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Otakon is an event I look forward to every year, and to give you an idea of just how much, I actually plan my time in the US to coincide with it. I went in with the intent of getting some autographs (but not too many as I felt a bit autographed-out from my Anime Expo experience), but ironically I pretty much got everyone but the three I was looking to get the most: Hirano Aya, Nanri Yuuka, and Kakihara Tetsuya. Though a bit disappointed as a result, I realized that this is Otakon and it’s always impossible to accomplish everything you want to do. The scheduling is so jam-packed with events that time is always against you, but then you look back and see all of the fun you had.

This year, as seems to be the case over the past few Otakons, Baltimore was hot. Given that most of it is spent inside an air-conditioned space this isn’t so bad, but there always came a time where people had to brave the heat. Taking Megabus to Baltimore, for example, requires one to walk quite a distance to catch the local city bus. It’s a trek I’m accustomed to at this point, but still one I have to brace for. As for the people in elaborate cosplay, you have my pity to an extent, but seriously you guys must have been dying, especially the full-on fur suit wearers.

Industry Panels

Urobuchi Gen

When it comes to industry guests, my main priority is generally the Q&A sessions followed by autographs, and the reason is that I love to see people pick their brains, especially the creators. I always try to think of a good, solid question or two to ask them, and over time I think I’ve become pretty good at it, because the responses I receive are generally great, though actual credit for the answers of course goes to the guests themselves.

The first industry panel I attended was that of Urobuchi Gen, writer of Fate/Zero and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, two shows which are the new hotness, and by extension make the man himself the new hotness as well. Surprisingly, there was only one question nitpicking continuity, and the rest were about his work, and even some “what if” questions. From it, we learned that Urobuchi is inherently suspicious and so would never sign a magical girl contract, considers Itano Ichirou (of Itano Circus fame) to be his mentor, that he would never pick Gilgamesh as his servant, that the main reason Kajiura Yuki did the music was because of SHAFT Producer Iwakami’s magic, and that working with both UFO Table and Shaft is like being aboard the USS Enterprise and meeting different alien species. In addition, it turns out that Madoka Magica wasn’t influenced by any magical girl series in particular, and the closest lineage it has is with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (atypical magical girl show with striking and violent imagery) and Le Portrait de Petit Cossette (a gothic-style show by Shinbo). Given my recent post about this topic, I have a few words in response to that, but I’ll save it for another post.

As for my question, I asked Urobuchi how he felt about influencing such an enormous industry veteran in Koike Kazuo (who is in the middle of creating his own magical girl series), to which he answered that he considers it something he’s most proud of. Though the two have not talked since that interview, he still follows Koike on Twitter. Later, I would get a Madoka poster signed by him.

Satelight

I also attended the Satelight (Aquarion, Macross Frontier) panel, attended by Tenjin Hidetaka (who technically isn’t a Satelight employee), which was just a fun introduction to their studio. They explored their history, from making the first full-CG television anime (Bit the Cupid), the creation of some of their less-regarded shows (KissDum, Basquash!), and into the modern age. Given the small attendance it actually felt a bit personal, and in this time we had some pretty interesting facts dropped on us. A studio which prefers to do original animation instead of adapations, we learned that they sometimes just like to animate things because they can. Case in point, they showed us Basquash! footage they animated just because they liked the characters and world so much, with no additional TV series planned for it. About director and mecha designer Kawamori Shouji, we learned that he likes to work on 3-5 projects simultaneously despite his somewhat old age (52), that Kawamori is devoted to making anime look good, sometimes at the expense of his budget.

They also showed us some CG-animated clips of concerts by Ranka Lee and Sheryl Nome from Macross Frontier, which were really nice and elaborate. Originally they were meant to be used in commercials for a Macross Frontier pachinko machine, but the 3/11 earthquake prevented the commercial from going on air. Another Satelight anime they showed was the anime AKB0048, which actually looks amazing, and from all reports by even the most cynical of reviewers, actually is. Kawamori even graced us with his recorded presence, giving an interview where he briefly discussed topics such as attending Otakon years ago and making the second season of AKB0048.

Given the flow of conversation, when it came to the Q&A portion there was one question I just had to ask: Why did Kawamori end up directing a show like Anyamaru Detectives Kiruminzoo, a show about girls who turn into animal mascot characters and solve mysteries, an anime seemingly far-removed from his usual mecha and idol work? The Satelight representative’s response was, Kawamori is known for working on anime with transforming robots, and when you think about it, transforming animals are not that different from transforming robots. Hearing this, I actually had to hold back my laughter.

One last thing to mention about the Satelight panel was that the laptop they were using was on battery power, and when it started to run out of steam, rather than finding an AC adapter to plug into a wall, they actually just gave the industry speaker another laptop entirely, also on battery power. An amusing hiccup in an otherwise great panel.

Maruyama Masao

Maruyama Masao is a frequent guest of Otakon. One of the founders of Studio Madhouse, he’s been to Baltimore for many, many Otakons, and it had gotten to the point where I began to feel that I could skip his panels to see other guests. This year was different, though. First, with the unfortunate death of Ishiguro Noboru, the director of Macross and Legend of the Galactic Heroes who had died just this past year, it made me realize that the 70+ Maruyama won’t be around forever. Second, this year Maruyama actually left Madhouse to form a new studio, MAPPA, an unthinkable move for someone in as good a position as he was. The studio was created in order to obtain funding for Kon Satoshi’s final project, The Dream Machine, but in the mean-time it also released its first television anime, Kids on the Slope. Even if Hirano Aya’s autograph session was originally scheduled for that time (it got moved), I felt I had to attend Maruyama’s Q&A. In fact, if you are ever at Otakon, I highly suggest anyone, even people who think they might not be interested in the creative side of anime, to attend one of his panels. His answers are always so rich with detail and history given his 40-year experience that you’re bound to learn something and then thirst for more knowledge.

