Mecca of Mecha: Otakon 2018

2018 marked the second year of Otakon in Washington, DC, as well as a year that posed some unique challenges. Scheduled for the same weekend as a nearby white nationalist ally, the potential danger cast an uneasy cloud over both a multicultural city and an anime con that typically attracts people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Fortunately, the rally amounted to nothing more than a fart in the wind, totaling around 30 people and far outnumbered by counter-protesters. What was left was an enjoyable Otakon that accomplished what the convention is meant for: celebrating Japanese culture and the people who make, enjoy, and are inspired by it.

Panels

Where there might have been three to five panels on giant robots in a typical Otakon, this year’s programming was rife with robot content thanks to the theme of Otakon 2018 being “mecha and science fiction.” As a huge fan of all things anime and robotic, this was right up my alley. I made it something of a mission to check out as many panels as I could, whether they were by fans, companies, or special guests.

I was even on a panel myself! “Mecha Fight Club” with Patz, Tom Aznable, Doug, and myself was an hour of debate and discussion on various topics concerning giant robots and giant robot fandom. If you came to our panel, thanks for waking up at 9am on a Saturday. I hope we gave you some food for thought.

Fan Panels

Transformers: The Birds and the Bumblebees

This panel, from the group “Manly Battleships,” looked at the early history of the Transformers. Impressively, it started not at the release of the toys in the US or even the Japanese Diaclone toys from which Transformers took many designs, but with the advent of GI Joe in America and is exporting over to Japan. It was quite an informative panel, and while I thought the “nerd humor” fell flat at times, it was a solid presentation overall.

NoS Anime

I attended two panels from a group called NoS Anime: one a Gundam Wing retrospective, and the other a look at mecha in the 1960s and 70s. Both panels were well researched, and made efforts to explain the social and economic climates of their times. I had only a few criticisms, and even those are more about what I’d prioritize, rather than what I think would make the panels absolutely better.

First, for the Gundam Wing panel, I would have preferred a greater look into the Japanese fandom, as it was mostly a nostalgia panel from the US side. Also, the comments about the first opening theme, “Just Communication,” having odd lyrics seemed off to me, as plenty of robot shows and Gundam anime feature similar music.

Second, for the 60s and 70s panel, I think more explicit mention of Nagahama Tadao and Tomino Yoshiyuki being directors on Reideen before working on the Robot Romance Trilogy and Gundam respectively should have been explicitly emphasized.

Overall, NoS Anime showed they were a deft hand in presenting.

Outsourced Anime

I try to attend at least one Anime World Order panel at conventions because they’re usually quite entertaining. This panel focused on American cartoons which actually had as lot of the animation work done in Japan. One of the major points of their talk was the impressive flourish that Japan would give these shows—and that their best efforts became the most memorable parts of these cartoons for young minds.

Gattai! Giant Robots from 198X

Essentially a 1980s robot anime recommendation panel, the hosts Patz, Tom Aznable, and Hazukari went over why their favorite mecha shows of the era deserve a look. While there was some trouble with keeping on time, and I feel like they didn’t sell certain shows as well as they probably intended, what worked for me is that each of the presenters clearly valued different things and you could get a more balanced view as a result.

Industry/Guest Panels

Kawamori Shoji

Out of all the guests at Otakon this year, Kawamori was arguably the most significant. Because there’s so much content from him, I’ve spun it off into two separate posts: a recap of his “History of Macross” panel, and my personal interview with him.

Ebikawa Kanetake

A mecha designer on series such as Full Metal Panic!, Gundam 00, and Gundam Build Fighters, Ebikawa’s panel was fairly restrained, and his answers short. One of the main things I learned is that while fans mostly remember the glamorous parts of being a “mechanical designer,” it also includes more mundane items such as coffee mugs and utensils.

Nagai Tatsuyuki

The director of The Anthem of the Heart, Anohana, Toradora!, Iron-Blooded Orphans, and more went over his history in the anime industry. We learned that he first found an anime production assistant job while unemployed and needing work. It was a position that required driving around to pick up and deliver things, and when he lost his license, it forced him to try his hand at other roles such as storyboarding. This eventually took him on his path to episode director and director.

I had the opportunity to present him a question, so I asked about the reasoning behind the unorthodox romances in Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, which includes an actual harem. Nagai responded that it was to show that many different forms of love exist in the world, and that he did indeed meet resistance at first from the staff when he told he wanted to put this in. I also told him the true story of my friends and I walking through a blizzard just to see The Anthem of the Heart. By the way, everyone should go see that film.

Another person asked how he feels that Okada Mari (writer on Iron-Blooded OrphansAnohana, and Anthem of the Heart) seems to get all the attention and credit. It felt like a question tinged with bitterness toward Okada, but I might have been mistaken. Nagai answered that he actually liked it because it meant he could sort of hide in secret, perhaps a defense of Okada without getting too aggressive.

One interesting takeaway came when Nagai talked about how he often worked with the same core staff, and that because they’re around the same age, they can talk to each other more candidly when working. Kyoda Tomoki expressed something similar in my interview with him at Otakon 2017, which makes me wonder if studio hierarchy is often a thorn in young creators’ sides in the anime industry.

Discotek Media

During the weekend, friends and acquaintances informed me of one anime company planning a licensing bonanza: whereas most publishers tend to announce maybe five or six new titles, Discotek was going to reveal new shows totaling in the double digits! I had waffled on going to their panel, but now I had to attend. And as it turns out, for fans like me, their announcements pretty much won Otakon.

