Fortune and misfortune came in roughly equal parts at this year’s Otakon, as the best weather in years for the convention mainly served to provide some reprieve for the long and grueling ticket line. Some technical difficulties forced the registration to extend all the way until Friday at 4pm (registration began Thursday). Being press I did not have to deal with this myself, so I don’t want it to sound like I am speaking entirely from personal experience, but I did accompany a couple of friends as they moved through what was a seemingly unending parade of otaku before giving up at roughly the 2-hour mark and waiting for the next day.
Some panel room shuffling this year meant that panels could hold larger audiences, while little details like dividers helped traffic flow along. The bottleneck sky bridge between the Baltimore Convention Center and the Hilton could still get backed up at times, but not quite as much as last year. Again, the weather was a major boon as it meant that even if certain parts of the con got jammed, it was a simple matter of leaving the con center and entering at a different point. Unfortunately, many of the presentations also had tech issues that mostly seemed to stem from the Otakon equipment rather than presenters’ laptops and such. However, Otakon smartly implemented 15-minute breaks between panels, which gave people time to set up and mostly work through any problems, and even if things still went awry it at least only ate into their time somewhat.
Once people actually got into the convention though, Otakon turned out for the most part to be as great as ever.
This year, due to still recovering from jetlag, I took a more relaxed pace compared to previous Otakons. Having no panels to run for myself made this easier, and while the guests were good, none of them were must-see for me. Of course, even simply picking and choosing means that there are still a number of interesting panels. The best industry panels this year had to be the Q&As with director Katabuchi Sunao (Mai Mai Miracle), Otakon mainstay Maruyama Masao, founder and former producer of the anime studio MADHouse and current founder of MAPPA (Kids on the Slope, Teekyuu), and character designer/animator Matsubara Hidenori. Their new project is a film adaptation of the manga In this Corner of the World (previously released on JManga as To All Corners of the World) by Kouno Fumiyo, about a young girl living in Hiroshima during World War II. Kouno previously received critical acclaim over the similarly themed Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, and having read In This Corner of the World myself, I have to say that I am extremely looking forward to this project.
I managed to ask a couple of questions of Katabuchi. One had to do with some criticism of Kouno’s work I’ve seen in the past, where people accused her of not being directly critical enough of the Second World War and issues such as Japan’s militarism at the time. While it’s clear upon reading the manga that the work is actually quite critical and is merely subtle in its approach, I wanted to know if 1) they were aware of this criticism 2) they were prepared to address it. Katabuchi’s response was quite satisfying in this regard, as he himself gave an example of how the original manga does portray a larger world with many political issues but through the eyes of a young girl who isn’t necessarily aware of everything around her but is nonetheless affected by it in her everyday life.
In particular, Katabuchi pointed out how the main character’s desire for a yo-yo is actually a reference to the fact that yo-yos had become popular in Japan at the time, but the manga does not bother to mention this because a little girl would not be thinking about the significance of popular trends to a society. In other words, while this yo-yo example says nothing directly about the political climate at the time, it shows the awareness that the work has about what was happening in society. Given this response, and the fact that an elaborate art exhibition of their layout and design work for the movie showed just how much research they were putting in to depict a pre-atomic bombing Hiroshima, it gives me confidence that the movie will properly tackle its difficult subject matter. While Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises drew a similar kind of controversy (the criticism that it had whitewashed Japan’s role in history), I feel that, similar to Miyazaki’s film, that this will not be a simple black-and-white anti-war film.
The other question had to do with the fact that he actually worked on the, shall we say interesting, American Street Fighter cartoon. No, not the anime film with the dub soundtrack featuring Korn, nor Street Fighter II V, but the one best known for its M. Bison memes. I basically asked if he had any recollection of his experience there, and he said that it had been so long ago that all he remembered was drawing Chun-Li at some point and eventually feeling like he should have been in charge of the whole thing. At another point in the panel, Katabuchi also mentioned how he has an advantage over Miyazaki because Miyazaki is never allowed to direct something like Black Lagoon but everything is fair game for Katabuchi himself.
