One weekend in February anime fans from all over converge on an expensive resort hotel in National Harbor, MD for Katsucon. Usually otaku sequester themselves inside the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center for the full 3 days of the convention not daring to brave the frigid elements outside. However with spring somehow in the air 2017’s edition of Katsucon, held between February 17th and 19th, had a new feel to it. And as a longtime attendee there was a new pep in my step as I wandered the familiar corridors of the Gaylord National and the unfamiliar paths outside the hotel’s doors.
Being someone who attends conventions all across the country there has to be a unique draw that makes me want to come back. Katsucon can’t guarantee a premier guest lineup nor can it guarantee world premieres in the video rooms. Sometimes the panel rooms are tough to be in with bass blasting in from an adjacent event. And, yes, occasionally there is a lot of disorganization with line control. Yet in spite of any possible flaws it keeps me, and many others, coming back. This is because unlike many conventions I attend, there is a sense of community that permeates through Katsucon.
Maybe that community is a result of being confined in the same building together, bumping into the same people multiple times, or finding out the guy who just ran a panel you enjoyed is staying down the hall from you. It’s hard to distill a convention with over 10,000 people into being a family gathering, but at times this weekend it felt almost like that. Crowds formed around the meeting of two excellent Reinhardt (Overwatch) cosplays, fans circled around Yaya Han for photo opportunities, and even shy first-time cosplayers were made to feel welcome with compliments and encouragement from all corners. It is always exciting to see new fans embracing what makes anime so much fun and being welcomed by us grizzled veterans into the scene.
I need to return to the subject of the weather for a moment because this was a once-in-a-decade weekend. Saturday afternoon in February and being able to walk up to the banks of the Potomac without a coat on. You could see the joy on everyone’s faces as they posed outside in front of scenery they never would have the opportunity to in most years. This aura of good feelings was contagious. And as someone accustomed to being cooped up inside and glum through most of February walking around outside did wonders for my mood.
But enough about the experience of just being around the Gaylord, after all there was an actual convention which took place. Video rooms were running almost seamlessly from early Friday until Sunday afternoon. Eight separate panel rooms helped make sure that there was always at least something of interest going on. Old favorites like Super Art Fight made an appearance yet again, and the Japanese Cultural Institute (JCI) continued its momentum and had even more presence on the programming schedule.
The JCI has a more academic approach to panels; going even as far as calling its panelists “teachers” to help illustrate that point. It features one of my favorite panelists, Charles Dunbar who runs Study of Anime. If you see him on the schedule of a con near you make sure to attend at least one of his panels. The JCI also included much more culturally-focused panels including tea ceremony, kumihimi braiding, and koginzashi stitching.
One more thing that feels special about Katsucon programming is the focus on fan panels. Whether it’s Magi, the Tales RPG series, CLAMP, Fire Emblem, or Gundam there is a fandom for you. As someone who has a diverse taste in media as a whole I am always happy when more niche fanbases get to have their own panel. It’s a rare opportunity for people from all these corners of the country to meet together and share something they love.
For an event that has grown from a smattering of passionate fans to a large-scale event that takes over the hotel in the mid-Atlantic it can be hard to keep that unifying atmosphere. But Katsucon has managed to have people coming back year after year. Old friends will be in town, there is the chance to finally meet those people you’ve been talking to online, and of course waiting in line or roaming the halls you’re destined to meet someone new. That’s because at its heart anime fandom is not about the shows we watch it’s about the friends we make. Some other conventions have either accidentally or intentionally moved away from this focus, instead packing each and every minute with some place you have to be or something you have to do. The more relaxed pace of Katsucon’s programming lends itself to more social interaction.
Katsucon is cemented in my annual convention slate, and not entirely due to its location. I still have to pay for the hotel, take the time off work, and other expenses. So it’s not free, but it’s worth every penny just to be there and experiencing the atmosphere. I’ve gone back and forth over the years on what makes a good convention. But I feel there isn’t one recipe. Thanks to its attendees Katsucon manages to take its ingredients and make something wonderful.