Category Archives: Conventions

Interview: Aimer

Aimer, an up-and-coming J-pop singer with Defstar Records, is currently best known for her song for Fate/stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works OP “Brave Shine” as well as insert song “Last Stardust.” She has also done EDs for Bleach and No. 6, as well as Gundam Unicorn, and also recorded an album of covers called Your Favorite Things, which include songs by Lady Gaga, Coldplay, and other well-known artists.

We conducted this interview at Anime Expo 2015. The interviewer was Raymond Hu. The transcript is edited for clarity and grammar.

Which artists inspired your work?

I was inspired by Avril Lavinge and a lot of Japanese bands. As for songwriters, I’d say Bjork….for Japanese bands, Spitz.

[Michael] Did you ever watch Honey and Clover? Spitz did a lot of songs for that show.

I do remember the ED theme for Honey and Clover being theirs, yes.*

You did a cover album called Your Favorite Things and covered “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga. What do you think of her as a musician and performer?

Music-wise, she’s very rebellious and does very new things and that’s why I look up to Lady Gaga. Well, actually I’ve never met her in person so I don’t know what she’s like, but musically she really inspires me.

Could you talk a little bit about the making of Your Favorite Things?

Around the time of my debut, I worked with a production team called agehasprings. They were trying to figure out what kind of musical influences and genres they wanted me to aim towards. That’s how they got me started making this cover album.

I read on your home page that you lived abroad sometime [in the UK]. What did you learn from coping with a different culture?

It was definitely difficult to blend in with a different culture and it was a lot of stress for me. But I like the sound of English words so I felt very lucky to be in a different country.

You had to take a break from singing when you were 15. Can you describe your emotions at the time and how you overcame this trial, and what gave you your strength?

Obviously, I was very shocked that I couldn’t sing and I was saddened by it. But by losing my voice, it actually made me appreciate music more than I used to. That is how I overcame and conquered losing my voice.

Did any person or specific inspiration give you that strength?

I went to a lot of hospitals and a lot of doctors, and I finally came across a very well-known doctor. When we were able to figure out what was wrong, it helped me move on.

So identifying the exact cause helped?

Yes.

After that, your voice evolved to what some call a “dry and sweet” tone. Can you elaborate on that?

It made me very happy and glad to hear people say that about my voice, because I’m not trying to act, to sing [with] that voice…it’s how I sing now. I really appreciate it because it’s my natural voice.

One of your songs is called “Re: I Am” and I understand a deconstruction of your performing name (Aimer). Can you explain what it means to you personally?

So this song was written by Hiroyuki Sawano. If you switch around my name it’s “Re: I Am” (an anagram). Before that song, I was singing very quiet, mellow songs, but this is very different…it was like discovering a new me. It was a very emotional encounter. 

What adjustments did you have to make when you went from an indie artist to a major label one?

Moving to a major label meant I got to meet more fans, and I want to see and hear more from them. I appreciate all the support.

Could you talk about your experience working on the Fate/stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works song, “Last Stardust”?

“Last Stardust” was going to be the OP, but instead “Brave Shine” was chosen. However [the song] is like a farewell to a very weak me, taking that to the past, and becoming a stronger me. 

*Note: Aimer is referring to the ED for the live action film version of Honey and Clover, “Mahou no Kotoba,” not the anime EDs, which were done by Suneohair and others.

Interview: Itaru Hinoue, Character Designer of Key Visual Arts

Itaru Hinoue is lead character designer and one of the founding members of Key Visual Arts, one of the most influential visual novel studios in Japan. Her moe character style has helped define entire genres of visual novels and anime, from titles starting with Kanon and continuing into Air and Clannad. Inoue also contributed to the scenario of Key’s latest visual novel, Rewrite, and has also done other artwork as collected in her art book White Clover.

This interview was conducted by Lily Huang and Michael Huang. It has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

[Michael] When you started designing characters for Key, did you imagine that it would inspire an entire approach to doing this “moe” style?

I didn’t expect it at all!

[Michael] What were you trying to capture in designing characters that way, especially girl characters?

My characters have to be cute–that’s what I was going for.

After you did Kanon and Air, which were very popular games, was there a lot of pressure to meet fans’ expectations between Kanon, Air, and Clannad

I did feel pressure to make it a better creation, to draw it better, to make better illustrations for each project I had. 

I ask because Kanon and Air were only one year apart, but there was a 4 year gap between Air and Clannad

Overall we wanted to do better because Air sold so well. We ended up taking four years because we wanted to go above and beyond.

Between Clannad and Little Busters, you worked on BL games. Do you think boys can be moe?

(Laughs) You must be really into it! I like making very handsome people…because I had been drawing girls, I wanted to draw some guys. With my style of moe, I can draw them…I like the smaller boys so I can apply it the way I like.

When I came across your BL work in White Clover I was surprised. It’s so different from what you’ve done before.

After Clannad I was trying to figure out what to do next, and I wanted to draw boys. I gathered some girls and did some [focus] testing to see what kind of drawings worked, and ended up making it at the company. That’s how it started off.

[Michael] What does moe mean to you, personally?

It means kawaii (cute).

[Michael] What do you hope the audience feels when they see one of your characters?

That’s a hard question! I want them to think–“my wife.” I want them to love them that much. I want them cute enough to say “they ARE my wife.”

