Ari Rockefeller presents Otakon 2011 — It’s Like I Never Left

                Yes, it was quite fun.

When Ari isn’t writing for Anime Jam Session or catching Pokemans, he’s writing for the Philadelphia Exa*THUMP* *CRACK* *WHAP* *BOOM* *SMASH* *WHCRUNCH*

                Ay dios mio—fine.­­
                Every otaku and everyone who’s made a habit out of going to conventions (anime or otherwise) has that one convention in that one city that they really connect with. It may be one close to home, or on the other side of the country, or where you met someone very important to you in your life. Or, it could be something as inane as the first convention you’ve ever attended. That’s how I am with Otakon, and Baltimore.
                Aside from being the one convention I never fail to attend every year, I especially like Otakon because I wholeheartedly embrace having my convention experience start on Thursday, as opposed to using the first part of Friday to make my arrival. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, even if that single step is on the gas pedal. And the thousand miles parable is entirely appropriate, because this was one of the longest fucking con road trips I’ve ever experienced.
                I understand that I’m the driver in our adventuring party; it comes with the territory of being the only one with a car and everyone else being scattered about. Hell, I’m totally alright with occasionally referring to myself as “The Driver” to others we may run into on the road. And while I do enjoy bombing down the highways with my friends in tow on the way to the convention du jour, the miles can add up. One member of our adventuring party was roughly an hour and a half away, in north Jersey, from where I would be picking up another, in Philadelphia. No matter how much finagling I tried to pull off with Google Maps, the shortest way to get to Maryland from north Jersey was to backtrack all the way down to Philly and go as normal. It then became a question of when to wake up to start the journey. Fortunately, the suggestion to make a 9:00 pickup in Philly (that’s when the bus was scheduled to come in), drive the 90 minutes to north Jersey, make the other pickup, and go to Baltimore like I normally would (a proposal to take the Garden State Parkway not only would’ve landed me back in Philly anyway, but would’ve added an additional half hour to the road trip).
                Going to make the north Jersey pickup first meant getting up at a time I’m usually going to bed, and I don’t want to think about trying to stay awake at the wheel.
                The day would be much better once we made it to the city proper. This was easily the earliest I’ve ever made it to…well, any convention weekend. Of course, the city still had some problems—parking was a logistical and financial nightmare, and the temperature was consistently in the mid-80s, lower 90s throughout the weekend. Still, I’ve never had this much free time before a convention, and I was almost unsure of what to do with myself for the rest of the evening.
                We got a hold of our press passes around six or so. I was absolutely elated to get one of them. Granted it feels good to get them from any convention, but getting one for a larger con such as Otakon gave me a feeling of, “We made it!” I’m not sure if anyone else working for Anime Jam Session feels the same way or not. We were told of press meetings at 9:30 every morning, mostly to go over con policies and the occasional update/revision of the schedule. A good thing about that is the chance to network. I exchanged business cards with more than a few other press attendees, a few of which had a passing knowledge of the site. I had a fresh box of 250 cards on Thursday, and come Sunday, they were nearly exhausted.
                I stopped off for dinner at a Noodles & Company in the mall. I had seen it open the last Otakon or two, but I haven’t had a chance to go. Thursday night, though, I made it a point to try it out. I was under the assumption it was a ramen bar; I was wrong. That did not deter me, though. They had three styles of dishes—Asian, Mediterranean, and American. The dishes ranged from very exotic (Pad Thai) to the why-even-bother (plain buttered noodles). I settled on the Japanese pan noodles, which turned out better than I expected. Not bad, but I’d probably only eat there again if I was part of a decent-sized group that decided on there to eat.
                Speaking of the mall, one of my fraternity brothers living in the Baltimore area alerted me to a major change—many of the food court had been replaced with a massive H&M store. Granted a change like that didn’t happen overnight, but seeing how the Inner Harbor is a major tourist attraction in Baltimore (not just for the convention), cutting out over a dozen eating selections in favor of a run-of-the-mill clothing store feels like an exercise in futility.
