In many ways, Otakon is similar to other anime conventions proliferating across the U.S. and Canada. Attendees are greeted with all the convention staples one might expect, like cosplay (costuming) masquerades, a dealer's room full of anime and manga-related merchandise, video gaming, screening rooms, panels and workshops. What sets Otakon apart is the massive scale on which all of this takes place (a 94,000-square foot dealer's room!), the impressive array of activities presented to reflect the wide influence of anime on Japanese and American culture, and the high level of access to industry representatives and creative personalities.
Otakon's tremendous attendance growth has afforded it enough pull to attract a fascinating slate of guests. This year's event brought several guests from Japan, including screenwriter Ichiro Okouchi, whose diverse credits include Angelic Layer, Azumanga Daioh, and RahXephon; Koge Donbo, the unlikely manga artist who created DiGi Charat; and director Tatsuo Sato, best known for his work on Martian Successor Nadesico and the ethereal triumph Cat Soup. A host of North American voice actors were also in attendance, including John Burgmeier, Luci Christian, Richard Epcar, Chris Patton, Monica Rial and Chris Sabat. Among the other guests were several members of the ever-growing school of non-Japanese manga-influenced comic and webcomic artists.
In an almost certainly unprecedented move for an anime convention outside of Japan, Otakon rented out the First Mariner Arena, Baltimore's 13,000 seat sports arena, for the first North American performance of the J-rock band, L'Arc-en-Ciel.
Wildly popular in Japan, L'Arc-en-Ciel put on a pyrotechnic-fueled, high-octane show in front of an enthusiastic, packed house that reveled in the band's anime aesthetic.
The anime industry was out in force at Otakon, with large distributors competing for the attention of fans with giveaways, screenings, and panels. Viz's booth proved a popular destination for Inuyasha fans, who were rewarded with tickets to the East Coast premiere of Inuyasha the Movie: Affections Touching Across Time.
In an odd move, Viz chose to screen the film at a movie theater almost 30 minutes' drive north of the convention, rather than using a local theater or Otakon's 35mm movie room. Regardless, the film was well received by appreciative fans of the popular series.
Industry panels brought a plethora of licensing announcements and engaging discussions on the state of manga and anime outside of Japan. A hot topic among panelists was the fierce competition developing in the rapidly expanding billion-dollar North American anime market. In a drive to lock up licensing rights to potential anime hits, American companies are entering the process of negotiating with Japanese studios earlier and earlier. In some cases, licensing agreements are actually being signed based only on storyboards. Some U.S. companies, like ADV, have moved into co-producing anime in Japan with the intention of bringing successful properties across the Pacific once they've developed an audience in Japan.
As the North American market becomes increasingly important to Japanese studios, conventions like Otakon will continue to hold the industry's attention. But what makes Otakon a great convention are the throngs of dedicated fans of all ages that come together to drink in three sleepless, frenzied, chaotic days of anime overkill.