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Shizuru from Rewrite.

What are your favorite character types to create–tsundere, megane, eyepatch, cool, etc.?

With Shizuru [Nakatsu, from Rewrite], I stuffed in everything I like into that chracter. That could be your base line of what I like to draw.

Are you aware that there are a lot of fans overseas of Key, and we were able to raise $500,000 for an English translation of Clannad?

I didn’t know it was overseas as much, but at Comiket, I did see some overseas users that visited.

Will Key focus on the overseas market in the future?

[producer] We’ll try!

How did you develop your special style of creating characters, with the large eyes and high noses? 

I’ve been drawing since I was little, and I’ve always liked large eyes–it’s a staple. Whenever I draw they just end up being big.

Interview: Ryukishi07, creator of Higurashi and Umineko

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Ryukishi07 of 07th Expansion is a pioneer in the visual novel scene. Best known as the original creator of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni and Umineko no Naku Koro ni, he has been plumbing the depths of suspense, horror, and mystery for many years. Recently, in a change of genre, he wrote Lucia’s route in Key Visual Arts’ most recent visual novel, Rewrite (whose head writer was Aura and Humanity Has Declined’s Romeo Tanaka).

This interview was conducted by Lily Huang, and comes courtesy of MangaGamer. It has been edited for clarity and concision.

Why do your stories revolve around the tension between natural or supernatural explanations for phenomenon? (For instance, the curse of Oyashiro-sama in Higurashi, the Red or Blue Truth in Umineko, and Lucia’s route in Rewrite.)

I like to leave it up to the audience to figure it out on their own.

Do what audiences come up with ever contradict what you imagined?

Yes, there are times when I present something, but readers take it a different way. It happens a lot. In the case of Higurashi, it took four years to make, and the readers had a lot of opinions and feedback, and I would take that and incorporate it into the next work. It’s like catching and passing a ball back and forth, an ongoing process.

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You worked on Rewrite’s Lucia route, which was a collaboration with many other people. Was it harder to write it without any feedback from fans?

In the case of Higurashi and Umineko, it was my own work so I could do whatever I wanted. In Rewrite, it was Key Visual Arts’ work so I had to respect that, and it made me really nervous to write in a very different style and thought process.

When you did the Lucia route, did you have to write more “business” type than “passion” type than you usually do? How did it make your work with Key more or less difficult?

For me, when I could write anything I wanted, it was harder to come up with things. With Rewrite, there’s already a world and setting set up for me, as well as a character. It’s actually easier to write and expand that world. It was fun.

Did you write the route knowing the ending ahead of time, or not?

Rewrite itself is by Romeo Tanaka, and I couldn’t change that–there was already an initial setting for Lucia. But the direction of the story was up to me, as long as it was possible in that world. The ending was mine.

Overall what was your experience like as a collaborator? What did you like and what would you change?

Before Rewrite, I only wrote mystery, murders, suspense…it was the first time I wrote a love story. I found a lot of new things about my writing style. It was a good experience.

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We know you as a creator who works very closely with fans–Umineko and Higurashi had changes after fan feedback. How has your interaction with fans changed since then?

When I wrote Higurashi and Umineko, I was still young and energetic, so I could go all the way. Now I’m getting kind of old and want to settle down, and find a new way of writing to fit my current stamina.

What is it like working with fan translation groups like Witch Hunt vs official companies like MangaGamer?

I’m always surprised because my games are so long, and there’s so much text, it’s surprising someone can translate all that work. They must have so much passion over the story.

What is like working with MangaGamer?

I’m very happy that we released new artwork for Higurashi and putting things on Steam. I’m happy to see new fans try things out that way.

What are your thoughts of the future of the doujin and visual novel market in Japan vs America? Do you see fan involvement being more important in the future?

Today’s visual novels are released by commercial companies; they are such high quality, they’re almost like [professional] anime. But people like fans that are making their own sound novels for the first time, they’re unable to get to that level at the start. I’m a little worried about them. But it’s OK that there can be two separate worlds of visual novels–very high quality commercial novels as well as old-fashioned pictures and music sound novels.

Interview: Daisuke Ishiwatari, Creator of Guilty Gear

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Video game designer Daisuke Ishiwatari is best known as the creator of the fighting game series Guilty Gear. A multi-talented artist, he not only serves as a video game designer but also as a score composer, having written the score for BlazBlue. He also provided voices for characters in Guilty Gear. 

Jeremy Booth interviewed him at Anime Expo 2015. This interview was edited for clarity and concision. Question help provided by Dan Campisi.

You were born in South Africa, is that correct? What was your family doing there?

Yes, in Johannesburg. They were there for work.

How long did you and your family live there?

I’ve lived there twice: the first time when I was born, and right after that we immediately returned to Japan. Then I was there again from the fourth year of elementary school to the second year of middle school.

So are you technically South African-Japanese then?

At the time, I had dual South African/Japanese citizenship, but when I was taking my tests for college, I got a conscription notice from the South African army. I threw away my [South African] citizenship then.

How would you describe the culture in South Africa compared to Japan and here? Do you have a lot of memories?

First of all, when you hear “Africa” you don’t think “big city,” but [Johannesburg] is a very big city. We were Japanese, but since we were living mostly with Caucasian people, it felt kind of like England.

