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.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Japanamerica interview @ AMNH

Author of Japanamerica Discusses Anime and American Pop Culture

Friday, April 09

On April 18, Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., will discuss the influence of anime on American pop culture at the Museum’s Global Weekends: Bollywood and Anime in America. Kelts recently offered a few thoughts on the subject.

In your book, you write that “Battle of the Planets” was many Americans’ “first taste of Japanese pop.” How did this American version of a Japanese series even come about?

I open Japanamerica with that story because it embodies so much of what my book is about—an unlikely convergence of cultures across thousands of miles and vast cultural differences. In 1977, NBC uber-producer Sandy Frank (“Name That Tune,Lassie”) brought an obscure Japanese animated series, originally called Gatchaman, to American TV because he loved it, and because the success of Star Warssuddenly made it acceptable. But none of his fellow NBC staffers spoke Japanese, and no one knew what to do to localize the maturity, sexuality, and violence of the original Japanese product.

What about Japanese pop culture attracts Americans?

James Joyce once wrote that art is “perfect imperfection,” or something like that. I think Americans, and other audiences, love the quirks and flaws in art when they feel it’s authentic—real expressions of human emotion. Japanese pop culture, however ‘cool’ it seems now, is defined by its sincerity, especially compared to the wisecracking sarcasm in most American pop products.

How has anime evolved throughout the years?

more here

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Japanamerica @ T-MODE 2010 in DC next week!

@ T-MODE in the Hilton Alexandria Old Town, Alexandria, VA (near DC), April 16 & 17.

Roland KeltsRoland Nozomu Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor and lecturer who divides his time between New York and Tokyo and publishes in both English and Japanese. He is the author ofJapanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US.

JapanamericaHe is also a lecturer at the University of Tokyo, a contributing editor and writer forAdbusters magazine and A Public Space literary journal, and a columnist for The Daily Yomiuri, Japan’s largest daily newspaper. He is published regularly inPsychology Today, Vogue Japan,The New York Daily News, and other publications, and his essays and stories can be found in the books A Wild Haruki Chase,Gamers, Kuhaku, Playboy’s College Fiction, Art Space Tokyo, Zoetropeand others. He is the Editor in Chief of the Anime Masterpiecesscreening and discussion series, and his forthcoming novel is calledAccess.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Virtual racism? Avatar: The Last Airbender

what race are they?

Director M. Night Shyamalan's apparent decision to cast Caucasian actors to play the parts of non-white characters for his adaptation of the anime, Avatar: The Last Airbender, has stirred a proverbial hornet's nest of protest and frustration online. At heart is a question often asked of me while I'm on tour for Japanamerica: Why do so many characters in Japanese art forms--anime and manga--appear to be ethnically Western?

The short answer is thanks to Frederik L. Schodt, author of Dreamland Japan, who notes that Western notions of beauty began to influence Japanese artists as early as the Meiji restoration (late 19th C). It's also true, as Schodt notes, that the big saucer eyes of Western-looking characters made it easier for artists to express the nuances of deep emotion. And Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern Japanese comics and animation, was particularly keen to create characters that were 'stateless'--appealing to a global audience.

Sixty years after Tezuka, we are confronted with a very 21st Century dilemma--partly encapsulated by a blogger who calls himself Angry Asian Man: What to do with illustrated characters/avatars who come to life in live action films--and must be performed by real people, who have very real racial/ethnic signifiers?

Author Ursula K. Le Guin was said to be very upset with Studio Ghibli's animated version of her novel, Tales from Earthsea, principally because Goro Miyazaki (master Hayao's son) turned her original dark-skinned characters bleach white. Live action Hollywood-ish versions of MahaGoGoGo!/Speed Racer and Dragonball Z both feature Caucasian leads, despite being revered and very Asian/Japanese source stories.

Hollywood, of course, requires major bank to get a story to the screens and cinemas across the US and the world. And major bank means promised returns. Caucasian leads are virtually a necessity to guarantee that a film isn't a flop in the hinterlands of the US--and overseas. Can't hedge your bets with millions in tow.

But there's another problem: Few Japanese actors can speak English fluently, and those few who can are often too old for the roles they might play (Ken Watanabe being the perfect example). Do Asian source stories like anime need Asian actors to deliver the aura properly? And if so: Where to find them?

I happen to think race is immaterial when it comes to art. If the dark-skinned eponymous anti-hero in Shakespeare's Othello is played by an actor who is white, bronzed, pink or green, I couldn't care less, as long as he's good. The great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa of the Boston Symphony Orchestra once said when accused of hiring too few minority/Asian musicians (and I paraphrase): Art is not democratic. I hire the best musicians who audition. Period.

At the same time, I find it remarkable that the Asian race is even at issue today when Hollywood adapts anime into live action blockbusters. Asians in America have long been stereotyped as the 'model minority,' rarely raising a fuss over clear examples of discrimination. Perhaps, as a half-Japanese American, I should cheer this development, even if its motivation is one I find highly dubious.