Otakon is many things, all of them having to do with Japanese and East Asian popular culture. But most of all -- at least to outsiders -- it’s all about the costumes.
Check out the area around the convention center Friday morning, before the fan convention’s 8:30 a.m. opening, and you’ll see hundreds of people lined up outside, few of them wearing anything normal. The whole scene resembles an anime artist’s sketchbook come to vivid life. Visit the Inner Harbor over the weekend, or hang around outside nearby Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and the selection of magical girls, evil spirits, ninja warriors, faeries and Pokemen on display feels almost otherworldly.
Or, as Dorothy would no doubt explain to Toto, “I don’t think we’re in Baltimore anymore.”
We asked some Otakon veterans to guess what the most popular costumes will be this year. And then we asked a photographer who’s been shooting the convention off and on for about 15 years to weigh in on the most popular costumes.
When it comes to cosplay at Otakon 2014, it looks like one of the biggies should be a revered old standby.
"One of the favorites is definitely going to be Sailor Moon," says Jen Piro, president of Otakorp Inc., which stages the annual convention. "They've just had their 20th anniversary, and they've rebooted the series In Japan. So it's becoming popular again."
Not that Sailor Moon has ever really gone out of fashion. Since its debut in 1992 as a manga series featuring strong young girl protagonists, the characters have been featured in just about every medium imaginable. While her duties won't leave Piro much time for cosplay this year, if she could, she says she'd show up at Otakon in a Sailor Moon outfit.
The series follows the adventures of a young girl, Usagi Tsukino, and her cohorts, battling evil — usually in the form of villains attempting to steal an all-powerful Silver Crystal — and trying to keep the solar system safe. It's been credited with popularizing the "magical girl" genre, in which young girls obtain magical powers that enable them to fight evil.
"I don't think the companies realized how much it was loved, and how many people were really touched by the series," Piro says. "It was the first anime I had ever seen. … I personally was very impressed that there were female superheroes, for lack of a better word."
Women, especially, have a soft spot for Sailor Moon, Piro says, which explains why there should be a lot of Sailor Moon wannabes walking around the Inner Harbor this weekend.
"Twenty years ago, on television, when it started airing in the U.S., there weren't very many shows that were aimed at women, especially at young women — where there were sort-of everyday girls who were also fighting against evil. … I think that resonated with a lot of girls," Piro says.
Remember how kids – maybe you included – used to like playing cowboys and Indians? For the anime generation, those Wild West archetypes have been replaced by ninjas. And that's why Masashi Kishimoto's "Naruto" should be well-represented among this weekend's cosplayers.
"A lot of the current cosplayers, they grew up with it, essentially, kinda like how I grew up with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse," says Michael Eng, Otakon's assistant director of guest relations and industry. "Plus, there's such a spectrum of personalities within the series. I think that helps it a lot."
Naruto, whom Kishimoto introduced In 1997, centers on a teenage ninja seeking strength and respect. The characters have aged over the years, Eng notes, which helps keep the series fresh and popular. Plus, Naruto and his friends don't always act or look like the traditional ninjas casual fans would expect.
"They call them ninjas, but they don't dress up as the typical ninjas," he says. "They actually take a very different approach. The main character dresses up in bright orange, for instance."
Of course, cosplaying only goes so far. Attendees are welcome to dress as Naruto and his ninja buds, Eng notes, but they'd best leave their swords and other weapons at home.
"Do not bring any live steel, or you'll be asked to take it back to your hotel room." Eng says. "And do not look to us if any law enforcement stops you."
When it comes to cosplaying as Madoka Magica, the shy need not apply.
"They're very noticeable," says Kat Lemons, assistant deputy head of Otakon's Maid Cafe, a welcome respite for attendees who enjoy being treated grandly while taking a break from the con. "I know there are people who are kind of shy about cosplaying, but most of the time, if you're going to be doing a magical girl that's gonna have a lot of bling and shininess and stuff, you have to have a bit of a personality, to stand up against the costume. Or else the costume wears you."
Lemons, who admits that she'll be coming in a Sailor Moon costume this year (2015 could be her year for Madoka Magica, she suggests), says the anime TV series about a group of magical girls battling witches and the perils of being in middle school, has a lot going for it, costume-wise.
"There's a lot of frills and a lot of prettiness," she says. "Their costumes are very brightly colored."
But all is not sweetness and light in the world of Madoka Magica — another selling point, as far as Lemons is concerned.
"A lot of what pulled me into it is because they're so sweet, but there's a lot of darkness to it — there's a lot of blood and gore and evil characters. It's got dark undertones, especially for being such a sweet anime."
It's also a series, Lemons notes, that comes with its own color palette — no small consideration when it comes to making your own costume.
"The characters kind of all have their own colors," she says, "so there's a blue character that's mostly blue, there's a character that's kinda black and white and a little bit of gray, there's a red character with a lot of reds in her costume. Mami Tomoe (the costume Lemons is leaning toward crafting for next year) is kind of a cream and brown character. And then, of course, the main character, Midoka, is kind of pink."
Others to watch out for
Michael Haymore, who helps run the Photosuite at Otakon and has been capturing cosplayers on film (or digital card) for some 15 years, lists 10 more anime series or characters that were popular at Otakon 2013:
"Attack on Titan"
League of Legends
"Neon Genesis Evangelion"
If you go
Otakon 2014 runs Friday, Aug. 6, through Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. An $80 membership gets you in for the duration. Information: otakon.com.