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.”
What are your favorite character types to create–tsundere, megane, eyepatch, cool, etc.?
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.
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.
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.
We had the privilege of interviewing two prominent cosplayers, Marie-Claude Bourbannais (NSFW link) and Vegas PG, at Anime Expo 2015! Hear about how they started cosplaying, how long it takes them to make their costumes, and their future plans!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Dango, which 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.
What kind of games do you hope to release in this country?
Our next step is Labyrinths of Astoria. This 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.
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 likeDragonball 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 youknow, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have been subjected in the past few years to a spate of misleading, light novel adapted, anime titles. This is a happy thing, because the titles rarely promise anything other than the cheesiest, fan-serviceyist sort of outing: The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?The Hentai Prince and the Stony Cat. Each one of these shows has proven to be better written and characterized than their titles suggest, and perhaps can be chalked up to the collision of marketing necessity and rigid anime convention with an author’s desire to tell a different sort of story altogether. Sometimes you have to play the game in order to break the rules.
Such is the case with perhaps the greatest example of them all, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU(lit: Just as I Thought, My Youth Romantic Comedy Was a Mistake)—though on further thought, the title may be more appropriate than it appears. It is, after all, quite a failure as a romantic comedy—its best moments are wistful and serious, not comedic. It begins with a standard quasi-harem set up but moves far beyond it, to tell the story of how teenage misfits try to navigate the emotional turmoil and confusion of adolescence in all too real ways. Real in how flawed, idealistic, and self-delusional they are; real in that they make mistakes when they think they are doing their best. The audience expects a cheesy harem comedy, but gets something much closer to Catcher in the Rye instead, a perhaps painful reminder of how one fumbles toward maturity with one’s friends in tow.
The Holden Caulfield at the center of it is Hachiman—Hikki to his friends. He is a recognizable figure to any smartass, self-exiled teenage male who fancied himself less “phony,” less conforming, and more intelligent than his peers. If the mark of childhood is to take everything at face value, the mark of adolescence is to see past the surface and to realize there is more to life than just appearances—and to congratulate oneself for the insight, as if it were the greatest revelation in the world. This is why he cannot, in the first season, accept Yui’s kindness as genuine. She must be nice like this to everyone, he reasons, or is just pretending, either out of politeness or a desire to be thought well of. She must, in short, be a phony. As Holden put it:
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t even find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
This is the thought that runs through every adolescent’s head when he or she discovers how unfair and cruel the world can be. Even in minor ways, consequential only when you’re an adolescent: we discover later that Hachiman was brutally rejected by certain middle school girls who return in the second season, there to taunt him all over again and remind him of his past, embarrassing sincerity. The lesson he learned was that it would not do to wear his heart on his sleeve any more. He would protect himself with a shield of cynicism, even as he continues to flatter himself by “helping” others in his own way through the Service Club.
The Service Club is a concoction of his teacher, who, like Mr Antonini in Catcher, is trying to widen Holden/Hachiman’s perspective by forcing him to interact with others. At first there is only Yukino, the kindred-yet-different spirit who shares Hachiman’s reticence masking even less concealed vulnerability. In a lazier show they would be an easy pairing, but SNAFU novelist Wataru Watari does not make it nearly as easy. Their attitudes militate against connection, because it would require them to discard their constructed identities as smart, superior loners who see through the shallow social high school scene. This is why Yui at first seems an interloper, a “popular” person trying to penetrate the outcast group, but—as Hachiman, in a searing moment late in the 2nd season, acknowledges, they are longing for nothing less than “the real thing.” Yui brings that in her heart-wearing, kind, and purposeful effort to be friends with these stuck up loners.
