Tokyo Comic Con calls on Hollywood’s big guns for star power

by

Special To The Japan Times

As we sit down for an interview, Tokyo Comic Convention Committee Chairman Mitsuaki Munegumi casually points to a glass case in the center of the room.

“There’s actually a real ‘Star Wars’ lightsaber in there,” he says, and reaches over. He pulls out a hilt prop that the Count Dooku character, played by the late Christopher Lee, used in the 2002 film “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” This is only one of many authentic Hollywood props stored in the room, including a Chucky doll from the “Child’s Play” horror series and a hydrogen fuel cell that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-850 character had in its chest in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”

“And I think there are a few ‘Harry Potter’ costumes somewhere in here,” he adds with a large grin. Munegumi, 63, is the man behind the upcoming Tokyo Comic Convention (or Tokyo Comic Con), a three-day convention to be held at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba from Dec. 2 to 4. The convention will celebrate a vast array of popular comic book and Hollywood film properties, including the Marvel and DC superhero films, “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”

The words “comic con” will be familiar to any fan of fantasy, science fiction or costumed superheroes. The largest and most famous “con” (short for convention) is undoubtedly San Diego Comic-Con, which is held every July at the San Diego Convention Center and brings in as many as 130,000 attendees. The event began in 1970 and has become the premier location for Hollywood studios to showcase their upcoming films with exclusive footage and appearances by stars.

Munegumi, who lived in Los Angeles for a time, is also the CEO of Hollywood Collector’s Gallery, which manufactures and distributes Hollywood movie merchandise, specifically high-end prop replicas. The company also organizes prop museums and other Hollywood-related events, and in 2012 it started the Hollywood Collector’s Convention, a convention series that has brought celebrities such as Christopher Lloyd, who played “Doc” Emmett Brown in the “Back to the Future” films, to Japan.

“When you’re doing something like Hollywood Collector’s Convention, the conversation of Comic Con will inevitably come up,” he says, speaking to The Japan Times in his company’s office in Tokyo’s Ichigaya neighborhood. “If someone in Japan was going to do it, I felt that it had to be me.”

The idea for Tokyo Comic Con, which is run independently from the San Diego Comic-Con (while “Comic-Con” with a hyphen is a registered trademark of San Diego Comic-Con International, comic cons in general are not owned by any specific organization), came into fruition two years ago when Munegumi saw demand among fans of American comic books and Hollywood films in Japan.

“The actors are the key attraction. Without the actors, there’s no point in calling it Tokyo Comic Con,” he says. “But the size of the event is much different from Hollywood Collector’s Convention, so we knew it wouldn’t be something our company could tackle on our own, financially as well. Ultimately, we were able to gain the support of many people, and we were finally able to announce it at the end of last year.”

Among the Hollywood luminaries gracing the stages of the first Tokyo Comic Con will be Jeremy Renner, who plays the bow-and-arrow wielding Hawkeye from Marvel’s “Avengers” films; Lance Henriksen, who played the android Bishop in “Aliens”; Matthew Lewis, who played Neville Longbottom in the “Harry Potter” films; and Billy Boyd, who played Pippin in “The Lord of the Rings” films. Munegumi says the success of these films in Japan over the past two decades was the ultimate deciding factor in introducing a comic con here.

“Before, American comics were a niche hobby, but because DC and Marvel have made those films, they’ve created entertainment that is being enjoyed by everyone,” he says. Much like San Diego Comic-Con, Tokyo Comic Con will rely heavily on the popularity of Hollywood films to draw in its audience, despite the comic books association in its moniker.

“We’re calling it Comic Con, but it’s probably more correct to call it an entertainment convention,” Munegumi explains.

Akihide Yanagi, a freelance editor, writer and translator who specializes in the Japanese localization of American comics, echoes Munegumi’s analysis of comic books becoming a bigger part of pop culture.

“In the past two to three years, there have been more ways to enjoy comics, and more films, too,” he says. “More bookstores carry Japanese versions of the comics and they sell well. Harley Quinn (from the film ‘Suicide Squad’) was a popular costume this past Halloween. I think American comics are becoming normal.”

