Category Archives: Conventions

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.

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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

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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.

Interview: Yoko Ishida

Yoko Ishida has been actively singing anime songs since her recorded debut in 1993, Sailor Moon R’s ED “Otomo no Policy.” She has sung songs for series as wide as Ai Yori Aoishi, Strike Witches, and most recently the first OP for Shirobako. At the Lantis Anisong Festival in Las Vegas, in addition to her own songs she also covered the Haruhi Suzumiya insert song “God Knows.”

When did you decide to sing anime songs?

When there was an anime singer contest. I auditioned for that–and won!

The Grand Prix 1990, right? What was your winning song?

The assigned song was from Maple Town. And the free song I chose was by Imai Miku.

What was like to prepare for your recording debut with “Otome no Policy” (the Sailor Moon ED)?

At the vocal booth, I entered alone. It’s a solitary process, so when I record a vocal, I imagine that I’m singing in front of a huge audience.

Were you nervous?

I get nervous every time!

You’ve done a lot of songs. How do you choose which ones to do at each performance?

For example, like this performance in Vegas or elsewhere abroad, I choose whatever songs are popular in that local area. And I also take into account what songs fit in outdoor or indoor venues.

Do you have any hidden talents?

I don’t have any…[but] I love traveling abroad privately. Now I go abroad for work, but since I love traveling, I still feel happy.

Can you tell me which anime moved you emotionally?

My debut song was in Sailor Moon, but recently I was moved by Strike Witches. Those girls work so hard.  They fight hard and build their friendship, and that kind of story moves me.

How do you translate those feelings into a performance?

Many times that the lyrics tells a story and the girl’s emotion, so when I sing, I put emotions into the lyrics, and I remind myself of the first scene [in the story], which raises the right emotions.

I love your opening for Shirobako, “Colorful Box.” Based on what you know, how realistic is that show in showing the anime production process?

The people I know in the industry say “oh yeah, that’s true, that happens!” when watching that show. So I think it’s close to reality.

What other anime you watching?

I don’t watch a lot recently, but I did enjoy watching Strike Witches.

Who is your first music love?

My mother loved old Japanese pop songs. Lyrics were sung very clearly in the old days, so now I sing lyrics very clearly too.

Do you plan to gamble tonight?

Yes, on the slot machines!

Are you feeling lucky?

Yes I will today, since I lost yesterday. (Laughs)


Michael Huang conducted the interview, with assistance by Jeremy Booth. Raymond Hu provided on-site translation. The full interview was translated by Rome Yamashita.

Yoko Ishida
Yoko Ishida

Interview: ChouCho

ChouCho is the singer of many recent anisongs, including songs for Fate/kaleid Liner Prisma Illya, Heaven’s Memo Pad, Glasslip, and Mashiiro Symphony. She got her start singing Vocaloid covers on Nico Nico Douga and quickly established a successful solo career in recent years.

We started off by asking her about a sandwich from the Hard Rock Cafe (the concert was held there) she tweeted a picture of the day before, marveling at the size of it:

What do you think about size of the food here in the US?

It’s double the size of Japan’s.

Aside from American food, we understand you’re from Osaka. What kind of food from Osaka do you like?

I want to eat takoyaki sometimes!

Let’s go back to the start of your career. You sang anisongs even as early as high school.What anime did you like back then?

I used to copy J-pop songs then [actually]. After graduating from high school with the band I had, that was the first time I copied anime songs.

Any particular ones?

Evangelion and Aquarion–songs by Yoko Kanno and Maaya Sakamoto.

What inspired you to post videos on Nico Nico Douga?

When I was in an anime song cover band, we entered a local anime song event in Osaka. And the other band’s vocalist was posting their songs on Nico Nico, which was the first time I heard about anyone doing that.  That inspired me to do the same.

Any particular Nico Nico artists you liked?

Vocaloid composers, like supercell.

Any favorite supercell songs?

The most played song on Nico Nico was “Hajimete No Koi Ga Owaru”. [ED: Below is her cover of the song.]

