Anime Boston Commentary
Spring has come around again. For geeks that marks the opening of "convention season," an annual string of major genre gatherings that now seems to extend even longer than the Major League Baseball season. In turn, this marks the annual time where I go casual for a column and talk about my experience at a particular anime convention. After missing its inaugural, for five years, I have attended Anime Boston, the largest anime convention of the American North East. A lot of this coverage is going to be a reaction rather than straight reporting. It was an exciting, memorable event and not just because of the arrests... Anime conventions are often an occasion for fans to dress up in the mode of characters from anime or other popular culture. American fandom has reappropriated the Japanese loan word "cosplay", a conjunction of "costume play" for this activity. If this wasn't something I largely ignore, I would have taken some photos to attach to the column. Because of the martial nature of many popular anime, video games, manga, ect, weapons get to be an issue. People look to bring replicas and home made equivalents of everything from massive fantasy swords to realistic fire arms. From its third year on, Anime Boston has taken place at the Hynes Convention Center, which is located in a high end commercial district, and attached to a high end mall. It's actually adjacent to an in-use church as well. Several anime fans were parading around, outside the convention center with realistic guns. The cops did not like this and decided to apprehend these folks. One of the attendees decided to react by running. No one was shot, but one has to assume that bad things happened. After that, the police decided to keep an eye on the convention. I don't know how these people were dressed, but I choose to think of them in the attire of the "spy" from video game Team Fortress 2. It's a rather uninspired chose that entails wearing a business jacket and black mask. While little news came of the event, it did illustrate the state of anime in America. As an area of interest, anime in North America is thriving. As an industry, anime is ailing. The influx of newer fans share the old school's obsession with collection. In the case of the older fans, who might have acquired their passion in the tape trading days, the time of VHS/sci-fi channel, or early DVD/Cartoon Network, this collector's obsession was informed by scarcity. For a while, anime was rare, expensive and/or hard to come by, so there was a push to get what you could get. For the newer fans, the collector's urges are informed by mass availability; not just the shelves of anime DVDs being released weekly, but the torrents (pun intended) of anime that is illegally distributed online. This mass availability provokes a sort of Pokemon got-to-catch-them-all consumerism. The chief issues that the anime industry is facing becomes how to capture the attention of these fans and how to sell to them. Anime Boston conventions attempted to balance the two fandoms. '06 ran Kaiju Big Battel at the same time as the fan made anime music video contest. '07 had a large contingent of the voice actors responsible for the English language dub of popular anime Full Metal Alchemist, and had Yasuhiro Imagawa, director of Giant Robo and G Gundam, Hiroshi Iwata, producer of Macross: Do You Remember Love, Junji Nishimura, director of the Ranma 1/2 OVA, Kyo Kara Maoh and Windy Tales and Kenji Terada, writer for the Kimagure Orange Road anime, the Kinnikuman anime, Southern Cross, and the first Final Fantasy games. Anime Boston '08 was an event that was largely tailored to excite the newer fans. While there were a number of panels dedicated to considering and exploring the breath of anime, the reality was that these were not as prominent or as well attended as Gaia Online or North American voice actor panels. 10's of people were present for a presentation that compared the first episode of Astroboy and Tekkon Kinkreet, then the room filled to capacity with hundreds for a screening of the Death Note anime that runs on Cartoon Network. This year's convention hosted a number of English language voice actors including Christopher Ayres, Greg Ayres, Colleen Clinkenbeard, Aaron Dismuke, Todd Haberkorn, Monica Rial, Michael Sinterniklaas, and Brad Swaile, as well as producer/ADR directors Tom Wayland and David Williams. Rather than host any Japanese anime creative talent, the convention apparently focused its resources on attracting musical guests: LUV AND RESPONSE, tokyo pinsalocks, MC Fronkalot, and the pillows, the rock band best known for providing the sound track to FLCL. Gauging by the level of interest and excitement that greeted the pillows, this was evidently a right approach for creating the type of experience