Otakon 2017 — A Capital Idea

I wouldn’t really think a convention like Otakon would have to go through “growing pains,” as it’s been around for over 20 years now. But that’s the situation we find ourselves in going forward.

This was the first year of Otakon’s new/temporary home in Washington, DC, until the situation is ironed out with Baltimore. They’ve taken up refuge in the Walter E. Washington convention center, right in the heart of the capital itself. The fandom waited with baited breath, wondering how well (or terribly) the new location would go, and how long (if at all) it would take people to yearn for the halcyon days of Baltimore.

I had everything packed up and loaded into the car well in advance, so Thursday consisted of me getting in the car and making the drive all the way down to DC—sadly, by myself. I was immediately introduced to just how different DC would be from Baltimore by the parking garage of the Marriott—which was connected directly to the convention center—which only had valet parking available…at almost $60 a night. Sixty dollars! I almost shot out through the driver’s side window and throttled the parking attendant after hearing that! “But it’s unlimited in and out all weekend.” Wonderful! That will serve me well when I park my car for the entire weekend and don’t go back to it until I leave the convention. It took me a good twenty minutes tooling around the city and sifting through every single parking app I have to find a place that didn’t quite rip me off as badly. I ended up settling for the parking lot of another convention hotel a few blocks away. It still cost $100 for the weekend, but it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.

As for the hotel itself, it was indeed very lovely, and it was attached to the convention center itself via walkways among the bottom floors. After the first set of escalators there was a check station for bags, props, and what have you. But I very quickly discovered a major flaw in their security checkpoint, as I could take the elevators no less than 50 ft. away from said security checkpoint, go down a flight, and bypass them altogether with them none the wiser. I don’t know if this was something they knew about or not, but it was a very glaring oversight. I didn’t hear any stories or incidents of anyone taking advantage of this, and I do hope they have it fixed for next year.

It wasn’t any issue getting my badge, although I do miss the BCC a lot more after Washington. I’m sure the press staff were doing their exactly as before in previous years, but everything just felt so…disconnected by comparison. Maybe no one’s used to the new venues yet. Maybe I was too used to knowing exactly where press ops were every year and not having an easy path to it kind of screwed with me a bit. Nothing that can’t be improved upon for the rest of their time in Washington, anyway.

Friday I was up and about in my Bear Hugger from Punch-Out!! cosplay, and I hit the panels running. The first one I came across was a Taiko drum performance on one of the lower floors. A local taiko drum troupe was giving a demonstration on their style of music, and there were about two dozen performers of varying ages and genders. While they had the much larger and more recognizable drums available, they also informed us that some people use the small, handheld drum almost exclusively. It’s not a knock against them, of course, it simply comes down to preference and comfort after a while.

The next one was “Nautical Nonsense: A Look into Japanese Naval History and the Anime It Spawned.” Very straightforward and self-explanatory, the ships of the Japanese navy influenced a lot of postwar directors and artists, their designs making it into animation in some way or another. Space Battleship Yamato was the obvious selection, but others I had never heard of, such as Arpeggio of Blue Steel and Kantai Collection were also discussed. Oh, and apparently there’s a rather recent anime which stars various WWII era battleships as moe girls. With humanoid bodies and jet booster-like appendages for their lower legs. Anime gets weird sometimes.

The third panel I hit up on Friday was entitled “Awesome Women Making Anime.” It was another praising of women who’ve made significant strides in anime, their original manga being made into animated series, etc. The usual suspects such as Sailor Moon, Ranma ½, and the like were discussed, with the panelists especially happy to talk about Yuri!!! on Ice!, as it had been released recently when the convention was going on.

After a while, I had changed into Dan (complete with losing the beard) and went back to the convention to mill about, my geta sandals getting around the no bare feet policy for the con. One thing that had a noticeably odd feel about them were the game rooms. Sure, it was a new venue and the rooms were much nicer than the old Baltimore convention center, but the layouts were fairly familiar and I noticed a lot of the same setups as previous years. Hell, I even predicted where the older arcade and console games were with just one look around in the room. Regardless, it didn’t stop me from having fun, playing different versions of Street Fighter throughout the weekend, and getting plenty of pops for my cosplay.