Some of the highlights include the fact that he’d very much like to make an anime based on Urasawa Naoki’s Pluto but thinks the right format, eight hour-long episodes, would be difficult to fund (the manga itself is eight volumes), that half of the animation budget of Kids on the Slope went to animating the music performances, and that he is looking to try and get funding for Kon’s film in the next five years. I find it personally amazing that he would think of the format best-suited for Pluto first, instead of thinking how the series would fit the typical half-hour TV format. In addition, Maruyama pointed out that a lot of work was done in Kids on the Slope to blend and hide the CG, and I think it shows.

In any case, while I would normally be content to just give a summary of the panel, I’m going to link to a transcript just so that you can read the entire thing. The question I asked is as follows:

How did director Watanabe Shinichirou (director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo) become involved with Kids on the Slope?

“I was working with Watanabe from back in the MADHOUSE days. Unfortunately there were about three years where nobody got to see his work — his projects always got stopped at the planning stages. So when I got Kids on the Slope, I handed him the manga and said, ‘here. You’re doing this.’ At MADHOUSE we had developed a feature — it was already scripted and ready to go, but then I left the company and the project fell through, so I gave him this as something to do. I really think he’s one of the top directors in Japan, one of the top 5. That’s why I wanted to create a theatrical animation with him. Up until this project, he’d only worked on original projects, so this was his first adaptation from a manga, and as a result, he didn’t really know how faithful he had to be, or if he had room to adapt, so he put up a lot of resistance at first.

“Mr. Watanabe loves music, and has a lot of deep thoughts on the music. So I told him that it was a jazz anime, and that he was likely the only director that could pull it off. That convinced him. Then Yoko Kanno said, ‘if Watanabe is working on this, I’d like to work on it too,’ and so that’s how that show came to be.”

Also note that in the photo above, Maruyama is wearing a shirt drawn by CLAMP to celebrate his 70th birthday, showing him to be a wise hermit.

Hirano Aya Concert

Partly because of scheduling conflicts, I attended the Hirano Aya concert knowing that it would be my only experience getting to see her. As expected, it was quite a good concert, and I had to get up despite my con fatigue for “God Knows,” but there wasn’t quite this process where I felt won over like I had with LiSA at Anime Expo. Thinking about it, it’s probably because I’m already familiar with Hirano Aya’s work.

I did wonder if her cute outfit was designed to kind of draw some of the controversy away from her, the large bow tie on her head possibly trying to restore her image in the eyes of certain fans. At the same time, given her songs and given her vocal range, I had to wonder if she would benefit from being presented as less of an “idol” and more of a “singer.”

Getting to the concert 15 minutes late on account of 1) the Baltimore Convention Center not being entirely clear as to what can lead to where, and 2) my own forgetfulness from not having done this for a year, I sadly missed the announcement that she would be signing autographs at the end, and ducked out after the encore was over. Alas, I’ll have to wait a while before I get the chance to have my volume of Zettai Karen Children signed.

Other

Apparently Opening ceremonies was ushered in by the Ice Cold Water Guy. Unfortunately I wasn’t there, but I heard it got quite a reaction.

I also attended (the last half of) the Vertical Inc. panel, whose big, big license is Gundam: The Origin. Honestly, I’d never expected to actually see it released in the US, seeing as Gundam is practically seen as poisonous in the States, and I doubly didn’t expect it from Vertical. In addition, though I didn’t attend, some friends went to the Kodansha Comics panel and got me a Genshiken poster! Would you believe that I’ve never owned a Genshiken poster? This one even has Ogiue on it! Granted, I can’t put it up just yet, but it’s basically a copy of the English cover to Volume 10.

Also, while I didn’t attend some of the guest Q&As, I did conduct personal interviews with some of them.

Hidetaka Tenjin

Nonaka Ai

Tetsuya Kakihara

Fan Panels

New Anime for Older Fans

A panel run by the Reverse Thieves, I was happy to see that the room was so packed that people were starting to get turned away at the door. The goal of the panel is exactly in the name: the two panelists pointed out anime that have come out within the past five years that they felt older anime watchers, even the kind who have children of their own, could enjoy. By far the most popular show was The Daily Lives of High School Boys, which just got endless laughs. What I found to be really interesting though is that I could tell the panel was working because I heard more than one baby crying throughout the whole thing. Assuming that the babies did not magically crawl in on there own, I could only assume one or more parent was there with them, also learning about New Anime. I even had a couple of old college friends attending Otakon tell me how much they wanted to watch some of these shows.

Genshiken: The Next Generation

If anyone thought this was my panel, my apologies! It was actually run by my old Ogiue co-panelist, Viga, and offered an introduction for existing fans of Genshiken to its sequel, Genshiken Nidaime aka Genshiken: Second Season. Overall, I thought it was a fine panel, though at points I felt like Viga couldn’t quite decide who the panel should be for, explaining some things while omitting other details entirely. Should it assume that people had read the current chapters or not? If the panel could have a tighter focus with a clearer idea of where it wants to go, I think it would be much better.

