Friday, September 20, 2013

Otakon 20: A First Timer's Perspective (Part 1)

I’ve never been to a major convention that caters exclusively to anime and Japanese entertainment before. I’ve especially never been to a convention that required me to travel a great distance. The only major convention I’ve been to in the past in New York Comic Con; a convention that is located a short train ride away from where I live. This means it’s a smaller financial investment to go to that convention than any other convention. That said, this past August I decided to take a chance and go to this year’s Otakon convention being held at the Baltimore convention center. They were celebrating their 20th annual event and had a lineup of musical guests I was interested to see. So about a week before the event, I finalized my decision to go, booked my hotel and planned my travel route. The drive wasn’t fun, but the convention sure was.

Assuming perfect traffic conditions, it takes about 4 hours, non-stop, to drive to Baltimore from where I live. Fortunately, traffic was great for me. Leaving at 5 a.m. certainly helped. As you could probably imagine, I was tired after the trip and hoped that the wait to get into the building wouldn’t take too long. Boy was that hope crushed. If I have one criticism of Otakon this year it’s the pre-registration ticket pickup line. I believe I waited on line for at least 2 hours before I could pick up my ticket. If possible, it would be great if the staff could find a way to get the line moving quicker in the future. That said, the staff did a good job enforcing lines and keeping lines as organized as possible throughout the entire convention. I have to give them props for that.

Like I mentioned, the concerts were the big reason I decided to go this year. For their Saturday concert, Home Made Kazoku and T.M.Revolution performed in the 1st Mariner Arena. For their Sunday concert, Chiaki Ishikawa and Yoko Kanno performed in one of the largest halls in the Baltimore convention center. Anyone could get into the Saturday concert, (The Arena seats about 10,000 people) but in order to see the Sunday concert you had to acquire a ticket that was only available for pick up at certain times each day. Since I wasn’t even in the building when they ran out the tickets they were giving away, I waited on line for 2.5 hours on Saturday. Easily the worst part of that wait was not knowing if I arrived on line early enough to get my ticket. Fortunately, there were plenty of tickets left when I reached the ticket desk. I probably could have gotten on line anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes later than I did and still would have gotten a ticket.

The wait was certainly worth it as the concert was amazing. Chiaki Ishikawa opened the show and she was really great. Or course she performed “Unistall”, the theme song of Bokurano. That song sounds really good in person. She has a great live performance voice. As great as she was, it’s no secret that everyone was there for Yoko Kano (composer for various anime titles including Cowboy Beebop, and Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex) to perform from her new Piano Me arrangement of songs. What was special about this performance was when they turned down the lights after the first set of songs. From that point on, Kano used her piano as a projector screen during each song. What was really cool about it was how each projection show used the outline of the piano as a confined space that would not be broken. For one of the songs, her piano would fill up with materials as if it was an oddly shaped jar. What was really impressive was that I couldn’t see any part of the projection spilling outside the confines of the piano. They had that thing positioned perfectly.
An example of what the projected video looked like during the concert, except more amazing.
The big finale for Kano’s concert (pre-encores) was her piano performance of “Wo Qui Non Coin” from Cowboy Beebop. That was the only song she sang, and the only time she spoke before playing a song. Holy cow her voice is amazing. Specifically, her voice is really adorable. I absolutely loved listening to her speak and sing. Combine that with the use of the giant projector screen behind her as well as her piano and the entire performance was just awe-inspiring. As great as it was to hear her perform songs from Cowboy Beebop, Escaflone, and Ghost in the Shell, that particular performance completely justified all the waiting on lines I had to do just for that one moment. It was simply a sight to behold and an experience I’ll probably never experience again.

While the Sunday concert was amazing, the Saturday concert was my favorite part of Otakon. For those who don’t know, I’m a huge T.M.Revolution fan. This concert was a must for me. I actually really enjoy Home Made Kazoku’s work as well, so this was a great combination for me. One of the advantages of going to a concert with open seating by yourself is that you can easily get close to the stage by just taking a random empty seat that hasn’t been occupied yet. Because of that I was very happy with where I was sitting during the concert.

First up was Home Made Kazoku and they were so much fun to watch. Singers Micro and Kuro did a great job interacting with the crowd. They even speak English incredibly well! Of course, they performed their songs heard in popular anine including “Nagare Boshi Shooting Star”, “Freedom” (both Naruto Shippuden), “Shonen Heart” (Eureka Seven), and “Thank You!!” (Bleach). In addition, they also performed some new material. Overall, their energy was great and they put on a fantastic performance. I especially liked when Micro yelled “F*** yea!” and then went “Oops, I forgot. This is a family show. No cursing.”

“I said F*** YEA!”

That got a good laugh out of me.
"Thank You!!" by Home Made Kazoku
The only disappointing thing I can say about T.M.Revolution’s performance is that he didn’t perform “Howling” (Darker Than Black), but seeing how it’s technically a Abingdon Boys School song (T.M.R. was the singer) I can understand it not being part of the set. That said, he did perform some of my favorite songs of his, including “Invoke” (Gundam Seed) and “Resonance” (Soul Eater). T.M.R. is really good at getting a crowd to rock out. Not to mention the ladies still love him. He looks great, especially considering he’s in his 40s. By far, my favorite part of his performance was his finale. As he was thanking the audience for their support of Japan following the tsunami, I could hear his band softly playing the intro melody of “Heart of Sword” (Rurouni Kenshin). “Heart of Sword” is my favorite T.M.Revolution song. You should have seen the huge smile on my face.
"Heart of Sword" by T.M.Revolution
I consider “Heart of Sword” a very special song for myself. Kenshin is my favorite anime from my childhood and “Heart of Sword” was the only ending song used throughout its time on Toonami. I rarely use nostalgia to judge things but during that song, every good feeling I had watching that show came back to me as he was performing that song. The sheer joy I was feeling when I was singing the chorus aloud along with the entire audience is simply indescribable. It completely justified every single dollar I spent on this trip and every single minute I spent driving to get there. Once the concert was over (T.M.R and HMK performed a set together afterwards, by the way) I couldn’t believe I got to do that. It was simply amazing.

That’s how you know you’re having a good time at a convention; when you can look back at your experiences and say “That was really awesome. I can’t believe I got to do that.” Conventions are more than just dealer rooms and autographs. They are an opportunity to be around people with the same interests as you and experience something amazing together. Otakon 20 was an amazing experience and I am very glad I went.

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