Thursday, June 11, 2020

Interview for The History Channel series "Lost Gold of World War II"

Talking about Japan's WWII war loot, hidden in the Philippines, recovered by the Americans in project "Golden Lily," and transformed into "the M-Fund," "the Black Eagle Trust" and others.

Watch for free online here.

Wrote about it here.

And here.

Also here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

First the Cons, now the Studios: Pandemic strikes Japan's anime industry hard

Japan's anime studios fall victim to coronavirus disruptions
'Pokemon' and 'Sazae-san' are delayed as animators and voice artists work from home

Nikkei Asian Review

TOKYO -- Japan's anime industry has been plagued for years by adverse conditions: long hours in cramped studios, razor-thin profit margins, domestic labor shortages and a reliance on public fan gatherings and box office sales.

But since the government declared a national state of emergency for Tokyo and other cities on April 16 in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, urging citizens to work from home, those adversities have anime producers scrambling for new business models.
Dozens of productions have been suspended indefinitely, including hit series like "Pokemon" and "One Piece"; theatrical releases in the popular "Doraemon" and "Detective Conan" franchises; and even "Sazae-san," the domestic drama that holds the Guinness World Record for the longest running animated TV series. The death of "Pokemon" and Studio Ghibli actress Kumiko Okae last month from pneumonia caused by COVID-19 shocked the voice-acting community.

Animation studios in Japan are not like their mammoth corporate counterparts in the U.S. -- Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. Most are chronically understaffed and overworked, qualifying at best as small and midsize businesses. Many are also independently operated, and rely upon collaborations with other studios at home and abroad.

Tadashi Sudo

Veteran anime business analyst and critic Tadashi Sudo, founder of industry trade site Anime!Anime!, cites four challenges facing Japanese studios today: the disruption of supply lines with the rest of Asia; the cancellation of live events and closure of cinemas; delays in overall domestic production due to "teleworking" (working from home); and the cancellation of voice-dubbing sessions. Of these, he says, the last is the most damaging.

"Dubbing is the biggest problem. Many anime voice actors gather together as a full cast in a highly congested space. They speak loudly to each other, filling the air. Some of those actors are elderly. We can try to change the system, but it will take a long time."

Having actors appear one at a time to record their lines is standard procedure for many video game companies, Hollywood studios and the larger overseas animation producers, but the process of booking solo recordings is costly. As Tokyo-based anime and manga translator Dan Kanemitsu says, it also produces different aesthetic results.

"The spontaneous interaction between the performers is lost when you have people come in one by one," he says, contrasting it with video games, where flowing dialogue between multiple characters, common in anime, is rare.

"Anime voice actors also make a lot of money with their live performances," he says. "With this revenue stream drying up, the situation is very difficult." So difficult, in fact, that one voice actor, Megumi Ogata of "Evangelion" and "Yu-Gi-Oh" fame, tweeted a plea for understanding from impatient anime fans frustrated by delays: "It's amazing that anything is on the air," she wrote. "While the cuts are painful, we're working as hard as we can."

Japan's anime industry has been reluctant to embrace global standards in digital, computer-generated 3D imagery, adhering instead to a 2D model of visual art, much of it hand-drawn by employees crammed into tiny open-air cubicles, surviving on instant noodles and sometimes sleeping under their desks. The environment is as antiquated as company policy: working from home does not compute.

But Japan's few pioneering computer-generated anime studios are facing their own coronavirus obstacle: bandwidth.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Anime Cons are canceled, from SDCC to AX to Otakon

The Japan Times

[*Since the publication of this story, San Diego Comic-Con, Anime Expo, Otakon, and other major pop culture conventions have been canceled. Some have moved online to host virtual events. Project Anime provides a list.]

The anime convention season, usually in full swing from March through the end of summer, has been decimated by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Hundreds of events held annually across the globe, from Paris and Seattle to Toronto and Tokyo, most of which attract thousands of guests, are now canceled or postponed. Some of them won’t come back.

