Otakon 2018: An Exhausted Account – Part 1

A weekend of heat, cartoons, and minimal sleep

Making it out Otakon has always been an elusive goal of mine. For as long as I’ve been an anime fan, it’s been on my radar as one of the big gatherings, packed with industry guests, fan-run panels, and social meetups celebrating anime and manga. But the convention falling at the end of July or early August always meant I could never get away due to work obligations. Cut to 2018 and I find myself in a much more forgiving (and all-around better) working situation, where sneaking away to a cartoon convention for a weekend isn’t an outrageous request. This was happening.

So as I sit here, recovering from an extended weekend hustling around D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center, my body feeling heavy and the memories still fresh, I’ll attempt to reconstruct the last few days along with photos from my badly aging phone.

Day 0

Among the many annoying things you discover living in western South Dakota is the severe lack of flexibility when it comes to air travel. You’re almost always going to have to deal with connections and flight times are limited to a few times a day, meaning that if I wanted to make anything out of Thursday, I’d have to destroy any idea of getting a normal amount of sleep. I’m confident that there is no path that involves both healthy rest and being able to get the most out of my vacation time. This struggle would run through the entirety of the weekend.

While in the air I reluctantly settled on watching Ready Player One, a film I steadfastly ignored during its theatrical run and refused to commit any actual hard currency towards afterward. What makes it worth mentioning here is that the film, and source novel, were sold as a celebration of fans and their love of movies, comics, video games, and whatnot. And under all the expensive yet oddly obscured action scenes (why is it so smoky everywhere in the Oasis?) and characters openly explaining references to each other, the “Holy Grail of Pop Culture” had little say about the passion that keeps beloved movie lines or the intricate details of a particular prop burned into the minds’ of fans decades later. Instead opting for a dreary, unabashedly commercial adventure that has already fallen out of the current discourse. The ensuing weekend would demonstrate everything Ready Player One failed to capitalize on.

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You may recognize classic anime robot Voltron

That cold, low emotion mood thankfully didn’t follow me once on the ground, D.C. was hot and muggy and people were eager to connect over cartoons. Almost immediately groups began forming through Twitter messages, private DMs, and Discord chats for meetups, drinks, and room parties. Before long I was in the lobby of an upscale hotel attempting to both wrap my head around and explain to several innocent people the nature of my current fixation, ostensible children’s show Heybot!, with the help of America’s #1 fan, who late one night at AnimeFest last year drunkenly passed along an emphatic recommendation/dare/dire warning to avoid at all costs. There was much confusion and I feel as though I’ll never be able to encapsulate the hell that is the Heybot! experience fully, even with an official imported toy, provided by the aforementioned criminal, in hand. I’ve settled on “hard Pop Team Epic minus the creative spotlight” as a quick description for the time being.

The long day ended with a planned dinner where that 18 or so hours of going strong was really starting to creep up. The feeling that I was slowly dissolving into my chair was a hard one to struggle against, but it was a good time if only to see all the enthusiasm around the table. I may not have been able to match it in my state, but that kind of energy helped power me through the weekend. Like many meetups that would follow, things were loud, energetic, and any attempt at organization or planning would quickly fall away to a good-natured, freewheeling chaos.

Day 1

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My Twitter feed, the car

The day began with me banking what would end up being the most sleep I would be able to eke out for the duration of the convention. Hell, I made it to the Anime News Network panel without feeling like I was falling out of my hotel room in a mad rush. Next up was a stroll through the cavernous dealer’s hall, which I’m learning as I go to more conventions, there’s a point where diversity in products stops expanding with con size and starts to default to simply “more”. And so a sea of quickly blurring figures, posters, plastic swords, pins, and all other manner of merch extended out in front of me. It’s a place where I could have dropped a sizable amount on a pile of slick-looking art books at the Kinokuniya booth and or finally committed to serious Gunpla building at the Blue Fin setup. I managed to escape with only Discotek’s hot new Blu-ray releases of infamous ultra-violent trash Angel Cop, featuring an accurate anti-Semitic subtitle script, and the 1980s Devilman OVAs (remember back in January when dub clips were all the rage on the Internet?). Not exactly hard to find scores, they’re both set to hit shelves by the end of the month, but I was happy to hand over cash in person to the Discotek crew.

