20 December 2014

12 Days of Anime: Tackling the Bucket List at Anime Central

How many of you readers keep “bucket lists?” Things you absolutely need to do while on this journey of life? I personally have 2: experiences, and conventions. Stuff I want to do that is definitely out of the norm (like be a contestant on a televised game show, which I scratched off in 2005), or places I want to visit (like the time I spent $500 going to Stonehenge because IT’S F’ING STONEHENGE). I first heard the term at a con, actually, way back at Anime Mid Atlantic 2008, when some of my friends were commenting on which shows they want to watch (which I call my backlog) or which conventions they needed to attend. Back then, I only had one- Otakon- and had it in my head I would never get a chance to see it. 

Today, my “bucket list” is considerably longer, focuses on regions more than conventions, and has a few stalwart events that I first heard of back in 2008-09, which I am giving the old college try to finally see. Some of them are unfeasible simply due to distance (Sakuracon, Fanime, AX), others due to expense (A-kon, Nan Desu Kon, Anime Fest), and others...well, no idea actually (Animazement, Yamacon, Anime North). For some reason or another, these cons are all ones I want to see, but combinations of factors have kept me from visiting. 

Prior to 2014, Anime Central was also on that list. The largest convention in the Midwest, and I believe the third or fourth largest in the country, Acen assumed the position vacated by Otakon after I scratched that off in 2009. It was big, it was fun (at least according to people I know who had visited), and it had the largest Artist Alley of any con, anywhere (also according to friends...in this case, Kit). The biggest mark against Acen? It was located in Chicago, which is a bit far outside my travel zone, despite being the next “major city” west of me. 

Well, fortune smiled this year, and I managed to finally get to Anime Central. It might be the first time I attended a con for the guests (in this case, Crispin and Helen), but as this was likely the only time I could manage to make the trip, it made sense to just throw everything to the Windy City, and experience something new. 

Back when I started attending cons, there was always this sense of excitement to taking the trip. Going outside my comfort zone, or places that were familiar to me, satisfying that wanderlust I was raised with, those were stronger motivators for hitting the road than the fandom were. That was why I smashed myself into the back seat of a car to visit Anime Boston and Tekkoshocon, or why I stayed awake all night before the road trip to that first Neko. There was an excitement built into anticipating a new place, a new thing, which motivated me to experience it to the fullest. It was why conventions became so powerful for me, and likely for a lot of attendees through the years. 

It was also lacking a lot in recent memory. One of the downsides to doing as many cons as I do is the monotony- after a time, every event starts to feel the same. Rather than getting excited about just being there, it became seeing certain people, giving certain panels, or making the road trip itself (I’ve gone on record saying there are cons I go to specifically because I like the drive). Time seems to smash together, and passes in a blur, which leads to confusion when I mistake happenings at a con two year ago for one I just attended, or forgot that awesome closing ceremonies video AJ and I spent a full weekend making was three events ago, not last year. 

While I did manage to visit a lot of amazing places in 2014, Anime Central was the perfect mix of new and exciting. From connecting with friends who had moved away, to seeing a new city, experiencing a new event, making new friends, and spending time being all anime-nerdy with two of my idols, Anime Central had the kind of energy that I used to feel all the time back in 2007-2009, when cons were still somewhat new to me, and I was navigating through a fandom that was experiencing changes and transformation of its own. It felt nostalgic, but also refreshing, to encounter a convention vibe that I hadn’t felt in years, and get swept up in a new energy. No matter that Anime Central was different from what I was used to- that just made the weekend pass by differently, as I observed and took in how another branch of my fandom chose to experience community.

Last year, Tom Stidman wrote about how cultivating fandom identity often requires the fan to examine their own role in the community. I wholeheartedly agreed then, and I do now. One of the definite benefits of 2014 was forcing my old, stagnant identity out into the open, where I could actively critique the fan I had become. I often mention Kill la Kill as lighting the proverbial fire under my ass when it came to appreciating anime, but at the same time there were the new conventions, new audiences, and new experiences that flavored my year much the same. I went outside my routine, discovered new worlds waiting for me, and in turn managed to approach my annual events with a new light. It definitely made my entire year feel more productive, and more authentic. 

