Animated fans flock to Otakon

Convention: Japanese animation draws thousands for a weekend of videos, panel discussions and elaborate costumes.

July 05, 1999|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Casey Hollis had only one complaint about Otakon '99: It was too good.

A 23-year-old computer programmer from Orlando, Fla., Hollis has been attending Japanese animation conventions (or "cons") for three years now. But he'd never been to a con like Otakon, which drew more than 4,500 fans to the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend.

Although Otakon is devoted to anime (the Japanese word for animation), there was more to the con than just watching animation. There were panel discussions, video tournaments, a dealer's room, a costume contest, a game show and even a couple of miniconcerts.

But mostly, there were anime fans. Lots of anime fans.

"It's so much bigger than the other cons," Hollis said, as he stood with his girlfriend, Nicole Kinter, 22, outside one of the con's six video theaters. Like many of the fans, the two were in costume, with Hollis dressed as Chichiri, a wandering monk from a fantasy anime, "Fushigi Yuugi," while Kinter dressed as swordsman Himara Kenshin from the period piece "Ruroni Kenshin."

"We've really had to pick and choose what to see," Hollis said. "But we were very impressed with Yoko Kanno's performance."

Indeed, the diminutive Kanno was clearly Otakon's biggest star. In addition to giving a piano recital during the opening ceremonies Friday, the composer and pianist had autograph sessions Saturday and Sunday, both of which had long lines of fans waiting to have their CDs autographed.

In Japan, Kanno is a musical phenomenon. A composer equally at home with electronic pop, symphonic scores or big-band jazz, she has enjoyed a level of success unheard of in anime circles. Her most recent release, from the anime series "Cowboy Bebop," made the Japanese Top 20, which, as director Shinichiro Watanabe pointed out, makes it "the year's best-selling anime album."

Unlike other anime composers, who write music only after the animation is completed, Kanno composes before the images have been set, taking inspiration from character designs and story boards. "For me, the first impression is very important," she said, with the help of a translator. "So I write the music first, and then the directors base their images on that.

"Sometimes the director even changes the story for my music."

Kanno developed her sound and skills entirely on her own. "I have no academic background, as far as music education," she said. "I just play on my own, and somehow absorb things from outside." Among her influences are TV themes and elevator music.

"Well, they do play a lot more music in Japanese elevators," said her translator, Shin Kurokawa.

Unlike her fans, however, Kanno says she has no particular favorites among the anime series she's scored. "I like them all, truly," she said. "Every single title has its own merits, and there is good in everything."

Many of the Otakon attendees demonstrated their fandom by dressing up as characters from their favorite anime shows. Jennifer Barclay, 17, and Sara Sams, 15 -- who drove up to Otakon from Fayettesville, Ga., with a van-load of fellow anime fans -- came as Cherry and Lime, two kimono-ed characters from "Saber Marionette J."

"Last year, I made her go as Umi from `Magic Knights Rayearth,' " said Sams of Barclay.

"Which was a totally horrible costume," griped Barclay, thinking of the costume's abbreviated length.

"It was funny! She had all these old men following her around," laughed Sams.

The most crowd-attracting costume at Otakon was the giant Totoro outfit worn by 20-year-old Trevor Stull of Stafford, Va. A Totoro looks like a cross between an owl and a raccoon, and it took Stephanie Brown, also 20, several months and a lot of help to build the Totoro suit.

"We have a skit planned for the costume contest that's really bizarre," Brown said. "It has Totoro wrestling a Pokemon."

Bizarre? Maybe. Funny? You bet. In fact the skit -- which included huge, illuminated Pikachu made by 18-year-old Lyn Hassell of Fredericksburg, Va., won five prizes at the costume contest, including Best of Show.

Overall, Otakon's organizers felt the convention was a total success. "I'd say 90 percent of our stuff opened exactly on time," said convention chairman John Nadzam, 28. The only problem at all came Saturday afternoon, when a fire alarm was pulled in the adjoining convention hall, causing a brief evacuation of the facility.

But even that snafu had its bright side. The alarms sounded just as Mari Iijima, 36, finished the first number in her concert. Iijima was introducing material from her soon-to-be-released English-language debut, "No Limit," but didn't mind the interruption.

"That was actually good," she said later. "It made me relax. Everybody had to leave, but they all came back, and they had fun."

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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