Thursday, March 27, 2008

Convention Season

For those who have been doing this long enough to remember when “Anime USA” was just a glorified Halloween party, you may remember a time when the “anime convention” was quite a different animal. As has been said before, there is a feeling of nostalgia that many in my situation feel for the “old conventions” which is genuine but also to a large extent more or less fabricated by those of us who look back to a bygone era through rose tinted non-digital photographs.

Obligatory Apollo Smile photo for Daryl Surat

Left to Right: Marvin Gleicher of Manga Ent., Mike Pascuzzi of CPM (later of Media Blasters), Apollo Smile, Scott Mauriello of Anime Crash, and Chris Parente of Anime Crash (owner and senior partner).

You found this blog because you Googled "Apollo Smile" didn't you...

As “con season” approaches, the massive amount of things going on seem to almost overload one’s ability to plan for a fun filled unabashed wallowing in fandom turning thoughts of summer into a “left behind” scenario of pseudo-panic. The old names that have survived have evolved into such teaming masses of attendees, that a theme-park feel (complete with long lines and annoying people from Middle America) has asserted itself as an inescapable pervasive entity firmly entrenched over many years of quite surprising growth. This massive proliferation of mass attendance at conventions with long-standing histories and the appearance of many smaller satellite conventions themselves is almost exclusive to anime. Looking at other events, one sees the same thing twenty years later as they do now with long running shows such as i-con or Big Apple Comic, which seem to operate as if forgotten by time.

The question which occurs at this point is does the door swing both ways? Is it possible to see a rapid decline in the same recent tradition of rapid growth enjoyed by anime conventions? It is important to note, that unlike other consumer based conventions, which revolve around specifically printed media, or meeting individuals like authors and actors, the anime convention has gone from a gathering who’s main goal was perhaps to watch anime titles that were new to the public or otherwise hard to find, to an event where the antics of the fandom itself are the main backbone of programming. Conventions have become large social events but the need to provide what they used to provide outside social activities, such as anime screenings, rare dealer’s room merchandise, and so on have all been proliferated via the internet and so a central event to provide such things is now unnecessary. This leaves anime conventions as nothing more than themed social gatherings, unless some other type of activity starts happening there. For a while it appeared as if actual anime business was going to start happening at the larger ones, but the way things are going now, it’s more likely that all that licensing that was supposed to happen is going to go scurrying back to MIP where it’s always lived. In fact, the devaluing of anime as a license which comes from fansubbing will probably lead to a decreased ability of conventions being able to afford the kinds of facilities that they have used in the past (Geneon won’t be buying all that floor space this time will they now?), based on the fact that exhibitor companies won’t be spending as much as they used to simply because of their shrinking revenues from the abysmal DVD downturn from which there is no end in sight.

In addition to all that, enter now the new animal. Sleek, for-profit, professionally run destination events like New York Anime Festival and Comic Con, which can change revenue formats from door-based to exhibitor based in a single year if they have to. Anime and Japanese pop-culture in general has become such an important part of American entertainment that Comic Con gets TM Revolution as a major guest. American comic shows used to be (and many in the old style still are) like kryptonite to an Otaku, and a celebration of everything that drove us away from the tacky, badly drawn domestic entertainment media we loathe. But that’s now a thing of the past in more areas large enough to support this new kind of corporate convention event, where content is king and paid employees rarely drop the ball.

Anime Convention Trifecta now in play, and completed with the last of the three kinds of anime conventions, the “hotel con.” I often vacillate between not liking these things because they are exercises only in frivolity and do not advance the fandom as a whole or the industry much, and thinking they are a very important component of the continuing development of a market and lifestyle that is ever evolving. I often think that if cataclysmic change rocks the convention world, that these humble little conventions will be the true survivors and keep alive the kinds of things that seem almost second nature to a conventioneer.

There is now a divergence, based around different groups who in reality would rather not share convention space with other groups. The upcoming convention in Providence RI that restricts entry to those only over 21 is one of the new breed of boutique conventions that serves a specific group within a fandom that is so large, normal demographic rules now apply, and the forced unity that was made prevalent simply because of a feeling of being surrounded on all sides by a community that failed to understand the otaku appeal, is no longer omnipresent and so the disunity that comes with all things at this level is forcing this new evolutionary step.

