Monthly Archives: August 2011

Shift in Purchase Modes, or Graduation from Pure Retail

While filling out the new Funimation survey the thought occurred to me: by “Anime” they really mean Anime to someone who has never bought anything from Japan. Because looking at my spending breakdown over the years the amount of money going overseas directly has drastically increased. This is partly due to the slowdown for the North American licensing scene about how fewer new anime gets put out every year since like 2007. This is also due to more spending on anime-related media like this seiyuu event Blu-ray or sometimes tempting fate by trying to buy an OAV or something. I mean, hell, there was that Kara no Kyoukai box. And how do we count the Kenshin re-releases Aniplex is shipping us straight from Japan?

Seems to me, it’s a tough time for American publishers like Funi. Of course, that goes without saying to a degree; it also goes without saying that I’m on the outlier of customers for them. As long as anime fans existed in America there has always been a contingent of importers. As anime grows in popularity and gain mainstream exposure, that contingent of importers will naturally grow. All those 20-something now with jobs and growing older will be able to actually buy something for a change, some are bound to fall off the main anime purchasing bandwagon, stop listening to English dubs, or become something else outrageous.

To me it makes sense that it is this group of people that is paying for Aniplex’s import gambit, for their expensive releases that are just discounted imports. Technology is no longer a barrier (LOL LD) ages ago, and recently the logistics have improved as well, with things like ex-fansubbers going oversea and working on things like this, for example. All that’s left is figuring out a business method to capture this contingent without offending the motherland and preserving the value of titles in the oversea market.

In some ways this is not unlike how a teenager or 20-something may opt for a practical compact automobile, and mid-life crisis types may opt for a luxury or exotic automobile. In other words, people who can afford some kind of value distinction (perceived, practical or otherwise) would want a choice in the matter. The nuances are varied and multiple, but one large looming in my mind is some kind of perceived collector’s value, versus the anti-physical-ware nature of new media distribution. In as such, there is some value in convenience of what a cloud-based model of storage/access versus one that is like an ancient leather-bound tome sitting on your top shelf. Well, maybe I shouldn’t posit them as opposites by the word “versus” but I think they’re often seen as such.

The truth is anime fans can already get the best of both worlds, or increasingly so. All it takes is the willingness to pirate some videos (to put it very briefly) and the willingness to buy certain things, and you can have on your shelves some of the most interesting collectibles, and on your cloud all the media that you actually consume, translated into English (or something else even). The only barriers are know-how, availability and cost.

Availability and cost, hopefully, are things you are familiar with. Especially that last one. Availability is not so much a problem today thanks to the proliferation of commercial proxies, both in consumer services (y’know, proxy proxies) and in digital services services like Paypal or PSN. But what is sold out is sold out. With Mandarake now selling things over the internet (HUGE help), things couldn’t really be much better.

Know-how is important because information is still poorly distributed when it comes to anime. A non-insignificant portion of the web-based press (and I mean both the press orgs and the promoter)  is out there getting info out there to as many people as possible, to all the interested folks. That’s why ANN would source to Japan’s equivalent of Sankaku Complex (lol 2ch blogs) for the majority of their news–not to single them out, but there’s no resources left for real journalism when most people are still trying to act like telephone lines and telegraph couriers, parroting from PRs and Japanese sites. I think ANN’s PR wire exists for this reason. And even if you focus only on the Japan’s domestic scene, there are just so many fan channels, blogs, twitter accounts, 2ch threads, fan clubs, and what have you, that it can be challenging to sort through all those news. Take a fraction of that level of organization and multiply by a magnitude of physical/meta-spatial distance and you get an idea as to how poorly the US fan scene is covered. It’s gotten to the point that I think ANN USA does a much better job covering Japanese events and happenings than domestic ones.

I think FUNi and every other US media publishing company for anime can really improve in this area. Actually I want to single out FUNi especially because for their size and the kind of catalog they have, their clout in the social media space is just not congruent. What can they do to really “fest it up”?

[PS: There’s also the know-how from the technical perspective. There’s a reason why CCCP is created, after all. Or why Ars Technica knows your need for large storage systems and fast transcoding schemes. And also more pertinently: 4chan’s raison d’être.]

Remembering Tsuiokuhen

I spent the evening watching the newly released Blu-ray edition of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen. It’s worth every minute and every dollar (or yen). It’s the kind of thing that ages well, too.