Sometimes we can get swept up in who we feel we are, or in the expectations we believe others have of us. This is not living authentically, it is another form of conforming. One of the benefits of fandom is that it should allow us to be who we are, experience life as we want to experience it, and surround us with likeminded individuals who encourage our growth as people. Anime conventions that I’ve attended in the past were always those places for me, and for many of the attendees who commented on my surveys and interviews back when I was in grad school. But settling into routines, developing expectations of events, and trying to make everyone happy is a disservice to  all involved. It distracts us from what’s important- community, friends, family, devotion, compassion. 

Which, in this season, are values that are consistently hammered home. Love thy neighbor, love thy brother, love thy otaku. 

On the 7th day of Anime...I went far and wide, to find something close to home. 

19 December 2014

12 Days of Anime: Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha.

Early this year, there was a little series about a girl named Fushimi Inari, a curious and generous kami named Uka-no-mitama (also known as Inari), and the girl's wish to change - to love - and be loved.
It was called "Inari Kon Kon Koi Iroha", a title very loosely rendered as "Inari, Transform - the Alphabet of Love" (my own render, not official), which was a bit of a long title. Funimation in their simulcast shortened it to "Inari Kon Kon", but subtitled it into English and made the videos accessible via streaming on their website.

So I watched it.
The best way to describe it is as a Shinto magical girl series: the girl Inari has long had a fondness for the local shrine she grew up near. And one day, she's having a bad day - the boy she has a crush on doesn't notice her, her friends don't seem to understand  - and she sees a little fox-pup in danger. She rescues the fox-pup, not thinking much of it, but the fox-pup turns out to be a divine messenger - the messenger of Uka-no-mitama, a kami of fortune and harvest known better as Inari. In thanks, the kami grants some of her own power to the girl, the girl Inari, the girl can transform into any human shape she wants - whether it's the girl next door, a classmate of hers, or a businesswoman. But also due to the kami giving some of her power, the girl and the kami are linked - and the rest of the kami don't quite approve or know what to make of things. It was a generous gesture on the kami Uka-no-mitama's part, but what does it mean for the girl Inari - or Uka-no-mitama - or the other kami? Let alone the relationships they have with each other and with their friends? And will Uka-no-mitama, captivated by the human world, have a friend?
Turned out this series was airing right when Kill La Kill was finishing, so it provided a wonderful break from the over-the-top bloody nature of Kill la Kill; it's sweet, and seeing Uka-no-mitama being captivated by things like video games and how humans live gets a bit adorable. 

But as someone who likes hearing about spins on folklore, this was a series that I was immediately attached to: not only is it, like Eccentric Family in 2013, a series that examines humans and kami and yokai, but in this case it examines the beloved kami of Inari and re-imagines key kami like Amaterasu as well. To what end, other than a story? Who knows. When this was coming out, just like with Kill la Kill, there were some shakeups with the secrecy bills in Japanese politics, as well as the far-right nationalistic contingent in Japan; right now, there has been a snap election called, with very little change aside from the notably interesting fact that the Japan Communism Party now has enough seats in the Diet to submit bills. Is Japan reaching back to its old stories and re-imagining where they fit? Who knows.

As for me personally when I watched it... well, I like Inari. And Charles, god bless him, made time for us to sit down and watch some of it in between analysis of Kill la Kill when I told him about it offhandedly. It felt like the magic you read about Christmas being like, the fuzzy warm feeling of familiarity mixed with imagination: the elf is in a different place, or the cookies are baked a bit differently, or your favorite blanket and hot cocoa (with a book, of course) seems like a great way to spend an evening, or seeing your favorite coffee shop do their seasonal lattes again. It felt like coming back to something I've loved since I was little, even though in the case of Inari Konkon and many of those holiday associations, I never really experienced them in the first place. It's a nostalgia and hope and it's strange to try and unravel it, so I don't. I didn't even want to analyze this anime much, I just wanted to sit and enjoy the little personal dramas of the characters as winter eased back into spring. Like the girl Inari, I too have felt not at home in my own body; like the kami Uka-no-mitama here, I too have wanted to do good things for others, only to wonder about my own happiness.

