Otakon 2013

Rarely does Yoko Kanno perform in public, perhaps once or twice a year oversees.

She has made a few U.S. convention appearances. I saw her very briefly at Anime Expo 2010, where she made an unannounced appearance for performances of songs from Macross F. And I cried, as Yoko made bird chirping noises along with her piano music. Much to the continued astonishment of my wife, I’m quite sentimental.

I found out she was attending Otakon in 2013 and I knew I had to go.

Still, I was reluctant to plan a trip to Otakon because of cost, timing, and energy. I have a tired wife and a tiring 2 year old, and going to Anime Expo was not at all easy. I know a trip together would have been ideal, but not really practical, and really there was only one reason I really wanted to go. So I instead booked a solo trip and tried to minimize my time away from work and family by only attending two days.

I flew in to Baltimore Friday. It took me about 8 hours from Seattle to get there, flying to Phoenix along the way. (I nearly missed the connection, as I sat pondering a burrito that had been somehow cooked so it had a somewhat fried buttery taste, and also I sat enthralled by the medical marijuana endorsement on CNN.) As I knew my next morning was going to be early but because of the time change, I wasn’t exactly tired, so I deliberately meditated myself to sleep.

Early it was, as 7AM felt like 4. I tried to rally myself at the Hilton breakfast buffet, which wasn’t great, but I saw no convenient or better alternative at the moment. Coincidentally, I was seated next to some attendees, who happened to have a car, fortunately. It wasn’t my plan to ask for a ride, but I knew that otherwise I was going to be stuck on a bus or bus/train for an hour. It also gave me a chance to talk to some other fans.

I was talking to these two young attendees, to which I almost uttered the phrase, “Back in my day.” To them, I think it was fairly astonishing that somebody so old would travel from Seattle to attend their convention, or so I would like them to think. I know that conventions these days are mostly attended by newer fans, meaning college-aged and younger, so I feel part of a novel minority.

Badge pickup (‘pre-registration’) happened quickly, but it was day two, so that was not unexpected.

I had hoped one of my convention pals could score me a Yoko Kanno concert ticket, but although I heard one was certainly available for me, I wasn’t certain I would actually meet this person. So though I initially did not plan to, I necessarily waited in line for about 3 hours to pick up my one ticket. Camping in line, fortunately indoors, I came prepared. I happily played Plants versus Zombies on my DS: I felt like a zombie for waking up so early, coincidentally.

The concert ticket actually was a clear plastic card, printed complete with a serial number. This was more official looking than my attendee badge.

As it turned out, only 1000 attendees out of about 35,000 Otakon members (and staff) could attend this event. One thousand seems a lot, but really this was about 3%. There was a simulcast in another room for more. In some ways, it was fortunate the younger attendees had no idea who Yoko Kanno was.

The clock was past lunchtime. I made the most of my pre-made onigiri (made back in Seattle), plus snacks and other food as my lunch. There was no time now for a real meal. Immediately I had to go to a panel, for Chiaki Ishikawa. She’s not well known, it seems, as the panel room was mostly empty. But talented Japanese guests aren’t as a big draw as many American voice actors (Vic Mignogna), and this goes back to the age discrepancy between me and most attendees. I was struck by her distinctive, womanly voice (does she smoke?), and the way that she suggested she wanted to pair with a (much?) younger male vocalist. I wasn’t sure she was serious, but somehow that all made sense.

Early in her musical career, Ishikawa was paired up with Yuki Kajiura as part of See-Saw. Kajiura, I do respect but feel she is a tier down from Kanno, mostly because Kajiura’s music sounds fairly same-ish. Ishikawa seems to have done well for herself, though starting off in J-Pop and not succeeding, she progressed in a distinctive direction, as her lyrics and music feel matched to her personality. I wondered if her live show was going to be tied into Kanno’s performance, but I hated to ask, as undoubtedly Kanno was going to upstage her by quite a bit.

