Once you get to Baltimore, it’s easy to find your way to Otakon, the big East Coast anime and manga convention. Simply follow the cat girls. And the Narutos. And the Bleaches. And the Final Fantasy characters. And the myriad other folks dressed up in their finest homemade costumes, all eager to strut their stuff while watching episodes of Future Police Urashiman.
You see at Otakon, cosplay isn’t just cool, it’s de rigeur. I’d bet at least 75-80 percent of the folks that were there had some sort of costume on, even if it was just a swash of make-up and the afore-mentioned cat-ears. At San Diego, wearing a Batman outfit could easily earn you more snorts of derision than approving cheers. Here, though, in the church of all things otaku, cosplay is a badge of honor, the dress robes you wear before entering the temple. Indulging in cosplay proves you ain’t no fuckin’ newbie, you’re hardcore mannn.
Whenever I go to a con, one of the things I dread the most is asking folks if they mind if I take their picture. I don’t like having to ask for the time, much less if I can take a snapshot of them for my own personal collection. Of course, at Otakon, taking pictures is expected. They want you to take photos, because they want to show off their inventiveness, their costuming skill, their deep, abiding love for this particular anime/manga/licensing character. Taking photos encourages the illusion that, for a few milliseconds anyway, they are that character.
And you know what? God bless them for it. Despite my snarky headline, I had a fun time at Otakon. The enthusiasm was just that infectious. It radiated out through the convention center like so many speed lines.
Certainly, if you were a fan of Japanese pop culture, there were plenty of ways to scratch your itch at the con. In addition to the various video and movie showings, here were a plethora of video games, workshops and panels (“How to: Hentai!”), contests and, of course, the cosplay.
I found it interesting that there weren’t any major manga publishers at the show. Tokyopop had a panel previewing their upcoming releases, but didn’t have a booth in the dealer’s room. Neither did Viz. Only a few small publishers like Yaoi Press, Drama Queen and Dr Master were present (note that two of the three publish yaoi). A few video companies, like ADV, had big booths, but for the most part, it was a retailer’s show, at least in the dealer’s room. Otakon is clearly by fans and for fans.
One of the PR folks at the con told me he believed about 20,000 people had came on Saturday, adding that he believed the release of the new Harry Potter book had kept some away (he noted that Friday had been packed to the gills). Indeed I noticed a few Naturos hunkered down, perusing the adventures of their English cousin while strolling through the halls. I also spotted some Harry Potter yaoi.
Speaking of which, yaoi, whether the PG or X-rated variety, had a strong showing at Otakon, which perhaps just underscores my nagging notion that it’s quickly becoming the most popular genre in this field. There was a good deal of sexual material at the show, both gay and straight, but most of the dealers did a good job keeping it from being blatently displayed.
Some things I wish I had bought:
Some sort of Death Note paraphernalia, which was everywhere. Key chains, figurines, cuddly pillows, you name it, including a DVD of the movie.
A copy of Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga
A DVD of Earthsea, the latest Studio Ghibli film, which, thanks to the Sci-Fi Network, won’t be available in the U.S. for a long while yet.
Super-expensive animation cells of various Miyazaki films.
I said Otakon was a fans’ show, and what I meant by that was its for fan of the culture, not the art form. There were no discussions about the craft or artistry of a particular artist or work, no analysis of what makes Fruits Basket or Spirited Away work — at least none that I encountered. No, this was all about the characters and stories themselves. More about Naruto the boy and less about Naruto the manga or anime if that makes any sense. The method of telling the story, whether it be in a cartoon, in a comic or on a lunchbox, is … well, I wouldn’t say immaterial. But ultimately I think it’s less important than you might imagine.
Which leads me to wonder. The average age at the show was about 15-29 (Madison Ave take note!). As these folks grow older, get out of high school and college, get jobs, marry and have kids, will their passion for this particular art form still burn as bright? I’m not saying I think manga’s just a fad — it’s not. It’s just that I’m curious as to what shape the fandom will take in the next 10-15 years. Will it continue to cater to the same older adolescent crowd and just be a revolving door of fans like American comics were so many years ago? Will older fans start examining their Natuto watches and demanding material with that caters to a wider variety of tastes and age groups?
Please don’t read that as a knock on Naruto. I like Naruto. And Phoenix Wright, and Death Note and Final Fantasy and so on and so forth. I wouldn’t have gone to Otakon otherwise. But tastes change as we get older and I can’t help but wonder what that means for Otakon’s future and the future of anime and manga in the U.S. in general. Whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch.