Thinkin’ Thoughts

Getting anime and manga merchnadise in the Netherlands is actually not that difficult I’ve learned, particularly when you live closer to the bigger cities. Though a lot of material is in Dutch, because a lot of people here know how to read in English already a lot of it is also imported from the US. I could be in worse situations.

That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss New York City and the amazing amount of access I can get with just a short train ride. When I think about how to spend a summer day in New York for me, it involves going to Kinokuniya first, followed by Bookoff (or vice versa), and then moving on to eat at Go Go Curry. They’re all around the same area so it also makes for an enjoyable walk. The sheer weight of my bookbag as it’s stuffed with manga is also a strangely pleasant and familiar feeling, and even reminds me of my high school days. It’s even more fun to relax on the train ride back, preferably with friends, just sharing everything we got while simultaneously peeling off layers of Bookoff price tags (those things tend to accumulate as the same book gets resold over and over).

Perhaps the New York routine is special mainly because it’s where home is. Probably if I gave myself more time here (and actually went to Amstelveen), I could build up a similar routine, but for now I’m content to wait for the moments I go back.

Blaaaazin’: Anime 2012

This past weekend was my second time attending the unambiguously named “Anime Con” over in Almelo, the Netherlands, only unlike last year I managed to go for more than one day. Truth be told, I had originally planned on skipping out this year for various reasons, but when I saw the guest list it seemed like a must. Not only was anime and manga scholar with a particular fondness for Tezuka Helen McCarthy attending, but there was Initial D opening/ending band m.o.v.e. as well. Another prominent guest was Dutch comics artist Martin Lodewijk, but I was not able to see him because he was only able to attend on Friday (which I skipped out on).

Located near the German border, the train ride to Almelo for me altogether took about two and a half hours, something I felt I should have remembered from the last time I did it, but somehow seemed strangely new. I was unable to procure a hotel at or near the venue, but taking the train back and forth ended up costing less money (and even less than a similar trip by Amtrak back in the US), and it gave me a lot of time back and forth to read manga and even to draw, which I hadn’t done in a long time. So, even aside from the actual convention itself, fun was had. Also quite fortunate was that the weather in Almelo was excellent, and if I hadn’t had to pass through wind and rain to get there I would’ve thought it to have been a waste to wear a jacket.

Before I get into the con itself, I do want to note that there are some interesting parts of the event which didn’t change too much from last year like the game room and the maid cafe, so I’ll refer you again to last year’s report.

Panels

Now I am the type of con-goer who loves to attend panels, and it was very clear to me that Anime Con this year had made a concerted effort to insert more panels into its programming. There were humorous panels, quiz shows, and a number of informative ones, including a Vocaloid panel. Not being terribly interested in Vocaloid myself normally, I walked in on it half an hour after it had begun in order to be around for the next panel, only to realize that in my ignorance I had missed out on what may have been the best Vocaloid panel ever.

Normally, Vocaloid panels seem to be more celebrations of Hatsune Miku and friends, but this panel was actually run by motsu, the rapper from m.o.v.e. Known for such sage wisdom as “I got no impression/ This town made by the imitation/ Wanting your sensation/ In this silly simulation/ I wanna rage my dream,” from the little I caught of it, the whole hour was a little bit of history about Vocaloid and a lot about how it works as a music-making program and its limitations, like how Vocaloids are bad at that double-consonant often found in Japanese, the “kk” in Tekkaman for instance. The band has somewhat close ties to the program, as not only was his fellow bandmate yuri was made into the celebrity Vocaloid “Lily,” but the guy as an active musician uses the program himself, even posting on Nico Nico Douga under the name “Nicormy.”

We learned that motsu likes to use the Gackt-based Vocaloid “Gackpoid,” and that there was originally some trouble with Vocaloid Lily because of yuri’s relatively deeper voice and how the program is better-suited for high-pitched tones a la Hatsune Miku. He also gave some tips for working around the program’s limits, like using the hi-hat (the cymbal?) from a drum machine in order to simulate a “ssst” sound, another weakpoint for Vocaloids, or using a “bend down” to improve the sound of Vocaloid rapping. Even though I don’t know music and had to look up some of these terms after, I really regret not being in there earlier.

Right after the Vocaloid panel was Helen McCarthy’s talk on “kawaii” and its origins, tracing it back more generally to a biological human tendency to want to protect doe-eyed creatures be they babies or kittens, as well as more directly how the styles we associate with Japanese cuteness were the result of an intermingling between Japanese and Western cultures. For instance, Helen pointed towards Betty Boop as an influence on kawaii, a mix of cute and sexy and facial proportions which resemble a traditional idea of attractveness in Japan, and talked about the French artist Peynet, whose romantic drawings of Parisian life still persist today.

