Monday, April 12, 2010

Anime Boston and anime iPad

The cosplayers, fans, artists and academics gleefully thronging the halls of the Hynes Convention Center earlier this month at “Anime Boston,” a three-day convention, seemed to know they were breaking attendance records even before the final tally of 17,236 was announced to prove it. Their enthusiasm and spirited camaraderie were palpable. Boston’s annual celebration of Japanese popular culture is listed among the top ten North American anime conventions by size; it is the largest of its kind in New England, where I spent most of my childhood.

But just before my Saturday presentation and book-signing, another crowd, albeit more casually dressed, had amassed along the same street less than a block away for a celebration far less culturally rooted, but arguably just as entertaining and potentially transformative. The masses gathering outside of Boston’s Apple Store were awaiting the release of the company’s latest device, the much-hyped iPad.

The coincidence was rich. While thousands whooped and hollered, posed, exclaimed and literally wore their passions on their sleeves for two fast-receding media formats—print (manga) and DVDs (anime)—a possibly powerful new platform for both was being birthed just minutes away.

The migration of manga and its cinematic cousin, anime, to the small, handheld screen is not new, of course. Two years ago, Masakazu Kubo, executive producer of Pokemon and director of mega-manga publisher Shogakukan’s Character Business Center, told me he was bullish on the medium’s future in the form of cell phone downloads, even if technology had not yet caught up. “The main problem right now is the dialog,” he said, etching an oblong bubble into the air with his index fingers. “It pops up on the screen so you can’t see the illustrations and read the dialog at the same time. But that will change.”

As have the screens themselves. One of the iPad’s chief assets is its ultra-high resolution interface, reducing eye-strain for any format that needs to be read, such as books, periodicals, comics and manga. Unlike the comparatively bland, colorless Electronic Ink technology used by most e-readers on the market, the iPad delivers vivid and colorful imagery in a format that won’t make your eyes ache.

I took a break from the festivities at Anime Boston and sipped a fresh mango juice in the adjacent plaza, eyeing the cameras and consumer hordes at the Apple Store across the street. A young comic book artist approached me and introduced himself. He’d seen the VIP pass dangling from my neck and asked if I could get him into the convention.

I told him I didn’t think so (I wasn’t that VI), but we began to discuss art and the future of media—and the commotion in both the convention center and the computer store. The artist told me he was frustrated with publishers and their conservative view of the market. “Most of the best artists working today started in the indie market and then became embraced by the mainstream. But today, no one will take a chance. There’s no way to reach readers, except on the Internet.”

Which may be a big ‘except,’ I reminded him, especially if portable digital reading devices can make the channel from creator to audience that much more direct, fluid and accessible. The narrow-mindedness of penny-pinching publishers could become immaterial if the new format renders their gate-keeping role negligible.

What excited him most, however, was not access or audience or fluidity. Size matters. He’d always dreamed of a way to enlarge his drawings so that readers could appreciate each and every detail in his work. “Costs a lot physically, but if you can just touch the screen and enlarge an illustration? Wow.”

A few days later, a writer friend at a dinner party in Manhattan told me of an older author he knew who was reading more now—mainly because of her new e-reader’s font-size enlarger, enabling her to pick apart and decipher individual words on the screen.

Ed Chavez, Marketing Director for Vertical, Inc, publishers of Japan-related books and manga, agrees that screen size counts a lot. “The iPad takes care of the limited screen of the iPhone, and there is a general consensus within the publishing communities I have worked with on both sides of the Pacific that it has the potential to create a new paradigm in manga publishing. While most of the same people agree that manga will continue to be deeply rooted in paper, the iPad's screen and Apple's well maintained app marketplace could create new avenues for many of the struggling manga magazines. But it could also expand what is already a blossoming web comic industry.”

Chavez is only cautiously optimistic, however, noting that the iPad’s opportunities are not limited to professionals or publishers. “The future of manga on the iPad within the American market will remain in doubt. There have been multiple attempts by pirate sites to distribute apps preloaded entirely with illegally procured content. As license partners in the US are often almost entirely dependent on Japan for their content, it's hard to gauge whether they'll be able to compete with the growing number of scan sites waiting to turn the iPad and iPhone into manga's Pirate Bay.”

Of course, the fantasy that a new technology can save the precarious fate of publishers, let alone artists and writers, is being met with a wall of ‘dream on’ caveats. As many media critics have noted, most of the successful recent IT-related content platforms incorporate sharing and interactivity—social networking sites, file-sharing software, et cetera. Unless publishers and creators find a way to connect their audiences with themselves and one another, as anime conventions do in the bricks-and-mortar world, the new formats will merely be new facades.

1 comment:

ArthurFrDent said...

Interesting conversations, no doubt... but I think the takeaway, is ceratinly rooted in the point about piracy... how to monetize content is a foundational question of the internet, and that alone is what keeps the frontiers behind a wall. If this independant artist you spoke to can find a way for people to pay him for his stories, all well and good.

But. What is accellerating in the internet is that the younger people have never NEEDED to pay for content anywhere. They can't imagine that door to door salesmen used to sell Encyclopedia's that way, and you were golden in gradeschool when you got one for your birthday. They are used to everything being free, and/or used to the ads based sites. That's unsustainable, and they might even realize that at some level, but it's hard to convince them of the fact. Even priated manga will be seen as a birthright.

so then we get headlong back into those penny pinching publishers, even if they are United Features Syndicate, who have the size to make everything work. Like most businesses though, they are looking for a sure thing to sell which discourages the experimental and cutting edge...

Seems like we don't really get out of that cycle, do we. To sell things, you need a critical mass of demand, based on what your own costs are. If you head to niche, there is a point of diminishing returns. Only so many people will buy a comic or manga about a half rabit/half vampire/cross-dressing barista from the moon.

Could be that loose co-ops of artists could buy appspace from iPad or whatever, and figure out how to have the ad space. There may also be some kind of user supported things going on... but how many can make a living like that?

Oddly this seems to me like a fundamental difference in idea interchange between a media that you buy, like a book or manga or DVD... and something that is purely ethereal like streamed content.

The fallout from that is interesting in that it gives unprecedented individuality in what an individual choses to look-at/have, but because it caters so very much to the individual, the critical mass of users is lost, and the original creator, may never see money for that. For a pure creator, who would make the sketches/stories/music regardless, this may not be an issue... others, not so much.

'Course thsat makes it interesting times to live in. Wondering what will happen next...