Moving on to your gaming work, you’ve done a lot of jobs from music creator, character designer, voice actor, director…what would you say your focus has been in the past few years? Which role is your favorite?

What I’m doing now hasn’t really changed much from the past, but one thing has changed: I used to do a lot of the graphics [myself], but now I hand that over to the lead artists. In terms of favorite–I like everything.

I also understand you’re a big fan of western RPGs like Diablo and Fallout. What is it that you like about them?

I love them. I haven’t been playing them too much recently, but when I first put my hands on them, one thing that really clicked with me was the sense of freedom you got from those games.

Kind of a sandbox environment where you can do a little of everything?

Yes.

Your expertise is on focusing on being the best at fighting games. Where do you see the future of fighting games heading?

For me personally, if the genre were to change anymore, it would no longer be “fighting games.” For instance, there’s Super Smash Bros, and if you were to ask me if that was a fighting game, I would say it’s not–it’s different. But, that being said, I think that within the genre, there are things that haven’t been discovered or invented yet, and discovering those things is part of our mission.

In 2012 you said in a Gamasutra interview that you wanted to see that the genre kept evolving. How has your thinking changed since then?

It’s a really difficult question,  but for a long time, I’ve really wanted to see a game where players used their own physical strength inside the game. But maybe if that kind of thing were to happen, it may no longer be the same thing.

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In Guilty Gear, there is a character called Bridget. Bridget is considered one of the first transgender character in games. What was the process of creating Bridget, and what inspired you to make the character transgender?

I guess I couldn’t pin the inspiration for the character on any one thing. But when we are making new characters, we are always looking for some new element to add to the character to make it interesting and fun, and while we were making Bridget, that was the element.

Did you realize it was a milestone when you did it?

I wasn’t thinking about; I didn’t realize.

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There’s a fan debate on how to pronounce “BlazBlue.” What is the correct way to pronounce it?

So in Japan, we pronounce it “Blay-Blue.” In other countries, the pronunciation is “Blaze Blue.” Mori [Toshimichi], the gentleman who worked on BlazBlue, he really liked the sound of “Blay-Blue”, but when it came time to localize to other countries, he was told there was no way that would work.

Interview: Kumiko Murayama, IA Producer

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IA is a newer Vocaloid persona created by 1st PLACE, based on the voice of anisong singer Lia. Based on Vocaloid version 3, she has appeared in a few games, many Youtube videos, and other media, and recently got her own rhythm game, IA/VT Colorful.

At Anime Expo 2015, we spoke with Kumiko Murayama, the CEO of 1st PLACE and the lead producer of IA. She answered questions about IA’s origins and the future of music with Vocaloids in general.

This interview was conducted by Michael Huang and has been edited for concision and clarity.

How was Lia chosen to become the sampled voice of IA?

It was Lia and her management who came forward–she had gotten married and had kids, and was on maternity leave, so she didn’t have the time to continue promoting herself and continuing on as an artist. She wanted a way to keep her fans happy while also raising her family, and using the Vocaloid as a means to do that was something she proposed.

That’s really fascinating. Do you think that is something that singers who can’t perform as much as they like to might use to extend their artistic abilities in the future? Could it be a general trend?

One of the other goals Lia had was to become a worldwide artist, and at the time of her leave, she hadn’t met that goal yet. She wondered what could help achieve that goal. Since the Vocaloids are popular not just popular in Japan but all over the world, that was one way of pursuing that dream.

As for other artists using that approach and maybe making a trend, it sounds like it could be something that’s viable.

IA is based on Vocaloid 3, a newer version of the software than some other Vocaloids like Hatsune Miku. How has the company used the newer features of Vocaloid 3 to produce IA, and how is it different, even improved over previous Vocaloids?

As technology comes out, there’s always new features that get added on. As we were developing IA, Vocaloid 3 had just come out, and there was a feature called “TriHorn” as well as many other features specified in the manual. But we used other features not in the manual, without specific names.

Vocaloid 4 is already out, and we put a lot of time and effort into IA’s development, so even though it’s still on 3 we think the quality matches that of 4. TriHorn produces much better, much more natural voice quality. It sounds a lot less animatronic and a lot more human.

Photo by Kaori Suzuki (official)
Photo by Kaori Suzuki (official)

How long does it take to prepare for one of these live concert appearances, where she’s being projected onto the stage?

It depends on a case by case basis, but the one that you saw on the sample video, that took about half a year to produce. And the production that’s playing on July 4th for AX took about a year to produce.

IA has been used in different kinds of branding for different companies. Out of all the companies IA’s been involved in, which industry do you think has had the most impact in terms of attracting fans?

There was a game, Groove Coaster, that really helped internationally in getting people more familiar with IA overseas…people that played this game and went to Youtube to watch the videos. As a result we got 2 million views.

Do you think Vocaloid artists like IA or Hatsune Miku are the future of pop music?

The main mission or goal is to get a worldwide fanbase for Japanese music. For the most part in Japan, there aren’t a whole lot of new musical genres that are being created. [Instead] there’s a lot of refinement of the existing genres. This is taking a genre and giving it worldwide appeal and getting as many people outside of Japan interested in the music, and Vocaloids.

Do you see this beginning to spread outside the anime fan culture? Or do you see that as the primary audience?

