Orobouros.net @ Otakon 2004

Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Dates: July 30 - August 1, 2004
Venue: Baltimore Convention Center, 1st Mariner Arena
Attendees: ~ 20 000
Pictures: ~ 600
Official Site: www.Otakon.com


When Otakon first moved to the Baltimore Inner Harbor in 1999, it had to share the convention center with other groups. We got the east end, and were not even allowed into the west end. Five years later, the west end of the convention center -- which holds the massive 4000+ seat main ballroom -- is no longer the largest part of the convention. As I had first speculated in 1999, the day would come when fans of the hobby would take over one of the local large venues. For Otakon 2004, there is no question which event was the big draw. L'Arc~en~Ciel performing live drew 10 000 fans into the 1st Mariner Arena. But even with half the attendees outside of the convention center, there was still a lot going on Saturday afternoon. When anime conventions first started about 15 years ago, a few rooms of college students would watch whatever they could currently get their hands on. Now, Otakon is a perfect example on how the hobby has bloomed and diversified, drawing fans of all kinds, of all ages, and of all interests. In 1999, our half of the Baltimore Convention Center alone seemed to be larger than any convention would ever need. Since then, Otakon has grown so large as to be a huge city event and attract many fans from around the world. I couldn't finish the intro without giving props to Terry Chu, Otakon Convention Chairman for 2004. Though I'm usually behind the camera, this year I got a glimpse of what running a convention is like. Terry put quite a bit of his heart and soul into Otakon, and I think it certainly shows.

Angela Concert

Even if most fans were interested in the L'Arc~en~Ciel concert the next day, close to 4000 fans knew they'd be treated to a musical delight on Friday at the Angela concert. Geneon Entertainment had been pushing Stellvia of the Universe, a fairly recent science fiction drama show from Xebec. Angela performs the opening and both closing themes for the show. Since I quite enjoyed both the show and the music, I was excited to go well before the convention began. Seating was luckily not a problem even though I arrived a little late, and soon the representitive from Geneon (I think, don't quote me on that) came on stage to promote both Stellvia and Angela.
After a short introduction, they came out. Despite having a somewhat misleading name, Angela is a duo; Atsuko the singer and KATSU the gituarist. They did their best to introduce themselves in English. Even though it came out much more like Engrish, their enthusiasm was still apparent and fans got excited. After performing Brilliant Road To Tomorrow, the opening song to Stellvia, they performed a song off their album Sora no Koe, Over the Limits. Though I was already familiar with Brilliant Road, Over the Limits impressed me. I could certainly tell the singing was very dynamic and polished; I have a much poorer ear for electric gituar, but that sounded great to me, too. After that, they performed the Stillvia ending themes, Beautiful Night Sky and The End of the World, followed by a fan favorite, Cruel Angel's Thesis. I wasn't aware until I had read their biography that they provided a song for Fafner in the Azure. They first performed Separation, the ending theme song, and then their song, Shangri-la, the opening theme, followed by an encore of Brilliant Road.
The Angela concert was probably the highlight of the convention on Friday, at least for me. They did a great job of playing the crowd and performed some very nice music. I wonder a bit about the musical guests that come to conventions. It's neither cheap to bring them over, nor easy to accomidate the needs of a concert. Many musical guests would be simply unavailable for anything with their busy schedules. Even with the export market to America becoming a noticable source of profit for Japanese companies, we're still a small piece, and not nearly as high a priority to them for promotion. Other than their work on Stillvia, hardly anybody knows about their other work -- me included. I wonder how many they could draw playing a venue in Japan. Maybe they get more attention in America than they do in Japan. I certainly hope not, since they're a great band, and I hope to hear more from them in the future. My only grip with the concert was that they announced the autograph session at the concert, and said there would be copies of the Album available for sale (similar to the TM Revolution album the previous year) at the autograph session last year. Well, there wasn't, and I was stuck with the Stellvia soundtrack. I'll probably just import their album and have both, and hope I'll get a chance to get it autographed in the future.