Fandom & Criticism

This panel was dedicated to introducing and exploring the concept of “active viewing” to a convention audience, which is to say the idea of distancing oneself from one’s own emotions while watching something in order to more accurately gauge what the work is saying. Hosted by Clarissa from Anime World Order, as well as Evan and Andrew from Ani-Gamers, I took interest in the panel partly because I know the panelists, but also because as an academic myself the concept comes into play with my own studies. The discussion was quite fruitful I think, though one thing I do want to say is that I feel the concept of distancing and dividing between the rational mind and how one’s emotions operate while consuming media can make it difficult to see how other people might view a certain show, and that it is important, I feel, to consider emotions and “passive feelings” while watching a show, as they can shape one’s experience in a way that “active viewing” may tend to break down like a puzzle.

Anime’s Craziest Deaths

It was my second time seeing Daryl Surat’s violence smorgasboard of a panel, and probably what impressed me the most wasn’t any single clip, but the fact that the footage was (as far as I remember) 100% new compared to last year’s Otakon, and that a lot of it came from newer shows. The panel is a treat to watch, and that the craziness of a death doesn’t necessarily have to do with its violence level, but it certainly helps. The panel was a full two hours, so the middle felt like it started to drag, but I think it has to do with the basic idea that people’s attentions will slowly fade over time, so it’s somewhat necessary to up the ante as it goes along. I’ll finish this part by letting Daryl himself offer some sage advice.

The Art of Fanservice

The last fan panel I attended was hosted by the third host of Anime World Order, Gerald, and it was a brief look through the history of fanservice, as well as some of the general differences between fanservice for men and fanservice for women. Defining the art of fanservice as titillation which is not just outright pornography, Gerald’s theory, which seemed confirmed by the audience’s reaction, was that fanservice for guys is typically very visual, very isolated, while women usually require some kind of context. A pair of bare breasts, no matter what situation the woman is in, can be enough for a guy, but a girl usually wants some backstory. Possibly for this reason, the clips of women’s fanservice tended to be a little longer. Also of interest was the Cutie Honey Flash opening, which was a Cutie Honey show targeted towards girls, and though Honey is still leggy and busty, I noted that the way the shots are framed is a far cry from its most immediate predecessor, New Cutie Honey.

I think the idea of “context” does definitely ring true to an extent, but I have to wonder about the degree to which people, especially otaku, defy those gendered conventions. For example, there is definitely “context-less” fanservice in Saki, but there are also moments which are meant to thrill based on the exact circumstances of the characters’ relationships, like when Yumi tries to recruit Stealth Momo for the mahjong club and shouts, “I need you!

Speaking of Saki, why I had a panel to present this year as well.

Mahjong

It was likely thanks to Saki: Episode of Side A that Dave and I got the chance to once again present”Riichi! Mahjong, Anime, and You.” The format was essentially the same as our panel from 2010, where we try to help the attendees learn not so much how to play mahjong (an endeavor which requires hours and hours of workshop time), but how to watch mahjong anime. New to 2012 though were the fact that we had two years of additional playing experience, which meant we knew what we were talking about a bit more, as well as a number of new video clips to thrill the audience, including one that Dave was so excited about he was almost willing to skip the order of presentation just to reveal it).

It was held in a larger room than last time, and though there were still some empty seats, the fact that we were able to mostly fill a room at 10 in the morning on Friday pleased me so.

After the panel, I was waiting on line for the Urobuchi panel, when the people in front of me not only recognized me from the panel, but also let me join in a game of card-based mahjong, where instead of tiles playing cards with the images of tiles are used. From this I learned that mahjong cards don’t work terribly well because it becomes extremely difficult to see your entire hand, but I have to thank those folks anyway for giving me the chance to play, and though the cards are less than ideal, they’re still handy in a pinch, especially because carrying tiles takes so much more effort.

Thanks to Dave’s effort, however, we actually brought tiles with us to play, and on Friday and Saturday, Dave and I managed to find time to sit down and play for a few hours against not only opponents we already knew but also  people we’d never seen before. The tables at the conference weren’t particularly suited for this, and we had to find a table edge and play the game with the mahjong mat angled diagonally. I ended up doing pretty well overall, including an amazing game where I never won or lost a hand and maintained a default score of 25,000, but what really stood out to me is the realization that we had all improved since we started playing mahjong. I know I said it before in discussing the panel part, but playing live against other people made it so that even my mistakes were the mistakes of a more experienced person who could learn from them.

Apparently we weren’t the only ones doing this, as we saw a second mahjong group as well. I couldn’t stay long enough to assess their ability, but as long as they were having fun it’s all good.

Other Photos (mostly cosplay)

Despite a number of good costumes out there, I actually didn’t take too many photos this year. I blame the amount of times I had to hurry to get to the next thing on the schedule. Also, I saw absolutely no Eureka Seven AO cosplay. Promise me for next year!

This was actually the first Fuura Kafuka cosplayer I had ever seen, and I’m amazed (and grateful) that someone would remember her. A funny story came out of this, as the cosplayer had not been aware that Nonaka Ai (Kafuka’s voice actor) was at the event. I told her about the autograph-signing on Sunday, and I hoped she was able to make it. Now, onto the next.

Overall

While at the convention I would notice little things here and there that I thought could use some improvement, the sheer amount of content at Otakon means that with even a few days of post-con recovery the bad mostly recedes away and all that I’m left with is fond memories. One complaint I do have, however, is that because the convention is set up to have some entrances and pathways usable and some off-limits, it is extremely difficult to tell just based on the map given in the con guide how to get from location to location. As an Otakon veteran at this point, I mostly have no issue with it, but even I ran into problems while trying to find the Hirano Aya concert. A combination of better signage to point people to the right locations alongside a clearer map would do wonders.

