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Otakon 2019

Otakon is in its third year in Washington, DC, and is starting to find its legs. (You can find my previous coverage, too.) The move after 2016 was inevitable as the convention outgrew the space available in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, though it wasn't without problems as attendance took a dip. Attendance rose again in 2018 and stayed stable in 2019 at around 28,000 attendees, plus vendors, panelists, and guests. The 2019 show had a lot to offer all kinds of fans, though this year no single huge guest or event as Otakon has had sometimes in the past, such as musician Yoko Kanno or Macross creator Shoji Kawamori. Even as many more conventions have started in the national capital area, Otakon is maintaining its momentum as the largest single-focus convention in the area.

Kikuko Inoue has been a star voice actress for longer than many Otakon attendees have been alive. Perhaps her most famous role is that of Belldandy from Ah! Megami-sama, made in the 90s and remade again later in the 2000s. She's still landing many roles in current anime, often typecast as the loving big sister type. With a daughter now in the anime voice acting business, she is sometimes cast in the role of her daughter's character's mother! More recently she played the role of Queen Melromarc from the popular series Rising of the Shield Hero, and was at Otakon to promote the upcoming anime Mix. With such a long career and still landing major roles it was no surprise her panel room was filled (probably around 400 people or more) early Friday morning. From the questions asked during the Q&A section, it's clear that many of her fans have followed her career for decades.

The Opening Ceremonies were Friday midday slightly after other events started. They're a good opportunity for those new to the convention or new to conventions in general to get a taste of what all the convention offers. Guests, if they are available at the time, are introduced. There's often a bit of history and talk of the plan for the convention. Though I didn't hear of it this year, often the mayor of the host city write a letter (or rather, sends a form letter) to the convention welcoming the attendees. With around 30,000 attendees staying most of the weekend, the convention definitely makes a mark on Washington, DC.

A number of local restaurants know their clientele and attract guests with special offers. Both Jimmy Johns (local sandwich chain) and Nando's Peri-Peri (nationwide chicken restaurant) had offers for Otakon attendees, who are often looking for fairly cheap and fast dining options. Jimmy Johns certainly wins in that regard, though Nando's is a treat for those who have the time to sit down and eat (and have a bit more in their budget for food). The food courts within the convention center also had good offerings, with the downstairs location offering a lot of "pop up" Japanese, Korean, and Chinese restaurants. The upstairs food court had fixed pizza and bar-b-que offerings, which around noon on Friday were not busy at all. With fairly reasonable prices, it was unlikely that this was because of cheaper (or better) offerings elsewhere, but more a lack of attendees.

Even after almost 25 years of going to conventions I'm still finding panels that interest me, though my selection has definitely changed over the years. This was probably particularly obvious with the "Too Old for Anime" panel which focused on balancing adult responsibilities and fan devotion to hobbies and convention social activities. An interesting part of the panel focused on the changing perception of fandoms and fandom events within the workplace, since the 80s and 90s kids who grew up with anime, scifi, fantasy, and such are now entering the workforce en masse, many as managers or bosses. One panel that I would have gone to at any time was the Berserk fandom panel. This panel focused a lot of how a series (and mostly the manga) known for graphic violence still contains a lot of political and philosophical musings and debate. Though not packed, and in one of the smaller rooms, it still attracted a fair sized crowd. Plenty of the panel offerings at Otakon are of absolutely no interest to me, but there's certainly enough to go around so that everybody will find something for them if only they look (and are available).

The crowds certainly picked up a lot on Saturday. Otakon offered day passes this year and for many attendees coming in from the suburbs (or farther) to visit for a day is a far cheaper option than trying to stay locally. Otakon hotel room blocks sell out very very quickly, even at $200+ a night. So while Friday was a bit lean, Saturday really brought in the crowds. Sunday, typically the least busy of days at a convention while most people pack up and many leave early to a long trip home, was still fairly busy, again likely with day-pass holders coming in for the morning and afternoon, maybe visiting the rest of the city in the late afternoon and evening. Otakon is very centrally located and many of the famous landmarks and museums are walking distance away.

Though overall the convention center is a fairly poor location for photography, the sky bridge and entrance lobby are fairly well lit without having too many hash shadows to dance around. As such I hung out in those areas a lot, which (conveniently for photographers) are also major crowd thoroughfares. I noticed that crowds would typically come and go, almost like a tide, on the hour and half hour. I took this as a good sign for the convention; people were interested in all the offerings and going back and forth between panels, events, and showrooms. A pleasant addition over previous years (as far as I can tell) is the addition of more seating in pedestrian areas. Lots of people just want to sit and rest or chat for a while, and wood benches and the occasional soft couch made this much more inviting.

Friday and Saturday had multiple major events with lines starting hours ahead of time and wrapping all along the upper floor of the convention center. Friday was the Nujabes tribute concert featuring some local musicians. (I had never before, and will likely never again, hear somebody rap about Prince George's county.) Artists at the tribute concert certainly had a lot of energy and, judging by the crowd, certainly got people excited and entertained. Otakon has been on the forefront of bringing top-tier musical talent over to the US. Though this concert was a bit out of the standard anime/J-pop style -- and fitting, as Nujabes is considered a pioneer in fusing hip hop and Japanese -- it was certainly a treat for those with an ear for local talent.

The biggest event, at least traditionally, has been the cosplay masquerade. That was no different this year. The pre-show started off with representatives from the Japanese embassy giving a cosplay award as a token of gratitude for cross-cultural appreciation. The foreign market is sizable enough -- for better or worse -- to impact the bottom line of many animation studios as well as the industry producing the many figures, posters, and other trinkets popular among fans. The masquerade itself went well. Otakon has grown to a solid format with enough opportunities for both walk-on entries and skit entries, but that wraps up before the audience feels it's become repetitive. However, this year there was a slight hitch in this plan. The event was executed flawlessly, though by my count the overwhelming majority of skits were Love Live dance skits. Many of them done very well with solid choreography and abundantly clear practice by the groups. However, it made it hard to remember any skit in particular unless they broke the mold. Even so, the event was quite entertaining and a good way to spend Saturday evening at Otakon.

Otakon experienced a lull in growth around the time it moved to DC. Such a major event is not cheap to pull off and with less industry support than trade shows like Anime Expo and New York Comic Con, attendance numbers really matter. Otakon adapted to the new challenges and showed small growth again this year. Clearly the interest in the east coasts biggest anime convention hasn't really waned and we can expect to see Otakon held in Washington DC for quite some time.

Otakon will be returning to Washington, DC, in the Walter E Washington Convention Center on July 31st to August 2nd.