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Calgary’s Otafest is as strong as ever for its 25th anniversary

By Ansharah Shakil, May 25 2023—

This May long weekend saw downtown covered with elaborately dressed cosplayers and enthusiastic dance mobs for Otafest — Calgary’s largest Japanese anime and pop culture festival. Otafest made its in-person return in 2022 after two consecutive cancellations and excitement over its re-emergence continued to linger this year. 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of Otafest, cementing its long history as an event that celebrates anime lovers. This year’s Otafest was as successful as ever, featuring anime screenings, industry panels, an exhibitor hall filled with local vendors and casual or professional contests and concerts.  

Throughout the weekend, a wide array of special guests were offered. This included local drag artists, as well as musical guests like Windrise, a cosplay band. Numerous voice actors for famous anime were available for conversations and autographs. In attendance were Brendan Hunter of Hunter X Hunter and Erica Lindbeck, who played Emira Blight in The Owl House and Daki in Demon Slayer among other roles. Notable cosplayers had booths and panels, like cosplayer Shellanin, whose love for anime and disappointment in the underrepresentation of Black and dark-skinned people in cosplay and anime led her to redesign cosplay characters with the hashtag #CurlyCosplay. Shellanin held a guest panel to explain the different styling methods she uses for curly hair in cosplay.

Community content is a major part of Otafest, a fact reflected through numerous programs that focused on the anime community and cultural values. There were introductory programs for people beginning to venture into anime or cosplaying, and even lessons in Japanese. There was also entertainment in the form of light-hearted “dad battles”, Disney sing-alongs, or Dance Dance Revolution games. Official Otafest content comprised gaming tournaments, showcases, and AMV contests, like the 25th Anniversary Best of Otafest AMV Contests or the 25th edition of Guess That Anime Song. Anime screenings were abundant throughout the weekend, creating a space for fans to watch old favourites or experience new anime with like-minded people. Fairly obscure anime were shown, but popular ones, like Season 6 of My Hero Academia, were as well. 

These sorts of activities showcase the genuine, open-minded and passionate space for fans created by Otafest. There was a positive atmosphere in activities that might make people self-conscious, like K-Pop dance battles, and an encouragement to join in regardless of skill — or watch and learn if you weren’t comfortable with participating. 

Local creators got to show off their creative work at the Exhibitor Hall and Artist Alley, presenting unique merchandise. Within the Exhibitor Hall were food options, and because Otafest’s location sprawls through Stephen Avenue, Calgary’s well-loved pedestrian mall, lunch could also be enjoyed from across the street. The festival’s pop-up conbini, which hosted a number of Japanese snacks, made it tempting to spend all of your money there instead, even if their flavoured mochi ice cream ran out before the end of the day.  

The festival also stayed socially conscious of the many important issues surrounding artists and minorities in the community. With these panels, entertainment was not forgotten, but education was pushed to the forefront as socially important topics were discussed. 

An example is Larissa Crawford’s Anti-Racism Panel, in which she discussed how creative work creates transferable and valuable skills that are related to culture. The panel delved into the enduring legacy of a colonized and capitalist experience of time where productivity is seen as more important than honouring our bodies and the seasons, as Crawford put it. Crawford advocated for guests to recognize how racism persists in daily life, and to heal by placing value in creative pursuits and hobbies. 

The hundreds of cosplayers at the festival illustrated the truth of Crawford’s words. Riding alongside suits on the train and walking in crowds throughout downtown were unique iterations of anime characters. Each room in the convention centre held someone in Howl Pendragon’s distinctive jacket, or a maid or butler fully decked out in costume aside from their nondescript sneakers.

The delight fellow fans felt at seeing someone dressed as one of their favourite characters expresses the connection between strangers at Otafest. Cosplayers gracefully acquiesced to pictures, struck poses and complimented others. With so many talented cosplayers and dedicated costumes, it’s no wonder Otafest has four contests for cosplayers. The legacy of Otafest is its community. The many activities it offers make it one of Calgary’s most vibrant summer festivals, lighting up the city through a celebration of something others might see as trivial, but Otafest placed importance upon it.

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