So here’s a post I’ve been meaning to make for exactly one year. Last year I attended Otakon, the annual anime convention held in Baltimore. It was my first time in the north-west of the USA, and it was the first time I’d really went to a proper anime convention, let alone one in the USA. I wrote up some thoughts on the whole experience. Here are those slightly belated thoughts. It’s probably too late to help people with hotel advice, but I hope that attendees can pick some other helpful tips at the very least.
Having flew in to New York, we decided to get the Megabus to Baltimore. First of all, don’t assume that this’ll drop you right in the centre. The bus actually alights at a very sparse retail park some ways outside of the centre called White Marsh.
Were it not for the sage advice of some fellow con goers we met in the Megabus queue (thank you, Ian and Kristina!), we would’ve wasted so much money on a taxi - do yourself a favour and get the route 120 bus. It departs from the same bus stop the Megabus arrives at, only takes half an hour, and was only $2 one way. Not only was it cheap, you can be sure there’ll be likeminded people doing the same thing. What could be better than lots of anime fans trapped on a bus for half an hour?
Howard & Pratt is the stop you’ll want to get off at for downtown Baltimore (it means the junction of Howard Street and Pratt Street, for those uninitiated to the initially confusing American road network). It’ll leave you directly beside the Convention Centre, where the major part of Otakon takes place. From here, you’ll probably want to find your hotel.
We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express at the Stadiums. It’s quite cheap compared to some of the hotels in the centre of Baltimore, and it has its own pool, which is always nice for a post-con cool down. The rooms also come with their own fridge, which was handy for keeping bottled water and the like cold. We mostly used it for beer.
While the rooms and the hotel itself are nice, it wasn’t very accessible for the convention centre over the event itself. The hotel does run its own shuttle service to the convention centre every hour, though you need to book early during Otakon to secure a place on it, and it’s no good for getting back at night, so the cost of taxis to and from the hotel does ramp up over the 3+ days. Not only this, but there were so many unofficial gatherings outside of the con itself, and all of these were around the hotels closest to the centre. It would have been nice not to have to worry about taxis to get home at the end of the night. If I were to go again, I would certainly invest in getting a room as close to the event as possible. It really is worth it, despite the cost.
Once we were firmly ensconced in the hotel and had already started complaining about the distinct lack of good tea (what sort of hotel doesn’t have a kettle, anyway!?), it was time to start proceedings a little early with a bit of a pre-Otakon knees-up. It was fantastic to meet so many people in one room I had only heard tell of on the internet. Annoyingly, I must have been slightly shy with my camera, as the only shot I have from this gathering was of Mike Toole’s gorgeous bourbon, of which far too much was ingested before an early start for day one. I certainly had a wonderful time there and was very glad and thankful to have been invited.
I’ll tell you this now - while at Otakon, sleep is not important. After a hard days night and a far too early start, we arrived at the convention centre, where we were met with two queues to get in. One for those who pre-registered, and one for those who didn’t. You probably already know this, but pre-registration is a much more attractive option. You can pick up your badge the day before at a convenient time - we went at 7pm the day before the con officially started and there was no queue to speak of. Cosplay spotting passed the time until the doors opened and Otakon 2011 officially began. (Unfortunately, one of our party hadn’t pre-registered. He regaled us of tales from the line that did not sound fun at all, especially given the searing heat of summer.)
The registration paraphernalia will no doubt explain this better than I can, but Otakon itself is spread over a number of locations. The vast majority of the event happens in the convention centre itself, but some panels and screenings happen in the Hilton, which is handily conjoined to the convention centre via a walkway, so you never have to expose yourself to the scorching Baltimore sun. The cosplay masquerade also happens in a completely separate building, so if that’s your bag, make sure you’re prepared to walk a block or two outside.