The transfer, for the most part, is a faithful take from the original OVA. The only problems are the digital superimposed scenes in episodes 3 and 4; they look jarring and out of place in contrast with the vintage-looking hand-drawn animation.

Well, they already were out of place 10+ years ago.

The test of time is the one test that fewer and fewer new things stand to pass, anime or not. And admittedly despite the fond memories many had with the franchise, much of Rurouni Kenshin anime (and arguably the manga) is chaff to its core substance–a bloody HK opera about a redeemed assassin. Yet, in the anime adaptation of Tsuiokuhen, time has forged a diamond out of the romantic and bloody refrain of the mistakes of one’s youth, complete with a remastered Blu-ray disc that made it look better than ever before.

Without the memories of Kenshin on the shoulders, I believe Tsuiokuhen is still a powerful and graceful display of Japanese animation. Finely filtered with enough directorial gimmicks, but yet not too gimmicky; the art direction hops between emotionally grim-dark atmosphere and flashes of purity, of hope, and of the sheen of naked steel. The music remains one of Taku Iwasaki’s best anime works. The story alone works just fine on its own, even without the fanservice-nod of little Enishi or the silhouette of Shishio. The amount of enjoyment goes up to 11 when those nods start to make sense.

Despite all that, Tsuiokuhen is a blip on the radar; an artifact from the past. Its palette is suited for just those of us who have grown older, sentimental, and forgiving of simple stories that rely on the strength of its raw emotion, stirring up fond memories of a time not that long ago. The kids on my lawn will just have to learn to sit down to enjoy this masterpiece from a different era, and swallow that lyrical period-piece dialog like a preacher to his charge. It’s no Redline, but it will stay around longer.

Having borne the weight of most of UC Gundam since I last watched Tsuiokuhen, Hiko Seijirou’s words now ring truer than ever. Yep, it’s that mistakes of youth guy!

Seras Victoria’s Contribution to American Cosplay

I admit, slutty cosplay tumblrs sometimes brighten my mornings. More often, they’re just a chore. In any event, they can be informative.

I think this article speaks the truth, from a certain point of view. Unfortunately as someone who just look at pictures of cosplay and occasionally visit conventions where cosplay is prominent, I realize that both the viewing of said images and the act of creating and donning a costume and then putting that, pic or in the flesh, in the public, it is a personal thing. In other words, they operate in different contextual spaces.

As an anime fan outside of Japan, one thing that is probably becoming an eternal chip on my shoulder is the issue of context. And well, if we can forgive the silly tagline right off the bat:

Too often in cosplay photography, the subject becomes an object. Cosplayers are fairly bad at doing anything other than looking sexy (?) and photographers focus too strongly on simply making cosplayers look good. I think we can do better than that.

and forget for a moment that this is utmost hypocritical–the objectification of the subject matter and then whining about how they’re not objectifying it the way he likes them–there’s probably some stuff to learn here.

The rest of the post goes on and talk about cosplay photography in the “in-character” school of thought. That in itself is harmless except it’s couched in this douchy context that I can’t really touch without ripping it to shreds. Or maybe it’s just from my point of view, it can be a pretty hilarious troll post that is made of fail. But hey, here I am writing about it.

And by “in-character” I simply mean the ongoing school of thought where when you cosplay, it is an important goal to become, to liken to the character you are cosplaying as. And by school of thought I mean there’s always a rival, but not always contrary, camp who think of cosplay as a matter of fashion and identity. I believe they generally co-exist, and sometimes they are one and the same, but on some issues that is just not the case.

The context is simple. Cosplay (let’s take your average semi-porn adult-ish cosplay on DVD at Comiket as example) is often tied to costume play in the context of erotic acts. Play your typical and modern nukige and you get what I’m saying. That is by far not the context of what cosplay is commonly known as today. It just used not to be the case. For cultural ambassadors and exporters of cool, cosplay as the more semi-pro, Japanese-content-oriented context (think of those World Cosplay Summit things), is what they would like it to be. In America, cosplay is more like, “hey let’s go to this party where people dresses up,” which is probably a step above “trick or treat” but usually not pro nor even semi-pro. Or even semi-semi-pro.

None of that is a problem. It’s like someone whose notion of basketball is from the NBA and then he goes and criticize youtube videos of kids playing on the street. I mean, com’on; you can do it, but it’s mean and unsportsmanlike. But at the same time, the difference between NBA level of play and some kids on the playground is much larger than your average, veteran hall cosplayer versus even a semi-pro that has won in a con masquerade of a reasonably size contestant pool. I mean, you can win a trip to Hawaii for two at even this second-rate US con. If you are dedicated, the gap between a pro cosplayer and Joe Schmoe is not an insurmountable gap, a gap that can be overcome in a few years. Not a gap that required you to be playing ball since you were 6 years old because your body peaks and become non-competitive by age 30, or something nuts like that.

