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At Cannes this year, Park Chan-wooks Thirst won a Jury Prize and elicited a lot of confused anguish. It deserved both.
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Writer William Hong reports on this year's Anime Expo, focusing particularly on the panels for industry members, gamers, visual novel readers, and general fans.
Every convention worth its weight in admission needs solid programming. Whether it’s for people interested in hearing anime industry executives talk about their trade or hardcore fans dying to see their favorite J-pop stars, there can never be enough interesting panels at a con. Although Comic Con continues to outdo Anime Expo by drawing super stars from the anime industry (Bleach creator Tite Kubo last year and the legendary Hayao Miyazaki this year), AX still boasted a fairly strong lineup of guests and panels to keep its attendees busy.
Each day of the convention featured specific panels reserved for individuals that work in the anime industry and what's left of the professional anime journalism community (RIP Anime Insider). Since these panels were closed off to general attendees, they were far more serious in tone and audience participation. They took place in cozy lecture rooms suited for intimate discussions.
The "Making Anime and Manga Into Hollywood Features" panel was a round table discussion with executives from Fox and Sunrise, the Japanese animation studio behind Cowboy Bebop. The biggest topic of interest was Fox's upcoming live action movie adaptation of Cowbop Bebop. Bebop fans should be slightly relieved that Sunrise and the show's main writers are overseeing the adaptation. They also discussed the challenges of trying to adapt Japanese material for Western audiences. One of the more interesting moments of the panel was when an audience member asked one of the Fox executives why their Dragon Ball: Evolution film failed so badly. His response? "I started working at Fox after they started producing the movie, so it's not my fault." Nice dodge.
The "Digital Distribution of Anime and Manga" panel tackled one of the problems plaguing the anime industry in America: declining DVD sales. The panelists, executives from Viz, iTunes, and Crunchyroll, attributed it to the slow turnaround between when a show is broadcast in Japan and when it finally gets officially released in America. Often it takes months and sometimes years for it to happen. Anime fans these days are spoiled by being able to download fansubs hours after episodes air in Japan. Since 2008, online video streaming site Crunchyroll has been legitimately providing quick translations of newly broadcasted anime episodes and occasional simulcasts. Their efforts prompted prominent Naruto fan sub group Dattebayo to cease subbing the show completely. Other companies have been experimenting with simulcasts as well. Funimation unfortunately discovered that one of their subbed episode of One Piece was actually leaked a day before it was to be broadcast in Japan. Ouch. Viz has also begun offering some of their hit shows like Bleach, Naruto, and Death Note on iTunes. Namco Bandai will also be releasing music singles from Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Lucky Star on the service. In response to the recent news that Diamond, a major distributor of manga, will cancel orders for any title that fails to earn at least $2500, the panelists suggested that the future of manga will also be in digital distribution. Probably not the best of news for hardcore collectors, but it's better than seeing smaller publishers fold due to lack of distribution.
Compared to the respectful and subdued atmosphere of the industry panels, the rest of the panels I attended were much more energetic. In contrast to the cozy lecture rooms where the industry panels were held, the guests of honor panels took place in the massive Petree Hall. And yes, there was much craziness to be had at these panels.
These kinds of panels give fans the opportunity to directly interact with their favorite guests of honor. It's also an opportunity for these guests to soak in all the love and praise. Yasuhiro Nightow used his panel to present an early trailer of the upcoming Trigun film. Nightow was visibly moved by the enthusiastic response from the audience. After all, it was because of loyal fans like the ones in attendance that made the return of Trigun possible. He thanked the fans for their support and the fans thanked him for creating a great series. Very touching.
But Anime Expo isn't just purely devoted to anime and J-pop culture. There have always been a pocketful of programs and panels for popular American shows. This year's American offerings included panels for Power Rangers, Mega 64, and Robot Chicken. Each of these shows overlap with anime and gaming fandom in their own ways, so they definitely had a place at AX.