Post panel, I left the convention center to attend the concert, the main event of Saturday preceding the Masquerade. TM Revolution and Home Made Kazoku were performing in Baltimore’s Mariner Area, which seemed to have seating for many, many thousands. Arriving a bit late, I managed to score a seat in the front, by a nice girl who proceeded to text and then leave during the middle of the concert. (I think she was feeling bad.)

Honestly, I was not particularly a fan of either band initially, but both groups are well-known acts and I saw a well-done show. Home Made Kazoku turned out to be really good hip-hop, and by “good” I mean cheerful and endearingly positive. They worked the crowd really well, and to be honest I felt the enthusiasm and catchy, bouncy sound of two rappers and their DJ to be a little more likable than TM Revolution’s heavy metal sound. Not to say TMR didn’t rock out, and weren’t talented musicians, I just didn’t take to TMR’s songs as much.

My friend from Seattle, Greg invited me to eat dinner with him and his friends. After leaving the arena, I headed to the Sheraton, which happened to be the wrong Sheraton in Baltimorethere are two—I eventually made it into a car of eight headed to an Afghanistan restaurant. The company and restaurant seemed quite good. Maybe to Greg’s chagrin, I was seated across to him the entire time, but I made conversation with other folks who were all pretty social. The Afghan food was somewhat novel (similar to Pakistani Indian I supposed) and well prepared, but I came hungry already.

One couple I had thought momentarily were having a kid, but they had just gotten engaged, and the lady was far from pregnant. Being the oya-baka (foolish parent) that I am, I made the attempt to show off just how cute Leo was in costume. I was explaining, yes, having a kid is a pain, but you do get to dress him up, and he is very cute, and it is worth the trouble, etc. I do understand why parents want to indoctrinate non-parents into having children, but it’s not really something that can be effectively conveyed. I would not particularly recommend children to those couples who do spend lots of time at conventions (or pursuing any serious hobby, really), but there are some trade offs at least for ‘otaku’ couples.

Post dinner I attempted to attend a few more panels. This was mostly for naught. Yes, I found out about Manga Gamer’s latest acquisitions and enjoyed some of the crowd’s mischievous perverted questioning, but I should have simply taken the train home. Instead, I was milling around and of course finding panel rooms full, it was too late for public transportation, and I had to take a taxi back for about $35. (My hotel was in some sort of office-park nowhere land.)

Waking up early on Sunday, I checked out. Or tried to. A seemly friendly hotel staffer attempted to convince me I owed the hotel for 4 nights ($800), not the two I had originally reserved for. I was of course confused (sleepy) and adamant as I had a receipt to the contrary, which he then claimed was not signed, ergo not valid in the court of law. Then the staff admitted it was practical joke, for which I might have replied, “Well, if I talk to your manager and get fired for tricking your guests, who’s the joke really on here?” It seemed fairly mean spirited to basically make up extra nights charged as some sort of false sounding extortion, but I really didn’t feel like trying to get this person in trouble. He also admitted to trying to trick other attendees the same way. He did give me a couple extra cookies.

The light rail did not run early on Sunday, but again I found somebody nice enough to give me a ride. I was given a lift by a fairly good looking college-aged girl, and here I was an older but odd guy. I played the part of the gentleman, and I suppose I sounded reassuring being an attendee, none the less an attendee from Seattle here to see Yoko Kanno. Fortunately, she was attending for the same reason. She in fact had gotten an autograph, for which there were only a few hundred. (It sounds like a lot, but that’s less than 1% of attendees.)

Sunday I had a laundry list of things to do, but mainly I wanted to check out the Ruroni Kenshin exhibit of original art. Greg had pointed this out to me, and it indeed was fascinating seeing the genesis of this manga which made Nobuhiro Watsuki a celebrity in Japan. The art style is fairly distinctive, which didn’t carry very well into the anime version, which I had watched in Japan back in 1998, and I kind of regret not getting into the manga which is no doubt superior.

Even though it was only about 11am, and the concert seated at 1PM, I soon found out that Greg and others were waiting in line already for the event. I wandered over there as soon as I could. Again, I was eating rice balls, and I offered up some of my distinctive Japanese food (Calorie Mate) and Northwest kale products. Not a lot of takers, to be honest.

