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This year’s Otakon was its 20th anniversary, and as expected of the staff they brought out the big guns, with names such as Watanabe Shinichirou, Kanno Yohko, and Seki Tomokazu. As with every year, one of the biggest strengths and weaknesses of Otakon is that there’s too much to do, and it leaves me feeling both satisfied and a bit disappointed.

For one thing, I didn’t get to see the Space Dandy trailer.

Industry

Watanabe Shinichirou (Cowboy Bebop)

Possibly the biggest news to come out of Otakon was the announcement of Watanabe’s new anime, the aforementioned Space Dandy. Described by Watanabe as “80% comedy, 20% serious” in contrast to Cowboy Bebop‘s “80% serious, 20% comedy,” the series sounds just plain interesting when you hear how much they’re putting into it. In terms of music, for example, Watanabe stated that they would have over 20 artists contributing to the soundtrack, and in terms of production every episode would have different episode directors and different designs for the aliens inhabiting their planets.

I managed to ask Watanabe about having Thomas Romain (Basquash!, Oban Star Racers) on staff for ship design, and Watanabe mentioned that he had been impressed with Romain’s work for a while. Also, while Romain is Satelight staff and normally wouldn’t be able to work at Bones for Watanabe, Romain turned out to be a huge fan of Cowboy Bebop which gave Watanabe the leverage to get him on board for this one project.

I do wonder how it’ll be received among American fans, because there was some disappointment from the fanbase over Watanabe’s previous work, Kids on the Slope. While Space Dandy is closer to his action-ey works, the “80% comedy” part might be unwelcome by those fans looking for drama and grit. That said, I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Kurosaki Kaoru on Watsuki Nobuhiro (Rurouni Kenshin)

One of the more unique guests this time around was Kurosaku Kaoru, a novelist in her own right, but also more relevant to the otaku audience as the wife of Watsuki Nobuhiro, author of Rurouni Kenshin. Originally Watsuki himself was supposed to come as well, but he was unable to due to working on Embalming. Kaoru also held a panel all about Watsuki, but because of the way she went about it the crowd also learned a lot about some of the most famous Shounen Jump manga artists, as well as the workings of Jump in general.

There was also a gallery of Watsuki’s works, the first of its kind, but sadly even though we could take photos we are not allowed to share them online. (I’m sure somebody has though.)

Watsuki we learned is a big fan of American media, as one of his biggest regrets about not being able to attend Otakon was not being able to visit a Toys “R” Us and look at the Pacific Rim merchandise. He’s also a big fan of American comics, and his favorite superheroes are the X-Men. We also got to see his daily work schedule, which is mind-bogglingly arduous but also par for the course. According to the breakdown, Watsuki works from 10am to 6pm, from 7pm to late, and midnight to 4am. Sleep is 4am-9am, and the other gaps are for meals. That’s 5 hours of sleep versus about 15 hours for work. If he keeps on schedule, he gets four days of rest at the end of each month.

Kurosaki also provided a monthly breakdown of his schedule, and while inking comprised the majority of it, it was especially fascinating to see that the “name,” an extremely rough preliminary version of the manga which is mainly about panel and page layout and narrative flow, takes four days to comple. Kurosaki mentioned that the “name” is so simple as to use stick figures, but the attention paid to this part of the manga-creating process does emphasize how important panel flow is in manga.

Kaoru also took us through the process by which Watsuki makes color images, which involves drawing a thumbnail and then going over it with a Japanese calligraphy brush and copic markers for color. Watsuki apparently thinks that It’s good for one shot illustrations but not the manga itself, as it requires more concentration but the lines become more dynamic, and it acts as a time-saving measure for color images. The traditional feel that the brush art gives off also matches the theme and feel of Kenshin. Related to that, when someone asked about the setting of Rurouni Kenshin, the answer was that Watsuki wanted to draw a period piece with sword fights but didn’t want to draw topknots (they were strange-looking to a modern Japanese audience as well as an international one), so the Meiji period was the only point in history where you could have the former without the latter.

I wish I could’ve asked more about copics, as I find it interesting that they’re such an industry standard.

In terms of former assistants, Watsuki’s lineup is near-Olympian, counting among them Oda Eiichirou (One Piece), Murata Yuusuke (Eyeshield 21), Shimabukuro Mitsutotshi (Toriko), Mikio Itoo (Normandy Secret Club), and Takei Hiroyuki (Shaman King), all of whom consider Watsuki a friend. From Kaoru we learned that there are three breaks a year for Jump artists, and that during those breaks everyone either gathers at Watsuki’s or Oda’s house. Shimabukuro is a current neighbor of theirs, while Takei is a former neighbor. Murata, now known for his exquisite artwork on One Punch Man, used to be an assistant on Gun Blaze West, though at the time Watsuki thought his drawings were “no good.”