The "Power Rangers Reunion" panel was a surprise addition to AX this year. If AX seems like an odd choice to have a panel devoted to a live action show for kids, keep in mind that the Powers Rangers franchise is adaptation of the Japanese sentai shows, which have been around for several decades. For Americans, it's been over 15 years since The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made its debut. The panel featured cast members from almost every generation. Walter Jones, the original Black Ranger, stole the show when he arrived fashionably late and busted out his hip hop kido moves on the stage. After a brief introduction, the cast members fielded questions and requests to voice certain lines. Some of the loudest cheers went to Barbara Goodson, who voiced Power Rangers antagonist Rita Repulsa. She received a roaring ovation when she delivered her signature line: "After ten thousand years I'm free! It's time to conquer earth!" She still has that timeless cackle. It was truly a magnificent moment.
Mega 64, a comedy group that specializes in performing low-budget video-game-themed skits in public places, are regulars at anime and video game conventions. Although they don't do anime skits, they are still a popular draw at conventions, since anime and gaming fandoms overlap. While their skits are rather hit or miss, they've endeared themselves to quite a lot of gamers, judging by how full the room was. Aside from answering questions from their fans (one even asked if they had ever been arrested for disorderly conduct) and announcing their deal to create commercials for GameTap, they premiered their Oregon Trail skit. It's more awkward than funny, but worth watching just to see the reactions of all those poor bystanders...
One American show that's always popular with anime fans is Robot Chicken, a stop-motion TV series that's all about parodying pop culture, video games, and anime. Similar to Mega 64, their parodies are hit and miss and sometimes even downright gross. Robot Chicken's crass, low brow humor doesn't appeal to mainstream... that's why it's a perfect fit for the much more open-minded AX attendees. Their panel featured a Q&A with the creative talents behind the show, including actor-writer Seth Green. Judging by the many video game and anime sketches they've made over three seasons, it's clear that Green and his fellow writers are otakus, too. They presented this Inuyasha spoof, a rough approximation of what would happen if your dad gets hooked on your favorite anime...
Video games have always been an inextricable part of the anime con experience. All anime cons have rooms devoted to gaming, whether it's arcade, console gaming, or even table top gaming. David Hayter, the English voice of legendary video game icon Solid Snake, was a huge draw at AX last year for gamers. This year, for the first time in AX history, game developers were invited as guests of honor. Arc System Work's Daisuke Ishiwatari and Toshimichi Mori, the creative minds behind the popular Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fighting games, had their own panels to talk about their games and answer questsions from fans. BlazBlue actually made it's US debut at Anime Expo last year, when Aksys Games provided test arcade units. Its fusion of anime inspired designs, catchy metal tunes, and hardcore game play ensured its appeal with the anime fan base.
Although there are fewer anime companies present in the exhibit hall (Viz and Tokyopop were MIA again), there were surprisingly more video game companies. Aksys Games was there to push BlazBlue. PM Studios brought test units of their music rhythm DJ Max Technika for AX's arcade gaming room. Even Capcom was on hand to show off Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All Stars, a crossover fighting game featuring classic Capcom characters and Tatsunoko heroes like Casshern. Atlus and NIS America, two companies that specialize in niche Japanese role playing games like Shin Megami Tensei and Disgaea, made their annual appearances. Even doujin (Japanese indie) games were represented by Rockin Android, which had a booth with demos of doujin bullet hell vertical shooters. What do all these games have in common? They are either hardcore or niche titles that appeal primarily to the AX demographic.
Atlus devoted its annual panel to the upcoming PS3 action RPG Demon's Souls. Unsurprisingly, because of its steep difficulty and unusual game play mechanics, Demon’s Souls is intended for the hardcore only. Aesthetically, in contrast to Atlus' stylized Shin Megami Tensei series, Demon Souls is rather bland. As was the panel, which was disappointingly dry. Lead developer Takeshi Kaji didn't even show up to the panel like he was scheduled to, due to concern over catching the H1M1 swine flu virus. Atlus also announced they will be releasing a special limited edition version of the game to encourage American gamers to stop importing the Asian version (which has a Engrish language option) of Demon's Souls. Anime gamers are totally into limited edition goods, so Atlus was totally preaching to the choir.
