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This interview is part of Ogiue Maniax’s coverage of Otakon 2016. While the interview was with multiple staff members at P.A. Works, only the producer, Horikawa Kenji, gave responses. I’ve reflected this in the answers.

It’s a pleasure to have this interview with you. My first question has to do with True Tears. It was your first work as a studio, and from what I’ve heard the anime is quite different from the visual novel. What led to you choosing to adapt this series for your first project, and what led to it changing from the source material?

Horikawa: So the producer at that time, Mr. Nagatani, had said, “Let’s work on a few projects together!” And out of those choices was True Tears. We thought that it was perfect for what we could do at that time. We also thought it granted us lots of freedom, too, because as long as the theme was “tears,” we could do what we wanted.

Hanasaku Iroha is a series that shows the charm of the countryside and Japanese tradition. It seems that more and more anime are focused on the promotion of tourism to regions of Japan. You created the Bonbori Festival in Hanasaku Iroha, but was the promotion of a region of Japan a part of production from the very beginning?

Horikawa: When we made Hanasaku Iroha at first, we didn’t intend for it to empower tourism, quite the opposite, actually. Recently, there are many cases where anime fans go to the locations where their favorite anime take place. Some people call it going to “holy sites” or “investigating the show.” But while it can be a good thing, the act of fans going to these sites might not always be positive. When the fans gather, they might take pictures of, say, average houses and it might be very troublesome and disruptive. When I make select a location for a work, I think about how to have it so that even if fans visit it’ll be okay.

So when we were making Hanasaku Iroha, it was part of our thoughts that we would base it in a hot spring city that would be okay with having some volumes of fans coming. We also took care that the residents of that city would be notified when a large number of fans would come.

In regards to the Bonbori Festival, it originally wasn’t there, but it came up during the making of Hanasaku Iroha. We thought that, if it was a festival that the people could continue—not in the anime sense but that of a legitimate festival—that would have a much bigger, long-lasting, and positive impact. While an anime might be forgotten in a few years, a festival is part of Japanese culture and won’t be forgotten.

In Hanasaku Iroha, the grandmother is a very important character. In Shirobako, most of the characters are career women or out of high school. Tari Tari has one of my favorite characters, which is Takakura Naoko. Do you feel that there is a better market for series starring older characters, perhaps similar to the series you make now, but with people in their 20s and 30s?

Horikawa: As much as I would like to make something centered around older characters, there is such a thing as monetary value associated with characters. In Hanasaku Iroha, the characters were supposed to be out of school already and working, but due to those complications they became high school girls.

Since Shirobako, however, we took that step towards making the characters people who are actually out of school and working. That was a great adventure for us. Since we found out that Shirobako was indeed a success, we have shown that the girls don’t have to be in high school for fans to be interested. So, it was great to find out that fans like mature women as much as high school.

There are a number of characters in Shirobako based on real creators, for example Maruayma Masao and Anno Hideaki. Did you consult them in your portrayals, and did they have anything to say afterwards?

In terms of the people connected with those characters, we did ask them for their acknowledgement. The director knew Maruyama-san, so he probably asked Maruyama-san, while I asked people I know. But some seem to say that they never received the requests for acknowledgement.

Thank you.

Horikawa: Thank you very much.

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Right after Otakon, I joined in on an impromptu post-mortem podcast on Ani-Gamers along with the Reverse Thieves and Anime World Order. See what we had to say!

Actual con report coming soon.

 

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I had the pleasure of interviewing LeSean Thomas at Otakon 2016, where he was debuting his new animated short, Cannon Busters. Though we didn’t talk much about Cannon Busters itself, I was pleased to find out about his life as an artist, his philosophy on art and anime, and even his family.

Ogiue Maniax: So you grew up in the Bronx, and I assume that you had some sort of arts education. Could you describe what it was like to grow up as an artist?

LeSean Thomas: It was fairly okay. I stayed indoors quite a lot. I used to sketch a lot, sketch in school. You know, I grew up when hip-hop was growing up, and so a lot of stuff happened in the 80s in New York City. I thought it was cool. I had a lot of colleagues, a lot of friends in my apartment building, who I’d sketch with from time to time. I had a lot of friends in class who I could sketch with. I was into video games and sketching.

I think I decided to make it a career when I became a teenager. I moved to upstate NY for a period of time, to Middletown, and when I came back to the Bronx I decided to become an illustrator. I enrolled in a school that focused on the arts.

OM: Which high school?

LT: Julia Richmond High School. It was in Midtown Manhattan.

That was sort of my circle, and by the time I got back after I graduated high school I decided I wanted to become a comic book artist. But it was tough because there was a lot of competition in New York City—Marvel and DC. But I was also really influenced by animation, Japanese animation.

I landed a couple of opportunities that led me to work in animation production, and one thing led to another. I got onto a couple of big shows, and I was able to use that to build up momentum to work on more shows and create opportunities for myself.

OM: More and more young kids, teenagers, college students, are embracing anime and manga as part of how they get into art. I also know there’s concern that anime and manga are teaching the wrong lessons.

LT: What kind of wrong lessons?

OM: Like it’s teaching people to draw the wrong way or look at art the wrong way. And I’m sure already from your question to me you probably don’t agree with me.

LT: Yeah, I don’t.

OM: So I’m wondering, what would you think is the best way to use anime and manga in an arts education?