the majority of the audience was looking for. Anime Boston is not the first convention to heavily leverage musical guests, and, it seems like the trend is going to continue. In fact, Anime conventions have become a platform for Japanese music acts to perform for an interested American audience. Anime Expo 2007 featured concerts by S.K.I.N., Anna Tsuchiya, ORESKABAND, Chiaki Ishikawa, and Halko Momoi. The upcoming Otakon has announced that they will host anime staple JAM Project. The older anime fans might be wowed about the opportunity to hear someone like Imagawa talk about something like Giant Robo, but there is a short list of anime creators that would excite the newer anime fans. Yet, most anime followers would leap at the chance to see an act like the pillows perform. Despite the demonstrations that the logistics of hosting these concerts still need to be worked out, it certainly looks like music will continue to be the center piece of more American anime conventions. The convention's organizers state that 14,339 were at the convention. The figure includes all staff, guests, dealers, attendees, etc. This suggests a number of things... If someone says it took a lot of resources to host the pillows, I'm inclined to believe them. As thrilling and enthusiastic as this performance was, I don't get the impression that performing in front of a bunch of cosplayers was one of the band's aspirations. If it took a lot of time, money and effort to get the pillows at Anime Boston, that ~15K figure and the crowd reaction suggests that it was a good return on investment. And, the attendance figure suggests that anime in America, and globally for that matter, is not hurting for lack of interest.
Considering the convention...You know the proverb "I had no shoes and complained, until I met a man who had no feet?" I was a bit perturbed about the discrepancies between how I was told press registration would work and how it actually worked on the ground. Like many things at the convention, it seemed to take a degree of aggressiveness to get through. Though it was mildly unpleasant, if that was all that happened, it wouldn't have warranted mention. Then, I heard from other press people, such as Anime Pulse's east coast correspondent that they hadn't happened upon the correct spot to engage the registration beast and consequently were buffeted from desk to desk in a game of staffer ping pong. Other, later arriving press that I spoke to hit more burdensome waits and confusion. I was a bit disapproving of how press registration was handled. I didn't appreciate how a hall was not prepared for MIT Professor Ian Condry and the Japanese Consulate's presentation on Astroboy and Tekkon Kinkreet. I wasn't impressed by how the information desk informed us that press kits were available in the con-ops room, then the con-ops room people pointed to a table and told us to take an unlabelled CDR from a spindle. Based strictly on my experience, Anime Boston had some problems with disorganization, but that staff members were adept at reacting to and handling such problems; almost that they were impressively skilled at compensating. To me, it was the stuff of minor gripes. It wouldn't and didn't shade my personal impression too negatively. I noticed the attendee's lines and took note that, apparently, a considerable crowd had shown up. Late in the day I noticed that some of the snaking lines were consisting of un-badged people, and noted with some surprise that people were still trying to get registered. Apparently, there was a bit of a fiasco with registration. People were waiting for 4, 8, if you believe the accounts 10 or 12 hours to get into a three day anime convention. Results included a number of livid attendees and red faced organizers. A "formal statement regarding the registration line" can be read here. There were a number of exacerbating factors. A regularly used registration room in the adjoined hotel was booked. New software was put into place late in the planning process. Anime Boston frequently announces its guests close to the convention. the pillows were announced 5 weeks away, days before pre-registration closed. The convention was held on Easter weekend, meaning that many attendees could take Good Friday off and be present early for the first day. Still, it is astonishing that this could happen. If reports were correct, and there were as few self registration terminals as people say, even if there wasn't a bump in the number of attendees, the math and the logistics had to result in painfully long waits. Organizing these conventions is a year long endeavor for some people. Regardless of the list of reasons that conventions handle registration the way they do, fumbling such a critical stage of the convention experience reflects badly on Anime Boston.