Mikio Itoo is known as the “cameo king,” appearing multiple times in One Piece, Shaman King, and even Kenshin in background posters and crowds and such.

Another major name who worked with Watsuki on Kenshin was former editor-in-chief of Shounen Jump, Sasaki Hisashi, who worked with Watsuki from his first submission all the way to the end of Kenshin. The basis for a certain character in Bakuman (he even uses the fictionalized version of himself as a Twitter avatar), Sasaki is often asked about the accuracy of Bakuman, to which the official reply is, “Things depicted in Bakuman are neither true nor false.” We also learned that Jump employees are not supposed to give comments outside the office using their real faces.

Not limited to people who have worked directly with, over, or under Watsuki, we also saw comments from Kishimoto Masashi (Naruto), Inugaki Riichirou (also Eyeshield 21), Matsui Katsunori (La Sommelière), and Suzuki Shinya (Mr. Fullswing). Did you know the last chapter of Kenshin ran in the same magazine as the first chapter of Naruto? Kishimoto saw this as a kind of passing of the baton, and credits Kishimoto for making Japanese culture popular in manga again (but also believes that now it’s become too much). For this reason, Kishimoto calls Watsuki the leader of a generation.

Inugaki’s comment was that Watsuki taught him techniques to speed up the manga-creating process, namely giving rhythm to the use of detail and not trying to draw every little thing. We then learned from Kurosaki that both she and Watsuki play German board games often with Inugaki and his wife, and are especially fans of Dominion. As someone who hasn’t played it but has played games like it and has heard much about it, the intrigue continues to build for me.

Suzuki’s message talked about Watsuki’s fandom, as he once found an entire box full of fan letters for Watsuki. Matsui, whom Kurosaki commented that he’s especially good at drawing cute girls (I would agree), actually did not send any comments, except to promote him in the US. As much as I’d like to see that, I know Drops of God didn’t knock the manga community off its socks, so I don’t know how well the less adventurous La Sommelière would do.

What was maybe the most interesting bit of trivia of all, however, was that a lot of the Jump artists use the instant messaging service LINE to talk to each other and joke around. Watsuki doesn’t use it because he’s bad with computers, so his wife has to tell him what’s going on.

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Sentai Filmworks

The only American industry panel I attended was Sentai Filmworks’, where they were very excited over their recent Girls und Panzer announcement. I also ran into an unfortunate bit of luck, discovering that they had license rescued Betterman, a show which I had just recently scoured Amazon for in other to get the complete release of the original Bandai DVDs. It’s a shame, because it definitely would have been a show I would’ve bought and supported, mainly because it’s such an unusual piece of work.

I asked Sentai Filmworks about the translation issues in their release of Mawaru Penguindrum but the answer given was ignorance, claiming that they had not been aware of the criticisms brought out against their translation choices. Oh well.

Maruyama Masao

While many of the industry guests and panels are excellent, every year the most stand-out guest is Maruyama Masao, founder and former producer at MADHouse, currently founder and producer of MAPPA (Kids on the Slope). Even though he’s been at one Otakon after the other, his Q&A panels are consistently informative and interesting. To give you an idea of how great his answers are, when asked about production delays for Redline (which took 7 years to complete), Maruyama answered that Redline was not late, it took as long as it should have, which was a lot of time due to the amount of work required for it. Maruyama then said that he left MADHouse to take responsibility for the debt that Redline put them into but then said in English, “IT’S A JOKE.”

In one of my favorite moments of Otakon, I asked Maruyama to share some stories about the recently departed Dezaki Osamu (director of works such as The Rose of Versailles, Aim for the Ace, Black Jack OVAs, and even Dear Brother), to which he replied with what was about a 10-minute long answer. Maruyama stated two significant events responsible for his long career in anime: working with two Osamus. First, he worked for Tezuka Osamu at Mushi Pro, and then formed MADHouse with Dezaki. Their first non-Tezuka work was Ashita no Joe. Eventually when the Ashita no Joe 2 film was in planning, they had creative differences where Maruyama believed it was unnecessary and Dezaki wanted to work on it, so he left and formed a studio called Anapple. They would not work with each other for many years, though they were still friends and still played mahjong with each other.

