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Interview: Kenji Nagasaki and Wakana Okamura of “My Hero Academia”

Kenji Nagasaki and Wakana Okamura
Kenji Nagasaki and Wakana Okamura

Anime Diet had the privilege of interviewing the director and producer of the current anime version of My Hero Academia, Kenji Nagasaki and Wakana Okamura, at Anime Expo 2016. This was an extensive discussion of the inspirations and process behind the creation of the hit show.

Jeremy Booth conducted the interview. This interview was translated by Nami Kodama, and was edited for clarity and concision by Michael Huang. Photos and video subtitles by Lily Huang.

How did you get your start in the anime business and what is your most memorable moment as an aspiring young worker in the anime field?

Nagasaki:When I first saw the movie “Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta) ” by Studio Ghibli, I hadn’t watched an anime until then. The film inspired me very much and showed me the possibilities for artistic expression in anime, and led me to join the industry. I started by working for “MADHOUSE Inc” [even though] it didn’t make that film!

Do you have any other influencer besides Hayao Miyazaki that you would like to tell about?

Nagasaki:Another director I was inspired and influenced by is Kon Satoshi, who was at Madhouse at the time. When I first saw Perfect Blue I thought that he told the story almost like a live action film. But, at the same time, the anime actually does add extra expression than live action, so I really enjoyed working on that at Madhouse.

When you were a child, did you ever dream about a superhero? If so who?

Nagasaki: I grew up with reading “Dragonball”. So, every week when “Shonen Jump” came out, I rushed to a store to buy it. Goku was my hero. Everybody liked Goku at the time.

Okamura: Usagi-chan, the main character of Sailor Moon, was my hero. Generally speaking back then, boys liked , and girls liked Sailor Moon. We (girls including myself) used to play with popular toys like stickers.

What was the most challenging part of adapting this anime from the manga?

Nagasaki: The original story is very passionate. So, we really paid close attention to capturing the original story’s worldview, using sound and music [as well as drawing]. This is probably the most difficult part of interpreting from the manga to the anime. I worked hard on it from start to finish.

Okamura: The main focus was trying to keep the fans happy, because they have strong followings. So, that was probably the most challenging part, by using art and music (as the director just mentioned) attractive as anime. Bringing that special essence into the anime was challenging.
But also, at the same time, we wanted to reach beyond the fan base and gain more fans to make them happy. That was probably [another] challenging part.

How closely did Kohei Horikoshi, the manga creator, work with the project?

Nagasaki: Basically he left us in charge of that. He extended help where we needed some extra background/setting art and/or specific characters that we asked him to help us on.

Okamura: Horikoshi was very excited about the anime and was supportive. One of the reasons why he did was that Nagasaki was director and that it was being done by Studio Bones. So, he was very excited and often tweeted about special episodes and more about the anime; he was personally and emotionally involved.

There is a clear message of never giving up in My Hero Academia. However, is there any else that you hope fans take away from the show?

Nagasaki: The story is not only about how Deku tries to “not give up”. Through the relationship between All-Might and Deku, I hope that the fans would get the sense that though Deku did not have any powers, he became responsible while growing up. I want fans to see that Deku works hard toward his goals and be encouraged by his example.

Okamura: Nagasaki’s eyes were glued on Deku’s growth.

Was All-Might’s character based on any other real person or American superhero already in existence?

Nagasaki: Probably only the original author knows.

Okamura: Horikoshi is really a big fan of American animation. He often refers to the American animation in his drawing, so he took some of the essence of American animation to create All-Might.

If you were able to have a Quirk, what would it be?

Nagasaki: I’d like to fly.

Okamura: If I were to have a power like Toru Hagakure’s, I would like to sneak into the studio to make sure if the director is working! (laughs)

Who would you like to see All Might face off in a fight?
Nagasaki: The Hulk. I would think (hope) that All Might probably wins.
Okamura: I would like to see that All Might involved in something like the Marvel Civil War.

Do you have any routines in your creative process/good-luck habits? Could you share any stories, if any?

Nagasaki: In the process, when I read scripts I am always consciously thinking about music, about where would I put certain types of music in to fit the scene–and how much and how long to make the anime sharper. This is what I am always thinking about.

Okamura: Each director has own way to create a work. Nagasaki is probably the best director, among the ones I know, who consciously thinks about music. He always has his vision from the beginning.