Even though Otakon had a “cooking” theme this year, I didn’t really feel it, pretty much because I didn’t attend any of those related events. At this point, every Otakon is starting to feel similar, but I can never hold that against it. After all, with a convention this big and with this much to do, I feel that we as fans of anime and manga make of the convention what we want. This isn’t to say that the way the convention is run doesn’t matter, of course, but that it is run smoothly enough that it becomes almost unnoticeable.

Truth be told, I used to take the sheer variety of panel programming and activities at Otakon for granted, but when I attended AX for the first time this year, I realized how limited that event is by comparison. Not only are there a good amount of industry panels with all of the guests they’ve flown over from Japan (or elsewhere), but the fan panels are a nice combination of workshops, introductions, and even philosophical explorations of topics concerning fans. Seeing Otakon once more in person, I knew this was indeed the con I waited for all year.

I was recently asked about why I don’t seem to like Puella Magi Madoka Magica nearly as much as other anime fans, bearing in mind the degree to which the show seems to garner an extremely devoted, I might even say evangelical fanbase. “Have you not seen Madoka Magica?” they ask.

While I think it’s quite a good show, even excellent in a number of respects, my opinion is that unlike so many others Madoka Magica did not open the world to me. It is not the greatest magical girl anime I’ve ever seen, let alone the greatest anime, and rather than showing me that it’s possible for such a genre to be full of rich depth and interesting ideas it just reinforced my already existing beliefs in that regard. So, yes, an excellent show and a fascinating twist, but something I always knew was possible (in a good way).

What I’ve kind of noticed is that the people who seem to be the most awestruck by Madoka Magica are the fans with little experience actually watching magical girl anime, and so when they discuss what makes the darkness of the series so special, it always feels less like people are talking from actual experience with the genre and more with just their idea of the genre from watching some Sailor Moon. Or if not Sailor Moon, their experience is comprised primarily of watching the genre exceptions, such as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of other people’s watching experiences, as telling someone that they don’t have the right to enjoy a show without x or y prerequisites is pretty ridiculous. However, I feel as if many people who think the world of that show and have an opinion on how it’s done so much with the magical girl genre, while in some ways right, have only experienced the “darkness” of mahou shoujo without being familiar with the “light,” in other words the shows which manage to achieve genre highs without falling into themes like subversion or dark parody. Even in the past decade or so you’ve had shows like Heartcatch Precure!, Ojamajo Doremi, and Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-san which are able to achieve a lot without flipping conventions all the way upside down.

It doesn’t take a Madoka Magica to realize the potential of the magical girl genre, which is something I hope more and more people come to learn.

Have you read Spotted Flower? It’s a comedy manga by Genshiken creator Kio Shimoku, about an otaku and his pregnant wife. Actually, the premise isn’t that important for this post, other than to say that it made me realize something recently.

Let’s look at this page from Chapter 4:

Pretty funny and bizarre moment. But let’s modify it a bit.

Basically, thanks to Spotted Flower, I realize now that all of the girls’ names inMadoka Magica are unconventional in that they’re actually two first names strung together, a convention that I primarily associate with American superhero comics.

That’s all, really. Maybe I’ll actually talk about Spotted Flower some other time.

Otakon 2011, occurring over a blistering 100-degree weather weekend, was a unique anime convention for me because it was the first US anime convention that I have been able to attend since my departure to the Netherlands. In the context of my vacation back in the US, it was an odd little break within a break that felt all the more special as a result.

There was also just a lot to do at Otakon, even more than previous years.

Premieres

Otakon this year was packed with premieres, anime that had never officially aired outside of Japan. In an age where convention viewing rooms have lost their importance compared to when they were the main reason to go to a convention, the willingness for Japanese companies to debut their works at cons brings back a bit of old school flavor.

I attended the showing of episodes 1 through 3 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the dark, subversive magical girl anime which this past year took the Japanese internet by storm. Though normally I would not watch at a con something I’d seen already, especially a series which doesn’t rank among my top favorites, I attended the premiere in order to gauge the audience reaction to the show. Who exactly was attending this premiere? Despite its popularity among fans on the internet, how many people had actually seen Madoka Magica?

Though there were a number of people who had obviously seen the show already, it was clear that for much of the audience, this was all-new. The crowd cheered and clapped not at the moments where you expect someone with full knowledge of the show would, but at points in the episodes where new and exciting things happen, such as when a magical girl transformation happens for the first time. Also, in re-watching these early episodes, I noticed some particular details, such as how Mami’s transformation sequence is different every time. Overall, I think the show made quite a good impression on the viewers, and I expect the series to reach some degree of success.

Another of the big showings was for the film Trigun: Badlands Rumble, a follow-up to the enormously popular Trigun series. Trigun is probably one of the most beloved anime titles among American fans. I’ve known a lot of people both personally and through observation who had been itching for more Trigun anime for years, and Badland Rumbles scratches that itch pretty well. Centering around Vash the Stampede’s confrontation with a robbery-obsessed villain named Gasback, who only ever takes money so he can use it to fund his next heist. The film features all of the main Trigun cast, and acts as a good reunion for fans, though I’m not sure how well it would do for someone who’s never seen any Trigun before. If I had to make a guess, I think it could still do a decent job because of how action-packed and fun it still is.

The last premiere I attended was for Shinkai Makoto’s new film, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo: Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below. Known for deeply introspective works such as 5cm per Second and The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo is a first for Shinkai, a more mainstream-feeling title that, although possesses a good deal of introspection, has a greater emphasis on adventure and exploration. Focusing on a young girl named Asuna who gets drawn into a mysterious world, the film has a number of flaws, feeling like it tried to introduce too much all at once and so occasionally lost focus. It manages to mostly overcome these problems, though they’re still a sticking point. This may be a sign of Shinkai’s inexperience with this type of film.

