I open this article with a plea to get yourself and your loved ones vaccinated and continue wearing masks.
I have been going to the anime convention Otakon regularly since 2008 in Baltimore and following the con as it made the move to Washington DC in 2017. In 2020 Covid led to the first year without an Otakon (among other things) as the show was cancelled that year. The future of Otakon, and cons as a whole, was very uncertain, though events such as Anime Lockdown and FujoCon showed the viability of virtual conventions. As 2021 progressed and more people were getting vaccinated, there was still a cloud of uncertainty amongst myself and friends about whether Otakon could or should resume as an in-person event. Even before the Delta Variant was in the headlines, things seemed iffy. But Otakon showed no signs of yielding and sure enough, August 6 rolled around and Otakon returned to the Walter E. Washington Convention Centerin Washington, D.C.
In the previous years I went to Otakon, attendance was as high as 34,211 people (2013), and at its lowest was 24,894 (2017). As I roamed the halls of the con center, my gut feeling was that the attendance was down 10-15% from 2019, and it turns out my instincts were correct. Anime News Network reported that the 2021 instalment of Otakon had 25,543 unique memberships. This was the most people I have been around at any given time since lockdown began in 2020. I didn’t even feel this surrounded by people when I went to La Guardia Airport earlier in the year. Even though I had been to Otakon and many other similar conventions over the years, this was the first time the sight of a deluge of people gave me a palpable sense of anxiety which was bucking against wanting to reunite with the familiar world of dealer’s rooms and room parties. Armed with Pfizer in my veins and a mask across my face, I ventured forward to yet another anime convention.
Many times when people engage in activities they haven’t been able to do since The Before Times or see friends for the first time in over a year, they’re overcome by a cathartic rush of emotions. I can’t say I felt the same rush being at an anime convention again, but there was a warm glow of familiarity of it all, tinged by the ever present specter of death and decay lingering in my mind. For the most part the convention proceeded as normal, albeit with a permeable sense of tension with many interactions. Some panelists wrote on Twitter feeling frustrated that Otakon would allow this many people to converge in one location, but the show must go on and those panelists presented on stage all the same. Going by (non-scientific) observation, 98% of the people I saw were wearing masks properly throughout the duration of the show. Maybe years of conditioning by watching anime where characters wear masks lead to at least a little conditioning that masks are a good thing. That said, the few times I did see unmasked attendees or vendors that were not eating or drinking I didn’t see any kind of enforcement from staff to keep the masks on. On top of that there was no effort to keep attendees distanced in cramped hallways, the dealer’s room, and artists alley. Even in screening and panel rooms, where it would be possible to physically remove or block off a certain amount of chairs, it was business as usual with attendees cheek to cheek.
This year’s convention had a decreased industry presence, as previous years typically had guests from Japan as well as booths and presentations by companies such as Kodansha, Viz, and Crunchyroll, but some dedicated publishers still made their presence felt. The publisher Denpa has long had ties to Otakon. The formation of the company was announced at an Otakon after-party by co-founder Ed Chavez. Before forming Denpa, Ed has been a fixture at Otakons past when he was still with Vertical Comics, and at this year’s Otakon he made a return to presenting in person. Denpa showed off their upcoming slate of titles including Hideki Ohwada’s The Men Who Created Gundam, Moto Hagio’s comical Lil’ Leo, and more of everyone’s favorite compulsive gambler/social outcast/pariah, Kaijifrom Noboyuki Fukumoto.
AnimEigo is one of the longest surviving anime licensor/distributors in the US and in recent years have had a string of successful Kickstarters for blu-rays of titles such as Bubblegum Crisis and Otaku no Video. Robert Woodhead, the co-founder of Animeigo, presented work on the upcoming release of Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 with a comforting degree of nonchalance as the subject matter drifted from cover art, to finding long lost film masters of anime, to the early history of anime erotica being yanked from store shelves in the US by Sony.
One of the only full to capacity panels I went to was for Discotek. Known for putting out blu-rays of classic anime and rescuing lost licenses, Discotek has garnered a devoted cult following which was out in full force at Otakon. Among their announcements were a 4KUHD release of Robot Carnival, a blu-ray of Lupin the 3rd: Mystery of Mamo, the live action tokusatsu series Cutie Honey: The Live, and a much applauded surprise announcement of a new blu-ray of Gainax’s classic OVA series, Gunbuster, with a new English dub. Also screened at the con was the premiere of Discotek’s new restoration of the 1986 anime Project A-Ko.
Project A-Ko is one of those anime that holds a special place in the hearts of anime fans (mostly in their 30s or 40s). Initially released in 1986, the mix of over-the-top action, comedy, and send-ups of sci-fi tropes combined with lavish animation made it a hit, and it soon garnered a following in the US as it was released on video and aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (pre-SYFY). Being able to witness this screening was a real treat, as the original color masters were long considered lost. Initially Discotek was going to use an AI upscaler of the laserdisc for their blu-ray, but as luck would have it, the original masters were simply misfiled and they were found again (by none other than Robert Woodhead of AnimEigo). Discotek had to scrap all the work they did on the laserdisc upscale cut, but it was worth it to have the actual film restored. The last time I watched Project A-Ko was on my dorm room LCD TV from the old US Manga Corp DVD release, but for this brief shining moment I was able to enjoy it in crisp HD, on a big screen, surrounded by enthusiastic fans… kind of a lot of fans all together in one room.
After the screenings and panels I made my way out of the convention center to get some Ethiopian food (Chercher’s the best!), and then engaged in that most time honored of anime convention traditions: room parties. A relatively small one, mind you, but it was hard not to see some friends I hadn’t seen in the flesh in over 2 years. In the interest of privacy I won't go into much detail, but I will say that the right t-shirt (Strawberry Switchblade) can be all it takes to start a conversation with someone. We drank, we complained about Netflix’s stranglehold on the next season of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and we all promised to be in touch after getting a test when we went home.
Sunday rolled around, the final day of the con. Feet sore and feeling a tad hungover, I went back into the fray, despite common sense telling me otherwise so I could see a panel presentation on the career of Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, and maybe purchase more blu-rays for my obscenely large collection. Despite the rise of Zoom and remote presentations during Covid I only saw one panel that made use of remote-presentation for a speaker in Japan. Producer Yoshihiro Watanabe of the studio Orange (BEASTARS, Land of the Lustrous) showed off work on the short film “HOME!” as well as how Orange makes use of motion capture and new computer animating techniques for their projects. I’m curious to see if the next Otakon will have more of these remote panels, but due to the time difference between Japan and the East Coast, that seems iffy.
Now that I’m back home, I look back at what was certainly a good time and a refreshing opportunity to see friends as well as D.C., but there is still a lingering question rattling around my brain: was this an event that should have happened? Covid and the Delta Variant are still a very real threat to lives, especially the unvaccinated, which would include children, of which many were attending this convention. And this was at a convention with no visible attempt to mitigate crowding in halls or even spacing chairs during panels. We may never know the full extent of just how many people were or were not infected at this event since while Otakon does have contact info for all attendees, there is no publicly known system in place for contact tracing. Otakorp was also in an unenviable position in having to organize this entire convention in roughly 70 days and it’s unclear if they underwent any training to mitigate cramped conditions or otherwise actively prevent infections. And at the same time, I willingly attended this convention of my own volition, knowing I would certainly be around a lot of people (granted, I didn’t anticipate over 25,000 people). I can’t deny I had a great time seeing friends and fandom still participating in the scene. For now, all we can do is hope everyone that went to the con got tested when they went home and that maybe, just maybe, masks and vaccines will have beaten back Covid by the next Otakon in ‘22.