Going out on a limb here, but if you had mentioned to that small collective of dedicated fans in State College, PA, who gathered on a nondescript weekend in 1994, that their meet-up of anime fans would one day go on to be the second largest anime convention event in the United States, they probably would have looked at you funny, laughed and added “maybe in our dreams,” before running off to watch some tapes or “talk shop.”
And yet, 20 conventions later, that is the truth of Otakon- the largest anime convention on the East coast, and gathering ground for all sorts of otaku, geeks, nerds, Japanophiles, hangers-on, confused parents, and anyone who appreciates either anime, fandom, or both.
Now I’ve been knew to this “game.” My first Otakon was in 2009, and it held a sort of mystery to me. I had heard of it time and again from friends online, but had no idea where it was, and little interest to attend. When I finally did cross through those doors and into the massive space that is the Baltimore Convention Center, I was immediately overwhelmed by what I had stepped into. It took me three years to finally “get it right.” And then two more thrown in “for good measure,” because as much as crowds might unnerve me at times, the prospect of friends and fellowship entices me more.
Blame it on my “history” of attending smaller conventions, but that was really where my fandom gestated. Cons like Otakon differ from smaller fare, and the dynamics of the smaller cons are less about big-name guests and announcements, and more about getting to know your fellow fans. I spent the majority of my congoing life at those events (and I frequently cite Hampton, VA’s Nekocon as the standard by which I formed my congoer identity), and was generally accustomed to the “simpler things”- meet friends, hang in hallway, grab some food, repeat until Monday. Otakon is not that convention, and hasn’t been for over 15 years. While those types of interactions are definitely a part of the Otakon experience, more of it can best be summed up as “brave crowd-stand in line-see event- repeat until Monday.”
Read reviews for Otakon 20, and you will read a lot about lines. Lines were the order of this convention (so much that one writer quipped that “lines are part of the real Otakon experience.” True, if that’s the experience you seek). A stark departure from the smaller events where lines seem to only exist outside 18+ content, or in front of autograph tables as anxious attendees wait for a chance to meet their idols. Lines for autographs are definitely long at Otakon. Lines for concert tickets equally so. Lines for the Dealer’s Room, lines for the panel rooms…I know plenty of bloggers and attendees who spent upwards of 7 hours standing in line.
But not me. Like Eric Cartman, I hate lines. And I usually find that what waits at the end isn’t worth the loss of time “better” spent wandering, chatting, or resting my aching body. My Otakon 20 wasn’t about getting to meet Shinichiro Watanabe (though I did, briefly). It wasn’t about snagging that coveted Sunday Concert Pass for Yoko Kanno (though I did, indirectly). It wasn’t even about attending the premieres for Oriemo 2 and Wolf Children (the former I had no interest in, the latter I had seen already).
For me, Otakon 20 was much like Otakons 18 and 19- I was there to experience the weekend as a whole, not the individual parts. I wanted to see the crowds, talk to the fans, tag up my StreetPass, and maybe decompress in the Harbor when the stimulus became too much. I wanted my “stage” to present content, then vanish for hours with friends while we people-watched and drank copious amounts of coffee. That has been my Otakon experience ever since 2011, and for me, it works.
On that level, Otakon 20 was a rousing success. Maybe not as over-the-top awesome as last year’s event, but still a successful weekend all around. They’ve been getter better, as well, since my first “road show” in 2009- part of that revolves around better programming and guest options, part around me knowing what the hell I’m doing- but as each convention passes by, I “get” it more and more.
Since I elected to eschew the lines and made it to exactly one panel that wasn’t one of mine, I can’t rightly call this exposition a review. One of the downsides to the way I experience Otakon is that I see very little of the “con,” but a whole lot of the convention space and community. On that front, I have little comments that I haven’t said before- Otakon is a frenetic mass of controlled chaos, kept in check my beleaguered volunteers who sometimes find themselves in over their heads, not unlike the attendees themselves.
