Risk vs. Reward: Otakon 2021

2021 was the first year where I questioned whether going to Otakon was a good idea. It’s long been my favorite anime convention, but the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the frightening rise of the delta variant in the United States made me anxious about attending an event that regularly brings close to 30,000 people into a single indoor venue.  Ultimately, I decided to make the trip to Washington DC—partly because I wanted to support the fan-run con that has provided so many excellent moments. But it was also because I wanted to try to do something “normal” while taking every precaution I possibly could in order to avoid straight-up tempting fate. 

Personal COVID-19 Precautions

I traveled to DC fully vaccinated and wearing the best facemasks I could obtain. I decided not to do any interviews with guests this year (though the lack of Japanese industry guests helped that). I largely steered clear of the dealer room and gaming room. And I greatly reduced my normal frantic pace of checking out every panel imaginable to eat and take respite in my hotel room, where everyone else was a familiar face who was fully vaccinated.

Otakon COVID-19 Precautions

Prior to Otakon weekend, attendees would receive emails about the numerous precautions being taken to try to ensure everyone’s safety. Masks would be mandated, the convention center would be well ventilated, and temperature checks would be included.  Vaccinations were not required, which I hope can change for next year.

In terms of masks, the vast majority of people I saw wore masks and wore them properly, and even those whose mask etiquette was questionable would at least try to fix it eventually. This was only my limited perspective, so I can’t say if there were pockets of people resistant to doing so, but it gave me at least a bit of faith that most attendees wanted this event to work. However, trying to enforce a mask mandate on 23,000 people is no easy feat, and I’m not sure if a greater amount of staff/security would do the trick.

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is a very spacious venue with high ceilings, and was even used as a temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients in previous months. In a more cramped space, I would have been much more alarmed, but walking past people on the way to a panel felt no busier than a New York City sidewalk, albeit indoors—at least on Friday and Sunday. Saturday had more attendees (an inevitability for any weekend convention), and that had me feeling more apprehensive. I took particular care not to remove my mask for any reason on Saturday.

The panel rooms themselves could have used better social distancing, as there was no incentive presented to steer clear of others outside of one’s own desire to do so. In some cases, volunteers encouraged us to pack in for the more heavily attended panels, and I found myself (perhaps against better judgment) staying and hoping my mask and vaccinations (as well as the masks of those around me) would be enough. I feel there should have been more done to encourage social distancing in rooms, even though I understand the disappointment it would inevitably cause for those who wouldn’t be able to enter a panel or event they could have in previous years. I myself presented a panel this year with the best attendance I’ve ever seen for one of my presentations, and I feel conflicted about it because of these circumstances.

As for the temperature checks, I did not see any, and I’m not sure how they were supposed to work or if anyone was indeed caught having a fever. If anyone spotted the temperature checks in action or have more information, I would like to know more.

Fan Panels

As mentioned in the introduction, there’s a lot I typically look forward to at Otakon—interviews with Japanese guests, especially—that simply didn’t happen this year. The ability to get interesting industry guests who are willing to share greater insight into the world of anime and manga beyond just pitching their latest projects has been one of the most valuable parts of the Otakon experience up to now. In their absence, I had to wonder if the other appealing aspects of the con could carry the event.

While guests are great, I think the real lifeblood of Otakon is the robust fan panel programming, and I was happy to see it out in full force. A combination of veteran presenters and (I assume) new blood kept things entertaining and informative. While not every panel was an absolute winner, the energy that comes from seeing people onstage sharing topics they find fascinating or encouraging others to expand their scopes is always encouraging.

Thirty Years Ago: Anime in 1991

Daryl Surat from Anime World Order is always a solid presenter. He picked a nice and diverse set of works and made good cases for why they’re still memorable today. As I expected, he made reference to Brave of the Sun Fighbird, the super robot anime that gave birth to the “Is this a pigeon?” meme.

The Best Openings for Shows You (Probably) Didn’t See

This had the Anime World Order crew in full force. As advertised, there were some I didn’t see, and I liked that it had a real mix of genres. The fact that it started off with the opening to Goshogun earns it plenty of points. 

Japonisme: A History of the First Japanese Culture Craze in the 19th Century

This panel looked at the weebs of the 1800s, particularly in terms of the great artists of the century. The presenter (an art history teacher) did a solid job of showing how names like Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and more were influenced by the woodblock prints and other forms of art coming out of Japan—as well as the problematic Orientalism surrounding the whole thing. 

Manga Masters: Kentaro Miura

Patrick (The Cockpit) and manga expert Ed Chavez did a retrospective on the life and career of the late, great Miura Kentaro. Some of the big takeaways were that 1) Miura was not just a skilled artist, he was a nurturing and supportive figure to his friends and fellow artists 2) he single handedly put seinen on the map for the predominantly shoujo-oriented publisher Hakusensha 3) he changed the landscape when it came to manga and fantasy titles. Overall, it was an informative and insightful panel.