LT: I think you should do whatever you want. I haven’t ever heard anyone say to me that copying Picasso or Michelangelo, or Italian or French artists perfectly, is wrong. We get into this really weird, shaky territory where we start becoming ethnocentric towards specific countries and their art history. I think a lot of that is based off the fact that the US was a European colony, and our history is based off of European history, and our art history is European. What’s wrong with India? What’s wrong with Mumbai? What’s wrong with China. I think that, respectfully, it’s just the way it is, but I don’t think that a lot of thought is given into how we judge children who copy the styles of other countries, as opposed to what our curriculum forces us to teach, which is European art history.

I know a lot of graphic designers who are brilliant who don’t study European stuff, they study Japanese art. When you’re in a school, you’re programmed and taught to be an employee and not an auteur, and I think that plays a big role in how teachers choose to enforce their ideals onto students, who are very impressionable at a young age. I’ve also noticed, in my experience, that a lot of teachers are graduates who couldn’t find jobs themselves. You have this cyclical dynamic happening where teachers who don’t have a lot of experience are telling kids what they should and shouldn’t draw.

How did Murakami learn how to draw? When you’re telling kids how to draw, you’re telling them how to interpret art. It’s not right. When you’re telling them how to respond to art, you’re robbing them of the privilege of interpreting art themselves, and interpreting how they learn. So I respectfully disagree with the logic that a child shouldn’t learn how to draw anime because of the historic implications behind that.

OM: You worked on The Boondocks, and it’s clear from the comic strip that Aaron McGruder is also very influenced by anime and manga. Is your mutual interest in how you came onto the show?

LT: Certainly my drawing style played a big role in choosing me to help him develop the early designs with the crew.

OM: The Boondocks as a comic strip was pretty forward thinking, advanced, and progressive, but the comic strip medium is a pretty conservative place. So when moving the series over to Adult Swim and an animated setting, was it a very conscious decision on your part and the staff’s part to push the envelope much further?

LT: No, that was actually Aaron’s mandate. I may be wrong, but I remember a rumor from around 2004, 2005—from someone in our circle—that Mike Lazzo, the head of Adult Swim, played a role in having Aaron push the envelope. So when I came on board, that was already a demand that came from on high. I was pretty detached from that. I was more focused on the visuals. A lot of that envelope pushing was in the writing. That was the stat quo on the production; we knew what we were getting into.

But as far as the decision from Aaron going from the conservative comic strip to the extreme in the animated form, I’m not privy to that. But there is a rumor that Adult Swim was encouraging that as well.

OM: You worked on Cannon Busters, and you mentioned previously about your friendship with Thomas Romain. You come from different cultural backgrounds, but you seem to have a lot in common. So what’s it like working with him?

LT: Well, Thomas is a westerner, whether we want to admit it or not. He speaks English, and while there are some things he doesn’t get about American culture, he’s still a westerner. That’s part of our common bond, as is our need to collaborate internationally. I think we’re kindred spirits. I told him that that, because of him leaving France to go to Japan and me leaving America to go to Korea for pretty much the same reason.

I like to use Thomas’s phrase, “world animation.” It’s not anime, and it’s not American animation. It’s world animation because of the nature of how it’s put together. I really respect Thomas. I like him a lot. I think he’s one of the most talented guys. He’s an incredible draftsman, and one of the most incredible thinkers. I’m going to see him next month when I go to Tokyo. He’s one of my favorite people.

OM: You worked in Korea, you’ve worked with the Japanese studio Satelight [on Cannon Busters], and you’ve worked with American companies. What’s it like working with different studios in different countries?

LT: In America, it’s pre-production and post-production, and that’s it for most shows. There are a lot of shows that are being animated in Flash in America, but most daytime animated shows are done in Korea.

Korea doesn’t do pre-production or post-production, so they’re just main production, largely. And Japan does all of it. And that’s the difference, at least in my personal experience. I could be wrong, but that’s the gist of what I got.

OM: You spent time in South Korea in the animation business. I know that Korea doesn’t create a lot of animation in pre-production or post-production, but I know there is a desire by South Korea, by the government and the animation business, to be known as an animation powerhouse.

LT: It’s mostly service work.

OM: Do you think there is a strong potential for them to break out and become their own thing?

LT: I think so. I don’t know if the problems that were there when I was in Korea are the same as the ones now, but I know the trick is to find venture capitalists who are interested in and see value in animation production beyond government funding and subsidization. I’m not sure if that’s something they’re risk-averse towards. When I was there back in 2009, 2010, there was a massive aversion towards taking a risk on animation over video games. And I’m not sure if that’s still an issue, but I definitely think they have the potential to stand out. I mean, why not? They animate most of our shows, and I think a lot of it has to do with just finding alternative revenue streams to finance original properties and projects.

It seems like there’s a slow coming back at the feature level, but it seems like everything sort of fizzled out once Wonderful Days aka Sky Blue died. I think that scared the industry in general, made everyone say, “Well, we’re not going to take this risk anymore.” I’m just waiting for a resurgence.

There are a few animated feature films that have come out in the past one or two years, like King of Pigs. It’s like, wow, they’re doing features now. They’re in film festivals.

Overall, do I think they have the potential? Of course. If they can do Sky Blue, they can do anything. I just think they have to figure out internally within the industry, within their government and culture, how to create a platform for creating original content. And they also need to motivate young kids. A lot of kids are going into game design instead of animation because of work labor and pay and all that.

