Going Beyond Limits, for Better or for Worse: Anime NYC 2021

ANIME NYC HAS REPORTED A CONFIRMED CASE OF THE COVID-19 OMICRON VARIANT. IF YOU ATTENDED ANIME NYC, GO GET A COVID-19 TEST. 

One year ago, New York City was still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines had not yet begun to roll out, and many of the annual traditions we expected had to be put on hold—possibly even indefinitely. Though not seen in the same rarefied light as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, Anime NYC had become an annual outing for my friends and me. I was sad, though understanding, that 2020 had to be canceled.

Anime NYC is right in my backyard, tends to have some interesting Japanese industry guests, and the fact that it has thrived in one of the toughest convention cities (see the defunct Big Apple Anime Fest and New York Anime Festival, among others) meant I’ve felt a strong desire to support the event—lest it go away and be substituted by unscrupulous scams and the like. When Left Field Media announced that Anime NYC 2021 was on, I was filled with both excitement and trepidation. 

Lines, Crowds, and COVID Mitigation

Vaccination rates are generally high in NYC, and we have a general mandate for indoor venues. However, the situation was different even compared to Otakon three months ago, thanks to the rise of the Delta variant, the colder weather, and concern over waning efficacy of vaccines. In the end, I decided to attend, thinking that there might be a drop in attendance that would give plenty of breathing room. After all, New York Comic Con 2021 in October saw lower numbers, right?

Not so. Anime NYC 2021 was packed with fans extremely ready to revel in the convention experience. In fact, attendance was up compared to 2019—from 46,000 to 53,000. By comparison, New York Comic Con saw a drop from 260,000 to 150,000. 

I find that this contrast highlights the difference between having a larger but relative more casual and mainstream audience versus a hardcore base ready to go wild. The former will see better results in the good times, but the latter will ride with you even when it gets bad. I suspect this has less to do with loyalty towards Anime NYC itself and more to do with passion for anime and manga in general, but the results are the same.

Anime NYC 2021 was from Friday, November 19 to Sunday, November 21. It was clear that the showrunners knew how big the lines were going to get, as they began sending out alerts encouraging as many people to grab their vaccination wristband and badge on Thursday before the con. However many heeded their advice, by the time Friday rolled around, it was clearly not enough. The con opened at 1pm, but people were lining up since 9am, packed together outside in fairly cold weather, all while being unsure of whether they were on the right line. In previous years, this would have been a nuisance. With COVID-19 around, I could only hope that people kept their masks on and were smart about it.

As a press attendee, I had the benefit of being able to avoid the brunt of these problems. However, what should have been a five-minute process of “getting in” turned into almost half an hour as I was told three different things by three different people as to how to get my wristband and get into the Jacob Javits to get my press badge. So while I was fortunate to not have gotten the worst of the lines, the small taste I had made me aware of how much worse it probably was for the attendees on Friday. Saturday and Sunday seemed more organized, but I don’t know how much it alleviated any issues.

In addition to better communication and maybe even the ability to line up indoors, I have to wonder how much of the problem is that the Thursday badge pick-up hours only go to 6pm. Anime NYC is very much a commuter con, and I imagine many people are working or going to school from 10am to 6pm. Even in pandemic times, New York is still often the city that never sleeps.

Omicron Variant

Of course, the elephant in the room in hindsight is the news that one attendee had a case of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19. Any sort of precautions were inevitably taken without knowledge of its existence, but excuses also don’t treat infections. Thankfully, none of the people I know personally who attended Anime NYC (including myself) have tested positive, but between reports that the Omicron variant spreads more easily and that the person who was found to have it may have spread it to half of a group of 35 friends, it’s clear that there needs to be an extra layer of vigilance.

Take mask compliance, for example. I found it to be mostly there, but it felt like people got more and more lax. All the classic errors of masking were there (not covering the nose, taking it down to talk, not wearing it all). While this is partly on those attendees who flouted proper mask usage, I would like to have seen better enforcement by the con itself. Even the simple act of providing free masks at the con could go a long way.

Dealer’s Hall

The Dealer’s Hall felt like any other at a professionally run big con, but I did notice one thing in particular: People seemed very, very eager to buy stuff. It was as if two years’ worth of pent-up desires to purchase came crashing to the surface. So not only was it packed each day, but attendees were behaving like the money they had was burning holes in their wallets. Because of my wariness over COVID-19, I went in and out, trying to avoid staying in there for too long.

