|Otakon 1999: How Far Indeed
by Ryan Gavigan
All things being considered, I'd rather not be in Cleveland. A nice, normal city it may be, but hunching at midnight in the fourth hour of a delay on a connecting flight in a remote corner of Terminal C on the barely carpeted floors of Cleveland International Airport was not ingratiating me with the city fathers this night. Hard as it was, it was a welcome, soft break from the post-WWII Dr. Mengele surplus special chairs which littered the gate area. Any normal person would have accepted the offer of a free night stay and a spot on the first available flight the next day. Any normal person might have decided to hunt for a dinner which would never come from the already closed airport restaurants. Any normal person would have throttled the fifty people waiting in line with their cell phones buzzing and beeping all night while harassing the obviously helpless clerk. However, I am not a normal person. I'm going to Otakon.
Baltimore gains its name from the ancient greek words baltos, meaning "land of many" and more, meaning "interstates that end in '95'". It feels somewhat disconcerting while on a vacation that I get into my hotel room at 3:30 a.m. and feel the need to order a wake-up call for 7:00 a.m. Once again, though, I am not normal. I'll be able to catch up on sleep later, right?...Right?...
Day One - Baltimore Convention Center
After taking care of the typical morning necessities, [Please remember kids, a clean otaku is a good otaku] my cohorts and I walk the short block and a half to the Baltimore Convention Center. In an interesting bit of architectural design, the BCC from the outside looks conspicuously like a set piece from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. We decide to take a quick walk through the convention area to scope things out before hitting the breakfast buffet. (For future reference, I do not recommend the Sheraton breakfast buffet, a bit expensive and bland.) Otakon took up the eastern half of the Baltimore Convention Center, and as such offered previously unseen amounts of roaming area for an anime con. Around 9:15 or so the registration lines seemed absolutely massive. After our quick breakfast jaunt, we came back to the reg area about 45 minutes later to find the lines practically gone. Going through the reg process to get my badge, I figure out why the line moved so quickly. The badges are very nice looking, and having the attendee do most of the work with the badge kept things moving. This would be a good time to mention that Otakon 1999 is the first anime convention to be held entirely within the confines of a full fledged convention center without relying on a particular hotel's function space. It's a feat not even any west coast conventions can boast of.
At that point, around 10:15 or so, my party and I went upstairs to check out the video theaters and programming rooms. Despite the cavernous surroundings and the more than ample video and video gaming rooms, the programming and workshop rooms were rather modest. One surprising plus was a large room dedicated solely to Karaoke and Dance, another side benefit of the spacious venue. Signage for all of the rooms was excellent, as each function room had large (~2 feet wide x ~8 feet tall) stand-up with the room function name, along with an easel with the room's schedule.
Although it was only about 11:00, we noticed it was somewhat odd that the first video programming didn't start until noon (The six video rooms had staggered start times of 12, 12, 1, 2, 3, & 4, respectively), the dealer's room opened at 4, with Opening Ceremonies at 6, and live programming starting afterward at 7:30. It was explained later that the staggered video start times was built in to give the crews assembling the equipment in video rooms time to get all six, plus the gear in the video game room set up properly. Fair enough. Another conscious decision involved was having things start later to make sure everyone waiting in the registration line did not miss anything. This just had the unfortunate effect of a creating a lull in the Friday activities.
Things began with an enormous line waiting for the opening of the dealer's room, a staple of every convention since time began. Once the doors opened, the line dissipated quickly as the cavernous confines of the room allowed for ample room. Did I say ample? I meant sardine-like, at least for the opening hour or so when even the 25,000 square feet strained with the otaku onslaught. The selection of dealers was a bit sparse, but with enough variety to satisfy the thousands. Less and less import LDs seem to populate exhibit halls these days, a sad but inevitable fact as DVDs continue to grow in popularity. Why was that Gundam movie box set staring at me all weekend? I haven't caved to its influence yet, but I won't be able to fight it forever. The intense crowd kept me from staying long, so I negotiated the traffic out of the room and headed to the opening ceremonies.
Otakon is not a con big on ceremony. In 1995, the start of the convention was merely marked by the swinging open of the dealer's room doors. With the big name guests and the large expected crowd, Otakon had a little bit more of a standard ceremony. Once again the waiting line was amazingly long, although with a 2000-seat capacity main events room, there was no worry about anyone getting a decent seat. Like most ceremonies of this ilk, it started a few minutes early. The con chair introduced the Japanese guests of honor, interspersed with the playing of some promo videos of upcoming films such as Jinro and Blood. The sound level of the speaker system, however, was just a tad bit high, registering an estimated 120 decibels at times. One by one the guests walked on stage, gave a small amount of remarks, and moved to their seats. Watanabe Shinichirou, director of Cowboy Bebop, seemed happily unnerved as he mentioned that he had never been to this type of function even in Japan. Nakazawa Kazuto, character designer of El Hazard even mentioned that this trip included his first ever trip on a plane! The stage was set, literally and figuratively, for Ms. Kanno Yoko to complete the ceremonies with a short piano concerto.
