(Sticky) Eventing: 2020

[Last updated: Sep 16, 2020]


Last year’s note here, my Eventernote here.

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Flying Low With Ueshama

Over the years I’ve pondered on exactly how and why seiyuu artists do the major label thing. I understand it financially, but it isn’t exactly clear cut why that is a good deal for a large number of them–it seems like an advancement in career or at least an attempt at it, or as obligation to their fans and industry partners. As individual artists, they work with their managers and producers to come up with something that’s worth selling to the seiyuu’s existing and new audience. Some folks made it work, some didn’t, but even in the worst case these projects at still kind of interesting.

So, in comes Ueda Reina and her cute country songs. I’m going to just link to some music videos and briefly talk about what I think about this in general.

The 30,000-feet view is that anisong and seiyuu-idol as a music label business is basically churning people who are already primed as stage-quality performers (including actors, models and tarento generally–but the training for the latter 2 can vary a lot, affecting their readiness for it). Some popular TV personalities, cosplayers, and now youtubers can all get record label contracts and have a music biz–possibly on the side, or in the front. To take one example, Mizuki Nana is a mainstream musician working hard to still be a relevant seiyuu, as the exception to the norm. But outside of this type of exception and other exceptions, most are just trying to express artistically & tapping into the fandom built around their geinojin persona.

When it comes to voice, it’s hard to monetize people who love your voicework. Like, short of selling facetime, autographs and photos, there isn’t much else you can monetize from. The work product which is tied up totally separately from your voiceover contracts, the characters, stories, game and anime connected to that, is not yours to control, sell or otherwise directly profit from. It makes sense why some seiyuu agencies start idol groups and tropes, because it taps underutilized labor in this growing category of employment, as supply of seiyuu outstrips jobs available for them.

The 10,000 feet view is that different seiyuu artists go about it differently. I think it’s a fair criticism to say that a lot of musicians, especially western ones, have something more to draw from. It’s both the upbringing and the sample size. That while this is a nitpick, but diverse environments produce more diverse talents. Ueda Reina comes from the Toyama countryside and it’s a fresh breath of air for her to try to create something this way, even if it is at core something pretty close to who she is as an entertainment persona and as an individual. And even the ones that aren’t, do it in ways that brings out some originality crossed with, well, what the people want.

Give the people what they want is sometimes a winning formula, but not really that interesting if it’s all that you do. It’s understandable and it’s something everyone do to varying levels. In this case, though, it’s more like Ueshama wants to give you want she wants to give you, so you’ll gladly take it, or not. It’s a selfish but reasonable, and sustainable balance between something that is hardly marketable because it’s just so simply Ueda Reina, but also because that’s what some people want anyway.

Which is to say, when you connect the dots, a lot of seiyuu-idol artists pander to their core audience because they don’t have competitive offerings for the general audience. It’s like why Pixel 5 can be a very attractive phone is lost on the masses, to use a very orthogonal analogy. But what carries in a quality work of art is the conviction of the artist, and you can see it in the way Ueda behave consistently (or as the kids say, on brand).

Going down another level (1000 ft?), Ueda’s solo projects are just art projects. They can be fun, in the video which posts a bunch of fan-submitted flower pics.

It reminds me of her old Web Newtype column (for example) where she would do a photo shoot once every other week with the staff, usually at some low-key but stylish location–a cafe, an art exhibit, a park, etc. Each shoot had a color motif which she picked. At the end of the run, Newtype decided to make a photobook which can be customized by various images used in the column. It was a lot of work to do it, but I’m sure it’s rewarding for the fans who did.

In as much as it’s a business, it’s about engagement and ultimately, producing an artist. That’s where Ueda really leans on her orthogonal art branding here. Originally she was supposed to have her first solo concert in July, which was cancelled by Covid. But in conjunction with the original planning, they had various merch to go with it, including a whole set of artwork she drew in which fans can vote to select which will be made available for purchase. The results were 3 images available as canvassed artwork, and some sold as art for t-shirts or whatever. And then, there’s the Hana no Ame music video project mentioned earlier.