Regardless of the film’s strengths and weaknesses however, the showing of Hoshi o Ou Kodomo was made all the more special by the fact that Mr. Shinkai himself was a guest at Otakon 2011, his first ever American anime convention.

Guests, Directors, Producers

We were given a number of opportunities to interact with Shinkai, with a Q&A directly after his film on Saturday, an additional Q&A later in the day, a press conference on Sunday, and then a final Q&A with a bunch of directors and producers. Due to certain conflicts, I was only able to attend the first and last Q&A but both were extremely informative. Shinkai is not just simply polite but actually very humble, giving detailed answers to every question asked. At the first Q&A, Shinkai elaborated on his desire to create a more mainstream film that is visually accessible not only to a Japanese general audience but an international one as well. I was able to ask Shinkai a question myself:

Q: In the film, Agartha is in decline and the people there think it’s best to accept it, but others struggle not just against death itself, but struggle to live their lives. What are your own thoughts on to what extent a person should struggle against that fate or accept it?

To which he responded:

In the film, there are those who have accepted that they are not long for this world. But Shin, a resident of Agartha, hasn’t accepted it. If asked this question 15 years ago, I would have definitely sided with Shin, but now that I’m older I can’t help but say I understand the view of the other people. In this film, I didn’t want to side with either side. I didn’t want to deny either side.

I had originally wanted to ask Shinkai about digital animation, but after seeing the film and the concept of accepting the decline of one’s own civilization, it had me thinking about the way in which all of the various characters struggle in different ways and to varying degrees against their circumstances, and it spurred me to ask this question instead. Fortunately, I would have another opportunity to ask Shinkai about the animation process itself at the Directors Q&A Panel.

The Directors Q&A was nothing short of amazing, as it brought together directors Ishiguro Noboru (Macross, Legend of the Galactic Heroes), Murata Kazuya (To Heart, Full Metal Alchemist: Sacred Star of Milos), and Shinkai, and every answer showcased just how different these three were in terms of age and experience. The best example might be when someone asked what series would be considered the directors’ top must-watch anime. Whereas Murata picked a good, yet fairly expected response in Future Boy Conan, Ishiguro mentioned old Czech puppet shows, Canadian animator Norm McLaren, and a Chinese sumi-e-style animation from decades prior called Muteki and Shinkai actually selected Ishiguro’s own Legend of the Galactic Heroes. This generational difference was also evident in their responses to how the recent earthquake and tsunami might affect the industry and its people, with Ishiguro mentioning that the lack of escalators and power outages were something that he remembers and is familiar with from decades ago, while Shinkai talking about how he thinks that there is definitely potential to use this event to fuel the creative process but doesn’t quite know yet how to do so.

Keeping in mind this living history of directors available, and also remembering a comment from Ishiguro earlier in the panel about how he has had trouble adjusting to digital animation, I crafted my question accordingly: I asked if Shinkai and Murata, who both worked in digital animation, had any advice for Ishiguro in terms of working with digital animators. If you think about it, Ishiguro worked primarily in an age of analog animation, Murata worked in the transitional period between the two, and Shinkai is purely digital, this meant that each of their responses would embody different experiences and values. Knowing that Ishiguro is a living legend and that neither Shinkai nor Murata would want to show any disrespect towards him, I tried to phrase the question to give them as much leeway for politeness as possible, but it was still clear that this was going to be a tricky situation when the translator actually said, “I’m not going to touch this one.” Fortunately, Ishiguro, upon learning what I asked, actually encouraged the younger directors to give answers, sincerely willing to set aside seniority for some help.

Murata spoke of his own initial thoughts towards digital animation. Having worked with cel animation and remembering the hardship of lining up cels and taking photos of the compiled images one by one, Murata saw the move to digital as an opportunity to do more with more freedom. Shinkai, however, actually said that today’s digital animators should be learning from the older cel animators because, at the end of the day, as long as the initial images are still drawn with pencil on paper, those experiences and talents are still very important. Another interesting conversation arose when Shinkai mentioned working with older animators and how they worked in “millimeters” while digital animators think of space in terms of “pixels,” to which Ishiguro responded that he had to deal with the opposite problem, seeing the term “pixels” for the first time and wondering how many millimeters that was supposed to be. My question was the last one and it felt good to end the panel that way.

I was also able to get Evan Minto from Ani-Gamers to ask Shinkai a question at the press conference, about what it’s like to work with computers in animation. Interpreting the question as to mean 3DCG, Shinkai remarked that he actually prefers 2D animation despite his background in games, and would only go back to 3D if 2D faded away. Given the number of great anime creators who only started working in anime because they couldn’t find more “legitimate” work, I have to wonder if this could be another case for allowing 3D anime to fully mature.

There were Q&A sessions with both Ishiguro and Murata, as well as Madhouse founder and perpetual Otakon guest, Maruyama Masao, but unfortunately they conflicted with just about everything else. Notably, Maruyama’s and Ishiguro’s panels ran during the showing of Shinkai’s film. Still, I am glad I got the opportunity to see Ishiguro on the Directors/Producers panel, and I managed to get autographs from both Ishiguro and Maruyama. Speaking of Maruyama, the man has worked on so many things it’s actually kind of hard to be completely unable to find merchandise related to his work. In my case, I had him sign my Cardcaptor Sakura movie DVDs.

