A man in black wields an enormous hollow cross packed with phony handguns while checking out Barnes & Noble's graphic-novel racks. A futuristic Marie Antoinette, in a regal gown with bared cleavage and midriff, balances a huge rectangular headpiece with impeccable hauteur while navigating the steaming crowds on Pratt Street. An urban-cowboy assassin in fringed Daisy Dukes, with hippie-like straight hair hitting the small of her back and bandoleros crisscrossing her chest, eyes a burger at Five Guys.
These are the kinds of sights that have filled Baltimore's downtown and Inner Harbor since Thursday night, when Otakon 2011 opened with a block party.
Every summer, Otakon, a celebration of Asian popular culture, turns Baltimore into the double-take capital of the world. At least 30,000 fans, most from the East Coast, and many in costume, have entered the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend to salute Japanese cartoons, comics and video games. The extravaganza winds up Sunday.
It's a boon to Baltimore — it brings an estimated $11.3 million into the city — and a tourist attraction unto itself. Any noninitiates wandering through the Inner Harbor are sure to collide with the creative, colorful aficionados. Chances are you could see a Spider-Man, Superman or Han Solo in this wild bunch. But almost all the action figures who spring to life at Otakon have stepped out of anime (Japanese cartoons) and manga (Japanese comics).
"We have women dressing in male character costumes, and we have men (sometimes even old men) dressing as Sailor Moon, a teenage princess fighting for truth and love," according to Sue Monroe, Otakon 2011's head of volunteer operations. For these "cosplayers" — conventioneers who combine costuming and role-playing — what counts is staying true, in their own ways, to each character, even if their far-out ensembles are hard to keep up in more ways than one.
Otakon is an extension of the Japanese word otaku, meaning a person immersed in pop culture. In Japan, the word carries some pejorative connotations — it often suggests an obsessive young fellow who mooches off his parents, sleeps in Internet cafes and generally can't function in reality. But in an America newly proud of geeking out, there's no comparable stigma attached. Many American fans are proud to call themselves "totally otaku."
Attendance at Otakon has nearly tripled, from 10,275 in 2001 to 29,274 in 2010. According to Otakon featured speaker Roland Kelts, the half-Japanese, half-American author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S," the success of conventions like Otakon — the largest of its kind on the East Coast — mirrors the new-millennial embrace of Japan as an international trend-setter.
"In the 21st century," Kelts said, "Japan has become the arbiter of 'cool' around the globe, in fashion, design, style, cuisine, and certainly in this vein of bright, colorful and inventive popular culture."
Kelts also noted that as the otaku phenomenon surges across the country, Americans are becoming more aware of the extremes of Japanese popular culture. In Kelts' book, a chapter called "Strange Transformations" includes his rendering of a yakuza (Japanese mafia) manga story — the characters include a torture victim, a buxom sexual tease and a snake — and his summary of the genre known as "tentacle porn," depicting women ravished by incubi with diverse appendages.
X-rated Internet pranksters have targeted anime and manga festivals. And then there's the question of "furries": fans of anthropomorphic cartoon animals. Some are said to engage in sexual acts while wearing their full-body suits, though the official furry community denies it.
Otakon carefully restricts adult events — you need "18-plus" IDs to get into them. And Otakon veterans say that if a supposedly family-friendly show or panel turns too racy, it's sure to be shut down. But the organizers are not prudes.
"Back when we started, I used to carry safety pins in case a cosplayer needed them for a costume emergency," Monroe said. Cosplayers feel safe risking wardrobe malfunctions in Otakon's secure and friendly atmosphere. If they get the details right, then put their personal spin on them, they can merge with a fantasy figure they love and share the fun with a like-minded community of pop-obsessed people.
Otakon is one big tent that's bursting at the seams. Everyone is welcome, whether little kids coming as cuddly creatures from "Pokemon," college kids putting on biker-gang gear from "Akira" and cyber-punk outfits out of "Ghost in the Shell" (both manga and anime milestones), or children of all ages taking the shapes of phantasms from Hayao Miyazaki's modern-classic cartoons, like No Face in "Spirited Away."
"Having young people often dressed in very skimpy costumes and showing a lot of skin — in every other context in America, outside of the conventions, that would turn heads," Kelts said.