Did you feel you were adding something unique by covering Vocaloid songs? They start out as a software voice, after all…

Hatsune Miku is a machine, so it doesn’t have emotion. Even without vocals, the song itself has enough charm to convey [emotions] directly, so when I did the cover, I was thinking a lot about how to convey the charm of the songs through my performance.

Tell us about how you got chosen to do the KamiMemo OP.

They were looking for a singer to do OP for KamiMemo, and I was selected from various candidates. They saw my NicoNico videos and that’s how I got vetted, and I feel I was very lucky.

How do you prepare for a performance like the one you just did?

I practiced at home a lot, and practiced English MCing. I studied English in Canada for a half year. But that was 5 years ago, so I almost forgot all my English. It’s been a long time since I went over English and I was nervous about it.

The anime you sing for features a lot of cute girls. Who are your favorite cute anime characters?

It’s difficult to say! I put a lot of energy into each anime I sing for, so it’s hard to choose. If I have to choose, it’s Alice from KamiMemo.

Do you have any image in your head when you sing?

Since it’s main theme song, I have to become the character’s feeling, in order to express.

How’s your pet rabbit Sanagi doing?

It’s very cute and tsundere! Normally, it’s cool (tsun), but when it’s hungry and begs for food, it’s cute (dere).

How did you name Sanagi?

My name is ChouCho (“butterfly”), and Sanagi means “cocoon.”

What message do you have for your American fans?

I now understand that our songs are loved even across international borders. Through this concert, I will try our best, so we can come back to the USA again.

So, last question: are you gonna gamble here in Vegas?

Probably, if I have time tonight!


Michael Huang conducted the interview, with on-site translation help by Raymond Hu. Rome Yamashita translated the interview from the Japanese.

ChouCho
ChouCho

Song Stream: Lantis Anisong Festival, Las Vegas

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bamboo (milktub)

 

This is the first of several articles/interviews about the Lantis Anisong Festival, held a month ago in Las Vegas in conjunction with Otakon Vegas. Interviews and videos coming later during the weekend.

This article is based on the second day of the festival on Saturday January 17.

There was a certain clockwork efficiency to the Lantis Anisong Festival in Las Vegas, with the way each act came and left the stage in relatively rapid succession. It had to be, given that there were about a dozen acts reprising anime song favorites, 2-3 songs per artist, who sometimes doubled up and collaborated (as ChouCho and Sayaka Sasaki did). Despite being all managed by the same record label, a great diversity of anime was also represented, from pure shounen action (such as with the headliners JAM Project and solo performer Hiroshi Kitadani with songs from One Piece) to otaku fan service comedies (Bamboo, singing the OP to Baka Test “Baka.Go.Home”), to moe parody (ChouCho‘s Fate Prisma Iliya OP “starlog“), a cover of Haruhi Suzumiya’s legendary insert song “God Knows” by veteran singer Yoko Ishida, and even the Power Rangers theme song at one point with JAM Project founder Masaaki Endo. The presence of a stage band anchored the live musicianship consistently, with only other full bands like Yousei Teikoku needing to take the stage with their own players. Full, live musicianship is relatively rare at convention concerts, so hearing nearly four hours of actual performed music was a treat.

Sayaka Sasaki and ChouCho
Sayaka Sasaki and ChouCho

And yet this was not a convention concert in the usual sense, despite the festival’s ties to concurrent Otakon Vegas: it had its own management, ticketing, and arrangements, but both logistics and logic dictated some overlap. Its relative independence proved a boon, because the general convention audience and the audience that would “get” the majority of these songs do not necessarily overlap: there were relatively few cosplayers in the audience, for instance, and many of the songs played were from obscure-in-America properties, like the original live-action GARO. The truly committed had paid over $100 for VIP tickets, and many of them were decked out in traditional otaku fan garb: glowsticks, headbands, and coordinated gestures. Buying a VIP ticket also entitled the holder to high five the artists on the way out of the venue, a touch opportunity that is generally coveted highly in Japan, the subject of lotteries and contests. This was the Anisong Festival’s only non-Asian stop and it was Asian-style fandom that was fully on display.