NIS America hosted a much livelier panel about video game localizations. A bit ironic, considering their localization efforts of late have been largely ridiculed for being sloppy and bug ridden. Apparently they were paying attention to complaints about how they removed voice acting in previous games, because their next announcement was unexpected: upcoming PS2 dating-sim/JRPG release, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love will ship with two DVDs. One will be the entire game with English voices and the other disc will also contain the full game, but with subtitled Japanese dialogue. This solves their constant problem of trying to cram two dubs onto a single disc. NIS America also gave a fall release date for Mana Khemia 2: The Fall of Alchemy, yet another JRPG for the PS2. The system simply refuses to die. Given the dearth of solid JRPGS on the current gen consoles, maybe that's a good thing. Finally, they announced they would be accepting applications for a soon to be vacant Script Editor position. NIS America is probably currently inundated with applications from hundreds fan boys who probably no idea how stressful of a job it actually is. But really, there is no better place to find enthusiastic applicants for anime and video game related jobs than at a con.
Visual novels are very popular in Japan, but largely ignored in the US. They are the equivalent of a digital, Choose Your Own Adventure type book, except with deeper plots, music, elaborate illustrations, and the occasional hentai (sex) scene. There's a small, but faithful fan base devoted to these digital novellas. Not unlike the anime fan subbing community, there's also a committed group of enthusiasts that translate and reprogram visual novels for Western audiences. True Remembrance and Narcissu, free doujin visual novels translated by insani, are amongst the best pieces of fiction I've read this year.
Since Hirameki ceased operations in America last year, JAST USA has been the largest company that specializes in localizing visual novels and eroge (hentai games) for American consumers. During their industry panel, they announced they had signed a partnership with Nitroplus, a major Japanese visual novel developer. Nitroplus is well regarded for creating visual novels and eroge that feature high production values and complex stories that often delve into the occult, science fiction, and macabre themes. The first Nitroplus game JAST USA will be releasing is Demonbane, a sci-fi mecha themed visual novel heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Their second Nitroplus release will be Jingai Makyou, an adult visual novel with occult themes.
European based Mangagamers is also starting to make a name for itself in the Western visual novel and eroge market, announcing several high profile acquisitions through promotional posters at their booth. The first is Shuffle!, a high school romance eroge (with several "all ages" versions that omit all the hentai scenes) that inspired a popular anime adaptation. An even bigger surprise was their acquisition of 07th Expansion's critically acclaimed Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, an episodic murder mystery that also inspired a hit anime series. Higurashi is a personal favorite of mine, so I'm hoping Mangagamer will up to the challenge of faithfully translating the novel's complex story. Even with such high profile titles, releasing visual novels outside of Japan is always a financial risk. Aside from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series, there hasn't been a breakout hit for the genre in the West. To reduce the risk, Mangagamers will only be selling them as downloads on their website instead of producing physical copies for retail.
Over the past year, there's been quite a lot of controversy over eorge and hentai manga. For a brief period, Amazon Marketplace in the UK unknowingly allowed the sale of RapeLay, a controversial (and downright repulsive) rape simulator game on the PC. After the complaints poured in, Amazon UK quickly removed the game from its listings. The outrage RapeLay generated from the British media lead to a ban on the sales of rape games altogether in Japan, sparking debates over how far one can push freedom of expression. In a disturbing case for hentai importers, avid manga collector Christopher Handley was arrested after a postal inspector discovered Handley imported hentai manga from Japan featuring underaged characters engaging in violent sexual acts. This caused much alarm amongst comic fans; what exactly did Handley do wrong? Should he be punished for simply buying objectionable manga? How does arresting Handley, who has no history of sexual abusing children, protect minors from sexual abuse? Since his collection was deemed obscene and thereby indefensible, Handley was forced to plead guilty during his trial in May. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
Despite all the doom and gloom in the hentai world, JAST USA wasn't afraid to give updates and announcements on their latest eroge releases. Lonely otakus looking forward to the aptly titled Cleavage were disappointed the game was delayed. Moero Downhill Night, announced last year at AX, will be available in the fall for hentai gamers who enjoyed the absurdity of a hentai themed racing theme. No matter how ugly things get, it seems like there'll always be a pockets of perverts that will keep the hentai games flowing into America.
Date Posted: 7/17/2009