Anything Goes

Fans Of Japanese Animation Converge On Baltimore, Indifferent To The Fact That The World Doesn't Get Them

July 20, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Yes, that was a pack of Samurai strolling down Howard Street near the Baltimore Convention Center. But that giant marshmallow? That was actually "Happi Paper," a giant dancing roll of toilet paper "with a simple heart and a kind soul."

Such characters convene each year in Baltimore for Otakon, the largest anime and Asian culture convention in the country, which ended Sunday. More than 25,000 people - many dressed in full cartoon costume or sporting punky hairdos or wielding enormous cardboard swords - attended this year.

It was one of the largest crowds ever for the convention, despite the down economy. The first convention, in State College, Pa., 16 years ago, drew 400 people. For the past 10 years, Otakon has been in Baltimore.

The etymology of the convention's name explains the draw. "Otaku" is a Japanese term used to refer to a person with obsessive interests.

"Some people might wonder why someone would dress up in a huge costume in the middle of summer in Baltimore," said Alyce Wilson, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania-based Otakorp, which holds the event. "But that's just otaku culture. People are never going to understand it, and that's OK. It's something to be proud of."

Wilson said Otakon is "by the fans, for the fans." It's a place where people can see the latest anime, play video and board games, learn to apply makeup in the manner of Sailor Moon and score autographs from top animators and performers.

But, mostly, the fans come for the colorful, anything-goes atmosphere, which included late-night dances and a masquerade at 1st Mariner Arena.

Where else can 17-year-old Garrett Zopfi don a white-painted sumo suit and a pillow-like headpiece filled with upholstery foam and still blend in with the crowd?

The Forest Hill resident adopted the persona of the Radish Spirit from the movie Spirited Away for the three-day convention. He spent more than 12 hours crafting the get-up - possibly unique, he said, based on his Google searches for similar ones.

Zopfi and thousands of other fans wandered about the Dealer's Room on the convention floor Sunday. It's a giant mall of wigs, fairy wings, anime, swords, games and cutesy pop culture trinkets. Wilson said the Dealer's Room is one of the biggest draws of the convention because of the instant gratification it provides. Typically, fans have to hunt for and purchase such items on the Internet.

Greg Borders, co-owner of Wizzywig, an Ann Arbor, Mich., pop-culture collectibles company that hasn't missed a convention in 10 years, said he comes to Baltimore because "this is where the fans go." A few stalls away, at BeKyoot, an anime retailer from Houston, Happi Paper was giving hugs and posing for photos.

That he is sometimes mistaken for a marshmallow is something that Monique Munoz understands all too well.

Bedecked in a purple suit and top hat and cane, with two teeth blacked out, Munoz heard over and over again from unknowing Baltimoreans - "Hey, it's Willy Wonka!" - as she walked around the Baltimore Convention Center.

Not even close. The Toronto resident was The Warden from Superjail!, a cartoon on the Adult Swim network. It should have been obvious: Munoz was accompanied by a pink-clad Karen Santora, also of Toronto, who was dressed as The Warden's side-kick, The Mistress.

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