Hiroshi Kitadani of JAM Project
Hiroshi Kitadani of JAM Project

As for the performances themselves: they were, above all else, consistent in their high level of musicianship and singing, with sacrificing the distinctives of each artist. Standouts include not only the highly energetic headliners JAM Project, with their excellent operatic singing and rock god poses, but the exuberant bamboo (milktub). As he sang the Baka Test OP, he clambered down from the stage and simply started mingling with the crowd–not just the VIPs!–singing all the while with his wireless microphone, high-fiving everyone. He carried and showed off a body pillow. Bamboo came off as a man who has truly embraced anime music as a culture, perhaps a job requirement given his other job as the head of MangaGamer but deeply felt all the same. Sayaka Sasaki, who we saw last year at Otakon Vegas, also gave a spirited performance, though the more restrained ChouCho slightly edged her out in vocal consistency. Both were equally charming though during their joint performance of “Enter Enter Mission!”, the ED to Girls und PanzerFaylan, who sang the OP to the Nasu-conceived PA Works action series Canaan, showed off some great choreography skills along with aggressive singing.

Yui of Yousei Teitoku (Official Photo)
Yui of Yousei Teitoku (Official Photo)

Perhaps the hardest rocking performance was given by the goth metallers Yousei Teikoku, who at one point seemed to be launching into something resembling the intro to Metallica’s “Masters of Puppets” before proceeding into one of their own songs, “Kyuusei Argyros” (the ED of Tokyo ESP). Many heads banged along. True to their image, they played the aloof, too-cool-for-school part, even during the final ensemble festival anthem “Starting Style” where all the artists took the stage at once: perhaps a bit too syrupy for their taste? The singer did induct all the audience into her Fairy Empire however, and in a show that featured much more pop and light rock, their heavier sound was welcome.

JAM Project
JAM Project

A few more words about JAM Project and their associated members, Masaaki Endoh and Hiroshi Kitadani. Perhaps no other act embodied the spirit of the festival and its purpose than them, a supergroup started explicitly to carry on the spirit of anime music. The two leads, Endoh and Hironobu Kageyama, are veterans of the industry whose operatic metal-influenced voices practically defined a generation of shounen, super robot, and tokusatsu animes, shows, and games from the 80s-90s onward. That sort of anime is now only one type of many in today’s media landscape, and arguably garners less immediate commercial attention than the cute/moe aesthetic typically favored by today’s otaku (the sort of anime an artist like ChouCho sings for, for instance). Their sheer performance chops are undeniable, however, and they were absolutely the correct act to close the afternoon: after seeing them belt out passionately, jump and wheel about on stage, working in near perfect coordination, one feels almost as pumped up as they evidently were. For an evening that started with the purely artificial Hatsune Miku, the end was about the power of raw, organic performance, the essence of what rock music has always been about. It is an “anime” music festival, yes, but it is a “music festival” too, and all in all it succeeded being that just as much as being a celebration of anime.

Our photos, taken by Jeremy Booth:

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Official photos by Lantis:

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Setlist (Saturday, January 17, 2015)

Hatsune Miku

  1. Sharing the World
  2. World is Mine
  3. Tell Your World

ChouCho

  1. starlog (Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya OP)
  2. Authentic Symphony (Mashiroiro Symphony OP)
  3. Enter Enter MISSION! (Girls Und Panzer ED) w/Sayaka Sasaki

Sayaka Sasaki

  1. Reason why XXX (So I Can’t Play H OP)
  2. Zzz (Nichijou ED)

bamboo (milktub)

  1. Uchoten Jinsei (Eccentric Family OP)
  2. Baka.Go.Home (Baka Test ED)

Hiroshi Kitadani

  1. We Are! (One Piece OP 1)
  2. We Go! (One Piece OP 15)

Yousei Teitoku

  1. Kuusou Mesorogiwi (Future Diary OP)
  2. Kyuusei Argyros (Tokyo ESP ED)
  3. Baptize (Seikon no Qwasar OP 2)

Yoko Ishida

  1. Eien no Hana (Ai Yori Aoshi OP)
  2. God Knows (Haruhi Suzumiya insert)

Masaaki Endoh

  1. Yuusha-Oh Tanjyou! (GaoGaiGar OP)
  2. Go Go Power Rangers (with Hiroshi Kitadani)
  3. Bakuryuu Sentai Abaranger (OP for show of same title)