The cascade of announcements started in Tokyo at the end of February. AnimeJapan, usually held in March and the industry’s only major yearly trade fair, was abruptly called off on Feb. 27, one day after the government’s request to avoid large-scale gatherings.

At the time, the decision felt rushed and a bit rash. A list of performers and their stage schedules had been released, booths and flights were booked, press passes delivered. Infection numbers were not yet rising in Japan at an alarming rate, and the United States and Europe had yet to see them explode.

The speed with which all of that changed has been dizzying and terrifying.

Nearly everything else has been canceled, too, of course. But in the events world, anime conventions, unlike boat or car shows, or academic conferences, take place somewhere nearly every weekend, sometimes with two in separate cities on the same weekend. To see an entire season of weekly anime gatherings suddenly crossed off the calendar is like watching a forest get leveled: the landscape laid bare in an instant.

Some U.S. cons date back 30 years or more and have never before been scratched. Fans spend an entire year preparing for them, designing costumes, budgeting for travel, lodging, get-togethers and reunions. Hotels, halls, guests and vendor booths are booked months or even years in advance.

On We Run Anime Cons, a private Facebook group for con organizers across the globe, the postings switched from cheerful exuberance over big-name guests and cosplay contests to anxiety and dread over refunds and insurance policies.

Group founder A. Jinnie McManus says that while canceling is clearly the right call in a public health crisis, it’s still not an easy one to make. Most cons are staffed by an army of volunteers who work the floor for free admission, and they have to be screened and well managed. Security, parking and travel arrangements are among the many that need to be made professionally and legally.

A. Jinnie McManus

“It’s a very heartbreaking choice, a difficult and emotional decision,” she says, “foregoing a year’s worth of planning and affecting thousands of people. Conventions are made up of a lot of moving pieces. Often they can’t just simply cancel or shift dates, due to contractual agreements with their venues, as well as the fact that insurance doesn’t cover pandemics.”

There are also those whose finances are dependent upon the cons. Special guests, such as professional voice actors, musicians and cosplay models, often rely on event appearances as a key source of income. Anime-related businesses large and small rent booths and sell merchandise, some of it produced exclusively for the convention site. A separate area is usually dedicated to independent fan artists, who lease and decorate stalls to market their wares.

For the smaller industry players, an entire season’s worth of con cancellations may be impossible to survive.

“It is sobering to think of the domino effect this pandemic will have,” says McManus. “Vendors, especially small businesses and fan artists, are among the hardest hit. Some events are making the decision to call off their 2020 convention knowing they’ll likely never return as a result.”

Tom Croom, CEO of the Orlando, Florida-based Green Mustard Entertainment, a producer of pop culture events that started as an anime club 20 years ago, describes the scenario in harsh Darwinistic terms. He keeps an updated list on his blog of the over 200 worldwide event cancellations and postponements to date.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Kadokawa invites anime YouTubers to live & work in Japan [when you could come]

GeeXPlus brings anime YouTubers to Japan

The Japan Times

Social-media influencers who review products on platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram are now pillars of marketing agencies worldwide, especially when their consumer base skews young. Whether the product is hand soap or ham sandwiches, in a world where “expert” has become a dirty word, getting a push from a social-media star with over a million followers can make or break a sales campaign.

One major Japanese publisher and producer is seeking to capitalize on the phenomenon in pop culture with a concrete if highly unusual approach. Last July, Kadokawa Corp. soft-launched a subsidiary of its Book Walker Co. Ltd. digital e-book division called GeeXPlus (“Geeks plus”) Inc., whose main goal is “connecting Japanese brands to global influencers” by providing “promotion planning, production and distribution” for English-speaking YouTubers.

In October of last year, GeeXPlus invited three anime YouTubers to live and create their posts in Japan: Garnt Maneetapho and Connor Colquhoun from the United Kingdom, and Sydney Poniewaz from the United States. The company announced its official launch on Feb. 17 at a private event in Tokyo’s Michelin-starred Inua restaurant, which is produced by Kadokawa.

