Otakon 2014 – In a Transitional Period

As much as I like going to anime conventions and the like, I do put my life before going to them, especially when something very drastic is happening in my life. And as much as I anticipated going, there was still the massive living room elephant of me moving out of my childhood home and into a new apartment complex. Seeing everything in the house systematically packed up and relocated was unnerving, but I still had my journalistic integrity to uphold. So maybe going to spend a weekend in Baltimore was the perfect thing to help clear my mind and my conscience.

I hoped.

Otakon took place at the Baltimore Convention Center again this year, one of the last few years it’ll take place, as it gets ready to move to Washington, D.C. in a few years. And as always, my journey to a big convention like this took place the Thursday before. Which, in retrospect, I’m wishing it didn’t. I couldn’t possibly explain why I did what I did, or why I thought it was a good idea in any capacity. Maybe I thought I was doing an especially good deed for a friend, especially since we were sharing a room together at the con. Whatever the reason is, it’s become completely lost to me. I wound up driving all the way up to Brooklyn to pick up, as I said, a friend and a roommate for the convention. Now, I’m more physically distant from the rest of the Anime Jam Session crew, so when we road trip to a convention and we’re going south, they will typically bus themselves down to me—where there are more than a few Greyhound bus stops—and I’ll drive them the rest of the way. Why I didn’t think to bring that up with this guy is beyond me; it obviously would’ve saved me a ton of gas. Maybe they thought they had enough expenses as it was. Anyway, some red flags were going up when, while it was admirable he was doing a lot of cosplay, he didn’t exactly travel light; his baggage took up most of the trunk, and some of the back seat. Then, he told me that we had to pick up another friend, a girl, who lived right around the corner.

So easily enough I find her apartment complex. And we waited. And waited.

For one hour.

One. Fucking. Hour.

Not only that, I was told that I needed to get to the hotel as soon as possible, since double beds would be snatched up in a hurry, and—despite reserving one—weren’t guaranteed we’d get one when we got down there. And the sojourn up to Brooklyn was an additional three hours on the road (90 minutes each way), which was compounded by traffic southbound on the Turnpike.

I feel like my generosity and desire to help was taken advantage of here.

And of course, as predictable as the tides, when I got to the Hilton Baltimore on Pratt St., and one of two hotels directly connected to the convention center, there were no double-bed rooms available. Reservations be damned, we were given a room with a single king-size bed instead. No amount of (eventual empty) promises or arguing—by both me and the guy who made the reservation—could shift things in our favor.

At this point if I had been denied the bed to sleep in, someone was getting punted out the window.

The only saving grace of the travels down to Baltimore was that we found a decent parking garage about a block and a half from the hotel that was severely discounted in comparison to the hotel’s valet parking offers. There was no way in hell I was paying $20+ a day to keep my car parked close by. I’ll hoof it through the parking garage. Speaking of the Hilton, it was the same fare I’m used to, having stayed there once before—lavish lobby, overpriced bar, Jimmy John’s sandwich joint directly connected to the building—though it took me a while as I didn’t remember I stayed there a few years ago until I saw the i-shaped swimming pool with a hot tub for the dot. I got my money’s worth hanging out in there and talking with other con goers, but being in the water was a bit awkward—not because I’m ashamed of my physique (that has no bearing on this in this regard), but because I got a new tattoo on my left inner forearm about three weeks before the convention, and it was too soon in the “no submerging e.g. swimming pools, ocean, etc.” time frame that my tattoo guy gave me. It must’ve looked rather silly, me trying to keep my arm out of the water for any amount of time, lest the coloring of the tattoo dull or fade—not an unrealistic fear, given the amount of detailing in it—but I actually had a good conversation in the hot tub about tattooing and piercing with other con goers. It was quite enlightening.

Looney Tunes cosplay.

Looney Tunes cosplay.