OM: My last question is this: Your little brother is Sanford Kelly, the fighting game pro. Growing up, did you notice that he had a talent for fighting games?

LT: Yeah, he learned all his gaming from me [laughs].

Me, him, my older brother Kelby, and my two sisters Valtvaia and Shavon, we all lived in the same apartment with my mom and my grandmother. So we all came up, and video gaming was one of our major bonding aspects. We gamed hard. We played everything, PlayStation, Dreamcast, Turbo Grafx-16, Super Nintendo. That’s all we did. So by the time Sanford turned 18, we were so hardcore into it, we would go to the local arcade shops—back before there was only Chinatown Fair, in the mid-90s—and hit the sticks.

He just got really good, and he built up a circle in Chinatown Fair, in that area. I kind of moved on to animation and left the city to move to LA. I used to get on him about it. “You need to focus on other stuff.” But then when I started seeing him winning money and awards and stuff like that…

Gaming culture’s still relatively brand new. Talking about the early 2000s, where there were legit funded tournaments, he came up in that circuit where the Justin Wong and Daigo era was pretty much coming up. Now it’s a big thing. It’s on ESPN.

When he was coming up, I was a bit nervous about it, but then when I saw how well he was doing, and how he was creating a name for himself, I embraced it.

I get that quite often. “Oh my god, you’re brothers with Sanford Kelly, that’s so cool.”

OM: It’s kind of unlikely—well maybe not unlikely, but it’s interesting to have two different, talented brothers in two very different fields.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been forced over the years respect the game circuit. Because, like many people, if it’s not sponsored or it’s not on TV, then it’s still a subculture. And now it’s a major thing, so now it’s common for kids that I run into to say that they love Street Fighter and that they know who Sanford Kelly is. It’s still kind of weird, but it’s still really cool.

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It’s time for another year at the east coast’s largest anime convention! It’ll be Otakon’s final year in Baltimore for the foreseeable future, so I’m hoping to make it a memorable one.

I’ve also got a couple of panels this year, and I hope that you can attend.

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Saturday, August 11, 8:15 – 9:15pm

Panel Room 5

“Such Dog. Much Anime. Wow.”

It’s a panel celebrating dogs in anime! See your favorites, and some you’ve probably never even heard of! My co-presenter on this panel will be Kate from the Reverse Thieves.

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Saturday, August 11, 11:45pm – 12:45pm

Panel Room 1

“Greater Uglier Manga.” [18+]

The sequel to last year’s “Great Ugly Manga” panel. Once again, my co-presenter and I will be showing manga that’s great not in spite of how ugly they are, but because of how ugly they are. As a warning, this year’s iteration is 18+, but keep in mind that this is not just some pornography/hentai panel. Most of the content will still be all-ages.

See you there!

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In my most recent trip to Japan, I attended two different Love Live! events in one day. The first was “Bokura no Love Live! 12,” a doujin event. The second was Love Live! Sukufesu Kanshasai 2016″ (School Idol Festival Thanksgiving 2016) in Ikebukuro, an official event held in celebration of the School Idol Festival game. The contrast between an event that revels in fan expression and one that presents everything in an official capacity is interesting to me, because I think it shows both the strengths and weaknesses of each approach to fandom.

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Though I had the opportunity to take a look at both, a question occurred to me as I was traveling from one to the other: if I could only go to one, which one would I choose? I took this from the perspective of a Koizumi Hanayo fan. At the doujin event, I could buy Hanayo-dedicated fan comics from people I knew were fans of Hanayo as much as I am (if not more!). I found a bunch of amazing comics and parody works, and I even got a couple of amazing tote bags that might be my favorite purchases of my entire Japan trip. There’s sort of an interesting magic to buying things in person that get lose with just ordering online, and it’s enhanced when you know the person behind the table put their heart and soul into it. Overall, it was one of the best highlights of my trip to Japan.

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However, doujinshi are, of course, not official portrayals of the characters. This is in many ways the advantage of fanart, fanfiction, etc., but what’s also clear is that the fan material feeds off of the official presentation. Much for the art at “Bokura no Love Live! 12” was clearly inspired by the images found in magazines, the mobile game, and everywhere else. There is a kind of power to official merchandise because it presents the characters at their best, but it’s also limiting because they can’t stray too far off from what is deemed “okay.”

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For example, the shirts being sold at “Thanksgiving 2016” were all prints of existing art that could be found in lots of places, while the merchandise sold at “Bokura no Love Live! 12” felt a little more unique because they weren’t officially sanctioned images slapped onto clothing. That’s not to say official Love Live! merchandise has to look blunt and straightforward (I actually also got a swank Love Live! polo shirt just the day before these events), but they seem to lean in that direction.

Another instance of the difference between events has to do with yuri and pairings. Love Live! encourages yuri to a certain degree, but has to keep it implicit because it’s supposed to appeal to all sorts of people (and indeed I saw everything from little girls to businessmen at Thanksgiving 2016). A doujin event, on the other hand, can go as explicit as possible in more ways than one, and can even merge the innocent with the racy and have them all exist in one place. Characters can be drawn to fit the whims of the artists to a greater degree with the doujinshi, but they necessarily must feed off the source material at least to a certain extent. Nico/Maki doujinshi can go the distance, but the dynamic between them is rendered through the anime, the game, and other canon resources.