That said, I did purchase a few things with the intent of making them part of my convention memories, so I understand that sentiment. I got an official May hoodie from Guilty Gear Strive, nabbed some new manga, and found a booth that actually sold old Japanese movie brochures. I picked up one for God Mars and a couple for Goshogun.

Other highlights of the Hall included the HololiveEN booth where you could take photos with cut-outs of all the EN girls (including from the inaugural generation), a tribute wall to the late Miura Kentaro, author of Berserk, along with a New Japan Pro-Wrestling booth where you could hit the actual NJPW ring bell.

Panels

One of my favorite things about anime cons are the panels. While Anime NYC isn’t anywhere close to the amount of content you’d get from something like Otakon (and it’s clearly not the con’s priority), there was at least a panel track when you wanted to sit and listen.

Due to other engagements, I was unable to attend the Aramaki Shinji panel. I was told it was informative and even went over some of his work on American cartoons (M.A.S.K., Pole Position), though it seemed like Aramaki had less time than he thought.

Hololive Council

I’ve been getting more and more into Virtual Youtubers over the past couple years, and so I was looking forward to HololiveEN Council’s con debut at Anime NYC.

One of the running jokes among the fandom is that Hololive English group streams tend to be pretty “scuffed,” and this was certainly no exception. The panel started roughly half an hour late, and there were technical issues throughout, such as audio delays. Still, it was good to see the Council get their moment in the sun at a convention, and they were entertaining nevertheless. While the panel was focused on HoloCouncil, HoloMyth (the first generation of HololiveEN) made a cameo with some messages for their kouhai.

One big difference compared to other Hololive conventional panels I’d seen online was that there was less interactivity with the live audience. Namely, much of the interactions were scripted and questions were taken from Twitter rather than a live audience, which was a tad disappointing but also understandable given the size of the crowd and the inevitable technical difficulties. Overall, it felt like a very managed experience, possibly because it was sponsored in part by the Consulate General of Japan in New York. Also, while the interactivity wasn’t as high, the fans in the audience tried to bridge that gap. It was easy to notice who got the most enthusiastic fans—Ouro Kronii’s “Kronies” certainly wear their preferences on their sleeves.

Afterwards, I got some Hololive merch thanks to a friend: A Ceres Fauna button!

New Japan Pro-Wrestling Strong Spirits

While there weren’t many guests who flew in from Japan this year, one surprising appearance came from New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s “Switchblade” Jay White, leader of Bullet Club. He was there to promote NJPW’s new mobile game: New Japan Pro-Wrestling Strong Spirits. 

Jay mentioned that this was his first-ever convention appearance, and he was pretty much a natural at entertaining the crowd. My favorite thing was his insistence that he was the sole reason NJPW sold out Madison Square Garden a couple years ago, and every time he said it, a large and obnoxious image of this fact would flash on screen. 

Although I had a good time , part of me regrets going to this panel because I should have expected an audience of wrestling fans to be loud and care little about the risks of COVID-spreading associated with yelling. One person in particular was loud, maskless, and insisted on shouting constantly. I also had the sense that the fans love bringing attention upon themselves.

As for the game itself, “bizarre” is how I would describe it. Unlike so many other wrestling games, it uses all existing video footage for moves, as well as green-screened video of the wrestlers during turn-based move selection. The developer of the game (from Bushiroad) even said they had to clear rights for the footage in 150 countries. There was also an example of training to improve your wrestler’s stats, and the key point here is that it also has live footage of your chosen NJPW wrestler, this time getting sweaty in the gym. This, I believe, is where the real appeal of the game might be. It will also predictably have a gacha component, but the developer claims it won’t be pay-to-win.

GKIDS

I’ve long known GKIDS for their involvement with the New York International Children’s Film Festival, but they’ve also been putting out some excellent titles on home video lately. GKIDS was there because many of their films were having American or east-coast premieres at Anime NYC. While I was unable to see most of them, I was glad to find out that they’re pretty much all getting limited theatrical releases, notably Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle in January and Pompo the Cinephile in Spring 2022. I was able to see Pompo at the con, and you can read my review here.

