For an entire decade the premier east coast anime con was Otakon. It attracted the best guests, the best cosplayers, and the most attendees of any con not named Anime Expo. Its upcoming move to the newer and much more spacious Walter E. Washington Convention Center in our nation’s capital, about an hour away from its current and longstanding home of Baltimore, has received more than its fair share of chatter. With the recent reinstitution of an attendance cap, and this year’s rise in cost of attendance, there has been more than enough discussion about the future of Otakon.
It’s tough to take a three-day weekend and make a decision either way. Is Otakon a convention that will fail to attract or afford the big Japanese guests we all crave? Is Otakon too big to manage by a dedicated group of volunteers? Will the attendees follow the con to a new city? These are all questions that over the next year will be repeatedly asked with the same, speculative answers. The most important takeaway from the 2015 edition of Otakon is that it remains the best convention for fan-run panels I regularly attend. And as Lance Heiskell described it in his panel, his favorite con because of how well-curated the programming is.
When those of us in the northeast and mid-Atlantic think of fan-run panels, the name Mike Toole is the first or one of the first that comes to mind. Perhaps he is known to some others for his column The Mike Toole Show on Anime News Network, but the same insight and approach he brings to his writing is present in every panel he does. The line for his “Worst Anime of All Time” panel was immense, and filled one of the largest panel rooms at the Baltimore Convention Center. His panel “I Love the 90s: Anime Edition”, done earlier on Friday, was given both a room that was too small and time that was too short. Clip-based nostalgia panels are nothing groundbreaking, but he made this panel stand out from a crowd of similar ones I have attended over the years and that is no small feat.
Prior to this I was able to attend a very interesting panel “Ryokucha Everyday: A Guide to Japanese Tea” which is one of the panels that helps bring about the overarching theme of the convention as being to promote East Asian culture. Panelist Rob Perry, a self-professed tea connoisseur, was able to keep my interest on a subject that doesn’t overly interest me for his entire hour. I now know more than I ever expected to know about Japanese green tea. Let me say it was no easy task for me to retain that knowledge over the incredibly grueling convention weekend that lied ahead.
I also had the chance to go to two panels run by Scott Spaziani, one on Friday and the other on Saturday. Both were great and for any future attendees of Otakon or Anime Boston, just to name two cons Scott frequents, his is a name to keep in mind when you plan out your schedule. His bread and butter is titled “When Gundam Goes Bad” and it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride through the highs and then the painful lows of Universal Century Gundam releases. By the end of the panel even the most disinterested person will at least leave with a hatred of Quess Paraya.
The Otakon Game Show took place on Friday night and it remains a deserved staple of the weekend. For those who have not yet gone to one, it is worth the two hours on Friday night. The trivia is fun and includes trivia from the most recent anime as well as some throwback questions. The crowd is made a part of it, being able to text in their answers to score their own points and being randomly selected for prizes. Competitively, the game always seems to come down to the final question. Of note, before the Game Show I sat in for a panel on visual novels. This panel “The Visual Novel: History of the Unrecognized Narrative Art” was something I sat in just to pass the time. But instead of lying back, playing on my 3DS or my phone, I became very interested in how the presenter Alexander Mui compared visual novels to more established narrative mediums.
One final panel I want to bring up, as much for the concept as the content, was Lance Heiskell’s “Anime Nostalgia Bomb: Time Machines Are Real!” The panelist is a veteran of the industry, and worked for Funimation for over a decade. His collection of old, out-of-print magazines only continues to grow. I am optimistic by doing this panel he was able to find another piece to add to this collection, as older and younger fans both go through their storage and find old Animerica or Newtype magazines. It’s a great concept and I am glad he’s put together a website to store it all called the Anime Nostalgia Bomb.
Oh, but there remains so much more to the weekend than the endless stream of panels. Cosplayers galore, showcasing everything from classic franchises such as Gundam and Ranma ½ all the way up to shows that have yet to finish airing. And of course cosplay is not just limited to anime and manga, media ranging from video games to Marvel comics to TV shows are represented. I could fill thousands of words describing the different cosplay I saw. One specific cosplay that interests me is League of Legends. And it was in abundance all weekend, especially at the Saturday photo shoot. It attracted a crowd so large no place was big enough, and needless to say sightlines for good group shots were non-existent.
There is also the expansive dealer’s room to get lost in for hours on end, or take a walk through Artists’ Alley to see and bid on custom, original art from artists who come both from near and far for Otakon. Five video rooms are open all day and night and show everything ranging from current favorites to classics and of course the convention’s staple Otaku no Video. I did not have the chance to attend the AMV contest this year, but it and all the programming in the AMV Theater are embraced by a number of attendees. And of course every year brings a Masquerade, taking tons of attendees over to the Royal Farms Arena on Saturday night for hours of great cosplay and skits.
One thing that made this Otakon more enjoyable than in previous years was the increased elbow room. There were a lot of factors that probably went into this, but most notable is the drop in attendance confirmed during closing ceremonies on Sunday. They lost roughly 5,000 attendees from last year, which is a significant drop and the biggest the convention has ever experienced. But with the size of the Baltimore Convention Center this was a blessing for those in attendance.
This article isn’t about the attendance though, Twitter and message boards are already rife with discussion on it. From the outside this Otakon looks like a quiet year, one without a long list of marquee guests and without a genuine hotly-anticipated premiere. But from the inside it was a con that reminded me of the charm Otakon has. And it is a charm I am confident will carry itself from Charm City down to Washington, D.C.