Official events also have resources on their side. One of the highlights of “Sukufesu Kanshasai 2016” was a live School Idol Festival game where nine different people played simultaneously, each one commanding one of the buttons by stepping on them. The cards being used where all nine of the μ’s girls, but with special outfits for the event, and they were surrounded in a mall by throngs of fans dancing and singing along. A doujin event really couldn’t pull that off to the same capacity, nor could they be the place to get official Love Live! Final μ’s Concert shirts, which were a popular item at both events that granted legitimacy to the wearer’s fandom.

The division between official and unofficial events can be rather gray because of how the two feed into each other. The output of fans, albeit more often in the form of monetary purchases, informs the official companies responsible for Love Live! just what the fans are into. The fans, as mentioned, take inspiration from the official material, and convert it, thus spreading the joy of Love Live! further.

It’s hard to choose between the two when both have so much merit, but ultimately I think I would have gone for the doujin event just so I could have that experience of walking around and buying fan-made works. It’s sort of the difference between attending fan panels and official panels at conventions. The official panels are where you can meet the creators, but many times they’re curated and micromanaged heavily, whereas doujinshi and fan panels can stray from the “company line” so to speak. This makes them, in my opinion, overall more interesting, but I’m well aware that all of the Hanayo rice memes required the source material to emphasize it in the most amusing ways.

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The last thing I’d like to talk about is actually a little card found in the bag of freebies from Thanksgiving 2016 which is a drawing of some of the School Idol Festival-original girls. Unlike The iDOLM@STER, there is a clear stratification between the main girls (be they μ’s or their successors, the new group Aqours), who are considered “Rare Cards,” as opposed to the “Normal Card” girls that are basically fodder for the former. Here, even at this official event was a small token of appreciation for the lesser idols, and a part of me wishes that someone, be they official creators or doujinshi creators, would take the next step and flesh them out. The result would be different on either side, but both would provide value in their own ways.

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PS: I mentioned a freebie bag for “Love Live! Sukufesu Kanshasai 2016,” and I happen to have an extra one. I’ll be holding a contest soon to determine the winner, so stay tuned!

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Coinciding with Anime Boston, this weekend, March 25-27, 2016, coincides with the first ever Love Live! School Idol Festival tournament, titled “School Idol Festival Score Challenge & Thanksgiving 2016. Given this occasion, a few questions come to mind. First, how sound is LLSIF as a competitive game (are we indeed “esports”)? Second, how many people will show up? Third, are people actually viewing this more as a tournament, or more of a gathering of like-minded fans?

Rhythm game tournaments have over the years been a staple of arcades and anime cons alike. Right beside the fighting games of Chinatown Fair were the sounds of stomping and eurobeat from Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, and other games of their genre. One big difference between LLSIF is that luck is a heavy component of the game, and this potentially hampers its competitive depth.

Not to say that luck automatically precludes or is counter to skill (because it doesn’t), but between being a free-to-play mobile game that encourages you to funnel money into what is essentially a gashapon machine (or a blind booster pack, to take a term from trading cards), and the fact that given cards have effects that trigger at random, a lot is left up to probability.

Compounding the issues of luck, actually, are things that involve no element of chance whatsoever. There is an upper limit to how skilled one can be in School Idol Festival, in the sense that perfect play is simply hitting all of the notes, well, perfectly, and this can be accomplished even with a randomized note distribution. If there are theoretically perfect teams (different for each tournament song, I’d imagine), then it actually all comes down to how often those card effects will trigger for individual players.

Does all of that matter, though? While I have not asked those who are personally attending Score Challenge & Thanksgiving 2016, I have to wonder how many are actually motivated by the desire to win. Perhaps in the backs of their mind they realize that the perfect game is at the same time all but obtainable yet shackled at the feet by that specter of probability. In that case, it becomes more about displaying one’s skills, to show that one has the fingers or thumbs to impress and astound.

In the world of competitive games, “waifu devotion,” that is to say an inclination towards beautiful female characters is very real. Whether the ladies are the best characters in the game or the bottom rung, players will stand by their girls. Love Live!, with its all-female cast of charmingly unique characters, is waifu central, and many who play LLSIF are empowered by this mentality. This does not even fall along heteronormative lines, either. Female Love Livers have their waifus just as male fans do, and the range of their affection goes anywhere from empathic to platonic to lecherous. On some level, I don’t think that hunger for victory is the sole motivating factor behind even LLSIF’s most competitive players.

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Indeed, if I were going, I would not hesitate to use a team of nothing but my favorite character, Hanayo. Did you know that she’s good at origami?

That last question I asked, about whether this will be more of an actual tournament or more of a gathering in the eyes of attendees, is something of a trick question. Aside from a few exceptions, pretty much all game tournaments, big or small, esports or otherwise, inevitably carry with them some degree of a festival-like atmosphere. The larger the total attendance, the more likely this is to happen, because people know that they are in the company of comrades, at least on some level.

In other words, I hope all of you attending have the times of your lives.

General Thoughts

As New York Comic Con has come to rival San Diego Comic Con and become its east coast counterpart, the scope and demand of NYCC are constant points of consideration for any potential attendee. While the convention pretty much improves every year and little can be faulted for how it’s run, the guests they bring, and just the amount of stuff there is to do (aside from perhaps the inevitable over-emphasis on professional and industry panels), I find that there’s a certain evaluative process I notice my friends and me going through every year, which all boils down to the simple question: should I attend next year?

