Otakon 2015 – Sleepless in Baltimore

I’ve been going to Otakon since 2004, so coming back to it every summer seems like swallows coming back to San Juan Capistrano…if the swallows were fat shits and decked out in cosplays. But whether it be due to instinct or general, legitimate love for the convention and going back to my roots, it kind of gets hard to say.

Otakon came back to the Baltimore Convention Center this past July, and it brought back with it all the nostalgia and trepidation that came with my early days of conventioneering—that is to say, before I joined Anime Jam Session, when it was much more difficult to get a room and/or a weekend pass, and with a slight feeling of wandering around like a beheaded chicken. I can’t truly say whether or not I appreciated those feelings welling up on me, as I was the only on-air voice from the podcast down there and I much better appreciate conventions and the like when I have my friends and comrades in arms with me. It might also had something to do with the venue itself; Otakon is leaving Baltimore—after next year, I learned, as there appeared to be some confusion about the subject. Whether or not Otakon returns to Baltimore (apparently there are renovations coming to the Baltimore Convention Center) remains to be seen.

The weekend started the Thursday before the weekend itself, as I had left straight from work to hit up a “nearby” supermarket to get provisions for the weekend. As I figured everyone would get tired of eating at the same overpriced eateries near the convention area and in and around the waterfront area, I wanted to do my part to aid the others in the room with me. It was mostly snacks, with a case of water, for everyone in the room to share. For what it was worth, everyone appreciated the gesture.

What was not appreciated, however, was the typical usurious parking prices in and around the convention area. I got lucky and found one about two blocks away from the Hilton—the one directly attached to the convention center—and was much more reasonably priced. The Hilton did offer valet parking, but it was almost twice the rates I paid at the parking garage I found. I was having none of that…and pitied those who were.

The weekend opened with kind of a rocky start for me, as I was confused as to who was or was not in which room/s, and who had checked in or not. And then there was the prospect of the hotel clerk nearly trying to make me pay the full rate for the room/s right then and there. As I had not been on my high blood pressure medicine at the time, I was worried that the encroaching panic attack would give way to a full-on heart attack. Thankfully, it was explained to me by a caring, more calming voice, that one of our roommates had already checked in, having arrived much earlier than the six-ish that I arrived at. Well, that was a relief…but it didn’t make me feel like my heart was pressing right up against the inside of my chest.

I needed some time to relax after that debacle, and spent a good hour or so after that just trying to get my heart rate down to an acceptable rate—or to put it more bluntly, trying to calm the fuck down. Then there was me trying to get my press pass from press ops…only to find out that they had closed up by the time I had finished checking in to the hotel. This did not help. The rest of the night was spent eating a late dinner at the nearby Jimmy John’s, and hanging out with everyone else in the room. But I still felt really detached from everyone else that first night. Hell, adding to the discomfort was the complete lack of sleep; I did that thing where I wound up not actually sleeping but lying in bed with my eyes closed. It was not fun.

Friday morning started off surprisingly well considering how poorly I felt the evening before. I managed a dip in the pool, which opened quite early and was mostly abandoned save for the life guard, and a soak in the hot tub before getting dressed and heading out. I ate breakfast at the Subway that was still open just across the street from the hotel, which would happen more than once this weekend. I made my way over to the Sheraton to get my press pass and it was smooth sailing from there. Even better, the swag they had for press people was the same miniature micro/USB power source that they had last year. I didn’t know if they were surplus from last year, or new ones commissioned for this year. It didn’t occur to me to ask. Mostly because a) it would’ve sounded rude and b) oh hey, free stuff!

Everyone was out in full force cosplaying, even the day before when they were waiting in line to get their badges. Unfortunately, Otakon staff ran into the same problem they had last year, as their systems and the building’s available Wi-Fi couldn’t exactly hug it out, leading to long delays and a pre-registration line that was far, far, far longer than the walk-up line. Also: apparently attendees could elect to have their pass mailed to them for (what I’m guessing is) a small fee. But everyone probably figured, “Oh, I’ll just wait in line; it’s not like the line will move slowly or anything.” From what I heard, the long-ass prereg line persisted into Saturday. Or people were joking that any line of people waiting outside was “the prereg line.” Either or wouldn’t surprise me.

Now all that was left was to enjoy the con and take in as much as possible—including the panels, of course.

The first panel I attended on Friday was an Okinawa Karate demonstration from the Penn State Karate Club. They’ve been a part of Penn State for a good forty years, from what they explained, and this isn’t the first convention they’ve done. In addition to having a wealth of Okinawan knowledge and history to share with everyone, they also had audience participation, helping people go through basic techniques and kata. For what it was worth, everyone knew what they were talking about, and were glad to talk to other martial artists (e.g. me) after the panel had let out.