Instead of basically telling people to tell a story with their cosplay photography, which is what Akira is doing, I’m just going to talk about what I learned from those dreadful “photo sets” and Asian-style semi-pro cosplay photography: the nature of zettai ryouiki and fashion. In other words, I’m telling you how to objectify people from photographs (and people in general) in a preferred way. Just like him, I’m going to skip the nitty gritty on how to actually do it; this isn’t really a how-to post. It’s more about the theory behind a working slit on your legs. Right. [You can follow the links below for the how-to.]

Just so we’re on the same page; by zettai ryouiki I mean the way of fashion in which you stress the segment of your outfit by showing thigh while hiding the area below, usually via a combination of socks or boots plus a short skirt. Is this more interesting? I think so. There’s been some amount of ink spilled over the years about how to do zettai ryouiki right. I’m not talking about that precisely; I want to talk about how to do zettai ryouiki right in 3Dhow to apply it as a fashion item.

Truth is, anime characters are rarely identified by the length of their legs. It is typically across-the-board artistic choice for stylistic reasons or as a signature for a particular artist. But for typical human beings that is a major point of differentiation. Shape, length, size, contour, color, texture, and much more, all play a role in crafting a suitable wear to apply zettai ryouiki in the way that is best for what you’re gunning for. For example, it even comes down to the type of heel (or not) that you wear, it will impact the way your leg muscles are pulled and give your zettai ryouiki a different look. I don’t think I’ve seen an anime that illustrated this little detail yet.

On top of that, for everyday dress, zettai ryouiki is a practicality problem typically due to the additional wares involved: sock glue, garter belts, uncomfortable bands on your socks, matching the length of your skirt with your socks, what have you. Plus it is not exactly a conservative look (although it can be downplayed and be reasonably conservative). So don’t push it unless you can pull it off, as I would recommend generally.

But one of the big reason behind why I want to talk about zettai ryouiki is how flexible and robust it is. The nature of the beast is that you’re seeing more “outfit” than “flesh.” The hardest cosplay to do right is characters like Yoko Ritona, because she’s more skin than clothes. Have you seen any good Japanese Yoko cosplays? Nowhere near as many as westerners, simply because skin-y cosplay require the body type and shape to already be very close to what your image of the character to be. And plastic surgery is typically not an option, nor is it desirable in these situation. Now comes zettai ryouiki: because the act of zettai ryouiki gives you the option to cloth yourself while still injecting that ounce of excitement, that inch of your thigh, pretty much anyone can do it as long as their thighs are remotely presentable as everything else can be covered up. So, it’s great to be a zettai ryouiki fan–even the most shapeless or fattest cosplayer can pull it off with some thought, and it wouldn’t look super terrible (unless that’s what they were gunning for).

In terms of the logic behind zettai ryouiki and personalizing it for wear, I think of it as a form of addition by subtraction. Imagine someone who wears pants. Now if you can cut away a piece of that person’s pant legs, where would you cut it? It’s like the running FF11 joke about brass subligars, or hot pants. But much more modest and subtle.

Operationally, because human beings are not like computer-painted animation, you’re allowed a pretty big range for operable zettai ryouiki. In the cosplay context, typically the cosplayer is gunning for the iconographic affect, and not as much as how it looks on the person. By this I mean if you are cosplaying a character with zettai ryouiki, you will want to have zettai ryouiki in your costume. The precise ratio of skin to sock to skirt and where that line is drawn on the cosplayer’s legs will vary and compromise on the basis that human proportions vary from anime character proportions. Some people will try to make the outfit look like the character, others will make the outfit suit the cosplayer. Sometimes you can do both. And again, I want to talk about zettai ryouiki because rarely will you be unable to do either.

Another key point about setting up a good zettai ryouiki is to understand how the sock/stocking/boots part work to accentuate your legs. I think a common mistake is when the coverage exceeds the knees, but just enough. Because human legs bend at the knee, it causes this double-break in the line of the legs, and it kind of neutralizes the impact. It’s like the difference of drawing two lines right next to each other versus far apart; it looks kind of like a double line instead of two distinct lines. You are no longer highlighting that absolute zone between the knee and the hemline.