At the panel, I found out how successful Promare has been, which is quite a bit. It’s the reason the film keeps getting re-screenings in theaters while others do not.

Cosplay

I didn’t take many cosplay photos this year, but I wanted to at least share a couple.

Final Thoughts

In spite of an inevitable lack of Japanese guests and trepidation over the pandemic, Anime NYC came back at a time when people were champing at the bit to do something in person again. I had a decent time at the con, but seeing the crowds made me realize a truth about this new era: More success means more precautions are necessary if we don’t want worse-case scenarios happening. I hope that whatever fallout occurs due to the Omicron variant, it becomes an outlier rather than a standard of conventions.

Ouran High School Ghost Club: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for October 2021

The funny thing about blogging for as long as I have—almost fourteen years, at this point—is that you never know what old entry might somehow get excavated and arrived from the massively convoluted ball of information that is the internet. Or rather, you never know which of your posts managed to have the right accidental SEO to actually survive and be on the front page.

This month, All Elite Wrestling held one of their big pay-per-views, All Out. It was an event with many surprise debuts such as Bryan Danielson (formerly Daniel Bryan) and Adam Cole, and among those appearances was New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Suzuki Minoru. I myself was watching and yelling at the screen as soon as his music hit, but when I decided to just check my blog stats on a whim, I noticed a huge spike in hits. The reason: Hundreds of people were finding my 2018 blog post about Suzuki’s entrance theme, “Kaze ni Nare.” Somehow, some way, that post is still on the front page when you google the song’s title.

Anyway, I hope the following Patreon sponsors take flight like birds and risk their lives to become the wind:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from September:

Standing in a Whirl of Confusion—Gundam Reconguista in G Part II: Bellri’s Fierce Charge

My review of the second G-Reco movie. The films continue to impress.

It’s a Secret to Everybody: Giant Gorg

My review of the lesser-known mecha anime Giant Gorg directed by the legendary Yoshikazu Yasuhiko of Gundam fame.

The Unquenching Desire for Villains: 9/11, 20 Years Later

A serious and personal reflection on a moment that changed many lives, including my own.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 44 sees the characters unite in full force, and reveals the softer side of Kousei.

Kio Shimoku’s Twitter has been buzzing with preparation for both his collected-volume releases in September. In a rare treat, he’s actually been retweeting fans who are supporting both Spotted Flower and Hashikko Ensemble, which is how I got retweeted by the man himself!

Apartment 507

A review of 2017’s Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul.

Closing

By next month, the fall anime season will be in full swing. All the big sequels and follow-ups like the new Demon Slayer, JoJo’s, and 86 have my attention. However, the fact that Sunrise is trying their hand again at a new mecha series has my attention. Will Kyoukai Senki be any good, or will it land like a wet fart? The fact that it’s impossible to predict given Sunrise’s track record actually has me more excited.

The final Smash Ultimate DLC character is in just a few days! My dreams will always be with NiGHTS (no pun intended), but I’ll be happy with anyone.

Lastly, speaking of October, New York Comic Con 2021 is on. If you’re going, know that NYC requires full vaccinations for entry for those eligible to get vaccinated. Stay safe.

How Incineroar in Smash Bros. Embodies Japanese Pro Wrestling

Incineroar is one of my favorite characters to play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s the first truly traditional grappler character in the franchise, and his entire moveset directly reflects the Pokémon’s pro wrestling background. However, what I think is really fascinating about Incineroar’s implementation in Smash is that the character draws most directly from an old-school Japanese professional wrestling aesthetic and history.

To start off, a major part of Incineroar’s Japan-inspired wrestling design is a part of its identity as a Pokémon. It clearly takes a lot of influence from the beloved fictional wrestling character turned actual flesh-and-blood wrestler Tiger Mask—both are cat-themed athletes who are ostensibly heels but have a soft spot for children. But if you take a look at the relative strength of Incineroar’s attacks, you’ll find that it’s based on Japan’s cultural understanding of pro wrestling.

Incineroar’s forward smash is an Enzuigiri, and it has immense damage and KO potential. To a viewer mainly familiar with American promotions, the Enzuigiri is mostly used as a transitional move to something stronger or a counter to an opponent’s offense. However, the technique has a greater legacy in Japan, where it is the finisher of Antonio Inoki, one of the three most famous Japanese wrestlers of all time. Inoki is a legend as both a champion and the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and was even used as the model for the character Fighter Hayabusa in the NES game Pro Wrestling, where the Enzuigiri is known as the “Back Brain Kick.”

