Shattering the Old Baltimore Ceiling: Otakon 2022

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center. A large redstaircase cuts through the middle, with escalators on each side. Blue signs saying "Registration" and "Photosuite" show that this is Otakon.

Out of all fan conventions, I consider Otakon the one can’t-miss event. There’s certainly a sentimental component, as I’ve been attending for about 15 years at this point, but I think their approach to the concept of the anime con is vitally important: a celebration of anime fandom that’s not for profit and also gives respect to both the creators of the works and the fans themselves. This year, Otakon 2022 shattered its attendance record with a whopping 40,000+ (roughly 6,000 more than the previous record), and I’m glad to see it thrive after a combination of a risky move to Washington DC saw an attendance drop and the arrival of a global pandemic threatened its very existence.

COVID-19 Measures

Anyone who follows Edm Junkies knows that I do not take COVID-19 lightly. I’m a firm believer in the science that says vaccinations provide significant protection against severe disease and death, and that good-quality masks are an important tool for mitigating spread. I’m also not so naive as to think COVID couldn’t possibly be at the convention. So why did I still decide to attend, especially with the Omicron variants being so infectious? There are multiple reasons.

First, above all else, is that Otakon’s COVID-19 policy reassured me that they take the pandemic seriously. Much of the US has been opening up in rather unsafe ways (if they had ever closed down at all), and some other notable conventions had tried to roll back their masking and vaccination policies despite the prevalence of the Omicron variants. However, Otakon maintained that attendees must either be vaccinated or present a negative PCR test result, and that masks are mandatory. A few more things could have been done, like requiring vaccinations and boosters, period, but it’s understandable that some people still can’t get vaccinated for reasons other than hesitancy. In my view, Otakon cared more about people than attendance numbers.

Second, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is quite spacious and has tall ceilings that can help keep air circulating—it’s being in stagnant air in small, enclosed spaces that is especially high-risk, and I could do what I can to avoid those situations and/or make sure I didn’t take my mask off under any circumstances.

Third, I trusted my own risk management. In situations that are too crowded around me or where the mask usage rate is clearly lacking, I could make the decision to change plans or abandon ship and head back to my hotel. Although it might mean not getting to see something or someone I was looking forward to, it was something I was willing to accept. You can’t do everything at Otakon anyway. I did eat out with friends once, but it was on a Sunday when the majority of attendees had already left DC.

A dish consisting of egg, sea urchin roe, and salmon roe.

Of course, COVID safety only goes as far as whether people actually follow them. In that regard, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the majority of people wore masks of some kind and wore them over their noses like you’re supposed to. It wasn’t perfect, and there were plenty of ineffective cloth masks still being worn, but I think having the firm requirements come from the con itself might have encouraged attendees to follow their example. I also literally saw security go after someone with no vaccination/COVID-negative wristband in a reassuring sign of vigilance. Score one for mandates. 

Issues

That’s not to say the con ran 100% smoothly, however.

I enjoy getting autographs from creators, and Otakon is often good at inviting a variety of interesting guests from Japan. However, ever since the move from Baltimore, the autograph area has been in the same space as the Dealer’s Room, resulting in a less-than-ideal situation. Attendees wanting to get their stuff signed have to deal with the massive crowd trying to get into the Dealer’s Room to shop, and I thought about giving up on more than one occasion because I was worried about being surrounded by people and increasing the chances of infection.

Exacerbating this was the fact that there was a major pedestrian traffic jam in the underground tunnel connecting the Marriott to the convention center on Saturday. Normally, this is the ideal way to get to the con if you’re staying at the hotel (as I was), but the huge delays meant I couldn’t return to my room and retrieve something I hoped to get autographed until it was too late. However, that was fairly small potatoes compared with the fact that those trying to make their way through the tunnel could be stuck in there an hour or even longer. There were also lines snaking out from the Marriot and at the convention center, and on a hot summer day too. It seems like the culprit is a confluence of factors, including the gigantic boost in attendance numbers, some confusion over COVID-19 protocols, and some mechanical failures that meant inaccessible escalators. Whatever the case may be, I hope Otakon is prepared to deal with this next year

An autographed copy of Bionic Commando for the NES.

Fortunately, I actually did manage to get a couple of things signed in the end: an old family copy of NES Bionic Commando from back in the 1980s, as well as a special edition of a My Youth Romantic Comedy novel from the author and staff (not pictured).

Interviews

After my hiatus from interviewing last year, I managed to speak with some guests for 2022. Check out the following interviews:

Ise Mariya

Gugenka, Inc.

Industry Panels

Furukawa Toshio & Kakinuma Shino

A photo of Kakinuma Shino and Furukawa Toshio at their panel. Next to them is the host and the interpreter.