The next panel after that was called “A World of Warriors: Fighting Games from the 90s to Today.” It was exactly what the title implies—a what’s what of fighting games from the 90s (i.e. after Street Fighter Alpha and Mortal Kombat 3 and the like), from a myriad of companies…many of which were one-hit wonders or otherwise uninteresting; they spoke of the turn of the millennium being a dark age for fighting games and the fighting game community. After all, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike couldn’t hold all that up on their own. They pointed to the emergence of Street Fighter IV and its series, among others, as causing a resurgence in popularity, especially with the tournament scene. Also: they had a raffle for old fighting game stuff. The first “prize” was a Saturn copy of the Street Fighter: The Movie video game. Yikes.

After that, I attended a panel called “I Love the 90s: Anime Edition.” It’s exactly what you’d think it’d be—a what’s what of anime openings from the 90s, and while they were genuinely interesting, it seemed like nothing more than an hour of cheap nostalgia. Honestly, that panel and the panel I attended after that—Greatest Anime Openings Ever—felt so similar and nostalgia-baiting that it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. I ended up leaving early and wandering around, taking pictures and exploring the game room for a while.

The game room was the same as it ever was, almost down to the layout. Sure the displays with the really big flat-screens had different games at any given time—and were never not in use—but the positioning of the other games was pretty much the same. Aside from doing somewhat okay in Ultra Street Fighter IV, I did have a fun time playing multiplayer in a puzzle game that was a mash-up of Puyo Puyo and Tetris…in that the (up to) four players got to choose which format you play in, and the garbage dropped on other players from doing well adjusts itself accordingly.

The panel later on in that afternoon was a much more intriguing panel, entitled “Anime Directors You Should Know.” The panelists gave the audience a brief history of anime as an art form to start, and then segued into the works and lives of guys like Tomino, Hideaki, and Miyazaki (who never once said anything about anime being “a mistake”). They also talked about how their experiences—both personal and their mental & emotional states—influenced their work, and how they rubbed off on others.

I didn’t go to many panels in the evening after that, mostly just concerning myself with wandering around, taking pictures, and trying to enjoy the convention (and forget the previous day). While eating dinner at the aforementioned Jimmy John’s, I noticed there was a lot of banners supporting NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick. What bothered me is rather…strange. Since coming back to pro wrestling Brock Lesnar has had the JJ logo on his wrestling gear prominently. So why no signage with Brock Lesnar on it? It’s not like it’d be the first time WWE has cross-promoted someone or something else (accidentally or otherwise)…

Saturday was a little more exciting for me, because I got to walk around in my Bear Hugger cosplay again. There were plenty of Little Macs wandering around from what I had seen the day before, but I didn’t run into anyone cosplaying them. Got my picture taken plenty of times, which was a much needed confidence booster…but hell if I can actually find pictures of me anywhere. I know people took them, too…

The first panel I attended that day was “Power Rangers vs. Super Sentai,” an in-depth look at the differences between the American adaptation (the former) and the source material (the latter). Obviously there was fun poked at the adaptations made from the original material, especially when PR took the Sentai footage and adapted it in ways that were almost completely the opposite of the original; e.g. Carranger was a borderline parody series for the franchise’s 20th anniversary, while Turbo tried to take itself way too seriously to begin with. They were especially displeased with what happened with Go-Onger, as it was rather fun and light-hearted, while RPM was about the last human city barely staving off complete overrunning from a SkyNet expy. But they still admitted they loved both Power Rangers and Super Sentai, obviously, and they were both with their strengths and flaws.

The next panel I attended after that was Attack on Titan themed, and called “The World Outside the Walls: Militarism and the Individual in Anime.” Obviously the aforementioned walls was where the Attack on Titan allusion came to, and the presenters actually made their PowerPoint presentation in the form of zooming in and out of a map of the three walls, as well as their “towers” to denote points about a particular topic. They talked about strong military cultures not just in AoT, but in things like the Gundam franchise as well. They also talked about how individual concerns, regardless of how significant they were to the matter at large, came to impasses with societies that strongly favored the collective over the individual—which had some basis in reality, considering Japan leading up to the second World War.

I had to go back to the room and change out of my cosplay and put on my intrepid journalist hat (metaphorically, anyhow; the long hair makes hats a little impractical), because it was interview time. That’s right, since I was at the convention by way of press credentials, it also meant I got to stage an interview with one of the guests of the con. Scheduling was a bit hectic, but I did manage to get an interview with voice acting talent Christopher Sabat. I had to make do with the point-and-shoot camera I had on me, seeing how I’m not the primary interview person on the show. Except that I foolishly thought my camera would hold out. See, I got the interview started, only for my batteries to crap out and my camera shut down. I was so pissed. That and it made me look unprofessional. And instead of thinking to bring extra batteries with me—which were in my bag back at the room—I instead had to run downstairs to the gift shop and get overcharged on a measly pair of AA batteries. But all was not lost. One of the press ops people told me there was going to be a press conference with both Sabat and Sean Schemmel, another voice actor and someone else who also worked on Dragon Ball Z. I managed to record the entire press conference (mostly), at the cost of the video being about 6GB in size. Getting that to the editing department, as it were, is gonna be a pain in the ass.