For the three English-speaking anime influencers, the opportunity to live and work in Japan mere minutes away from the studios and creators they love is a rare and unexpected gift.

The 29-year-old Maneetapho was raised by Thai parents in Brighton, U.K., and started posting anime reviews and recommendations to YouTube 13 years ago, while still a teenager. He was one of the first anime vloggers on the platform in 2007 (YouTube itself had just debuted in 2005). He started, he says, because he grew bored studying for his engineering exams at the University of Bristol, preferring instead to watch and talk about his favorite anime series, “Bleach.”

Garnt Maneetapho

“Back then, I was happy when I woke up and I saw that five people had watched my (first) video,” Maneetapho recalls, laughing. “I didn’t get my first comment until like a week later. Anime wasn’t yet popular enough to make any money (on YouTube).”

After graduating, he got a technical project manager job at the BBC that delighted his parents but left him dissatisfied. He continued producing anime commentaries for YouTube in his increasingly limited free time — at the meager rate of three per year.

In 2016, inspired by an online Canadian friend who made a living reviewing anime, Maneetapho quit his job and plunged into anime YouTubing full-time, telling his parents he’d give himself one year to make it or else return to his BBC day job.

Today, his anime-focused channel, Gigguk, boasts over 2 million subscribers. He credits Patreon, the U.S.-based crowdfunding platform for independent creators, sustained by fan donations, for driving and maintaining his ongoing success. YouTube ad revenue, he says, is unreliable.

It’s not easy: Maneetapho works long hours scripting, shooting, producing and editing his videos with one colleague. But now he not only makes a decent living out of his passion for anime, he’s doing it in Japan — a far cry from what he describes as a sheltered and provincial upbringing in Brighton.

Meilyne Tran

GeeXPlus, which brought him here, is partly the brainchild of its 27-year-old director Meilyne Tran, who is originally from San Francisco. Tran says its seeds were planted a little over a year ago, when the Japanese government announced plans to increase the number of working visas granted to non-Japanese involved in the production and promotion of Japan’s “cool contents.”

“The government has actually started recognizing ‘YouTubers’ as legitimate entertainers,” she says, “because they do the same thing as tarento (TV personalities).”

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Anime in New Zealand and Australia [when you could visit both]

Anime's evolution in lands down under

The Japan Times

For the past quarter century, fans of Japanese pop culture in Australia and New Zealand have been served almost exclusively by a single distributor. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Madman Entertainment boasts over 90 percent of the region’s market share in anime home entertainment, and an even greater share of its anime theatrical business.

Not surprisingly, those statistics drew the attention of the Sony Corporation, whose Aniplex Inc. subsidiary invested in Madman two years ago and bought its anime division outright last year. Sony Pictures Television and Aniplex have now consolidated Madman Anime Group into their other recent anime distribution acquisitions: Funimation in the United States, Wakanim in France, and Manga Entertainment in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

On March 7 and 8, Madman hosted 12,000-plus fans at its second Madman Anime Festival in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, after presenting similar events over the past four years in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Each festival reports 10 to 20 percent annual audience growth. In a country whose entire population, 25 million, is smaller than that of the Tokyo metropolitan area, the success of such gatherings across a landmass approximately 20 times the size of Japan suggests that Sony made a good bet.

Madman Anime Festival

I first became aware of Madman 10 years ago when I met Dean Prenc, now the company’s general manager of pop culture, during one of my book tour stops in Melbourne. Prenc has been with Madman for 18 years. During my visit to New Zealand last month, he introduced me to marketing and sales executive Andrew Cozens, who gave me a tour of Madman’s Auckland offices, and Melbourne-based co-founder and managing director Tim Anderson.