Ms. Kanno played four songs on stage:
1. Opening theme from Vision of Escaflowne
2. Voices from Macross Plus
3. Opening theme from Record of Lodoss War TV
4. An improvisational jazz piece (encore)
Here's that @anime! Special we talked about!
@anime! was able to record the concert using a portable DAT at 44.1KHz. They have been saved in MP3 format and are available for download on the Yoko Kanno Concert Notes page.
Being able to talk with an animator or director or artist at a convention is a very cool thing, but being able to actually actively listen to someone of Kanno's talent perform is just awe inspiring. The Lodoss War opening held an even bigger surprise since it is played with both piano and clarinet. A very (and I repeat VERY) brave Otakon staffer valiantly played the clarinet part and did quite an admirable job. Overall Ms. Kanno received a total of four standing ovations.
The main event for the evening in the large capacity room was the 3rd annual presentation of Mystery Anime Theater 3000, a very well produced stage and video presentation originally created by Jon Kilgannon. It is basically just about how it sounds, they recreate faux versions of all the MST3K tv characters, and proceed to do their shtick and rip apart truly horrid anime. This year's target was the truly deserved Lensman. Usually when people try to do this kind of thematic parody, it almost always falls flat, but the MAT3K guys have excellent writing, great costumes & props, and have the act down to near perfection. Plus, Anime's Frank is a hoot. In my opinion, MAT3K is practically worth Otakon's price of admission alone. (Be sure to check with @anime! in future issues for my Fan Community Profile interview with Jon Kilgannon of MAT3K)
Among the most lively panel activities on Friday was the 'Truly Wretched Anime' panel, of which I was only able to catch the tail end. Robert Fenelon, David Merrill, Jeff Thompson and others both thrilled and sickened the audience with examples of some of the most truly spine tingling (in a bad bad way) examples of anime. I have now heard several times of the legendary Tsubaraya Productions half anime/half puppet movie that was partially shown at the panel. Maybe I'm not so sad I missed it all.
"FIRE DRILL!, FIRE DRILL!, everybody wander outside." Hm, seems like the boys over at the dance got a little bit carried away with a smoke machine. Tsk Tsk. Well, it did serve well to mark the end of most of the organized activities of day one, with the exception of the ravers and gamers partying on.
Day Two - Costumes and Kanno and Alarms, Oh My!
Ahh, Saturday. The meat of the convention is here. Time for lots of running around finding things and missing others. Generally there is not much time where there is not something going on worth checking out. One of the first major items during the day was Kanno Yoko's guest panel, where we get to learn everything from that she only likes to work on one project a year, to finding out she loves belgian waffles at IHOP. It was extremely enlightening and does she ever play to the crowd well. She's talking with Kawamori Shouji about a new project (that's currently only on paper) she might be working on next. I found it interesting that she does pretty much all of the composing well before any animation is ever done. She discusses the feel of the show and of the characters with the director sometimes two years before a project is set to be completed.
Well, after the hour long or so discussion I decided to relax a bit and decided to head off site to grab some lunch across the street. When I returned, I found out what I had missed...
FIRE DRILL! FIRE DRILL!
This particular event caused a bit more havoc than the late night Friday occurrence. The fire alarm had been pulled in the other half of the convention center from the patron of another convention. It just happened however to coincide with the middle of the Iijima Mari concert and Kanno Yoko's autograph signing session. Only some quick thinking by former Otakon chair Dave Asher and a Sharpie marker saved all sense of order at the signing. Dave quickly wrote the number of the place people were in on their hands, enabling them to leave quickly and be assured of their place in line. Damn quick thinking and many people appreciated it.
The Otakon Game Show played Saturday afternoon to a packed house in a small room (note to Otakon organizers, give these guys a BIG room) and was a bona fide hit. Coordinator Christopher Ochs did a wonderful job putting together a nearly trouble free show with a whole lot of the spirit of the original anime game show, Anime Remote Control. Some of the categories included: The Newlydead Game, The Yen is Right, Pokemon Physics, and Anime's Frank Sez. Seeing Anime's Frank zooming about the room with his arms out in front of his head yelling 'Darling!' was just hilarious. The questions were for the most part pretty top notch. The ill fitting room did more harm to the show than just about anything. It was a good, fun event.