We want to appeal not only to otaku and anime fans, but to make it mainstream, worldwide music. The way we feel we can do that is to create places where people can make that jump. For instance, “City Lights” was one of our big collaborations with a drum n’ bass group. So that was a way to get more people to become more interested. Similarly, Groove Coaster is not so much an anime, but it’s a music game, so again a bunch of people played that and become more interested in IA and watched all the videos on Youtube.

The grand plan is to bridge the gap between people who believe that Vocaloids are only for otakus and make it more widely acceptable. It’s not going to be like people are going to be turned off by looking at the image and thinking, “this is just another Vocaloid, this is just anime style and I don’t care about that.” The idea of this was to broaden the horizon for Japanese music in general, so that we have international customers who say that, “Oh I want to listen to Japanese music.”

Interview: Kazutaka Kodaka, creator of Danganronpa

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Kazutaka Kodaka is a writer and director of video games at Spike Chunsoft. He is best known as the creator of the Danganronpa series, which features elements of mystery, survival horror, and anime-styled whimsy. He has also been involved in localizing non-Japanese games for Chunsoft such as Hotline: Miami. We spoke to him at length about his influences and inspirations for the unique series and approach he takes to gaming.

This interview was conducted by Jeremy Booth at Anime Expo 2015.

First of all, how was your trip to LA?

I loved Hooters! I just went straight there.

What inspired you to get into the gaming industry? What was the moment you knew you wanted to go into designing and making games?

I was originally going to write scenarios for films, but I was asked if I wanted to join the game industry instead. So that is how I got in.

So you went from just telling stories to making more interactive stories?

Yes, interactive.

You’ve said you are a fan of movies like Cube, Saw, and other survival horror. Are you interested in any other horror movies or films, and have they influenced your mindset?

I like Twin Peaks.  I like sequels…I wanted to create games where once the first chapter ends, you’d want to see the second [installment].

You mentioned Twin Peaks. What other David Lynch films do you like?

Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart….all of them!

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You also said you were influenced by a game called Illbleed. Anything stand out from that game that really stood out to you?

It’s very particular, but I like the fact that the healing items will disappear if you don’t use them.  

Any other games you are inspired by now or in the past?

Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which was made by Rare. A squirrel has a gun and just starts shooting…I think the comedy and parodies are awesome. It’s cute but it has a very aggressive and violent tone…one of the characters [a piece of poo] even sings opera! I can never see what’s coming next.

Are you familiar with Five Nights at Freddy’s? It feels like an American take on something similar to Danganronpa.

Yes, it’s true, the concept and a lot of things do seem similar. Even though it’s similar, it still has its own different individual character.

What do you remember most about working for the Konami Group?

The company is really strict. I was debugging games part-time.

What impressed you about Hotline: Miami? 

I liked how cruelty is turned into entertainment through 8-bit art styles…I also like how the music and soundtrack, and the fact that the game is only written by two people. There are games that are so famous or big that you don’t know who’s creating them. I prefer games where there’s a small group of people making it so I can see what kind of people they are.

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What do you look for when you want to bring American games to a Japanese audience? How do you localize a game like Hotline: Miami?

I didn’t want to change that much…I don’t mind if not that many people buy it, only the few people who would love that game who would be entertained by it. Same goes with Danganronpa.

 

Your company is also well-known for the 999 series [of room puzzle type games]. What draws you to that genre?

It’s an interactive story, as interactive as possible. The situation is similar in Dangonronpa where you have to kill a character at a time. Instead of showing you a character to kill, you make the player choose who to kill.

What direction can we expect for the Dangonronpa series?

When I release something to the public, I want to surprise the audience. I don’t just want to release the same old thing, rather something where you say “you’re doing that?” Still, the core component is mystery.

More insanity?

Yes! Awesome.

 

Interview: Voltage Games

Voltage Games is a prominent Japanese publisher of mobile otome games (i.e., dating sims featuring several men to choose from, aimed at young women) such as My Forged Wedding, Kissed by the Baddest Bidder, and more. We had the chance to speak to company founder Yuzi Tsutani as well as VP Kentaro Kitajima at their booth at this year’s Anime Expo about their games, the challenges of adapting to an American market, and more.

The interview was conducted by Michael Huang, with question help by Linda Yau. Their games are available in the US in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

You are primarily a mobile game company. What is your take on being a mobile company vs PC games?

When we started the company in Japan, we started with Japanese cell phones (keitai). We never thought about doing PC or console games.

What’s your opinion about crowdsourcing funding, like with Kickstarter? Do you think you might pursue any games at Voltage that are crowdfunded as opposed to traditionally funded?

I don’t think so. Our budgets are much bigger than what crowdfunding sites get. People use crowdfunding when they are starting their business…but for us, it’s more like an investment. We are listed already [on the stock market].

Tell us about your best selling game, My Forged Wedding.Why do you think it’s so popular?

We feel that marriage and weddings are popular with women, an important part of their lives. We feel like using that as the main topic for the app, and so it’s become very popular.

Most of your games are aimed at young women. Do you see yourselves as role models? What do you hope to bring to them?

There is that aspect, but our number one goal is to create apps women will enjoy first and foremost.

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In many of the games, you have to buy the routes a la carte. What types of routes are most popular?

Usually we have 5 characters in a game. The most popular one is the bossy character, then the cool character. The younger character is not as popular.