The first panel I visited was hosted by the Reverse Thieves, entitled “The Best Manga You’ve Never Read.” I must admit, I’m not much of a manga reader. I own very few completed series, but harbour a great want to delve further in. This panel was perfect, as it was a Tokyopop death edition, highlighting a selection of Tokyopop manga that will probably never see the light of day again, sadly. All of the examples shown made me wonder if they were available in the dealers hall, but it seems that people quicker than myself managed to get there before me, as I couldn’t find any. Of particular note, a series called Karakuri Odette interested me somewhat, mostly because it had interesting subject material, and was actually completed by Tokyopop. Also, the mention of Saint Tail brought back happy memories of the anime. Shame about the adaptation, though. With regards to Alain and Kate, they conveyed genuine enthusiasm for the titles they showcased, were clearly very well prepared, and also managed the fans responses quite well at the end. I’ve never been to a fan panel at a convention before, and as far as I can see this was as good a blueprint for a convention panel as any I’ve seen.
Daryl Surat of AWO fame held a “Remembering Satoshi Kon” panel. My thoughts on this going in to it were mostly that it would be a nice retrospective of Kon’s movies, peppered with some clips highlighting specific instances of his particular style. But it was that and much more. I was almost ashamed that I never knew about Kon’s other works, like his background direction of the Patlabor films, and the manga he did (which I had absolutely no clue about). What’s even better is that it’s so obviously Kon when you look at it - his visual tics are everywhere. Surat succinctly described the particulars of Kon’s works in his characteristic style, noting very particular instances where Kon’s greatness shone through.
The majority of the afternoon I spent having a look around the dealers hall. Beware that once you go in, it takes a while to get out again, mostly because of the almighty scale of the place, and partly because there were some very good stands there. I went in and wasted masses of time on window shopping and having internal crises over whether to buy tiny bits of plastic, with the end result of two missed panels. To give UK people a sense of scale, the main hall of the London MCM Expo, where everything official happens, is about the same size as the Otakon dealers hall alone. Those who’ve been to Expo will be familiar with the sorts of stallspresent at Otakon, though even the shops selling tat like keyrings and plush toys have more choice, better quality, and a fresher range of products than the UK equivalents.
Where the Otakon dealers hall really shone through was in its selection of more specialist items like CDs, art books and figures. Not only were there numerous sellers, those sellers generally stocked different products. For instance, some sellers had a selection of art books from older series, while some stocked items from relatively recent series. One store also had lots of doujin CDs that wouldn’t look out of place at Comiket. It’s this kind of variety that really sets the bar for quality.
When I finally managed to escape the wiles of the Dealer’s Hall, it was time to go and meet Makoto Shinkai, director of such films as The Place Promised In Our Early Days, Five Centimetres Per Second, Voices Of A Distant Star, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below [now called Journey To Agartha in the west], which had its English premiere at Otakon. It was a fairly long wait, but it was made much better by being beside @narutakiRT in the queue. Time passed very quickly while we shot the breeze about all manner of things. To be honest, I was slightly starstruck when I met Mr. Shinkai, so much so that when he asked how far I’d travelled to be there I slightly misjudged how far away the UK was. By about 3000 miles. No matter. He was a lovely man, and I’m very glad to have met him and got his autograph on my old ADV Voices Of A Distant Star DVD.
Here’s another bit of advice - don’t get too excited about panels, because there are so many exciting things happening at Otakon that it’s very likely two things will clash. In my case, the English subtitled premiere and director Q&A of Puella Magi Madoka Magica was scheduled at the same time as the Shinkai autograph session. While I had already seen the series (thanks, gg!) it would have been nice to see the instant reaction of American fans to a series such as that, whose genre is sometimes misunderstood. I rushed upstairs to get there just in time for the Q&A, which was fantastic timing, as far as I’m concerned.
The Puella Magi Madoka Magica Q&A session with Atsuhiro Iwakami was much more interesting than I thought it would be. One of the strong points of Madoka in my view is the rich mythos surrounding it, which has clearly been worked very intricately into the story and design of the show. The strong visual style of each of the fights in the witch domains is one of my favourite parts of Madoka, so I certainly found it interesting that it was one man who came up with this concept, as well as the scarily detailed system of runes. I’m especially glad that he did, as Iwakami explained that the original witch lairs were only supposed to consist of anime steam. On the runes, /a/ should be proud of deciphering the whole system when no-one else did, especially as Iwakami seemed very interested in meeting the people who were responsible for figuring out the mystery.