  • Area 88
  • Message from Space: Galactic Wars
  • Space Wolf Juspion
  • Space Warrior Baldios TV
  • Voltes V
  • God Mars
  • Psycho Armor Govarian
  • Galaxy Express 999 TV
  • Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo
  • Lupin III: Blood Seal of the Eternal Mermaid
  • Kimagure Orange Road
  • Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still

To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement. Voltes V is one of the greatest mecha anime ever to not get a proper US release, and is one third of the famed Nagahama Robot Romance Trilogy (which means I hope Discotek is looking at Combattler V and Daimos next). Baldios and God Mars are classic 80s robot action, with the latter actually being a fujoshi favorite of its time. Giant Robo is one of director Imagawa Yasuhiro’s finest works. Psycho Armor Govarian is an obscure Nagai Go robot series animated that is said to be Studio Knack’s best work—faint praise, perhaps, for the studio behind Chargeman Ken. Kimagure Orange Road is one of those 80s classics I’ve always wanted to watch but never did. Galaxy Express 999 holds a special place in my heart, and the additional update on the 999 films getting a Blu-ray box set makes me want to pump my fist in the air and high-five the clouds.

Hiccups and Missteps

Not all was smooth sailing. One of the more significant problems I ran into was subpar management of the autograph line on Friday.

To start off, the autographs section was in the Dealers’ Hall, so that anyone who wanted to get anything signed had to wait on the same massive line as those wishing to make purchases. This in itself would not be so bad, except that there were autograph sessions close to the opening time, and having both aforementioned groups plus those waiting for the nearby Artist Alley to open meant that the line size inevitably became a fire hazard. This issue was compounded with the fact that telling people to go away and come back later never works because it punishes those who decide to follow the rules, and rewards those who skirt/defy them. This would become a recurring theme with the autograph area.

Upon getting in line for the actual autographs, I ran into another problem. The way the area was set up, the idea was that a small group at the front of the line would break off and go into a section where all the guests were waiting. From there, attendees would get their autographs, and then the next group would have their turn. In practice, however, only the first group ever got the chance to get autographs and the rest of the line was stuck waiting the entire time, with not even a single person having an opportunity to move from that second line. In other words, even accounting for the fact that not everyone who wants an autograph is going to get one, many people were denied autographs when they shouldn’t have been.

In my eyes, the underlying issue was that the volunteers in charge of the main autograph area did not communicate properly with the volunteers managing the line, and so the former never seemed to realize there were additional attendees waiting in the first place. Those who went first, or had guests with smaller lines, could easily ping pong between all the guests, while those who (again) followed the rules and waited patiently were done a disservice. My hope is that this changes for next year, including finding a better place for autographs. While Otakon in Baltimore had its own issues with signings, this never happened as far as I can remember.

Another non-autograph-related problem was that at one point on Saturday, the tunnel between the Marriott and the convention center was closed off, forcing everyone to go in through the convention center’s main entrance in the sweltering, 90+ degree heat. This was apparently another miscommunication, but the fact that the weather played a role was a concern.

Con Food

Eating out on Otakon weekend is always a potential hassle, given the amount of attendees. Because of the prospect of both protesters and counter-protesters, my friends and I avoided restaurants and decided to (for once) stick to supermarket and convention-center food. The latter was overpriced (as these things usually go), but the quality was surprisingly decent, and many of the food stands had Japanese cuisine to along with the general theme of Japanese culture. At the same time, $15 for not much food can hurt the wallet a bit. My advice is that if you can’t get out anywhere to eat, and you didn’t bring anything, the Caribbean food is only $12 a dish by comparison, and still plenty good. You can avoid the “anime fan” tax and still get a hot, delicious meal.

Events

Concert

Otakon attendees had the rare opportunity to attend a performance of the “Distant Worlds” Final Fantasy orchestral concert series. With legendary Final Fantasy composer Uematsu Nobuo in the audience, it was a pleasant experience that took the audience through songs from throughout the franchise. I definitely enjoyed the concert, though I felt there was a distinct lack of battle music. I was selfishly hoping for some personal favorites, like Zeromus theme from Final Fantasy IV and the Four Fiends theme from Final Fantasy I remakes, but alas.

Hi-Score Girl

Another special event was the US premiere of the Hi-Score Girl anime, which is adapted from a fantastic manga about romance and growing up in 1990s Japan arcade culture. The show is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the manga, albeit with CG that can feel awkward at times. It’s coming out on Netflix in the coming months, so I recommend everyone check it out when they have the time.

One odd thing about the Otakon showing was that it included a panel beforehand that kind of spoiled a lot of what the first episode was about—pointless if we were going to watch it right afterwards. Also, unfortunately, the interpreter didn’t seem well-versed in fighting games, so she ended up missing a few points here and there. One omission that stood out to me was that the producer mentioned the manga’s author, Oshikiri Rensuke, having participated in Vampire Savior tournaments, but the interpreter translated it as having experience with games in general. Because Vampire Savior holds a certain significance for the history of fighting games and the fighting game community, a bit was (as the cliché goes) lost in translation.

Overall

The final number put Otakon 2018 at over 29,000 attendees, but even so, moving around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was never a burden—especially compared to some of the most sardine-esque years of Baltimore. Between the quality of the guests and the convenience of Washington, DC (aside from the notoriously terrible traffic), I solidly believe now that Otakon moving to DC was the right choice. There’s so much more room to grow! I’m looking forward to seeing how things will change in 2019 and beyond.

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