                Suffice to say, the warnings of incredibly long lines were well heeded.
                We regrouped back at our room at the Holiday Inn—Inner Harbor. This wasn’t the first time I stayed at this hotel, but it’s the first since I started writing for the website, so here’s my summary of the place. The rooms were spacious and comfortable, but the housekeeping staff more than once jumped the gun in showing up to clean the room (i.e. we were all still asleep). The hotel easily had the biggest pool of any hotel I’ve stayed at so far, both in overall size and depth. It also had a workout room and a sauna, but since I had no workout gear and the timer knob on the sauna was broken, I didn’t make use of either one. The restaurants and café were a joke. The Eden West bar/restaurant offered a 15% discount for Otakon attendees and $5 appetizers during happy hour on Friday and Saturday, but the bartender refused to acknowledge the former despite flyers plastered around the lobby advertising such. Dottie’s Café in the lobby was equally futile. I got food there once. Once. A bottle of water (simple 500ml bottle) and a bag of chips cost me almost six dollars. Six goddamn dollars. Yes, I know tourism is a substantial part of the Inner Harbor, but prices like that border on extortion. And it wasn’t all that palatable, either. Suffice to say, I didn’t eat there again, and warned more than a few people While the con’s intentions were good, what I really took away from the meeting was a cavalcade of other blogs, websites, and others, giving us plenty of networking opportunities.
                I didn’t get much sleep Thursday night; in fact, I didn’t get any at all. I ended up lying in bed with my eyes closed, which is not even remotely close to the same thing. I thought I was going to be a zombie wandering around the convention that Friday, but thankfully, I was wrong (I’m still upset over not getting any actual sleep, though).
                My first panel of the con was “So You Wanna Be a Voice Actor?”. Always intriguing, I had dreamed of getting a break as a voice actor. Though I only have a fan dub or two to my credit, it seems like something I could easily get the hang of. Needless to say, the process of breaking into voice acting is pretty complex. One of the best (and most obvious) ways to improve your voice quality is to take voice acting classes. There are also numerous breathing exercises that can increase stamina and overall strength of your voice. You also have to network extensively. There are plenty of websites dedicated to refining, practicing and even getting jobs doing voice acting, especially The Voice Acting Alliance forum. Building up a good demo reel is also important; it’s the vocal equivalent of a resume. Finally, doing a good impression doesn’t automatically make you a good voice actor, mostly because impressions and vocal matches are as different as night and day.
                The next panel I attended had a bit of a morbid flair to it—it was called “Japan’s Apocalyptic Imagination in Anime, Manga and Art.” Its thesis was, well…the frequency magnitude and detail of apocalypse scenarios that play out in their creative works. For the uncertain reading this, here’s a brief rundown on Japan itself—it’s an archipelago roughly ¾ the size of the state of California that boasts four times that state’s population. The island chain is situated across what is scientifically referred to as “a tectonic clusterfuck;” there is a long history (including recent times, as you are all aware) of the land being ravaged by volcanoes (including Fuji), earthquakes, and tsunamis. For the longest time, a lot of their architecture was light, flexible and easily replaceable (the logic being you wouldn’t want something that heavy and massive falling on you in the event of a disaster). Apocalyptic themes have been prominent in Japanese art since the 1600s, with one of the most famous images, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, created in the early 1830s, showing the potential devastation by a tsunami by juxtaposing a small version of Mt. Fuji next to it. Creators such as Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka also drew inspiration from apocalyptic scenarios; Tezuka’s Astro Boy is every bit a product of post-World War II, as the titular robot, superhero and honorary citizen embodying something born of radiation and Japan’s burgeoning faith in high technology. It’s also interesting to note that Japanese apocalyptic scenarios vary greatly from their Western counterparts. For one, while the West (typically) favors an apocalypse as the end point of the story and/or something to avoid/prevent/delay, Japan likes to start its stories after the apocalypse has taken place. It inundates the story with the concept of gamon—to keep on keeping on even after everything is lost.
