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Anime/manga experts hopeful for year ahead

by Roland Kelts

Aside from Hayao Miyazaki’s sudden departure from filmmaking in September, the anime world saw some potentially hopeful developments in 2013.

As I reported here, the government’s multibillion-yen Cool Japan Fund was launched last summer, after years of empty promises. Following the lead of Crunchyroll, the profitable San Francisco-based online anime and manga portal, domestic startups such as Daisuki began streaming anime series globally. Crunchyroll itself opened a digital manga site — and got a Christmas-time jolt of Hollywood cash from big-ticket investor The Chernin Group. A bold new apocalyptic anime series, “Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan),” earned raves and fans, as did the jazz-inflected new show “Kids on the Slope,” from veteran Shinichiro Watanabe (“Cowboy Bebop,” “Samurai Champloo”).

“In the United States, perhaps the worst (for anime) is in the rearview mirror now,” says author and translator Frederik L. Schodt. “The market is probably half of what it was in 2007,” he admits, “but the fan base still seems dedicated and even growing. Rather than going to conventions to watch films and buy merchandise, which the Internet has rendered unnecessary, the conventions in the U.S. seem to be evolving into something different. They are more of a place to socialize, wear costumes and consort with like-minded fans. In a way, they may be becoming more decoupled from Japan, more autonomous, and even more uniquely American.”

The robust anime-convention industry is especially notable amid ongoing economic malaise. Both Anime Expo and Otakon, the U.S. West and East coasts’ largest conventions, respectively, reported sky-high tallies, with the latter opening its first satellite convention in Las Vegas at the start of this month. As Schodt notes, unlike the Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF), which is more of a trade show to unveil industry offerings and announcements, conventions in the U.S. serve a communal, celebratory function. The fans come first.

Speaking of TAF, this year’s event, now renamed Anime Japan, will bring together the entire industry for the first time since 2011. That was when producers and publishers opposed to then Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s Bill 156, outlawing so-called “harmful” anime and manga, abandoned TAF (which Ishihara chaired) and created their own show, The Anime Contents Expo. While both were canceled in the wake of disaster in March 2011, they have since been held at similar times but separate locations — creating logistical headaches for attendees from Japan and overseas. The two will reunite this March, now that Ishihara is out of the picture.

Alas, his legislation isn’t. For criminal and commercial reasons, Tokyo-based translator and manga author Dan Kanemitsu sees dark days ahead. “My prediction is that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will argue that the police can be trusted with more powers (to enforce Ishihara’s manga law),” he says, citing the increasingly conservative bent of the current administration and hysteria over the 2020 Olympics. “There will be a lot of noise from the opposition, but there won’t be as much heated protest as with the state secrets bill that just passed.”

Kanemitsu is also concerned about coming changes in Japanese copyright legislation that may accompany passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, for which the U.S. is pressing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hard. “The TPP’s restrictive copyright regime is thought to be detrimental to Japan’s dōjin-shi (fan art) and online parody communities, since parody and fair use are not protected under Japanese copyright laws, and the chances that these provisions will be given protection is rather slim.

“If the TPP is passed per America’s demands, the police will no longer need permission from holders of copyright to go after violators. Any charge by a third party that a copyright violation is in progress will be enough for the police to arrest someone.”

He adds that criminal and commercial pressures combined will force some manga publishers to shutter this year, and that several artists have already told him they are thinking of quitting.

Coincidentally, after Miyazaki quit anime, he moved on to manga, and is reportedly drawing a series about samurai. “Studio Ghibli is the big story of 2014,” says professor and author Susan J. Napier, who is writing a book on Miyazaki. “The staff remain superb, and there is a rumor that ‘Evangelion’ director Hideaki Anno might film a sequel to Miyazaki’s early masterpiece, ‘Nausicaä.’ I’d pay double to see that combination realized!”

Animation critic and author Charles Solomon notes that U.S fans are looking forward to the imminent release of Anno’s “Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo,” and wonders if Miyazaki’s latest, “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),” will receive an Oscar nod next month, owing to its subject matter. “Will American viewers accept a film about the designer of the Zero fighter — especially the older members of the Academy, who may remember World War II?”

For the broader U.S. fan base, “Naruto,” “Bleach” and “One Piece” remain top sellers — but they were joined last year by the grisly “Attack on Titan,” about flesh-eating giants. In real-time video rankings on Crunchyroll, which streams the show worldwide, “Attack” periodically knocked “Naruto” out of the top perch, where it has been for five consecutive years, according to the site’s Japan general manager, Vince Shortino. “We have seen much better anime over the past two years,” he says. “Anime might finally be coming out of the moe (sexualized cuteness) rut.”

And over at Viz Media, the oldest U.S.-based distributor of Japanese pop culture, president and CEO Ken Sasaki tells me the focus is squarely on print. Viz plans to expand its manga catalog dramatically in 2014, spreading the English edition of “Weekly Shonen Jump,” Japan’s most popular manga magazine, into international markets beyond the U.S., Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. He is also keen to see this summer’s blockbuster release “Edge of Tomorrow,” starring Tom Cruise and based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel, “All You Need is Kill,” published in English by Viz’s Haikasoru imprint.

Still, most anime experts and fans agree: For 2014, all roads lead back (or forward?) to Miyazaki and the future of his Studio Ghibli. British author Helen McCarthy, whose revised and updated “The Anime Encyclopedia” and new book, “A Brief History of Manga,” will be published later this year, is keeping an eye on Mamoru Hosoda (“Summer Wars,” “Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki [Wolf Children]“), whom she and others consider an artistic heir to Miyazaki. But she also holds out hope that Miyazaki might, in Solomon’s words, “rescind his retirement.”

McCarthy points me to a recent interview with Miyazaki’s longtime friend and artistic partner at Ghibli, Isao Takahata, whose latest film, “Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya),” was released in Japan in late November. Takahata addresses his friend’s retirement with a shrug, effectively cautioning us to never say never.

“Although Hayao Miyazaki said he was retiring, I feel there is the possibility that could change,” he says. “I feel that way because I have worked with him for a very long time, (and) I don’t want people to be surprised if that is what happens.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.