First and foremost, as an anime and manga fan I have to say that NYCC delivered, and in ways I hadn’t expected to affect me so deeply. This year, they most notably brought Naruto creator Kishimoto Masashi and Uzumaki Naruto voice actress Takeuchi Junko and premiered Boruto: Naruto the Movie for the first time outside of Japan (see my review here). Aside from some hiccups in terms of the Hammerstein Ballroom venue—the overly strict no food policy went so far as to ban bottled water, and the concert-oriented seating obscured the screen for significant portions of the viewers—it was the most memorable part of the convention for me, and it brought me back to 13 years ago when I was at the height of my own Naruto fandom.

On top of that, the announcement of a Tiger & Bunny film helmed by Ron Howard was the biggest surprise by far of NYCC, and the opportunity to get a personal drawing from Attack on Titan animator Asano Kyouji was a rare treat. While I was unable to get Asano to draw Holon from Real Drive like I hoped (to be fair that show is 10 years old), this image of Sasha from Attack on Titan is the coolest thing I brought home from New York Comic Con:

However, my experience with NYCC made me realize just how disconnected I am from a lot of current fandoms. This isn’t to say that I disliked New York Comic Con, or what it does. I’ve always enjoyed the mix that New York Comic Con brought, between the opportunity to meet professional artists, the focus on entertainment media that has extended out from the superhero movie boom, and just the general celebration of nerd culture. However, partly because I was out of the country for four years, and partly because of my own general taste for things, I haven’t been as deep into certain popular works in recent years as I might have been in the past.

What really brought this point home to me was how much I enjoyed the Justice League Reunion panel. Seeing Carl Lumbly talk about bringing his cultural heritage to the role of the Martian Manhunter as an immigrant with a traumatic past, finding out that Justice League Unlimited was a clever and creative compromise with a soulless marketing engine that wished to use the cartoon purely as an action figure commercial, and hearing Kevin Conroy sing “Am I Blue?” flooded me with so many fond memories of what made that series great. It made me recall the character of A.M.A.Z.O. and how incredibly deep and interesting his story was, and the “Ask the Justice League” portion was downright hilarious, especially Martian Manhunter’s greatest enemy being “a villain made of flaming Oreos.” It made me want to find this feeling again within more non-Japanese works.

This is certainly not a criticism of the current state of animation; many fantastic works have been and are still being created. Rather, it has made me aware of just how much a connection to the “nerd mainstream,” as it were, fuels New York Comic Con. NYCC is a for-profit convention backed by the entertainment industry, and it will aim for the works that hit the widest audience, or at least the widest audience within a niche. This is what fuels the decision for a Firefly panel, or indeed inviting a manga megastar like Kishimoto. Rather it fuels my desire to expand my interests further than where they are currently, to get a better sense of the zeitgeist of current American (and non-American!) fandoms.

Exhibitor Hall, Artist Alley, and Panels

Again, when it comes to the actual con, there was much to enjoy. In the Exhibitor Hall, I got the chance
to try Street Fighter V, say, “Domo” to Ninja Slayer, and get that cool Sasha drawing from Asano.

The Artist Alley, as always, was a great place to meet artists, find out about new works, and see the trends that fuel the creators. Superheroes are a no-brainer, anime is less prominent but if it is it’ll be something that captured the imaginations of American fans, such as Dragon Ball Z or Sailor Moon. Stylistically, I made just one purchase at Artist Alley this year, issue 1 of a comic called Henchgirl by Kristen Gudsnuk, the premise of which is exactly what it sounds like. The Artist Alley filled with everything from amateurs to industry veterans, with talent abound. However, I tasked myself with a challenge, which was to find something that spoke to me, that didn’t rely on name recognition, and that wasn’t too tempered by my own preferences for specific types of characters or heroes. Gudsnuk’s drawings resonated with me the most because of the humor and soft, cartoony style. If you’re curious, you can read the comic online for free.

The other highlight of the Artist Alley might have been seeing a small kid, probably no older than 6 or 7, hand a copy of Days of Future Past to Chris Claremont.

As for panels, it’s no secret that a for-profit con like NYCC will have a different flavor from a fan-oriented endeavor such as Otakon. I generally enjoy the latter kind more when it comes to programming, but NYCC has a pretty consistent track record of quality, possibly because it’s such a big deal now and encourages industry hosts to bring their A-Game, as seen with the Justice League Reunion.

The Kishimoto panel was a rare opportunity to get into the mind of one of manga’s most successful creators. While the questions were curated, the host did a great job of opening up Kishimoto, and I’m sure that him no longer having to keep deadlines or worry about how his answers might influence sales of Naruto allowed him to give responses that were a bit more candid than what is usually seen from Japanese guests. Probably the best thing I found out from the panel was the friendly rivalry shared by him and One Piece‘s Oda as Shounen Jump‘s two frontrunners, as well as the titles that influenced him most. That said, I hope the audience that was mostly silent after hearing Kishimoto mention Tezuka Osamu’s Phoenix get the chance to find out more.

“Push Boundaries Forward: Gender, Diversity and Representation in Comic Books,” featuring Marjorie Liu, Darryl Ayo, David Brothers, Amber Garza, Jeremy Whitley, Joey Stern, and Shannon Waters was one of many panels over the weekend that focused on addressing the changing dynamics of comics creators and readers. Both the audience questions and panelist answers showed a strong desire to move forward, to learn, and to understand that greater diversity in comics is a multifaceted challenge that never ends, and is ultimately beneficial to comics as a whole.

