We spent Saturday in the Baltimore Convention Center at the national gathering of devotees of Japanese pop culture: a subset of America that also includes my son.
But not my wife and I. We came to accompany him, and to people-watch, and to buy a few clever tchotchkas, and to slip out to the Inner Harbor for a few hours on a lovely summer day.
At least half the 25,000 or so people at the convention were in costume. And I mean costume: They were dressed as anime or video game characters -- characters that only ever existed on paper or in pixels and in most cases were not based on genuine possibilities of human anatomy. Given that, the effort, and the result, of the costumers was remarkable. High school boys lugged painted plywood swords longer than they were.
Well, the Japanese guy in black vinyl hotpants, straight out of the East Village, didn't seem to be a character from anything but his own mind. But he was having a ball and he was fun to watch.
What made it all become such a joy, though, was the sheer exhilaration of people who, 363 days of the year, are more or less pariahs in their wider social settings by the mere fact of their fixation with something not especially esteemed by the rest of us. And here they were, suddenly among a sea of people who shared their definitions of a good time, of quality, oif cool.
It's a universal experience; you don't have to be an anime geek. If you're human and halfway interesting, you're going to geek out about something. I don't know enough about Japanese animation to participate in Otakon on that level, but I know how it feels when I finally meet someone who can really talk passionately about, say, old poetry.
It's like you thought up the best joke in the world, but it works because of a pun that crosses Medieval Greek and Swahili. And then you finally meet someone else who knows both languages and can get it.
Saturday I saw a college-age guy wearing an outrageous red pleather body suit covered in black straps. He had the kind of schlubby, stubbly, pale look of a boy who's spent too much time hunkered in front of the video console. A group of very buff, very tough-looking young black men walked by, in costumes that looked to be from some futuristic gangster-style game. And one of them went right up to pleather man and was like, "wow, great costume, dude; you're _____ from _____!"
I don't remember the exact reference now. But the admirer was genuinely admiring it and the pleather guy was genuinely pleased that someone recognized his character, which evidently was an obscure one. They did the hood handshake-chest bump thing and chatted for a while and parted friends. I watched the whole interaction and remembered what life looks like on my block in the city at home, and I thought, "you know, this is a lot better in here than out there."
Then there were the girls. Yes, this stuff is hot with the ladies, too. The whole Japanese pop culture library is full of sexy girls of all sorts, from sullen Victorian goth lolitas to smiling superheroines who beat up bad girls with high kick moves. And they do them in costumes that, if a real teen girl wore them, she couldn't raise her hand to drink a glass of water without risking indecent exposure.
And there they were, those real girls, with real anatomies, pulling off the costumes with varying degrees of success but doing a fine job overall in bridging the gap between fantasy and reality. Exposure was only occasionally a problem. And the most frequnt offender was the Princess Leia costume, which didn't really belong there, topically.
I watched a pale skinny thing in impossible heels, black thigh-highs, a flouncy mini-skirt up to here, a cropped top and clip-on cat's ears get asked to pose for picture after picture as she walked across the hall. She was the star of the room; both men and women wanted her to pose for them or with them. In part because she had a cute little tush, but also because she got the costume and the look just right. I felt pretty sure in two weeks she was going to be just another second clarinet in band camp, but here, for once, she was the goddess. And I thought, "you know, this is a lot better in here than out there."
[But word up, little princesses, when you wear that costume, and especially the heels, you gotta own them. Lose that slumpy posture; and don't clomp around like a linebacker in drag.]
When Amy and I took our lunch break out to the Inner Harbor, we were surprised to see the number of Otakon types who had left the res and gone into town to eat -- in their costumes. I wondered if they had forgotten about the invisible barrier between that world and this one. Or maybe they were deliberately pushing it. Maybe that was part of the fun; anyway I felt a little nervous on their behalf. It was like someone had knocked over the ant farm on the living room carpet.
The Orioles were hosting the Yankees, and Camden Yards is just across Howard Street from the convention center. So the Inner Harbor also was overrun with pregaming Yankees fans. So many that the taverns pulled down their drink specials. The baseball fans had a bit of a struggle trying to comprehend this. Even if one of them had a vague idea what they were seeing, explaining it was another matter. In line at Starbucks:
Husband: It's anime.
Wife: Annie Mae?
We sat on a restaurant balcony and heard the passing remarks by the "normal" people about the oddballs and the freak show. That's when I realized where my instinctive sympathies lay.
Here were pudgy middle-aged men and families getting ready to sit in a seat and watch other people play a game, idolizing people they had no real connection with (including a lot of "Matsui" jerseys) in a sport it would be impossible for most of them to play. They came hundreds of miles, dressed up like their favorites characters.
[At least one sportswriter also noted the odd juxtaposition.]
And they were sneering and pointing at the oddballs from Otakon? By what right is conventional flakiness entitled to sneer?