                I took a break from panels for a while. My next objective was to check out what else Otakon had to offer. I’ve been to this convention several times before, so aside from where they’re located, I wasn’t going to be too surprised by any of the major attractions. The Dealers’ Room was the same as it ever was, but the popularity of it was deeply underestimated by the Otakon staff. The room didn’t open until noon, but there were three lines to get in—one starting at the top of the stairs above the room proper, another wrapping around the far end of one floor, and a third that other con goers started after the second was officially cut off. Staffers repeatedly shouted instructions to disperse through megaphones, instructions which were promptly ignored.
                It was here that my press pass started paying for itself.
                As difficult as it is to obtain one, one of the perks of having a press pass is getting early entrance to panels, events, and other attractions (read: ignore the lines). It felt like I knew more about Otakon’s policies than the staffers did, because it took several relays and go-betweens to confirm this—and even then I got some strange looks from the staff. Sure, I can understand the glares from people waiting in line, but seeing them from the occasional staffer felt unprofessional. I managed to get into the Dealers’ Room about 15 minutes before people in line. It was more peaceful in that I wasn’t bumping into half a dozen people while browsing, but without the din of the crowd it felt more spaced out and empty than the room usually feels. Among the dealers and exhibitors, I spoke briefly with the guys in charge of MAGfest. I spoke to them at other conventions, and in all honesty, theirs is one convention I’ve been meaning to attend but haven’t gotten around to. Their booth offered gaming challenges on some of the older game consoles (via emulators), which had the promise of registration discounts to those who passed. There was a wide variety in terms of games, systems and difficulty. I settled on the first one that especially caught my eye—defeating Metal Sonic as Knuckles in Sonic 3 and Knuckles. I loved the Sonic 3 games as a kid, and this challenge was no problem; even the guys at the booth applauded me for tearing through Metal Sonic so quickly and convincingly. I parted ways with them, promising that I’ll try my best to make MAGfest X.
                Aside from that, the Dealers’ Room wasn’t too out of the ordinary. I resisted as much as I could to go on a mad spending spree, as my budget was substantially healthier than I’ve been used to (most of the money went to the hotel, food and parking). The only major purchase I made was of the Love Hina complete series on DVD.
                The game room had more of the same, just like last year. The biggest changes I noticed were the center setups now had Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition on full display. Competition was plentiful, but the attitudes of the other players ran the full spectrum of behaviors. By the end of the con I was hoping for just one good run in SSFIV before I left. I did manage to chat up some of the more amicable gamers while playing, which made the experience nicer. One in particular noted the press pass (his had a much different design); and as a tangent, a bad pun will elicit a harshly negative reaction from me, ranging from self-inflicted head trauma to uncontrollable rages, while a good pun will earn you my utmost respect and reverence. He made a point of me pressing my advantages, which I commended him on. But the moment turned sour when he admitted he wasn’t trying to make that pun.
                The last panel I checked out Friday was entitled “Anime Amazons.” It was all about women who kick ass. There was no audible shout of “Shut up and take my money!”, but it was implied. The panelists’ definition of an anime amazon was exactly what you’d expect—women who could be badass, but still be women. They don’t make a big deal about doing typically “girly” things, and they’re not obnoxious or loads. The ability to adapt easily to whatever situation they are in and maintain themselves is a major factor in being an amazon. They also stated that badass women who primarily act as supporting roles for men fail to make the cut. When they appear in Shonen series, they’re generally useless/eye-candy, two major negative factors. They dropped several well-known examples, such as Chun Li, Princess Zelda, Lightning (Final Fantasy XIII), Lara Croft, and the female player characters from the Pokémon games (with one of the panelists telling how she was thrilled when Crystal came out and she could use a female character for the first time). The girls from the Pokémon anime fit this example, as do the girls of Sailor Moon, including Sailor Moon herself, until Tuxedo Mask shows up. They pointed out several series where amazons rule the day, such as Soul Eater, which has women on par with the main character as well as the main antagonist, and Claymore, which is essentially a gender-bent Shonen series. Hayao Miyazaki loves this type of character, and it’s been confirmed that he himself is a feminist.