The Felicia Day panel was pure Q&A, and that’s exactly what the audience wanted out of it. Incredibly charismatic in that awkward way that appeals to geeks most, Felicia Day genuinely engaged her audience with an attitude that was both deeply caring and kind of flippant, bringing a realness to her answers. The best moment was when she complained that you couldn’t have sex with her character in Dragon Age 2, which her manager had ordered the studio against.

The Sunrise panel showed once again that they’re one of the direct-from-Japan studios to really get what it means to throw a panel. In addition to the surprising news about Tiger & Bunny, their announcements were varied and spoke to different portions of their audience. By the way, if you heard a couple of loud guys cheering for Giant Gorg, that was me and Patz from the Space Opera Satellite Podcast. We were serious, too. Giant Gorg is a rare series directed by the character designer of the original Gundam, and had been in licensing hell for years.

GORG!!!

Yo-kai Watch is also a thing.

Finally, I decided to attend a screening of a Love Live! concert, partly to satisfy my curiosity about this particular aspect of Love Live!‘s media mix, and to see the fan reaction. What I got out of it is exactly something I mentioned in my review of The School Idol Movie: the series is extremely malleable by fans, going from a warm, inspiring story full of interesting characters to a mountain of instant memes at the drop of a hat. As people shouted at the character Ayase Eli, “DON’T LET YOUR DREAMS BE DREAMS,” I wondered if that could somehow be parlayed into the slogan of Love Live!: “Make our dreams alive!”

Cosplay

As with most con reports at Ogiue Maniax, I’d like to leave off with some cosplay. Truth be told, I wasn’t digging a lot what I saw, but Sunday really turned it around.

Every so often you may have seen me link to blog posts that I’ve written for Waku Waku +NYC, which is a new Japanese Pop Culture Festival in Brooklyn. Waku Waku +NYC is set for next weekend, August 29th to 30th, and while some of my readers are complete con veterans at this point and others might not have other been to anything of the sort, I encourage everyone to go because it’s going to be a different experience from the typical anime con.

The main things that probably separate Waku Waku +NYC from similar shows is that, in addition to having cool anime guests—like Mega Man and Mighty No. 9‘s Keiji Inafune and veteran anime screenwriter Takao Koyama, who worked on such shows as Saint Seiya, Time Bokan Series, Dragon Ball Z, Slayers, and The Brave Express Might Gaine, —there’s also going to be a huge emphasis on mixing things up. Rather than keeping each all of the various elements of Japanese pop culture in their respective bubbles, Lolita fashion will be encouraged to intermingle with Japanese hip hop and EDM, for example. It’s also going to feature a cool area full of delicious eats called “Savory Square,” which will be serving authentic Japanese food from some of the most notable restaurants in both Japan and NYC. Probably the main attraction is Dotonbori Kukuru, which will be flying in from Osaka to serve the classic Osakan snack, takoyaki.

Waku Waku +NYC will be spread across multiple locations in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. These are the Brooklyn Expo Center, Wythe Hotel, Verboten, Transmitter Park, and Brooklyn Bowl. They’re all within walking distance of each other, but a shuttle will also be available.

I hope you can make it to Waku Waku +NYC. If you come, you might be able to spot me. I’ll be running around the venues conducting interviews.

goldran-hiddencell

I was recently on PatzPrime’s Space Opera Satellite podcast to recap and review the highlights of Otakon from the mecha fan’s perspective. Joining us were also Tom Aznable, Hazukari, and Ashe Blitzen.

Have a listen

I found Otakon 2015 to be something of an unusual beast, in the sense that a normally fierce dragon might seem uncharacteristically docile. At first I thought that this might be due to my unusual circumstances. While in years past I was able to attend Otakon all three days, this year I had to skip out on Friday. However, rather than it affecting my perspective in an adverse way, I realized it actually made a truth all the more clear: attendance was significantly down compared to previous years, from an average of 33,000 over the past five to about 28,000 for 2015. This is why, when I began my Otakon attendance on Saturday, what would normally be the most heavily populated day of the con was…surprisingly easy to navigate.

Given the continuous growth of Otakon prior, this might all come as a surprise. However, after discussing it with some friends and fellow fans, we came up with a few possible reasons. First, the music guests this year were not A-List, and this would mean that the attendees who normally came to Otakon for the concerts might have skipped out. Second, and probably more importantly, Baltimore was in the news not so long ago, and as many anime con attendees are fairly young. It would not be surprising to see parents fearing for their children’s lives, even if they allowed them to attend Otakon in years past.

Thus, less traffic, less tension, though for those who did make it, a relatively more relaxing experience… unless you were going for the Romi Park autograph line. In that case, it was probably a no holds barred slugfest with the winner getting the right to hear Ms. Park recite a line by Edward Elric, Shirogane Naoto, or any of her other famous roles. To the victors, it would of course have been worth it.

Park Romi’s Wild Ride

I was originally not planning on attending the Saturday press conference for Park Romi. At the last second I changed my mind, and it turned out to be the best voice actor press conference I’ve ever seen. Normally, seiyuu tend to give very safe answers. All of their characters are their favorites, they can’t give too many production details or insider secrets, and overall it’s just an opportunity for them to promote themselves in a benign, marketable way. With Romi, her personality gave the impression that she would never be able to play that safe route, even if she tried.