It’s not to say other artists don’t do this kind of arts and craft stuff–it’s actually not unusual. Like I said, engagement is a metric and this does drive that. But this is unique enough of a combination to be noteworthy. If Ueshama is going to be that art teacher persona, I guess there aren’t too many others in this same zone at least.

To close this out, let’s zoom in one more step. I think I’m going to wrap it up with this interview done as a promo for her latest single, which is used for the opening for Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina. Basically, some time after her last album, her manager got married and move away from Tokyo. Thanks to covid also, she wanted to see this friend/ex-coworker and couldn’t. Instead, she wrote the lyrics and performed the song with her (and her partner, who is another employee who met at work) in mind, making it cuter than usual. We’re way too close for aircraft metaphors at this point.

Practical Eventing Problems

With the new Walkure tour announced yesterday, I think one thing is clear is that as Japan (and other first-world nations) slowly emerges from pandemic-induced shutdowns and slowdowns, the US is going to be lagging these countries in international travel allowances.

By most metrics, the USA has done a below-average job as a first-world nation in dealing with the Coronavirus. Unfortunately the price to be paid from an eventing point of view is that international travel will resume slower for Americans going to and from other countries that have successfully reduced the spread and the number of infections.

Given most big character-franchise lives tend to announce events on a 3-to-6-month rolling basis, we might be clearing the initial hurdles in Japan with events rolling out early 2021. Will oversea tourism resume in Japan? Until this happens it would be quite hard to travel there to attend any events.

Maybe you can think that once a vaccine is available things will be better. I think that’s true generally, but it would be hard to know if this extends to how tourists are going to be let in. For one, it only seems responsible to do so after the vaccines are widely available and administered, and the timeline for that is likely as long as developing the vaccine in the first place.

Perhaps it is a backstop of sorts, regardless the challenge that lies between today and those goal posts. There is that postponed Tokyo Olympics, so I think things will come to a head early 2021. Of course, I don’t think athletes and their support crews will have trouble going to Japan, but I think Japan will be economically and politically pressured to allow tourism by this summer if things are playing out to the best case scenarios.

That means the domestic events from November onward until then will be blocked for a lot of oversea fans! And that is in a best-case basis. This is not even addressing the lack of Japanese guests in oversea events (read: US cons), which is a different ball of wax with different sets of risks.

Of course, Japan is not risk-free now, nor will they be in the coming months as more of their social distancing limits are lifted. I imagine until they also get widely vaccinated, leisure gatherings will be reduced. Venues are still limited to 50% capacity for now, so we’ll see in november if this means things are really spiking–and if full-blown events are really going to happen again soon.

Lapis Re:Lights Live

It’s seiyuu idol biz in the new decade. Lapis Re:Lights employs dance-focused seiyuu units sing for the multimedia project, launching with an anime with game in tow. Lapis Re:Lights also put on youtube their old lives from 2019.

The Venus Fort mini-live was really impressive because they were able to convey the dancing with the idol standards of an environment-controlled mall stage. But the “First solo live” thing was really doing not much for me. In any case, you can watch both in the video here.

I think a big limiter is the screen. The way that mix reality stuff works today require a compromise on viewing angle and fidelity. It is like, if you watch it from a distance, it looks pretty okay. But at the same time, it’s unclear how much value it adds versus a backdrop. Well, you can have both, but then both screens are a constraint on each other lest it’s just crazy disco lights and colors.

What is clear is the drawbacks of mixed reality performances where it’s literally “candy” on otherwise dance-focused performances. If you want to do mixed reality stuff, you kind of go this far, right?

