The first time I attended AnimeJapan, the industry’s annual spring showcase in Odaiba, Tokyo, it was called the Tokyo International Anime Fair. Members of the public couldn’t enter during the first two days, amateur cosplay (costume play) was prohibited, and while there were some presentations, most of the offerings were brochures, catalogs and swag bags. It was primarily a trade show and almost everything was printed in Japanese.
Not so at last month’s AnimeJapan 2016, where five stages kept the main halls booming with live music, variety shows, voice-acting demonstrations, panels and seminars. One stage hosted an anime career counseling center. Another presented a nearly nonstop lineup of mascots and singalongs for parents and kids under 12.
An expanded Cosplayer’s World section replete with dressing rooms, stage sets and an outdoor platform encouraged fans to pose and preen, then eat anime-inspired cuisine at an adjacent food court. Most of the signs and exhibitions had English translations, and often Chinese and Korean. The business area was in a separate hall entirely — soberly lit, filled with information booths and roundtables, comparatively hushed.
The results were record-breaking: attendance was up 11 percent over last year, the largest ever for the event; the number of exhibitors grew by 18 percent, and business attendees by 30 percent.
The shift toward live performance and fan participation reflects a broader trend in anime. As profits from DVD sales and collectables continue to stagnate or diminish, producers and studios are turning to big-ticket live shows to keep fans engaged.
Three years ago, the Association of Japanese Animations (AJA) added a new category to its yearly data reports: Live Entertainment. According to Tadashi Sudo, editor in chief of Anime!Anime!, the industry’s chief online information portal, the category is now “the most active” in the business.
While Internet distribution via streaming media may be growing at a faster pace, he tells me, “Live events and entertainment have greater potential — not only through live concerts, but also theme parks, exhibitions, live gaming events and musicals. We think it will be big.”
Aside from ticket and merchandising sales, the key advantage to live showcases is that the experience can’t be copied and pirated. The anime industry calls these happenings “2.5-dimensional,” integrating the 2-D of traditional anime with in-the-flesh performers and audiences.
“We’ve been keeping our eye on the music business,” says one veteran producer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They’re about five years ahead in terms of piracy damage because music data is so small. (In the U.S.) Tower Records went into Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) and HMV is gone. Major acts like Madonna and U2 make their money off big world tours. That’s the direction we’re heading, too.”
Music is the main driver of anime’s live presence. In the 4-year-old multimedia event known as Love Live!, last held at the beginning of this month over two days at Tokyo Dome (prime seats going for $30,000 in online auctions), voice actors dressed as their characters onstage and performed anisongs — theme songs from their series — singing and dancing in tandem with their screen-projected animated illustrations.
The concert was live-streamed in select markets in Asia and Australia. One week later, one of its co-producers, Lantis Company, Ltd., announced the opening of its first overseas operation, AmuseLantis Europe S.A.S., at a press conference in Paris.
Online platforms are getting in on the 2.5-D action. The Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga’s fourth annual Nico Nico Chokaigi will take place at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba on April 29 and 30, promising to yoke together live versions of everything imaginable from the site, from cooking to anime cosplay to sumo wrestling and robotics. Last year’s show drew more than 150,000 attendees, with 7.9 million singing and dancing along online.
The largest annual anime-music live event, Animelo Summer Live (think Fuji Rock for anime fans), will span three days from Aug. 26 to 28 at the Saitama Super Arena. Japanese pop and rock singer LiSA (Risa Oribe), 28, whose songs have been featured in anime series such as “Angel Beats!,” “Fate / Zero” and “Sword Art Online” will be appearing at her sixth Animelo since launching her solo career in 2010.
At the Tokyo office of her record company, LiSA (which stands for “Love is Same All”) tells me she was drawn to singing by an animation, though it was American: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Growing up in rural Gifu Prefecture, she learned the lyrics and melody to the opening song, “Belle,” about a young woman trapped in the humdrum life of a provincial village — and she proceeds to sing me a few bars in lilting a cappella.
But LiSA’s musical rock influences are slightly edgier than Disney: Avril Lavigne, Love Psychedelico, Green Day. At her concert I caught late last year at the Makuhari Messe hall in Chiba, where she performed before the largest audience of her career, I watched her cycle through several pop music styles, from lighthearted J-pop to ballads to darker and harder guitar-driven rock. For the song “Doctor,” she switched from mini-skirted kawaii (cute) to goth aggressor, imitating intercourse with a model skeleton prop.
“It’s a mix of mischievous and cute,” she says, “while still rocking out.”
To fans of Western rock, many anisongs sound too cute, saccharine, overblown or mawkish. But with the expanding number of live anime music events, musicians such as LiSA see an opportunity to bridge the two fan bases. In 2012, she performed at Anime Expo (AX) in Los Angeles, North America’s largest anime convention.
At the time, she says, she was frustrated. LA was the home to many of her rock and punk idols, but she was being received as ” ‘Lisa from Japan,’ a representative of anime.” She’s since become more deeply involved in anime, learning the processes behind its creation, even becoming a fan of auteurs such as directors Makoto Shinkai and the late Satoshi Kon.
To celebrate her fifth year as a recording artist, LiSA will release her new mini-album in Japan on April 20. Called “Lucky Hi Five!,” its title would suit an anime series just fine.
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.