exception, smart, funny, highly imaginative, and a joy to have around. Very cool people."
Ultimately, ghoulish or edgy as it may seem, the Otakon conference really has become something of a family affair. Whereas once popular role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering were played in locked basements or other "no-parents-allowed" zones, Otakon is out in the open. Families like the Martins, who live in Baltimore County, have gone so far as to reserve a downtown hotel room for the entire span of the event. (This year, Nick will be staying with them.) For out-of-town visitors, the July weekend in Baltimore is like a freaky trip to Walt Disney World.
Whether the parents actually participate in some of the conference events or just use it as an excuse to go sightseeing or shopping in Baltimore, it all speaks to the growing acceptance of the entire genre and lifestyle.
"If you're a parent that's worried," Helen says, "probably the best way to sort of see what Otakon is all about is just to go."
And Fred Hiser couldn't be happier that his daughter is part of this eccentric and lively community. "[Anna and her friends] are able to be creative and imaginative through Otakon," he says. "They read a lot and are really into theater and the arts, and this is just another outlet. Doing something where they aren't taking drugs or drinking and are accepted by their friends? What more could I ask for?"