Of particular note for me was her brief discussion of the artist Macoto Takahashi, whose “Makoto Eyes” (see above) would clearly become an influence on 60s and 70s shoujo manga. In fact, I had to ask Helen about the clear lineage into shoujo, and what might have caused a decline in those types of sparkling eyes, to which she replied that it likely has to do with how the painstaking detail of Makoto Eyes, which can take hours to draw precisely, conflicts with the hectic work schedule of a manga artist.

The last panel I attended was “The Future of Comics is Manga.” Held on the last day of the convention, it drew what I felt was a surprisingly large crowd based on my experience with American conventions, and I have to wonder if there are actually proportionately more anime con attendees interested in industry and creator discussions compared in Dutch conventions. On the panel were Helen McCarthy, Japanese manga and video game pixel artist curently living in the Netherlands Aoki Noriko, writer for the Dutch anime magazine Aniway Rik Spanjers, and Dutch comics writer Sytse Algera. The discussion went to various places, from how it’s faulty to say that comics never appealed to adults around the world and that it’s more an issue of the comics industry not being able to hold onto those readers to the comparatively low salary that most manga artists make, which has to be tempered by an actual passion and enthusiasm for creating comics.

Somewhat unfortunately, the Q&A session turned into primarily a discussion of piracy and copyright, from downloads to doujinshi to everything in between. While I felt that it was in certain ways a fruitful discussion, and everyone agreed that creators cooperating with fans had definite benefits, it also pushed aside all other potential questions. Moreover, a lot of the discussion had to do with artists feeling that they’re being slighted by downloads, and I feel that when you have a panel comprised of mostly artists and creators it skews the discussion in a certain direction, just as a panel of mostly editors might, or a panel of mostly fanfiction writers. All in all, though, it was quite informative.

The Concert

While I’m aware of the fact that m.o.v.e. has performed at at least one anime convention in the US, given my current living situation and the sheer size of the United States it was actually easier for me to go to Anime 2012 to see them than if I were still back in the US and they had visited another state.

Last year I had attended a portion of the Aural Vampire concert, but had to leave early. This year I decided to stay for the full thing, which almost didn’t happen because the concert started 45 minutes late. In spite of not getting home until 1am as a result, it was still really great, with m.o.v.e. playing up the crowd and throwing in their Initial D songs alongside some of their non-anime-related work.

I am no regular concert attendee, so I can’t say if this is anything truly special or not, but I was pretty amazed that the singer yuri actually sounds better live than she does in official recordings. I don’t have the proper musical vocabulary to describe what I mean, but she actually comes off as more powerful on-stage than in music videos. motsu meanwhile rapped up a storm, and in some ways it’s even more special to hear live than yuri’s strong vocals.

There were also some technical difficulties with the microphones during the concert, but m.o.v.e. handled it very well with the help of a supportive crowd. When mics would stop working, the two would share one, and at one point the DJ Remo-con (who also deserves respect) passed over his personal headset to motsu so he could continue.

As might be expected, motsu actually has excellent English (he was even occasionally switching to English in the vocaloid panel prior), and was definitely not working from a script when talking to the audience. My favorite moment was probably when motsu asked if we wanted “A CAT FIGHT” or “ANOTHER KIND OF FIGHT.” Remo-con responded with a cat paw gesture. At another point, motsu also asked what kind of beat we want, giving “flamin'” as one option. Naturally, there was only one choice.

Artist’s Alley

Unlike many of the Dutch cons I’ve attended the artist’s alley this time around was somewhat separate from the dealer’s room. I’ve spoken about this many times before, but I’m still interested in the fact that most of the artists in the alley seem to prioritize making full books, either by themselves or in collaboration with others, as opposed to buttons and other trinkets (though those were still around). I have to wonder if it has anything to do with the Netherlands’ own strong tradition when it comes to publishing (it was known for having very good freedom of publishing centuries back), though that connection may be too tenuous.

An interesting element of this convention’s artist’s alley was that there was this peculiar collectible card game available, where you actually buy cards based on the amount of things you buy in the artist’s alley, which you could use to create an actual deck. I didn’t buy too much from the alley, so I couldn’t experience the game firsthand, but it was apparently the idea of the people running the Manga Kissa (manga cafe) at this convention and many others, and who actually currently have a permanent location in Utrecht.

I also got a chance to talk Aoki Noriko, the Dutch-resident Japanese artist, who is also apparently a huge fan of Saint Seiya given her personal portfolio. As we talked, she mentioned some of the difficulty going from traditional media to digital, which is a topic I’m always interested in. In the end, I bought the comic above and left with a thank you, though looking back I regret not asking her more about her work in video games, as she did sprite graphics in the 8-bit and 16-bit era.

