Villian’s Exposition: Otakon 2007

Otakon, as usual, proved to be full of ups and downs – not all of which were related fully to the convention itself, but nevertheless affected the overall experience. To give you the full story of my voyage, as it’s obviously the most important of them all, I’ll begin with my personal timeline.

After pre-registering in early June, via the “send us your money later or be destroyed” method due to a planned panel (which allegedly fell through due to an unfortunate administrative shuffle), I mailed in my precious $50 the first week of July.

Needless to say, this meant I got to enjoy the company of a number of other people whose registrations were either lost, misplaced or had yet to be entered by our good friends at Otakorp Inc. However, because we arrived on Thursday – due to our pre-registration – and didn’t have to worry about missing any of the convention itself, I was not overly upset about the whole situation.

After a good hour to 90 minutes spent waiting to be told to wait in a different line, and the subsequent waiting in said different line, I received my convention badge without much fuss. Due to some unfortunate planning on the part of our friends (the first-person plural in this article is in reference to myself and several friends with whom I shared a hotel room), we did not head out for our annual sushi voyage until close to 10:00 p.m., which, as it turned out, was precisely when the kitchens of Baltimore close on a Thursday night. Planning around that wasn’t the most amusing of activities (particularly since the local Burger King closed down a couple of weeks after Otakon 2006) for those of us on a budget, but we managed after a sort.

Friday morning saw a slow start to the events of the weekend. The AAA concert was scheduled for early afternoon, but since my experience with L’Arc~En~Ciel in ’04, I wasn’t really all that pumped to go to a J-Rock concert in an arena-like setting. Instead, I decided to roam the video and panel rooms, checking out a few new shows and a few classics. Joining up with some of my friends, we ended up attending a rather good open forum on the condition of the older otaku (older meaning you were watching in the early ’80s, at least).

Hats off to those gentlemen – and, rather to her own surprise, lady – for the idea and the manner in which it was conducted. Personally, I may have opted for more structure, but as things were they took up the time without any major disruptions or pauses and managed to get in a good deal of discourse on what ended up being largely reminiscing on how the hobby/lifestyle has changed over the years.

Unfortunately, beyond the industry Q&A sessions, there really weren’t that many other panels that caught my eye, though I hear some of them were pleasant (none of the yaoi or hentai panels reached out and grabbed me either, in case you were wondering). This left me plenty of time to slum around the dealers’ room and artists’ alley, as well as the various video rooms.

The dealers’ room was, predictably, hectic and jam-packed for most of the weekend. There were a few booths with deals on DVDs (although it was lacking the one I had hoped to see, which has always offered huge discounts on B-list titles but only accepted cash); as usual, the main draw was the harder-to-find import items and collectables.

Dozens of booths were hawking figurines (both of the “test your luck” unmarked kind, and the open-packaged), art books, untranslated manga, doujinshi (fan-created manga), imported CDs, shirts, bags, hats, kimonos, weapons (mostly of the bladed or wooden persuasion), imported and out-of-print video games, and most everything else you could imagine (other than food, due to Aramark’s exclusivity contract with the Baltimore Convention Center). If you were looking for something in particular, chances are you would’ve been able to find it if you dug hard enough. If, however, you had nothing in particular in mind, and a budget to stick to, the dealers’ room was more about browsing than actually buying – although a few major webcomic artists (Fred of Megatokyo, Poe of Errant Story and the folks from Alpha Shade, to name a few) were also trying to make a buck.

The artists’ alley, by contrast, was a place to spend money if you didn’t have something in mind – or even if you did. Keeping with the gradual trend, there have been more and more people down there (it’s always in the basement, same with the dealers’ room) who do their work on non-traditional media, though most still offer various sorts of sketches on pencil and paper. The rates were even pretty reasonable this year, though many artists were more intent on selling the prints they came with than taking on new jobs.

There were, of course, plenty of webcomic artists down in the alley – far more than in the dealers’ room. While I did my share of talking to them (and, after the convention, subsequently went and read all of the archives of those who gave me business cards), I probably ended up spending more time at the Paradigm Shift table (which is an absolutely stellar comic by Dirk Tiede) talking and purchasing various things. Saturday, the 14-hour marathon for artists in the alley, saw a huge increase in the number of people both visiting and actually buying things, which was doubtless a nice change from the relatively quiet Friday.

The viewing rooms, then, provided a much-needed chance to sit down and watch some shows that either had a huge fan following or that people might have missed. Disappointingly, the “Big Four” of anime licensing in the US (ADV, Bandai, Funimation, Geneon) didn’t show much in the way of premieres. Instead, they all stuck to a relatively small amount of material – some of which was already on the market. Some of it was underwhelming, but some of it had genuine promise. (Don’t worry, there’ll be another article about those later.)

Unfortunately, it was difficult to tell when you would actually want to go check out a show because there were so many changes to the programming that were apparently planned the week of the convention – if they were planned at all. In addition to a sheet containing a large number of panel/viewing changes and substitutions, by Sunday I had come to expect that the whiteboard in front of any given room (which held the programming for it) would have a piece of paper taped over the original event, and a new one penciled in. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, but it certainly put a damper on those who like to plan out exactly where they’re going to be at any given time.

The “movie theater” of the convention (which is to say the 35mm projection room) showed mostly old standards, with the addition of the second Ghost in the Shell movie. Studio Ghibli made its usual showing in-force, coupled with the oft-reshown Appleseed movie of a few years past; Steamboy and Metropolis rounded out the big screen on the animated side. Unlike previous years, the live-action movies didn’t have their own showing room anymore – space that had been taken over for the Otakon computer lab – and so were dispersed among the various viewing rooms and 35mm theater as the planning staff saw fit (and, as with the anime, sometimes when they didn’t see fit, but decided to do it anyway). Having already seen the most of the offerings, I decided to avoid them and concentrate on the “fresher” aspects of the convention when I could.

The fan-made content also was somewhat lacking this year, though that seems more to be a trend than anything new. The AMV contest had many good videos, but much of the music wasn’t to my taste, and the “minimum of six lens flares” rule seems to have been adopted. Most of the “romantic” and “serious” videos had too much of the “slideshow” approach (coupled with the aforementioned lens flares), which follows musical progressions by changing static or near-static images on the downbeat – a useful device, but entirely overused in many of the contestants. The fan parodies also were a bit of a letdown, being mostly recycled from previous Otakons, and lacking the seminal Nescaflowne, which is still the best I’ve seen (though Evangelion ReDeath and Otaku No Video made their annual appearances).

Thus, with a few exceptions, I declare this year’s Otakon to have been an enjoyable and entertaining diversion. Sure, I may have sunk a good $500 into it, but 2007, while not quite as much fun as last year’s, still saw marked improvement over the 2005 low-water-mark.

Chances are, I’ll find myself in the Baltimore area in August of 2008 as well.