As a producer, when I look at the story I decide which stories are well-suited when turning into the anime. As a process I always look at the attractiveness of the character. The most important thing I care about is that the anime can be better than the original manga. This is the essential process that I am always thinking about….I never want to let the audience down by giving them that negative impression: “the manga was so much better, the anime was really boring.” It’s not always the case that the same style from the original manga can work well in an anime. Anime and manga each have their own best way to depict stories.

How did you become aware of My Hero Academia when you decided that I really wanted to do this?

Okamura: When I first saw the first chapter (I didn’t even know how the story was going to turn out), I was instinctively sure that this could be a great anime. The first chapter was enough to feel that way, because that chapter told me that the story was great. Deku met All Might and then the story began to illustrate how Deku works hard to achieve his goals. That first chapter touched me, and I felt that the story had a very strong emotional power and would impress not only children but also adults. The story further introduced many characters who support Deku.

As I said earlier, the attractiveness of characters is very important for me. That was the my decision making point.

Could you tell me about the process how you became involved in the production?

Nagasaki: A producer from Studio Bones told me to work with this anime, and then when I read the original manga I said yes, because it was very interesting.

Okamura: For the producer side, while we were in discussion, we believed that we needed someone who could serve as a director and who had skills and experience to create an anime not just for otaku but also mass audiences. Then we came up with Nagasaki, who had successfully made great anime such as Gundam Build Fighters.

Are there any characters whom you most identify with?

Nagasaki: For me, it’s Deku. This is his hero’s story, but it’s not only about the hero. This can translate to any circumstance where you are working hard to achieve your goals. I always try hard to attain to my big goals, and I found a similar attitude in Deku, who is always trying to make that happen. The story is not just limited for children who dream about becoming heroes, but it’s for everyone who is working hard to make their dreams come true.

Okamura: For me, it’s the girl characters. In this story, girls are not only supporting roles but are heroines. I feel this story is more modern that way: girls aren’t just side actors but are reaching their own goals. The girls even fight against the boys. Among the five boy characters, the girl is also a heroine and is trying to save the world. I want to grow old like Recovery Girl!

What is your ultimate goal?

Nagasaki: My own goal is to make each anime I make better than last one. I want more people to enjoy anime.

I thought you were going to say “taking over the world” or something.

Okamura: (laughs) But, our anime is watched by many people around the world. This is another way to say “taking over the world”, and he is probably trying to take over the world by the anime coming the U.S.

Is there anything you are looking forward to seeing besides the convention center in Los Angeles?

Nagasaki: The atmosphere is pretty good, and I really like it. I think I don’t have enough time to sightsee this time but want to visit here again on a private trip. If I have time, I want to go Santa Monica, which is a different side of LA.

Interview: Voice Actress Yumiri Hanamori (Etotama, Rolling Girls)

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Yumiri Hanamori is a fresh young face on the voice acting scene. A 17-year old high school student, she has recently had breakout roles as Chiaya in The Rolling Girls and Uri-tan in Etotama. She will also be starring in an upcoming film in 2016, Garakowa -Restore the World- (ガラスの花と壊す世界). 

Raymond Hu conducted the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

We saw on your Twitter bio that you call yourself a “yakitori based girl (焼き鳥系女子です).” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I really love yakitori, but it’s not really something that girls typically eat. It’s something you usually eat with beer or sake. Because I really love making people say “that’s weird,” I have this thing…I call myself that because I think people should love yakitori, no matter their age or gender.

What inspired you to begin seiyuu work?

When I was in middle school, I had a friend who told me that my voice sounded like an anime heroine’s. Back then I also really liked anime, and it was something I thought I’d like to do. They had a seiyuu audition and I applied for that, and that’s how I started.

Which anime character did your voice resemble?

I was in the tennis club, and the voice I was letting out when I played was like a fighting heroine’s. OOH!

You are still a high school student, so how do you balance between school and work?

At first, I was really just focusing on work and I didn’t concentrate much on schoolwork. But now I think balance things a bit better, and I will take the time on the train to review English vocabulary words or other things. I do a little at a time when I have a chance.

Studying is very important.

English is hard!

How do you prepare for your roles in anime, and who do you ask for guidance from?

When I’m prepping for a role, I find someone who is similar to that character and try to imitate the aura that person gives off. At first, I didn’t really have anybody to ask about these things, but now I have more friends who do the same work I do, and so I can ask them “how do you think I should do this character”?