Speaking of art, ever since Nishicon 2011 I’ve been really enjoying the idea of a drawing room at conventions, a place which provides free paper and drawing tools so that people can go nuts. Like at Nishicon, the room was run by “Mangaschool,” the group which also ran various drawing tutorials and workshops throughout the convention. I feel like sometimes the best thing to do to get away from the hustle of a con while still being a part of it is to just sit down and draw, to let the mind wander through the hand. Also robots are cool.

I don’t have a proper scanner on me at the moment so while I’d like to share the drawings I made at the convention, I’m going to save it for a separate post in about a month. Look forward to it!

Storyboards

Also on display at the convention were various anime design work and storyboard pages from a wide variety of shows. I’ve included some below for your enjoyment:


Sakura contemplates revenge

Cosplay

 

Sadly she was not singing the Panty & Stocking opening

Overall

While I may not be the best judge of the long-term progress of “Anime Con,” I noticed many improvements compared to last year, especially in terms of varying the kinds of things that are available to do. Theaterhotel Almelo may only be able to hold 3000 people, but I certainly felt their energy as fans.

Preparing for Anime Con NL 2012

I’m going to be heading to the Dutch con known simply as  “Anime Con” next weekend (May 18-20). Located in the city of Almelo near the German border, I attended for the first time last year, though this time I’ll be attending for more than one day.

Of particular interest at this convention is their musical guest, m.o.v.e., known for their Initial D themes, manga scholar Helen McCarthy, and the famous (actually I believe most famous) Dutch comics artist, Martin Lodewijk.

If you’re in the area but haven’t decided to attend yet, do note that the hotel rooms are all booked, but that you can still get a discount if you register by the 17th.

Gratis! Free Comic Book Day, Netherlands Edition

This past weekend was yet another Free Comic Book Day for the United States, but as it turns out, it was also the first ever Free Comic Book Day for Netherlands and its neighboring country of Belgium (don’t know about Luxembourg). FCBD has been a tradition for my friends and I back in the US for many years now, but sadly I was unable to join in on the fun in 2011 on account of living overseas, so I was glad to see the concept reach all the way over here.

Unlike the complicated Manhattan crawl I’m accustomed to where we’d hit every comic store around, the city I’m living in only has two comic shops so it was a far simpler affair. What I found particularly interesting, though, was the selection of free comics. I typically think of the FCBD giveaways as being a mix of superheroes, some humorous Archie-esque comics, a couple of more experimental works, and then a smattering of manga offerings, and this year appeared to be no exception. In contrast, the comparatively small selection of comics for the Dutch/Belgian FCBD primarily involved European comics, with The Walking Dead being the only American comic as far as I can tell. Of particular note is the Dutch Storm, and the variety of lively artwork in Het beste van Oogachtend FCBD (a compilation of various artists’ work) probably makes it my favorite overall.

Sadly I can’t really read Dutch so I can’t actually tell you how these comics are, but they’re quite pleasant as souvenirs regardless. For those of you familiar with Dutch comics, I currently have as my distant, distant goal for Dutch literacy volumes of Agent 327 and Suske & Wiske, as well as a Dutch-translated issue of Yoko Tsuno. Some day…

Playstation Edible

Late November-Early December is the fun time for kids in the Netherlands, as that is when Sinterklaas, Santa Claus’s badass Dutch counterpart comes riding into the country from his home in the North Pole Spain, first by steam ship, then by white horse. Part of the festivities involve giving children chocolate, notably in the form of alphabet letters, but what this also means is that once Sinterklaas Day passes (December 5th), there is a sudden discount on chocolate all over the country in a fashion similar to the day-after-Valentine’s.

And so, I found this rare item (at 50% off!):

I must say, your PSP might play the latest games and possibly have connectivity with your PS3 through some kind of cloud storage system. It might entertain you on a bus or train ride for hours on end. But, is your screen made of white chocolate?

I didn’t think so.

I Cannot Understand You Mutants

Going to the theater in the Netherlands means, at least for non-domestic works, that films will be shown in their original language and subtitles. The last time I went, I saw The Borrower Arrietty in Japanese with Dutch subs, so when it came to watching an American movie, I figured that I wouldn’t have any trouble beyond ignoring the subtitles. The movie I chose to implement this on was actually X-Men: First Class.