L'Arc~en~Ciel Concert

Despite all the talk and worries about the stickering system used for seating at the L'Arc~en~Ciel concert, it worked out very well. Both times I saw the line, it was not particularly long. There were plenty of staffers there to hand out stickers, so everybody got processed very quickly. They handed out stickers for a pretty long time, too, so nobody had to rush to make sure they got in. It's certainly much better than having people line up outside the 1st Mariner Arena and hope to get in. The stated policy was that any lines would be broken up prior to 1530. Well, from what I heard, there was already a line at 1100. I guess you just can't stop people from gathering if they're that determined. If people are willing to wait outside in the sweltering Baltimore sun for five hours, let them. The Arena has good seating, and even if you didn't get a close seat, you still got a good view. Well, even though I went to get in line at 1530, it was already quite long. The line stretched from the entrances down a block, and then wrapped around two more blocks before doubling back on itself twice across the street from the convention center. After that, people getting in line had to wait in front of the convention center. At it's peak, the line was probably close to a mile long.
I'm not really sure how long it was before they started letting people into the Arena. It wasn't until about 1640 before I started to move. It's quite possible that it took that long for the space to clear at the front of the line for people farther back to move up. Probably, they didn't open until closer to 1630. At least once the line started moving, though, it moved fairly fast.
The Arena itself is a fairly regular concert/sports venue. There are two rings of seating around the perimeter of the main floor, one on the floor level, the other like a balcony around the outside. Additionally for the concert, the floor had seating, too, for probably one or two thousand fans. The lower-level fixed seating held the other eight-thousand or so fans. The upper lever was not used, though I never heard of anybody who didn't get in because of lack of seating. As promised, anybody who really wanted to see L'Arc got to.
As expected, everything looked like the setup for a big rock concert, though the stage was huge. The lighting was fixed on its own truss which could be raised and lowered for different effects. By my conservative guess, there were probably 50 sets of lights for the show, and probably enough power to be visible in space if there were no roof. The lights were nice, but paled in comparison to some of the other stage goodies. The show started off with a fire. Gas lines across the front of the stage opened and ignighted, spewing two meter high flames into the air. From about 70 feet away, I could feel the heat. Not to let the best effects be used up first, fireworks were in the ready, shooting up from behind the main speakers on the left and right, and from the lighting fixtures above. If screaming fans and pyrotechnics don't scream rock concert, I don't know what does. But, to top it off -- and I doubt this was at all planned -- one of the electric guitars stopped working properly in the middle of the show. So what did they do with it? Throw it to the stage floor and kick it out of the way before picking up a spare!
This is the part where I'm going to have to disappoint some people. I'm afraid I can't give a run down of the whole show, tell the order of songs and how they sounded live, or comment on how the band looked and acted on stage. I've enjoyed L'Arc's music since the late 90s when I first heard Fourth Avenue Cafe, one of the ending themes to Rurouni Kenshin. But, since my interest in music in general isn't very great, I never had a chance to get interested in L'Arc. if anything, though, after seeing them perform, I can certainly see why their following is so strong, and am quite enticed to listen to more of their music. In other words, if a single concert can get me interested in a band, you know it's gotta be something special. I was glad they played Blurry Eyes towards the end, which is my favorite L'Arc song, and the FullMetal Alchemist opening, Ready Steady Go, in the middle. The more I hear it, the more I like it. Without a doubt, the L'Arc concert was the highlight of the convention.
There must be countless better descriptions of the concert, so I'll include links to other concert descriptions on this page, at the bottom.
