Animation enthusiasts get into character

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Melissa Wilson of Nashville, Tenn., came dressed as Princess from Battle of the Planets.

Veronica Hines of Owings Mills came as Kojirou from Yami No Matsuei.

Tina Roland of Wildwood, N.J., came as "Nicholas Wolfwood" from Trigun.

They were among the thousands of mostly teens and those in their 20s who came to Baltimore this weekend decked out in their best Japanese character costumes or to admire costumes at the 10th annual Otakon.

For those who don't know Wolfwood from Kojirou, Otakon is the largest Japanese animation festival on the East Coast and the second-largest in the country, according to organizers. Since 1999, its home has been the Baltimore Convention Center.

"Currently we're experiencing a 20 to 40 percent growth every year," said Brian Grimwood, who works for Otakorp Inc., the nonprofit organization that was created by four Penn State students in 1993 to organize this annual gathering. Nearly 13,000 people attended last year's convention. Almost 10,000 registered for this year's event.

A newcomer dressed in white knee-high boots and an elaborate helmet with purple Christmas balls for eyes and a sliced soda liter bottle for a birdlike bill, Wilson, 33, said she likes Japanese animation because it is "more mature than American cartoons."

At Otakon, Japanese animation films are running throughout each day. Vendors are selling action figures, dolls and video games. But the biggest draw to the convention is the chance to socialize with fellow devotees and check out what people are wearing.

Costumes range from angelic to devilish, babyish to provocative as people walk around as dragons, feathery white-winged characters, little girls in short skirts and knee socks, and bare-legged women with futuristic red-and-white loincloths.

Ada Palmer, 22, of Annapolis, made her costume and those of 13 friends as well. "I started about three days after Otakon last year," Palmer said.

Palmer's costumes were among the most detailed and elaborate Friday afternoon. On one friend's cape, she sewed a fluffy white dragon -- the size of a small cat -- that draped around the girl's neck. The dragon's mouth opens and closes, thanks to a bicycle hand break Palmer rigged to the girl's left hand.

Ada Palmer's father, Doug Palmer, accompanied her group. He wore a white glove on one hand that he can blink and beep five times every time he sees a Princess, because that's what the hand does in the cartoon.

Ada Palmer doesn't think she'll start on new costumes next week. Rather, it's to the group's advantage to wear the same costumes next year. "If you go to the convention as the same character every year, you get a fan base," Palmer explained. "People look for you every year."

Ellie Famutimi, 17, of Washington, D.C., and her friend Tatiana Berg, 17, of Paris -- wearing their costumes for a third year -- can attest to that. Walking toward the vendors' area, the two were constantly stopped by people wanting to photograph them.

"Sure," the girls said in unison. Then Famutimi, wearing a straight purple wig topped with a tiara, a full red skirt and a red-and-white fitted jacket, swooned against the arm of Berg, in red bicycle shorts and a similar toy soldier-like jacket and long pink hair. Posing for the cameras, Berg pretended to stab her friend with a small sword.

They held perfectly still until they heard, "OK, thanks."

Then they giggled a little, pleased that their costumes stood out.

"We've been trying to keep track of how many times our picture has been taken -- over 30 so far -- and we just got here," Berg said.

She has been timing her annual visits to the United States to coincide with Otakon for five years.

"It's our yearly indulgence," said Berg. "We're normal the rest of the time."

Today the convention has a costume contest in the afternoon and in the evening. Otakon runs from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. today and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow. More information is available at www.otakon.com.

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