As for Maruyama, it’s more or less the case every year, but the man is arguably the most important person at Otakon every time he attends. In This Corner of the World is a MAPPA production and so a lot of the focus was on that, but he was of course open to questions in general. I asked him if his production style had changed now compared to his early days at MADHouse on shows such as Aim for the Ace!, but he responded that his approach to production has changed little in the 3+ decades since, as he prefers to give the creators themselves freedom to work. The only drawback is that it means he’s not the best with finances, which is why MADHouse was eventually purchased by Nippon TV.
Another interesting question courtesy of Kate from the Reverse Thieves was whether the subject matter of the current anime Terror in Resonance (terrorism and nuclear weapons) had caused any controversy or run into any problems. Maruyama responded that both he and the director Watanabe Shin’ichirou (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Kids on the Slope) had concerns that the TV stations would refuse to air the show, but that the two of them went forward with it anyway because that’s their style. It reminds me of the production issues that the Coppelion anime ran into that caused it to cover up all overt references to radiation, and I’m personally happy that the same fate has not befallen Terror in Resonance, or at least not yet. Overall, I have to stress that going to a Maruyama panel is always worth it, and as sad as it sounds the man is not getting any younger. That said, he did joke that he’s the same age as Miyazaki but whereas Miyazaki retired Maruyama is doing more work than ever before. Maybe it’s a MAPPA trend to make jokes referencing the famed Ghibli director.
The last guest to attend the convention that was related to In This Corner of the World was Matsubara Hidenori, known for his character design work on the Sakura Wars games and more recently for his animation work on the Rebuild of Evangelion films. He was a guest in 2009 as well, and after having heard how interesting his Q&A was at the time I made sure not to miss it. Sadly I couldn’t ask him any questions myself, but his responses in general were quite informative. In particular, he talked about how glad he was to not have to necessarily draw young, cute girls all the time anymore, and that one of the works most influential to him is the World Masterpiece Theater series En Famille or The Story of Perinne. He also mentioned that while he once tried to switch to using a drawing tablet, in the end he had to go back to pencil and paper.
I briefly mentioned the In This Corner of the World art exhibition, but it really deserves at least is own paragraph to talk about how amazing it is. I’m actually a little sad that photos weren’t allowed because the amount of work and research that went into them is nothing short of astounding. In order to properly capture the Hiroshima area of World War II Japan, they did things like find out how seaweed was dried using bamboo instead of reeds, and they even looked into the train schedules at the time to see what times would be accurate for trains in the backgrounds in certain scenes. A lot of this work would arguably be unnecessary and very few people are even alive today who remember that period, but it shows just how much they want to capture the feeling of living in that environment.
I also attended the panel for character designer Kozaki Yuusuke, and while I’m not quite the fan that others are (having only barely played No More Heroes and never having played Fire Emblem: Awakening), it was fun to see him take audience drawing requests. The two images above were the result of this, and it turns out that Kozaki even drew the cover art for the Otakon guidebook this year. This was quite noticeable as generally the artwork for Otakon stuff has traditionally ranged from subpar to mediocre. It also made me really want to read his manga Donyatsu, which is about donut-shaped dogs and cats in an apocalyptic world; in one of the images above, Donyatsu is featured being eaten by a Fire Emblem character. The main reason Kozaki was at Otakon, however, was to promote a new anime project, Under the Dog, which based on its initial material is trying to invoke a Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex-type feel but with more action. In fact, at the panel they mentioned getting an animator who worked on GitS. If you want to help make it happen, a Kickstarter went up just this past week.
While the guests are generally great at Otakon, it’s the fan panels that are in my opinion the heart and soul of the experience. Compared to Anime Expo, for example, Otakon boasts a much larger set of non-industry panels, which results in a general sense of genuine enthusiasm over the experience of watching, reading, and thinking about anime, manga, and related topics.
