Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On Anime Conventions, Part 2

Otakon 1999

Otakon was the first convention I ever went to. I ran upon an ad for it randomly while surfing the net and saw that it was that very weekend. Needless to say, the fact that they had conventions for ANIME blew my mind. I knew they did it for comics and scifi, but anime? This was new to me and I was beyond hyped.

This was shortly after my freshman year of high school and I had yet to assemble an otaku crew. Hell, the name otaku itself had yet to gain the cultural cache it would among US anime fans. It was weird to find a convention called otakon, as in a con of otaku, as in a con of desperate nerds. As to not be wandering around Baltimore by myself, a called up a kid named Darrell who I didn't know very well, but knew he was into that anime stuff.

ME: Dude! You're not gonna believe it! They have conventions! For anime! This is gonna rawk!

Darrell came over on a Saturday and my mom drove us two miles from Montgomery County to Baltimore. It was my first time that I can recall visiting America's most famous hood city, which didn't seem so scary when hanging around the Inner Harbor. Otakon was a strange, overwhelming thing for someone who'd never been to an anime con before. Even back then, it was crowded, stuffed full of panels and more things to do than my mind could track. I remember you could get a day pass back then. I also remember the lines being short, in contrast to the four-hour mire they would turn into over the next few years.

There were a lot of Final Fantasy 7 cosplayers, as it had recently bridged the gap between anime and games. Most of the cosplay was pretty obscure, as there weren't a lot of mega-popular shows at the time. There was certainly more cosplay of 1970s properties like Yamato than you see nowadays. The Ota-Cafe with its daylong karaoke was a great idea. Whenever we got bored, we just went and watched more karaoke. I wanted to go to every panel possible, whether it was voice acting or model kits or an academic treatise on Evangelion. I was already drifting away from video games but played with other otaku in the game room nonetheless. Me and Darrell were basically running around the whole time, trying to fit in as much anime-related sights as possible.

The big deal that year was a performance from Yoko Kanno, who I'd never heard of, but had nerd popularity from scoring some ridiculous-sounding show called Cowboy Bebop. Even then, she was accomplished from shows like Escaflowne, so getting her to come was pretty special. Sad I missed her.

Ota had a good sized dealers room with a bunch of obscure stuff. In those days, the dealers room had stuff that you simply couldn't get anywhere else, so it felt like finding a treasure trove. And it was priced like treasure. The cost of a single J-pop CD made my brain bleed. With my limited amount of spending money, I bought a Satoshi Urushihara art book. Also known as: porn. Ah, the good old days when nobody checked IDs for anything.

The best part was making a new friend and bonding over this obscure thing we liked. And it set the template for the next few years, when Otakon or Katsucon was the reason to load everybody in someone's mom's van and go be ourselves a while.

In a twist straight out of an 80s movie, while I was having fun, my mom and little sister got lost driving around the Baltimore ghetto. When it came time to leave, I called her on a payphone, during which she told me she'd seen a man with a penis wrapped around his neck. I'm guessing said phallus was fake. Anyways, my mother was distressed. When I asked if we could stay longer, she emphatically said no.

It's interesting looking back at photos from then, because Ota 99 wasn't very crowded. For one of the biggest cons in America, there weren't huge numbers. Around 4,500. In fact, it only took up half the convention center, the other half hosting a Muslim convention. But at the time, it felt like an otaku tsunami. In fact, I was at the cusp of what would be an explosion in anime fandom, and the numbers would only increase.

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