Well, to be fair, there were a few things of other interest about the concert, which I'll go into briefly, too. As I already mentioned, the line started forming long before it was supposed to. Probably not much can be done about that, I guess, and it's not like people ended up being turned away because of it. When "the Voice of Otakon" came on stage and announced L'Arc, tons of fans -- understandably -- got up and rushed the stage. Not allowed, and they were all turned back. I think just about every single one of them behaved this time. As it was dark and hard to tell against the very bright stage, I think people did end up walking up closer. About everybody on the floor seating got up and stood on their chairs as soon as people started playing. It's one of those self-destructive problems. One short person really does need to stand on a chair to see over the tall person in front of them, but then everybody thinks they should stand on their chairs, and the person who originally tried to get a better view still can't see. They went back down to the floor after a bit of prodding by the event staff. Not that I don't understand the excitement of a live rock concert, or the euphoria of being in the presence of an idol, but I'd draw the line at what becomes dangerous. It doesn't surprise me at all, but I heard security was much needed up front to push back the hordes of mesmerized fans. I think that speaks for itself.
Finally -- and this isn't to mean I didn't fully enjoy the concert -- it seemed to miss a little bit here and there. Count this up to me not being able to appreciate L'Arc as much as I should, if you will. As great as they performed, that seemed like all it was. At the limited number of concerts I've been to, the performers have always pulled the audience into the stage, if not physically at least mentally, by reacting to and interacting with the audience. By pulling some antics and shenanigans and so forth. Not that L'Arc didn't do some of this. They got up on speakers and waved over to the fans, and put on one heck of a show. But to me, it seemed more like they were just going through the movements. Maybe it was the jet lag, or the cultural barrier, maybe issues with their manager, the speakers that seemed to filter the music, or possibly just the size of the venue, but I simply felt less involved at the L'Arc concert than at the Angela concert the night before. Again, just my subjective feeling, and don't think I didn't completely enjoy the spectacular show.
There is one count that I do have to hold against the concert, and if you read nothing else, it was not Otakon's fault. I think Sony jerked everybody around a bit, maybe even the band itself. Since I don't want to start or perpetuate any rumors, I'll just explain what happened, and leave interpretations to others. When I had originally been accepted to the press corps, I got an email explaining the photography policy for the concert. Then it got changed. And changed again, each time being more restrictive and selective. These were changes made by Sony, and passed along by the press department at Otakon. In the end, nobody was allowed to take any pictures. I can very well understand that; it's too deep an issue to go into here, but record labels need to protect their copyright and image. If you want to know more, try google, though you may have a hard time finding an unbiased explanation of it all. In short, we got jerked around by Sony, when I think everybody in the press corps would have accepted that policy right away.
Now, if it were just us, there wouldn't be much to complain about. However, some concert staff organizers were not allowed to work with the band to make things go smoothly. From what I could tell, Sony did what they wanted as soon as they could get away with it. Sure, the concert went well -- I think -- and nobody can say they didn't get what they came for. But, Sony is a huge global corporation, and Otakon is a teeny non-profit organization in the business world. They knew what they could get away with, and probably did. But, despite that, I think one thing really showed that it was a success for Otakon no matter what. As the last of the attendees left, the staff in attendance chanted "Terry!" in appreciation of what the con chair managed to pull off. He certainly deserves it. And Terry, in turn, was thankful to his concert event staff for doing a stellar job despite all the difficulties.

