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Anime industry reunified at expo, satellite events

by Roland Kelts

AnimeJapan 2014, the rebranded and reunified annual industry trade show, exceeded organizers’ expectations last month, hosting 110,000 producers, publishers, journalists, cosplayers and public visitors. What a relief.

Since 2010, the anime industry’s political divisions meant two separate shows: one in Chiba called the Anime Contents Expo (ACE), the other in Odaiba, the original Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF). Dashing between the two had become an annual headache. AnimeJapan brought domestic and overseas players together again under one cavernous roof at Tokyo Big Sight on March 22 and 23.

It wasn’t perfect. “AnimeJapan was a huge success as a B2C (business to consumer) event,” says Yuji Nunokawa, chairman of the Association of Japanese Animations (AJA). “From B2B (business to business) aspects, however, there were some unsatisfactory elements, such as meeting-space shortage and lack of preparation.”

The so-called business days of industry-only meetings that precede the show’s public opening were dropped this year to save money, leaving producers, distributors and journalists to fend for themselves, ducking into small rooms above the show’s main halls or arranging for separate meetings in downtown Tokyo. The official tally of visitors from abroad was 546, a figure Nunokawa calls “an unprecedented success. It is AJA’s hope to promote anime’s presence to the world and make AnimeJapan the world’s best anime event.”

The rift within the industry prompting the creation of two separate shows four years ago was caused by then Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s legal interference. His passage of the vaguely worded Bill 156, otherwise known as version 2 of the “nonexistent youth bill,” restricting the sale of particular manga, anime and video games deemed “harmful” to youths and society at large was met by fierce opposition from artists and major producers, publishers and organizations, including the AJA.

At the time, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government administered TAF, and as governor, Ishihara was its official chairman. Several industry players threatened to boycott the fair, and there was concern that Japan would be left with no anime trade show at all. (Then Prime Minister Naoto Kan even weighed in, begging everyone to just get along.) Instead, the offended parties created ACE as an alternative to TAF.

Wisdom and mutual interests prevailed this year. With Ishihara gone, the government handed the show’s administrative reins over to the AJA. Nunokawa met with Koichiro Natsume, president of Aniplex Inc., who oversaw ACE, and the two agreed to reunite the events under a new banner, AnimeJapan. Financial contributions from the industry were critical, says Nunokawa. “Thanks to mutual aid money from each and every company, we were able to keep this event going.”

While there were no business days this year, adjacent events expanded. The 12-year-old Tokyo Anime Award Festival became a global affair, with four days of screenings in Nihonbashi prior to AnimeJapan featuring animation and artists from around the world, and culminating in an elaborate award ceremony at Big Sight. To no one’s surprise, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)” took this year’s top prize, and while the director himself was not on hand, his artistic partner at Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, walked the red carpet with Miyazaki’s potential heir, Mamoru Hosoda. With lifetime achievement awards handed out for “notable contributions” to the industry, the screenings and ceremonies actually sported a bit of glamour — something rarely associated with the anime biz.

And in the two days following AnimeJapan, the second annual Project Anime Tokyo was held in the flashy UDX building in Akihabara. The conference is designed to bring together overseas anime convention organizers with Japanese studios for communication and collaboration. The brainchild of Marc Perez, CEO of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, and Nobuyuki Takahashi, president of Studio Hard Deluxe, the first meeting was held by the SPJA in Los Angeles in 2012 at Anime Expo (AX), the largest anime convention in North America.

“One of the things we want to prove to the industry is that we (anime conventions) can promote them with very little investment,” says Perez. The conference is now a twice-yearly event held in LA and Tokyo alongside AX and AnimeJapan. “We also want convention organizers from around the world to share ideas and best practices. One of our goals is to eventually establish a joint charter, rules and regulations about things like bootlegging and piracy and so on.”

According to conference director Marlan Moore of SPJA, this year’s Tokyo conference drew 28 attendees representing 30 global conventions from Mexico, Spain, Russia, Canada and the United Kingdom, among others. Staff from 35 Japanese companies also attended, from the anime, manga, fashion and music industries. The discussion at one meeting touched on the proper way to welcome and manage Japanese guests, especially those who may have never been outside of Japan, let alone visited a fan-driven convention.

The agenda on both days included evening networking mixers and receptions, where language and cultural gaps could be at least partially bridged with the help of nearby cafes and bars. But getting the anime industry out of its inward-looking Galapagos mentality is still an enormous challenge, says Studio Hard Deluxe’s Takahashi.

“Basically, people in the industry don’t really need conventions in Japan,” he tells me. “There are fan clubs, but not cons. And there are so many stores that sell anime and manga products, there’s no need for (cons), so the industry doesn’t think about them, or even understand them.”

But he believes there is hope, born of a demographic necessity: “I personally think that (overseas) anime cons will get 10 times bigger than they are now, while the market in Japan has maxed out and can only shrink. It’s up to us to tell Japanese companies that they really need to cooperate now. That’s our mission.”

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.