Have you had any opportunities to collaborate with other companies or brands, and is that something you would like to do in the future?

In Japan, we are working on releasing an app based on Hana Yori Dangowhich is a very popular anime/manga series. If that does well, we’d consider more of them in the future.

You were adapting a very popular title in that case. Has it worked the other way around, adapting some of your games?

Some TV companies are considering making a program based on one of our stories. We can’t say which title. But some have already been made as a manga–our very first title was made into a manga.

Since you’re bringing these very Japanese games to an American audience, are there things you have to change or emphasize differently to appeal to a different culture?

Sometimes in Japanese games, things happen that wouldn’t make any difference there, but directly translated into English may be offensive. We have to be extra careful when we are localizing those aspects.

[Also] in Japan, a very quiet and [introspective] character is a norm, but that’s not the case in America. People prefer a much stronger, more self-aware character, so sometimes we have to adapt them.

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What kind of games do you hope to release in this country?

Our next step is Labyrinths of AstoriaThis is kind of between Japanese and US characters. It’s the first in our new series of Amemix titles, which aim to blend what’s great about Japan and America. We use anime style art, but with stories based on western concepts like Greek mythologies, with a very diverse cast. So we hope to create a new market with a new series of apps.

Interview: Thomas Romain

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At Anime Expo 2015, we talked to French-born Thomas Romain, an animation creator working at Shoji Kawamori’s Satelight Studio in Japan. He is noted for being the co-creator of basketball-influenced anime Basquash!, and has done designs for Space Dandy and other shows. He brings a unique perspective to working on the ground of the anime industry, often with some of the greats like Shoji Kawamori, Tatsuo Sato, and Shinichiro Watanabe. He’s also been on record noting concerns about the pay situation for animators in Japan–though you may be surprised on his thoughts about possible solutions to the issue.

The interview was conducted in English, and was edited for clarity.

Tell us about some of the Japanese anime you liked growing up.

When I was a kid, there was a lot of on tv, classics like Dragonball and Captain Harlock. And then when I was a teenager, I watched the Ghost in the Shell movie. It was pretty awesome. [I also watched] Ghibli movies, like Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies).

It was my generation—French comic artists who are about 30-40 years old, are like me very influenced by Japanese comics, because we were all watching anime in the 80s.

Tell us how you got involved in the anime industry. I know it was through Oban Star Racers…

Oban Star Racers was an anime influenced TV project, and we made a small trailer which we released on the Internet. We had a lot of very good responses from all over the world, and from Japan too. We got a message from a producer from Bandai Visual, and we realized that maybe it was possible to work with Japan.

And I was really into anime at that same time: I was watching Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, things like that. So we tried pushing in that direction and we succeeded in financing the project and convincing European investors to produce the series in Japan, with a Japanese studio, in 2002-2003. We moved to Tokyo and started producing the show. It was a really awesome experience. I wanted to stay there, and so I became a Satelight employee, and here I am.

You mentioned in an earlier interview [with Anime News Network] that this was an opportunity to meet your heroes, the luminaries of the industry, like Shinichiro Watanabe…

Actually I met Watanabe quite recently for Space Dandy.

And Tatsuo Sato for Bodacious Space Pirates.

The first time I met Sato was when I did Basquash!—I co-created Basquash! with Shoji Kawamori, and Sato was handling all the writing.

But you know, I wasn’t really aware of that. Because I wasn’t an anime fan; I was just trying to create my own stuff, and draw cool drawings. I was aware of some of the bigger names like Miyazaki, or Hideaki Anno. But Shoji Kawamori, when I met him, I wasn’t really aware of his career. So when I met him for the first time, I wasn’t really nervous. I was just really natural.

So it’s only later you found you found out this guy created Macross, and that he’s a legend.

Exactly!

Are there any funny stories of you working with some of these people?

Kawamori is really a character. There are a lot of stories about him. He’s really mystical, [interested in] old beliefs and religion and healers…healing people with their hands. That sort of thing.

We went to France two years ago, since we were invited by Japan Expo. Kawamori loves travel, and we went in some places in France, like the very old house where Leonardo da Vinci died, [where he spent] the last two years of his life. So we went to the room where Leonardo da Vinci died, and Kawamori just stayed there for one hour, without moving, trying to connect his spirit with da Vinci’s. He’s that kind of person.

Turning to a more serious matter, you’ve been quoted about some of the working conditions that animators face in Japan. Since that’s gotten some more publicity recently, have you seen any changes, or maybe a new discussion in the industry toward making some changes?

Some people are trying to make things better, but first it’s good to generate some publicity and to let people know that being an animator in Japan is really, really hard. Then maybe the audience will respect even more the work of the animators, who are doing an amazing job with nothing, with a piece of paper, with a very low salary.

But to make changes, we have a difficult problem. We don’t want animation to disappear from Japan, because if we make the costs too high, the investors will prefer to outsource the animation. Like France and US did…there is [now] almost no more 2D animation in France, Europe, or America. So I don’t want the same thing to happen to Japan.

And also, animators like to be free. They don’t want to be employees of [a particular] company. They want to stay freelance, work at their own rhythm, their own pace, and with the people they want to work with. It’s a very complex problem. It’s too hard. And I’m really worried—it’s becoming more and more difficult to get new talent interested working in anime. All the young people want to become seiyuu, not animators or background artists.