Cosplay Masquerade

As a pleasant surprise, watching the cosplay was very enjoyable, with few problems. Many of the skits were thought out and practiced, so there was a noticeable lack of "what the heck was that?" from the audience. In fact, the audience seemed pretty responsible and laid back. Maybe because the skits were mostly entertaining, there was hardly any heckling or intimidation by the audience. I'd like to think it's because convention attendees have gained a few more social skills since some of the masquerades which were a spectacle of rowdiness. It probably also helped that the cosplay was projected onto two large screens flanking the stage. Those in the back or with a poor view of the stage could still see what was going on. Thanks to some good videography, the cosplayers were no longer distant wriggles, but up-close-and-personal actors on the screens. Jon Hawk did a great job as MC, despite the lack of a theme; he knew where to direct the audience's attention, and how to do it right.
As with the L'Arc concert, I'll have to refer to other sites for more detailed reports of individual skits and performances. This page would feel incomplete without mentioning some of the really memorable entries, though. It was probably a blessing to everybody to have a well done skit with very nice costumes up first to set the mood for the rest of the event. The Angel Sanctuary skit that started it off was without dialogue, but was highly choreographed and showed off the participants' beautiful work. Even from a distance away, I could tell they paid a lot of attention to detail and were careful with each stitch. Even though the "interpretive dance" idea isn't that original anymore, they did a very good job with the style; I was most impressed by the "puppet and puppetmaster" movements, how they managed to create the illusion and still move with the music.
The Terrintino does Excel Saga skit was just hillarious; probably just had to be there to see it. They managed to be funny, and then stay funny with new material and jokes, instead of dragging thing out, which is the death of many masquerade skits. The DDR vs SpaceChannel 5 skit was probably the best choreographed; they looked like real dancers on stage. Something that I would think to be much more common for skits would be some stand-up comedy. Well, somebody finally did it, and did it well: Jewish Wolfwood just got on stage and did what comedians do, make people laugh. He had a theme, drew the audience in, and kept his momentum going, just like a pro. About as one group stepped on stage, though, I was pretty sure they'd win. They were creative, original, and well-practiced. I'm not sure if they had costumes or props, but the Muppets as Utena skit was spectacular. I didn't quite understand everything that was going on, but I got enough to make me laugh. Their skit seemed to be put together from a number of somewhat related parts, but the overall effect was quite entertaining.
The biggest -- and perhaps only major -- problem with the cosplay was the judging. Some skits went away with multiple awards, while some went away with nothing. Not everybody can win, but it was obvious that even if some of the entrants didn't get a major award, they still deserved to get some sort of official recognition. The Angel Sanctuary skit with great costumes and a wonderful performance got nothing, while some obviously less-dedicated entrants got prizes. Though I will always maintain cosplay should be for fun, and only fun, it's quite a letdown to get shafted, no matter how much you otherwise enjoyed it. I've been on both sides of the table, and know that judges almost always try to balance what is fair with what is right. Apparently, the system was flawed this year. Instead of letting the judges deliberate the winners, a staff member tallied up votes by calculator, and that was the last any of the judges had to do with determining awards. I wasn't privy to any of the details, so don't think I'm trying to assign blame or anything. However, I know that even with a masquerade the size of Otakon's, it can be done right. Hopefully, whoever runs it next year will learn from past experiences.


Otakon just gets bigger and bigger every year, and I doubt this trend will end any time soon. There will be better and better guests, more and more programming, and many more fans. I look at that as a good thing. Otakon shows that the sky is the limit for what an anime con can be; there are more staffers now than there were attendees its first year. Despite the problems that will inevitable creep into the event, the staff managed to pull it off year after year. All this growth means it will soon hardly resemble its origins.
Already in 1999, some people felt Otakon had grown too large. It takes a non-negligible amount of time to walk back and forth between the BCC and the various hotels. Even within the convention center, it can easily take part of an hour to get where your going. Located in the heart of a major city tourist section, lines will always be long no matter what you're doing or where you're going. Anything you do, you're doing with tons of other people. That's a great opportunity, not to be underestimated, but that means you will have to put up with all those other people, and that can become a drag.
It sure pays off, though. Ask any one of the ten thousand people in line for the L'Arc concert on Saturday, and they'll tell you it was worth it. Ask any of the twenty thousand people who spent up to three hours in line to register on Friday, and they'll probably tell you it was worth it. With the power of numbers Otakon has behind it, the only way to not enjoy it is to mess up yourself. Sure, things can happen that are out of your control, but like any other vacation, a little planning ahead goes a long way. Be prepared -- 6, 2, 1 is a good start -- and when the annoying little things happen, just let it s l i d e. You're there to have fun. Despite its size, Otakon still has a wonderfully lax atmosphere. You can forget your worries for a weekend and just have fun. But show at least a little class; that'll make sure you don't have too much fun.

In other words, just know what to expect, and Otakon will not disappoint you.

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