That’s really all I have to say about it. A few months ago I was going to go all out and write a more practical guide about zettai ryouiki, since it’s the summer con season. The plan fell through and now I’m stuck thinking about zettai ryouiki all summer long (and getting my fair share of “samples” at cons to verify my hypotheses) and nowhere to write it down. Consider this blog post precisely the outcome of that.

Last thing: while I was going through my old con pictures, I noticed one thing: Sera Victoria cosplayers have got it right. Out of all characters, her cosplayers have consistently pulled off the zettai ryouiki more successfully on average than any other cosplays, and as far as I have pictures, that’s as back as it had dated (like, 2002 or 2001). Is she the first? Maybe, maybe not, but she is definitely not the last.

Making Doujinshi in America

I was walking through the artist alley at Anime Expo this year with Tom and the thought kind of came to me: in the US we sell crap as it is in the Artist’s Alley–character merchandise labeled with our favorite ideas, like t-shirts with sarcastic or funny phrases on them. In this case it also doubles as a stylistic option given the artwork on your hat or pin or the print you hang in your bathroom wall. [I’m so hanging that pretty neat Miku print I got last year in my new bathroom.]

The whole thing is more along the lines of an arts and craft show than a maniacs-of-franchise swap-a-thon, the latter being the case of Comiket, where fans flock to pick up their doujinshi or whatever. From a copyright perspective the differences between American and Japanese fans explain the nature of copyright enforcement in this practical application of law between the same two countries. At the same time, it feels like the American artist alley wares fill in a gap in the consumer market: the lack of licensed merchandise and goods at the right price.

Except that isn’t even quite the case anymore. There are licensed merchandise for a lot of this stuff available in the US. It may be hard to find sometimes, and there may be smaller gaps (licensed “sarcastic t-shirts” are hard to find and really expensive when you do; always make me a tad bit sad when I see those Jlist shirts) that are not fulfilled, but merch presence is by and large there in some way. What’s a fan to do in this context as a producer of stuff to sell? The thought came to me about doujinshi, then, as what market segment it really fills.

I mean in some ways there were always American fans putting together these coterie magazine like EX or that new Colony Drop zine or Super Rat’s zine. There are plenty of examples littered across the past 20 years. Even now, I know some folks I work with on Jtor also are interested in making that kind of stuff. There’s a particular attraction to that publishing format. I think especially today in America, where e-readers and tablet computing are truly the order of the day, there’s a rich visual space now available that would really suit publishing for this kind of material. (Not to mention that for photogs there’s also something a nice print offers that your monitor is definitely missing.)

It just makes me wonder why people don’t flock to this format in the artist alley. I suppose, comparing workflows, it’s way less work and pressure to just make prints of random stuff you draw or make buttons or whatever. In Japan people bust balls (often together!) trying to put together their 16-page manga or whatever before the various deadlines for the various doujinshi events. It feels like the former is run like a lemonade stand and the latter is run like an actual project.

I’m not really here to minimize the contribution and hard work of artist alley types or lemonade sellers. I’ve bought my fair share of things from them, and some of those arts and craft stuff are well worth of our money and attention (in fact, I want to highlight that here). And we all know lemonade makes a delicious summertime drink. The artist alley concept is fine to have these vendors and artists participate, and for the most part the notion of artist alley as we know it works perfectly, and each con’s add a piece of the local flavor and culture to the overall convention experience. But culturally, the con artist alley is a creatively dead space, full of two types of things: people making a quick dollar on derivative copyrighted works and well-known trademarks, and artful people making cool art stuff. Sure, there are still some people doing their original stuff here and there, but I mean, I want my US counterpart of the doujinshi market to be able to provide an environment where a Tsukihime or a Nyoro~n Tsuruya-san will be able to thrive. But I just don’t see that being ever possible with the way things are.

Where is this happening? Where everything else is happening: the intarwebs.

The mode of consumption, I wager, has completely screwed the pooch in terms of where “content” buyers go to shop. People who buy crap at the artist alley at an anime con are shopping for some kind of image-based good. They want merch; they’re not as interested in content. By this I mean we’re after just ideas, icons and signals; not narratives. For that we go buy anime or manga, even web comics, forums and fanfiction. If we want a cute story about Cirno, for example, we can go read a Japanese doujinshi. And I imagine any American doing the same thing is likely going to publish it online anyways. It’s like, you can’t make it as an artist in the artist alley; you make it as an artist somewhere else, and you use the artist alley like a dealer’s room: sell crap.

