Baltimore's ever-growing celebration of Japanese pop has everything from kiddie cartoons to apocalyptic fantasies
By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun
3:25 PM EDT, July 29, 2011
A man in black wields an enormous hollow cross packed with phony handguns while checking out Barnes & Noble's graphic-novel racks. A futuristic Marie Antoinette, in a regal gown with bared cleavage and midriff, balances a huge rectangular headpiece with impeccable hauteur while navigating the steaming crowds on Pratt Street. An urban-cowboy assassin in fringed Daisy Dukes, with hippie-like straight hair hitting the small of her back and bandoleros crisscrossing her chest, eyes a burger at Five Guys.
These are the kinds of sights that have filled Baltimore's downtown and Inner Harbor since Thursday night, when Otakon 2011 opened with a block party.
Every summer, Otakon, a celebration of Asian popular culture, turns Baltimore into the double-take capital of the world. At least 30,000 fans, most from the East Coast, and many in costume, have entered the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend to salute Japanese cartoons, comics and video games. The extravaganza winds up Sunday.
It's a boon to Baltimore — it brings an estimated $11.3 million into the city — and a tourist attraction unto itself. Any noninitiates wandering through the Inner Harbor are sure to collide with the creative, colorful aficionados. Chances are you could see a Spider-Man, Superman or Han Solo in this wild bunch. But almost all the action figures who spring to life at Otakon have stepped out of anime (Japanese cartoons) and manga (Japanese comics).
"We have women dressing in male character costumes, and we have men (sometimes even old men) dressing as Sailor Moon, a teenage princess fighting for truth and love," according to Sue Monroe, Otakon 2011's head of volunteer operations. For these "cosplayers" — conventioneers who combine costuming and role-playing — what counts is staying true, in their own ways, to each character, even if their far-out ensembles are hard to keep up in more ways than one.
Otakon is an extension of the Japanese word otaku, meaning a person immersed in pop culture. In Japan, the word carries some pejorative connotations — it often suggests an obsessive young fellow who mooches off his parents, sleeps in Internet cafes and generally can't function in reality. But in an America newly proud of geeking out, there's no comparable stigma attached. Many American fans are proud to call themselves "totally otaku."
Attendance at Otakon has nearly tripled, from 10,275 in 2001 to 29,274 in 2010. According to Otakon featured speaker Roland Kelts, the half-Japanese, half-American author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S," the success of conventions like Otakon — the largest of its kind on the East Coast — mirrors the new-millennial embrace of Japan as an international trend-setter.
"In the 21st century," Kelts said, "Japan has become the arbiter of 'cool' around the globe, in fashion, design, style, cuisine, and certainly in this vein of bright, colorful and inventive popular culture."
Kelts also noted that as the otaku phenomenon surges across the country, Americans are becoming more aware of the extremes of Japanese popular culture. In Kelts' book, a chapter called "Strange Transformations" includes his rendering of a yakuza (Japanese mafia) manga story — the characters include a torture victim, a buxom sexual tease and a snake — and his summary of the genre known as "tentacle porn," depicting women ravished by incubi with diverse appendages. [more @Baltimore Sun here]