The Otaku Pilgrimage – Highlights of Otakon 2008

I noticed something very amazing last Thursday. There was a common theme running with all the people I follow on Twitter. Up in Connecticut, Ramune and Neato, the team that makes up the web comic Kitsune Kiki, were making their way to JFK airport to catch a flight to Baltimore. Japanator’s Dick McVengeance was taking a drive down from New Jersey. Down in Georgia, long time anime blogger Matthew was also catching a flight, while Gia was preparing for a cross-country flight out of LA. And this whole time, I was on a Greyhound bus from New York to Baltimore, surrounded by nerds, fangirls, multicolored wigs, and cat ears.

For one day, it appeared that every otaku in America was traveling to Baltimore for Otakon. It was an otaku pilgrimage, and the Baltimore Inner Harbor was our holy land.

After spending my weekend at Otakon, attending many panels, and observing the otaku culture, I certainly know why it has become such a sacred place for our little subculture. Although I did a full coverage of the event live on my twitter account, I would like to go over a few major highlights of the convention that really stood out for me.

The OP

One of the convention’s highlights came in the opening ceremonies when they debuted a cartoon created by studio Madhouse specifically for Otakon. The short was very reminiscent of the short created by studio Gainax for the 1983 sci-fi convention Daicon IV. The Gainax short was a tribute to geek culture at the time, featuring a bunny girl mascot character interacting with giant robots, super sentai, American comic book heroes, and Star Wars characters.

The Madhouse animation for Otakon followed this theme by having the con’s red-headed mascots race towards the Baltimore Convention Center. Along the way, they encounter various “obstacles” in the form of pop cultures figures that are easily recognizable to American otaku. This included various Pokemon, Gundums, Nintendo characters, and other anime-related figures. The male character, Hiroshi, transforms into Rurouni Kenshin to battle these foes, and the female, Hiroko, transforms into Sailor Moon in typical magical girl style. This all leads up to the short’s climax, where Evangelion’s Eva Unit 01 emerges from the convention center to do the final battle with our heroes.

Hopefully that description will suffice, because we were not allowed to take any photography and the short has yet to be released online. But the audience ate it up completely and cheered at every new pop culture reference that appeared on the screen. It was awesome, and I can only imagine this was the exact same feeling and reaction that the audience had while watching Gainax’s animation in 1983.

My Major Gripe – Fansubs

One cringe-inducing moment came when I was first looking over the convention schedule. Right there – screening on Friday afternoon- was To Love Ru, the final anime I watched in fansubs. I had recalled that out of all the conventions I have ever been to, there have only been two of them that showed fansubs, Otakon and MangaNEXT. Anime Expo, the only anime convention in America that’s larger than Otakon, had made a very firm anti-fansub stance for a number of years now and made it their policy to not show them. And in the past year, even MangaNEXT went completely legit.

So why did Otakon still continue to screen fansubs in 2008, especially given the current state of the struggling industry? To find out, I sat down for a few words with Otakon’s head of Industry Relations, Terry Chu.

“We are very well aware of the current situation regarding fansubbing and the industry,” Mr. Chu tells me, “and we have complete respect for all the companies who are involved with our convention. That is why we have made it a policy to not screen any material without the expressed permission of that show’s rights holder.”

Wait, what? Otakon actually goes through the troubles of contacting the companies in Japan?

Indeed they do, and Mr. Chu is very serious about enforcing this policy for the convention this year.

“If we do not receive the permission, we will not show it. No exceptions.There are several shows that we have put in our program schedule that we, unfortunately, were unable to receive permission for. Therefore, we are not going to screen them and will be showing another series instead.” Apparently this was the case with most of the fansubs that appeared in the schedule.

Immediately following my talk with Mr. Chu, I walked up to the video room that was supposed to be screen To Love Ru, and sure enough, the fansub that had been taunting me all week was crossed out and replaced with the show Special A.

I was relieved in Otakon’s policy being enforced like this, but I still a little disappointed that I had to learn about it from Terry Chu directly. From the convention goer’s point-of-view, Special A was just another fansub. While the Japanese rights holders probably wanted to show the series for promotional purposes, the only type of promotion it will provide is to say, “Hey! This title is available for free online! Come and get it!”

I still don’t see the point in screening fansubs to conventions anymore since they are just not as rare as they used to be and there’s no more exclusivity on them anymore. The Madhouse Otakon video was an exclusive screening, Special A is not. While Otakon does enforce a respectable (albeit secret) policy, I can only hope that next year they will use that screen time to promote licensed material instead of unlicensed.

Major Crowd Control

Without a doubt, the most defining aspect of Otakon is the sheer size of the event. After all, when you have every otaku in America going to one event on the same weekend, it’s bound to be a pretty big turnout.

Okay, well, maybe not every otaku in America attended Otakon, but with a record-breaking attendance of over 26,000 people this year, over twice the population of my home town, it most certainly seemed to me like every anime fan I knew was there. For these few days, the streets of Baltimore were filled with otaku in elaborate cosplay, leaving many of the locals and tourists to the inner harbor area to question at what had happen to their city for one weekend.

And to Otakon’s credit, the staff handled the large crowd and many events very well. Although the registration line reached to ridiculous length, it moved very quickly so that I never really heard of complaints from those waiting. In between panels, the staff was able to clear out a room and then refill it to full compactly within a few minutes, ensuring that many panels started on time… provided the panelists weren’t late. And while there was the occasional technical problem through out the weekend, they were very rare and almost always fixed quickly.

With a convention this huge, things can turn chaotic very quickly. So the fact that everything ran so smoothly is an achievement that Otakon should be proud of.

So overall, Otakon proved to me once again that it stands out far and above any other con on the east coast. Thanks to all the staff for running a smooth show and for all their hospitality in helping out this “press” member obtain a couple more weeks worth of stories to write about. Thanks to Terry Chu for talking with me about the convention’s policy on showing fansubs. And thanks to all the bloggers, readers, and old acquaintances who spotted me and said, “Hi!” Unfortunately, I was so busy all weekend that I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes with anyone, but I hope we can all meet again very soon… preferably when I’m a little less busy. (>_<)

Otakon has become the holy land for American otaku, and I look forward to making the pilgrimage with everyone else again next year.

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