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Friday, June 26, 2009


Anime conventions still set trends

Special to The Japan Times

More than 40,000 people are expected to gather in Los Angeles between July 2 and July 5 for the largest anime, manga and games convention in North America, Anime EXPO.

News photo
Smart acts: Game creator Daisuke Ishiwatari (above) and idol act Morning Musume are making an impression in the United States.
News photo

Despite reports suggesting Japan's most ubiquitous cultural export might have peaked, AX is in it's 18th year and is expecting another record turnout. According to estimates from the Japan External Trade Organization, the American market for Japanese anime-related products peaked in 2003 at $4.8 billion and has fallen ever since, to just $2.8 billion in 2007.

At the New York Graphic Novel Conference in February, the gloomy outlook was stoked further by retail news source ICv2, which reported a 17 percent decrease in manga sales in 2008 on 2007, despite a rise in the value of the total graphic-novel market from $375 million to $395 million. Against this backdrop, however, the state of anime conventions could barely be healthier.

Anime EXPO 2008 is reported by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to have had a $4 million direct economic impact on the local area, with a further $25 million indirectly boosting local hotels and services.

Rival conventions have taken place across the continent, from JACON in Orlando, Fla., Otakon in Baltimore, Maryland, Kawaii-kon in Honolulu, Hawaii, and even Aurora-Con in Anchorage, Alaska, with two more in Canada, Edmonton's Animethon and Vancouver's Anime Evolution. AX Chairwoman Liyin Liang explains that the uniqueness of anime is it's broad appeal.

"(Anime) covers the full breadth and depth of human emotion, but it is also fearless in the topics that it is willing to tackle such as nuclear fallout, biowarfare or S&M. Our attendee demographic ranges from 15 to over 50. It is split 45/55 between women and men and we have staffers who are future doctors, lawyers, real-estate agents, nurses, teachers, computer technicians, musicians, engineers, marketers, publicists, magicians and cooks!"

The EXPO lasts four days and simultaneously features a convention for the public with a three-day conference for the industry.

"I think that both are equally important" says Liang. "Because in reality, the fans and industry cannot survive without each other. We present a forum at which the industry and fans can interact, but we also have a forum where the industry can network with each other in order to move forward by working together."

The convention is backed by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, which will have its own exhibition hall displaying collections of imported and domestic product, and present its Industry Awards. Guests can also expect workshops, industry panel discussions, charity auctions and even a taste of traditional Japanese culture with a themed festival, AniMatsuri (matsuri means festival in Japanese).

Liang herself got involved thanks to one of the EXPO's own recruitment drives. "I was at Cal-Animage Eta anime club (University of California, Los Angeles) in 1999 with around 350 people. We even had students from nearby universities join our club."

"Every year we (at AX) try to do as much recruitment at local universities as possible. Since our core demographic is college students and young professionals, we really wanted our staff to reflect that. We have ex-staffers that now work for Kadokawa, Geneon, Urban Vision, Madhouse, Sega, Intel, Sony, Square Enix, and more."

The EXPO also does its best to cover all aspects of Japanese anime. While the top titles in the U.S. are familiar names likes "Naruto," "Dragon Ball," "Final Fantasy" and "Pokemon," Liang says that interest in other areas is strong. "Shojo (aimed at girls aged 10-18) and Seinen (for men aged 18-30) reign supreme; it's what drives the sales for the major publishers and bookstores in the U.S., but the Yaoi manga (homoerotic male-relationship stories aimed at girls) panel has been one of the most avidly attended panels at our convention."

The event also brings together several honored guests, this year including game creator Daisuke Ishiwatari and J-pop group Morning Musume.

Ishiwatari, 35, was born in South Africa and entered the industry as a game tester. He made his name as the creator of the first "Guilty Gear" game for the Sony PlayStation 1 and is keen to meet new talent at the convention. "When I first made it into the industry, I was both motivated and competitive. I saw everyone as my rival, thinking, 'Can I beat this guy? Can I beat that guy? I'm looking forward to seeing designers come into the industry with a burning passion."

Tsunku, though best known as all-girl group Morning Musume's creator and producer, designed the Nintendo Game Boy and arcade game "Rhythm Tengoku" and its followup "Rhythm Heaven" for Nintendo DS.

"I think anime culture is universal and I'm glad to hear American people are so into it. I believe good anime remains a masterpiece forever. I hope new great energy will be born at the convention from this collaboration between Japanese and U.S. culture, and that it will last into the future."

Morning Musume have this year created the theme song for the convention, titled "3-2-1 Breakin' Out."

"We have been already shot a promotion video for it and are itching to go there really soon (because) we got a lot of video messages from people in foreign countries!" says the group's subleader, Risa Niigaki, 20.

"I'm so excited that I want to dress up as my favorite character," says fellow member Lin Lin, 18, who originally hails from Hangzhou, China.

"I'd like to be Luffy (of long-running shonen manga 'One Piece'), but it might be a little difficult to prepare a 'gum-gum' pistol!"

Morning Musume's latest album, "Platinum 9 Disc," will get distribution in the U.S. and the group are delighted at the opportunity the EXPO provides them to reach a new audience. "We could launch into Asian countries last year and we can go to America this year! It is so cool! It makes me hope that we can go to many other countries in the future and have the people there listen to and enjoy our songs" says Niigaki. Morning Musume have themselves contributed to several anime. Niigaki lent her voice as the character Athena for the TV show Robby & Kerobby, as well as providing the theme song with the group "Athena & the Robikerotts."

Morning Musume also sang the theme song for 3-D animation "The Lilliput Kingdom."

"When I went to kindergarten, I loved 'Sailor Moon' the best," says Niigaki. "We copied 'Sailor Moon' hairstyles and had a 'Sailor Moon' playhouse in kindergarten. But then I came to love Disney."

Highlighting the differences between Japanese anime and U.S. cartoons, Niigaki continues: "The movies that Disney makes are full of dreams. They are imaginative stories full of fantasy that I let play in the background just to be in their world. While Japanese anime draws the everyday lives of ordinary people and shows the tiny happiness we find there that makes us smile or warms our hearts."

"The only anime that I was willing to watch when I was young were always happy ones, but in elementary school, the teachers had us gather to watch (Hayao Miyazaki's) 'Grave of the Fireflies.' I didn't want to watch it because it is heartbreaking. But now I'm an adult, I've come to think that when I have children, I'd like them to know about war, the pain of death and such things, so I hope that children will watch (more intellectual anime) now."

Looking to areas of future growth for anime that AX can focus on, Liang is optimistic. "I believe that the largest area of growth would be a movement towards faster and more efficient legal distribution digitally via the Internet on sites such as Crunchyroll.com.

"With the entrance of major book publishers such as Del Rey Books (a subsidiary of mainstream sci-fi and comic publisher Random House Publishing) into the manga market, I have every confidence that fans and readers of manga can expect another solid year of titles." And despite the negative figures, Japanese anime's influence is there for all to see in American product. "More and more we are seeing anime influences in domestic production. Although these productions are still categorized as "cartoons", anime has inspired titles like "The Last Avatar," "Teen Titans," and even "Batman Beyond."

Anime EXPO takes place July 2-5 at Los Angeles Convention Centre.

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