To just throw on any old clothes is to miss the spirit of Otakon 2004, the 11th annual gathering of fans whose lives revolve, in ways unfathomable to some but perfectly understandable to them, around Japanese animation and other benchmarks of Far Eastern popular culture.
No, to really experience Otakon, you have to dress the part. Not that they won't let you inside the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend if you insist on sporting nothing more spectacular than a T-shirt and blue jeans; you pay your money ($55 for a weekend pass, $40 for today only, $20 for tomorrow), you can enjoy the dealers' room, the video rooms, the panel discussions and whatever else inspires you.
But fair warning: You're going to find yourself surrounded by young men and women dressed as their favorite animated characters, in costumes that often took days or weeks to create. And you're going to feel out of place.
"I really enjoy looking around and picking out my favorite characters," says 19-year-old Samantha Benya of Sykesville, who's come dressed in a costume lifted from the original Final Fantasy video game, complete with huge green (foam) mallet. "I like to think that it's really them."
And don't make the mistake of thinking this is just a few exhibitionist fans out for a good time. Organizers of Otakon, one of the largest such conventions in the country, expect upward of 17,000 people this weekend. Yesterday morning, as thousands of fans started to gather in anticipation of the noon opening of the dealers' room, at least a third were outfitted in full regalia.
"It's, like, more than Halloween," says Jenny Nichols, 22, who's come from Bowie dressed as the rabbit-like character Rabi-En-Rose - complete with pink tutu, oversized ears and dice atop her head - from the anime series Digi Charat (a quick tutorial in Japanese animation: Anime is movies and video, while manga is anime adapted to comic books and graphic novels). "You get to be somebody else for the day, and you can connect with people a lot more."
Some of the costumes can look pretty ferocious: There were a lot of cardboard swords, scabbards and other weapons on display, plenty of folks were garbed in Goth-like black, more than a few fangs and long fingernails were on display, and for some visitors ... well, let's just say they were a little on the creepy side.
"Yeah, my character, if he shows up, he does a lot of damage," says Adam Hennessy, a 27-year-old administrative assistant from Ringwood, N.J., who showed up dressed as Clarinet, the high priest of the magical army at the center of the series The Violinist of Hamlin. Well over 6 feet tall, Hennessy presented quite the picture in his purple and white robes and long yellow ponytail, wielding a crested staff even taller than he.
But fret not. Like everyone at Otakon, Hennessy is really pretty harmless. He's just a big fan of anime.
"The entire community is really friendly," he says, adding that anime "gives you a greater appreciation of another country and another culture."
For most otaku (the Japanese word for an obsessive fan of anything), that's really the appeal of anime and Japanese pop culture, says Terry Chu, convention chairman of Otakon 2004. "Our convention is a lot of people getting together to celebrate a lot of different aspects of a culture they admire. For me, I actually got drawn into [anime] because it's something so different from what a lot of our cultural artistic preferences can provide. ... It's something people haven't had exposure to."
At least half of the people who show up at Otakon, Chu adds, are first-timers, with little or no previous exposure to the sort of cultural experience the convention has to offer. Such ignorance, however, can't last long: By the end of Otakon 2004, visitors will have been able to hear concerts by the Japanese pop group L'Arc-en-Ciel (5 p.m. today at 1st Mariner Arena), attend advance screenings of two epics of Japanese cinema, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (9:30 tonight) and Hero (11 a.m. tomorrow), listen in on panel discussions of such topics as "Anime Stereotypes and You" and "Fifty Years of Godzilla," meet screenwriters and voice actors (who dub Japanese anime), even view original anime and manga artwork.
Sisters Sarah Marchegiani, 19, and Casey Ivanauskas, 11, hope to take in a little bit of everything over the weekend.
"I begged" to come, said Casey, who was itching to get inside the dealers' room and spend the $50 her dad had given her.
Her sister's plans were a little more pragmatic.
"Meeting hot men dressed in expensive clothes," she said. "This is a great way to grab guys and hug them."
Otakon hours are 9 a.m.-2 a.m. today and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. tomorrow. Information: www.otakon.com.