Otakon in 2023 has been a repeat of previous years in all the good ways. The most noticeable change since 2022 is the lack of masks, which are no longer required in the city of DC. The more important changes are smaller, less noticeable ones, but perhaps more important. Mailing out badges has been standard practice at other conventions for quite some time. While it presents its own set of problems, it can help avoid long waits in line to get a badge especially during the biggest rushed on Friday and Saturday. Though Otakon has always had to deal with the hot summer temperatures of late July and early August, this year was particularly bad with what might be the year's hottest weekend with highs in the upper 90s. For some attendees a shorter wait outdoors was necessary, but most of the line was able to be managed indoors and the outdoor line was only about a block long, and then in the shaded alley of the street running through the convention center.
This was a much needed improvement, too, with Otakon setting a record-breaking 42,000+ attendees, breaking the previous year's record of 40,466. (Note that Otakon counts separate people throughout the weekend event, unlike other conventions which add each attendee as a new person each day.) The convention center was very packed and very active all weekend. That said, the high temperatures and humidity (and literal rain storm Saturday afternoon) did seem to put a bit of a damper on things. The overall energy level was a bit lower than in the past. Another improvement, which was already in place for AwesomeCon 2023 a few weeks earlier, was the downstairs food court area. Whereas the top floor food court is four fixed-in-place restaurants, the lower food court is set up as a series of "pop up" stations which can use the same basic available equipment (coolers, grills, etc) for a variety of different cuisines. For Otakon, both a traditional "burgers and fries" joint and a sushi and poke joint were set up. Price and quality were just what one would expect; slightly higher prices and lower quality than similar offerings just outside the convention center, but hard to beat on convenience. The remodeled area now overlooks the last section of the exhibit hall, which Otakon used for the artist's alley.
The theme for this year was "trains" and it carried well into the whole convention. A large train station style entrance was placed front and center in by the entrance. Many of the panels focused on trains or closely related themes. While the "history of quartz watches in Japan" isn't one that will make headlines, it was a good choice as a niche but related panel for that year. Other slightly more fandom related panels included "Giant Train Robots of Anime and More" and "Planes, Trains, and Battleships: A Look at the Leijiverse." Many of the other panels were those common to most anime conventions these days, though plenty more were arguably train-adjacent such as "The Good the Bad and the Ugly: A History of Space Westerns in Anime," which almost filled one of the smaller panel rooms." One interestingly almost-out-of-place addition was the DC maglev booth in the dealer's room (in the exhibitor's section), looking to gain exposure and interest for a DC to NYC line. They even had anime-style mascots, though it wasn't clear if those were meant to tie in to Otakon or a sign of the anime and manga style of cute character mascots finding a growing popularity in the West.
The upstairs main events room (the whole third floor of the convention center) was well utilized for all the major events (such as concerts and masquerade) while a "featured events" room was located in the Marriott Marquis extension of the convention center. This did a fairly good job at keeping crowds apart and traffic flowing well. Some crowds can't be avoided, though. The game room opening on all three days drew huge crowds, filling up the bridge lobby area on all three days. The dealer's room always draws a huge crowd and the line filled the long bottom-floor hallway before it was cut off. Though the line does need to be managed, the idea of "the line is full" tends to just entice people to mill about the area until later anyway, the whole reason for having a line now tossed aside. Those few exceptions aside, though, crowds were handled very well.
One nice addition was a dedicated cosplay meetup area in the gaming room. The gaming room is very central to the whole convention and has plenty of space. The cosplay meetup area consists of four large printed backgrounds featuring typical anime background scenery such as a festival, a grove of cherry trees, and samurai castles. This gave each meetup group plenty of space to gather and pose. Two of the backgrounds were separate, and two were adjacent to accommodate the largest groups. Use of the space was by reservation, so impromptu groups still met up elsewhere in the convention center or in the surrounding area. (Sadly, though the Washington DC Convention Center has a lot to offer, there's limited outdoor and indoor photo shoot locations that are easy to get to, especially in the record heat this year.) Previously this meetup space was in a poorly-lit meeting room in the Marriott, with a low ceiling and very orange lighting. While the gaming room lighting isn't much better, the extra space and more neutral decor is far preferrable.
