Otakon 2016 – Goodnight, Lord Baltimore, Wherever You Are

Everyone winds up leaving home after long enough, and while that may come sooner or later for some people, this convention is leaving its long-established home and going outside its deeply rooted venue in Baltimore.

Otakon came to us in August of 2016 from the Baltimore Convention Center…for the last time, at least for the foreseeable future. Otakorp had mentioned a few years ago that they were moving to Washington, DC, mostly due to the venue itself. The Baltimore Convention Center had not aged well—and I have to take their word for this, because it didn’t seem too bad to me, but I’m just one attendee, so what do I know—and the center’s future was uncertain. Among the rumors was that the BCC was going to be torn down, if not heavily renovated. No word on what the fate of the surrounding hotels would be. I was also unaware that both Baltimore and DC were bidding heavily against one another for hosting the convention…which I’ve never even heard of happening before, for an anime convention, at least. I didn’t know where else in Baltimore they could’ve hosted the con; hell, if the BCC was becoming inadequate, and that was the best they got, where else would they go?

I was fortunate enough to get asked which week I wanted off when it came to allocating vacation weeks. This was back in April. Needless to say, as soon as I was asked, I looked up Otakon’s dates and took the week of that weekend. Didn’t even think about it, either. Hell, it won’t be the last time I do this, either, as I’ll be going to Another Anime Convention in much the same fashion. Regardless, having the entire week off meant not only enjoying the three days leading up to it in relative peace, but I was able to get everything ready in a nice, orderly fashion, without stressing over everything come crunch time.

After loading up the car with some snacks and water for the room (all for around $10 at an Aldi), I set off for Baltimore at around noon on Thursday, fighting the traffic down 95 and into the city. This year we were staying at the Radisson Hotel Inner Harbor a few blocks away from the convention center. I got there easily enough, but as usual, finding parking in the area was a gigantic pain in the ass. Parking garages in the city are expensive as hell, and if you’re lucky to spend less than $60 on parking for the weekend, it’s considered a godsend. And don’t even think about valet parking at the hotel itself. $32 a night? “But you get unlimited in and out during your stay—” “I’m not taking my car anywhere this weekend!” The parking garage I found was about a block and a half away, and was underneath some office/condo complex…thing. It was labyrinthine and confusing to navigate, and I wasted too much time getting in and out of there on Thursday. That was the least of my worries. Checking into the hotel was another gigantic issue, due to complications with credit card authorizations the hotel got and may or may not have had the gumption to maintain for their records. I was ready to bang my head against the wall. And the whole time I was sweating profusely; even in the air conditioned lobby, the heat in the Inner Harbor was sweltering.

After too much time, I got the room keys and was allowed to go into the room. It was a nice enough room, fairly standard stuff for a hotel. We got our microwave and refrigerator, though the way the receptionist at the front desk told me about them, it came off in a “you weren’t supposed to get those (even if you did specifically ask for them)” attitude. I didn’t have any more time to dwell on it, mostly because I was more interested in getting everything unpacked and set up, and settled into the room itself. It didn’t take too long, though I lingered in the room for a little while, the heat and the aforementioned debacle at the front desk taking more out of me than I wanted to admit.

I would eventually walk over to the Sheraton on the other side of the convention center, where Press Ops was located. They were very quick and on the ball with how to do everything this weekend, and they took care of getting me my press pass in short order. And their perk this year for press people was an 8GB USB keychain with Otakon branding. How convenient! Still, I wouldn’t stick it in my computer’s USB ports, if only because having it attached to the car keys, rewards card placards, other keychains, bottle opener, and miscellaneous keys would no doubt cause the poor little thing to snap off and break. I didn’t waste too much time after that, stopping off at a Subway to get some light dinner, and then went back to the hotel to hit up the pool. It was the nicest hotel pool I had been in in a long time, by a considerable margin. Never mind it being outside, it was an actual, normally dimensioned pool, with a very clear deep end and everything. It felt incredible hanging out in it, relaxing, letting the cool water calm me after the pains in the ass I had to endure so far. The only issue I had with it was the hotel’s definition of “rooftop pool.” See, they had advertised it as much, but when I got in the elevator to see which floor it was on—the Cabana level, as I found out—the “C” button on the elevator’s button panel had the “C” right above the “L.” So it was on the roof…of the first floor of the L-shaped building. Oh well. At least the hotel room had a nice view of it from the window.