The first panel of the convention that I attended was the Intro to Josei panel, and it was clear that they were inexperienced as presenters. The panel had two parts to it, a brief history and rundown of the significance of josei (manga for older women), and then some examples of interesting titles. Their intentions were good, but the panel had two main problems. First, it felt like two panels in one, with the seam between the history and the examples made especially visible by the fact that the first and second halves just felt completely different. Second, it was more of an introduction to J-Drama panels than one about josei anime and manga, as all of their visual examples came from dramas, even in cases where anime counterparts were available (like Nodame Cantabile). The result was that the panel didn’t feel like an introduction, but more a brief gleaning of what’s available. If they could include more anime and manga and really figure out what they want to say, then I think it would be much improved for the future.
I’ve known Daryl Surat for a long time now, and have listened to the Anime World Order podcast for even longer. As was the case last year (and possibly the years before that, I can’t remember), Daryl was a featured panelist at Otakon, and he always manages to have a strong mix of smart and stupid that keeps things fresh, entertaining, and even educational. While his Anime’s Craziest Deaths panel is an Otakon mainstay at this point and pretty much always delivers exactly what its title states, he also did a panel on ninja in anime, one on the long relationship of influence that exists between pro wrestling and anime, and one on showing some of the many references in Kill la Kill. The ninja panel was the lightest in terms of content and was more about seeing how wide and varied the perception of ninja has become to include just about anyone doing anything as long as they’re called a ninja. The pro wrestling/anime panel approached that connection from a unique angle, positing the idea that, more than simply being about one referencing the other and vice versa, some of the very fundamental storytelling aspects of anime and manga (particularly shounen fighting works) are influenced by the wrestling storylines that were popular when television first emerged in Japan. It also went into detail about the female pro wrestling scene in Japan and how it was for a long time not about appealing to men through sexy outfits but about giving girls idols to aspire to, which then created certain archetypes in anime and manga as well. Really great panel, I recommend going even if people don’t have an interest in pro wrestling.
The Kill la Kill references panel 1) made me want to watch Sukeban Deka, the show about a yo-yo-wielding delinquent girl that inspired much of Kill la Kill 2) emphasized that what makes Kill la Kill work is that it does not live or die by its references but uses them to enhance the experience (something I agree with). It was fun to see the audience’s brains light up as they realize how many things went over their head, and also great to see how many Kill la Kill fans were at Otakon (more on that later). I have to give a very personal thanks to Daryl, because while he mentions appropriating this post of mine on the puns and wordplay in Mako’s spotlight scenes, he gave me full credit for it and even encouraged people to come read Ogiue Maniax. The applause I got at the panel was one of the best moments of the con for me.
I also attended two of the fan panels run by members of the Reverse Thieves, “The Visual Stylings of Kunihiko Ikuhara” and “The Measure of a Man. The Nature of a Hero: A Fate/Stay Night Panel.” The Ikuhara panel focused on the Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum director and the unique flair he brings to his work, tracing his visual motifs from his days on Sailor Moon to his more recent work. One thing that they really emphasized was how important pattern and repetition were for Ikuhara, which along with his use of visual cues from dramatic theater really shows how Ikuhara values graphic design in his animation work, and doesn’t treat it simply as “drawn film.” As they mentioned, it’s easy to believe that Ikuhara does things purely for style’s sake and that it doesn’t contribute to the overall narrative at all when in fact it very much does, but it could have been highlighted even better. Although there were some technical mishaps, Alain’s Fate/Stay Night panel was also quite successful. In showing how each of the three main story paths in Fate/Stay Night follow a different philosophy in terms of what it means to be a “hero,” Alain pointed out how attempting to mash them all together for the first TV series led to its downfall because it was literally putting three conflicting sets of ideas together. I remember years ago seeing fans of Tsukihime being similarly upset over that anime, and given that it is also a Type-Moon property I can’t help but feel a similar thing happened there.