If you ever want to hear from voice actors who love their craft and want to prepare the next generation, it has to be these two industry veterans. Furukawa is famously the voice of Piccolo, Moroboshi Ataru, and Portgas D. Ace. His wife is probably best known as Naru (Molly) from Sailor Moon. Together, this husband-wife voice team provided insight on how they train talents at their school, the ways they introduce emotion to their roles, and how to sound like you’re moving around without actually doing so (because the mic won’t pick everything up). One insightful thing I learned is that COVID-19 has upended the tradition of having everyone in the same room to record a scene (which made for better recordings, in my opinion), though important dialogues might still result in a two-person session.

I actually interviewed them back in 2017, but forgot to ask them about one of my favorite works: Zambot 3, where Furukawa played Shingo. This time, I got the chance to make up for that omission, and Furukawa answered that Tomino had very meticulous instructions and planning for voice actors, and he’d talk with each voice actor one by one. Furukawa said it was a very theatrical experience compared to other roles, though I don’t know if “theatrical” is a euphemism for something else.

Studio Trigger’s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

While it wasn’t my first choice for aTrigger anime screening, I was still curious to see what they had in store for the first episode of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. I’ve never played Cyberpunk in any form, but I was glad to see that the studio’s approach emphasized the dystopian qualities of its, well, cyberpunk setting over the “cool factor.” The stark class differences and crushing hand of capitalism make the hero’s anger all the more poignant. 

After the screening, the staff showed some of their early character design sketches. The two things that stood out to me were the degree to which they had to revise to match the Cyberpunk video game creator’s vision, as well as the fact that they straight-up said the main girl character (who barely shows up in episode 1) was inspired by Motoko from Ghost in the Shell as they explained the big influence that cyberpunk as a genre had on them as artists.

At the end, they teased the SSSS.Gridman + SSSS.Dynazenon movie, which I’m eagerly awaiting.

Bigwest’s Macross Panel

A photo of the Macross Panel showing the introductory slide that says "Welcome to Bigwest's Macross Panel"

When I found out there was going to be an official Macross panel at Otakon, I felt it was my duty to attend. After all, official Macross panels have never really existed in the US prior to 2022, with the closest being whenever Kawamori Shoji is a guest. One of the biggest moments of the panel was when they showed a video of the various Macross anime (narrated by “Maximillian Jenius” Hayami Sho), and a loud cheer erupted around Macross 7. The panelists mentioned that the title would have induced silence not so long ago—a sign of the changing times. Personally, I think that similar to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, anime fandom had to catch up to Nekki Basara instead of the other way around.

This panel has since garnered a bit of controversy due to the fact that Otakon announced that there would be something special. To Macross fans, that can mean all sorts of things because of its unusual history when it comes to licensing and the legal issues with Harmony Gold/Robotech. Speculation ran rampant: Could it be Do You Remember Love? A new Macross? Something completely out of left field?

It turned out to be the very first US screening of Macross Frontier Short Film: The Labyrinth of Time, which was originally shown before the Macross Delta Zettai Live film. It was a treat to see and it was downright gorgeous, though not quite the first thing to come to mind as a special surprise.

Discotek Media

If ever there was a US anime company with a catalog made for me, it would be Discotek. Even when they’re not licensing titles off my wishlist, they’re giving others similar dreams. While Machine Robo: Battle Hackers is not everyone’s first choice for long-sought-after anime, their willingness to put out such obscure works is appreciated.

By far, the two big titles announced here are Space Sheriff Gavan and the complete Urusei Yatsura TV series. Neither hit me on that deep level, but the audience went bananas for both. I’m well aware of the significance both shows have to tokusatsu and anime fandom, and I’m looking forward to checking both out. 

At a dinner with friends, I learned that Gavan is such a big deal in Malaysia that it’s become a part of the language itself. Using the word “Gaban” there means to describe something as epic or to evoke an image of bravery. I have to wonder how many works of television and film can make similar claims to fame.

My Panels

I’ve done plenty of panels at Otakons past, but this year is the first time I’ve had to do two back-to-back. I had considered asking for one of them to be moved, but the prospect of getting them both out of the way in one fell swoop was appealing as well. Thankfully, the vast majority of the panel rooms were in close proximity to one another this year, making the transition a relative breeze.

The first panel was “Hong Kong in Anime and Manga.” The idea was to explore different ways in which Hong Kong’s people, culture, and environment are portrayed in anime and manga. There was a technical hiccup at the beginning that delayed the start by five minutes, there were no real issues otherwise. I was surprised that there were very few Cantonese speakers in the audience, but that just meant I had underestimated the need to explain the language aspect of Hong Kong, and could adjust on the fly. I also noticed how big a reaction a clip of Cantonese-speaking VTuber Selen Tatsuki received, which gave me an idea of her extensive reach.