For those of you who have seen this movie, you probably already know that the choice I made was a bit of a mistake, but for those who haven’t seen it, all I have to say is that the movie features many languages that are 100% not-English. At certain points, characters speak Spanish, German, and Russian, and it sure didn’t help my comprehension that the subtitles were (naturally) in Dutch. To the movie’s credit, the acting and the setting gave enough context clues for me to understand what was going on overall, but it’s a unique experience to watch something where the dialogue is in a language you don’t really know, and the translation is in a different, also incomprehensible language.

One interesting difference with movies shown in the Netherlands is that they often come with intermissions, even for a relatively short movie like this one. Of course, the movies were not made with this in mind, so the cut-off point is not built into the film as it was with, say, Gone with the Wind. They do their best to pick a lull in the action to pause the movie, but I have to wonder if anyone out there who’s big into viewer immersion tears their hair out whenever it pops up.

A Nerd of Circumstances, and Better for It

As I get set to return to the United States this month, almost a year since I left, I remember my birthday, where I received a copy of Anne of Green Gables. After that, I never managed to read the whole way through, which is something I’m trying to correct now, but rather than feeling any sort of guilt over not reading it all, it makes me reflect on how my habits have changed from being in a different environment.

In New York, I have the most convenient reason in the world to read a ton: the subway. Commuting to Manhattan takes up a good half-hour to an hour (or more) depending on where you come from, and it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on manga, to read a novel, to draw, and in my younger days, to do homework. Had I still been living in New York City, I know that I would’ve definitely finished Anne of Green Gables. Same thing with my Pokemon games. I’m a long-time fan of the series, but I haven’t even touched my copy of Pokemon Black yet because of how I never finished Heart Gold, and I refuse to leave a Pokemon game unbeaten. This would’ve been a lot quicker if I had that hour or so to and from Manhattan every day, but alas.

So I ask myself a question, “What do you think of your interests when they can be swayed so easily by circumstance?” To that, I answer myself with “Who the hell is keeping count? I’m the person I always was!” Yes, I’ve taken on certain hobbies and pursued them in ways that are in line with where I was living and where I came from. In New York, I have Japanese bookstores to fuel my collection and a commute to utilize them. In Japan, due to the distances of things, I rode my bike extensively and I watched anime on TV. Here in the Netherlands, I’ve got super-powered internet and a short walk to work. Had I grown up in a mountainous region, maybe I would’ve developed a fondness for rock-climbing. All I know is that these things influence how I function as a person and as a passionate fan of media, and I’m fine with that.

A good analogy for how I’m feeling might be how manga has developed as a black and white comics medium. Manga was originally printed in black and white out of necessity. It’s cheaper than full color and thus easier to mass-produce. From that practical limitation, manga grew out, with artists figuring out ways to best utilize their monochrome palette, including strong usages of negative space and creative application of screentones. Yes, if they had the money to afford full color back then, none of this might have ever happened. But it did, and even if manga were to change to full color now, we at least have that background and history to show us that path

Circumstances exist, but what we make of them is part of what makes life wonderful.

Trekked to Sliedrecht, Did the Anime Thing: Tsunacon 2011

It’s been quite a few years since I was able to attend any sort of anime-related event outside of the United States, so when I found out that right here in the Netherlands are not one, not two, but three anime cons, why I had to check at least some of them out. This report is about the first of them, Tsunacon, located in the town of Sliedrecht. I’m not sure why it’s called Tsunacon, though I suspect it’s a play off of “Tsunami.”

Held in De Lockhorst, a complex devoted to athletic activities and just having spaces and rooms available for just this very kind of thing, Tsunacon is a one-day event. I’ve attended one-day events before, namely the PAS Spring Fest in New York City and Tekkoshocon‘s Tekko 1/2 held at the Carnegie Library, and if I had to compare Tsunacon to those two mini-cons, I’d say that Tsunacon feels the most like an actual anime convention. This might have to do with the fact that Tsunacon is not a free event (although the ticket price is more than fair) whereas the other two are, but it’s more the atmosphere of it.

Before I go into the con itself though, I have to point out the train to Sliedrecht. Moving between the cities of Dordrecht (not to be confused with Dordray) and Geldermalsen and about 4 cars long, I think it’s kind of adorable and also anime-related if you stretch your logic a bit. You can do it, Spurt-tan!

De Lockhorst is only a short walk from the Sliedrecht train station. On my way there, I saw two couples holding hands and possibly cosplaying as well. Ah, nerd love.

When you get inside the first thing you’ll notice is the concession area. While the collection of Japanese snacks (Yan Yan, Ramune) are likely a familiar sight to the American con attendee, there are a number of uniquely Dutch snacks, such as poffertjes, tiny pancakes in powdered sugar, and frikandel, a kind of minced meat sausage. They also had a cotton candy machine, which I’ve never seen at any US anime con.