I wonder if you ever saw–there is a show called Shirobako. I highly recommend it to you.

I haven’t seen it, but it’s a very popular show. Back in the day there was an OVA called Animation Runner Kuromi. Also there was an episode directed by Satoshi Kon, in Paranoia Agent, with one episode about the animation industry.

I bring up Shirobako because there was a famous salary chart that was published, that basically published that annual salary of each of the characters.

I saw that. Yeah.

shirobako_salary

The difference between a regular animator and an A-list voice actress is such a gigantic gulf. It’s exactly what you’re talking about.

It’s like Lady Gaga vs. the guy checking the mics before the live shows. Like stars vs technicians.

Since you mentioned that most animators want to be freelance, do you think unionization is at all a solution to the pay problem?

I had this discussion with Lesean Thomas, the American creator I’m working with right now for Cannon Busters. He told me that unionization destroyed the animation industry in the US. There are no more animators.

We talked also about…doing storyboards for feature films. In Japan, usually the director does the storyboards for the feature film by himself. But in the US, they are working with a team of several storyboarders for each feature film. And he told me it was impossible in the US to ask only one guy to do all the storyboards because of the unions.

As a non-Japanese person in a Japanese industry, do you think you are primarily called upon to bring a non-Japanese perspective into the work that you’re doing? Is that something that you thought you’d be doing when you came to Japan?

Absolutely not. I just wanted to almost become Japanese, to work exactly like the Japanese creators. But because I cannot remove the fact that I am French, sometimes people want the skills…for example on La Croisée, the setting and action is in Paris. Or probably Space Dandy, Watanabe wanted something very different with the designs…

[The producers] just want to work with me, because I do great, solid designs, because I have strong skills, and I work very quickly and respect the schedule. So sometimes they ask me something because they want something different, but otherwise just because I’m just a skilled designer.

Concert Review: IA and Wagakki Band @ AX 2015

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Photo by Kaori Suzuki (official)

IA

Having been told that the entire projection took an year’s worth of preparation by the producer herself, it should not have been surprising that the show began an entire hour later than scheduled. Something as complex as a Vocaloid hologram is likely difficult to set up and prepare for public performance, even though this is not the first time a Vocaloid has shown up at Anime Expo, and it is using a later (though not latest) generation of the Vocaloid software than Hatsune Miku. When IA’s figure, gyrating and swinging to the synthesized beat, rose onto the piece of transparent glass that is her medium, the crowd finally went wild, glowsticks aloft. There was much pent-up energy that needed release.

IA sounds smoother and more “natural” (i.e., more like a human voice) than her more well-known sister Hatsune Miku. Based on samples of the voice of anisong singer Lia, there are moments during the performance where, if you close your eyes, you can believe it’s a human being singing the song rather than a voice synthesizer–that is the difference between version 2 and 3 of the software. (This is quite different from Miku, who sounds like a robot, which is part of her charm.) It helps that a few of the songs are catchy in the inimitable J-pop way of most Vocaloid music, and for those who are into going full otaku with the glowstick motions, the songs are easy enough to follow along. Nevertheless on some songs the synthesized nature of her voice becomes apparent, especially during the “stage banter” parts where long awkward pauses give away the fact that everything was preset. The appeal of this sort of performance is going to be inherently limited so long as uncanny valley moments like this still exist.

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Photo by Kaori Suzuki (official)

The choreography of the projection and the human dancers that often surrounded her was reasonably well-rehearsed, though occasionally awkward. The animations themselves were well-captured, however, and it’s easy to see how it would have taken a year to record, animate, and render the dance moves.

IA does not have the fame or cachet of Hatsune Miku, who is the face of the Vocaloid phenomenon, but her more natural sound points toward an interesting possible direction for this sort of singer: there may come a day when a Vocaloid will be almost indistinguishable from a live human voice. Whither, then, the future of pop music? Perhaps the tireless moe robot overlords are coming to a future stage near you.

 

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Photo by Lily Huang (Sh1zuka)

Wagakki Band

On the surface, Wagakki Band could not be a more diametrically opposite act than IA. Wagakki Band, for one, was a live band, with all their musicians playing real, even oversized, instruments. Many of those instruments are the ancient ones of Japanese traditional music: taiko drum, koto, shamisen, shakuhachi flute.

Yet, there is also the drums, guitars, and bass of modern heavy metal too, and it becomes apparent that Wagakki Band–despite its name which means “traditional Japanese instrument band”–is a thoroughly modern concoction, a cultural and technological collision as profound as that of a robot animated singer. It would be accurate, in fact, to say that Wagakki Band is more a hard rock/metal band with traditional Japanese flourishes, as Beni Ninagawa thrums on the shamisen like a hard rock guitar player with a pick and, during a thrilling drum solo between drummer Wasabi and taiko player Kurona, they bang out a talking drum duet as hard and fast as the great rock drummers of yore. (I was reminded of a heavier version of Chester Thompson and Phil Collins’ drum duets during Genesis’ latter prog days, but that may be a bit obscure for many readers.)