This might not sound especially different from the panels I normally attend, but by being less focused on must-see events, I also was able to be more experimental in my con experience. For example, while a former boss of mine was big into sumo, I had never really gotten into it myself. However, being somewhat aware of the fact that sumo takes a lot of skill, going to the Sumo Demonstration on Saturday was actually pretty informative. There, five-time US sumo champion Kelly Gneiting took on the world’s largest Japanese man, Yamamotoyama Ryuuta, and showed the flexibility and strength required to be a sumo wrestler. To give you an idea of what it takes, imagine trying to lift 500 lbs. that is actively trying to push itself against you, adding more weight and stress to your attempt. It’s no wonder that matches last only a short while and require long breaks.
Another unusual panel that leaped out of the schedule was something titled “Gunma Prefecture Office” with no description to accompany it. What could it be? Was it actually people from Gunma’s tourism division? It turns out that it was something along those lines (though not in an official capacity), as former Otakon president Alice Volkmar introduced the crowd to the Gunma Prefecture and all of its little details. The things I got most out of it were that hot springs are a big deal there (which of course makes me want to visit), and it’s known for its three mountains, all of which are featured in the intense races of Initial D. Truth be told, I was originally considering just asking Initial D questions the entire time.
The last panel I will mention is the Otakon Game Show, a perennial Otakon feature that has both contestants and audience participating in a battle of who knows more about anime. It’s generally fun, though I feel like the questions are too geared towards knowledge of minutiae from popular shows and not so much a well-rounded knowledge of anime, and the ask the audience section needs to go. I also had problems registering my phone for the audience participation section, and many of my answers did not go through. Other than that, it was a fine time.
I do have to say, though, and this might just be me nitpicking, but yaoi does not rhyme with kazowie. That’d be like saying Aoi rhymes with Howie.
I was originally not planning on attending any concerts this Otakon, but upon remembering that the band Altima consisted of not only one of the singers from Fripside (A Certain Scientific Railgun) but also motsu from the recently disbanded group m.o.v.e. (Initial D), it meant I had to check it out if only for a little while. This wasn’t the first time I got to see motsu as I actually attended another con where he was a guest, Anime 2012 in the Netherlands, so I knew that the man brings the hype. The music really got me pumped up, but I actually had to leave the concert early as I could feel it destroying my ears (I failed to bring earplugs).
I am also not big into J-Rock, but X-Japan member Yoshiki has such a reputation about him that when I managed to get a ticket for the concert I also decided to see what he’s all about. You may have to forgive me for being ignorant when it comes to X-Japan, but I had no idea that their style was a mix of heavy metal and classical. Yoshiki was there more for the latter side, performing primarily classical-style pieces on piano while accompanied by a string quartet and a singer. The highlight of the concert was when he played a song in tribute to two members of X-Japan who had passed away over the years, a long, 10+ minute torrent of emotions that culminated in Yoshiki smashing the keys as if he was trying to shove them through the piano itself. This was actually a transition from his classical self to his metal self, as suddenly two other X-Japan members made a surprise appearance and rocked out. I apologize for not knowing their names.
Because of the fact that I personally did not approach Otakon as frantically as I had in previous years, in a way it would have been difficult for the convention to have disappointed me. That’s not to say that Otakon made no effort to make this year as enjoyable and as comfortable as they could, but I did not run into any major problems that ruined the con experience. The only thing that is a concern is the gradual countdown until the move to Washington D.C. in a few years, and the farewells we’ll have to bid to Baltimore and its food.
I’ll sign off here with a collection of cosplay photos. Shout outs to the Nogami Aoi cosplayer for referencing something as cool as Zettai Karen Children, the Yazawa Nico and Koizumi Hanayo (Love Live!) cosplayers in the photo all the way up top, the impromptu and unintentional VGCW match, and all the various Jakuzure Nonons that attended. Given that she has more outfits than just about anyone else, it was fun seeing how many variations of Nonon I could photograph.
BONUS: motsu achieving the speed of light