The dealer's room used all but the very southern most section of the exhibit hall, running a city block wide and probably four or five long. The aisles were comfortably wide and needed to be to hold all the shoppers. The number of people in the dealer's hall at any hour was impressive. While eyes on merchandise doesn't always equal sales, I wouldn't be surprised if most dealers broke even on the show already on Friday. With so much now available online, many retailers look to have gone back to somewhat specialized products not easily found online (or subject to impulse buying). As an interesting anecdote, for perhaps a decade, every convention dealer's room had one if not more stands with cheap display-grade metal katanas. While those can still be had, there were only two such booths that I found, and they had limited selections. Most have now moved over to cosplay prop swords, both to avoid the security issues (since the swords count as knives), and to appeal directly to the cosplayers interested in them. This is likely the result of more 3D printing technology making such products cheaper and the growing popularity of anime and cosplay outside of Japan. Perhaps part of the growing pains, Otakon had a somewhat inconsistent cosplay prop policy, some entrances requiring only the typical "peace bonding" on prop weapons, others requiring a sticker on the member's badge. The sticker was just a hand-written "receipt" for the type of prop; how this is enhancing safety is not clear. Fortunately, obtaining a sticker was fairly easy, as the check in desk was right near the main entrance.
Otakon started the weekend with a very directly anime-related concert from Yaiba, the group formed by Naruto Shippuden composer Yasuharu Takanashi, with a focus on fusing traditional Japanese music with orchestral and rock music. While Otakon started as an anime-dedicated convention almost 30 years ago, since then the fandom has changed and grown and Otakon has grown and evolved with its fans. While still very obviously an anime convention, Otakon has long adopted other adjacent fandoms such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cultural interests and modern popular culture. With the explosive popularity of K-Pop over the last few years, it's no shock that this years Sunday concert featured Just B, who debuted recently in June 2021 and worked with guest and performer from Otakon 2022, AleXa.
Perhaps the most popular overall event is the AMV theater. While this is essentially a whole track and not just one event, between the large capacity and the ongoing lines outside for the key events, more probably set foot in the AMV theater than any other individual event or concert. The actual AMV contest had two screenings and long waiting lines to get in even after the event started. Partially this is due to the nature of the event; with each video it's own small event, you don't have to see the whole of the concert to enjoy it. In fact, this is how the line to enter moved reasonably fast. Every few AMVs, a few people would decide to go participate elsewhere in the convention. Other that the main AMV content, the AMV theater showed non-finalist videos and held workshops on AMV creation. As for the contest itself, many videos showcase a lot of editing skill but not as much creativity or direction as such contests in the past. With so many free programs for high quality video editing and powerful computers to do the video editing, the entry to barrier is pretty low. However, this also has a very positive effect on the contest, with many newcomers with new and fresh ideas able to compete with veterans. If you'd like to get a taste of the AMV contests of the past, Otakon is working its way forward from showing the 1994 AMV contest starting again with Otakon 2022, and the 1995 one this year in 2023. While the source material and editing techniques are immediately obivously different, many of the same great ideas and efforts show though as much as they did back in the day.
A fantastic addition to Otakon this year was the premiere of The Tunnel to Summer, Exit to Goodbyes, including appearances by writer of the original novel, Mei Hachimoku, and key staff of the anime film for a Q&A session after the premiere. I was lucky enough to ask questions in person before the film, and asked producer Shikama Taisuke what would have been different had the movie been made ten years ago. His answer, after a brief chuckle, was that it couldn’t have been made ten years ago. He went on to explain why, given the content of the story’s plot. You’ll have to watch it and see why.
Otakon continues strong and makes progress ever year staying up-to-date with the interests of fans and drawing in great guests and providing unique opportunities.
Otakon will return to the Washington DC convention center August 2nd through 4th, 2024.