Industry Panels

This year’s Otakon included a Sunrise industry panel, which might not seem all that special compared to other companies’ panels until you realize that Sunrise never holds industry panels. Usually, there stuff goes to Bandai Entertainment, but this time it was Studio Sunrise, creators of Gundam, coming straight out of Japan to talk to the fans at Otakon about their shows. The panel began with an introduction from Sunrise producer, Ozaki Masuyuki, and then continued with a video showing called “The World of Gundam,” giving a brief history of the franchise and how it has affected Japanese animation. The video delivered on two points, first of which is that it fulfilled my wish for it to have a hilarious English-language narrator, and second of which is that it managed to result in a few surprises. Ozaki was clearly expecting the cheers for the original Gundam and titles like Gundam W, but when the crowd went into a roar over G Gundam, I could literally see that Ozaki didn’t expect it, with his body actually being taken aback by it.

From there, they showed a recap of the first season of Tiger & Bunny (which contained spoilers!), and it was also evident that the show was extremely popular. I also had a bit of a realization during that section, as Ozaki asked one by one if each hero was the crowd’s favorite character. Naturally, characters like Wild Tiger, Barnaby, and Blue Rose got good reactions, but when he asked about Dragon Kid, I found myself to be the only one clapping and hollering.

(Dragon Kid is the best, forget y’all.)

The panel also had a bunch of new show previews, the most interesting of which is probably (Gundam AGE aside) a series titled Phi Brain Puzzle of God. Apparently, it features a kid who is good at solving puzzles. The title alone makes me want to check it out.

Speaking of Gundam, the Tamashii Nations booth in the Dealer’s Room featured this:

Being that this was the first and possibly only time we’d ever see an official Sunrise panel, a lot of questions were asked about a lot of series. Patz from Insert Disc for example asked about the possibility of streaming older shows, especially the Yuusha robot series, and the answer there was that they were looking into streaming as much as they can but that there were no definite plans. I asked about the possibility of reviving significantly older giant robot franchises such as Zambot 3 and Daitarn 3, to which the response was that Sunrise prefers to create new concepts rather than going back to older ones, unless there is significant fan demand or a director/producer has interest in doing so. Gundam, I assume, falls under both the former and latter. There was also a lot of praise for Tiger & Bunny and hope from the fans that there would be more. Probably the question that sticks out to me most was the lone girl who politely asked them for more My-HiME/My-Otome in a thick southern accent, if only because that franchise didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. Interestingly, Ozaki said that the My series is designed to have sequels. These are certainly not concrete answers, but more than I typically expect from a company official.

If you want real answers at an industry panel though, look no further than Vertical Inc., publishers of Twin Spica, Chi’s Sweet Home, and a plethora of classic Tezuka titles. While going through all of their upcoming titles, marketing guy Ed Chavez (who you may remember from the old Vertical Vednesdays) would talk about his own feelings towards them, giving a genuine sense that he had a personal investment in all of their licenses, which include a manga adaptation by Furuya Usamaru of No Longer Human, Princess Knight, and The Drops of God. In answering a question of whether or not the manga would be flipped or unflipped, Ed remarked for instance that The Drops of God would remain unflipped despite its potential for success outside of manga readers because of how the intricate labels on wine bottles would be excessively difficult to correct afterwards.

The Bandai After Dark panel tried to be a somewhat free-flowing, “casual” panel as well but didn’t quite come across that way. That said, there were a number of highlights. The Gosick and Nichijou anime have been licensed for DVD release, as has the Nichijou manga, which according to one person I know is far superior to its adaptation in terms of comedic timing and such. The composer for The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi was also present, and he played a violin solo of that movie’s main theme, Yasashii Boukyaku. I really love that song, and I think that was one of my favorite moments from Otakon.

In terms of industry panels, last but not least must be the Angel ScandyS Q&A, which centered a show that isn’t even actually in production yet. Ishiguro, the aforementioned director of Macross, has thrown his hat into the ring that is the moe idol genre. Planned to be a story about angels, devils, and human idols competing over a young man’s soul (or something), what’s fascinating about this project is that they bothered to show it at Otakon at such an early stage, something I’m certain has never been done before. The voice actors, who were selected first and had characters based on them rather than the other way around, had prepared a skit as well, both in valiant Engrish and in Japanese, to give the audience an idea of what the show might be like. When asked about the music, we were told that Ishiguro himself wrote the lyrics for the music. Ishiguro meanwhile, had been sneaking around the panel itself, preferring to film the panel from an audience perspective. I asked them about the character designs, which seem oddly familiar despite being so generic, but was told that 1) it was done by an unnamed Artland (Ishiguro’s studio) employee and 2) that the character designs aren’t even final. I don’t know, seeing a project so early in its life piques my interest.

Fan Panels

Due to the sheer amount of premieres and unique industry panels this year, on top of the scheduling conflicts that caused similarly themed panels to run at the same time (Gundam Unicorn showing vs. Sunrise panel vs. Gundam panel vs. Underrated Mecha panel), I unfortunately was unable to attend very many fan panels. Still, of what I saw I certainly enjoyed.

The Reverse Thieves ran two panels this year, “The Best Manga You Never Read: Tokyopop Edition” and “Investigating Detective Anime.” The former pointed out titles that the two considered to be underrated titles, many of which did so poorly in the US as to be canceled even prior to Tokyopop’s demise. One good reason to go that panel is actually the Q&A section, not because they give out free stuff, but because they’re actually really good at answering questions and taking suggestions. The Detective Anime panel showed the sheer range of genre fiction available in Japanese animation, and focused less on finding the most obscure titles possible. Again, their Q&A session was excellent.

