(I am vaccinated and tested negative for COVID both after this convention, and very recently.)
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The justification for going to Otakon 2021 — in what turned out to be the beginning of COVID delta season — was “it’s not like a lot of people are going to go to the trouble.” There weren’t any huge guests or major events, after all. It’s not like anyone from Japan could make it. If you were going to Otakon this year, you were going just to be at an anime convention, because you missed it that much. Surely the pull couldn’t be that big.
Anyway, a whole lot of other people all thought this. All of us were wrong. We each underestimated how badly other people had missed this event. It wasn’t just us. Not by a long shot.
Otakon 2021 looked like any other Otakon, just with everybody wearing masks. (I spotted just four or five unmasked people all weekend.) The convention reported that 25,543 people came by.
After a year and a half, with no visible end in sight to the pandemic — indeed, with so many fools actively working to extend it indefinitely — going to Otakon didn’t feel like a crazy idea anymore. I felt more like I was taking a risk to help keep myself sane.
Otakon is out in Washington DC these days, in the massive Walter Washington Convention Center. If you ever went to Otakon at the labyrinthine Baltimore Convention Center, it’s a lot more spacious now. The Walter Washington is attached to our usual hotel (the Marriott), so it was exceedingly easy to move to and from the con. Given the situation, this was very important; I spent a lot less time on the convention floor this weekend than I ever have.
Crowding and COVID precautions (or lack thereof)
The Otakon floor was as busy as ever, and I didn’t really detect much concern from the crowd. For many of us, this was the scary part. I saw all my usual convention friends from all around the East Coast, but I saw a lot of them only once or twice. Before, there was no risk to hanging out idly around the con center, mingling in the crowd, or befriending strangers: now there was.
Otakon sent us a lot of assurances that everything would be very COVID-safe this year — like a temperature scan at the main entrance — but they didn’t make any effort at distancing. I was trapped in some very uncomfortable lines with otaku who, by nature, draw together as close as they possibly can on all sides. (It’s how you convince yourself the line is moving.) The shoulder-to-shoulder seating at panels wasn’t much better.
Of course you can’t regulate a 25,000-person crowd, but I was really expecting some effort in stuff like the seating, and high-volume areas like the dealer’s room and game room. That the convention center was selling food in the highest-traffic areas seemed downright irresponsible given what we understand about COVID transmission.
So as you can imagine, the whole con was a completely different experience. I visited the dealer’s room once, with purpose. I wanted to get in there, check my usual stores (Otaku Joe’s for vintage anime, Retro Saikou for games and merch, the cheap manga booth), make my purchases, and get out. The actual dealer’s room experience only exacerbated this feeling. The booths were not much more spaced out than normal, and they certainly weren’t allowed to take up more space than normal. The nerd traffic jams I’m accustomed to from dealers’ rooms past felt quite different than they had in the past; claustrophobic, even.
As usual, the dealer’s room was the most densely populated area on the show floor, along with events and panels. Normally I’d have walked in on more panels, but when everything feels like a risk — especially those line-ups! — you opt to see a lot less.
My friends and I would move between the lesser-populated side hallways and hang out between events, leaving a couple hundred feet between us and the rest. In between, we spent a lot more time on the town than we typically would, and since the con closed early we spent quite a bit time just hanging back in the hotel room. Olympics were on, after all.
You’d expect it from me, but I also got in some time at the game room. I’d been on the road for two weeks without Guilty Gear Strive, but alas, it wasn’t there. The stand-up arcade wasn’t nearly as packed as, say, the Smash Brothers or “various anime licensed fighting games on a huge laggy TV” corners, so my regular Gundam MBON teammate and I actually felt comfy running sets on the big, beautiful 2v2 setup. We effectively gate-kept the crowd with a G-Self/Zaku Warrior team until actual strong players showed up and whipped our asses.
Of course someone tapped me on the shoulder while I was playing an arcade game. Of course they had no mask, and of course they were inches from my face. Of course they proceeded to breathe the words WHAT GAME IS THIS directly into my face. Imagine having to turn around and repeat the phrase “Million Arthur: Arcana Blood” several times after this. That was my convention jump-scare.
A lot of my friends put on panels; we’re bloggers after all. I supported my good buddy SDS at his 18+ panel “Saturday Morning MILFs”, about the increasing presence of active, memorable mom characters in kids’ anime like Pokemon and Yugioh, and the concurrent rise in adult art of these characters. (Perhaps you’ve heard of Rinko from Gundam Build Fighters?)
Obviously this was a subject so powerful that it packed the room. 18+ panels — particularly the sexy kind — are weird, because the demographic is more like “screaming 18–19 year old boys away from home for the first time.” SDS had the honorable task of educating the children, and he pulled off a really admirable mix of info and filthy fan art. Always go see his panels, if you get a chance. Of course I’m biased; we did a mahjong panel together.
I caught about the last 40 minutes of Project A-Ko via Discotek’s big showing of their new remaster. Again, I have friends who work at Discotek, the only anime I buy on video any more is from Discotek, but I swear I’m unbiased. If you’ve never seen Project A-Ko, it’s among the best anime parodies ever made. 30 years later, it’s still hard to parody anime because A-Ko hits all the obvious jokes with such flair.
Saturday night we had a bit of a room party, and I got to see internet anime friends I usually only see once or twice a year anyway. I don’t know about everyone else, but this was my highest highlight, a brief flash of normalcy. Sharing beers with 10 or 12 friends, talking about anime, watching that Stone Ocean livestream, was about as normal as it’s felt for me in a long while. I get sappy where I didn’t before. Everyone: you are precious to me.
Would I Do It Again?
It looks like nobody, or not very many people, got sick at Otakon 2021. That’s a relief. That being said, if I had known what Otakon 2021 was going to look like coming in, I probably would have skipped it.
No, I will not be going to any event without a vaccine mandate. A lot of people let Otakon know this in the post-con Q&A, to cheers from the crowd and some passionate boos from a small group that was thankfully sitting far away from anybody else. And bluntly, fuck those guys. I’m done with their shit.
Let’s hope that by next year it’s all behind us, and we can genuinely “return to normal”. Normal anime conventions, at least.