The View from the Wharf Rat: A Letter from Otakon 2006 in Baltimore

Dear David and Kathryn:

Iím writing from a pub restaurant called The Wharf Rat, across from the Baltimore Convention Center. Eight years ago, Marianne and I took our son Sean, then fifteen, to Buccaneer, the 56th World Science Fiction Convention, and he wrote a con report for his zine, The High-Flying News, called "The View from the Wharf Rat." Now the tables are turned and weíre the neophytes attending a convention that Sean understands infinitely better than we. So I thought Iíd borrow his title and tell you about our experiences.

I am here simply because, as a writer, itís important to avoid falling too far behind in my understanding of the culture of my time. I am not here to pass judgment, but to learn and to discover.The first thing I discover is why the media always focus on the costumers at SF cons: It gives the clueless a peephole into a world which is largely internal and otherwise opaque to the outsider. A huge number of otaku are in costume Ė maybe one in five. I recognize Vash the Stampede in several iterations, a perfectly done Rose Bride from Revolutionary Girl Utena, and I-forget-her-name, the bookish girl from Read or Die, but most of the cultural referents go right past me. They take pictures of each other. Death photographs two female Japanese archers. Jack Skellington poses with a trio of green-haired elves in bikinis. One of the ubiquitous horde of cat girls snaps the scarecrow from Howlís Moving Castle. I ask one woman in a spectacular green dragon-or-lizard costume what her character is and she smiles and says, "Iím with Cirque du Soleil."

There are twenty-some thousand attendees here – roughly four times the number of people who come to the Worldcon. This number was achieved by closing down at-door registration when the convention centerís legal capacity had been reached. It could have been more. There are times when I think of Delilloís dictum that "The future belongs to crowds."

These are the same kinds of young people who used to go to science fiction conventions but, I fear, found themselves increasingly unwelcome. Most of them arenít even aware that SF conventions exist. I mention to an otaku whoís explaining the game-based costumes to me that Iím a science fiction writer and he looks blank, as if Iíd mentioned being an accountant or a scholar of medieval poetry. This doesnít bother me personally, but the possibility that weíve just had an archetypally representative meeting-of-generations is disturbing.

The above conversation occurs while we are standing in line waiting for the dealers room to open, along with several thousand avid otaku. Since there are only two stairways down to a space which takes up most of the Convention Centerís basement level, the line is marked out with tape laid down on the floor in a switchback pattern, so that when the doors are opened the fans stride back and forth and forth and back like pilgrims walking a medieval labyrinth. A glance across the room is dizzying. Still, the line moves fast and nobody cuts ahead of anybody else, though thereís nothing to stop them. Down we plunge and after a surprisingly spare number of corporate booths, we enter a second, mercantile labyrinth.

The booths are much like those at a Worldcon, only with DVDs instead of books, and with a far more elaborate selection of faux weapons. Given the numbers and eagerness of the attendees, one would expect the dealers to be raking in money hand over fist. "Oh, look! Escaflowne Volume Six!" cries a young woman, flying to pluck a movie case from a table Iíve been perusing. "Iíve been looking for this forever." She glances at the price tag. "Thirty dollars? I donít think so!" Back goes the case and, as quickly as she appeared, she is gone. I shrug and, after consultation with Marianne, hand five disks of the science fiction near-space series Planetes to the woman on the other side of the table. "Yes!" she cries. "A hundred and twenty dollars – thatís a new record!"

The problem is, of course, that when youíre in your early twenties, you simply donít have the disposable income to sling around that a fiftysomething does. Which helps to explain why the art show is so punk. Given that Otakon is a celebration of primarily visual art forms, Iíd been expecting something vast and impressive. But not only is the show extremely small but, with the exception of a professional-looking watercolor of a scene from Shadow of the Colossus, a moody and visually imposing PlayStation 2 game, everything on display is quite obviously fan art – and not top-level fan art either. Nor do they seem to be getting many bids.

Alongside the art show is Artistsí Alley, a rather sad gathering of young online-comics and manga artists, hoping to sell enough self-published comics, computer prints, and buttons to recover the cost of the tables. Many of them have signs reading Portrait of You As Your Favorite Character $5. Artists, as if they needed one, have found a new way to starve.

