Last Friday, visitors to the University of Calgary stepped into a world of cartoon-faced plush toys, Japanese rock music and life-size video game characters.
Otafest, an annual weekend celebration of Japanese anime culture held at the U of C, is more interactive than most pop culture conventions. The 2011 festival, held from May 20 to May 22, included exclusive screenings, artwork displays, video games, Japanese music and panel discussions.
"It's really great to participate in such an extensive display of anime culture, especially in Calgary," said Chen Wu, an annual attendee of Otafest. According to him, the appreciation of anime also "goes so much deeper than what most people think."
That deeper interaction includes cosplay (costume play), in which fans, young and old alike, dress up and act as their favourite anime, movie or video game characters (or food, in some cases). Die-hard cosplayers compete in events, costume contests and, of course, video game tournaments. They are also more than happy to have their pictures taken.
Visitors to the university last weekend were quite surprised (in a good way, of course) to see a multitude of elaborately dressed individuals staging mock battles in the courtyard.
Other highlights from this year's festival included appearances by The Fool, a Japanese electro-rock or "J-Rock" band, and Thwomp, a local band that plays renditions of retro video game music. Each group performed two concerts over two days in both the MacEwan Ballroom and outdoors.
If you were looking to pick up some sick swag, the vendors' room boasted items catering to nerds of all types, from Pokemon cards, SNES games and manga, to PVC figurines, posters and quirky clothing. Anime artists and enthusiasts possess a penchant for making anything cute by sticking a poorly-drawn ":3" emoticon-type face onto it. I found the ":3" face on plush bacon strips and stuffed animals, as well as on the faces of all the avid anime fans presumably finding their Japanese art paradise.
The hold that anime and manga subculture had on the people of Calgary during this weekend was markedly impressive, but hardly surprising. Even if the success of the event itself wasn't based on its loyal following, it would still attest to the far-reaching influence of East Asian art culture.
Otafest combines video games, fashion, music, film and television, food, merchandise and even dance into its celebration. Its multi-faceted approach to entertainment and its unbridled expression of Japanese culture make Otafest the successful art festival that it is.