One of the big recurring themes of the convention was the lines. Throughout the weekend there were lines than a Tetris: the Grand Master tournament. The preregistration lines were among the absolute worse, especially because the prereg lines tended to wrap around the convention center well into Saturday afternoon. I thought preregistering was specifically to get around huge lines like that. Well it turns out it was mostly the staff’s fault, seeing how they, from what I gathered, were using the BCC’s laughably inadequate Wi-Fi to host their networks on, which inevitably led to extended periods of down time. Sure, lines for particularly popular panels were par for the course, but when the crowd is willing to refer to the con as the second incarnation of LineCon, then you’ve got a problem.

I, honestly, can’t adequately relate to the problems of everyone in line; since I was registered for press for the weekend, the main registration line held no purpose for me. I had to go to the press ops room in the Sheraton (on the opposite end of the convention center) to get my badge. I got mine in about ten minutes, most of which was the walk from between the two hotels. The press people, however, shared my surprise and alarm at the sheer size and volume of the prereg line, though. As an additional perk for being press this year, we got one of three special gifts to pick from. Of the three, I took the personal micro USB charger, the other choices being a messenger bag, which I had enough of at home, or a journal, which I already had one of. It does its job fairly well, taking an hour or so to fully charge, and can give me a good half of my phone’s battery life back. Not the best around, but it was free and branded with the Otakon logo. So I’m still happy.

There wasn’t much to do on Thursday night, though in a desire to have something to drink other than tap water and/or the (overly salty) broth from an instant ramen cup I went down to the Jimmy John’s for a soda—learning they had exhausted their sandwich products for the day and that chips and soda was all they had left. Friday morning, though, was a different story. Obviously. I had more than a few sandwiches at Jimmy John’s, as well as the Subway across the street, as they actually sold breakfast. Sadly, the Mexican place on the corner across from the convention center was long gone. The Ice Cold Water Man was there the whole weekend, though. The first panel I attended was “Introduction to Anime and Manga Studies”, which the presenters liked to joke was a way you could get away with reading manga in college or using it as research material for dissertations and what have you. Unfortunately, they admitted that it isn’t quite a professional field—you’re certainly not going to be majoring in the topic any time soon in any major college. It had a decent turnout, even for relatively early, though considering it was held in one of the bigger rooms in either the convention center or the hotel, the substantial crowd did look a little…sparse.

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Later on, I attended one of my favorite panels of the whole weekend—the other being on Sunday—entitled “The History of Mario”. This panel looked at the thirty-some-odd year history of Nintendo’s mascot, and all the twists and turns through his tenure. Even I was surprised to learn just how many video games he was in: over 200. And then came the other…adaptations. The cartoons and the movie were one thing, and Hotel Mario was a special level of bad, but I had no idea that there was a Super Mario Bros ice show. And it wasn’t people cosplaying as Mario et al on ice skates. No, that would be too simple. The plumbers’ costumes were designed to look like bizarre Muppet-looking things. Peach was even worse, because she sounded like an incredibly sarcastic and trying-too-hard-to-be-sexy Fran Drescher. It was positively nightmarish.

I wandered around the convention area for a while, taking photos wherever I could, especially if a particular cosplay stood out to me. Throughout the weekend I also made it to the Artists’ Alley and Dealers’ Room, but only once and without buying anything. There wasn’t anything I particularly wanted anyway, and my budget was tight enough as it is. I did relax more than once in the game room, and much like the other two, it was similar stuff as years gone by. At least the competition is fresh…if my skills at Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and Ultra Street Fighter IV when compared to the Serious Business™ crowd weren’t nearly up to par.

The last major panel I saw that evening was for bad anime—appropriately enough, entitled “The Worst Anime of All Time.” It’s not subjectively “this anime sucks” anime, but stuff that’s really bad. Poor production values, terrible voice acting, shitty, clumsy animation…it was enough to melt the viewer’s minds. Later on, I tried to get into “The Abridged Series Panel” shortly thereafter, although I couldn’t. The line was incredibly long, and they weren’t letting press people get early access. But other panels were. They were rather schizophrenic about it this year. It was odd…and a little confusing.