Who’s your favorite Sailor Senshi and why?

Sailor Venus! I watched Sailor Moon when I was younger. You know how Usagi, the main character, is kind of clumsy and awkward? But Venus had long hair, and seemed like what a girl should be like–she has it together. I liked that about her when I was younger, and I still like her now.

Which seiyuu do you admire, and who would you like to work with in the future?

Junko Takeuchi, because I watched anime like Naruto and Inazuma Eleven ever since I was little, and I’ve always admired her since then.

Chiaya Misono from
Chiaya Misono from “Rolling Girls,” who was played by Yumiri Hanamori.

Talk about your experience working on The Rolling Girls. Any interesting things happen? (SPOILERS AHEAD)

At first, when I auditioned for this part, I didn’t know that the character was an alien. So I played her as a regular girl, not too young, but not too old. It was hard to find that balance and get into the character at first, but as the series went on I was able to get to know her a little better and put a little more of myself into it and play around a little bit–like the little noises that she makes.

[Michael] Have you become a fan of the Blue Hearts* since?

I’m a huge fan now!

What type of anime do you like, and why?

Action and battle anime. I like kids’ anime but also late-night anime like Psycho-Pass.

Do you prefer the fisrt or second season of Psycho-Pass?

Season 1!

What fashion brands do you like?

I like Liz Lisa and recently a brand called axesWe, which has girly frills, but not too much.

What do you think of non-Japanese fans in general?

We act in Japanese, so that overseas fans are able to enjoy our acting without fully understanding the language makes me really happy to go beyond borders in order to reach them.

*Note: most of the insert songs and OP/EDs in The Rolling Girls are covers of songs by the classic Japanese punk rock band, the Blue Hearts.

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!

Illbleed

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

Thomas-Romain

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)

Yuki Kajiura/FictionJunction Press Conference Transcript

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Here’s our translated transcript of the Yuki Kajiura/FictionJunction press conference at Anime Expo 2012. Some questions were not translated precisely, and we have noted when this happens. It may also account for some of the vagueness of the answers.

Our questions, as always, are in bold.

Would you say your music style has changed since you started composing soundtracks?
Ever since I started composing soundtracks, the music I create has changed a lot.

When did your love affair for music begin?
When I was in elementary school, I was in the chorus club, and I belonged to the chorus club for a long time, and so the first song I composed was a chorus piece.

When you first started your musical projects, where did you look for your inspiration?
By “project” do you mean FictionJunction? Umm, it depends on the songs, I don’t have any pre-decided place to search.

What inspired you to form Kalafina?
For Kalafina, I wanted to make focused (lit. “narrow”) music. For FictionJunction, I have to try everything I come up with; for Kalafina, I only want to try what Kalafina is supposed to sound like.

You tweeted that you’re a big fan of the Beatles. Who are your favorite bands and composers through history?
There are too many to narrow it down, but I like Paul McCartney the most from the Beatles. I love Paul’s songs. ANd I also like Queen, ABBA, Mike Oldfield.

Any other composers who inspire you?
If you say composers, I think Paul McCartney and Mike Oldfield are composers as well, But I don’t have a certain composer that I feel “this one,” since there are a lot of composers. I think I’m influenced by a little bit of everything.

Are there any future projects that you can tell us about?
There’s nothing I can talk about.

Many of the shows you’ve scored have a strong Gothic overtone. (Petit Cosette, Kara no Kyoukai, Fate/Zero, Madoka, the costumes of Kalafina) Are you drawn to that genre of anime in particular and if so, how so?
Is it gothic? I wonder Madoka and Fate/Zero are categorized as gothic, but I am certain that those shows are written in a dark and deep world. Yet, I don’t get offers to compose for anime that are merry and happy.

Question for Wakana and Keiko who are both in Kalafina and FictionJunction. What would you say is the key differences between the two bands?
Keiko: Yes, as Kajiura just said, FictionJunction does whatever Kajiura wants to do for soundtracks and anime, and Kalafina’s group sense is not like FictionJunction’s, so they are very different in terms of musicality.

Kajiura-san, in 2003 you did a concert at AX. What is it like to come back in 2012?
When I did the concert in 2003, it wasn’t a full band. So, this time, I can bring all the members of the Yuki Kajiura live band, as we always do in Japan, so I think it will be very exciting.