The big culinary hit here was Cup Noodles, at €3 a cup. Now you might be asking, “3 Euros?! Isn’t that a bit overpriced?” It most certainly is, but the attendees could not get enough off Momofuku Ando’s glorious creation. I couldn’t tell you why it was so popular, but I wonder if the more traditionally Dutch foods don’t carry the same novelty. Maybe it’s just the sheer joy of eating noodles from a cup alongside your friends.

When I think about it though, the Broodje Kroket (croquet breads) ares kind of like the Croquet Pan you’d find in Japanese bakeries. Even when you’re eating “normal foods,” you’re not too far off, Dutch anime fans!

The real kicker though would probably be that they sell beer alongside everything else. And not just any beer…

That’s right, Japanese beer for the Japanese anime fans.

Given that the average age at Tsunacon was decidedly “teenager,” this might set off some alarms, but I must point out that the drinking age here is actually 16, excluding hard liquors. In fact, despite the relatively low median age of the attendees here, everyone seemed quite well-behaved. Even the “hug me” signs seemed more subdued compared to their US peers.

Tsunacon obviously isn’t devoted solely to food though, and close by were the manga library, a game room, a workshop room, and the dealer’s room.

The Manga Library had a fairly sizable collection of titles in both English and Dutch, as well as a few in Japanese. It grew more and more popular throughout the day, and as if to anticipate the creative spark that reading manga would inspire, they left pencil and paper around so that people could draw. I myself decided to revisit an old friend and read the Sai vs Touya Meijin chapters of Hikaru no Go.

The Game Room, which meant specifically video games (sorry card and board game fans, though I did see a number of Yu-Gi-Oh! players dueling it out), had systems ranging from the classic NES to the X-Box 360 and Wii, as well as popular convention games like Dance Dance Revolution. I have no idea what version it might have been.

One thing that stood out to me was the European SNES, pictured above, which resembles the Japanese Super Famicom a lot more than it does its American counterpart. If you’re wondering what game that is, it’s Battletoads vs. Double Dragon. It is a terrible game, but the thought is appreciated. And yes, 4chan memes are popular here too.

I originally planned on participating in a Super Smash Bros. Brawl tournament, but the slots filled up extremely quickly, and by the time I got there it was too late. However, it turned out that the Super Street Fighter IV tournament was short on competitors, so I decided to throw my hat into the ring. I picked Sagat, my favorite character from the Street Fighter series, and defeated my first opponent only to lose to the very next one 1:2. You might not think that to be terribly impressive, but I was quite proud of myself given that-

  1. I’ve never played Super Street Fighter IV
  2. I’ve only played vanilla Street Fighter IV once

But Sagat is Sagat, and I just threw fireballs and delivered uppercuts on my way to victory, at least for a short while.

The workshop room had workshops on cosplay and drawing manga, all in Dutch so even if I felt particularly motivated to start cosplaying I wouldn’t be able to reap its benefits.

The Dealer’s Room also doubled as the bag check room, and was mandatory if you were planning on doing any shopping, or even playing  in the game room. The main activities of the Dealer’s Room, aside from shopping of course, were the “Manga School” workshop and the goldfish-catching game straight out of your favorite festival episode. The winner who caught the most “goldfish” (they had to use rubber balls here) would win some Haruhi pins and a poster of a J-Pop singer whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. My goldfish endeavors came out to a big fat zero, but that’s okay.

Another interesting element of the Dealer’s Room at Tsunacon was that, perhaps due to space limitations, the Dealer’s Room also doubled somewhat as an Artist’s Alley. But while American cons’ Artist Alleys seem primarily focused with individual images, Tsunacon’s anime fan artists were big on self-publishing, often times with their very own original characters, though publications based on existing series were also present. In this regard, one table in particular caught my eye.

A Genshiken-themed doujinshi of all things! Of course I had to get it. It’s not 18+, in case you were wondering.

You know what I like? Ogiue. And you know what else I like? Pokemon. This book manages to combine both, and that is quite all right with me. I was also flattered to find out that they actually knew about Ogiue Maniax, and I was proud to have them do the doujin event thing and get some sketches. Thanks a lot to all of you! I wish you had a website URL in the book so I could direct people.

A short walk from the entrance where the concessions and around the corner landed me in the anime karaoke lounge. Now I’ve done karaoke at dedicated locations, and I’ve done convention karaoke, but what was nice about this place was that it was more or less a small bar/restaurant. In addition to the snacks you could get from before, helpful staffers worked as waiters, taking orders for food and drink while everyone sat around enjoying the fan-powered renditions of God Knows, Hatsune Miku, various Final Fantasy themes, the Chobits opening, and more. They actually had it set up so that the lyrics would pop up in romaji which the singer could follow, much like a real karaoke place. This is quite different from Otakon where they hand you the lyrics on a sheet and you have to do your best given the circumstances. Not knocking Otakon or anything, but this system was way more useful for people who felt like they kind of knew their songs but still needed some help.