I had a little better luck later on, with the debut of the new AMV Hell video, “AMV Hell 7: Attack on 10th Anniversary.” If you haven’t been made to feel old yet, AMV Hell is officially ten years old. They now have seven main entries, two NSFW “zero” videos, and three seasons of minis, among others, to its catalog. In the true AMV Hell style, nothing was sacred, and while it didn’t get into the NSFW stuff (that’s what “0” and “/0” are for), it did have comedic points that were as black as the ace of spades. There was also one very particular skit that had the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” set to the Pokémon anime. It ended with Ash and Pikachu with their faces painted up as Juggalos. I booed loudly. And even that got laughter.

On Saturday morning, I got up and had a good breakfast at Subway…well, as good as a Subway sandwich can be, at least. At around 9-ish that morning, Otakon tried to set a world record for Sailor Moon cosplayers gathering in one spot. It…was seriously disorganized and since there wasn’t anyone there that even seemed remotely connected to the Guinness World Records people, it’s a safe assumption that the record wasn’t set. And by the time I showed up—about ten minutes after nine—it had mostly broken down anyway. Besides, there wasn’t any kind of excitement or pride in the air; had a record officially been set, people would’ve understandably been unable to stop talking about it. Oh, well. Another time then.

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I spent most of the morning bouncing around the con and taking pictures; I couldn’t schedule any real panels, as I had some interviews to conduct. While I was there to enjoy the convention as a fan, I was nevertheless there with a press pass. And that of course meant doing press related things. I take press related stuff seriously, don’t you know. There was a cavalcade of voice actors and other performers in attendance as per the norm, but between my schedule, their schedules, and the sheer volume of requests for interviews, some things just weren’t happening. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy the interviews I conducted; far from it. I ended up spending roughly two hours on interviews, between waiting in press ops and having to wait to conduct them in the hotel room that press had set aside for interviews. As it turned out, I was the last interview of the day this time around. My first interview was with Wendee Lee, a nice, calm interview where we talked about some of her voice acting roles, as well as her experience in Baltimore. I don’t want to give too much away, as you can just as easily find the interview on Anime Jam Session’s YouTube page. Once that interview wrapped, I was informed of our next interview; thankfully we wouldn’t have to go far. It was with Dante Basco, and would be done round robin style. I and about six other press outlets had our cameras set up around him, and he fielded questions from us in turn. But since there were so many of us and he had lots to talk about, we only got in one question apiece. Still, it was interesting hearing about his career, which includes dance and music as well as voice acting. What I found especially odd, though, was how his normal speaking voice was only a little different from that of his voice for his character Zuko (Avatar: the Last Airbender).

I'm adorable. [citation needed]

I’m adorable. [citation needed]

Oh, and I recorded bumpers for the podcast from both of them. Because hell yeah I did.

With that done, I returned to the con proper to enjoy the rest of the day’s festivities. The next panel I hit up was called “Jumping the Shark: When Good Anime Goes Bad”. As you can guess from the title, it’s about when a beloved anime suddenly turns into utter crap, a shell of its former self. Of course it eventually broke down into a massive pissing contest to determine whose anime sucks the worst. Parliamentary, this was not.

Some time after that, my roommates and I went out for a nice, sit-down dinner. This made me indeed happy, as it is always something I’m at least advocating during a convention weekend. It makes us all feel like we belong, and we can enjoy one another’s company…at least that’s how I see it. We made our way clear across the Inner Harbor, near that one hotel we stayed at a few years prior thanks to a mixup with the hotels. The restaurant of choice was a place called Dick’s Last Resort. It has both an inside and per section, and we opted for the latter, since we could get a seat much more quickly. I wasn’t aware that this was a chain…and I also wasn’t aware that it was the servers’ gimmicks to be at least partially condescending to the customers. Even more bothersome to me was when someone was celebrating their birthday that night. Apparently it was normal for the server to ask if anyone cared, which was answered in the negative. I found that quite jarring. Aside from the aforementioned rudeness, what if that person wasn’t feeling so good and/or having a particularly bad time in their lives? Being told no one cared wasn’t exactly going to lift anyone’s spirits. And god forbid if it leads to something even more drastic. That all said, the food and drinks were all very good, and we enjoyed ourselves a lot. Doesn’t hurt that the servers were thrilled that the Otakon crowd was in, and some even had at least part of a cosplay on. Ours was dressed like Misty, which was a very nice touch even if it did fuck with me headcanon...

