Orobouros.net @ Katsucon 11
Location: Arlington, VA
Venue: Marriott Crystal Gateway & Sheraton Crystal City
Date: February 18th - 20th, 2005
Attendance: ~ 5700
Photos: 287
Movies: 1

Location

After a six years at the Hyatt Crystal City, Katsucon had outgrown the common ground of many fan conevntions, including the sci-fi conevntion Shore Leave and the now huge Otakon. The location was still optimal, though, located right outside of the nation's capitol, Washington, DC, and only a short shuttle ride away from DCA, a major airport. Since many fans are willing to drive as far a single tank of gas will take them, Katsucon could tap fans from the local metropolitan area as well as as far north as New York, and the many college students from the Baltimore and Richmond areas.

Though the Hyatt's facilities were spacious, Katsucon needed more space than was practically available in the Crystal City area. So, she moved up into two adjacent hotels. The Marriott held the "main" convention facilities, with gaming rooms and other more specific functions taking place over there. Despite being adjacent, the walk between the hotels was still well above insignificant, and together with the cold weather probably kept many people isolated where they were. Since the practical goal of any convention is to bring as many people together as possible, Katsucon slightly failed it this respect. However, the space was needed, and keeping relatively much space open so people don't feel too crowded is very important. Next year, Katsucon will be held in a single hotel, so the problem will be solved.
Unfortunately, the Marriott was undergoing some construction and renovation, narrowing the main lobby into a small hallway. The lower level consisted of just the hallway leading to one set of elevators, while the other lead into the main convention area, with another set of elevators for rooms in the other tower. One set of escalators ran from the registration lobby area up to the second floor at the end of artist's alley and a buffet-style restaurant. Going through the convention area, one passed the artists' alley, the merchant hall -- slightly down a side hall -- video rooms, another artist's alley, and then the main events and panel rooms at the end. In front of the panel rooms a set of escalators went back down to the registration level. In many ways, the layout worked very nicely. I like very linear layouts, so having the convention centered around the long hallway was a plus. Additionally, some smaller areas branched off to the side, containing couches and sofas and tables, something every experienced convention goer appriciate. Even the lower hallway, which didn't really contain anything, had a small lobby which often had cosplayers posing for photo opportunities. It made people go around in circles sometimes, and was a little disorienting until one got used to the layout. Overall, not a bad place for a convention.

Probably the most memorable part of the location, as well as the most useful, was the underground mall connected to the hotel. This wasn't a mall across the street, or a shopping center next to the hotel. This was a full-blown mall with fast food and full service restaurants, boutiques on carts, convenience stores, and all the other staples of a shopping center. The McDonalds was always in demand, and the various other restaurants were usually in service as well. The Rite-Aid was also a boon, with fairly reasonably priced snacks, drinks, and minor first aid products. It was all connected though underground tunnels, so not once did anybody have to venture outside into the elements. Of course, the mall wasn't connected to just the Marriott, but all the surrounding building and businesses, too. And even though it was less frequented by non-attendees on the weekend, it still lead to an interesting mix of cosplayers in particular and onlookers ranging from quietly amused to visibly annoyed.
The only drawback of the proximity to the mall came in the later hours. Perhaps the Katsucon staff hadn't contacted the food court, or perhaps just not been able to convince them to stay open for extended hours. While it was open, they couldn't serve the food fast enough. Surely, the managers and owners were happy. But as the evening passed, attendees get hungry, though the food court had already closed up shop. Everybody loses out. Of course, wise attendees will know where to look elsewhere for food, or supply their own. Two good meals a day is a must -- and don't forget it.

Atmosphere

Though still relatively small, the big anime conventions draw upwards of 20,000 people. Newer conventions, as well as those content to stay at a more manageable level, usually draw a few thousand. In between, Katsucon is big enough to host fairly major events, but not so big as to be overwhelming. After going to enough conventions, many attendees start to get accustomed to the many convention offerings, and cons become relatively commonplace. The masquerade is just another masquerade, the panels all feature the same topics, and so forth. Personally, I spent the bulk of the time taking photos and walking around. Many others I know did the same, but there was always a stream of people going off to the next thing, be it a panel, showing, or event. Conventions try to do the nearly impossible task of making everybody happy all the time; even if they only half succeed, it means a lot of enjoyment for everybody involved. The convention is what you make of it, so there's no excuse to use if you're not enjoying yourself. Sure, unrelated things can diminish your enjoyment, but that's hardly the convention's fault. Katsucon has been and still does a good job of providing plenty to do. It may not be to everybody's tastes, but they do make sure you can enjoy yourself if you try.

Nothing made more clear that everybody just wanted to enjoy themselves more than the mini-party going on Saturday night in front of the hotel. Many people, hot from attending the dance or just otherwise looking to cool off, found the chilly night air a welcome change. Since parties tend to get shut down once they get too fun (read: loud), the people have to go somewhere, and the lobby is the most obvious place. Since it would be too crowded due to construction, they went outside instead. Everybody there seemed quite happy, sharing stories or telling jokes. Ironically, the last place most people would probably have wanted to go to socialize was probably the best. The fresh, cold air kept people awake and alert despite being very early in the morning.