During the time they were apart, Maruyama produced directors such as Hosoda, Kon, Kawajiri, and had no time to work with Dezaki. Eventually, as they both reached old age, they decided to work together once more, and their final project together was, of all things, Ultraviolet. Dezaki wasn’t sure if it was the right work, but it was the only one in the pipeline at the time and the only chance they had to work together. Maruyama said they were happy to make it, though said nothing of the quality of the show. Maruyama then mentioned that Dezaki’s final work, Genji, had Dezaki tryingg to put in everything he couldn’t put into Ultraviolet. Then Maruyama said that with the time he has left on Earth, he would try to bring Dezaki and Kon’s remaining works to the world.

The panel also included a special showing of a short titled Hana wa Saku (Flowers Bloom), directed by Katabuchi Sunao (Mai Mai Miracle) with music by Kanno Yohko, whose purpose was to encourage the people affected by the earthquake. I hear in his other panel he also showed a video directed by Rintaro which was a funeral tribute to Kon Satoshi.

Interviews

I managed to get interviews with both acclaimed voice actor Seki Tomokazu, as well as Tachikawa Yuzuru and Suwa Michihiko, who are involved with the Anime Mirai project. Keep checking Ogiue Maniax for those.

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Fan Panels

In terms of fan-run panels, this year was a mix of new and interesting subjects as well as a few “greatest hits” to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Mike Toole’s panel on “Outsider Anime,” his take on the Henry Darger-esque idea of “Outsider Art” looked at a number of creative and off-the-wall artists who, while for the most part not totally “outsiders” still push the boundaries. Names such as Shinkai and Yuasa are somewhat familiary to anime fans at this point, but I hadn’t heard of Tomioka Satoshi and his bizarre toilet humor rabbit animation Usavich for instance, and only recently learned about Mizue Mirai and his abstract animations. I was especially glad though to see him mention Iseda Katsuyuki, a man infamous for creating anime pretty much on his own with… unique results.

I attended the “45 Years of Shounen Jump” panel (while also singing along with the anime openings). Run by landofobscusion, it was a short “greatest hits” breakdown of the magazine. I learned quite a few things. For example, I did not know Sexy Commando was a top 3 title at one point, nor did I know that the end of Dragonball lost the magazine 500,000 readers while Slam Dunk’s finish lost them 2 million. What was even more interesting was hearing the crowd react to all of the titles mentioned. Yu Yu Hakusho for instance got a gigantic pop that I wasn’t quite expecting, as I knew people liked the show but didn’t know it was nestled that fondly in the hearts of fans who watched it on Cartoon Network.

Because of this panel the second City Hunter opening is stuck in my head now.

Speaking of surprising fan reactions, I am pleased to see the mecha fandom’s opinion of Gundam SEED turn around tremendously. Traditionally, when you go to a giant robot or Gundam-themed panel, there is a valuing of the Universal Century timeline over the alternate universe counterparts not named G Gundam. (The Seki Tomokazu panel I attended taught me just how many people love G Gundam, to the extent that more than one attendee exclaimed Domon Kasshu as a role model for how to live as a man.)

In the past Gundam SEED was seen as a black spot on giant robot anime, “the beginning of the end,” and all it took was a panelist to go “Gundam SEED! BOOOO!” to get the crowd to follow along. This time, though, when I attended the Mechapocalypse panel, Gundam SEED received largely applause rather than jeers, and it just warms my heart to see a mecha fandom which accepts what SEED brings to the table. We all agree though that SEED Destiny is still terrible.

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Actually, the Mechapocalypse panel in general was a good deal of fun. Generally mecha panels are all about going through the history of giant robots and having everyone cheer for their favorites, and while this one retained some of that, it also mixed it up heavily with roundtable discussions of specific themes and characteristics of robot anime, all while keeping it light-hearted. While I’m already familiar with the Japanese Spider-Man, it’s inevitably a crowd pleaser whether you’ve seen it or not.

The other mecha panel (of sorts) I attended was Al’s presentation of the directorial works of Tomino Yoshiyuki, creator of Gundam. Neither full of blind praise for the man nor unfairly critical of his body of work, the panel laid out the various aspects of Tomino’s reputation, particularly his tendency for works to be either fairy light-hearted or particularly violent and morbid, and how both make up Tomino’s overall ouevre into something special. While I know a decent amount about Tomino anime, I also learned a good deal from the panel. I also realized based on audience reaction that Gundam has this strange memetic power which actually exceeds the content of the actual shows. This might be commonplace for anime fans nowadays as a lot of current anime operates actively under such influence, but I recall seeing the shouts of “Char is a lolicon!” back in the late 90s, and I think it’s what fuels some of the odder aspects of most Gundam panels, whether the panelist plans it or not.