Considering the Industry...The years were one could walk away from a convention with a list of anime titles newly licensed for North American release are long over. At this point, it is a good year if the number of businesses no longer attending the convention does not drop precipitously. TOKYOPOP is continuing to release their mix of Japanese manga and OEL titles, but they haven't been to Anime Boston in a few years. North American anime/manga distributor Central Park Media marked their public farewell to the industry at Anime Boston 2006. After exiting the convention, they did not entirely close their doors, but they have not done much distributing of anime or manga since. At Anime Boston '07, Geneon USA announced the acquisition of the title The Familiar of Zero aka Zero no Tsukaima. It's never been released in North America because the Geneon USA branch of the company subsequently closed its sales, marketing and distribution operations. At Anime Boston '07, Bandai Visual USA, not to be confused with Bandai Entertainment, was answering questions concerning why the company was releasing subtitled only anime at prices significantly higher than other companies who were releasing bilingual DVDS. This year, they pulled out at the last minute, having indefinitely shelved their releases of Shigofumi: Letters from the Departed, true tears, and sola, with former president Tatsunori Konno recalled to Japan to assume the role of Bandai Visual's General Manager of the Business Support Group and Shinsuke Hori taking his place. Bandai Entertainment had a presence at the convention. They had a panel and a booth. They promoted Code Geass, a mecha anime with designs by hit manga creation team CLAMP, schedule to air on Cartoon Network starting April 26, and Lucky Star, a co-release with Kadokwa Picture USA that aims to serve as a spiritual successor to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, featuring cute girls who are die hard geeks. They announced a new license of the anime Rocket Girls, and that The Girl Who Leapt Through Time would receive a limited theatrical run before its DVD release. Bandai Entertainment hardly floods the market with releases these days, but with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, they are releasing something significant, with Lucky Star, they are releasing potent anime fanservice, and with Code Geass, they are releasing something that will get some exposure and might have some cross-over appeal. FUNimation had a presence at the convention. They had a panel and a booth. They promoted xxxHoLiC, a new horror anthology from CLAMP that ties into the fantasy series Tsubasa Chronicles. They reiterated the online announcement that they had licensed fantasy action Claymore. They spoke to the experimental release of Aquarion, which is packing half the series in a DVD box set. More than anything, they looked stable. A few new titles such as BALDR FORCE EXE Resolution are coming up, along with more Dragon Ball Z re-releases, under the philosophy that "there are new nine year old boys every day." The take-way was that if you like what you get from FUNimation, you're going to get more of it, with maybe a few experimental tweaks. Media Blasters/Anime Works had a booth and screened their new release Kite: Liberator. Manga publisher Vertical had a booth. Look forward to an ambitious release of Osamu Tezuka's medical thriller Black Jack from the publisher. Their release of Tezuka's Dororo is coming up soon. Expect a piece on the title from AICN Anime next week. And, if you're into fantasy, check out their release of Guin Saga. Masks of the title's panther faced hero were handed out and all over the convention. Specialty manga publishers Drama Queen, LLC, Yaoi Press, LLC and Yuricon/ALC Publishing had booths. Then, there is ADV Films. After talking to people in similar capacities to my own from other enthusiast press outlets... After trying to talk to the company's convention presence David Williams.. if anyone knows what to expect from this anime/manga publisher, they probably aren't outside the circle of the company itself and its partners. There was an exercise with ADV Manga that played out starting in the 2003-2004 manga boom when the company had 79 announced titles, with 1000 licensed volumes of Japanese manga and Korean manwha. Then, the company stopped releasing these titles. For years their site listed them, but no consumer knew what to expect when. Then last summer, the company resumed two of the most popular, Yotsuba&! and Gunslinger Girls, but still, the consumer never picked up on what to expect when. Evidently something with ADV early this year. They stopped their anime club outreach program. They folded NewType USA in favor of PiQ, a magazine that mixes anime coverage with coverage of other forms of pop culture. Then they didn't ship a number of their anticipated releases, including Devil May Cry, Gurren Lagann, 5cm Per Second and Moonlight Mile. References to these titles were pulled from their site and a retracted piece on ICV2 suggested that there were problems with ADV's funding deal with Sojitz Corporation. Since then, these titles with the exception of the still indefinitely held Gurren Lagann have made it to the market in some form. 5cm Per Second and Devil May Cry aren't listed as in stock from Amazon, but they are around. Cards on the table... In these columns I have rationalized some of the manga release situation and some of the public silence earlier this year as business necessities. In '05, there was a Fortune article about how ADV actively works with the fan debate. It discussed