I partook of a macaroon from a helpful staffer/waiter before exercising my own lungs. My song of choice: the Mazinger Z opening, which I performed a little better than I thought I would. (Fortunately) I do not have any record of the event, as while I love to karaoke, I am not what you might be calling “talented.” It might be better to say that I can display a degree of courage when it comes to on-stage performances. Despite the relative youthfulness of the crowd, they actually got quite into my performance, and by the time I was done I received a full applause from the room. Thank you all.

If you weren’t paying attention to the singing though, you might have noticed the interesting decorative choice in the form of various Disney statues placed throughout the bar/lounge.


The two “main events” of Tsunacon would have to be the competitions, both AMV and cosplay. Unfortunately, despite knowing this beforehand it somehow slipped my mind while there, and I didn’t go to either. My apologies! While I’m normally not much of an AMV or cosplay sort of person, I still wish that I’d managed to check them out. According to the schedule, the same room also housed video showings and some quiz-based panels, so it was ostensibly the video and competition/events room. Next year!

While I did not attend any actual cosplay events, I did see quite a few excellent cosplayers, which you can see below. There was a really good Crocodile from One Piece cosplayer, but I wasn’t able to catch him.

Overall, Tsunacon was a fun little one-day excursion where there the focus was primarily on letting the attendees do their thing. Rather than going from event to event or even spending the entire day in one location, the con seemed more conducive to just hanging out with your otaku comrades. In that regard, I do wish I had brought others with me, because as cool as it was a one-man trip to a con can only get you so much. It’d also be cool if they had more informational panels in addition to their workshops and games, not for me as my Dutch is abysmal, but to foster learning that doesn’t necessarily have direct utility. The space was also a tad crowded, but nowhere near as insane as some of the bigger cons I’ve attended, and if anything this is a good sign that Tsunacon is getting increasingly popular.

I’ll leave off with these collaborative drawing boards. I drew a couple of things myself. See if you can spot them!

My Anime Regions

Born and raised in the US, having studied in Japan about 5 years ago, and currently living in the Netherlands, I consider myself quite fortunate to have been on three different continents for long periods, enough to say that I wasn’t simply a tourist. The benefits have been many, but the one that is perhaps most important to me is that I’ve gained a bit of perspective on how things work differently from country to country. As an otaku, this of course applies to my pursuit of anime and manga as well, and so I want to just talk about my own firsthand experiences in this regard.

Before I go into detail though, I think it’s important to highlight a few points about myself:

First, my English is my native language, and I have studied Japanese for a number of years and am reasonably fluent in it. I cannot read any other languages to any decent extent, and I can only understand one other when spoken.

Second, my available “access points” varied from place to place, meaning television, internet, etc. Also, I was in Japan before streaming anime became a big deal, whereas currently I am living through the age of the official streaming simulcast alongside everyone else. Well, sort of, but I’ll get into that later.

United States

Now because I’m native to the United States, I’ve seen my fair share of how anime/manga and its surrounding fandom and industry have changed over time, but as I’m not looking to make this a history lesson I’m going to mainly focus on the state of obtaining anime from about 2005-2010. In that period, whether it was in college or back home, I had cable television and high-speed internet, as well as the fortune of living in a city with Japanese book stores (or at least a Japanese grocery when it came to college). I used the TV and internet to varying degrees to satiate my desire for anime, and as my Japanese improved I was encouraged to start buying manga in Japanese as they tended to be less expensive even with import mark-up, especially if they were used books.

Even ignoring the untranslated titles, anime and manga have been quite accessible, whether it’s through downloading, Cartoon Network’s (increasingly sparse) anime line-up, or just going to the Barnes & Noble to pick up a volume of something. Companies are currently trying to increase their internet presence, with more and more titles, including older ones that are no longer available otherwise, being streamed on sites such as Hulu and Crunchyroll. The genres available were and are surprisingly diverse, particularly when it comes to manga, though they don’t cover everything Japan has to offer, just because some things simply do not sell in the US (and some titles that were released certainly did not either).

It’s important to note that anime took quite a long time to get big, and it was only really with the advent of Pokemon that it became such a big deal. While it’s come quite a long way, it’s still considered quite a “niche” thing, and a lot of works which can survive in Japan based on overall higher readership there will most likely tank in the US. Anime as “anime” is still quite young compared to the rest of the world. Anime and manga are definitely accessible in the America, it just takes a bit of effort to really sink yourself in, and although it takes a while to feel the limitations in genre, you may eventually feel it. Also remember that the US is big, and that my experience can be quite different from someone living in, say, the Midwest.