She talked about blacking out while auditioning for Air Master after uttering the most fierce battle cry. She pointed out how she loves Syrup from Yes! Pretty Cure 5 Go Go and the fact that he’s a walking contradiction (a penguin that flies, that’s innocent yet also cynical). She mentioned going to the karaoke box to wear her voice out in order to portray the pain and trauma that drives Edward Elric in every situation (she described him as her most difficult role ever). She even talked about what it was like to grow up Korean in Japan. Throughout the Q&A, what impressed me the most is that we gradually got a well-rendered image of Romi as a person and a voice actor. As someone who’s always felt a little bit on the outside, perhaps due to her upbringing and ethnic background, she’s been able to connect to characters who do feel a little off, or feel like they go against the grain. She mentioned always playing villains as if they’re the heroes in their own mind, and it pretty much all clicked into place.

One thing that many people will probably be talking about for years to come is that “Edward Elric” is a HUGE Adventure Time fan, a show where she voices the main character Finn for the Japanese dub. Normally one might think of this as a promotional ploy, but her passion for it was oozing. I heard at the previous panel on Friday that she mentioned her favorite show she’s worked on is Adventure Time. When asked what show she’d like to do more work on, the answer was Adventure Time. Which characters does she like the most? Finn, and Lemongrab. In her own words, “I like violence.”

I was able to ask her one question, which had to do with her work on the anime Ojamajo Doremi:

Ogiue Maniax: You play the role Majo Ran on Ojamajo Doremi. What was it like working on the show and with Director Satou Jun’ichi?

Romi: It was a fresh-feeling place there. Lots of cute girls!

Satou was a man who was very deep. He put a lot of thought and passion into everything he did. He was like a big brother type. But he did care a lot about details. Details, details, even more details. So you can guess that the recordings took many, many hours. (In English) Many, many hours.

However, the absolute highlight of her press conference was when Alain from the Reverse Thieves asked what it was like to work with director Tomino Yoshiyuki on the series Turn A Gundam. Tomino, who appeared at New York Anime Festival back in 2008, is famous as being a rather eccentric personality, and it’s always interesting to hear stories about him. Romi Park added to the legend of Tomino by describing to us her experience working with him on not just Turn A Gundam but also a previous show, Brainpowered.

During the recording for episode 1, Park recalls delivering the main character Loran’s famous line, “Everyone, come back here!” as he shouts to the moon, imploring his people to return to Earth. After first delivering the line, Tomino BURSTS through the door of the recording studio and begins to shout at her, to put more emphasis into it. “HERE! HEEEEERE!” he shouted, as he had his arms stretched out to the side. In episode 2, when Loran hits his privates accidentally, and Park delivered an unconvincing impression of it (having no direct experience), Tomino came bursting through the door again, exclaiming to her that this particular kind of pain is extremely intense but fades quickly. What was most telling about this was the fact that the Japanese MAPPA staff that was on the sidelines (Romi was here as promotion for the anime GARO) could be seen snickering, unable to fully control their laughter.

A few hours later, I also had a chance to interview Gundam X director Takamatsu Shinji, who had also worked with Tomino before, to add to the bizarre portrait of the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. You can read that interview here.

Panels

Otakon is famous for its strong programming track, full of passionate fans who do extensive research in preparation for their panels, as well as industry panels aware of the fact that Otakon attendees tend to be savvier. For me, it’s one of the absolute highlights of going to Otakon every year, though this year I was only able to attend a few. And yet, from what I heard, I wasn’t alone.

It turns out most of the panels this year were either mostly full or at max capacity, which is rather unusual because generally only the biggest guests and the well-known, charismatic panelists get that much attention. To give a clearer image, usually the Studio MAPPA panel is sparsely populated. 10, maybe 20 people tops who know what a wonderful guest Maruyama Masao (founder and former head of Studio MADHouse, current MAPPA founder and president) is, and how insightful his responses are, but this year I heard that the MAPPA panel was impossible to get into. Now, keep in mind that this is also the year where attendance was down (early reports say the attendance was over 28,000 whereas Otakon these past few years has seen attendance records of over 30,000), a situation that brings up quite a few questions about the demographics breakdown for Otakon attendees, as well as their behavior.

Could it be that the Otakon attendees who normally would have made that extra 2,000+ wouldn’t be the ones attending panels? Perhaps the less famous music acts also meant people looked for something else to do and filled the panel rooms instead. Maybe the overall audience has been getting older and more appreciative of panels. In the specific case of MAPPA this year, it might be the case that people have begun to appreciate them more after they released two high-quality action/fantasy shows (GARO the Animation and Rage of Bahamut: Genesis), and I’ve heard that the success of SHIROBAKO and its reference to MAPPA founder Maruyama Masao (“Marukawa Masato”) was a significant factor as well.

In terms of fan panels, I attended both of the Reverse Thieves’ panels this year. I consider them good friends, but it’s not simply because I know them that I decided to sit in. They do good work and always capture the audience’s attention. Most importantly, they encourage people to check out anime they had no idea about, and expanding people’s knowledge about anime and manga is something i’m always for. Between the new “I Hate Sports: A Sports Anime Panel,” and their staple “New Anime for Older Fans,” the fact that these panels filled rooms with both people and their delightful reactions shows that fans aren’t stubborn when it comes to looking for shows beyond what’s familiar to them; they just need the right guides to get through the darkness and the seemingly infinite possibilities that come with the new slew of titles every year.