their handling of the release of Ghost Stories, how they did an improv comedy redubbing of the anime, and then starting throwing rocks at the hornets' nest of fan communities to raise the level of agitation/interest. Since the beginning of '08 ADV Films has been a difficult company to deal with. If they were interested in setting fan expectations and publicly engaging the fans, they aren't now. Now, with fans looking for excuses not to purchase commercially release anime, they are making themselves look unpredictable and their products difficult to obtain. Nor are they actively selling their products. Do you know what Project Blue Earth SOS or Moonlight Mile are? Even if you make it through all of the University of Phoenix ads, you aren't going to find out on ADV's site. To my mind this is a company that has an image problem among its base of informed fan/consumers. For every Devil May Cry with mass appeal, there's a Kanon, Magikano and Wallflower that are special interest titles for anime fans. As a consumer and as a person who covers the company, I don't feel that I am entitled to anything from ADV that I haven't directly purchased. Yet, watching weird management is irritating. Listening to miscatagorizations of what may or may not have changed, and what may or may not be fine is more than irritating. I'm not saying that ADV has lied to me or anyone else, but I do get the impression that some dissembling has been going on. So, David Williams gets up in front of a body of anime consumers who aren't sure about the future of his company. This is the first major anime convention since the above mentioned troubles. The company just tossed out its anime club out reach program. The company just turned NewType USA into PiQ. And the guy says "suck bunny thinks you suck big time." I just said ADV consumers are informed, so maybe they've been to past Williams panels or otherwise heard his routine, so let's assume that a healthy quotient of the audience knew the significance of this in-joke. Regardless of whether you're in or out, "suck bunny thinks you suck big time" is not an endearing greeting at this point of the discourse. This is a prelude to a knock on the "internet rumor" that ADV was in trouble. Was the presumption that ADV could not ship scheduled releases, remove all mentions of said releases, not publicly address the radical change and that no one would talk about the swerve? It was a very controlled, driven talk. The quantity of audience questions helped, and Williams was able to trample through topics he did not want to discuss. Big Brother has nothing on Williams. It was all clear and all fact, even if it was not. Williams noted that ADV has been around for 16 years, and projected that the company will be around for at least the next 16. The troubles that lead to titles being pulled and re-added was described as "moving licenses around." There was no indication of when or if Gurren Lagann would be back, except to acknowledge that the anticipated mecha title is not on its way to store shelves in the immediate future. Williams, who has served as an ADR director and producer at ADV stated that his current capacity in the company entails "black ops." In other words, acquiring other licenses and companies. This was accompanied by a number of anecdotes about managing the value of anime. If you've ever been aggravated by the time to market on an ADV title like Karau: Phantom Memory, or in its day, Excel Saga, it may have been surprising to hear Williams assessment of the diminishing value of anime titles. He spoke about walking away from a license if the asking price was too high, then coming back at a later date with a lower offer if it still had not been licensed, sitting that fans move on. He poured cold water on the notion of ADV purchasing the titles that Geneon USA started releasing before that company ceased operations, saying that as every day goes by, resuming the releases becomes more difficult and nonlucrative for any new licensor. He also downplayed new media for distributing anime. Contradicting an Icv2 article that reported ADV "has chosen the Blu-ray high definition format and plans to begin releasing high def versions of some titles as early as this spring," Williams said that the format did not have a large enough footprint to warrant the move. On commercial digital distribution, he said that with only a small audience, such as himself, who were tech savvy enough to consume digitally distributed material, most consumers weren't ready to start watching digitally distributed content on their TV. Half season sets, like the ones that FUNimation are experimenting with, received a similar vote of no confidence. According to Williams, single volumes still sell. ADV's Anime Network video on demand service was mentioned several times, but any future changes or the degree to which the company plans on utilizing the service was not discussed. Other specific, concrete issues were similarly shelved. Asked about an announced offer to distribute a box for their Devil May Cry release, Williams said that details will be available at an undisclosed future date. Asked about when their website will be updated to reflect the company's current releases, Williams stated that he believed that the site was up to date. ADVFilms.com still links to NewType USA and lists out of print releases like Colorful but does not list titles such as Le Chevalier d'Eon, released in February '07, or Guyver, released November '06. The perspective articulated was that anime in North America will be sorted out as more companies leave the industry and the