We rounded off the night by going to some fan parodies. While some were very good at what they did, they were mostly outweighed by utter shit (I’m looking at you, Kampfer Abridged).
Day Two started off in spectacular style thanks to @erinf, who very kindly brought doughnuts to her 9am panel, “Unusual Manga Genres.” The panel itself was a quick-fire adventure into the many weird and wonderful genres of manga. Most of which I’ve since wanted to own.
Then came the highlight of the day - Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below. Many were quipping afterward that they had just seen the latest Ghibli film. I’d have to agree - it smacked of Ghibli very much. I’d probably need to see it again before giving a concrete picture of what I thought, but I certainly thought it was a slight departure from the kind of world Shinkai likes to build, but tonally and thematically, it was Shinkai through and through. If you don’t like the mild depression that his films always leave behind, you’re not going to find this any different.
I should mention at this point that I had sufficiently manned up after Day 1 and had finally decided to wear the t-shirt I brought with me to wear. On a related note, the next port of call was a concert. With K-On! dub voice actors. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking it too. But regardless, I thought it best not to slag them off without even hearing some of what they were offering. We had Stephanie Sheh, Christina Vee, Cassandra Lee, Shelby Lindley and guest starring Karrie Shirou, all putting their hearts into singing selected songs from K-On!. Honestly, it wasn’t as much of a train wreck as I thought it would be, though it was glorified karaoke for the most part. I can’t help but recall the process the original Japanese voice actors went through though, especially Christina Vee’s Japanese counterpart Youko Hikasa, who had to learn to play bass left-handed despite being the opposite herself. Count your lucky stars, K-On! VAs.
“Dubs That Time Forgot” is always a treat to watch, especially in person. Mike Toole’s dulcet tones, succinct commentary and excellent selection of clips are always a winner, and this time was no exception. I especially like how he always gets old British dubs. Old ITV was full of ‘em. Daryl Surat’s “Anime’s Craziest Deaths” was an excellent way to round out the day. Surat really has the panel style down to a tee.
Day 3 got off to a rocking start when the guy hosting the first panel didn’t show up. Very annoying, especially when time is at a premium at events like these.
While I am a complete beginner at Touhou, I was quite interested in the fan culture surrounding it (especially the music, some of which is excellent), therefore I went to the Touhou panel. It was an interesting look at the franchise, especially when one portion involved a read through of an apparently “safe for work” (read: no fucking way) fan comic, featuring plenty of nudity covered by speech bubbles. This was a clear indication - this panel was mostly for people who were already deep in fandom to indulge in their love, but I learned a bit from the Q&A session at least, and now have the knowledge to try out my first Touhou game.
Next up was a fan panel on Madoka Magica, which was wonderfully titled “The Fine Print on the Contract - The Themes, Philosophies, and Birth of a Legacy in Puella Magi Madoka Magica”. I appreciate that the guys were trying to have a good discussion about the themes of the series and the sorts of things it stood for, but they wasted too much time on every possible combination of character-character interaction when I would have preferred they looked at the series as a whole and picked salient parts to show their arguments. What they did well was establish a nice dynamic between the panelists. What they didn’t do well was give the audience to voice their opinion in the middle of the panel. If you’re at a panel like this, don’t give the audience an opportunity to speak, because you’re going to get someone (like we did) who wants to voice their likes/dislikes about the series in the guise of a crappy sounding argument. Also, refrain from name dropping philosophers unless you really know what they were talking about.
I must say, I really appreciated not having to leave on the last day of the con. It was great to be able to take lots of time in the dealers room and not have to worry about catching a bus/train/plane to leave that night. The extra night is really worth it. Especially since we went to the aquarium the next day to see the dolphins. They were excellent. As for getting home, we took the light rail all the way down to the airport and flew out that evening. BWI’s international section is interesting in that it only flies to London and Toronto, but is still huge.
All in all, I’m incredibly glad I got the chance to go last year. I met people I thought I was never going to meet in my life, and what’s more they were all very friendly and kind. Anyone who gets the chance, do go. It’s brilliant.