I also made a quick stop at the “Moe Moe What?” panel, curious about how exactly they were going to approach the subject. Though I cannot say how the panel turned out by the end because I had to leave early, I found the panel to be informative enough, though obviously geared towards fans of moe who are looking for an intelligent way to defend the idea.

I attended both of Daryl Surat of Anime World Order‘s panels, “Remembering Satoshi Kon” and “Anime’s Craziest Deaths.” As someone who knows Kon but doesn’t really know Kon, it was a highly informative panel which showed his influences and his connections to other great names in manga and anime. In particular, Kon began his career as a manga assistant for Otomo Katsuhiro (Akira), and even worked with Oshii Mamoru (Ghost in the Shell) on a number of occasions. As for Anime’s Craziest Deaths, I had talked to Daryl when he was originally planning it a couple (?) of years ago, and even contributed some examples, but was just unable to see the final result for a long time. Now that I’ve experienced it, I can say that it’s really worth its own title, though I realized that my suggestion of Zambot 3  felt a little weak compared to the blood-and-guts violence of the likes of Baoh and Violence Jack. Perhaps something from later on in the series would do it more justice, though I think it more has to do with the fact that the “craziness” of the deaths in Zambot 3 are more contextual than visceral.

The last fan panel I attended was the Otakon Game Show, which had four contestants on-stage showing off their anime trivia skills, one of whom was an aforementioned Reverse Thief. The format of the game had it so that the audience could participate as well, and keen panel attendees might have noticed that I reached second place in Round 1 of the Game Show, just about 30 points shy of the #1 spot.

I realized my own frightening power during that panel. One of the categories in the second round was “Shower Scenes,” and for one question, even before the clip started playing and all the only thing visible was a shower head, I said “Chun-Li” to my friends and was eventually proven to be correct. Sadly, none of the contestants actually got it, though any arguments I make about that shower scene being really distinct and iconic does not help me in any way. Still, for one moment I shined in the most brilliant yet dark way imaginable.

Though that was the last panel I participated in as an audience member, I was also a panelist on “Anime and Manga Studies,” which had us answering questions from both the moderator, Mikhail Koulikov as well as the audience. It was a Sunday 9am panel, which meant that attendance would inevitably be somewhat sparse, but I was still glad to see quite a few people show up. I hope we provided a good panel for you all!

Cosplay

I’ll let this section more or less speak for itself, but I do want to say that the three of the biggest cosplay this year were probably Madoka Magica, Panty & Stocking, and especially Tiger & Bunny. Sadly I did not get any photos of Tiger & Bunny, and the only Dragon Kid cosplayer I managed to find was when I was waiting for the bus on the way home.

Miscellaneous Noteworthy Things

The artist’s alley this year had some really interesting features, an “Art of Akira” exhibit that features the animation cel collection from a diehard Akira fan and did a really good job of showcasing the visual excellence of that film.

A couple of artists also caught my eye, especially one Ashwara, who I commissioned to draw a piece of Ogiue fanart for me. Amidst a number of artists who draw well but pretty much look the same in style, his work really stood out and I was glad to have seen it.

There was also a wall at the Aniplex booth where people could ask Kyubey for a wish. Seeing it, there was one wish I knew I had to make.

Is it a cat?

This year also gave attendees the opportunity to donate to Japan in light of the recent disaster, to which they gave merchandise. I received this Madoka poster for my efforts.

In terms of cheap and simple food, a Jimmy John’s had opened up since the previous year, which had me jumping for joy (you can ask others about it). Back in college, I frequently visited the local Jimmy John’s, and had not been able to partake of it in over five years. Now that I know that there’s one to greet me every Otakon, I know where I’ll be eating at least once. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s really quick and I think it tastes better than Subway.

In terms of more expensive food though, the place to go this year was Abbey Burger Bistro, which features a number of exotic meats in burger form. My burger ended up being a medium-well Kangaroo burger with mushrooms, onion rings, chili mayo, herb yogurt, swiss, and pepper jack. The only thing that made it better was being in the company of good friends, including Daryl and Gerald from Anime World Order, the Reverse Thieves, Patz, the crew over at Ani-Gamers, and many more. Same goes for everyone I met over the weekend. You know who you guys are.

A Special Message

In the sweltering heat of Baltimore in July, when humidity and temperature worked together as an unpleasant duet, only one man was truly able to save us from the sun. He sold cool, freezing temperature water for a mere dollar, and he had a powerful advertising jingle to go with it. Apparently around last year, the addition of the megaphone made his presence fully known. Even for those who did not buy his goods, he was quite possibly the most refreshing part of Otakon 2011, his pitch quickly becoming a popular tune to sing along with for the attendees. I found myself in that group as well.

Ice Cold Water cosplay is inevitable.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica has come and gone, and it’s going to be a subject of much discussion. Part of it may simply be that the delay caused by the earthquake in tsunami Japan magnified the anticipation for the finale even more than the already huge expectations for the show, but I think this anime is going to stick in people’s minds for at least the near future. Though the show has its flaws, overly expository dialogue and some contrived twists to name a couple, I found it to be an overall strong show and indeed an interesting twist on the magical girl genre that understands what magical girls are about.

I’m going to be discussing the show and its ending in depth, so take this as the Spoiler Warning.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mazinkaiser SKL and Madoka Magica embody the spirit of 1990s anime and anime fandom.