                I did check out a few video attractions this year (which is a few more than I checked out at AnimeNEXT). They all ended up being 18+ panels, requiring the special wrist strap, so take of that what you will. Granted, no one could show flat-out pornography, but there were more than a few—shall we say, adult—scenarios. The first one I saw was Oppai Chandara: Striptease Samurai Squad. On paper, it seemed directly up my alley—women samurai sword fighting mostly if not completely naked? What could go wrong? Well, for one thing, once you got beyond the ZOMG BEWBS reaction a lot of the con goers had, the show itself was…bland. A girl comes of age and gets to inherit the family’s ancient sword fighting style, and as part of the ascension ritual, is given a strange tea to drink while blindfolded. She then wakes up (or hallucinates; it’s not made clear) in the feudal era, and in her first fight scene, drives off a bandits tormenting a nearby village. Oh, and her technique grows stronger and more refined the more clothes she tears off during battle. It sounds like something with a lot of potential, but the passable acting and unimaginative story killed any interest for me.
                The last thing I checked out that night was also 18+, but for entirely different reasons. The title of the panel was “OMG! WTF Did I Just Watch?!”. You can gather from that that the subject material was well into the realm of the bizarre. And, if you guessed that all this craziness came from Japan, well then…it wasn’t all that farfetched after all; this is an anime convention, you know. It was an hour and a half collection of some of the weirdest things from Japanese television. That’s right; things even Japan thought were over the line. It was a collection of strange commercials, weird game shows, unusual “dance” sensations, and capped off with one of Hard Gay’s Candid Camera-esque bits.
                Once everyone was back in the room that night, we tried to get some sleep. Well, we tried, but instead, most of us ended up chatting and doing some light drinking until about 4:30 in the morning.
                Despite the late bedtime (which I’m sad to say I’m used to) and alcohol flowing through my system, I awoke Saturday morning feeling pretty good. I was sharp and alert for the first panel I went to, “Anime Mythbusters.” The panelists, who were physics majors, it turns out, deconstruct some of the most common/notable/infamous scenes and tropes in anime and discuss each incident’s physics (and the liberties taken therein). Breast physics was their first target. To wit, they broke down the infamous “sniper rifle” scene in episode 8 of High School of the Dead as an example. Bullets from a high-powered sniper rifle pass in between Saeko’s legs and in between her breasts as they independently bounce up and down. They calculated the speed of the bullet and the rate at which her breasts bounced—even having factored in her measurements—and even took the scene’s bullet time into consideration. Their conclusion: Saeko’s breasts are moving fast enough to generate sonic booms; though if that were really the case, her breasts should’ve exploded into a fine, reddish-pink mist, because I’m fairly certain the human body can’t hold together when traveling at the speed of sound. They also tackled how high and how far Team Rocket flies when they blast off, using distance versus frame rate (despite shoddy animation). By their calculations, they end up going faster the farther they travel, and their overall height isn’t too impressive. Rock Lee from Naruto and his impressive jumping ability were also brought into question, especially after he removes his insanely heavy leg weights. The strength he generates when he jumps is ludicrous for someone of his stature, but it’s still physically plausible. His speed, however, is not. He can launch himself several stories up from a semi-crouch, in the time it takes someone to blink. This is humanly impossible. Spinning as a shield was also discussed—a.k.a. “Why use Kevlar when you can spin really, really fast?” If you had a relatively low-speed projectile, such as an arrow, and you had sufficient (read: master level) skill with a bo, spinning as a defense is plausible. But for modern, more high tech projectiles, spinning just makes it worse. What happens when the projectile hits something spinning that fast? Does it disintegrate? And if it doesn’t, what happens to the small pieces it breaks into? How do those get deflected? They also brought up a more recognizable example—baseball. Bats can break if swung hard enough at a fast enough pitch, and they asked when the last time someone broke a bat by bunting was. Giant robots (especially Gundams) were another prime target. Ignoring the fact that a giant robot’s feet would have to be massive to prevent sinking into the ground and that the lower body would have to be made out of the kind of materials found in the Marvel universe just to support itself, giant robots are disastrously inefficient. Gundams especially are underpowered for their size, and consume 2½ times the energy of an M1A1 tank. In one day, a typical Gundam uses almost ten times the amount of energy used in the entire United States in one year.