Could you tell me more about your Latin style chant music? What inspired you to create that sound, which is such a striking and iconic sound for you? What was your inspiration and where did it come from?
I only wrote one real Latin song (“Salva Nos”). But I use a lot of artificial language. I have huge fun creating songs with an artificial language because artificial language can make the melody stand out.

You were involved a lot with studio BEE Train. How did you get involved with BEE Train, and do you want to write music for “girls with guns” show again?
When I first worked with BEE Train, director Koichi Mashimo was the one asked me to work for the project. This first anime soundtrack I had worked on [with him] was “Eatman” (1997). And since then, because of that, Mashimo has asked me often to work on his projects. Of course, I want to make music for a “girls with guns” show again if I have a chance.

What is the most important element in composing music for anime?
The BGM and the scene have to match. I think basically BGM should be put behind the scenery. It’s not the character, but if it matches the character’s worldview, I always think that will be the music will make the anime’s worldview colorful effectively.

For Kajiura: J-pop is popular around the world, and your anime music is known internationally. How do you feel about that?
As a musician myself, I think Japanese animation is a very interesting field that can experiment with a lot of things. So, I’m very proud as a Japanese person that people around the world are paying attention to anime and watching it. It’s an honor to be part of it if my music can help people around the world to enjoy anime. I receive a lot of emails from various types of people around the globe through my homepage and website. It warms my heart when I realize how many people around the world are watching anime.

How do you get to know all these talented people?
It’s really difficult to find the right singers. And a lot of people introduced these singers to me, then I had finally made it to meet them. Everyone is so different and unique as a singer, but all of them are my ideal singers.

Was there any soundtrack that you found difficult to compose?
I had gotten an offer to compose for Mai-HiME. When I received it at first, I was worried if I could make music for such a cute show. But by the end, when the story turned out to be very scary, I didn’t get confused when I started writing the music.

How is it working with each other as FictionJunction?
Wakana: Everyone has a wonderful voice, and everyday I’ve enjoyed having stimulation from the other singers.
Keiko: There are four people, so we are all different, unique individuals, so it’s very stimulating. Every time, there’s plenty of laughter, and I enjoy doing this music.
Kaori: I usually sing alone by myself, so it’s an honor to work with the wonderful singers and I love being able to sing with a chorus.
Kaida: I usually sing with a chorus, but I haven’t done much with a quartet, so it’s good to sing together with 4 of us solidly. I feel like I can get a young power and strive, so I’m enjoying doing this.

What kind of composer do you want to be remembered as?
First of all, I really love doing anime music, I love doing BGM and soundtracks. Composing music along with motion pictures is a very exciting thing, so if I can, I want to be remembered as a soundtrack composer.

Are you fan of anime, and do you have any favorite songs that you composed for anime?
I have several; I liked the Mushishi manga, and when it was animated, it perfectly matched the manga, so I bought the DVD collection for the first time. And a few years ago, Gurren Lagann was airing in the morning, and it was a good, very energetic anime that invigorated me every day, and I kept saying, “I liked it I liked it,” and so I got the DVD as a gift and I watched it all.

For FictionJunction: what music have you listened to that energizes you?*
Wakana: I like the songs I sing, but I love a lot of other music too. If I must choose, I like Spitz, and they always energize me.
Keiko: I love dance music, so currently, I love Lady Gaga. To feel upbeat, I just listened to her and came here.
Kaori: I don’t listen to music to get energized usually, but as a result of being energetic from listing to music, I will say that Makihara Noriyuki, a male Japanese singer, his songs inspire me to live courageously.
Yoriko Kaida: Lately I like Genki Rockets, and I listen to them often, and I get energy from them.

When you hear other soundtracks, do you ever think “I can do different”?
It’s rare for me to listen to other soundtracks negatively like “I would have done it differently.” But I study soundtracks by listening to various kinds of soundtracks.

How is writing music for Gen Urobuchi (Fate/Zero, Madoka)’s stories different from other works when you do soundtracks?
Urobuchi-san’s stories are very compelling, and they have the power to entrap me. Rather than saying his works are different, his works seem ready-made to write songs smoothly. There is a certain constant rhythm in his scenarios; I can clearly see that here is the climax, and here is the blablabla, and I just need to put music to that part: so it’s makes it easy to find musical inspiration for each scene.

*This question was actually a mistranslation of what I originally asked: “Which pieces of Kajiura’s has moved you so much, it made you cry?”