Under the title "Inari Kon Kon", this is available via Funimation here: http://www.funimation.com/shows/inari-kon-kon/videos

18 December 2014

12 Days of Anime: Revolutionary Girl Utena

This is not a new film, nor a new series, but I still remember the day - earlier this year, February or March - when I was watching Revolutionary Girl Utena (Adolescence of Utena - the film) and was thinking about ideas of 'the prince'. We know the type, through fairy tales; the prince saves princesses. The prince is noble. The prince is idealistic, a friend to all, and so on.

But in the film for Revolutionary Girl Utena, Akio was dead; so was Touga. Both had a period of innocence and idealism that seemed to be crushed. But why then, was Touga held as the prince, and that people - namely, Utena - was able to let his memory go? What about Utena? What about Anthy? This series meant so much to me, but it was hard to discuss it in words, just by myself. Obviously the film was dense, and carried its imagery literally, but aside from that, how could I express what I was thinking about it?

And I remember: Crispin Freeman saw that I had been watching it, and remembered us talking about myth and archetypes before, and offered to talk to me the next evening. He had been the English dub voice of Kiryuu Touga, and still remembered the role fondly; and with a series like Revolutionary Girl Utena chock full of playing on archetype and fairy tale, witches and princesses, it was something that easily led itself to discussion. Thanks to him, my panels involving Revolutionary Girl Utena have also gotten better, more tightly organized and plotted; thanks to him, I was in the end better able to communicate what I wanted to say about the series, and why it was important to me. This movie was one of the first things I enjoyed discussing in general, before there were educational panels at conventions, and so discussing it has a special place in my heart.

I also remember this year reconnecting with a friend of mine who used to cosplay from Revolutionary Girl Utena (as well as other series); it had been about ten years since I had last heard from him. And the friend - ten years ago or so - had helped me get through a really depressive patch in my life.

Funnily enough, my friend also had cosplayed the character of Kiryuu Touga.

In the film (as opposed to the series) Kiryuu Touga seems like a mysterious princely figure: perhaps he is a bit coy and teasing, but at the same time, tries to inspire the people he knows. But only a few people can recognize him: Himemiya Anthy can, Tenjou Utena can, and - apparently - so can Takatsuki Shiori, as well as Arisugawa Juri. All of these girls have apparently interacted with him in some way in the past, and seem to keep his memory of how he impacted their lives alive; some more so than others. But even if Touga is a prince, and rescues princesses, and does all these wonderful things - even if that is the case, he has his own secrets, and his own methods. And what of the girl who wants to become a prince, too? What of the idealistic people who want to have noble goals? What is to become of them? What can become of them? Do princes exist at all - and should they?

You could also easily examine the gender roles and expectations that go into the framework of such a story. Can a young woman be a prince that saves princesses? What does it mean to be a prince? What does it mean to be a princess? Or a witch?

I revisit watching the film of Revolutionary Girl Utena every so often. I change, and so every so often I get something new out of watching it again. I watch it also when I'm going through bad times, just as I watch it when I have fond and happy memories.
But sometimes, too, I watch this film and remember the people I've met and talked to because of it, or about it.

And for that I am grateful.

17 December 2014

12 Days of Anime: Audiences and Confessions

Today’s message isn’t brought to you by anime, but by anime fandom. Which most of you know I have a great love for. 

2014 was a milestone for me, in more ways than one. It marked a year when I managed to lecture at over 20 cons. I managed to pull at least one con a month as well, something else I had been trying for the past few years. I also got a chance to scratch one major convention off my bucket list (Anime Central), something I plan to write about in another article. And I ran a successful crowd-funding campaign early in the year, that kept me from going completely insane before the Summer hit. All in all, a great year of firsts. 

It also marked the 5th year I’ve been on this strange journey, traveling all over the place and speaking about Japanese culture. When I got started, way back in 2009 at Nekocon, it was just a hobby for me, that over time managed to transform itself into something more. I presented on topics that meant something to me, that I felt were missing from programming tracks, and had a chance to expand my own horizons, while offering fans differing views about the medium, and showing them that there’s more to anime than flashy art and exotic characters. Those early panels were carried on the strength of enthusiasm, and a desire to be a “better fan” than I had ever been before. It was my way of giving back to the fandom that had been such a huge part of my life since my teenage years. 

