From J-Pop and Robotech to the return of Astro Boy, the Los Angeles event was an exhilarating encounter with the land of otaku.
Admittedly, I haven't attended a convention in quite a while. For better or worse, it's just been my reality. But with the Anime Expo just up the freeway, I had no excuse. Frankly, as a fan from way back, there was a kind of gravitational pull, dragging me away from a holiday weekend of sitting on my surfboard off the Laguna coast.
Be that as it may, I had to take an extra breath on the morning of July 3 when I strolled into the Los Angeles Convention Center. Immediately I was submerged in a sea of costumes, both makeshift and elaborate. Just about every anime character had seemingly jumped off the TV screen (Lucky Star, Final Fantasy, Rurouni Kenshin, etc., etc.), and were now oddly conversing with one another, having coffee, fumbling for their cameras, and quickly growing tired under the weight of their weapons.
As I began to explore the crowd, it was almost like being in the land of Bleach and Naruto, so much so that I began to feel self-conscious about some critical reviews. But the anime crowd is perhaps the friendliest around. Everyone is so happy to be there that the word "stranger" seems not to exist; striking up a conversation becomes as natural as laughing.
Nevertheless, it wasn't long before I was reminded of the unavoidable "comic book guy" (à la The Simpsons), who never seems to get my humor -- or irony -- in his quest for perfect knowledge of all things anime. Indeed, at certain times I was definitely in the land of otaku! But everything turned out just fine. I quickly reached out to one of the many ladies -- in their Japanese school outfits -- roaming the Exhibitor's Hall; a life preserver was thrown my way every time.
At any rate, this is an indispensable part of the Expo; character fantasy and display of one's anime prowess is as important for fans as rubbing shoulders with actors, directors, and animators. And with the exception of being shaken from a sleepy state at 9:30 a.m. by a hairy man in a blue Speedo, as well as the sight of a very tall cross-dresser jumping vigorously on the "Dance Revolution" machine (you have to love their boldness), the festive atmosphere was not only intoxicating, but nearly transcendental, as the reality of a hot L.A. day merged with the fantasy world of anime.
Unfortunately I can't go into everything I saw, did, and that happened to me; it was a four-day event. Instead, let me simply focus on four personal highlights.
First, J-Pop was omnipresent at this year's Expo. Specifically, Jyukai and Shoko Nakagawa were guests of honor, and each gave concerts at the Nokia Theater. On top of this, there was a battle of the bands, an anime music video contest, and the highly anticipated "AX Idol" -- yes, much to my dismay, American Idol knows no bounds.
What's the anime connection here? Well, some have often overlooked the fact that many J-Pop and J-Rock bands lend their talents to nearly all anime soundtracks. The American audience, however, seems to have caught on. Western fans came out in full force, and many were dressed in that quintessential J-Pop fashion -- a blend of punk and harajuku style. Consequently, there was a musical beat underscoring all the action at the Expo, and, like any good concert, it kept the attendees moving for all 82 hours of the show.
Here, I have to make one small confession. After stealing just a few minutes with her, I'm rather smitten with Shoko Nakagawa (a.k.a. Shokotan). The undisputed "It Girl" of Japan (singer, blogger, actress, illustrator, anime enthusiast par excellence) is a ball of energy compressed into a small, feminine frame. Visually speaking, her body language is typified by humility and playful innocence, and this is only compounded by the way she praises her friends, fans, and her cat, Mamitasu; she's a never-ending source of endearing catchphrases such as "Giza Cute!" But I can't help but detect a sharp wit lurking behind that smile and those large eyes. Perhaps it is more accessible to Japanese speakers, or maybe it's just me. But her first manga purchase was Hentai, and she later remarked that "all the people here are good at making weapons." Anyway, though I've never been a J-Pop fan, after hearing her sing, I am "bewitched, bothered, and bewildered."