The limitations, from my own experience:

  • Viewing angle: This one everyone knows. Ever been to a Hatsune Miku live and situate yourself beyond 45 degrees from center? 80 degrees? It’s not a good experience. This is mediated by being farther back, but you don’t see the image as clearly, and you already lose some clarity versus looking at an image without a double screen.
  • Clarity: Well, I mentioned it above, but if you perform behind a screen, people will see the screen and it just won’t be as vivid in terms of how the stage light reflect on the performer. It also depends on the opacity of the screen, and of course, if the projection is in front of the performer and blocking them.
  • Fewer seats closer to the stage: This is an impact of the viewing angle. If you have a simple theater stage and a trope of dancing idols (let’s say, 16 of them). They can move in formation and engage all across the front edge of the stage. People at the front can look around and they’ll get their eyes full of performers. The performers can engage all parts of the stage at all angles. But if you put them behind a screen, first of all, you won’t be able to fit as many people because graphics can’t layer more than you have screens (eg., performers in staggered formations won’t really benefit from the mixed reality stuff when they are behind others, even if they are still plainly visible). Second, viewing angle comes in play again. If your normal act is 2-3-4-5 folks dancing around around a focal point on stage, then only really the area right in the center-front will get a good view. If you are side-front, well, it’s going to be kind of funky seeing the graphics not line up with the dancing. That said, I think Lapis Re:Lights can work this in their routines, even if generally this style of performance performs “for a camera” so to speak.
  • Limitation on stage layout: It’ll be pretty hard to have layered stages, elevation changes and formations, etc, if you have a screen. Not that you can’t, but the screen loses a lot of value. Of course you won’t be able to fly in the venue, or ride a whale. Or more commonly, it doesn’t work well with a cart, or when the performers walk around the stage freestyle and appeal to the crowd. Well you could, but what good is the screen? Like, the MR stuff is really just icing on top of solid dance formations at that point. Certainly a live can have both MR and normal parts, so there’s that. It’s also possible to have a moving stage with a screen, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

I think the standard Love Live style dancing works well with this gimmick. It’s also kind of an odd thing because it works even better with staged camerawork, but you might as well just edit the video in that case? But in Lapis Re:Lights’s case, it puts the hard work on the dancing seiyuu. They may still be seiyuu dancing as characters, but they gotta do those milkshake while singing. So in that sense this is nothing really worth writing home about. It is what was always going to bring the customers to the yard in the first instance.

What I find amusing, looking at the anime, is that the light tricks are literally that. The impressive things about the performances in the anime were the stage arrangements and how the performers interacted with the stage, plus the performance itself. The SFX were just as gimmicky in the anime as it is in real life. What is amusing and impressive with the anime “orchestras” are the stage direction and the fancy stages themselves. Using projector mapping seems a bit cheap looking when there literally are lives with fancy stages?

Having watch these, I feel like the usual known suspects are naturally good. Matsuda Risae particularly was noteworthy because I’ve seen her twin Satsumi perform for Cinderella Girls for quite a while now, so it’s good to have this reference.

A Brief Bit on Taiwan As a Thing, Musing on Vtuber as Economic Output

I never really wrote about vtubers, but it’s interesting to note that recently Hololive/Cover suspended two of their vtubers for upsetting the Chinese mainland audience by mentioning Taiwan in the context of countries. It’s a pretty common shorthand to refer to economically distinct regions on internet platforms because there are places in this world that are run by different commercial laws despite those places not being really countries. Maybe this is just a very short explainer on both Taiwan and reporting data on the internet.

Places like the Vatican are city-states that are not fully a nation but are run by distinct set of local laws. Places like Hong Kong are administrative regions of other countries, which runs on different laws than their mother countries. Places like Taiwan are effectively different countries but are not legally recognized as independent countries by the UN and most other countries (although some countries do recognize them).

For sake of ease, viewer analytics for ads will list entities, viewers, etc., by these legal boundaries. It’s not “country” but there are few terms more suited.

The PRC, as a stipulation of doing business with them, require their trade partners to follow the same political stance in regards to Taiwan. I think the situation always escalate fast because, as per its communist tradition, being called out by the common folk was the original gaslighting social media mob that you see online today. It just happens that there are so many people in China that the effect was a lot more immediately felt in more places. Normally you would just have reasonable government agencies or some more professional parties regulating speech do this, but out comes the mobs.

As for Cover’s actions, that seems rather business as usual. I think when you have virtual youtubers who are being managed and monetized in a VC-y kind of way, this sort of thing is invariably going to happen. Cover has made investment to stream on Bilibili, which is China’s biggest weeb/youth video platform. The fact that the vtubers themselves are Japanese is irrelevant because by association Cover trying to monetize Coco or Haachama will lead to those problems. And frankly a mandatory 3-week break for the talents is the usual showbiz tactic, helping things to blow over. It’s not like those two won’t be attacked by streaming now, despite what their stans may say. It’s just typical de-escalation.