I also attended Mike Toole’s “Bootleg South Korean Anime” panel, though sadly could not attend its spiritual companion ran by another individual, “DPRKartoon: Anime from North Korea” (see above comment about panels filling up more quickly this year). Mike is known for being an excellent presenter, and he showed his chops not only in this panel but also his moderation for the Discotek Industry panel immediately afterwards, though I felt like the South Korean Anime panel wasn’t as tightly tuned as I’ve come to expect from a Mike Toole panel. Nevertheless, it exposed me to the unique history of Golden Bat in Korean animation, a superhero from the pre-manga kamishibai era of Japan, whose later anime was allowed to air in Korea in spite of bans on Japanese media because Korean staff had worked on the show. When a later iteration of Golden Bat appeared in Korea, he resembled a certain much more famous Bat-themed superhero, except that this “Bat-like Man” (though Golden Bat originally looked more like Ghost Rider with a cape) flew, laughed like a maniac, and show lasers from his fingers.

Otakon was the inaugural industry panel for Discotek Media, and I had to attend to know just what kind of minds were responsible for licensing Mazinger Z AND Shin Mazinger. It turns out, the aforementioned Mike Toole works for them, though he cites the owner of Discotek being a fan of good ol’-fashioned violent cartoons as a major contributing factor. The panel reminded me that I need to own Horus: Prince of the Sun, and even though I’m not a huge Gaiking fan or anything, the announcement of its licensing drew me towards it, rekindling my old desire to watch “all of the robot anime.” What was perhaps most impressive about the panel was finding out that they got an artist to faithfully recreate the bad-looking American Street Fighter cartoon art for their DVD box set. Given how badly that often turns out (have you seen the old boxes for the 80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon?!), I am truly impressed that it looks so great and terrible at the same time.

One set of panels I did not attend due to advice given to me was the panels run by Pony Canyon for their new shows. Bringing directors known for their extensive and storied catalogues, it turns out that questions were restricted to only being about the shows they were there to promote. As someone who loves exploring the history of anime and picking creators’ brains, that was an instant turn-off. I hope that Pony Canyon learns their lesson for next time.

One More Panel: Mine

Last year, due to time constraints and fear of not finishing my thesis, I decided to skip out on preparing panels for Otakon. This year I submitted a couple, and fortunately the one I really wanted to do made it through. That was “Great Ugly Manga,” inspired by my love of 81 Diver, and the fact that the concept of “bad-good” is still relatively foreign to a manga-reading audience (though less so a comics-reading audience in general). I worked with super ultra manga expert Ed Chavez (who also has an appreciation for the awesomely ugly), and together we worked to try and convey the idea that sometimes “bad” artwork enhances the impact of a manga, whether intentionally or not. The panel ran a bit quickly, finishing early, which makes me wish we packed it with more stuff, but that’s a lesson learned for next time. I do really want to do the panel again.

Artist Alley/Dealer’s Room

I came to Otakon this year a little more prepared to spend money on trinkets and goodies, but ended up getting less than I expected, which is probably best for my wallet. Of the purchases I made, the one that sticks out most is an excellent little double-sided charm from Suzuran, which now adorns my recently-purchased smartphone. In terms of official merchandise, most of my purchases actually came from the Pony Canyon booth. I did not go for their extremely expensive bluray sets, especially because $75 per disc sounds absurd to my ears, but I like the shows that they’re involved with a lot, and wanted to support them in a way they might potentially understand. I came away with a t-shirt and poster of Sound! Euphonium, as well as a CD from Rolling Girls, both anime that I highly recommend. As an aside, I also ended up with a free Love Live! School Idol Movie poster for some reason I still don’t quite understand. Will I frame it and carry it with me to the New York premiere of the Love Live! movie? Only time will tell.

The Real Hero of Otakon 2015: Crab Cakes

So anime is cool and all, and Otakon is the largest anime convention on the east coast, but Baltimore is supposed to be known for their crabcakes, and it’s supposed to be a part of the Baltimore experience to eat some awesome ones. Unfortunately, in the past the ones I had were more decent than incredible, but this all changed when a truck decided to carry some of the best crab cakes ever, and parked itself in front of the hotel I was staying at. To describe how good Flash Crabcakes are is to mention that I regret more than ever the fact that Otakon is leaving Baltimore in a couple of years. I also learned that things named Flash tend to be amazing, whether it’s the superhero, the Starcraft player, or indeed the super lump crabcake. The program that spawned Animutations gets a pass for its accomplishments, even if it’s become a bit senile and deranged.

Countdown to the Beginning of the End

Despite the fact that this Otakon didn’t seem quite as outright exciting as previous ones, I came away from it having two of the best interviews/press conferences I’d ever conducted. It was truly a pleasure to pick the brain of two industry veterans, and my only real regret was not being able to attend any Maruyama Masao panels due to scheduling conflicts.

I also left this year’s Otakon aware of the fact that only one year remains in Baltimore. While I think the move to a larger convention center in Washington, DC is probably the right move, I do feel some concern for the city of Baltimore itself. After all, Otakon is a huge money maker for them, and even if attendance was down, there’s a difference between losing 5,000 tourists and losing 33,000, all of whom want to eat in the area. Will there be another convention that tries to fill the vacuum left by Otakon? The battle for MD/VA begins.

Best Duo

Best Couple

Bester Couple, Oooooh Yeahhhhhh

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