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That was about all I did that evening aside from closing out the game room and getting some more photos. We drank for a while and shot the shit before calling it a night. Sundays always start of for, since the con is coming to an end. I wasn’t too thrilled with it especially, add it meant going home while we were in between residences…literally, it seemed, until we got everything finalized. We finished packing at different times, and thankfully the hotel offered baggage holding until we could leave.

That Sunday, I only had one panel scheduled, as my passengers wanted to leave rather early. It was a Toonami panel entitled “Toonami: A Celebration of a Generation”. It was a celebration of all things Toonami from the mid to late 90s, and aside from sharing our memories of the block, as well as some of our earlier exposures to anime, it played some of the classic bumps and commercial spots…the CGI from which had not aged well. Hell, it probably was considered sub-par during its time (especially the bumps with Moltar at the helm). But the programs were awesome and we ended up loving anime as a result. It’s more than a fair trade.

While waiting around for the others after that panel let out, I killed some time in the game room, taking advantage of its abbreviated Sunday hours. I bounced around various games, until finding myself playing Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike—the newer, online version put out on the XBox 360 and (in this instance) PS3. I’m like a moth to a fire sometimes with this game. The competition was healthy and relaxed, unlike the Serious Business™ I dealt with earlier. The highlight of that Sunday was when I went on a rather long winning streak. I was using Alex mostly, and occasionally Remy. The two biggest highlights were when I got one opponent with so many back-to-back Flash Chops, (which spin the opponent around on impact) in an attempt to setup a Back Drop Bomb combo, but he ended up chopped into oblivion, making us joke that he got screwed into the ground; and when a new challenger came in, picked Urien, and I immediately went, “Aw, shit…” We all had a big laugh, but I knew what a skilled Urien player can do, especially with the Aegis Reflector super art, and i was worried that the universe was going to make me pay for my hubris and I’d be made to look like a scrub. Even after leaving I felt like I had used up all my positive karma and was going to wind up with my car under an eighteen-wheeler on the way home. Thankfully, this was not the case.

Earlier I had mentioned my passengers wanted to leave rather early. Well, that wasn’t quite happening. We were separated and communication between us to coordinate a departure time was bad, so it took a lot more time and aggravation to get everyone together. By the time we left Baltimore, it was in the afternoon and we were hitting the main traffic on the roads. There was also the problem of getting them back. See, I didn’t want to risk the New York City area traffic and the outrageous tolls again, to say nothing of how late I’d end up getting actually home. So, after some convincing, I got them to take the train from New Brunswick into the city. It’s worked for other friends from New York—a proven system!—and it managed to with this time. Once I sent them on their way, I finally was able to get back home and enjoy one of my last few nights at my original home.

Don’t get me wrong: I love conventions, I love going to them, I love cosplay (even if I am as fat shit whose only gotten worse thanks to depression), and I especially love Otakon. But this con was a bit of a letdown. It should’ve been catharsis incarnate for me, what with the impending move. But between the aggravation with the hotel, my hamstrung budget, and especially the drive up to Brooklyn, it was a dark cloud over what should’ve been a bright weekend. And even worse, I didn’t even cosplay because of how disgusted I was with my appearance. I have absolutely no fucking idea why I drive all the way up to Brooklyn, hours in the opposite direction, to pick up two people I barely even knew, especially when one showed almost no regret for wasting everyone’s time. Not even in the time between then and posting this writeup of Otakon was I able to even partially deduce what the fuck I was thinking.

But I will say this. I don’t blame Otakon in any way for this issue; not the staff, not the convention, not the city, nothing like that. I love this convention; I really do. I loved it when I first started going over a decade ago, and I’ll still love it when it moves to D.C.

Ari Rockefeller

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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