Samus vs. Ridley: A Metroid Historia

Not just a video game history panel, this one looked at how the disparate scraps of lore and storytelling gradually came together to form the Metroid we know today. It was fascinating how seemingly everything, even the Nintendo Power comic from the 1990s, somehow has found its way into the mythos in part or in whole.

Bad Anime, Bad…The 20th Anniversary!!

One of the enduring highlights of Otakon is back to celebrate twenty years of awful animation, and I think it’s important to note how much this panel acts as a predecessor of sorts for the current Youtube anime review scene. Not just limited to Japanese animation, it was good to see this still going strong—and Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned is evergreen terrible.

The Wonderful World of Yas

Another creator retrospective, this time it was for Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the character designer of Gundam and one of the finest artists to ever grace the industry. Finding out that he was dissatisfied with his work in the 1980s makes a lot of things click together in terms of my understanding of him. I wish this panel was better attended, as I think plenty of fans would love seeing not just Yaz’s mecha stuff but also his love of history. However, it was literally up against a different Gundam-related panel.

When Anime Companies Knew Nothing About ANIME FAN WANTS

Run by George Horvath, this panel was a series of painful lessons in industry hubris. However, perhaps it had the opposite effect on me, and I kind of want to start my own anime company…

Ogiue Maniax Presents: Saturday Morning MILFs

A few years ago, I decided to turn an idle observation about anime into a panel where I introduce fans to the surprisingly wide variety of interesting and attractive mom characters cropping up in works for kids. Amid the perennial love of high school characters in anime, I thought MILFs was a worthwhile subject. Unfortunately, my initial attempts to present it were met with rejections and waitlists.

But this year, I decided to swing for the fences and apply for it as my sole panel submission…and actually got the okay! While I was out of practice when it came to public speaking, I actually had most of the panel prepared from previous years’ attempts, and felt comfortable that I could deliver something at least decent.

What I didn’t expect was to be in Panel 1 (one of the two biggest panel rooms at Otakon), and for my silly little project to have the largest convention audience I’ve ever dealt with on a personal basis. It was packed (though that was perhaps not a good thing, given COVID and all).

The funny thing about me is that I often feel a lot more pressure presenting in a vacuum than I do to an actual audience. In front of a gathering of otaku eager to see some MILFs, I worked to educate and inform, while also throwing some red meat out there (because at the end of the day, it was an 18+ panel). Afterwards, a few longtime friends complimented me on the panel, saying I successfully threaded the needle and balanced learning with pleasing the horny audience.

Industry Panels and Screenings

Despite a lack of Japanese guests, the industry panels I did attend were all worthwhile in their own way. The DENPA panel was run by Ed Chavez, and he’s always your best bet for getting an inside look at the manga industry. AnimEigo has the benefit of CEO Robert Woodhead’s many decades in the industry, and I was impressed by his company’s dedication to preserving art and design material for anime projects. Discotek panels are always a blast, but the announcement of blu-ray releases for both Aim for the Top! Gunbuster and Machine Robo: Revenge of Chronos practically stole the whole show at Otakon. I’d been waiting years for the former, and the latter never got a full release—it was actually licensed by accident

I also decided to check one off the bucket list and finally watched Project A-ko, or rather, Discotek’s remastered blu-ray edition.

In addition, there was a screening for a 3DCG short called HOME! by the animation studio Orange. It was a brief but sweet story about an astronaut and a ghost inhabiting a space colony, and it showed why Orange’s CG work is a cut above its competitors in Japan. A short panel afterwards elaborated on Orange’s approach to 3D work, and it’s easy to see the care that goes into shows like Beastars and Land of the Lustrous.

Artist Alley

Artist Alley is usually not one of my priorities, but it sort of took the place of the Dealers Room for me this year. Below are all my purchases at Otakon. It’s not much, but I think it all looks great.

Food

The places I went to this year for finer eating were Farmers & Distillers, SUNdeVICH, and Bantam King. There was also a newly opened Ben’s ChilI Bowl in the convention center (and the old dining area near the underground entrance to the Marriott was closed for renovations).

Farmers & Distillers’ claim to fame is that they get everything directly from local farms. It’s more expensive than your standard restaurants and requires a reservation, but the food is amazing. I got the Yankee pot roast and the vanilla bean cheesecake with strawberries and cream—a combination that was as delicious as I’d hoped but left me regretting the heaviness of the overall dinnerl. the next day. Take a lesson from me and try to balance your meal out better.

SUNdeVICH is a sandwich shop with a variety of solid choices with an international flair. I tried the Shiraz (Persian beef tongue) over salad and the Rome (Italian cold-cut combo) on a sandwich, and both were top notch. 