The most fun I had on Friday was at the “Jez Roth’s Lip Sync for your Cosplay” panel, which also stared friend of the podcast Kyle Hebert as one of the competition judges. It was a tournament, of sorts, with two people called up to have a lip sync battle to a song chosen from a very long list; whoever put on the best performance moved on. It became very clear that there was less emphasis on singing and more on showmanship, not that it detracted from the panel anyhow. Besides, Kyle was having a lot of fun as well, and even belted out one for everyone as an intermission.

The diametric opposite of that was “Anime from North Korea.” Regardless of the use of “anime” to describe non-Japanese animation aside, this was a look at what North Korea used to entertain/indoctrinate its citizens. And to the surprise of absolutely no one, it was wall-to-wall propaganda. Propaganda to do your schoolwork (and help take out those American bastards), propaganda to eat well and keep healthy (so you can help better take out those American bastards), and propaganda…that juxtaposed their views on their enemies and allies into woodland critters.

We all ended up back in the room at some capacity later in the evening, some of us going down to the rave, some staying to drink…usual convention evening winding-down activities. Saturday, I lingered a bit, getting a good breakfast at the hotel before heading out in my Ash cosplay, going to “But That’s Not Anime”, a panel I’m sure wouldn’t upset anyone at the convention at all. It was a panel discussing not just anime’s influences on animation in the rest of the world, but how the term had become a catch-all for animation of a certain quality or style. It also meant some people would call just about anything “anime” if it has so much as somebody having glowing hair for whatever reason.

I had an interview to shoot after that, with one of the guests, a Michael Sinterniklaas. I was surprised by just how deep of a filmography the man had, having voiced a whole bunch of video game and western animation characters I didn’t know he voiced. Of course, there was a bit of a discussion on his name, which I didn’t have any problem pronouncing, though I did recognize it as sounding at least a little bit like St. Nicholas. I thought it was German; close, it’s Dutch.

I went back to my Ash cosplay for the big Pokémon photoshoot at the main grand staircase. Tons of Pokémon cosplayers turning out, of course, though I was probably one of the few Hoenn based characters there (general Gen. III Pokémon notwithstanding).

I briefly dropped in on a panel called “It Gets Better” with Jamie McGonnigal, which was a roundtable for LGBTQ fans and their struggles with coming out and how we could improve the world for future generations of LGBTQ folks. I mostly stayed back and observed, but the stories were pretty moving nonetheless.

One panel that I had to go to, feeling like I couldn’t miss it, was “Starting New Japan Pro Wrestling.” It was a discussion on NJPW, the organization, its history, and how it promotes pro wrestling in Japan, both with its own homegrown talent, to others coming from overseas. There was a lot of talk about Wrestle Kingdom, their biggest show of the year, the Japanese equivalent to WrestleMania. There were a few clips of matches shown, highlighting the great technical and athletic skill of everyone involved, and, to my delight, at least one match was called in English by Jim Ross.

Sundays were the usual fare for Anime Jam Session, packing up from the hotel, loading up the cars, and doing a few cosplayer interviewers and taking those last bits of pictures before we all had to part ways. We did stop for lunch at a famous burger joint, that had been recommended after seeing it on TV. It was some local little digs known as Ben’s Chili Bowl. The food was good, albeit a touch too pricey, and much to our chagrin, it had a parking lot in the back that we just didn’t know about…so we had to park several blocks away. They also had a separate store for merchandise, which is about as big as my bedroom…and a little cattle chute stairway to get up to it on the second floor. Good merch, but nothing I could spend any money on.

Obviously, a convention moving out of an established locale to a new home, even if it is temporary, is going to have some growing pains to contend with, and much like AnimeNEXT, Otakon had its share. As I alluded to earlier, the security was far too easy to bypass—not that I had anything that would be confiscated, but that’s neither here nor there—and the building itself does take a bit of getting used to. The prices for everything are noticeably higher in the area, as well, as DC is more of a tourist trap than the Inner Harbor, at some points; suddenly, the $65 to park for the weekend at the Hilton or the Sheraton in Baltimore don’t seem so bad by comparison. It was a learning experience for everyone involved…although we’ll probably get used to everything and have the DC operation working so smoothly the very last year before it moves back to Baltimore. That would be just our (my) luck….

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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