A man in black wields an enormous hollow cross packed with phony handguns while checking out Barnes & Noble's graphic-novel racks. A futuristic Marie Antoinette, in a regal gown with bared cleavage and midriff, balances a huge rectangular headpiece with impeccable hauteur while navigating the steaming crowds on Pratt Street. An urban-cowboy assassin in fringed Daisy Dukes, with hippie-like straight hair hitting the small of her back and bandoleros crisscrossing her chest, eyes a burger at Five Guys.
These are the kinds of sights that have filled Baltimore's downtown and Inner Harbor since Thursday night, when Otakon 2011 opened with a block party.
Every summer, Otakon, a celebration of Asian popular culture, turns Baltimore into the double-take capital of the world. At least 30,000 fans, most from the East Coast, and many in costume, have entered the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend to salute Japanese cartoons, comics and video games. The extravaganza winds up Sunday.
It's a boon to Baltimore — it brings an estimated $11.3 million into the city — and a tourist attraction unto itself. Any noninitiates wandering through the Inner Harbor are sure to collide with the creative, colorful aficionados. Chances are you could see a Spider-Man, Superman or Han Solo in this wild bunch. But almost all the action figures who spring to life at Otakon have stepped out of anime (Japanese cartoons) and manga (Japanese comics).
"We have women dressing in male character costumes, and we have men (sometimes even old men) dressing as Sailor Moon, a teenage princess fighting for truth and love," according to Sue Monroe, Otakon 2011's head of volunteer operations. For these "cosplayers" — conventioneers who combine costuming and role-playing — what counts is staying true, in their own ways, to each character, even if their far-out ensembles are hard to keep up in more ways than one.
Otakon is an extension of the Japanese word otaku, meaning a person immersed in pop culture. In Japan, the word carries some pejorative connotations — it often suggests an obsessive young fellow who mooches off his parents, sleeps in Internet cafes and generally can't function in reality. But in an America newly proud of geeking out, there's no comparable stigma attached. Many American fans are proud to call themselves "totally otaku."
Attendance at Otakon has nearly tripled, from 10,275 in 2001 to 29,274 in 2010. According to Otakon featured speaker Roland Kelts, the half-Japanese, half-American author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S," the success of conventions like Otakon — the largest of its kind on the East Coast — mirrors the new-millennial embrace of Japan as an international trend-setter.
"In the 21st century," Kelts said, "Japan has become the arbiter of 'cool' around the globe, in fashion, design, style, cuisine, and certainly in this vein of bright, colorful and inventive popular culture."
Kelts also noted that as the otaku phenomenon surges across the country, Americans are becoming more aware of the extremes of Japanese popular culture. In Kelts' book, a chapter called "Strange Transformations" includes his rendering of a yakuza (Japanese mafia) manga story — the characters include a torture victim, a buxom sexual tease and a snake — and his summary of the genre known as "tentacle porn," depicting women ravished by incubi with diverse appendages.
X-rated Internet pranksters have targeted anime and manga festivals. And then there's the question of "furries": fans of anthropomorphic cartoon animals. Some are said to engage in sexual acts while wearing their full-body suits, though the official furry community denies it.
Otakon carefully restricts adult events — you need "18-plus" IDs to get into them. And Otakon veterans say that if a supposedly family-friendly show or panel turns too racy, it's sure to be shut down. But the organizers are not prudes.
"Back when we started, I used to carry safety pins in case a cosplayer needed them for a costume emergency," Monroe said. Cosplayers feel safe risking wardrobe malfunctions in Otakon's secure and friendly atmosphere. If they get the details right, then put their personal spin on them, they can merge with a fantasy figure they love and share the fun with a like-minded community of pop-obsessed people.
Otakon is one big tent that's bursting at the seams. Everyone is welcome, whether little kids coming as cuddly creatures from "Pokemon," college kids putting on biker-gang gear from "Akira" and cyber-punk outfits out of "Ghost in the Shell" (both manga and anime milestones), or children of all ages taking the shapes of phantasms from Hayao Miyazaki's modern-classic cartoons, like No Face in "Spirited Away."
"Having young people often dressed in very skimpy costumes and showing a lot of skin — in every other context in America, outside of the conventions, that would turn heads," Kelts said.