Anderson recalls his company’s humble beginnings in the early 1990s as a VHS mail-order operation conducted out of his bedroom in a share house. A self-confessed lousy student, he became a fan of classic ’80s imports like “Robotech” and “Battle of the Planets,” though at the time he kept his budding otaku passions to himself. A trip to Japan at age 21 taught Anderson more about the cultural provenance of anime aesthetics, but as an entrepreneur, he focused on other overseas markets like the U.S. and U.K., where anime distributors Central Park Media and Manga Entertainment were hitting their stride.

“I kept an eye on those markets and decided there was an opportunity for official distribution here,” he says. “I was able to get licenses fairy easily because we were such a small market in the early ’90s, when anime was still an undiscovered niche.”

Tim Anderson

Anderson had a part-time job at a village movie theater when he co-founded Madman in 1996 with his friend Paul Wiegard, who now oversees Madman’s live-action TV and film division — which currently handles the Australian and New Zealand distribution rights for Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” among other A-list titles.

Madman Anime Group’s first big regional hit was Hideaki Anno’s apocalyptic epic, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” licensed via Houston-based U.S. distributor A.D. Vision Films (now incorporated into Sentai Filmworks) and currently streaming on Netflix. “Evangelion” remains a favorite of Anderson’s (“I still think it’s fantastic”), who says his personal taste leans toward titles that have crossover appeal, like Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.” and the TV series “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” which debuted in 2019.

Earlier this year, Madman Anime Group’s nurturing of Australia’s anime community extended into real-world urgency. The widespread bushfires that ravaged swathes of the country prompted Anderson and his colleagues at AnimeLab, Madman Anime Group’s streaming platform, to launch “Anime Heroes for Aussie Wildlife: Bushfire Appeal” a worldwide dollar-for-dollar fundraising campaign, supported by parent company Funimation, to aid Wildlife Victoria, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the region’s catastrophically decimated species. (Up to one billion animals are estimated to have perished in the fires.)

The campaign’s mascot, a firefighting koala hefting a water-blasting hose, was created by Shingo Adachi, character designer for the hit anime series “Sword Art Online” and has raised over $190,000 to date.

Shingo Adachi

Friday, February 21, 2020

Kentucky Country Music Star Sturgill Simpson goes all-out in Anime Netflix movie

When American country meets Japanese anime

The Japan Times

The artists gathered at last month’s Tokyo premiere of “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury” were as eclectic as the film they’d all made: a 41-minute anime music video set to an entire album by the Grammy-winning Sturgill Simpson, a country music singer-songwriter from Kentucky.

After the screening, delivered in 7.1 surround sound so rich it enveloped like an aural duvet, Japanese and American anime luminaries including Koji Morimoto (“Akira”), Michael Arias (“Tekkonkinkreet”), Masaru Matsumoto (“Appleseed Alpha”), Shinji Takagi (“Steamboy”), Arthell Isom (“Strike Witches”) and Henry Thurlow (“Tokyo Ghoul”) stood shoulder-to-shoulder beneath projected images of scenes from the omnibus project. Standing tallest among them was a squinting Simpson, just in from the U.S. and still, he confessed, addled by jet lag.

But the mash-up doesn’t end there. The film’s overarching storyline was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic “Yojimbo,” about a ronin warrior for hire. Junpei Mizusaki and his CG studio Kamikaze Douga of “Batman Ninja” fame directed it, with character designs by “Afro Samurai” manga artist Takashi (Bob) Okazaki.

What’s more, the music is miles away from the country-western of Merle Haggard. Its razor-edged electric guitar riffs and insistent beats are from a genre known as alt-country, or alternative country rock, with melodic echoes of the late J. J. Cale — if his songs were amped up through ZZ Top’s distorting fuzz boxes.

Clockwise from left: Takashi Okazaki, Arthell Isom, Henry Thurlow, Koji Morimoto, Sturgill Simpson, Michael Arias, Masaru Matsumoto and Junpei Mizusaki at the ‘Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury’ premiere in Tokyo on Dec. 13. | MITSURU HIROTA

Simpson’s lyrics are depicted in the film as the wayward musings of a loner navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape. They invoke a punk nihilism and disgust with corruption (“It’s ‘F—— all y’all’ season, don’t give me a reason/ to watch your house burn to the ground.”) The 10 song-episodes are sometimes brutally violent and bloody, sometimes erotic, but also often arrestingly inventive. Morimoto’s collaboration with hair sculpture artist Hidenori Nishimura for the song “Mercury in Retrograde,” with its metamorphosing gears and snaking lines, is especially stunning.