I think it does mean that the better long term strategy is to stream Chinese vtubers in China only, so you can let the more western-minded vtubers be themselves. Of course, there are internal business ramifications there. The token kotowing and having to make Coco/Haachama fans suffer for 3 weeks is a drop in the bucket in the overall scheme of things. Things will smooth over and move on while Cover management learn their lessons, hopefully.

To me, though, this is a bigger issue in two sense. So I’m going to pivot into this second discussion about economics (again).

In general, world economies broke out by country falls into three categories: 3rd world, developing, and first world. The majority of people in the world live in developing countries, like China and India. These general labels reflect more of an economic mode than actual quality of life that people associate with say, 3rd world countries. Yes, third world countries generally have major lack in infrastructure and developed industries. Their main economic output would be subsistence farming, mining and other resource extraction, and very low tier labor. Advanced economies, on the other hand, make their economic output on higher-end service industries (such as tourism) and labor adds value in a value-add chain (high tech industries, financial industries, etc). The former kind of countries can only make money by extraction: people mining ores are selling ores. The latter kind of countries make money because the people and businesses themselves add value: people writing code, giving your investment more dividends.

Developing economies are ones in between, where the mode of its economic output has shifted from the lowest tier into manufacturing and adding value, but they are cost-competitive because the labor force is cheap as the standards of living is low. As a country gets wealthier the cost of its labor will rise. Unless the value they add to their manufacturing also rises (for example, instead of sowing t-shirts they move to sowing shoes to building furniture to building computers), these developing economy will lose their competitive edge globally and be stuck doing that thing they got good at making. (By the way, Taiwan is a good example of this–a wealthy people that don’t make much money but because of the kind of products that make up Taiwan’s core exports, able to truck along much farther than much bigger, more resourceful countries.)

Where does the entertainment industry fit in here? Movies, music, art, books, and brands generally, are value add. A Louis-Vuitton bag may cost thousands of dollars, but it’s no different than a high-quality bootleg you can find in China in terms of looks and utility, at a fraction of the price. That’s because the brand itself adds value to the final product in the production chain.

A market like PRC brings its gigantic consumer base to the table. Indeed, advanced economies are not concerned about how much corn they can grow, or if they’re going to run of land to grow food or mine iron or whatever. They are concerned if there is demand for the things they can add value to. This is in other words the post-scarcity economy that advanced national economies are operating from. It’s not about how much you create, but how much you consume. For example it’s less important for Volkswagen to get that extra cent less per ton of steel they buy, and more important for them to increase demand for their cars–higher demand drives their topline price, reduce their inventory, increases margin, and improve on economy of scale.

And yeah, virtual youtubers only makes sense as an economic entity in this sense. Any reasonably outgoing person with knowing how things work could be a vtuber. The value-add here from Cover or other vtuber production teams add to the core product–a YouTuber/internet celebrity–is the promotional aspect, the business management, the branding management, tech support and creating art assets and what not, and also in talent management. These internet celebrities do things people already have been doing since the dawn of the vlog era, but this is the value add. And these things are only valuable if it generates corresponding, and additional, demand.

It is with demand that Mainland China heaves its similarly-trained netizens onto the world. In order to really escape that middle income trap that will invariably clip the wings of modern developing economies, these countries are always looking for ways to change gear in terms of what drives their economy. But this is still on the consumption side. For example, it is good economy for the USA to make a good film for the PRC, because mainstream/Hollywood films are these advance-economic, extremely value-added products that make billions of dollars for the USA each month (at least, pre-COVID). It’s like saying Avenger Endgame or Avatar made a billion bucks in the USA is a big deal, but it’s the billions of bucks these movies make overseas that is the bigger deal. And global blockbusters of this kind is almost monopolized by American filmmaking companies. China has been able to make some domestic ones, but they invariably all fail to register overseas. That’s where China is stuck on.