Bantam King I’d been to on my first trip to DC for Otakon, but this time I went for the curry snow fried chicken plate instead of the chilled ramen. The onions and white sauce on top reminded me a lot of coleslaw and fried chicken, and the flavor profile worked well. However, the simplicity and sheer deliciousness of the chicken drippings over white rice was the real winner.

Ben’s Chili Bowl at the convention center suffered from being short staffed (a common problem caused by the pandemic), but once I got my chili half-smoke (chili over a beef-and-pork sausage on a bun), it was amazingly solid. 

Cosplay

This year’s cosplay had the inevitable addition of masks. Some of the cosplayers would temporarily remove their masks for photos but kept them on otherwise.

Final Thoughts

The overall Otakon 2021 experience, for better or worse, was surprisingly normal. In any other year, it would’ve felt par for the course, but the surrounding circumstances at times made things awkward. There were moments where it was easy to almost lose myself in the moment, but had to get snapped back to the reality of an escalating pandemic. I’m still not sure if going was the right idea, and as the delta variant escalates, I worry about 2022. In the meantime, though, I made it back with plenty of good memories. I hope everyone else can say the same thing.

Gattai Girls 4: Aim for the Top! Gunbuster and Takaya Noriko

Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.

Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.

It’s not uncommon for an anime to pay homage to its predecessors, but when the homage becomes a source of inspiration itself, then you have something special. That’s Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. The image of Gunbuster rising up from a ship with its arms crossed is especially famous, and for anyone to whom the phrase “female robot anime protagonist” is relevant, Takaya Noriko and the Gunbuster carry great significance. As I even use it in my introduction, it was only a matter of time before Gattai Girls got around to Aim for the Top!

In the future, mankind is under siege from massive alien creatures. In order to combat them, young cadets are recruited and trained so that they may travel through space and confront the aliens directly. One such pilot is Takaya Noriko, who appears to be lacking, but the school’s coach sees potential in her and makes her a candidate for mankind’s strongest weapon, the Gunbuster. As she trains alongside her “big sister,” a talented, beautiful, and hardworking upperclassman named Amano Kazumi, Noriko learns and matures. However, because battling the enemy requires faster-than-lightspeed travel, those who fight must live in a different time frame from those they care about.

First released in 1988, Aim for the Top! is in many ways an anime for anime fans, which should come as no surprise when considering that it’s an early Gainax production. Gainax is famous for being the anime studio created by fans, and when you look at this OVA series and even the fact that it bucks the trend by going for a fierce and powerful female protagonist in Noriko likely stems from these origins. The series fuses the melodramatic shoujo sports setting of the tennis manga Aim for the Ace! (of which the OVA is at first clearly a parody) with both the hot-blooded nature of the super robot genre and the devil-may-care atmosphere of Top Gun. One thing that strikes me about Aim for the Top! is that, even though it has its basis in shoujo, the character designs and overall art style are quite far-removed from Aim for the Ace! and really embodies that 80s look.

If I had to pick a more modern series with similar tendencies (aside from its sequel Aim for the Top 2!, of course), it would be Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and the way it takes the magical girl concept traditionally aimed towards girls and combines it with an almost mecha-like aesthetic for the enjoyment of male fans. Same goes for the treatment of male characters: like in Nanoha, guys are clearly less important, even to the point of being more plot devices than anything else.

The reason why I bring all of this up is because I can’t say that Takaya Noriko is intentionally a progressive character. Giant robots and cute girls are two popular tastes among otaku, and Noriko is a notable example of that. It also should be noted that Aim for the Top! is notorious for popularizing in anime the concept of incredibly jiggly breasts, the girls’ outfits emphasize their legs like crazy, and casual nudity is somewhat common in the series. Nevertheless, in some ways I would argue that there are very clear benefits to the fact that Noriko is a very strong female protagonist regardless of feminist intentions. Aim for the Top! asks, why can’t the girl be the lead? Why can’t she save the day? And why can’t she be the one yelling with fury at the top of her lungs as her robot plants the spiked treads on the bottom of its foot on alien creatures ten times its size and tears straight through them?

It’s not like Noriko at her core is a very original character. She’s not much different from her predecessor Hiromi in Aim for the Ace! (and Kazumi is still clearly based on Ochoufuujin from the same series), but just by shifting the activity and context, it changes the responsibility given to the lead character away from the relative safety of “sports as a female activity.” Where Hiromi learns to utilize a more “masculine” style of tennis which better suits her, Noriko ends up exceling in the traditionally masculine role of super robot pilot. In that capacity, “preventing the extinction of the entire human race” is a pretty big accomplishment.

I think the one thing which really captures Noriko’s appeal is her screaming. Noriko’s cry as she launches attacks is so distinct and memorable that, in terms of the ability to generate sheer excitement through her passion and intensity, she is possibly unmatched among female robot pilots in all of anime. By the end of the series, Noriko has more than proven herself as not only powerful in her own right, but a source of strength for others. Noriko’s strength is such that guys may not just want to be with her, but actually be her as well.