It’s the kind of crossover, transcultural anime collaboration with high-end production values that would have been unthinkable five years ago. And, of course, it’s streaming on Netflix.

The use of Western music in anime soundtracks itself is nothing new and has an admirable lineage. Veteran critic and industry analyst Tadashi Sudo notes that the “Lupin III” television series brought jazz to the medium in the early 1970s, and in Shinichiro Watanabe’s classic “Cowboy Bebop,” jazz and blues-styled backdrops form a slyly comedic commentary on the characters’ noir space-cowboy escapades.

But Sudo says that “Sound & Fury,” with its co-produced characters, narrative and imagery built around a full album of songs by a single musician is a landmark culmination. “‘Sound & Fury’ emerges from that history,” he says, “but I think it’s the final form of such unusual combinations of Western music and anime. The fusion is wonderful, but even more important, this is a production where both Japanese and American staff took part in its total creation. That could only be realized with Netflix, because cultural diversity is one of its core values.”

While the film was completed in under a year (astonishing, given its scope), its gestation period was much longer — spanning two decades.

Simpson was stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base from 1997 to ’98. On days off, he would trawl Tokyo manga shops for anime VHS tapes and watch them on his ship. He got hooked on dark classics like “Akira” and years later, after returning to the States, “Attack on Titan.”

Haunting imagery: A scene from Koji Morimoto's sequence of the anime 'Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury,' which features Simpson's album 'Sound & Fury' as its soundtrack. | 2019 HIGH TOP MOUNTAIN FILMS, LLC / ELEKTRA RECORDS. STURGILL SIMPSON PRESENTS SOUND & FURY

In 2012 he revisited Tokyo as a professional musician to shoot a music video for his song “Railroad of Sin” (now on YouTube) from his first album.

“It was back then that I first started talking with my friend Shunsuke (Ochiai, co-executive producer) about this crazy dream,” he says. “How cool would it be to make anime videos for a whole album? So when I made (‘Sound & Fury’), that was the plan from the beginning. And when Junpei (Mizusaki) heard the album and told me he wanted to animate every song, for lack of a better word, it felt like kismet.”


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Thank you, Houston (JASH, ANA, Rice University & The Consulate General of Japan)

I am grateful to my hosts in Houston for a wonderful evening at Rice University, where I gave a presentation on Japanese director and artist Makoto Shinkai and the current fast-paced changes in the global anime industry, including at Texas-based Sentai Filmworks and Funimation.

My thanks to hosts The Japan-America Society of Houston (JASH), and sponsors All Nippon Airways and the Consulate General of Japan — plus, that stellar Texan crowd.

PS The ribs weren't bad, either.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Bringing anime's best to Americans

Gkids brings anime's best to big screens in the U.S.

The Japan Times

At the start of a new decade, anime’s two top directors are being delivered to Americans by one company. And, no, it’s neither Disney nor Netflix.

The relatively unheralded Gkids, which was spun off 11 years ago from the New York International Children’s Film Festival by founder and CEO Eric Beckman, has now become the chief North American distributor of films by Hayao Miyazaki and Makoto Shinkai.

On Dec. 16 and 18, as part of its ongoing Studio Ghibli Fest, an annual April-December screening series, Gkids will present Miyazaki’s late artistic partner Isao Takahata’s final film, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” in theaters across North America. On Jan. 15, the company will release Shinkai’s “Weathering With You,” Japan’s highest grossing film of 2019, on 900 screens nationwide.