The rest of my crew arrived late Thursday night, gradually filling up the room, while our colleagues were in the room directly next to ours. I had also learned they had little to no trouble getting into their room, but I had pondered that the hotel might do something stupid like put the two rooms we booked in wildly different parts of the hotel. I wouldn’t put it passed them.

I got a good amount of sleep on Thursday night, and awoke Friday morning good and early (for a con, at least) and got everything ready to go for the first day. I was Bear Hugger (Title Defense version) from Punch-Out!!, and I got quite a lot of positive reactions for my cosplay, as simple as it was. But before I got to the con, I stopped for breakfast down at the hotel’s adjacent café. It…left a lot to be desired. For one, there was almost no hot food, save for waffle irons and a handful of lukewarm pancake and waffle sections. The irons were very closely monitored by one staffer; I’m guessing it was because last year people were very unreserved with how much waffle batter they poured into them, leading to big messes all over. It still came off as overbearing, and kind of killed the vibe at breakfast. Especially with the breakfast food being mediocre at best. But hey, it was free, so what do you want?

As fun as my Bear Hugger cosplay was, I was still sweating heavily just from walking around the atrociously muggy Inner Harbor. The boots certainly didn’t make things any easier, feeling especially heavy and painful to walk in as the day went on. The first panel I attended was being hosted by someone in my room, so I went not just to show support for him, but the subject matter was something I gained a lot of interest in. “Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Anime’s Greatest Epic” talked about the titular anime, and the long-reaching effects of its 110-episode direct-to-video series. The story came off as a generic space opera set in the 36th century, where humanity has taken to the stars and colonized other planets. This of course led to conflict between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance; the former being based on 18th century Prussia, and the latter emulating a modern-day overblown, crumbling, bureaucratic nightmare of a democracy. Neither side is portrayed as being fully right or fully wrong; each sides has its own heroes and great military victories, and there is a ton of meaningful and insightful narrative on both sides of the conflict. It was Japan-only for a long time…until it was confirmed at Anime Expo 2015 that it was being licensed by Viz, and Sentai Filmworks was getting a few of the OVAs.

The second panel I attended was the “Man at Arms” panel, based on the YouTube series of the same name. For the uninitiated: the panelist runs a forge just outside of Baltimore, and makes fantasy weapons for all sorts of film and TV shows. Their YouTube channel primarily focuses on recreating weapons from anime, video games, and the likes—taking you through the smithing process, techniques used, assembly, everything. At the time, their latest project was the Z-Sword (or Trunks’ Sword, or as they called it, the “Brave” Sword) from Dragonball Z. Aside from having a booth in the Dealers’ Room, they also had said panel to show off. The panel ended with an informative Q&A session. I asked if their YouTube videos was the only way they field suggestions for weapons—each video starts with screencaps of a slew of commenters suggesting the piece du jour. And yes, they only listen to YouTube comments. My suggestion was the Yato from Fire Emblem: Fates. Whether or not they’ll do it (or even if anyone else suggested it) remains to be seen.

With quite a bit of time in between leaving there and my next panel, I explored the con more intently. I took more than my share of pictures, of course, and spent probably too much time in the game room. It was, again, the same layout as previous years, only with more cabinets against the walls, and more (and different) rhythm games along another wall. Everything else was in almost the same positions, almost down to the very game. I guess they were going with what worked all the time. Time will tell if this layout carries over to DC.

The next panel I attended was called “How the Mickey and the VCR resurrected anime: An Informal History of the Western Anime Scene.” The basic idea of the panel is that anime struggled to find a foothold for the mainstream in the West in the late 70s and 80s, but was eventually aided by straight-to-video distribution by, primarily, Disney. They also talked about the rise of Carl Macek, who took quite a bit of creative liberties with titles being shipped over. This legacy of dumbing down and heavily editing—to the point of sanitizing—some animes gave rise to the phrase “Macekre”, a clever play on words alluding to the condition of the westernized releases of some titles.