remaining companies release fewer titles. With fewer DVDs being released, the surviving titles will attract enough sales to sustain the survivors and even allow those companies to lower the DVD price below the standard $30.00 There was no "State of the Industry Panel" this year. Instead the assessment of the current moment in the commercial side of North America anime really came from voice actor Greg Ayres' (Hideki in Nerima Daikon Brothers, Koyuki in Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad) anti-bootlegging panel. Ayres was passionate, informed, and he made the link between North American anime piracy and the state of the global anime industry. The facts are: * interest in anime is continuing to rise in North America, it can be read in the attendance at anime conventions, traffic to anime content online, ect * sales of anime DVDs in North America are dropping year over year * illegal digital distribution of anime is prevalent * the American anime industry bailed out the Japanese anime industry in the crunch of the late 90's and since then, the Japanese anime industry has relied on support from the American industry * if the American industry fails, it will take the Japanese industry with it Ayres compiled a list of reasons/self-justifications from the audience as to why they consumer of illegally obtained digitally distributed anime, and then picked apart the reasoning. His example for the effects of illegal distributed anime was the difficulties faced by Shinichi Watanabe, a director of spirited comedies including Excel Saga, Nerima Daikon Brothers and Tenchi Muyo GXP, known through his leisure suit clad, afro sporting Nabeshin persona. Ayres related that Nabeshin has four ideas for anime series that he can not get produced due to the financial straights of the industry. Even if it was used ironically, I'd question at least one of Ayres' choices of phrasing, and I'd question the exact relationship between illegal digital distribution and the health of the industry. I agree with the entire list of facts bullet pointed above. The margins in anime production are so narrow, that any sort of income is critical. And, there have been excellent anime produced specifically because they could be sold in America. I also agree that there is not a moral justification for illegally distributed anime. I haven't been convinced that eliminating illegally distributed anime would be a boon to the industry. Putting aside ethics, I'm not interested in defending or condemning the distribution, I'd love to know a quantified estimate of the effect of piracy on anime sales. I want to know if there are any informed estimates concerning how many consumers of illegal downloads would turn to purchasing anime, versus how many would simply spend their time with another form of media. Illegally distributed anime is not helping Nabeshin get his next work produced, but is that what is killing the chance? Beyond the standard questions of why any artist does not get their next work produced, in this instances how does illegally distributed anime affect the sales of anime that is not widely available for illegal download? I did a non exhaustive search for Nabeshin's Nerima Daikon Brothers on a few obvious places: Pirate Bay, Mini nova, "nerima daikon torrent" on google, ect. I found episodes 1 and 3 unseeded. Is/has a release like that helped by this relative unavailability in light of the availability of other illegally distributed anime? There's a host of reasons why more anime is being produced than ever before, but the industry looks like it is on the brink of collapse. And I understand Ayres' approach to go full force at the issue that American fans/industry can target. However, for the sake of curiosity, as well as for the sake of wanting to know where the industry can go, I'd like to know what something concrete about what illegal digital distribution does to sales, especially in light of the other issues that I believe effect sales: * there's a glut of media choices * anime is no longer as novel in North America as it was in the late 90's * we're in the midst of a generation of video games that is commanding a hefty shares of the minds and wallets of many of the same people who are perspective anime fans. The person who was thrilled to discover Serial Experiments Lain will have trouble finding an equivalent in the crowd of current titles, and even if it is explicitly suggested, in many cases, due to that glut and the familiarity, the person will not make time for that anime. In talking about the industry in AICN Anime columns, I try to identify what is based on anecdotal evidence and what is an assumption. The industry might know their own sales figures, but in regards to the wider scope, how much of what they work off of is based on anecdotes and assumptions? This year's talks raised that question. A statement reiterated both in the Williams' and the Ayres' panel was that on DVD, the English dubbed audio is at least as valuable as the Japanese dubbed audio because in the VHS market, the English audio tapes outsold the Japanese audio tapes. Everyone, including the people who made these statements tired of the sub-versus-dubs debate years ago, and I'm not interested in drudging it up either, but what was perplexing was that the model used in evidence was that old. Beyond anime, the acceptance of subtitled media has changed radically since the point where DVD decisively overtook VHS. These statements that look to archaic facts gave me, if no one else, the impression that people in the know are less in the know than the outside observers thought.
