Saturday, July 09, 2011
AX 2011: Virtual Girls and Rare Dubs
Fans of 1980's-era Japanese animation may recall the 1985 anime MEGAZONE 23, in which Eve, young female pop idol in 1980's Tokyo, turns out to be (spoiler) a holographic projection -- the manifestation of the artificial intelligence that runs a generation ship mocked up to look like 1980's Tokyo.
Attendees of this year's Anime Expo, held last weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center, could not help but be reminded of Eve as they beheld the face of this year's AX: Hatsune Miku.
Ms. Hatsune, you see, is a virtual pop idol -- a character in the Japanese Vocaloid software, which allows songwriters to hear their songs sung by sythesized voices. With Hatsune Miku, the creators of the Vocaloids (who were guests at the convention) went a step further: They created a live stage show, in which an on-stage band accompanies a holographic Hatsune Miku as she sings, dances, and chats with the audience. This stage show, hitherto shown only in Japan, was brought to the Nokia Theater (next to the Convention Center) on July 2, 2011; and the buzz about the concert dominated the convention, particularly since folks appeared to fly in from all over the world to see the concert. Throngs of cosplayers dressed as Miku and her fellow Vocaloids; and Toyota, which had picked Hatsune Miku as its virtual spokesidol, parked Toyota Carollas, emblazoned with images of the aqua-haired youth, in the front lobby of the convention center.
Of course, there was more to AX 2011 than virtual pop idols. I've never seen statistics, but I'd bet that AX 2011 has one of the highest concentration of costumed attendees (and of high-quality costumes) of any of North America's various anime, comic book, and science fiction conventions. This AX was no exception; the hallways were thronged with impressive costumes.
The attendance at AX was impressive, in light of the current U.S. licensed anime and manga industry. That industry has been in the doldrums in the last few years, as the bubble burst in the market for these products (due to, among other things, the crashing economy, the failure of the Musicland and Borders chains, and the lack of standout shows and manga titles). Indeed, for a couple of years, almost no new anime DVDs were produced. At present, only a few licensors are left out of what was once a crowded field; and only a few anime titles go through the expensive process of dubbing -- many are licensed only for the much less expensive Internet-streaming, subtitled market.
To make matters worse, licensing issues (including Japanese right-holding companies changing hands) have complicated the distribution of existing titles. In particular, although four translated editions of the HELLSING ULTIMATE DVD series have been released in the U.S., no new ones have come out here in the last two years (although the series has continued in Japan) due to contract issues. As a result, there were fewer cosplayers in Hellsing costumes this year; although previous AXs featured two or more Hellsing costume photoshoots, this one had none.
Also creating problems for the convention were a new anime con, AM2, which the founders (former AX staff) chose to put on during the same weekend as AX, and in the same venue where AX used to be held, in a possible attempt to hurt AX's attendance. (Didn't work, although folks we'd often see at AX spent the weekend at the other convention.)
Nevertheless, the attendance topped 47,000, which is huge by any standards; and the attendees had tremendous fun. Further, there were signs that a leaner anime licensing industry was pulling itself out of its sinkhole, with new licensing and dubbing projects. In particular, Bandai premiered a dubbed version of THE DISAPPEARANCE OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA, a feature-length coda to the two TV series adapting the light novels of a manic-depressive high school girl who unknowingly has the power to warp reality. (The two-hour, forty-minute feature is a tour de force for voice actor Crispin Freeman, who delivers dialogue or narration in every scene.)
And Funimation, which has emerged from the licensing miasma as the dominant company, held a raucous panel for its dub of the 2010 hit anime series DURARARA.
The success of the DURARARA DVDs is even more impressive because the entire series was made available to fans in 2010 (and is still available) for free, in subtitled form, on Crunchyroll.com. Yet the dubbed version has prospered, and is now showing on Adult Swim.
The events we attended included the Midnight Tea, in which fans created tea party settings based on anime and similar characters. The settings showed off the artistry and sense of fun typical of AX costumers.
On Saturday, we attended the Hatsune Miku concert. The concert was the stuff of science fiction. The holographic singer, a huge glass screen behind her, was an amazing illusion: From a distance she looked like a human being, sharing a stage with the (excellent) live band backing her up; but a closer look revealed that she was indeed an anime character, with huge eyes, a tiny mouth, a bare hint of a nose, and an inhumanly streamlined body. Further, while she was occasionally raised and lowered onto the stage as if on a trapdoor lift, she was not limited to mimicking reality. Sometimes she changed costumes and hairstyles onstage, in the blink of an eye; sometimes she transformed into a ball of light, and shot around the stage, glowing stars in her wake, until she emerged in a different outfit. And while her voice seemed human (albeit autotuned, like so many current human singers), she would also sing some songs with inhuman speed and precision. Some of her fellow Vocaloid singers took their turns on the stage, sometimes in duet with Miku. The capacity crowd ate it up, dancing and waving glowsticks in time with their laser-light heroine.
For us, one of the highlights of every AX has been the Meet the Guests reception, at which the attendees (for a premium ticket) get to meet tha Japanese and American guests one-on-one. This one, however, may be our last. The price per ticket has skyrocketed (from $20 at our first one to $75 for this one); the time for the event was shortened (it was supposed to be held from 6 pm to 7:30, but folks were not allowed in until after 6:30); the venue was so loud that the Japanese guests complained; and while an impressive food spread was provided, the only liquid available was via a cash bar. Further, attendees were limited to five minutes with each guest before having to move on to the next. Despite these detriments, the guests themselves were delightful. Highlights included the folks behind the aforementioned Vocaloids; the production staff of LAST EXILE, the 2003 dieselpunk tv series that is being continued this year; voice actor Toshio Furukawa, whose career has stretched from MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM in the 1970s to his portrayal of Ace in the current hit series ONE PIECE; and ace American voice actor/director Taliesin Jaffe.
With all of its flaws, AX remains the place to see fantastic costumes, guests from Japan, and tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans.