Every year, the University of Calgary is surrendered to a troop of flamboyant characters in colourful costumes. This takeover is affectionately known as Otafest.
Otafest premiered in 1999 as a non-profit Japanese animation film festival hosted by the Dedicated Otaku Anime club and expanded over the years to feature Cosplay and talent competitions, fashion shows, live action role-playing and an endless list of obscure, but loved events and panels.
"I'm impressed, honestly," says Constantine Vlahos, president of the campus Anime Club. "It started off as 30 or 40 people and now it's well over 4,000."
As it grew, Otafest became its own organization, the Otafest Film and Cultural Planning Committee. The committee is made up of volunteers who, for one weekend each year, experience a curious addiction to sleep deprivation while organizing a conglomeration of passionate fans and dedicated media guests.
The only way a proper picture beyond this introduction can possibly be shown, is by reciting my own tales from the past weekend. Enter exhaustion and exhilaration.
Thursday Night: The Final Countdown
The best way to prepare for a weekend of Cosplay is obviously to stay up all night finishing your costume while blasting music from your favourite anime.
After years of relying on close friends completely immersed in Japanese culture, I finally took the dive -- I picked a costume and made it myself. This taught me that spray-paint should not be used in a windowless basement, and that showing up to Otafest already sleep deprived is really just an exciting rite of passage into almost religious devotion to anime.
Friday Evening: It's Finally Here
Wandering along the registration line has always been a consistent sign of the devotion of Otafest attendees. For the past few years, the line has extended from the science theatres foyer all the way into the administration building for the entire weekend. With attendance originally expected to break 5,000 people this year, it's no wonder that everyone wanted their classic white and pink wristband early.
As a first-time volunteer, I didn't miss waiting in line, but I certainly felt a pang of nostalgia over hours of missed spontaneous role-playing with complete strangers. Luckily this feeling did not last long, as I ushered friends off to the opening ceremonies. It is always amusing to see organizers try to rile up the already devout and animated Friday con-goers. It certainly didn't take much to get ear-splitting cheers out for the special guest introductions.
Vlahos was happy with how the event unfolded.
"I think it's a lot better here than at most conventions, just because we have more people volunteering and all the major events requiring volunteer effort tent to run smoother," he says.
The excitement of having Todd Haberkorn (voice actor for Ouran High School, xxxHolic and Soul Eater), Michelle Ruff (voice actress for Bleach, Chobits, Code Geass and Street Fighter) and Scott Ramsoomair (creator, writer and artist of VGCats) at the convention, was impossible to miss.
Saturday: A Little Bit of Cosplay in the Sun
Saturday was arguably the most exciting day for Otafest-goers, featuring the masquerade and cosplay competition. These two events were once one and the same, scattering those wanting to exhibit their costumes and sewing skills amongst the performances of skits, songs, dances and an assortment of other entertaining and sometimes interpretive acts.
It takes a lot of guts to put together a high calibre performance and get up in costume in front of 600-plus people and judges.
Sunday: Awards Night Extravaganza
The day started with an unsuccessful attempt to sign up for Cosplay Chess, an increasingly popular event, but it ultimately allowed me to instead participate in the Super Smash Bros. Brawl tournament.
On a bit of a high from my success in the games room, I grabbed some quick lunch on a packed Prairie Chicken hill full of screaming cosplayers and photographers.
Otafest organizers aren't expecting the event to grow significantly in the future, despite attracting higher-profile guest stars every year.
"[The] Anime industry had its little bubble about five years ago and now it's dying down," says Shawn Hansen, Otafest's special events coordinator.
He went on to say that large conventions, while popular, are "just a fairly niche thing."
I have never before been so impressed with the quality of performers attracted to the once small-time competition, the Otafest Idol finals. As a first time judge, I was proud to see them through to the finals. It was a unanimous decision to award Maria Rosvick with first place for her chilling performance of "Hemisphere" from RahXephon.
The most notable award recipient of the night was Mary Jane Brown, dressed as Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion, placing first in advanced for the Masquerade and finally winning the coveted title of Miss Otafest after eight years.
Looking back at the five years I attended Otafest as a guest, I never before felt so entwined in the unique experience that is an anime convention. The long weekend came to an end, I was (and still am) physically, emotionally and mentally drained. It's not hard to become caught up in the fanaticism.