Seating began, and it was a little bit stupid. You could not select your seat, you were told where to seat, and you might be sitting at the end of a row and be looking into a curtain. Fortunately, I had pretty good visibility from the side, but being further back would have been better.

Chiaki Ishikawa sang her very short set list, only about 4 songs. I imagined, if I came from Japan to Baltimore, I’d like to at least fill an hour. She does sing and sound identical to her recordings, though her last piece felt a touch off the beat. Some people remarked the visuals (projected screen images) were distracting and worthless, but I quite enjoyed the psychedelic experience.

And then began about a 20 minute intermission, where I was concerned I’d be too distracted by my own thoughts (or others) to enjoy Yoko Kanno’s brief concert. There’s something I hate about going to a concert, where I habitually fume about the people around me rustling program guides—I really would prefer it if program guides were never handed out—coughing, chatting, or making conversation. And then I get so distracted by others’ lack of attention I lose attention myself. (Fortunately, everybody stayed quiet when they were supposed to. It was almost eerily silent at times.)

So this “Piano Me” event was introduced by Kanno’s producer, whose command of English was not great, but we got the gist. Apparently, it was not just her playing the piano. We were encouraged to get rowdy at times, and in fact encouraged to sing-along to songs we knew. (Though I’m quite the fan, I have not yet perfectly memorized the lyrics to any of her songs, and I had serious doubts most of the audience had.)

If you hadn’t seen her before, the remarkable thing about Yoko Kanno is her presence. She comes on stage with bunny ears, kicks off her shoes, and starts playing some sort of intricate version of Tank! And the piano is covered in some sort of white protective robe and she’s banging away like the insane composer we know she is. Of course the audience cheers and it’s lots of hooting and hollering until we get to some quieter pieces.

Then the visuals kick in: The white on the piano serves as a projection screen. All sorts of odd computer generated animations and such appear during different pieces. And by different, it is like she spontaneously comes up with melodies from pieces spanning 25 years. We do get a couple of sing along songs, i.e. The Real Folk Blues, and Gravity—fortunately in English. And the audience does what they are supposed to do, yet it would have helped to have a cheat-sheet, or at least know in advance what songs to memorize, because I can manage the first verse of The Real Folk Blues, I didn’t know recall the words for the second verse.

And then it’s over. The concert ends with a song from Cowboy Bebop, Wo Qui Non Con, about somebody losing their puppy, sung first in Japanese, then in French. On screen, there’s a video of a white plastic bag floating over Tokyo, and the credits roll. (We do get an encore, and get to sing the national anthem.) I pondered if this was really the only such performance, seeing all the work going into this one hour, there was no repeat? But that is the insanity of a true artist.

I had hoped to pick up some merchandise for “Piano Me,” as I was leaving totally empty handed this convention: No signatures, nothing bought, nothing but my badge and program guide, and this little plastic ticket. Alas, I had a flight back to Seattle in a few hours.

I got on the light rail and coincidentally there were a number of staffers, con veterans, and myself. And so there was an opportunity to talk shop, talk about guests we’ve met, things we’ve heard, and ponder exactly why we spend all this time volunteering our weekends away for all these different events. I half-heartily suggested we start a CA (Convention Anonymous) support group, which got a good laugh.

Joining me on the ride to the airport was Stein, a friendly Asian guy, who I met through Greg. We happened to be leaving from the same terminal as me, and so it seemed appropriate to have one final meal together. I finally ate something distinctively from Baltimore, a giant blue crab cake. I found out Stein’s attending Anime Revolution in Vancouver this weekend, so I plan to meet up. (As he’s arriving early, I suggested he rent a bicycle and explore the city. He didn’t seem enthusiastic about this idea, but this is exactly the best thing to do in Vancouver.)

Then it was off to North Carolina, then Seattle, as I struggled to keep my electronics charged on my 8 hour journey.


About eliasross

Blogging before the word "blog" was invented.
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