Gkids also has a stake in anime’s less family-friendly material, like the edgier Studio Trigger’s first feature, “Promare,” an apocalyptic sci-fi adventure that mixes 2D and 3D computer-generated graphics and is a fan favorite on social media. (“Promare” will next run in U.S. theaters on Dec. 8 and 10.)

But prospects weren’t always this rosy for the New York-based company.

Over lunch at the Line Hotel in Los Angeles, Beckman recounts the story of the big one that got away: Shinkai’s 2016 breakout hit, “Your Name.,” which went on to become one of the highest grossing Japanese films of all time in any genre, earning over $361 million worldwide, second only to Miyazaki’s Oscar-winner, “Spirited Away.” It is now being adapted into a live-action Hollywood feature by J.J. Abrams of “Star Wars” fame, and a separate remake is reportedly in the works in China, where the original made most of its money outside Japan.

Eric Beckman, Founder and CEO of Gkids

“We got the initial pitch for ‘Your Name.’ from Toho,” Beckman explains, “and it was just a little one-sheet with a picture and a short, poorly written synopsis. They couldn’t show us anything else yet. There was nothing for us to evaluate, so we offered our bid based on the commercial results of Shinkai’s previous film” — which were respectable but hardly record-breaking.

A third of the way into a screening of the completed movie in the fall of 2016, Beckman started frantically texting industry colleagues, hoping there was some way Gkids could get involved in its U.S. marketing. He was too late.

Read >>

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

2019: A revolutionary year for the US anime business

U.S. anime market matures in 2019

The Japan Times

The third annual Animation Is Film Festival kicked off on Oct. 18 in Los Angeles with the United States premiere of Makoto Shinkai’s latest Japan box-office hit, “Weathering With You,” followed by an onstage Q&A with Shinkai, who flew in from Tokyo for the event. Demand for tickets was so fierce that organizers added a second overflow screening at the city’s historic TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

According to festival founder Eric Beckman, CEO of U.S. distributor GKIDS, tickets to the second screening sold out in “less than three minutes.”

WEATHERING WITH YOU, image courtesy of GKIDS /  ©2019 “Weathering With You” Film Partners

Six years after the global anime industry was jolted by the retirement of its most loved and bankable artist, Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki, developments in the North American market are transforming 2019 into a banner year. Through consolidation, the flowering of streaming media platforms and unexpected cash infusions, the anime business on the other side of the Pacific is rising to new levels of maturation and scale.

The day before the festival, WarnerMedia announced that all Studio Ghibli films, which the studio had previously refused to release digitally, would be made available to stream on its HBO Max site, set for launch next spring. And, of course, Miyazaki himself is now out of retirement and working on his next film.

Dedicated distributors and streaming platforms Funimation and Crunchyroll, both absorbed over the past two years by bigger players, are now being repositioned for growth by their respective parent companies. This September, Sony merged Funimation, which it acquired in 2017, with its Tokyo-headquartered anime arm, Aniplex, expanding its reach to 49 countries in 10 languages. Crunchyroll, under the umbrella of AT&T, is currently being folded into WarnerMedia but will likely retain its stand-alone status as a home for anime among a wider range of entertainment options.

The Japanese government finally put some serious skin into the international anime game through its Cool Japan Fund, long-pilloried for being badly named and poorly managed. In August, the fund made a $30 million investment in Sentai Filmworks, an independent Texas-based North American licensing firm, best known for presenting hit titles such as K-On! and Ninja Scroll. The cash infusion will go toward supporting Sentai’s own freshly minted streaming platform, HIDIVE, an alternative to the Sony and Time Warner heavyweights.

Monday, October 07, 2019

The BBC's "World Questions: Tokyo" program available online

Honored to participate on the BBC's "World Questions: Tokyo" panel with the politicians Rui Matsukawa (LDP) and Hiroe Makiyama (CDP), and economist/professor Sayuri Shirai (Keio University).

We discussed Japan's future — including the nation's low birth rate, women in politics and the labor force, the immigration dilemma, the constitution's 'pacifist' Article 9, and the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games.

You can hear the entire program online here.