That’s the rub, isn’t it—“the real thing.” One could call it authenticity, or emotional honesty, or speaking plainly, something the characters don’t seem quite to manage even at the very end of the second season: they avoid the subject of who-loves-whom to continue their balanced friendship, even as they know very well it cannot last forever. SNAFU is smart enough to realize that dramatic transformations do not happen instantly, not even when there are epiphanies and eloquent speeches—which the show is full of, especially in the second season where Hachiman’s self-protective worldview gets taken apart brick by brick as he realizes his “help” simply preserves a sick status quo at best, that his desire to not hurt others is hurting others more, that his unwillingness to be open is driving even his closest friends away. Realizing these things, which were some of the most emotionally satisfying parts of the series, was not enough to change everything overnight. They still can’t quite be entirely honest with themselves at the end—and we understand that, well, they are still kids. The show may be over (for now), but they still have time to figure it out. After all, it took some of us even longer to do that than many people who do as they finish up adolescence.
Once, not long after graduating from college, I found myself a counselor at a urban summer camp for a bunch of Chinese kids in Brooklyn. The kids were the children of garment factory workers, whose mothers (many of them were in single-parent homes) toiled in the Garment District for most of the day and had little time to care for them. Many of them were rambunctious and unused to following instructions. Being an only child, I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at children as much as I have as I did during that week.
There was one girl whose name I have forgotten. I remember her well because she, after seeing ungainly me, unused to being around children and the kind that likes to stand around aloof and awkward, had the gall to call me “creepy” to my face. I was more hurt than offended—I knew very well that I was not the most friendly or welcoming person, because I had barely even figured out who I was in my early 20s: I’d been too busy to think about it much in my intense high school and intense college majors. I wasn’t good at hiding my awkwardness from others, and children being as forthright as they are, she called it out.
It has been over ten years since then and I really only remember two things: one was yelling at a particular boy who kept running around and disrupting the play time. The other was occasionally asking the girl how she was doing, and eventually discovering that she was interested in writing stories. She tended to play alone, the way I usually did when I was her age. When it was time to do some writing exercises, I asked her how she came up with ideas and gave her a few tips from my own efforts to write stories: I had just graduated from the creative writing program, and while I was burned out at the time from putting anything out, I still remembered all the advice I had gotten over the years from workshops, books, and brutal peer feedback.
I did not spend that much more time with her than I did with the other kids. I only remember her so well because, for a brief moment, there was a kindred spirit, a small reminder of where I once was, but in a less privileged place; a chance to share, albeit briefly, a bit of what I had learned up to that point about writing. I was lost and confused then, much more than I actually realized at the time, and all I could do was offer a few shards of the life I had pieced together then.
I’m not sure anything is that different now, really, as I write this and I look back at this real life incident and the fictional echo that I saw in certain scenes of SNAFU, especially the ones with Rumi in S1. We don’t ever stop being broken in one aspect or another; is anyone’s life ever really whole and seamless, ready to offer as God’s gift to humanity as some paragon of righteousness? Maybe the only gift we can really give as human beings is the gift of honesty: to offer our own selves, take it or leave it, and hope that when it is offered, it will be appreciated as “the real thing.” It’s a dangerous thing, though.
Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Hi again, everyone. It’s good to be back. I missed you all.
Upon catching up with the news via Twitter, among all the other amazing things happening yesterday, news came that Animeigo’s ambitious Blu-ray Kickstarter had ended to incredible success. More than excited to hear that the final numbers absolutely crushed the proposed $40,000 goal with a whopping $102,869, the upcoming release plans will likely live up to and beyond initial promise. And now that the initial crowdfunding leg of this particular tour is at an end, Paypal will be open to those late to the party. Sure, goodies that were set up for those who participated won’t be available, but do not feel too left out. The hallowed Secret Master Of Otakudom edition is jam packed with celebratory sweetness for even the most pokey of supernerds.
The recent Japanese release contains not only a lovely transfer, but also an all-new commentary track featuring Shoji Murahama, Kikuko Inoue, Hiroyuki Yamaga, & Yuki Sato. The Animeigo release also promises an english commentary track by none other than Gilles Poitras!
All these bells, whistles, and glory for what exactly? Well in case you’ve been on these intarnutz over the last two decades (strangely an equivalent to being under a huge rock), Gainax’s Otaku No Video remains a poignant, and often self-effacing document on an era of anime fandom that deserves remembrance. And while we certainly have evolved into forms far beyond in that short span of time, the roots remain as relevant, and possibly as dangerous – as ever. For those with a need for that added nudge, please read.