Up until the next panel I would attend that day, I wandered around the convention hall, taking pictures, gaming, all that good stuff. Food choices in the area were a bit on the limited side; sure, there were a few sandwich shops and one or two sit-down restaurants, but the food for the most part was adequate at best. And even more damning, 90% of the time they had lines winding around the entire interior of the store and/or going out into the surrounding hallways and/or outside. The Jimmy Johns’ was the worst offender, as the line almost always went out into the hotel—and not just two or three people; we’re talking dozens of people waiting to get in. At least Jimmy Johns’ wasn’t that expensive in comparison.

That last panel of Friday ended up being “Steven Universe and Anime: Anime References, Tropes, and Themes”. Basically, Steven Universe takes a lot of inspiration from anime and Japanese animation, as have plenty of western animated programs have in the past decade or so. And not just Dragon Ball Z or Sailor Moon (although they are both there). The creators also borrow from Evangelion, as well as Revolutionary Girl Utena. Of course, for the latter, many suggested that with the dynamic between Steven and his main love interest Connie, Connie might as well be Utena and Steven might as well be Anthy. Needless to say, the “Revolutionary Girl Connie” references write themselves at this point (also: that sounds like an amazing crossover). I just wish I had the means to watch more of Steven Universe, especially with the last two seasons that have come out.

Friday night was spent doing not a whole lot of anything else. I had dinner at the Jimmy Johns’, managing to catch it when the line was less unbearable. And while plenty of people enjoyed the rave on Friday and Saturday night, I—who always does poorly at these things—just decided to chill in the hotel room, shooting the shit with my roommates and other press associates. Not a bad start to the convention weekend.

I didn’t want to take any chances with the buffet again, so as I loaded up and got geared up in my Hoenn!Ash cosplay, and decided to hit up a Subway for breakfast. It was serviceable; not the best, but better than the alternative. The first panel I went to was “Science in Anime”, and the rather self-explanatory title told you everything you needed to know about that first hour in that panel. It was a discussion of the scientific principles in anime…or rather, how they’re defied or “taken liberties with” for the sake of the narrative or just for looking cool. Of course with actual scientists running the panel, the guys certainly knew what they were talking about.

The next panel—and indeed, Saturday panels were much more numerous than Friday—was “Journey through Four Decades: A Celebration of Super Sentai and Power Rangers.” It was basically a what’s-what of Super Sentai history, and how Power Rangers did or didn’t tie into it. The franchise is currently on its 40th season, Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger. They also announced that Saban was bringing old Super Sentai seasons over on DVD, especially those that tied in to the earlier Power Rangers seasons.

Then…things got weird.

Sure, the next panel after that was entitled “Weird Japanese Commercials.” Which was exactly what it promised—strange commercials for Japanese products, including things like Tommy Lee Jones—or rather, an alien deciding to take his appearance to blend in because reasons—interacting with all sorts of stereotypically “cute” Japanese things (and his fascination with “moe”) as well as Nicholas Cage’s commercials for pachinko. Yes, commercials—plural. I had no idea there were more than one…and that there was whole series of them with continuity and everything. The Wonder Core commercials were delightfully absurd—primarily for the woman singing about them—and I and many others recognized the Sega Saturn commercials, starring Segata Sanshiro. And then there were the Tarako commercials, with their doll-like…things…that creeped everyone the fuck out.

But the weirdest part of the convention came at the panel directly after that, which was “The Pokémon Voice Actor Panel: Do You Want to Be the Very Best?” Sounds innocuous enough, sure. It was, on the surface, an ordinary Q&A panel, though they were under NDAs to not discuss certain things in the anime. Also: you couldn’t take any kind of pictures or video. No problem for me there. But the absolute low point came when one guy pretty much told the voice actors to act out his shipping fetish. And good grief was this guy fucking creepy. I’ve always preferred Veronica Taylor to Sarah Natochenny providing the voice of Ash and Serena’s just about my least favorite female traveling companion in the anime, but there was no way in hell she and Haven Paschall deserved to be subjected to this. It was super-cringey, and as everyone was leaving the panel, I ended up talking to about three other people who were all mocking the guy who pretty much said, “Hey, act out my creepy shipping fetish!” I think the worst part of all of this was Michael Liscio Jr. (the voice of Clemont) looking directly at me and another Ash cosplayer sitting directly across the aisle from me, with a look on his face that seemed to say, “I am so, so sorry, dude…”