The MusicIn general, music is not an arena that I'm prepared to cover. Beyond that, I missed the tokyo pinsalocks to cover Greg Ayres' bootleg talk and I missed nerdcore talent MC Frontalot to cover ADV Films. LUV AND RESPONSE were the opening act for the pillows. The crowd eventually did warm to "fashion icon" D's singing and boys "Life" & "Rofe", and girls "eLu" & "Any" dancing, but given that it was a strange act to see performed on a stage at an anime convention, given that they were not a known quantity with a prior investment, it took most of the set. Fans knew the pillow's music and the band covered plenty of the FLCL songs. They hit the guitar rock hard, played fervently and the audience loved it. In talking to the fans, the worst question and best answer came when someone in the audience asked if the "Irene" of My Beautiful Sun was a reference to Ninja Gaiden and front man Sawao Yamanaka responded that the name was a reference to the sci-fi flick Gattaca. Later when I asked about what other movies interested him, he mentioned Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Perhaps, a rock musical or concept album might in stores for the band someday, Their responses in panels and interviews distilled down to "rock and roll" and enthusiasm for their next album. Basically "good music is good music, bad music is bad music." Beyond their own work, "good music" in their book is apparently the Breeders, and that band was named a number of times in relationship to their influences and favorites.
Other Convention ContentIf you wanted to listen to talks about anime, Anime Boston could easily keep you busy for the better part of its three days. Jennifer Yoo was back to give informed cultural presentations on genre favorites including ninjas, samurai, and the Shinsen Gumi faction. "Doctor Weeaboo" had an academic fan's perspective on 1970's shoujo manga, lolita fashion, moe, and sekai-kei (the 90's trend of Evangelion, Utena and the like). Then, there were several panels that drew attention to what makes anime an amazing, deep art form. Few people in North America have an understanding with much depth or breadth, and as many fans of popular anime as there are, only a minority seem to be interested in the history and frontiers of the topic. The hentai dubbing panel had to be moved to the main events hall, Gaia Online and a discussion on the "summon monsters" of Final Fantasy packed in crowds, but lamentably, these the panels that I think are worthy of high regard weren't the best attended panels at the convention. Mike Toole of Anime Jump, ANN TV and other outlets gave a fascinating talk about the brief era of black and white televised anime that ran from 1963 with Astroboy to 1968 with Cyborg 009. As readers of Frederik L. Schodt's Astroboy Essays might recognize, the struggles to make anime an artistically and commercially viable endeavor cropped up early and remained an intrinsic part of art form/industry ever since. Professor Ian Condry, author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization and organizer of organizer of the Cool Japan symposium, along with the Boston Japanese Consulate presented a screening of the first episode of Astroboy along with Tekkon Kinkreet, with conversations about the two works. Let me say that Tekkon Kinkreet is stunning on the big screen. There are nuances, intricacies and references that are easily missed watching the film on a TV. It's a shame that it did not receive a North American theatrical run. Looking at anime over the last 45 years, the drive to stretch past the limitations of the medium stands out along with the back and forth between North America and Japan of funding, influence and competition.