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Conventional Wisdom: The Year of Our Con 2011 (Part 4: I ♥ ABTS)

Conventions, at least in America, are social events. It’s rare to find anyone going to a major convention all by him or herself. Always, there is a group of friends, cosplayers, or (in our case) staff. And when you’re an anime blogger with a press badge, there are always the others who share the same privilege. They’re our natural allies and friends and we spent a lot of time with them this year.

There’s a lot of name dropping in this article. Consider this mostly a shout-out to friends and comrades! I’m sorry if this is a little inaccessible for everyone else.

Inside the press lounge. You can actually see zzeroparticle all the way in the back.

IV: I ♥ ABTS (Ani-blogo-twito-sphere)

The first group of people who we sat next to at the Anime Expo press junket were the crew from Nico Nico. While we were surprised they were there, they are not part of the ABTS and therefore not a part of this story.

After Nico Nico left, in walked zzeroparticle (twitter), _eternal (twitter), Shinmaru (twitter), and KylaranAeldin (twitter). I remembered all of them from last year except _eternal, for whom this was his first AX. As a longtime admirer of his writing, I was glad to meet him. Kylaran, who has helped us with subtitle translations for our interviews for the past couple of years, immediately launched into Japanese conversation with Rome (our own interpreter), and we swapped stories, and emotions: nervousness about our impending interviews. Wondering when omo was going to show up—we knew he’d be late. Asking each other questions about Hatsune Miku, which a lot of us didn’t have extensive knowledge about (especially me). Later, an old friend, Benu of Anime Genesis, showed up: he’s been around since the very beginning of Anime Diet and it was great catching up with him as well. I’d run into him again waiting in line for Miku press tickets on the morning of the concert date.

Yes, it was a table full of guys. You can make your sausage party jokes here. Gia, now of Anime News Network, sat with her colleagues at the different table, and she came over once to greet me. She’s been a ubiquitous presence at cons ever since her Anime Vice days. But ANN is operating on a different zone, in a way; the guys in front of me, these were people who I still mainly knew through their sites. A brotherhood of blogging.

Omo finally came in after we got lunch from Quizno’s. I’ve seen him quite a few times since we first met at New York Anime Festival in 2008, and he straddles the two worlds: he’s got his own longstanding blog and now he’s also a reporter for Japanator. We said hi, but he sat mostly with his colleagues from the latter this time, and we’d only occasionally run into him from time to time: most memorably, after the Kalafina show where he was with Fasalina, whom I’d never met up until now. She’s an example of someone who’s more on Twitter than on a blog; when you know someone mainly through Twitter you begin to imagine that they resemble their avatar, and it’s always a surprise to put a face to a pseudonym. I wish we could have talked more.

canon_chan puts in a MANMA-rable appearance at the food truck plaza.

And then there were the discussions, debates, and fake flames: I mean the theatrically heated discussions, often started by Kylaran, about whether Madoka is crap, why Kalafina’s choreography was substandard, and colorful stories about going to the one booth in the dealer room selling Japanese live-action porn. There was especially the blogger meet up at the food truck plaza, where we met canon_chan (twitter), calaggie (twitter), kevo (twitter), yumeka (twitter), and others. (Sorry if I forgot.) If there was anything approaching the experience of being in a big IRC chatroom, or active comment thread, in real life—this was it. Lots of conversations back and forth; me being quiet for the most part. I’m still quite an introvert at heart, especially in large groups.

Most of the guys were heading to the Miku concert just afterwards. We’d already decided which of our staff was going to do it for Anime Diet, and it wasn’t me. I walked with a bunch of the other bloggers to the Nokia Plaza, and there we parted. There, I wrote my first Kalafina article, and waited for the concert to end. (I’ve told the story of Miku, and our struggles, earlier.)

Anime Diet staff are devotees of the press lounge. We like to go there first thing in the morning, looking for the free drinks and food that were promised (and were not forthcoming this year, except on day 1). Stay long enough in there, and zzeroparticle and Kylaran and Shinmaru often will show up, usually plotting which events to cover for the day or, in zzeroparticle’s case, prepping for a panel about Yuki Kajiura one day.

zzeroparticle bestrides the raised table like a skinny Asian colossus.