I needed something to wash the taste out of my mouth, so to speak, so I ended up tooling around the convention center, doing normal convention-y things for a few hours. I went into the game room in and out over the course of the weekend, as well as the Artists’ Alley and Dealers’ Room. Of course being in a financial tight spot, I didn’t think I would spend any money in either of the latter two. Until I came to a t-shirt vendor that was selling Pokémon GO t-shirts, and not just of the three primary-color teams. That’s right, after making the only winning move in the proverbial “strange game” that is Instinct/Valor/Mystic team alliances in Pokémon GO and “not to play” (reject all three teams on account of their petty real-life implicating tensions coming from not picking the “right” team), I proclaimed myself as Team Harmony, and would’ve done so a lot sooner, though there was a distinct lack of Harmony merchandise. But lo and behold, I found it! Team Harmony shirts! The heavens hath opened up and divine providence has bequeathed me with the privilege of wearing my team proudly on my person! Except that they didn’t have my size. Another booth ran by the same vendors, on the other hand, did…and even at 3X it was a size small, but it still fit perfectly upon me. I was so incredibly elated! This one purchase makes up for numerous cons where I wanted to buy something but couldn’t.

And besides, there’s an entire movie in the Pokémon franchise dedicated to why Zapdos, Moltres, and Articuno fighting is a very, very, very bad idea. Have we forgotten already, people?!

There was a mostly forgettable panel about old sci-fi games after that, but it was lost in the shuffle compared to what I attended next: “+2 Comedy Presents Anime Stand Up Special.” I got in easily enough thanks to my handy-dandy press pass, but it didn’t look like it would really be needed. Either way, both Noah Houlihan and Will Liam did impressive sets, but the part that stuck with me the most was Noah’s story about how he won a scholarship to train at Chikara’s wrestling school (he is a Philadelphia area resident, after all). After he won the scholarship, he was then invited to perform at a Cosplay Wrestling event. He was slated to wrestle Luigi, dressed up as Mr. Game & Watch. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a concussion during the match, when, during the initial lock-up, he missed and Luigi’s forearm smashed right into his head. According to him, he worked the match to a finish, and then about a half hour after the event, did a 20-minute stand-up routine…that he has absolutely no memory of. I’m sure Maffew would love to stick that footage (if it exists) in an episode of Botchamania…

The last panel I attended that Saturday—and indeed, for the convention itself—was “War Stories from the Conventions.” It sounded at first like any other “horror story” panel, mostly about terrible experiences had through the years going to anime conventions. And it was…at first, anyhow. The panel host, Kevin McKeever, delved into not only those, but of other experiences throughout the world, including touring around China. There were a few pretty brutal stories told, but I didn’t have any to share with the class (such as it was).

Sunday has much ado about nothing, as we were primarily concerned with packing everything up and heading out. Thankfully, my hotel had a luggage holding service, which was good, because lugging everything around would’ve been a massive pain—and even getting it to the garage would be another hassle. But the main thing that permeated Sunday was a press conference with the aforementioned Pokémon voice actors. They talked about the upcoming Gen. VII games, and how hyped they were for them, as well as a general Q&A about anything and everything related to voice acting. The day’s prior incident was not talked about.

After that, there was nothing left for me at the convention, so I grabbed my luggage, made my way back to the byzantine parking structure my car was stationed in, paid to get out—and by the way, there was no computerized ticket reader or anything like that, and the parking attendant had to do the math for my fare like she had never seen mathematics or money before in her life—and made the long trip back home, saying goodbye to Baltimore as a convention destination for the foreseeable future.

When you hear the phrase “end of an era” used nowadays, it’s almost never used sincerely, or as a genuine show of respect for how things used to be compared to what they’re becoming. It’s typically used as some passive-aggressive fashion to lament things not being the way they used to be, or to show displeasure with things changing—even when said “bygone era” just recently ended. But with the pending relocation of Otakon, and given my previous years going to the convention and their experiences—better or worse—I can say that this is indeed the end of an era…and that I’m looking forward to what lies over the horizon.

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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