"Outsiders might ask why a 15-year-old girl is showing a lot of skin and dancing around or posing seductively for the camera. Or why there's a lot of cosplay that would otherwise just be regarded as cross-dressing — young boys as female characters in wig and skirts. And sometimes — and this is often unfortunate — middle-aged men arrive in young-maid or schoolgirl costumes." But Kelts salutes these funky convocations for providing "protected space" for public displays of imagination.
Like Japanese conventions, Otakon promotes fan art and sets aside rooms for scores of dealers selling toys, discs, mangas and accessories. Unlike its Japanese counterparts, Otakon is also an ebullient social occasion — a costume party that spills beyond the limits of the Saturday night Masquerade.
Otaku events as all-embracing as Otakon are really an American invention. But they're part of a Japanese cultural invasion that started with the kiddie smash "Pokemon" and includes blocks of anime on Adult Swim television and projected mega-budget live-action versions of "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell."
Jim Vowles, special projects coordinator for this year's Otakon, said last week, "You have to think of otaku not as a genre, but as a delivery system." It funnels all forms of Japanese pop into America — and draws crowds just as eclectic as the material.
Vowles worries about the strains that threaten the big tent. One cosplayer recently took a character from the horror video game "Silent Hill" and painted the word "It's Rape Time" in fake blood on his back, mirroring an image made famous as a meme.
"Bloody guy from a horror-themed video game, that's OK," said Vowles, "but adding 'rape time,' not OK. Had any staffer seen that costume, they should have removed him."
Seasoned Otakon-goers like 27-year-old Anne Marie Chua Lee, of Arlington, Va., who runs a custom costume company, know how to interpret — and sometimes face down — that kind of lunatic-fringe behavior. Hearing about the "rape time" character, Lee immediately recognized him from the original video game and the meme, and noted that "in the gaming community, 'getting raped' is a game term for 'getting slaughtered." She also said that "furries are disturbing even to anime fans." But they're difficult to spot in conventions where all-fur costumes can also be completely innocent. Even if she and her friends see a tip-off that an animal-costumed fan is actually a furry on the make, "we're tolerant of him — but on the Internet at night you'll see messages like, 'What was that guy doing there?'"
Kelts believes that Lee and her friends have learned a Japanese concept that translates into "turning away."
"If someone is doing something you find distasteful, just turn away from it," he said. "You may find a 35-year-old man dressed as a schoolgirl disgusting. But you tolerate it, because you've all come together at this convention to celebrate your own interests."
J-F Bibeau, who lives 12 blocks from Otakon's convention center site, thinks that moralistic concerns over conflicting fan groups "stem from ingrained expectations. The knee-jerk reaction of outsiders is to look at cartoons from this foreign country — they seem interesting, they seem exciting — and to think that these cartoons are all aimed at kids. They assume they're no different from the cartoons they grew up with; maybe a little more intricate and detailed. So when they see something sultry and suggestive and violent, they get worried — but it stems from the misconception that it's all meant for children. In the convention, all genres come and meet — something as cute and innocent as 'Pokemon' and something much more heavy-duty, like 'Hellsing,' which has Nazi vampires. I say keep your kids from watching it, but you watch it."
What can be confusing in a good way for Americans is manga's and anime's mingling of whimsicality and dead-seriousness. For one of Kelts' four Otakon panels, he was preparing to discuss the apocalyptic imagery in traditional and pop Japanese culture, including "Akira," which starts after a nuclear holocaust.
Even now, Kelts said, "no one in Japan proudly wears the badge 'otaku.'" But the rise of the digital lifestyle in Japan and respect for those who master it has given otaku a big boost in its homeland.
And Kelts finds the human-digital interface of the American otaku tremendously moving.
"We tend to think of Internet-obsessive people as dropping out of society. Here we have an example of the Internet helping to produce direct human relationships. You go opening night and you see young people getting out of their cars and leaping into each other's arms — some of them see each other only once a year, at this convention or another. They spend of the rest of the year messaging about their favorite anime or manga or their favorite character. But at the convention they have a weekend of pure celebration — and to me, that's a positive example of Internet connectivity, bringing people together."