With that in mind, I’ll cop a line from Makoto Shinkai’s Otakon press panel (my version w):

With the changes to animation and computer technology, how have things changed in the past 20 years as an artist?

Shinkai: Today the circumstnaces are better, the hardware is better, and there’s the internet to help distribute. There’s better software. The truth is what you want to express in your work is still the basis of that. When you are creating it on your own, the effort goes into making it look good. So today even when the circumstances are better, if the artist doesn’t understand that you need to express through from what you want to show, then things hasn’t really changed much.

So how do today’s independent artists accomplish this, at least in the context of the artist alley situation? To me the solution is obvious for an organizational body. Tap into the fan-creation communities (lots of places) and make a call for self-published works in the long format. Work with an online print company to organize some kind of infrastructure where you can do, for example, print on demand, bulk, negotiate on infrastructural burdens and prices for those things. Set a deadline for submissions, screen the submission and assists authors and creators with their work, and submit the end results to the print-on-demand service. Be the go-between for the printer and the artists. Set a fix date (like a week) where people can buy the doujinshi from the site at a discount and they will be all shipped together at the end of the period. Market the hell out of the online event during that time. Debut all those submissions at the start of the week and take them down after it is over. If you’re awesome, you can also make them purchasable via e-reader/tablet-friendly format.

  • Divorce the “con” culture from the nature of the creative endavor but still put it in context of the fandom; use the internet instead.
  • Reach the people who are already interested in these expressive forms of discourse by marketing to specific grottoes on the internet
  • Create value for POD/publisher by bundling eyeballs online and attach their brand to the effort
  • Create value for buyers and artists by bargaining collectively and sell in bulk, reduce shipping charges
  • Provide the middleman for technical help and billing, education and generally assist artists in online sales.

There are a myraid of technical challenges along the way, but the biggest question in my mind is what would people want to buy? Doujinshi as we know it? Doujinshi as it is in reality (ie., a lot of text-based things)? Music? Games? I see things like, say, Altogether fitting this idea closely. Translating a doujin game is a very different process flow than running a lemonade stand. But what else? I think people would buy photo books of figures. Even more people might buy your garden variety cartoon for adults, but that runs into some problems. Who would buy some home-grown Touhou doujinshi? Is this like the field of dreams, where if someone builds a cheap, accessible way to create, sell and buy doujinshi, people will come?

And again, to address my previous point about artist alley, in reality it isn’t the fault of anyone that our American artist alleys are like that; it is just much easier and natural to do a lemonade stand than to manage a project on the scale of a properly-made doujinshi. It’s also much easier to run something like a dealer’s room than to manage something like Comiket. So rather than to change a thing that works, maybe I’m just looking for something that’s not offered by that space.

Though, this isn’t a chicken-and-egg problem. Comiket and its kin can’t exist without doujinshi, and doujinshi cannot exist without passionate creators and fans. So at the core of it all are dedicated fans who want to semi-formally communicate with each other (and also less-dedicated fans) about the stuff they love. Maybe that is the true test of the nature of America’s fascination with Japanese pop culture from the lens of anime, manga and games. I have no doubts that these people exist, I just don’t know if they can be organized enough to build on top of the same feelings and emotions that drives them.

Ask Me Enishing!

If one finds sites like Formspring an exercise in social media vanity, does that make Hanasaku Iroha episode 21 an exercise in social media Engrishing?

It’s this sort of questions that boggles my mind on an ordinary day, along side with “Why is the USD:JPY exchange rate still going the wrong way?” Or “Why can’t I write that blog post about Hanasaku Iroha where I describe the character design as it appeals to an realistic view of human proportions?” Or “Why did Mayo Chiki get better? Why can’t I drop it?” Or “Why is everything airing on Thursday nights?” and its part-2 question “Why am I compelled to watch them on Thursdays?”

I hope these things, like the puzzle pieces from Mawaru Penguindrum, have a rhythm behind it.

The marriage thing in the latest episode of Hanasaku Iroha is kind of puzzling; it’s playing to some kind of pre-assumed cultural mindset in that it both conform and deviates to something. This something, I don’t really know what it is. Am I suppose to be surprised about their marriage? Are the previous episodes good enough of a lead-in? I can only hope that subsequent episodes reveal these things satisfactorily.

Lastly, if someone told you to watch Steins;Gate episode 1 again, you should probably listen to that someone. It’s also a means to get people to watch it if they haven’t even seen it yet.