Otakon 2021: A Return To Normalcy

Otakon 2021 happened from August 6-8, 2021 at the usual location of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. What wasn’t usual about this con was that this was the first major anime con to happen since the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the state of uncertainty looming with the ever-changing state of the pandemic, compounded by Otakon staff only having 2 months to prepare for the con, I’m pleased to say that everything went very smoothly. The con staff did an excellent job with what they had, and my friends and I all had a lot of fun.

My friends and I arrived Thursday night, as we often do, to check into the hotel room, grab our badges, and enjoy a nice dinner. If you can afford an extra night at the hotel, it’s almost always worth coming in a night early to settle in, that way you don’t need to rush in on Friday and check-in in the middle of the day while the con is going on. You also save a huge amount of time by picking up your badge on Thursday because the line is much shorter.

Friday came along and the main convention started. Panels started as early as 9:00am and I was crazy enough to be awake and ready by then. I absolutely did not want to miss the “Brand-new Idol Shenanigans: Japanese Underground Idol Groups” panel that started then. I know this isn’t exactly surprising, but most of the panels I went to revolved around idols or Japanese music in some way. I’ve wanted to learn more about underground idols  (or chika-idols) since attending a live in Akihabara in 2019 and being impressed with how different the scene was from more mainstream idol fandoms. This panel was actually Part 1 of a two-parter, with the latter half being on Saturday. At both panels, I learned a lot about a ton of groups I had never heard of and will definitely be researching more. Fortunately, I found most of them on Spotify. Here’s a list of the artists with relevant links, provided by the panel host, who goes by the name “E-san” (Eさん).

Panel host gave out some free CDs.

Other interesting panels that happened on Friday were:

  • “VTuber Clipping: The Ethics and Process of Translating Talents” which went into great detail about the process and level of detail the best translation groups go into when working on a clip, along with many examples of what not to do when translating a clip. Tl;dr: if you aren’t at least a conversational level of Japanese proficiency, you could be mistranslating things and even inadvertently causing damage to a vtuber’s reputation… so translate with care.
  • “Bad Anime, Bad… The 20th Anniversary!!” was not run by Mike Toole as it often is, but the host that was present was just as great. He showed clips from lots of BAB classics such as Magnos, that one Dracula anime, and plenty of non-anime stinkfests like the Titanic animated movie and one especially cringe-inducing CGI-animated film called Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa that looked like it was animated on a PS1. I warn you: do not look this one up on YouTube.
  • “Yubi Yubi? A Hololive Introduction” was a short introduction to those new to this whole vtuber thing that’s been taking over the internet lately. I arrived late to this one but from what I saw, this panel only talked about a handful of vtubers and not the most notable ones, so it didn’t seem like a great introduction to me — but to each their own.
  • “Shoujo Rock Heaven” went into detail about a bunch of Japanese all-girl rock bands. Notable bands they discussed that stood out to me were Gacharic Spin, TRiDENT, FLiP, and tricot.

Saturday had plenty to offer as well:

  • “Genres of Non-Traditional Idol” was similar to the underground idols panel and discussed more lesser-known idol groups, many of which do not adhere to the traditional “idol sound” but instead go for a more rock/metal feel.
  • “Lantis 2021 Summer Breakout Artists!” was a screening of a video prepared by Lantis staff specifically for Otakon, with introductions by artists such as fhána, MindaRyn, and Kanako Takatsuki (voice of Hanamaru from Love Live! Sunshine!!). Each artist showed a few of their music videos and said they wish they could be there in person.
  • “When Subtitles Go Wrong” was a hilarious look into many of fansubbing’s biggest fails. “People die if they are killed” is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything from intentionally and unintentionally bad subs to hilarious TL notes was discussed here.

But panels weren’t all that Otakon had to offer. Despite not being able to secure any Japanese guests due to the pandemic, Otakon staff still managed to pull through and put together some excellent main events. On Friday night was “OPENWORLD,” a video game music concert conducted by Eric Roth. Music from a wide variety of games was performed: Sonic, Mario Kart, Halo, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Pokémon, and much more.

On Sunday, the NYC-based J-MUSIC Ensemble performed a concert full of great jazz covers of popular anime and game music. Songs from Splatoon, Persona 5, Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, and Kingdom Hearts are just a few examples of what we heard at this concert,

Aside from panels and concerts was the rest of the con, and what con is complete without a dealer’s room and a game room? The dealer’s room was sadly kind of barren this year, but I still managed to spend a chunk of money at the Retro Saikou booth. There was very little industry presence this year, with the only names I recognized being Media Blasters, MangaGamer and Japanime Games. Funimation and Sentai were nowhere to be seen, but that probably worked out great for the exhibitors who did come, so I’m happy for them. Some cars were on display in the back, including the Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT-APEX from Initial D. Lots of manga shops were present, proving once again that manga popularity is at an all-time high right now in America. Aside from that were a few cosplay shops, some other merch stores, nesoberi/plush shops, and tabletop gaming shops, none of which had anything I needed but still seemed to always have a crowd of people in front of them, likely due to the limited selection of booths amidst such a large crowd.

The artist alley actually seemed a bit more concentrated, albeit in a smaller space. Booths weren’t spaced as far apart as they were in the dealer’s room and there seemed to be a good number of booths present. I didn’t spend much time in there but there seemed to be a good crowd of con-goers opening their wallets in there as well.

The game room was no different from Otakon’s usual fare – several booths up front consisting of indie developers showcasing upcoming games, followed by stations for Just Dance and Rock Band, tables for tabletop gaming, lots of TVs set up for console gaming, and arcade cabinets in the back consisting mostly of rhythm games. Wild Bill’s soda also had a station set up, keeping thirsty con-goers satiated.

Naturally, since COVID-19 is still a thing, masks were required at the convention, even for those vaccinated. This rarely was an issue for me except for a few times when it became uncomfortable after wearing the mask for 8+ hours straight — but it is what it is. I didn’t see anyone inside the con not wearing their masks unless they were eating something, so I’m really not concerned about any issues coming up from this. All in all, despite the pandemic and other uncertain matters, over 25,000 people came to Otakon 2021 and I could not be happier for them. I really hope this year’s success helps them recoup some of their losses from last year’s cancellation. At the closing ceremonies, those who remained at the con applauded the amazing job staff did this year, as they marked their calendars for next year’s event, taking place from July 29-31, 2022.

Otakon has always held a special place in my heart since I started going almost 15 years ago. Some of my most cherished memories have been made there, whether it be through good times with friends, great food, or meeting guests of honor. I can’t wait to come back next year.

Thank you, Otakon for bringing back a sense of normalcy to the world.