The last panel I want to mention is “Anime Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” Although it was my first time seeing it, I learned from others that it was an extremely popular and well-regarded Otakon panel back in the day. Coming out of retirement for Otakon’s 20th anniversary , the Anime MST3K crew took down the GONZO film Origins: Spirits of the Past (aka Gin-iro no Kami no Agito), pointing out the hamfisted environmentalism message alongside the sudden and strange character/romance development points which result in the deformed child of Appleseed and Nausicaa. In addition to being hilarious, I noted that they had indeed kept up with anime over the years, spotting multiple Girls und Panzer references.

Concerts

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This year, Otakon decided to hold two double concerts for its four guests, which resulted in Home Made Kazoku starting for TM Revolution and Ishikawa Chiaki preceded Kanno Yohko. I saw Home Made Kazoku back in 2010 at Otakon and TM Revolution back in 2008 at the first New York Comic Con. In both cases they’re among my favorite concerts I’ve attended, and to see them together was quite a treat. One notable thing about the Kazoku/Revolution concert was that it was held in the Mariner Arena, which made lining up in advance almost entirely pointless as you could get a decent seat even at the last minute. It was a pleasant change-up compared to previous years, and unlike the time with JAM Project I was glad to see the arena fill up a decent amount. I heard that at the end the two groups had a superhero teamup and did a song together, but I sadly had to leave before that.

The Ishikawa/Kanno concert was an anomaly before it even began. Unlike every other concert at Otakon, this concert required tickets due to “unforeseen demand,” and tickets could only be picked up at specific times of the day. While I know Kanno is probably the most popular anime composer out there, it seemed to be an intentional choice to up the value of each seat, marketing at its finest. In order to keep up with demand, Otakon actually created an overflow room so that people could watch the live feed from elsewhere within the Baltimore Convention Center.  The concert itself was also quite fantastic, as Ishikawa’s haunting melodies (“Uninstall” is a perennial favorite) led well into Kanno’s part, which was unlike any convention concert I’ve attended. Kanno was alone on stage with a piano, playing a number of her best hits, including of course “Tank!” and “The Real Folk Blues” from Cowboy Bebop. As the concert went on the white covering laid over the piano became a kind of projection screen which displayed graphic animations to accompany her music. It was a full-on aural/visual combination, as much an artistic performance as it was a musical concert. It was definitely another highlight of Otakon 2013.

The title of this con report comes from Kanno’s introduction by her producer, which I found quite memorable.

Baltimore and Friends

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The most surprising news to come out of Otakon had to do with the convention itself, as the staff announced that Otakon would be moving out of Baltimore into Washington, DC in 2017. Citing capacity issues, I experienced firsthand the fact that the Baltimore Convention Center is increasingly unable to handle the growing attendance rate of Otakon. Friday afternoon saw for whatever reason extreme, extreme congestion on the third floor that made it so it literally took me 15 minutes to walk what should be a 3-5 minute trip, tops. I do feel pretty bad for Baltimore, as I know that Otakon provides them a good deal of money every year. On a personal level, my friends found a great hotel and great places to eat, and to leave them with the possibility of never returning does fill me with a bit of sadness. That said, I still have three years to chow down and go wild.

By the way, if you ever are in Baltimore and decide to go to Abbey Burger Bistro, I’ll tell you about my custom burger I ordered this year because it was fantastic. Duck meat burger (it’s a meat of the month so it might not be available) cooked medium rare, with brie, grilled onions, mushrooms, pineapple, and red pepper paste on thick toast. Do it.

I didn’t hang with or meet people as much as I had in previous years, but I still enjoyed seeing everyone. In terms of group activities, the highlight of the convention was watching Salty Bet in the hotel room. We happened upon a great night which pitted all of the famous overpowered characters against each other, and the unstoppable force vs. immoveable object that was Berserk vs. Rare Akuma made for an unforgettable evening.

Cosplay

I’ll end off with the semi-standard cosplay photo bonanza. I was not quite as trigger happy with the camera this year, but I did find some definite gems. Special shout out to the Sasha cosplayer who actually handed me a potato afterward.

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