Maybe this partly explains why Tiktok is such a focal point this year, politically? Because the same thing is happening for social media platforms.

What I’m trying to say is, this is a bit of the same thing for virtual youtubers. At least for now.

Actually what I’m really trying to say is, the way China goes about their national policies about utilizing its massive human resource to shittalk their way into power is a zero-sum or negative sum economic strategy. Chinese companies are significantly sheltered by the country’s nationalistic economic agenda and it’s probably fair to argue many of them do not have what it takes to become global brands. This is also a national agenda for them to change, in which the likes of Huawei and Tencent are in the forefront. However, it’s not really clear how far this will go, and if the competitiveness of these companies and advantages are sustainable, innately driven, or external (such as above-average protective government policies). People in that country are working hard to shift their brands from being perceived as low-cost, low-quality to high quality. (Again, see the LV example. [Or maybe this is the difference between Nijisanji and Hololive? LOL]) That is really the mark of an advanced economy.

Then again, this is also why you can see having the fifties out in force is really the only leverage PRC has, because ultimately they are still in a position of consuming the products from external actors (Japanese companies in this case). Do they really have any say? Should they? I personally think the answers to those questions depends on ultimately the quality of good produced, and the arrangement of the bargain. That these vtuber VCs make good decisions that enable their talents and managers to make the best content is likely, the best outcome for the most people, long term.

PS. The video I linked has a super rough crash course on the political background on Taiwan and why they’re shunned by China. It doesn’t get into the nitty gritty at all, and doesn’t explain why there is an independence movement, etc., but it does highlight the economic trade agreement between Mainland and Taiwan, which is ultimately the one paper clip that connects the two sides of a single piece of paper. If you know a better video that gives the geopolitical crash course for Taiwan please let me know.

Nibbling on Granblue Fantasy (As a Story)

I think I should preface that this is more like a not-fully-earnest take (shitpost as they say on Twitter) on the topic: what is missing that makes Granblue Fantasy interesting to me, in Granblue Fantasy. I posit this tweet as the giant arrow in the sky pointing to the answer.

I think it requires that trigger warning or disclaimer here because I am picking on GBF for no reason. And this is probably better phrased as “CyGames FantasyVerse” or I don’t know whatever the term is for that.

As in, those stories are missing what makes a fantasy in my estimation of what fantasies are. It leans really heavily on adventure and characterization–because I think it’s fair to proclaim the majority of people enjoy swashbuckling adventures, may it take place on an island-hopping airship or elsewhere, featuring mights, magic, intrigue, and fantastical beasts. However, is this what it means to have a fantasy story?

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore.

According to Wikipedia, above, that is what a fantasy is. And I know everyone agrees with this, including Cygames, because we have stories like Manaria Friends (Mysteria Friends). That to me is a proper fantasy–where a set of relatively mundane human social circumstances are compounded into intrigue and interesting narratives because it isn’t just a boarding school for well-to-do teenage girls, but a magical school. In other words, it is the fictional universe (in other words, the setting) that defines fantasies. It is not the characters or the stories they tell that really make fantasies fantastical.

And FWIW the fictional universe in GBF is just a giant crutch. It doesn’t play a role as a character other than to peg different characters’ circumstances. If that’s all it is, you don’t need a fantasy to tell the same story. This is kind of how I feel about both seasons of the anime, and the Bahamut anime, with exceptions to some individual episodes. If the fantastical aspects of your story is just a contrivance, then your fantasy is just not that good? Hope I’m not saying anything really controversial here.

Again, here is a disclaimer that I am not versed in GBF story-wise, besides from the anime and random things I pick up on twitter. I really only play the game for the collaboration (and the free not-gambling).

Last Exile is the story that triggers this realization because, it is basically the same fantasy story, just slotted into the steampunk pigeonhole instead of the Tolkien-esque bin vis-à-vis JRPG lens. Maybe GBF has that story to tell inside all that garbage gacha game shell, but aside from cratered credit card bills, these tragedy-of-common businesses commit other sins in their wake.

PS. I wanted to write more for Kurocon but didn’t get to it before it was over, so read about the ANN announcement for us instead.