If you look at what Incineroar can do off a grab, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Of the character’s four basic throws, the deadliest one is the German Suplex. Again, you have a move that, outside of Japan, is seen as kind of generic; maybe at most, people might associate it with Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar. But the German Suplex is also the defining hold of Karl Gotch, the man known as the “god of wrestling” in Japan. Gotch had an enormous influence on the Japanese pro wrestling style, and even today whenever a wrestler pulls off a German Suplex in Japan, it’s seen as a big deal that can potentially end a match right then and there.

Another powerful throw Incineroar uses is the Argentine Backbreaker. While this move is seen in the US as more impactful than the Enzuigiri or German Suplex thanks to wrestlers like Lex Luger and the man who originally popularized it, Antonino Rocca, its footprint is even more prevalent in Japan. Not only did Rocca wrestle in Japan later in his career and is possibly the namesake of Antonio Inoki, but the Argentine Backbreaker also gained notoriety in the pages of the manga Kinnikuman. There, the character Robin Mask (a wrestler dressed like an English knight) uses it as a finishing move, calling it the Tower Bridge. Moreover, it’s clear that at least Sakurai Masahiro (the director of the Smash Bros. franchise) knows Kinnikuman: he posted to Twitter an image of Smash characters mimicking the Muscle Docking technique from the series:

Moving on, Incineroar’s best attack is arguably its side special, the Alolan Whip. While the name itself is a parody of the Irish Whip, the more important part is the follow-up: a vicious Lariat. 

One of the most famous American wrestlers to ever entertain fans in Japan is Stan Hansen, whose Western Lariat became downright iconic everywhere he fought. On the Japanese Wikipedia page for “Lariat,” the history section literally begins with a mention of Hansen, and in current times, the Japanese wrestler Okada Kazuchika is famed for his “Rainmaker” Lariat. Incidentally, Incineroar also has another related move taken from the Pokémon games—Darkest Lariat—but that’s closer to Zangief from Street Fighter II’s Double Lariat.

Generally speaking, I find that pro wrestling has a lot more of a longstanding influence on Japanese pop culture than it does American pop culture, despite the fact that pro wrestling as we know it has its origins in the United States. Even today, manga and anime wholly unrelated to wrestling or hand-to-hand combat (like Laid-Back Camp) will throw in a few references, as if to assume a common understanding among readers. So while having a wrestling cat for a Pokémon is not altogether that unusual regardless of culture, I find the execution of such a concept in Smash Bros. Ultimate to be very reflective of that enduring legacy. The fact that Incineroar so embodies the values of Japanese pro wrestling makes it all the more fun to play, win or lose.

No Face!!: My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler

Attending the New York International Children’s Film Festival has been something of a tradition for myself, and many of my reviews over the years on this blog have come from it. Due to COVID-19, NYICFF 2021 is a virtual festival, with individual tickets and two all-access passes available at extremely reasonable prices. 

As someone who loves cartoons, my usual focus at NYICFF  is on animated features including but not limited to those from Japan. For whatever reason, there’s no anime this year, but we’ve got the next best thing: a live-action film about Japanese pro wrestling. My Dad is a Heel Wrestler stars actual New Japan Pro-Wrestling veteran megastar Tanahashi Hiroshi as a washed-up wrestler named Omura Takashi whose son Shota discovers that Takashi is a “bad guy” called Cockroach Mask. The film was previously temporarily available on NJPW’s own streaming service, but I had missed my chance to see it then, so I’m glad that NYICFF brought me this opportunity.

My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is based on a Japanese children’s picture book, and by amazing coincidence, I actually happened upon a copy while at Bookoff years ago before the film was announced. Both versions follow the same basic premise described above, but the difference between 32 pages of large text with illustrations and a feature-length movie inevitably means changes and additions. In this case, the film is fleshed out with a greater exploration of both Takashi and Shota’s feelings about Takashi’s role as Cockroach Mask. For Takashi, his passion for wrestling is juxtaposed with the knowledge that his heelish gimmick is the only way he can continue his career. Shota meanwhile has to reconcile his image of his father as a caring man with the scheming and cheating he sees in the ring. 