Yanagi, who lived in the United States for several years during his childhood, originally worked at publishing company MediaWorks, which was responsible for releasing Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic series in Japan. He says that the country has had three distinctive waves of popularity of American superheroes. The first wave was in the 1970s, when shows such as the 1966 “Batman” television series and the 1978 “Superman” film were imported into Japan, along with manga artists such as Ryoichi Ikegami and Kosei Ono creating Japanese adaptations of “Spider-Man.”

The second was in the 1990s, when publisher ShoPro localized artist Jim Lee’s run of comic books “The Uncanny X-Men.” Along with video games produced by Capcom featuring the “X-Men” and other Marvel characters, the decade created a mini-boom among the comics, toy and video game industries in Japan.

According to Yanagi, Japan is now in the third wave, which kicked off in the 2000s with Hollywood studios successfully adapting characters such as the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman. The popularity reached new heights with the 2012 film “The Avengers,” which brought together Marvel characters such as Iron Man and Captain America into one film. The Marvel films then went beyond being standalone movies, and are now known collectively as the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a model that paved the way for other studios to chart similar “shared universe” franchises.

“I think the awareness for these characters has risen considerably, and we’re at the cusp of the next movement,” Yanagi says. “I think Tokyo Comic Con signifies that.”

Yanagi, who was brought in to add the “comics” aspect to Tokyo Comic Con, is helping the event secure a slew of appearances by comic book artists, including Babs Tarr, who came to fame as illustrator for DC Comics’ latest “Batgirl” run, Steven Cummings, who is currently illustrating Image Comics’ “Wayward” series, and Long Vo of Udon Entertainment, which is responsible for comic book adaptations of Capcom’s “Street Fighter II” video game series. However, the biggest draw of Tokyo Comic Con in terms of creators is undoubtedly the grandfather of Marvel comics himself: Stan Lee, who created “Spider-Man” and other famed characters on the Marvel roster.

“This is the first time Stan Lee is coming to Japan, and it’s a historical moment,” Yanagi says. “Without the Marvel films, a lot of people in Japan may not have known who he was, but the fact that this convention can have him as the main attraction, goes to show how far the comics market and awareness for these characters has come in Japan.”

With other attractions such as a display of the actual T-800 model from the “Terminator” films, the Batman suit worn by Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight Rises,” an exhibition of works by artist Noriyoshi Orai, and a slew of cosplay contests, Tokyo Comic Con will be filled to the brim with content for fans of various properties to enjoy.

“With superheroes becoming mainstream in America, we thought we could do the same in Japan. Hollywood films have been lagging behind Japanese films in the last couple of years,” Munegumi says. “We want people to get excited about Hollywood again.”

Tokyo Comic Con takes place at Makuhari Messe International Exhibition Hall, halls 9 and 10 in Chiba on Dec. 2 (5-8 p.m.; ¥2,000) and Dec. 3 and 4 (10 a.m.-7 p.m.; one-day tickets cost ¥1,800, ¥900 for students). For more information, visit www.tokyocomiccon.jp.

Cosplay quarrel gets resolved

Cosplaying at Tokyo Comic Con gained considerable attention overseas earlier this year, when regulations regarding costuming for the event were announced, which included a rule banning male cosplayers from wearing the costumes of female characters. The rule received backlash from LGBTQ communities abroad.

“We didn’t set the rule to discriminate anyone. It’s more to do with the problem of sex crimes occurring in Japan,” Munegumi says. “We decided on that rule to prevent things like that from happening.”

Yanagi also expresses frustration with the backlash.

“There were things at (manga convention) Comiket that were problems originally, such as cosplayers going out into the residential areas near the convention and men dressed up as women going into women’s bathrooms, attacking women. It was a rule to prevent that,” he says. “Will the people who raised their voices take responsibility if something does happen? Probably not. I think Japan is about 20 years behind in terms of gender. I understand the opinions of those overseas, but I envy those people for having the privilege of being from such developed and progressive countries. There’s an insane type of misogyny that’s unique to Japan I think.”

The rule has since been revoked. The organizers instead are now requiring men cosplaying as female characters to wear a badge, in order to prevent them from entering the women’s bathroom facilities.

With new security measures in place, the actors’ and artists’ itineraries being finalized, and ticket sales going strong, Tokyo Comic Con looks like it is poised for success.