We wanted to be there to support him of course, Rome and I; as a fan of Kajiura and Kalafina and as friends. Kylaran swore to heckle him from the sidelines, and we saw him and other bloggers scattered throughout the audience. It reminded me of the old days, when Hinano and JPMeyer had a blogger panel at New York Anime Festival 2008, and where I first met bloggers in person: it was in these moments that the con experience felt least like work and most like a bunch of friends hanging out and doing stuff together. There was always lots of laughter, loud, raised voices, and walking slowly down the long corridors.

This is the part of convention-going I never hope to lose, even if by some miracle Anime Diet becomes big one day and ranks with the ANNs of the world. In the middle of hectic, sometimes frustrating events and coverage, this was what made it worthwhile: meeting people, fellow otakus and nerds, putting faces to the words that exist only on screens. I was taught in church that people were more important than things, that relationships were to be valued over objects. I see those moments as moments of grace: like when we were all standing outside Club Nokia waiting for us to be approved as press and griping together, or when we had our computers and equipment scattered around the table in the press lounge, doing our work and having side conversations at the same time.

As professional as I aspire to be at Anime Diet, this is the true spirit of the amateur: the lover, the one who does it because he loves it. It’s the whole reason we exist here at this website, and why other bloggers write their blogs. Without love, it’s just clashing cymbals and nothing. To steal another blogger’s namesake, it’s what we must always remember. And I hope I’ve done an adequate job here in sharing whatever memories I had.

Waiting for Miku tickets. Benu is up front.

This concludes the Conventional Wisdom series. Next time: actual anime reviews!

Hatsune Miku: Mikunopolis 2011 Concert Videos

Well, everyone, the wait is over! We discovered that we indeed have permission to post our concert footage online, so long as we host it ourselves. And that’s what we’re doing here: posting all 6 concert videos which were taken down by Sega on Youtube, hosted on our own servers. They’re streaming, they’re instant, and they’re awesome. (And, unfortunately, they are Flash so iPhone/iPad users, no dice for now…looking into a solution for that. As an Apple user it pains me to say that, but this is a better, more universal solution than Quicktime for now.)

Anyway, enough yapping. Here’s the videos!

Clover Club

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Electric Angel

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Koi Suru VOC@LOID

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Poppippo

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Romeo and Cinderella

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World is Mine

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Conventional Wisdom: A Reflection on Congoing (Part 1)

Three Vignettes

2007, Long Beach Convention Center.

There is a man named Matt dressed as a Wii remote standing in front of me and my linemate Steve. We are waiting for the possibility of getting an autograph from Hirano Aya, and we’ve been waiting for two hours already. My new Panasonic video camera and its cigarette microphone are out for fan interviews: they were a great way to pass the time. I sometimes forget to press and hold down the “mic” button to ensure that Mr. Wiimote’s voice is picked up by the external mic and not the camera’s weak built-in one. The sound fades in and out abruptly in the footage. Despite some misgivings, I decide to leave it as is when I edit it, backed by the music of the Pillows. His enthusiasm and uniqueness more than made up for the lack of technical quality. After all, I wasn’t press or anyone from the “real media,” as I called it at the end of my last video that year. I was just trying to record my thoughts and feelings of being at an anime convention.

None of us ever got that autograph, of course.


Unreleased footage from AX 2009

2009, LA Convention Center.

I am sitting against the wall across from Petree Hall, cradling a borrowed video camera. We had just finished our joint panel, the Indecent Otaku Comedy Hour, which was fun, and flawed, and draining. The thought occurred to me that I should be out with my microphone in hand, interviewing the cosplayers for the video diary. But I barely had enough energy to lift my head, let alone summon the courage to talk to a stranger dressed up like Prinny, or Pedobear.

I turned the lens toward the passing crowd, pressed “record,” and said a few words into the microphone—I can’t remember exactly what. When I looked through my video archives to look for it, it was nowhere to be found. It was probably recorded over, replaced by footage that I never ended up releasing. There was no video diary that year, and there hasn’t been since.


This video was actually shot before the vignette that folllows, but it shows the spirit at work in it.

2010, LA Convention Center.

Five of us are hanging out in the press lounge on the next-to-last day of the convention. We are busy reviewing the footage captured both by the HD camera and Ray’s Sony Bloggie, as well as the pictures taken by the new DSLR. There are close ups of singers and cosplayers, footage of fan interviews and guest of honor interviews from the junket. Dan walks in after covering the Funimation industry panel and announces that he has gotten in touch with industry reps to get review copies. Jeremy has just finished his first review in a while, something which is a delight and a surprise. We fill the whole table, and we are the loudest in an otherwise quiet press lounge.