The thing is: this works. If you are a fan of hard rock music, the powerful, shigin-tinged vocals of Yuko Suzuhana belting out the theme from Samurai Warriors will excite as much as any female rocker. Crunchy riffs from Machiya rock as hard as anywhere else–occasionally sounding like John Petrucci of Dream Theater (whose music played, appropriately, over the PA during the intermission between IA and Wagakki Band). The melodies are much more traditional if you listen hard, but somehow lend themselves to rock much more than one thinks–and much more than the comparatively limp studio recordings suggest. This is a band best appreciated live, by far. They may not dance quite like IA, even though they do sometimes sing Vocaloid songs in their inimitable style, but they certainly know how to rock out, on the usual instruments as well as the wagakki instruments they are named after.

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Photo by Lily Huang (Sh1zuka)

The Wagakki Band set, for this relatively unfamiliar newcomer to their music, was consistently exciting and full of energy and rock goodness, with only an occasional moment where the loudness appeared to peak out the PA and cause some clipping. This is normal for a lot of rock shows, however, and convention concerts in particular, where live instrumentation is not as common. It was not enough to flag the energy of the crowd madly waving the same, somewhat faded glowsticks from the IA set. Their encores were well deserved, even if it was a repeat of the song from the start: a reminder that this is a still relatively new band just beginning to find its stage all over the world.

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Photo by Lily Huang (Sh1zuka)

Sense Impressions: NGE 20th Anniversary Celebration at AX 2015

2015

If you had asked me two weeks ago if I was headed out this year toward the Los Angeles Convention Center for the anime celebration of the west coast, I likely would have given you a proud “no”. Truth is, that after last year’s record attendance, and a lack of compelling guests or panels, it has become harder and harder to keep this convention momentum up. After nearly two decades of this one has to pick and choose their battles, and last year left me parched in the desert save for another chance to catch up with old friends, industry and beyond. So this year was meant to be something of a vacation from what used to be a popular personal vacation destination. I know, sounds pretty silly now, but considering what the medium has meant to me in the wake of Evangelion, one would hope noone would begrudge me the will to catch a breath. So when the grapevine juiced up with the promise of a twentieth anniversary featuring none other than NGE’s pop muse herself,Yoko Takahashi, it felt like something that just wouldn’t allow for my smug avoidance of this now major, mainstream gathering.

So in natural Winter form, I arrived at Hall B far earlier than I had any right or need to. Not a line had formed as staff had informed me that nothing would be happening until roughly 12:30p, with the show starting at 1:30. It was 10:15. Fine. It’s alright. Not feeling terribly materialistic, so Exhibit Hall is out. Nor am I hungry for overpriced poison, so forget eating. Brought a book with me that I long to finish, so the wall of waiting it is!

How little did I know that the background sounds I was hearing behind me was going to keep me from finishing that next chapter on the densha attendant who moved the packets of sarin gas out of a train in 1995, and that the singing I was hearing was Takahashi herself. My book closed as I leaned over to my back left in disbelief. She had just finished “Zankoku na Tenshi no Tēze”, and had just started with “Fly Me To The Moon”, Wait-is that the Laputa theme? Suddenly, the reality of where I was, and the significance of the whole event began to take a severe kind of hold over my body. A little over 18 years ago, these songs were just beginning their swirl throughout my consciousness like a larva burrowing deep into me in search of a home filled with food and warmth. The songs from Eva have within them a sort of emotional knowing that composer Shiro Sagisu and Takahashi infused within them that seem to understand the unspoken heart of a series that would come to define not only its director, but a generation of myth enthusiasts. The songs become iconographic, kin to GAINAX’s visual presentation and Sadamoto’s character designs. They are an indispensable part of Evangelion’s entire spirit, and every bit as important as the animation.

There was something very intimate, very curious about listening in to the rehearsal that again let me into the show’s own penchant for process. I could just ignore it, and crack open my book again, but this is process. It’s what attracted me to the entire series in the first place. A feeling of “in progress”, never perfect, always seeking the better. I never expected to be treated to such sounds, even if it was clear that the singer was taking it easy on her voice for the moment. This didn’t come with admission, and yet, this is perhaps the highlight of my afternoon.

A few chapters later, the staff at last led us out back to line up for the show which ended up lasting all of about twenty short minutes before we were corralled into a red-tinged Hall B, where the suspense built in spite of itself. And I say in spite of because the 1:30 show had soon become a 1:53 show due to one delay or another (which is expected of AX, but not accompanied by endless loops of Angel Attack–a song that will now gnaw at my brain should one note be uttered again). So when the lights finally went down, and our emcee at last revved the 3000+ crowd up for the afternoon’s festivities, all felt more than ready to experience what I had already done so, this time at 150%.

And what a sweet demon it is..

In truly top form,a winged & horned Takahashi was both deeply friendly and commanding in her performance, which included the aforementioned songs. (with a side of “Tamashii No Rufuran” – a personal favorite) And while she was given a little time to explain with translation help, the video presentation supplied by Shiro Sagisu’s company (a public premiere), and her upcoming compilation album, her appearance was meant to be but part of a larger whole presented by the folks at Bang Zoom! Entertainment. The prolific dub studio also hosted a charming cosplay contest, a voice acting demo featuring ADV dub veterans, Tiffany Grant, Matt Greenfield, and the inimitable Amanda Winn Lee, and music by ALICE Underground & Eru. And while I couldn’t be happier to see such personal favorites come by for a spell, it was Takahashi’s presence that hinted at an event that never truly materialized. But one can just call this me being greedy, which is more than likely true.