A larger cast of characters—Takashi’s wife Shiori, Shota’s classmates, Takashi’s fellow wrestlers, and a hardcore fangirl who lives and breathes pro wrestling—also help to establish a greater world. The fangirl, Michiko, speaks to the fact that Japanese wrestling has managed to pull in a serious female following in the past ten years (known affectionately as pujoshi), and her love of Cockroach Mask/Omura is a reflection of Tanahashi’s own popularity among the ladies.

The film does a great job of showing Shota’s complex emotions from his perspective as a small child, and how Takashi struggles with the desire to both be a dad his son can be proud of while doing what he can to extend his career in spite of chronic injuries. Tanahashi playing an older wrestler is naturally in his wheelhouse, so this role isn’t exactly challenging his acting range, but he pulls the character off quite convincingly. 

One of the main messages of the film, as stated by Michiko, is that pro wrestling is about more than winning and losing. Much like that one scene in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s about Shota realizing that just because Takashi is a bad guy “doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” Curiously, however, in the world of My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, the gimmicks are fake but the actual wrestling is real—a kind of semi-kayfabe where wins and losses are legitimate but the wrestlers’ personas themselves are primarily performance. The film uses a lot of other NJPW stars to fill out the ranks, including Okada Kazuchika as the world champion, and the feeling I get is that a film with so many actual wrestlers wants to maintain some semblance of the “realness” of pro wrestling even in a fully acknowledged fictional setting like a movie. Speaking of wrestlers, I was actually most impressed by the acting of Taguchi Ryusuke, who plays Cockroach Mask’s henchman Blue Bottle. Taguchi in recent years has been more of a comedy wrestler in NJPW, and his ability to be serious and silly is a great asset to this film.

While the film uses a lot of wrestling terminology, My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is a very accessible film that has a lot of interesting things to say about many different topics—from aging, to doing what it takes to keep a dream alive, to how theatricality is in itself a valuable quality that brings people excitement. From beginning to end, it feels like a production where everyone involved both respect the subject matter of pro wrestling and want to tell a heartfelt story to which anyone can relate.

Jyushin Thunder Liger: The Impossible Gimmick

January 6, 2020 marked the end of an era as beloved Japanese wrestler Jyushin Thunder Liger retired. His achievements are many, from innovating the Shooting Star Press (now seen in wrestling matches all over the world) to being perhaps the greatest junior heavyweight ever. One thing that stands out to me in his long career is how insane it is that he managed to embrace his ridiculous gimmick, his outward identity as a wrestler, and elevate it to the point of world-wide recognition.

Jyushin Thunder Liger’s name and look is taken from a manga and anime by Nagai Go, creator of Mazinger Z, Devilman, and Cutie Honey. This by itself isn’t unusual. After all, the wrestling manga character Tiger Mask became a real-life wrestler as well. But Jyushin Liger the fictional work isn’t about wrestling or even athletics—it’s about a boy who can summon and fuse with a “bio-armor” to fight evil. The anime isn’t even considered a memorable classic, and yet, Jyushin Thunder Liger somehow made it not just work, but took it over. Now, when you say the words “Jyushin Liger,” you’re probably more likely to get someone who knows the wrestler than the source material. His entrance theme is just the theme song to the Jyushin Liger anime (and makes zero sense in the context of pro wrestling), but rather than being considered hokey, it brings out raucous cheers.

Imagine if a 90s American wrestler was saddled with a Street Sharks gimmick—not even a big property like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—and still wrestled as a Street Shark thirty years later until his retirement brought literal tears to people’s faces. Picture this guy coming out to “They fight, they bite, chewin’ up evil with all their might!” to a standing ovation. That’s basically what Jyushin Thunder Liger accomplished. The closest real equivalent I can think of is the Undertaker, who has played some form of undead wrestling zombe lord (and briefly a American motorcycle rider in the early 2000s) for the majority of his career. Or maybe if RoboCop’s cameo in WCW saw him transition into a regular wrestler who consistently put on great matches.

So here’s to Jyushin Thunder Liger and his global legend. Now let’s see if any new wrestlers come out as Bang Dream! characters.