In most of the outcomes the possible rippling effect that the downturn of the U.S. Market might have on anime, the convention is probably going to be one of the last segments to feel the negative effects, which would mean a decrease in available material, but would that translate into a marked decrease in actual attendance? That alone is probably not going to be able to cause such an effect, but if coupled with a potential downturn in the popularity in general of anime in a post-Naruto world (it can’t go on forever) and the possibility for a non-profit large con to experience a single year of epic fail from poor planning, make a Bermuda Triangle that conventions as we know them today will have to navigate through in order to continue doing what they do.

I am still waiting for the American convention that restricts cosplay to one specific area... (they already do that back in the source country... you know the one I mean).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

This is Not New

It seems to have reached a crisis level, and is the talk of the world of American anime economics, the notion that there is an impending collapse of the anime market in the U.S. in general, because of very poor DVD sales.

So fansubs can be seen to hurt a license, but also help it by creating brand awareness. “Brand awareness” however, is totally worthless if it can not be translated into sales of consumer goods of any kind. In many cases the ability of a property to make money in other fields of licensing is killed by fansub proliferation. It is a form of “bootlegging” in a way, not quite different from another segment of Asian entertainment that went through something similar over two decades ago in the 1980’s; Kung Fu.

One of the most pirated genres out there is the martial arts film. Now what’s important to realize that the audiences for anime and for martial arts films have only the slightest bit of overlapping (Fred Perry), and are mostly made up of groups that have nothing to do with each other. However a comparison of historical context is still worth something.

Like a combination of Adult Swim titles, Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon set off a huge explosion in interest in martial arts both as an activity/sport and as entertainment. There was also a new technology coming out at that time as well, one that the industry said would ruin the viability of all video entertainment, and that was the brand spanking newfangled contraption known as the VCR. At the point that martial arts became popular, the primary delivery method for such media was shifting from the cinema to the home. By the early 80’s there are back rooms in small shops pumping out bootleg versions of every Gordon Liu and Chan Seng chop saki basher to be sold on the street, in mail order catalogues, or at conventions.

The result of this was a large market for such material, but a market with standards which would make legitimate operation of media companies almost impossible based on the levels of pricing and sales would support. At the same time, there was a little known phenomenon that got around the language barrier, and that was Hong Kong colonial law. It stated that any cinematic media made in Hong Kong had to have an English version made as well. This is why all those old English dubs of kung fu flicks are done by drunken Australian sailors. Without this, the spread of kung fu in America would have been seriously hampered by a need for subtitling and a general audience not ready to accept anything in a subtitled form. That, coupled with the ethics of a martial arts movie consumer making fansubbers look like media boy scouts, brought a rapid growth of material with an underdeveloped legitimate infrastructure.

After a while of legit and bootlegs warring with each other on the video shelves things seemed to collapse when production could no longer be sustained due to the inability of the money generated in the U.S. make it back to the studios to finance ever more expensive productions. Throw in a change in tastes in the domestic audience, and you have a dark age for the genre. We are now out of that dark age as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has become the Akira of a new era of martial arts as entertainment, but one that still has quite visible scars.

Now what does this remind you of? Let’s run down the list:
• Entertainment from Asia in high demand.
• New Technology circumventing the industrial infrastructure.
• Language barrier overcome without use of commercial means.
• Production of more original content stymied by lack of revenue.

The main difference is that the unlicensed copies of media in anime are being distributed for free, even further damaging the market since the information gathered about the market based on taking a free product is almost worthless and can not help companies make plans for the future.

The recent developments over at ADV are sending ripples throughout the industry and the questions about the future that are being raised now, are very different than those from just 6 months ago. Some questions are bleaker than before, others smack of the denial and ignorance running throughout fandom which simply serves to feed the burning anger and frustration of guys like me.

Like Ancient Rome, American fandom has sucked in the resources from the producers and have built a massive city, all without producing a single thing in return to help further that production. Simply “liking it” does not mean a thing if it operates outside the areas which provide economic subsistence. Like Ancient Rome, anime in America is surrounded on all sides and has no way to pay its own army. Like Ancient Rome, anime in America may see a long dark age before technology or a new method of international collaboration bring us into the light. We have seen it with martial-arts an era ago, and history may be about to repeat itself.


AWO used this incident in their latest episode in their news section, very cool. I can now declare victory, in that I have been mentioned twice in a row on AWO and not once has Daryl uttered "Apollo Smile" not even once, as my bluetooth deception master plan is finally complete!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What You Don’t Know Can Make You Look Dumb:

Something I have been meaning to write down for a while now, is a scathing indictment of the ignorance of American Otaku when it comes to transferring what they have learned from anime into what is and is not permissible in Japanese society. But rather than simply start a war of egotistical posturing, I shall instead look to the formula pioneered by David Letterman and condense my thoughts into:
A top 5 list of things that shatter American Otaku’s views once they visit Japan.

