Before almost every state and country around the world had their own home grown pop culture convention, it used to be a challenge to find a nerdy event to attend. Even more niche on the scale had been the anime convention, in the past solely focused on animation of the far east only the most adamant collectors had access to. Yes children, back in the day if you wanted to watch your anime, you needed to track down physical fan subs of your favorite series and order them online VHS tape by VHS tape. Now thanks to new popular streaming services popping up every day even the most obscure anime is readily available. This year’s Otakon kept the spirit of the old style anime convention alive wrapped in a shiny modern package.
Founded in 1994, Otakon has been a long time East Coast staple in the anime community. From its humble beginnings in State College, PA, to the decades spent in Baltimore, MD, to its new home in Washington, DC, Otakon has always been the nexus point for anime up and down the I-95 corridor. The convention itself has gone through its own share of growing pains, from outgrowing the old and desperately in need of maintenance Baltimore Convention Center to the experiment that was Otakon Vegas. But it all comes back to the DMV area and the unique feel of what the East Coast has to offer. Walking the halls of Otakon everything is glitzy and modern thanks to the newer Walter E. Reed Convention Center facilities, but it doesn’t lose sight of the local anime club scene it spawned from.
Attendees were greeted with glossy screen lining the main convention center hallway showing photos from past and present Otakons. Men and women of various races, ages, body types showing their love for this medium. Older fans mingled in with the new generation, families cosplayed together. Many panels focused on introducing newer fans dipping their toes into anime to what came before and vice versa, a few focused on hipping older fans to newer properties. To that end, Otakon felt like a balanced mixed of content bridging the past to the present to create one unified community.
As with other pop culture conventions in the area, Otakon 2019 made good use of its location. This year the convention partnered with the Library of Congress to host concerts and talks with Hip Hop artist Substantial about the late great Nujabes, the musician behind Samurai Champloo. Hailing from Prince George’s County, a stones throw away from DC, this was a homecoming for Substantial and a treat to hear him talk about his roots in the music scene and how that brought him full circle to becoming an international act. His Friday night concert at the convention along with MINMI, Fat Jon, EyeQ, Marcus D, and Shing02 fit right in alongside all of the eclectic and diverse acts Otakon brought in. From the funky Bradio to duo Diana Garnet and nano, Otakon offered acts not found on the beaten path and wholly unique to this convention.
While other anime conventions push towards the industry side with sponsored panels and glorified press releases, Otakon focuses a large amount of its live programming on fan run niche panels. But they weren’t simply fan panels discussing a favorite show or musical act as most were 20 years ago. Now con goers are more savvy, they know what they’re into already, it’s time to go beyond. Panels ranged from history lessons on the Edo period, deep dived in Japan’s wrestling scene and for the grown ups, not just the usual hentai panels, but discussions on the history of tropes and psychology behind it.
Those panels were some of the most attended by far as well, and most could have done with more space as there were multiple instances of rooms packed to capacity with lines still streaming down the halls. Standouts were ‘Weirdest Japanese Commercials’ which showcased the strangest ways to sell noodles the audience had ever seen, and ‘Craziest Anime Deaths’, a curated trip down memory lane featuring the most absurd ways to go out ever drawn.
While Otakon’s focus felt to be fan driven than other similarly massive conventions, the addition of Studio Trigger and the East Coast premiere of Promare was the highlight of the entire weekend for those able to attend. Established in 2011 by Hiyoyuki Imaishi, and Masahiko Otsuka after leaving Gainax, Studio Trigger is one of two recent high profile studios, Studio Khara being the other, to leave the prominent animation studio and go through a rebirth into the modern age of animation. Known for their frenetic direction, varied animation style and larger than life storytelling in works such as Kill la Kill, Gurren Lagaan and Inferno Cop, Studio Trigger holds itself as a rebel in the animation field. They’re as independent as a major animation house can be and partially support themselves from a Patreon.
Promare marks Studio Trigger’s first foray into movies as all of the previous works were self contained TV series or shorts. Co-produced by Trigger and XFLAG, the film is directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi and written by Kazuki Nakashima, who both previously worked together on Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill, with music by Kill la Kill’s Hiroyuki Sawano. Needless to say, if Kill la Kill was your jam, Promare is an easy sell. The real star of the show is the use of color, seamlessly weaving in of CG elements and expert choreography resulting in one of the most exhilarating animated films since Spider-Verse.
Promare is a movie best enjoyed not knowing too much about the plot but it’s the anti-facsict, abolish ICE, fire-fighting, mecha, romance film that 2019 didn’t know it was getting. The story is easy to follow as with most of Trigger’s works, the characters and themes are painted in broad strokes. The director of the film in attendance at Otakon told the audience not to think too hard about the movie and while that is true in very specific parts, the overall themes of the movie should merit extra thought in today’s climate, especially in the USA.
Overall Otakon 2019 was a great experience for anime fans young and old. There was always something to do, something to buy and most of it, unique to Otakon itself. The modern anime convention might share more and more DNA with the modern pop culture/comic convention but the heart of it remains an exploration of the animation industry we all know and love.