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Walking around quickly revealed that that Dragon Ball thing is still kind of a big deal, I guess. Maybe it was the ever-present screens all over the convention center looping trailers nonstop or it could have been how Funimation and Toei had the largest industry space on the floor, loosely recreating the iconic Tenkaichi Budokai arena. The walls were covered in artwork recapping the still expanding adventures of Goku and pals and merchandise promoting the new Broly movie coming December. All lorded over by a giant inflatable Shenron. I’m still floored how this property has come back from scattered animated specials and popular legacy video games to absolutely dominate a huge venue promoting a new TV series and upcoming movie. You can’t keep Dragon Ball down.

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I’m not a big figure guy, but this is seriously tempting

Following the overload of merch was a run over to a nearly full panel room featuring select Studio Trigger staff members who worked on last year’s Little Witch Academia TV series, along with the previous short films. Director Yoh Yoshinari, Producer Naoko Tsutsumi, and Producer/Script Writer Masahiko Otsuka spoke on the studio spending upwards of six months on individual episodes where others only spend 2 to 3. They went on to reveal that the series was quietly written to depict the path of an animator trying to bring its luster and wonder back into the world, which made a great deal click together in my mind. And touched on how international fan support for The Enchanted Parade Kickstarter campaign inspired the final episode’s hopeful missile fighting climax. A trivia segment followed, making me regret binging through Little Witch so quickly last fall and not letting the minutia sink in more thoroughly. Inferno Cop got a big applause when mentioned, a DARLING in the FRANXX shaped cloud of hesitation loomed over the room when the staff asked if the studio had ever committed a misstep, and I genuinely felt they meant it when talking about how encouraged they were by fans around the world. Happy to have made time for them.

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Up next was the first part of what I considered to be an unmissable event: legendary creator Shoji Kawamori’s talk about… something. The guidebook, schedule, and even the press didn’t actually know what either of Kawamori’s panels would touch on. From what I later learned, there were a few more issues like this cropping up around convention. His Friday panel turned out to be run through his early life, inspirations, and mechanical design philosophy which started strong with the most Kawamori of moves. By which I mean a bombastic sizzle reel, almost certainly put together by the man himself, covering his many works spanning the last 4 decades and referring to him as a “Visionary Creator” and one who controls everything you see and feel. Set to frequent collaborator Yoko Kanno’s “Lion”, everything from the various Macross series and movies, down to Sony Aibo dog designs and a transforming Hatsune Miku car robot made an appearance. Like Kawamori’s best, it was a colorful spectacle better felt than logically processed as jets flew around spewing missiles and naked teenagers combined in the most unsubtle of ways while piloting robots.

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Within moments, Kawamori was on top of the table explaining the importance of a change of perspective. He pantomimed a skiing motion to both sides of the crowd to illustrate the origin of the iconic Valkyrie Gerwalk transformation stage. It was frankly a lot to take in. Photos of the slides were not allowed, so you’ll have to trust me when I say things got weird. Highlights were one of a parrot and later an inverted tape dispenser drawn in the style of the movie version of the SDF-1 Macross. We were so close to a projection screen with nothing but a doughnut with the word “theme” written in the hole. Please refer to Aquarion Evol for context on the previous sentence. This energy unfortunately sagged when Kawamori started digging deeper into his design sensibilities, spending what felt like 10 minutes detailing the importance of silhouette and integration of worldbuilding. Certainly not bad ideas to touch on, but the surreality of the opening half of the panel began to feel like a distant memory as he kept looping back.