That I included Mazinkaiser SKL in that statement is not much of a surprise, I imagine. It’s the robot whose name stands for “Skull” because it’s covered in skulls, and its plot, characters, and levels of ultra-violence are taken straight of the worst best OVAs of the era. Mazinkaiser SKL has what thrilled anime fans of the 90s, and it would not have looked out of place next to the likes of MD Geist and Bubblegum Crisis.

My choice of Madoka Magica might be more puzzling, but I insist that in some ways it houses the 90s anime (and anime fan) spirit even more than Mazinkaiser SKL. When you look at how the series has been captivating fans, you see recurring comments in regards to how dark it is, or how it subverts the genre. Even if people don’t necessarily have a good understanding of the original genre being addressed, when it comes down to it Madoka Magica is attracting fans because it feels “different” and worth discussing and thinking about at length. The way people talk about it reminds more of the way people discuss Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Evangelion than the way conversations about Suzumiya Haruhi or Code Geass go. Madoka Magica has that certain something that thrills people into dividing anime into Madoka Magica and everything else. While the difference is that Akira drew in non-fans and Madoka Magica isn’t really going beyond the existing fandom, it seems to be hitting fans with the same shock that Goku’s death gave to me as I realized cartoon character’s could die after all.

So while Mazinkaiser SKL is aesthetically an anime ripped straight out of the 90s, a time traveler from a different era whose ways may seem at odds with the current day, Madoka Magica takes the effect anime had on anime fans in the 90s and translates that emotional impact across time onto the current fandom. Whether or not these shows will be remembered in another ten years is unknown, but at the very least in the here and now they connect the decades together.

Ever since episode 1 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, many bloggers have been making confident statements about how the show looks to be a dark subversion of the magical girl anime. While that is certainly accurate on some level, it seems to be the case that a lot of people don’t quite understand how exactly Madoka Magica is a subversion, simply because they don’t understand the subject itself. In other words, a good number of people writing about Madoka Magica don’t actually know the magical girl genre, despite the broad statements being made. Thus, I am going to address at least a few misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Magical Girl Anime Are About Good vs. Evil

Correction: Magical girl anime are about “before” vs. “after.”

While there are some shows which pit our heroine(s) against a dark force, the vast majority of magical girl anime and manga do not even factor in the good/evil dichotomy. Instead, they will focus on how the magic changes their own lives or how it changes the lives of those around them. Those shows which do have a good deal of fighting often have it in service to something else; in those instances, it’s generally more about protecting others than it is vanquishing villains. So when someone says that Madoka Magica is different because it doesn’t have “Good vs Evil,” they are basically incorrect in the sense that magical girl shows were never really about good and evil in the first place.

Misconception #2: Magical Girl Anime Say, “You Don’t Have to Change a Thing!”

Correction: Magical girl anime say, “the magic isn’t as important as who you are!”

Yes, the “Be Yourself!” message is fairly common in magical girl shows, but there’s a distinct difference between this statement and the misconception. One implies a static existence, while the other points to an active one. The self-improvement thus happens with the help of magical powers, but it is usually the catalyst for change, with the real reason coming from within.

Misconception #3: Sailor Moon/Nanoha is a Typical Magical Girl Show

Correction: Sailor Moon is more of a typical fighting magical girl anime and Nanoha is an atypical fighting magical girl anime, while a typical magical girl anime is more along the lines of Ultra Maniac or Fushigiboshi no Futagohime.

This ties in directly with misconception number 1 and it’s fairly understandable why people make this mistake. Sailor Moon is a very significant show in the magical girl genre, and for many anime fans the very first mahou shoujo anime they ever watched (myself included), but it wasn’t really typical for its time. Certainly it has had its influence on later series, probably most notably Pretty Cure, but Sailor Moon combined the magical girl anime with the team dynamic popular in live action tokusatsu and to a lesser extent giant robot anime, and used that as a platform to deliver action-packed fights, but don’t confuse what Sailor Moon added to the genre with what the genre is fundamentally about.

Similarly, Nanoha is a show made for otaku, taking the magical girl formula and targeting it directly towards an older male audience–much like Madoka Magica itself–but it draws a lot from Sunrise action and mecha shows and adds a cup of moe. It’s also understandable why this might be an anime fan’s main exposure to magical girls, as fans who might have avoided the genre as a whole may have been pulled in by what Nanoha did differently, but that is the Nanoha formula, not the magical girl one.

“So what exactly is Madoka Magica subverting, then?”

To understand the answer to this question, we have to know the basic theme of the magical girl anime, which is how magic can make your wishes come true, or let you do things you couldn’t before. This can be portrayed by having a character, generally a normal girl, come across their magical abilities, or it can directly target the audience (which it generally assumes to be young girls) and have a girl who already has magical powers from the start. Either way, a magical girl show typically says, “Wouldn’t it be great to be a magical girl?” You can see this in pretty much every magical girl show aimed at girls, be it Cardcaptor Sakura, Majokko Megu-chan, Shugo Chara, Minky Momo, Ojamajo Doremi, and yes, even Sailor Moon. If the show is geared more towards male otaku, then the theme might turn into “Wouldn’t it be great to know a magical girl?” but the opportunity magic gives you to change/better your life is the crux of it all.

On some level magical girl anime are about the exploration wish fulfillment, and when you keep that in mind the true nature “dark” element of Madoka Magica becomes clearer. The dreary aesthetic of the witch realms, the violence, and the ambiguous morality in the characters play a role, but the most important point to consider is how the magical mascot Kyubey offers the chance to make your wish come true at the “price” of becoming a magical girl. The fact that the wish-granting comes with some sort of unknown, unquantified, and unqualified cost is where the direct subversion is strongest.

“How much are you willing to sacrifice to make your wish come true?”

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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