Most fans will take note of any national news story relating even peripherally to anime or manga fandom. Pandora's Cube had been at conventions and selling anime-related goods since the mid 90s, but made the national news in late 2004 when the Federal Bureau of Investigations stormed their three locations in the Washington, DC, area. Though they were suspected of piracy of video games, they worked as a anime and manga goods store, as well, and were known to many though their business. Well, they were back at Katsucon this year, though not in the merchant's hall. Along with artist's alley, they were running a table providing information about the legal and economic repercussions of software piracy. Part of a plea bargin? Part of a community service sentence? A show of good faith on their part, or was it just perhaps their new employment? Or maybe just an attempt to save face in the still fairly close knit fandom? [Correction: It seems the US Department of Justice has since made a statement on the issue.]

Yup, as big as cons are getting, they still seem pretty small. While most people would feel Pandora's Cube was in the wrong for blatant profiteering via piracy, American anime distributors are looking at fans and seeing similar behavior. Though the topic has been around since the earliest days of fansubbing, it's recently become a significant, important issue. The video game industry is worth close to $10,000,000,000 – yes, ten billion -- dollars a year, and is still considered a niche market. At less than a billion dollar's worth, the anime and manga market may still be falling underneath the Justice Department's interest. The market grows, and digisubbing is intricately connected to the internet. It may not be long before the Digital Millennium Copyright Act turns towards anime. While the legality is certainly less clear cut than the Pandora's Cube case, with pressure from Japanese studios growing and politicians looking for the next good target to prove their rightousness, fandom may be facing a small crisis. However, if Katsucon is any evidence, the fandom is dispersed enough to stay out of trouble, but potent enough to come together for a common goal when needed.

Impression

Since I first went to Katsucon in 1998, I've always enjoyed it. It's never been too much of any one thing. Some nice events, some good cosplay, some time to relax, and some time to party, but it's never felt too rushed or too busy. This seems to be pretty much what most fans want, aside from free Pocky and an endless supply of Mountain Dew. Over the last few years, mostly during her stay at the Crystal City Marriott, some people's attitude towards Katsucon was that it was stagnating, without new ideas or at least improvements to some of the common convention problems like long lines, bad seating, and scheduling mishaps. This year, I doubt anybody will still think that. Though the change in venue to a split location undergoing construction brought it's own problems, programming was plenty, as nearly every event had lines forming before the doors opened, and the atmosphere was vibrant with plenty of opportunities to have fun. Fans of jrock music got a big treat with a performance by Psycho le Cemu, a big ticket event that everybody could enjoy. There may have been disappointments here and there, but Katsucon is certainly making its way towards bigger and better things.

But is that good news? The short answer is yes. With anime and manga popularity growing, there will be no shortage of smaller, newer conventions aiming to do no more than get a bunch of fans together for a weekend. Bigger crowds and higher popularity will help bring over more and more guests and produce more and more events. Even if the fandom bubble bursts in a few years, enough people will be drawn in to keep it continuously viable.
The long answer? Well, maybe. Cons are growing more and more, but it seems to be outward now, but not really upward. Upward growth is taking the existing elements and improving on them; showing more anime, getting more guests, and so forth. Outward growth is expansion into other interests, such as cosplay, music, cinema, etc. For the fandom to sustain itself, both kinds of growths are necessary. For a long time, about a decade, the fandom really only had upward growth. Your basic fan was the college-aged male, probably also at least peripherally interested in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. “Girls with guns and mechs” was all the fandom was working with for a while, so the few conventions at the time capitalized on that. Once the fandom diversified (thanks to the heavily criticized placement on television, but also to the introduction of the internet to the general population), it started to grow outward, too. Comedy, shoujo, and sports anime and manga started becoming major elements of the fandom, and once the expansion started, it grew on its own. Now, we have conventions with strong support from Jrock fans and Hong Kong cinema fans. While the upward growth has benefited from the outward growth, we may soon find the fandom has outgrown it's own stability.

In the industry, we can see things starting to break apart. Licenses are no longer developed due to lack of profitability. Demographics for sales of manga and DVDs are surprisingly dissimilar. As this translates into conventions, we see subgroups of fans developing; some visit conventions just to shop, some just to draw, some just to see their favorite band play. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but convention organizers ought to look not just a year ahead, but three or four, and see if what works now will still be a good idea then. This is all not surprising as the fandom becomes more mainstream, but conventions can have quite an influence on fans' interests. So, to bring the discussion full circle, Katsucon is doing well for now, and probably will in the future, too. Small cons will always be able to sustain themselves on relatively niche interests, and the big cons have enough momentum to keep going as they are. But the medium cons should take the opportunity to help balance the fandom's growth. If Otakon could get Shoji Kawamori in 1998 with half the attendees Katsucon has, I bet with a bit of effort and some good ideas, Katsucon could see some really interesting guests in the near future. In short, the musical guests theme has had its run, and has been great. But let's find something new to get excited about.

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Photos & content © 2005 Oliver Oberg