Japan

In Japan I had television but no reliable internet, and while I hear that most otaku in Japan use a Tivo, I unfortunately did not own one, which meant that I had to follow the official schedule in order to keep up. While it could be trying at times, there was a certain thrill in planning my days around the TV broadcasts. The fact that Futari wa Pretty Cure Max Heart and Zoids: Genesis ran simultaneously on two different stations meant I had to choose, which is something that has never really been an issue with anime fandom in the US, at it was rare that two stations would be showing anime at the exact same time. I myself didn’t have to deal with this since the days when Pokemon would chase Digimon out of its time slots. If there was a show on late at night that I really wanted to catch, say, Glass Mask, I would go to sleep early so that I could wake up at 1 or 2am, watch it, and then go right back to sleep. I also remember getting home from a trip to Akihabara, pedaling hard as I could so that I wouldn’t miss the beginning of Gundam SEED Destiny. That also reminds me of when I had faith in Gundam SEED Destiny. Those were innocent times.

(By the way, I chose Pretty Cure).

Manga though, it’s hard to live in Japan and not see comics available for sale. In addition to larger bookstores and specialty shops, you could find the latest manga magazines in convenience stores, your Jumps and Sundays and such. While those stores didn’t carry everything, you could still find some surprising titles; it was through a convenience store that I found the Hulk Hogan manga. The ubiquity of manga was especially advantageous for just sheer exposure: by buying just a few magazines you could get a pretty wide range of works, from good to otherwise.

One unique advantage I had while in Japan was that I had access to the library of the school at which I was studying abroad, which meant access to their extensive collection of anime on DVD. Nowadays it’s not that hard to go online and find all these obscure titles, but back in 2005 this library’s DVD collection went well beyond what was fansubbed (and probably still does today), with series such as Zambot 3 and Tetsujin 28 in their entirety. I know I just picked two robot titles too, but trust me when I say there was more.

So when it came to anime or manga, despite my internet situation I probably had more titles available to me than I ever had before or since. The only trouble of course is that it’s all in Japanese, and while my Japanese is good I’m still not comfortable with it, let alone comfortable with it five or six years ago despite the rapid improvement that living in Japan itself caused. In any case, the main point to take away here is how easy it was to just be surrounded by the stuff.

The Netherlands

A few months ago, Irish anime podcaster Eeeper wrote this letter where he pointed out the difficulties in being a European anime fan, particularly in this current age where anime is officially streamed. Before I arrived in Europe, I could see his point and could agree, but it was only after I actually started living here that I could really feel it.

Having high-speed internet but no TV here, online is mainly how I watch things. When it comes to the streaming of anime, Europe seems to get left out pretty often. The entirety of Hulu is off-limits save for a single, terrible-looking show (not anime in case you’re wondering). Funimation’s video site automatically redirects to a generic company page. This is something I previously only really experienced when I couldn’t watch the official Japanese-only episodes of Bakemonogatari on their official site. It’s not all bad, as some shows on Crunchyroll work just fine. However, others do not, and you get these really odd situations, like how Naruto Shippuden is available for me to watch but the original Naruto is region-blocked. The fact that I just came from the US, where I recently watched all of Kekkaishi and Slayer Revolution (and Evolution-R) on Hulu, makes me very aware of this disparity. That said, internet here is quite fast and what I can watch I get in a flash.

Manga is a bit of a different situation. In terms of the internet, no official sites as far as I can tell have blocked their manga from European access. In terms of actual physical books, comic stores aren’t amazingly common in the Netherlands, but cities are generally small enough that you don’t need too many, and cities with more comic stores are only a short train ride away. Going to Amsterdam takes about half an hour, which is longer than it took me to get to Manhattan, and the selection of manga (as well as European comics) can be surprisingly extensive, usually taking the form of English-translated titles  imported from the US or Dutch-language books. One interesting thing to note is that some titles get translated into Dutch before they are translated in English, possibly owing to the fact that manga and anime have had a strong presence in Europe way before the “anime boom” ever hit the United States. In fact, a friend told me that Urasawa’s works were available in Dutch way before they were in US bookstores. It might also have to do with the proximity to Belgium, which has its own rich comics history and influences the regions around.

On that note, one big difference with the Netherlands and Europe more generally is that everything is more packed together. While traveling by train in Japan is somewhat comparable to doing so in the Netherlands, Japan is still an island, while going from where I live to Belgium, an entirely different country, is a mere 3-hour train ride. Europe also gets a good deal of titles that the US does not, but they’re mainly for people who speak French and alas neither I nor Eeeper (I assume) are capable of this feat.