1) Anime isn’t anime: In Japanese “anime” still refers to all things animated whether it be Full Metal Alchemist, Wallace and Grommet, or Fantastic Planet. Otaku-no-Video is not a documentary, and even if it were that time in history has long since passed. You will not find a 24 hour anime convention, nor will you find “anime” labeled with the specific connotations that have come to so strongly define it in America. Thusly in Japan it is viewed as simply another consumer product in the entertainment world, and not a lifestyle. This thusly effects the domestic attitudes towards anime productions, and the retail of licensed goods.

2) You’re a gaijin: No, that’s not awesome, nor is it something that you want to draw attention to. It is not to say that one should be ashamed, but aware of. No matter how well spoken you are, absolutely nothing will trump that physicality which will effect everything else you can and can not do. Conversely, if you are of Japanese, Chinese, or Korean decent, then you are going to be the one they go to first to try and talk to, even if you don’t speak a word. This is not a culture where differences are celebrated, and for Americans putting that grade-school E Pluribus Unum indoctrination out of the way when one reacts to every day situations that confront those notions, is quite a task indeed.

3) Anime Documentary: Yes there is much that you can learn about Japanese culture, both traditional and contemporary by watching their entertainment. However, acting like an anime character in public is not something that would ever help your situation out, no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what anime character you think is OK to imitate (even KareKano isn't real, and no one else can see that imaginary sweat bead). Individuality as a concept is something that always takes a back seat to a notion of “the greater good” in the land of the rising sun. This may be because there has never been much of an “internal struggle” between competing groups within Japan itself for its entire history. After the recent post war period where unity was maintained as the key to winning a very real struggle to get enough to eat, this notion is very entrenched, and even the most rebellious Japanese youth does so with the confines of “the greater god” (look at the fact that School uniforms are still in widespread use). What this means to the visiting Otaku is that when you think your “inalienable rights” are being impeded when you get those dirty looks or polite requests to move along, it’s not an affront to your individuality or “free speech,” it’s that you obviously don’t know how to properly comport yourself in public in Japan. There is a difference between putting away fear of embarrassment and ignorantly crossing social boundaries.

4) Beer in the Vending Machines: If they had beer vending machines here in New York (we basically do, they’re called “bodegas”) but regardless, I don’t think I would drink less, but I would drink more responsibly. Life in Japan in general places much more responsibility for one’s self in one’s own hands, and so the notions of extreme behavior being acceptable so long as it violates no law, is practically nonexistent outside the Karaoke club. That’s not to say Japan does not have its nanny-state-isms, because they do. But they are some of the most advanced nanny-state formulas on the planet, relying on very long term policies and subsidies held in place with the ever present Japanese social glue, shame. Simply stated, a lot of the activities and methods of communication a young person engage in, in America are simply not done by their Japanese counterparts simply by the mere notion of “well you could, but why would you want to?”

On a side note, Japanese beer is a good way to represent the country itself. You take it from every region north to south, and it’s the same. No matter which beer it is, it’s always the same style and same taste. That’s one image the world sees of Japan, one big pile of sameness. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover saké. Saké is found throughout Japan as well, but that is about all beer and saké have in common. Move even one prefecture over and the saké becomes something totally different, and that’s Japan to the Japanese. Still constant, but very different from one end to the other... But they’ll never admit that to you.

5) Tokyo Sucks: Hey, I am a big city fan and I love Tokyo. But if you are young, and looking for Japan, Tokyo is the last place you want to bother with. It’s for business people, let them do business there, but for you my otaku friend there are other places with are nicer to look at, and cheaper to stay in. You can get your anime fix just about anywhere, so consider anything from Sapporo to Fukuoka as worth checking out.

Now if you’re going to Japan for a week, this list really only applies on a very basic level and there’s nothing here for you that a good guidebook can’t do better for you on. But if you’re going to be buying your own groceries, commuting to work/classes, and wandering into places where the Japanese haven’t seen a foreigner since the Dutch, then these things will become apparent as you experience them, and the only thing this list will help you do, is recognize them the first time they happen.

My final tip only applies specifically to Americans, and that is when you plan your trip, don’t fly on any American air carrier. You know they suck, the suck hard. So get on JAL or Malaysia Airlines, or Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, or even British airways or whatever, just don’t bother with an American carrier, because you’ll really be sorry if you do.