                Despite knowing this, asking some fans which one they’d rather have would still be a difficult choice.
                I couldn’t possibly skip out on the next panel, “Birth of a Generation: Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and its Effects on the American Anime Market.” It involved two of my three gateway anime series, both of which are still part of my favorites, and any history pertaining to them is always interesting. DBZ originally aired in Japan in 1989, and if anyone else suddenly felt old after reading that, you’re not the only one. It was loosely based on the epic Journey to the West in the same way I, Robot the Will Smith film was based on I, Robot the novel by Isaac Asimov. The main character, Son Goku, gets his name from one of several acceptable transliterations of Journey’s protagonist, Sun Wukong. Their signature weapon is a staff capable of changing its shape as per the will of its wielder. The series is also rife with pun-riddled theme naming, though a lot of the references were lost on American audiences (the Saiyans are vegetables, the Ginyu Force is dairy products, and Bulma and her family are named after undergarments). As Dragon Ball shifted to Dragon Ball Z, the action increased dramatically, the fight scenes became more intense, and every progressive bad guy was far more powerful than his predecessor. DBZ’s big break in the American market came in 1995, when Cartoon Network ran it as part of its Toonami lineup; this gave anime a level of respectability it had never seen before. In time, the credibility of Toonami grew in leaps and bounds with each new series it ran. Sailor Moon, meanwhile, was one of the foremost series in the magical girl genre. The genre itself started with Sally the Witch, which debuted in 1962 and drew a lot of influence from Bewitched. The genre struggled to find popularity until about 1991, when Codename Sailor V debuted; it would eventually be folded into the Sailor Moon series when it debuted in 1995. Depending on where you were in North America, you got one of two different dubs—the DiC version, which ran in the US, and the Cloverway dub, which aired in Canada. Cloverway’s efforts were closer to the original version by a long shot. The DiC dub became infamous for its editing process. Five episodes were cut from the first season; Americanized name changes were everywhere; the lesbian couple, Haruka and Michiru (Sailor Uranus and Neptune, respectively), were “cousins” in the dubbing but the romantic atmosphere surrounding them was completely untouched, effectively turning them into lesbian cousins. But the most notorious part of the DiC dub were the “Sailor Moon Says” segments that aired at the end of each episode, which taught the viewer an important life lesson, usually relevant to the episode itself. These were done with all the grace and delicate touch of an Objectivist filibuster. The series would eventually run on Toonami anyway, with the “Sailor Moon Says” segments cut. However, two minutes of footage on average was cut from each episode to make room for more commercials. Still, the series became associate with the “girl power” craze of the mid 1990s (see also: Spice Girls), and despite being aimed primarily at girls, it became popular with guys as well.
                And every guy who watched Sailor Moon in the 90s has a favorite Sailor Scout. The guys at Anime Jam Session are no different. Around here, Venus and Mercury are especially popular.
                After bouncing around the game room for a little while longer, I took in a panel that compared the lifestyle of ancient samurai against that of the ninja, called, interestingly enough, “Samurai vs. Ninja.” The two panelists talked about and argued the merits of each lifestyle, especially how it compared against the other. The samurai used traditional Japanese swords and typically wore ornate kimonos, while ninja wore whatever would best help them blend in (farmer, laborer, etc.) and favored straight swords, which could easily be worn and carried on the back. While the ninja saw their swords (and other weapons) as tools of the trade, the samurai took their swords very seriously. The forging was practically a religious experience, and was performed by monks, who believed the swords to be mythical objects. They were tested for sharpness usually by cutting through the carcasses of enemies; a blade that could cut through seven bodies on a single swing was considered especially deadly. While ninja didn’t actually have mystical powers, they did, however, take to manipulating the myths pertaining to them. Ninja relied on deception, subversion and teamwork to complete their objectives. While samurai commonly lived in ornate castles, ninja homes were more subtle and pragmatic, having things such as revolving walls, traps, and concealed weapons. I personally identify with samurai far more than ninja, and I found the panel very enlightening.