A trailer for his new show, called Last Hope internationally, helped to jolt the proceedings back to life. Currently airing in Japan, it’s set to appear on Netflix in October. Centered around a team of robot pilots acting as the last line of defense against a part organic artificial intelligence run amok, Last Hope looks to fit right in line with Kawamori’s current studio home Satelight’s recent Macross and Aquarion output. Colorful, already coming off more than a little clunky, and not wanting for gumption. There’s a red kung fu robot, a man with a comically large sword in the key art, and a rainbow flurry of fists near the end of the trailer. Anime is alive and well. To cap off the day’s talk, out came the Legos. To keep his designs plausibly functional, Kawamori builds fully transformable prototypes and then has them converted into digital renders for the animation process. On display, Friday was one of Last Hope‘s three lead robots, a motorcycle, said to be tank sized in the show, transformed, by hand. The biker spirit of Victory Gundam lives on. If nothing else, the demonstration clearly showed that for a man who has been in the industry for as long as he has, Shoji Kawamori and his idiosyncrasies show no signs of losing steam.

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Following along with the convention’s mecha theme, I made my way to the Gunpla 101 hosted Patlabor panel. While not exactly the target audience an introduction, having double and triple dipped on several of the franchise’s entries, I’m always game for hearing interesting people talk up one mecha’s true undersung heroes. The panel consisted primarily of that age-old Patlabor challenge, namely trying to wrangle the many tones and sensibilities of the distinct entries and present an open invitation. Patlabor is in turns thought-provoking, funny, deeply relatable in its depiction of interpersonal workplace relationships, and now wonderfully accessible to new viewers. Seriously, you’ll be able to buy all of the animated entries, minus the recent Reboot short, for under $100 in November. It’s a steal and the panel should have been considered a public service in light of the year’s theme. I sincerely hope someone who has never heard of a Labor or the SV2 saw the clip of Ota’s increasingly desperate requests to get ahold of a gun and gives Patlabor a chance.

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Patlabor is in fact good

Friday should have begun winding down after another loud group dinner with a visit from the ever cursed Heybot, but not feeling dead just yet, I headed back into the still booming convention center for Anime World Order host Daryl Surat’s midnight spotlight on anime from the now startlingly two-decade-old year of 1998. He led with titles even those not alive at the time of original broadcast or later Toonami runs would stand a chance of recognizing. Evergreen Cowboy Bebop probably won’t lose the ability to garner instant applause for at least another 20 years, but it was heartening that shows like Trigun, His and Her Circumstances, and Serial Experiments Lain, the latter of which has been undergoing a bit of rediscovery recently for its prescient vision of the hell that is online identity, can pull cheers from a younger crowd.

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Things then turned to crustier titles, ones that haven’t stood the test of time as well as say an Outlaw Star or even hung around as a memorable joke like Initial D‘s CG cars. I speak of works like Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Evangelion attempt, Brain Powerd, a show that sits rather high on my list of morbid curiosities, and Knight Hunters: Wiess Krutz. Now, most of even the obscure titles had at least crossed my path in one way or another before, but not Wiess Krutz; a complete blind spot in my anime experience. It was a wonderful ride as Surat, and a friend following the panel laid out the setup of a quartet of attractive male florists by day, angsty assassins by night. The accompanying footage started with slow pans over soft-lit scenes of the men selling flowers to screaming women before cutting to the group, now sporting leather trench coats, bloodlessly taking down hatchet-wielding bad guys in hockey masks. Every time I think I have a handle of this anime thing, something like Wiess Krutz comes along to remind me just how much more charmingly junky material is out there.

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By 1 A.M. the night was not so young anymore. The window of potential sleep before morning panels and another full day of activity was still reasonable, if smaller than I would have preferred. As I headed back to my hotel room, I bumped into a few friends taking in the night air after dinner. Here was a situation where I could have simply wished them a good night and been on my way. But there’s no fun in that. So I sat down and the conversation leaped around until we hit on Legend of the Galactic Heroes condiment husbands and how discussion of the series in the popular discourse has shifted away from dry, no-nonsense war politics to more fun readings, leaning into the apparently barely contained homoerotic subtext, since becoming legally available. It’s really about time I fully commit to this beast because that sounds like a whole lot more entertaining than how stuffy older fans have made the series out to be for years. Finally, sometime after 3, it was definitely time for everyone to get some sleep. It was the kind of end to a night that leads to some great memories, but in the moment you can feel your body’s resentment growing by the second.

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