The biggest difference between the anime/manga/gamer cons and ours is the panels. Where ours are pretty much central to the entire enterprise, theirs are marginalized and poorly attended, compared to the screenings. Like most attendees, our attention was elsewhere. But Marianne and I did take in a panel on Gothic Lolita, which is easily the creepiest fashion look currently loose in the real world. An elaborate blend of babydoll clothing, Victoriana, and abused-waif chic, Gothic Lolita was originally a Japanese teen-girl look which lends itself well to the manga style of drawing and less well to everyday wear. Did I mention that itís expensive? One GL manga artist admitted to creating her books primarily in order to feed her clothing habit.

The day passes. We watch Ghost Story of Yotsuya, a 1950s Japanese movie directed by Nobuo Nakagawa that is occasionally naive but consistently and startlingly evocative in its supernatural imagery. That work this interesting could have occurred so long ago without me having heard a whisper of it until today makes me wonder what else Iím missing out on thatís happening currently. And we catch a few anime premieres, most notably Fullmetal Alchemist; The Conqueror of Shambala. This is a sequel to the 51-episode Fullmetal Alchemist television series and though I can follow it well enough, it is aimed squarely at existing fans, with no concessions for those who may have come in late.

The chief strength of FMA:TCoS is its setting. At the end of the television series, the gifted young alchemist Edward Elric is thrown out of his magic-based (but very much like our own) world and into ours. The movie opens in 1930s Germany and, as the characters go about their business, the seeds of fascism are germinating about them in angry background conversations about the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles and the humiliating weakness of the Weimar Republic. Hitlerís unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch, shown onscreen, is a major plot point – and since nobody at the time understood its ultimate significance, it goes unexplained. You either know your history or you miss the filmís depths.

The chief weakness of the movie lies in the decision to write the film specifically for its fan base. All the most popular characters from the television series are re-introduced, one by one, to thunderous approval from the knowledgeable audience. But to an outsider it is obvious that most of them are not necessary to the plot at all, but only slow it down. Which is a pity because at the heart of FMA:TCoS is a thoughtful critique of power and the damage that it can do. It might well have been crafted to appeal to new viewers as well.

Then itís time for the Anime Music Videos. This is one of the most popular events at Otakon; Marianne and I arrive fifteen minutes early and are literally the last two people allowed in the auditorium. For the next two hours, we watch videos made from snippets of anime series or movies spliced to pop music. Each one begins with Otakon-provided cards of the names of the editor, the anime shows being sampled, and the artist and song.

Not a one includes a copyright notice, for the simple reason that no copyright has been obtained for any of the videos. The anime studios, which benefit from the publicity, look the other way, and as for the musicians . . . well, nobody here cares.

First up is a mashup which pits the major characters of Naruto against those of Dragon Ball Z. These are the two most prominent fight-oriented anime. The audience cheers each match and laughs approval when each winner is declared – obviously the witty choice has been made in every instance – except when Rock Lee (Naruto), a big fan favorite, fights Vegeta (DBZ) and loses. Rock Lee always loses, you see, and the audience clearly would have preferred a long-deferred victory. The music is by m.c. A-T feat DA PUMP, though if you download the video from the Web, you will find nothing to indicate that.

More videos follow, including one which matches Paul Simonís "Call Me Al" to clips from Trigun. If you wanted to sit somebody down in front of a single anime series in order to convince him or her that something distinctly different is happening in this genre, the very eccentric Trigun would be a good choice.

Then comes "All New for Ď73," which merges music by Yoko Kanno with clips from Gundam SEED to create a mock-commercial for the eponymous mecha (and if youíre so far estranged from your own culture as to not know what a mecha is, I despair of enlightening you), being sold as if it were this yearís new-model SUV.

The audience roars.

Intellectual property is being appropriated in a manner of which Karl Marx would have emphatically approved, by nameless and instantly forgotten artisans who will never see a penny from it. We are on the front lines of the copyright wars, and I fear we are in enemy territory.


Now we are having a leisurely dinner, after which we will take in an hour or so of the costume competition and drive home. But I shall end this letter here. Sean tells me that the costume competitions are not significantly different from those to be seen at any major SF competition. The MC is famously witty, the crowds are larger (this year the event has been moved out of the Convention Center and into a nearby sports arena), and the characters for the most part strange to us. But costume is costume, presentation is presentation, and I have yet to hear that their costumers know anything ours donít.

So we are well, and hoping you are the same.

All best,


© 2006 by Michael Swanwick

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