Final Thoughts

So there’s a bit of my anime experience across three countries. I of course cannot speak for every anime fan who has lived in the countries I have, let alone the countries where I have never set foot, but I hope that this post helps to bring a bit of understanding to fans around the world, to see the varying circumstances that affect our fellow fans. If you want to chime in with your own experiences for any country/area that I did not cover, feel free.

I Can’t Believe It All Stays Together: The “Limits” of One Piece

Note: This post is part of the Manga Moveable Feast.

If you had asked me six years ago whether I preferred Naruto or One Piece, I would have said the one with the ninjas. At the time, I had hit a stumbling block with One Piece in the form of the Skypiea Arc, which I found to be rather lacking compared to what came previously. Naruto on the other hand felt stronger than ever. Little did I know though that One Piece would overcome this hurdle with aplomb and continue to improve, while Naruto would eventually hit a bad spot from which it still hasn’t ever completely recovered.

It seems as if almost every popular boys’ fighting manga eventually hits that point of no return, the moment where you can say a series shounen jumped the shark. Hokuto no Ken, one of my favorite series ever, has a clear defining line where it goes from good to terrible. Dragon Ball isn’t quite the same after the fall of Freeza. Yakitate!! Japan, for all its fun and humor, just could not quite maintain itself. This is all the more reason to consider One Piece is a rare feat among rare feats in the world of manga. Going strong for almost 15 years now, it has probably been the most consistently good despite, or perhaps because, of its longevity. But what does One Piece have that its contemporary peers do not? What keeps it going?

When I think of shounen series that were able to keep up their quality throughout their entire run, the first one that pops into my head is Kinnikuman. An 8-year-long series originally detailing the adventures of a comically inept superhero, Kinnikuman would eventually transform into an over-the-top dramatic intergalactic pro wrestling manga where friendship is so powerful that it is literally referred to as “Friendship Power,” leading to a final arc where the titular hero must wrestle to become king of his alien planet and defeat the evil muscle gods who conspire against him, and I think what makes Kinnikuman so consistent is that it has no real rules to abide by. Nonsensical wrestling techniques, achilles’ heels based on the most suspect logic, secret origins and an abundance of replacement limbs, all of this is as common as water in the ocean for Kinnikuman, but the series just rolls along , not allowing the reader to stop and consider how amazingly ridiculous it all actually is. Except when they do and the experience is made better by it.

Similarly, One Piece continuously rewrites the rules of its own universe, changing the meaning of “sensible” along the way. Monkey D. Luffy’s first few crew-mates are fairly normal; though their abilities might be bizarre or unique, they’re still mostly human in appearance. Then he befriends a bipedal physician reindeer. Later on he’s joined by a cola-powered cyborg in speedos and a re-animated skeleton. The Straw Hat Pirates travel the world from island to island, meeting friends and defeating adversaries. Then upon entering the Grand Line, the first big goal of the series, and what it means to be a body of land surrounded on all sides by water gets thrown right out of the window. There, in the most fierce and dangerous area of all, are islands with radically different climates and animals all within relatively short distances of one another. There’s a desert island, an island literally made out of trees, and yes, even an island in the sky. The world of One Piece continues to grow, and seemingly nothing is ever too unusual.

A good portion of One Piece‘s freedom to expand lies in Oda’s art style, which evokes a sense of fun, excitement, wonder, and comedy. It can expand its limits comfortably in a way that series more beholden to pseudo-realism such as Bleach and Naruto cannot. It makes you easily accept the fact that a man can wield three swords simultaneously with one clenched between his teeth or that an island of powerful and deadly transvestites exists.

And yet, just having a setting where almost anything can happen is not an automatic formula for success. Quite the opposite, it can cause a story to spiral out of control and to lose what made it really work in the first place, if it ever worked at all, and this is where One Piece‘s creator is truly amazing. Certainly the aesthetics of One Piece help a lot  Oda is able to take this increasingly convoluted world and focus its explosive energies into a tale that is remarkably consistent in tone, theme, characterization, and overall feel. Although the series could easily get out of hand, it never completely goes off the deep end, which is a chaos that Kinnikuman itself only avoids by embracing it entirely. It’s as if One Piece tests its own limits so often that doing so has become the standard.

One Piece‘s approach to world-building and the comedic art style that supports it are certainly not the only reason that One Piece succeeds, but I think it is a good window into its real core strength, which is its ability to stay fresh and exciting, and to make it feel both comfortably close and yet also dramatically distant while also continuing to push those boundaries and distinctions. Much like the human body, One Piece constantly renews itself and grows stronger as a result.