Prior to the big event of the evening, I decided to check out the video game room. Sheesh! A very large room filled with an amazing number of systems, including Dreamcasts and even a PC running a Neo Geo emulator. There was a near constant high level of activity in the room as tournaments seemed to be going on constantly. I did however, miss the charm of the 'everything down through the ages' concept Anime Weekend Atlanta likes to use. I like getting in a game of Pong in between bouts of Tekken 3 ya know :).
Cosplay, Masquerade, whatever you call it, anime cons seem to always have one on Saturday night. Cosplay is usually a mixed affair, with a number of well made costumes displayed with often not so well made stage presentations. Otakon's was about on par historically with previous efforts. There was a lot of entrants (61). I enjoyed for the most part that there were few excessively long or tired acts, though I rolled my eyes mightily at the token Ryouga getting lost joke, yawn. I've included here my top five cosplayers/acts of the show, for no other reason than to use the term 'fleshy butt cheek'.
Gavv's Top 5 at Otakon Cosplay
5. Announcer stalling tactics part 1&2
4. The Fall to Pieces Gundam
3. Nausicaa and Kiki (These youngsters were just too cute and the costumes were great)
2. (Totoro vs.) Pikachu Eats Tokyo (Best use of sumo technique without showing of fleshy butt cheek award winner.)
1. Anime Con Personality Death Match (I shall call him... Mini Steve!)
Saturday night, post cosplay and all, displayed one somewhat apparent downfall of the all convention center con, a lack of a good amount of room parties. A group of friends and I wandered around a bit to reputed locations (i.e. posted notes on the info boards saying PARTY!) of some and none really materialized. I suppose this bit of disassociation with the hotels is a small price to pay.
Day Three - How Many?
Day three started a bit weird, which I won't go into in detail here, but suffice it to say that when you are in a seventh floor hotel room and you are flooded out of that room, it's a bit of a bad night. Nevertheless, I must carry on! Sunday at most anime cons is a good chance to catch up on some discussions with friends, catch a panel or video or two, and make the required last dash to the dealers room. I decided to take in a little of all of that. Finally caught some of Serial Experiments Lain. My kind of show! Checked out a bit of a panel with A.D.Vision producer Matt Greenfield and the editor of Animafantastique magazine talking about possible future trends. Not all that much hard information, but some interesting tidbits.. For example, ADV wants to license Gamera 2 & 3, but Daei had been bought by Disney as part of the Ghibli deal, so Disney has first option on those. We got to see some footage of the upcoming Madhouse anime Alexander, should be pretty interesting. The usual interesting banter filled the room regarding Mononoke Hime as I dashed out to make my dealer's room run. I put on my brakes. Hey Dave, how's it going? That many? Wow. It turns out Otakon has just broken the 4500 person attendee level, quite an achievement. Anyway, Dave, gotta go, there's a Gundam box set with my name on it!
I spend the next couple of hours lounging and catching up with friends I tend to meet only once or twice a year. It's a benefit to these conventions that I always cherish. After all, isn't that really what anime conventions should be all about, being able to enjoy your passion for a type of entertainment with others fans? Well, it looks like time is about up, guess we'll have to check out what others have to say about how the con has gone, down at the feedback panel. At the feedback panel (gripe session) which closed out the con activities, a variety of small issues from artist alley procedures to video schedules to room scheduling issues were raised by fans. It was a very thorough going over in my opinion. It also struck me after listening through the session that the majority of the negative feedback was relatively small and nit-picky, in my opinion. It seemed to be the theme of most of the weekend, you had to go looking fairly hard to find problems. That is always a good sign. My only real complaint (if you could call it one), was that there should have been even more, especially Friday afternoon.
How Far Indeed
Reflecting upon Otakon 1999, among the splendor of the convention facilities, I thought back to the one previous Otakon I was able to attend. (Literally) Hidden amongst the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania, was Otakon 1995 at the Scanticon Hotel in State College, PA. Very intimate and content-rich, the 600 person convention felt of a different world entirely than the extravaganza it has now become. Credit to the Otakon staff, that though the convention has grown to what another convention organizer termed 'a world-class con', drawing in 750% more fans since those State College days, that the content-driven and otaku-stylized atmosphere has barely changed. Only those trained in the science of quantum mechanics may be able to describe to future generations how far Otakon has come in the past five years.
How far indeed.