Were their line management problems? Definitely. I witnessed line cuts a few times, and lines set up in the wrong places, but mostly as I passed them by on one of my “walks.” Were their rude staffers? I’d find it hard to believe there weren’t any, given the size and stress of the weekend, though I never bumped into any. Were there memes? Yes, moreso than the last two years, but nowhere near as annoying as 2009. (And one of them- a crowd of people constantly singing “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” from the Mulan soundtrack- were less annoying than quirky. At least they were being “productive” with their hall karaoke.)
Again, nothing I haven’t seen before, and nothing unexpected given the size and scope of Otakon itself. (Although the incident with the bubble bath in the fountain was something entirely new.)
The community this year was surprising- more and more anime-centric cosplay (especially from breakout hits Free! and Attack on Titan), less visible non-anime stalwarts (like Homestuck, MLP and Doctor Who), and a healthy amount of discussion centered around the 2013 anime crop, and how “awesome it is.” One of my early Friday panels- We Con, Therefore We Are, a critical look at convention culture and otakudom, co-hosted by the indomitable Daryl Surat of Anime World Order, and Doug Wilder of AnimeconsTV- exceeded my meager expectations by leaps and bounds: I hoped for 40-50 people, I got almost 1000, and none of them were there to “troll”, only discuss and debate. Which they did, all weekend, as people kept stopping me to comment on how thought-provoking and insightful the panel was. I had intended to present my observations and research from the past five years of activity in the community, and was surprised at how many other long-term members of the same community were coming to the same conclusions, and how their general opinion of the situation wasn’t too different from my own.
Community. Yes, it always comes back to community. Because, when it comes down to it, community is why Otakon has grown by such leaps and bounds, and community is why the convention culture is so strong, fragmented as it might appear. Time and again, I will insist that community is what is driving the attendees to devote such time to their “hobby,” and through the community are their devotions validated. You see it in the smaller, more intimate cons, that thrive off their core of attendees who pop up every year to support their local fandom. You see it in the massive throngs at Anime Boston and Katsucon, who pack the halls of large convention spaces with cosplay and conversation. You see it at Otakon, where these other groups converge for a single showing of support and “insanity,” for who else would choose to brave those crowded halls, if not the “crazy ones?”
On Saturday night, I (alongside friends Kit and Haru) was sitting in Harbor East, having dinner with voice actor and theologian Crispin Freeman. At this “oasis” maybe a mile from the BCC, there were no cosplayers, or congoers of any type, and the lightly packed dining room of the pub we had selected was soon the site of a conversation between the four of us about how the community had changed. Crispin had been part of the convention community since almost the beginning. He remembered how those early cons had been very anime-centric, and the fans hungry for more information. As a media/industry guest, he also had been somewhat insulated to the shift from anime-culture to community-culture that had been so dramatic in the past 4 years. He had not seen the subtle (and not-so-subtle) shifts that altered the dynamic and motivations of the attendees as a whole. As we sat there, talking about Convergence theory and the changing times, it made me ask myself a question- one that really has no solid answer, only observations.
Has Otakon exceeded its intended scope? What is the point of the con now, as the motivations and practices of a new generation of fans have overtaken older concepts? Has Otakon, still a bastion of Japanese media and culture appreciation, evolved?
I would think so. It’s become something more than just a fan convention- its become a destination all its own. It’s been that way for years now- all roads (at least on the East Coast) do lead to Otakon, that special pilgrimage that needs to be experienced at least once. Overwhelming or not, it’s a rite of passage all its own, but one of those rites that has the potential to pull in as many people as possible, and keep them there. New fans or old-timers, it’s still living up to its mission statement, and managing to accommodate all the needs of every fan who walks through the doors- from the staunch Japanophile to the artist and creative, to the confused teenager who’s wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. Otakon is, and always will be, a place for every fan, everywhere.
Lines or not.