Devotees Of Anime Have A Weekend Of Adventure At Otakon

July 16, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Come this weekend, mild-mannered Harford Community College student Brad Brooks will transform. He'll slip on a black and silver outfit, complete with a black vest, big collar and silver belt. He'll don a turquoise blue wig "that's supposed to be really spiky."

And then he'll slip down to the Baltimore Convention Center, and he'll fit right in. For this is Otakon weekend, when fans of Japanese pop culture gather from all over the world. They'll attend concerts by Japanese performers rarely seen on these shores, watch the latest in Japanese animation (called anime, by those in the know), sit in on fan panels covering almost every imaginable topic ("How to Become a Samurai in 1 Hour," for example), meet artists, writers and celebrities.

Many of them, like Brooks, will be specially dressed for the occasion. In his case, that means becoming Black Star, a character from the popular Soul Eater series. Otakon officials estimate that about 10 percent of the fans who show up for the convention, which kicks off Friday morning and runs through Sunday, will be in costume. Last year's Otakon drew more than 26,000, meaning that Brooks should have plenty of company.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's LIVE section misstated Otakon's tenure in Baltimore. The fan convention devoted to Japanese popular culture started in State College, Pa., in 1994 and moved to the Baltimore Convention Center in 1999. Also, tonight's Otakon concert will feature a performance by Japanese singer MELL. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

"Oh, people take it to bigger extremes than me," he says. "You go there, and you look around, and almost everybody is like that. I kind of equate it to Halloween, except it's all weekend, and instead of candy, you get an overload of Japanese culture."

Baltimore has been playing host to Otakon since 1994, when some 350 fans showed up. This year, more than 50 times that many people registered for the convention in advance - up 4.6 percent from last year.

"Otakon is about the whole culture, so everyone can participate," says 2009 convention Chairman Matt Smiechowski, who, like all those who organize and run the convention, volunteers his time. "That inclusiveness really helps build Otakon into what it is."

And what it is, at least in the world of Japanese pop culture celebrated on these shores, is a big thing indeed. Officials are expecting record crowds this year, and have scheduled a whole range of activities to keep everyone busy.

There's a masquerade contest, scheduled for Saturday night at 1st Mariner Arena (not that these fans need a contest to get dressed up; many will spend all weekend in costumes). There are the aforementioned panels, well over 100 of them. There's an entire hall devoted to video gaming, including tournament competition. There's a dance party, the Otakurave, running Friday and Saturday night, with DJs spinning a little bit of everything. There's a dealer's room, where books, magazines, DVDs, figurines, clothing and collectibles will be available.

A concert is scheduled for each day, in a hall with a 2,600-seat capacity. Friday's performer has yet to be announced, but Saturday afternoon, pop cellist Kanon Wakeshima makes her U.S. debut, while Sunday afternoon's lineup includes American singer-guitarist Becca (aka Becca-chan), whose songs have proved quite the hit in Japan, and another Japanese singer making her U.S. debut, Naomi Tamura, whose many hits include the themes for several anime series.

"The way the industry has grown in the past couple years, it's much easier for people to watch anime on basic cable, or order things online," says Omar Jenkins, chief of Otakon's programming section. "So one of the main goals I had was to increase the level of event-programming. It's important for us to have something that most convention-goers can't get at home, or at their local anime club."

Sounds like the Otakon folks know their audience pretty well.

"It's a way to connect not only with your peers, but with the people that produce what you're into," says Brooks, eager to transform himself into Black Star and get down to the Convention Center tomorrow. "It's an experience that you can't really get anywhere else."

If you go

Otakon 2009 runs Friday through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Hours are 8:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Memberships, required for admittance to all convention activities, are available for $65. Information: otakon.com.

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