Faylan

  1. Last Vision for Last (Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Girls OP)
  2. mind as judgment (Canaan OP)

JAM Project

  1. Break Out (Super Robot Wars Original Generation: Divine Wars OP)
  2. Vanguard (Cardfight Vanguard OP 1)
  3. GARO-Savior in the Dark (GARO live action OP 1)
  4. SKILL (Dai2ji Super Robot Wars α OP)

All Artists

Starting Style

AWA 2014: Tohru Furuya and Yuko Minaguchi Fan Panel Digest

Tohru Furuya (the original Tuxedo Mask and Gundam’s Amuro Ray) and Yuko Minaguchi (the original Sailor Saturn), appeared together for a Q&A session at Anime Weekend Atlanta. They had a lot to share about the old days of voice acting and some really interesting stories about Satoshi Kon and Yoshiyuki Tomino in particular appeared. Minaguchi was also charmingly blunt about some of the things she sees around cons.

AWA 2014: Junichi Suwabe Fan Panel Digest

Junichi Suwabe, the voice of Dandy from Space Dandy, was in Atlanta this weekend for Anime Weekend Atlanta. His panel was lively and entertaining, and he did many voices and said many funny lines. Sadly, no photography or video was allowed for press.

Yoshiki Concert: Otakon 2014

 

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Yoshiki began by plugging his upcoming Madison Square Garden concert. A video recap of his past exploits played, exploring the dichotomy of his soul – a drum smashing rock iconoclast; a classically trained pianist who composed and played for the Emperor of Japan’s ascension anniversary. Who was the real Yoshiki? Neither? Both? Some impossible in-between? The video was frenzied, even messianic in its undertones, as he was quite literally borne aloft by his fans at prior concerts.

After a brief chat about Hige’s death and the breakup of X-Japan, it was on to the songs. Yoshiki was very much turned out in classical style for this – a Shigeru Kanai piano, a flaring wool long coat, sunglasses, and his trademark leather pants combined with royal blue lighting to give him the look of a maestro.

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The three violinists and cellist who accompanied him (the “Yoshiki Sextet”) were good but not mirror-perfect; a minor mismatch in note timing at a transition in ‘Anniversary’ was noticeable but not fatal to the performance. Perhaps no one noticed more than Yoshiki himself, as the camera caught him grimacing and he apologized for nervousness immediately after the song concluded.

As expected, soaring piano riffs dominated the packed hall. Yoshiki was very much a performer, content to play his role. He announced his protégé, Katie Fitzgerald, a former Otakon attendee. Together they debuted ‘HERO,’ the new Saint Seiya soundtrack song. For darkness and light, for its rich depths and the majesty of its soaring heights, nothing could match the piano work in ‘HERO.’ However, Katie’s performance, while technically proficient, failed to engage with its harrowing tale of cutting and suicide attempts. There was no daring in her vocal range, in her slow and steady progression through classic themes of unrequited love and abandonment. All of Yoshiki’s cunning and craft, though they were in full force, could not make up for the lack of authenticity with which she sang loss.

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The English version of ‘Tears’ was more emotional, but baffling in its differences with the well-known Japanese. Long-time fans will recall that Yoshiki suffered a difference of opinion with other members of X-Japan in that he wished to Anglicize the lyrics of X-Japan songs to appeal to the international audience. By the time he closed on ‘Endless Rain,’ however, nostalgia was in full force, with a good chunk of the audience softly echoing the chorus.

The remaining members of X-Japan appeared on stage briefly during ‘Kurenai,’ but seemed to be there only to tease the audience, promising a full appearance during the upcoming Madison Square concert. As such, this was both more and less than an X-Japan reunion concert: Yoshiki was its clear focus.

The genius of Yoshiki really lies in his exacting precision combined with a menace that speaks of hidden depths. The way he can over- or understrike notes, remaining within the acceptable range for the piano while hinting at more, is surely not something to be replicated by lesser performers. It may be that they lack the essential tension of conflicting forces that seems to always accompany him.

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