I lean back in my chair, watching ourselves sit and stand and pace about, the tools of our trade and all its wires scattered about the surface. I can’t help but grin. Soon it would be time for the Masquerade, which was held in the Nokia Theater that evening. The theater staff confiscate the Leatherman on my keychain. The costumes were nice but the skits still suck.


Evolution

Do I congratulate ourselves too much there? Very well, I congratulate ourselves. How could I not, when all of these wonderful people that I’m privileged to work with here have accomplished so much? They are why there’s anything here at all, and why we’ve gone even further since that moment of glory described above.

This series is a personal look at my years of convention-going, though, an attempt to distill the experiences of the past several years into something like a coherent statement. The vignettes were chosen to suggest the broad evolution of my “coverage” of conventions, from random video diaries to formal press. But while they were milestones, they don’t tell the whole story either: the endless Skype planning meetings, the hurried dinners at Denny’s before LA Live was built, the dramas that sometimes broke out, and the exhausted birthday toasts at the ESPN Sports Bar after a long day’s work. Because, now, conventions are work. Fulfilling work, but intense and sleep-depriving work, so that readers all over the world can catch a glimpse of what fans and guests alike are doing in the name of Japanese animation and manga.

It’s work, but most of all, it’s fun. There have been many lows as well as highs, but that core has always remained: I do this because I enjoy it. So the pursuit of happiness through anime convention coverage, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way, are the topics I’ll be writing about over the next week to close this summer’s con season.

Next time: Full Court Press, or, what it means for a blogger to be considered a member of the media

Anime Expo 2011 – NIS America Industry Panel

A relative newcomer to US anime distribution, game company NIS America kicked off the Anime Expo industry panels this year with a trailer to their new show Arakawa: Under the Bridge.  PR Manager Nao Zook with special guests Director of Localization Eugene Chen, and Producer Mitsu Hiraoka hosted the panel.  Chen and Hiraoka both arrived in costume as characters from the Arakawa: Under the Bridge.

The panelists spoke about the video issues and delays they experienced on some of their first releases, like Toradora and Persona Trinity Soul, saying they have fixed any such issues for future releases and that they have worked very hard to improve on quality.  “It has been a learning experience,” said Hiraoka.  The panelist discussed on how the focus has shifted to quality taking precedence over the creativity of their releases (i.e. fancy box sets with bonus art books and the like), though they acknowledged that these extra perks are the driving force to purchase the NIS products.  This was followed by a trailer for their release of Katana Gatari.

Their direction for the future will be 100% quality for all their anime and video game products, with an emphasis on value over price.  “We put all of our energy and passion into our products,” Hiraoka said.  They also said there are currently no plans to dub any of their anime titles and that this decision is purely for financial reasons.  Simply, they would dump all of their profits into hiring voice talent for the dub.  Subtitles are much easier to make a profit on, and doing voiceover may be an unnecessary risk in the current anime market.  The third preview trailer was shown for Wagnaria (Working!!).

The panel discussed what they look for when licensing titles.  Basically, they want story driven and silly titles.  “We are very sincere to be silly,” Hiraoka said.  Also they look to be the Anti-Fan Service option, though this slide was accompanied by some very cheesecakey images from other NIS titles like Our Home’s Fox Deity.  A brand new trailer for the previously unannounced acquisition for Dororon Enma-kun Meeramera was then shown, but given no firm date of release.

Chen went on to describe the three different kinds of localization approaches NIS America uses when translating their titles, with video examples of each.   This was followed by a Q&A from fans.  One fan asked if popularity in Japan influenced what titles NIS considered licensing for US release, to which the answer was no.  Another fan asked about Blu-Ray releases to which Chen replied that if they can get the Blu-ray license for their titles they would definitely consider it.  After the Q&A, one final surprise trailer was shown for the previously unannounced Kimi Ni Todoke which will be available in October.

Anime Expo 2011 – Cosplay Extravaganza!!

Well, another Anime Expo has come and gone. It was a good time and there were a lot of great costumes this year. I really can’t fathom the amount of work and time that these people have put into these costumes, but watching them show off their creations is probably one of the best parts of the entire convention. Check out these fans!!