                While other members of my adventuring party went to the rave, I chose to check out the Cosplay Burlesque show. This time around, the people running the show attempted something that hasn’t been done in burlesque shows—have a plot. That is to say, they told the story of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World through striptease and dancing. Uncle Yo was emcee for the evening. He was dressed—and remained in character throughout the night—as Gideon Graves, while channeling the biting sarcasm and dry with of Chris Jericho circa 1998. In between Scott’s fights with the Evil Exes, there were other game and anime-themed dance routines. There was almost as many male dancers as there were females this time around. I’m apparently out of the loop with the whole burlesque thing, because it’s not uncommon to see guys on stage stripping for the amusement of the crowd. To their credit, an Irvine cosplayer and a Richter Belmont cosplayer turned in wonderful performances, the latter incorporating whip dual-wielding into his routine.
                That night, we retreated back to our hotel, bringing back several friends with us. There was plenty of drinking to be had, as we had several bottles of alcohol that had yet to be finished. We also came up with a great drinking game involving a NERF revolver—NERF™ Russian Roulette. Whoever took a dart to the head had to drink. Very self-explanatory. Very fun. We ended up partying until around 4:30 before calling it a night.
                 I had plans on visiting other panels, but a late start and conducting our requisite interviews put a stop to that. Granted, we got some great interviews for the site, combing the entire convention grounds for the perfect subjects. The weird thing about Sunday was that the convention felt rather…dead. Even for a Sunday, the convention seemed to be lacking in life. I don’t know if the other con goers were burned out or they got an early start on leaving, but Sunday felt like going through the motions more than anything else.
                Our adventuring party met back at the hotel one last time to pack up the car and leave. The good news is that I found $20 while packing up. The bad news is that it went towards parking. No matter where you went in the city, nothing was bigger of a racket than public parking. The garage we found promised very reasonable rates and overnight parking. For the longest time, we were under the impression the hotel would offer discounted rates to hotel guests; we assumed wrong. I ended up paying about twice the advertised rate. Any disagreement I had with the staff were met with, essentially, “What are you gonna do about it, you fucking tourist?” I very reluctantly paid them and headed back to the hotel.
                Once we left, other members of the party had a hankering for crab cakes, which are especially good in Baltimore, apparently. I took their word for it, as my allergies prevent me from eating any kind of seafood. The two places they especially wanted to hit up had closed down. We decided to cut our losses and leave, seeing how they had a limited window to catch the bus to New York City. A stop at the Maryland House rectified the crab cake scenario, and after a light dinner, we hit the road. Because of the unique ride situation, we settled on a compromised set of plans—make the north Jersey drop first, then transport the others to Trenton so they can catch the bus there instead. It would take almost an hour to get to Trenton; I made the trip in just over 40 minutes. Spoiler alert: I’m the best con wheelman you’ll ever run into.
                I’ve been to Otakons both good and bad, and aside from the driving, this one qualified as one of the better ones. Never once did I take my press privileges for granted, and I was deeply grateful to others in our adventuring party for a) putting up with me going off on overcharging, b) bombing down the highways with some of the coolest friends I’ve known, and c) getting me the press pass and saving me a lot in the process. With this convention, I feel like I’ve firmly established my reporting chops, and while my reporting and/or ranting can get long-toothed, I try to use them for good to the best of my ability. Will Otakon 2012 be better than this? It’ll be a long shot, but it’s doable. I wholeheartedly believe that.
                The only major downside to the convention? Unlike each other Otakon, I didn’t cosplay, as I still haven’t put together another major costume. Don’t worry, though. My plans for Hoenn!Ash will be realized soon enough, and when it’s complete, it’ll be a thing of glory.

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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