Next, as you all know by now, I am a Robotech fan. Thus the panel on "Robotech: Past, Present, and Future" was on the top of my list. As I expected, it was a splendid hour. Tommy Yune gave a concise review of the Robotech phenomenon from 1984 to 2008. Within such a limited time frame, the focus was obviously on the re-launch of Robotech under the auspices of Yune's Shadow Chronicles. And here fans should continue to lavish Yune with praise. He really has breathed new life into this beloved saga; this not only includes negotiating the release of re-mastered DVDs, video games, soundtracks, new sci-fi novels, and art books, but also enticing Palladium Books to re-enter the Robotech fold and create new role-playing games. Yune was also very honest about the difficulties involved with licensing the other Macross series already produced in Japan (e.g., Plus, Zero and Frontier). Nevertheless, efforts are being made.
The good news is that Robotech: Shadow Rising, the next installment of The Shadow Chronicles, is on its way. And while Yune may not currently know how Rick Hunter and the SDF-3 will emerge in the story arc, we are getting there. Better still, Lawrence Kasdan, the man responsible for such scripts as The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark, will pen the live-action Robotech movie, which should also star Toby McGuire. So, the future of Robotech looks bright. The appetite of every fan should be whetted in anticipation.
Also, every Robotech fan should make their way to Comic-Con in San Diego. I was privileged to see the new VF-1, Cyclone, and even Beta Unit toys that are soon to hit the market. Better yet, some may even be available at the San Diego convention. And if that's not good enough, toys and action figures from Macross: Do You Remember Love? are also being incorporated!
The third highlight is that I was lucky enough to talk with Masahiro Ando. If you're not familiar with the name, Ando, as an animator, has created action sequences for such renowned anime as Cowboy Bebop, Jin-Roh, and Ghost in the Shell. In fact, it's not just the critics that have focused on his ability to create fluid action scenes. Ando himself admits that this quickly became his primary skill set. Thus his directorial debut, Sword of the Stranger, is reportedly an action-packed film.
Set in feudal Japan, the story revolves around the friendship between a ronin who has vowed to give up his sword and a boy who has a contract out on his life. While I have not personally seen this film, the buzz is good. And I don't think there is any reason to doubt this. As Ando explained, he wanted to rely on his strengths for his first job as a director, as well as finally do things his way. But don't assume this anime will be nothing more than endless swordplay. Ando is known for incorporating a compelling story to underscore his elegant violence.
Sword of the Stranger looks very promising. Since I could not attend the screening at the convention, I'm currently on the hunt for it. You should be tracking it down too.
Finally, Imagi Studios, who brought you TMNT in 2007, is set to release Astro Boy in theaters in Fall 2009. Created in the 1950s by the so-called "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy is the tale of a young robot created by a scientist of Metro City to replace his lost son. When the relationship breaks down, the young hero then embarks on a quest to find his place in the world, which ultimately leads him back to Metro City and a confrontation with the creator who rejected him.
David Bowers, the director, spent an afternoon at the Imagi Studios booth talking about the project. While he was careful not to give away any spoilers, he did explain that he has had "a lifelong affection for the original Astro Boy," and that he strongly believes that the emotional content of the story is ripe for the big screen. Having just helmed the successful Flushed Away, and with a long history in the animation business, Bowers seems confident that this new rendition of an anime classic will be a surprise for audiences of all ages.
Astro Boy definitely seems to have the creative talent to bring off a potent recreation. The problem, after all, with revitalizing older anime is that their vision of the future is now outdated. It will be interesting to see how David Bowers and Imagi Studios recreate the world of Metro City. But everything sounds promising, and they have assembled an outstanding cast: Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy and Freddie Highmore. I'll be keeping my eye on this one.
Overall, the 2008 Anime Expo was both overwhelming and exhilarating. Kudos go out to all those involved with organizing such an anime-charged monstrosity. For myself, it was tantamount to reconnecting with some very old friends, as well as making new ones; it was well worth the forfeiture of a lazy, surfing weekend. And considering the great diversity amongst anime fans, coupled with the festive atmosphere, I have to agree with Shokotan: "Anime can make everyone happy and bring peace."
Raised on such iconic, westernized giants as Battle of the Planets, Voltron and Robotech, James Brusuelas is a literary scholar, critic, and freelance writer based out of Orange County in Southern California.