In all, the music was powerful yet brief, the appearances sweet but fleeting. And while I could certainly appreciate everyone for pulling this together with the resources they had, one could also make the case that we at Anime Expo were getting something more akin to a digest celebration. A series of tasteful morsels without going full banquet. Even when the crowd chanted for an encore, the repeat of “Thesis” only hinted at something that could be just that more involved. Or perhaps again, this is my curse of Evangelion. It always leaves me wanting more. Not so much more of the same, but more of that human touch that allows Hideaki Anno’s spirit to reach more of us.

As it is, I felt like all we received was a heartfelt, yet still passing glance as opposed to an intimate glimpse into one of the great modern myths.

Interview: JAM Project

JAM Project, one of the biggest anisong “supergroups” in the industry, was founded in order to further the genre of anime songs specifically. Consisting of a number of veteran anisong singers, today it now comprises founding members Masaaki Endoh and Hironobu Kageyama, as well as Masami Okui, Hiroshi Kitadani, and Yoshiki Fukuyama, who all joined between 2002-2003. They are best known for songs for shounen action shows such as Cardfight Vanguard, Nobunaga the Fool, GARO, and New Getter Robo, as well as video games like Super Robot Wars. Their operatic rock seems to fit those genres especially well.

Unfortunately, the audio for our transcript recording was sometimes fuzzy so not all attributions were 100% clear. Apologies for lack of clarity on those questions and answers.

We started by asking Masaaki Endoh about his famous predilection for bringing instant noodles with him on tour.

Endoh-san, what kind of instant noodle did you bring this time?

Masaaki Endoh: Six different flavors of mini-sized ramen! But I don’t have a water boiler due to luggage weight limits, and unlike in Japan, they don’t have hot water dispensers in every room.

Your stagecraft and style of music is very theatrical and almost operatic.  Is that a reflection of the sort of anime that you do music form or is that your natural style?

Hironobu Kageyama: Actually it is influenced by the type of anime the songs are for. So if it’s anime that has robots, like Super Robot Taisen where there’s a lot of fighting and energy, the songs will be influenced by that.

How do you think your style has adjusted over the past 15 years?

Kageyama: We don’t so much change our style as look for something new to do.

So would you ever do a song for a moe anime?

Kageyama: If someone ever asked us to, sure. We have girls in the band. [looks at Masami Okui] But we don’t ever get asked to do that sort of thing…

How do you relax when you’re off jam project? Individually? Or collectively?

Kageyama:We always like to talk together sometimes. Outside of music…well, we always thought about making our own jam. Jam Project jam!

What flavor of jam?

Strawberry!

What secret hobbies or hidden talents do you have?

Kageyama: I’m the oldest, so working out is my hobby. Recently I’ve been cycling and scuba diving. And this year, I’m challenging myself to train for a short distance triathlon.
Hiroshi Kitadani: The fans on twitter probably already know this, but my hobby is cooking. I do it every day, and when I make my own dish and drink alcohol, it’s very relaxing and therapeutic.

What’s your favorite dish?

Kitadani: Oden! It’s easy to make.
Masami Okui: As for [my hobbies], in Japan or all over the world, I like to visit “power spots”–places with spiritual energy. In Japan, that would be shrines or temples I love. When I’m off work, I go there a lot. This year, though, I want to go to Mt. Shasta.
Yoshiki Fukuyama: I have no hobby. So my hobby now is to look for a hobby.
Endoh: I love animals, so I have a lot of pets. It’s a dream that I want to be surrounded by animals in a big place.

Kageyama-san, you said last year at Anime Boston that you started the band when anisongs were in decline . Do you think the anisong industry has revived since then? Where do you see it going?

Kageyama: Anime songs are much more popular popular in Japan compared to 10 years ago. There are a lot of live events and concerts now and the audience has increased a lot. And variety of artists have shown up. So, it has changed a lot over the course of 10 years.

Who is the first musical artist that grabbed your heart?

Kitadani: I love Kiss.
Kageyama: I love Motley Crue.
Fukuyama: I love Deep Purple.
Okui: I love Kageyama’s vocal band, Lazy.
Endoh: I love the Beatles.

You’re all at Las Vegas now, do you plan to gamble and do you feel lucky? 

Okui: Living is a gamble.
Kageyama: I don’t feel the urge to gamble. But if I was, I’ll pull a slot machine handle once.
Kitadani: It’s a little scary, but I would like to try roulette.  Try betting on black. Ehh, really but what about red? You can split it 50/50, like your hair! [Laughter–ED: Kitadani had colored half his hair red, as in the picture at the bottom.]
Fukuyama: I never tried gambling, but I have seen it a lot in movies, so I like to try it like they do it in the movies.
Endoh: I like hitting the jackpot.

You’ve done a lot of songs for sentai series. What are your sentai colors?

Kitadani: [points to Kageyama]: He’s red.
Kageyama: Oh, I’m red, huh?
Okui: I’m pink.
Endoh: I like red, but red’s been taken, so I’ll be green.
Fukuyama: I’m blue.
Kitadani: I’m yellow.


The interview was conducted by Jeremy Booth with additional questions by Michael Huang. Rome Yamashita, Raymond Hu, and Linda Yau translated from the audio for this transcript.