After that, I met up with a dear friend of mine for (a bit late) lunch. We ate at the Chipotle across the street from the convention, which in prior years was the locale of a California Tortilla that shut down for whatever reason. I think I prefer the latter. Anyhow, we were very glad to see one another, as we had in the past roomed at hotels for Otakon before—hell, our first convention experience was at Otakon 2004, staying in some shit-hole hotel on the edge of the city—and have been trying to get him to room with me and my crew for some time. But our individual plans and work schedules get in the way. It was definitely nice hanging out with him again.

After eating, and not bothering to get back into cosplay, I checked out a panel called “DPRKartoon: Anime from North Korea.” Never mind the fact that the stuff was, by definition, not anime, it was still bleakly hilarious regardless. See, virtually all of North Korea’s pop culture is centered around how much the Americans and Japanese are reprehensible assholes threatening to annihilate North Korea and send their very way of life into oblivion (and also state-run, but that’s beside the point). When you’re broadcasting propaganda nonstop, outsiders are going to see it as…weird. Things as simple as being told to do your geometry homework get twisted into impassioned pleas to work for the benefit of the country and to kill the foreign bastards threatening to destroy everything. The highlight of all of this is a furry-themed series that uses species stereotypes for different nationalities—North Koreans are cute and cuddly mice, squirrels and chipmunks, Japanese are weasels, South Koreans are rats, and Americans are badass battle-hardened wolves that fight using super-advanced technology. It’s far more absurd than I can possibly make it sound.

Some more dicking around in the game room and photography happened after that. The last panel I attended that night was “You’re Wrong and You Should Feel Bad.” It was an 18+ panel, which meant you had to go get a wrist band from the 18+ wristband kiosk, which also had a long-ass line to slog through. Thankfully, the people at registration—with some prodding from people working that line—were nice enough to let me jump most of it to get to the wristbands. I don’t know how other press people fared with their passes throughout the weekend; this was one of the few times that it worked noticeably well for me. Except that the wrist bands were too small and barely fit around my wrist. Again. Anyhow, I managed to get into this panel ahead of the line—one of the only other times the press pass worked for me in that regard that weekend—and got a pretty good seat. The presenters, Manly Battleships, deconstructed both Kill la Kill and The Legend of Korra throughout the panel, pointing out their flaws, idiosyncrasies, plot holes, story issues, and the like. The introductions to both got mixed reactions, as they were both very popular shows and, in some folks’ eyes, immune to criticism. But then again, they have a history of doing this for lots of popular series. They even went after stuff like Cowboy BeBop and Evangelion in the past. Oh, and the reason for the 18+ restriction was to show off the “best” parts of each series—the porn people create of it. In all its uncensored glory. And there was much rejoicing.

That night I wound up back in the room, having a couple of drinks and zoning out while watching TV and occasionally talking with my roommates. I didn’t go to the rave, as I do pretty poorly at those as it is. Sunday came and we all packed up our stuff, with me only getting through a little bit of the alcohol I had brought down with me for the weekend. Oh well, more for other encounters. Thankfully I didn’t have to drag my luggage back to the car right away, and I could go check out the rest of the con before leaving. The hotel was nice enough to offer storage for luggage for just that sort of occasion. No panels that day, though; just wandering around the game room, getting some last minute photos, and deciding to check out the dealers’ room. I didn’t buy anything, but some of the stands ended up having nice things regardless. My favorite of which was a custom leather clothier, who made leather clothes for things like renaissance fair and/or steampunk outfits. The guy running it was hilarious; he saw me and said as part of his sales pitch, “I notice a distinct low beard-to-leather ratio.” If I had the money and wasn’t so keen on holding onto it, I would’ve gotten something. Maybe next time.

Having done everything I set out to do, I went back to the hotel and got the rest of my stuff and headed out. I made a remark about having to get my car from the garage. And the concierge who asked me about my parking was legitimately confused when I said I wouldn’t be caught dead parking at the hotel for what they charged. It was almost as though I had learned that the fix was in…and was informing him of this in the only way a con goer on an exasperated budget could. (Spoilers: derisive laughter was involved). All that was left at that point was to pack everything back up, hit the road, and head back home.

Otakon felt a little bit weird this time around. Maybe it was the supposed uncertainty about the con’s future given that it was moving in the future. Maybe it was the anxiety in the city itself, seeing how there were riots a few months ago (and how people who were actively going out of the way of the point lamented how it would affect their trip to a fucking anime convention, something we’ve lambasted on the show before). Granted, everyone I came across looked like they were having fun, but the whole weekend had an uneasy air around it…as though there was an attitude of “phoning it in” going about. Hell, even attendance was down from last year. Hopefully it will pass for next year, and I’m getting all worked up over nothing. I’ll gladly admit that if that’s the case.

Besides, these “end of an era” type situations are always marked off by massive partying and fuck-the-world mentalities. I doubt they’ll disappoint come next summer.

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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