I hope people enjoyed the panel. I managed to briefly talk to a couple of folks who enjoyed the panel (including a longtime reader!) before I had to hoof it out of there. I was also informed that I might have made more than a few people interested in checking out G Gundammission accomplished.

The second panel was “Mahjong Club: RIICHI! Ten Years Later.” It was the revival of a panel I last presented in 2012 alongside Kawaiikochans creator Dave, adjusted to take into account the many opportunities English-speaking anime fans have to play Japanese mahjong compared to a decade ago. One big adjustment we made was to deemphasize some of the nitty-gritty of the rules and to better convey the excitement and tension of a game of mahjong. For the most part, the audience was new to the panel (but not necessarily new to mahjong), so I hope we were able to give something for everyone who watched us.

There was an issue with text on our slides getting cut off; it’s something we can fix when we do this again in another 10 years (?).

Fan Panels

A History of Isekai

Isekai is the elephant in the room when it comes to modern anime, and a panel about its history could easily strike a shallow cord. Luckily, this one focused primarily on the works leading up to Sword Art Online, mentioning the mecha isekai of the 1980s, the shoujo isekai of the 1990s, and the outsized influence of The Familiar of Zero. It’s debatable whether something like Urashima Tarou can count, though if it does, then it’d be amusing to show the anime Urashiman. Of course, not every title can be mentioned in an hour, even if it means missing out on the fantastic opening to Mashin Hero Wataru.

Digital Anime Fansubs: 2000 to Now

This panel was about the rise of digital subs around the turn of the millennium, and it focused mainly on the changing formats+file sizes, the brand-new frontier of getting anime straight from Japan within days (as opposed to months or even years), as well as the ways that fansubbers tried to establish their identities through practices like fancy karaoke effects. It was probably a fun introduction to this era for people unfamiliar with it, though I wonder if there would be a way to establish a more detailed history. It wouldn’t be easy by any means, due to the fact that this sort of subject isn’t really recorded, but maybe collecting anecdotes from fellow fans (or fansubbers themselves, if possible) could be cool.

A Sophisticatedly Unsophisticated Look at Fanservice

This was a panel by Gerald from the Anime World Order podcast, and I actually saw a fledgling incarnation of it ten years ago at Otakon. It was interesting to see him tackle the topic again, and there were definitely shows I remembered—namely the infamous Manyuu Hikenchou. This time, the panel had a more concrete idea of what it wanted to show, which is fanservice in terms of being things that are gratuitously superfluous. In that regard, the panel did take things to the next level, though I thought it still didn’t quite hit the mark on what would be considered traditionally “fanservice for girls,” which I think is more rooted in context and relationship dynamics than jiggling bits and crotch shots. 

Showings

Otakon 1994 AMVs

One of the pleasant surprises this year was that the con decided to screen the original Anime Music Video Contest from the very first Otakon 28 years ago. It was a window into the past, particularly in terms of the shows that were being used (Riding Bean, Bubblegum Crisis, Detonator Orgun, and so on), and it’s even more impressive when you realize that digital video editing was still in its infancy back then. 

There was a particular video that was considered “non-competing” that seemed to grossly revel in detailed depictions of violence against women. While I could see the argument against showing it at all, I do think having it available as a sign of what the fandom was like, warts and all, has at least historical merit. I would say I hope this isn’t a thing anymore, but I don’t typically watch AMVs anyway.

Wada Kaoru and Hayashi Yuki Sunday Concert

A photo of a concert from far away.

Despite the prominence of K-pop at Otakon this year (enough to have Hangul on the front cover of the physical guidebook for the first (?) time!), the only concert I attended was for the music of composers Wada Kaoru (Inuyasha, Yashahime) and Hayashi Yuki (Haikyu!, My Hero Academia). I wasn’t familiar with a good chunk of the songs, but the contrasting styles between the two made for an interesting experience you usually don’t get when the focus is on a single act. The real treat was during the encore, when they played along with the combination orchestra+rock band.

Cosplay

Conclusion

So that was Otakon 2022! It had some hiccups that made me remember that attending a convention is a conscious choice that requires risk assessment, but I definitely had a great time overall. I’ll leave off with a gallery of cosplay photos I took throughout the event. Cheers to another fine year, and I hope all my fellow attendees made it out healthy in the end.

PS: If you want to hear me talk more about Otakon 2022 (even after this massive review), I was a guest on the Otakon 2022 episode of Anime World Order!

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