Well, after half a decade of lecturing, this year I started bumping into attendees who have been following me all these years. Be it at Nekocon, Katsucon, Anime Boston, Otakon, Anime Mid Atlantic, or Anime NEXT, there was a fairly steady stream of “kids” (which is the only way I know how to describe them, me being a old man and all) approaching me after panels and telling me how those same panels had impacted their lives. They had been in the room those early years when I was still figuring things out, and had taken away from my panels that anime is what you make of it, and how you choose to perceive the medium often colors how it touches your life. 

For some, it gave them confidence to try their own hand at contributing to fandom, instead of just consuming it. Others approached me and said how my own panels on mythology and religion had caused them to switch major in college, or incorporate anime and Japanese culture into their class projects. Still others said that through my content, they had decided to follow their own dreams, and try something unconventional in life, just to see how it worked out in the end. Art, writing, performing, or even paneling themselves, these future generations of fandom had seen me up there, talking very loud and fast, and decided they wanted to take part.

Those who know me well are aware that, at heart, I’m a teacher more than anything else. I was always inspired by those in school who added wit and energy to classes, in hopes of enlivening material and leaving a mark on their students. Those truly dedicated teachers who see the next generation as something to be nurtured, and spend their time making sure those who pass through their classrooms recall not just schoolwork, but a community based around the joy of learning. My fifth grade teacher, in particular, took the idea of “edu-tainment” very seriously, and those students fortunate enough to have him for the year ended up learning a whole lot, but thinking more of it as a fun way to pass the day, rather than a class full of lessons. It was from him that I developed a love of learning, and, indirectly, a lot of how I approach my content and choose to present it.

Looking back on what I “do” at cons, I probably never would have called myself a teacher back in the beginning. I was an excitable fan, scared out of his mind, and channeling that fear into dynamic public speaking. My content, while compelling to a lot of those attendees in the room, was riddled with errors and flaws, but I made up for generalized material with a whole lot of enthusiasm, which is what ended up imprinting on those audiences. Many of those attendees today have told me that it was the energy more than the material that got them interested, and awoke inside them their own fires, to reach out and teach other fans about their own passions. The fact that someone was mixing their fandom with education, and making it fun, opened their eyes to a much larger world, and it inspired them to do the same. 

Now those same attendees are in college, or preparing to embark on further studies and projects, and they took the time out to let me know about it. And in turn, they’ve left a mark on me. Confession time: I’m not the outgoing, confident person in real life that I am on stage. Conventions are performance art for me. I spend most days feeling woefully insecure, wondering if I even made the right decisions in college, grad school, and in accepting to go with the fandom flow. I have regrets, and they are a big part of me sometimes. Right in the middle of cons, I sometimes get very withdrawn, wondering if this is all there is to my life. And sometimes I have darker thoughts. 

But when I meet people I’ve inspired, suddenly I feel like my old teacher, way back in elementary school. He was a man who loved teaching, and loved “his kids.” They were part of his family. And that’s how I often feel about the people I’ve met. Seeing someone who first wandered into my panels at 16 suddenly telling me about following his bliss makes me smile, because I helped him discover that. It gives meaning to what I do. And keeps me coming back. Every year I swear is my “last year” in fandom, and every year I need to revise that. 

As 2014 draws to a close, I can look back on all those people who reminded me this year about why I am who I am. Anime brought us together, but memories keep it going.

On the fourth day of Anime...I looked back on the past, while planning the future. 

16 December 2014

12 Days of Anime: Noragami

In the year of talking about major kami and yokai, there is a little show on Netflix called Noragami that focuses on forgotten things, on a minor god so small, he doesn't even have a shrine to 'live' at.

Yato is exasperated. He's trying to raise money to have a small shrine - anything will do, really - by taking 'delivery' jobs, odd jobs, anything. His Regalia weapon for exorcising Phantoms (monsters borne out of emotional pain/anxieties) has just quit, he's alone, and in his own words, it's as if he's nothing. He doesn't want to be just nothing - he wants to be somebody - but he just doesn't know how.

A girl called Hiyori can see him, just as she can see anything else; she can also hear the thoughts of those around her, on edge or not. A room full of anxious students trying to take an exam becomes a room full of bullies telling her to just hurry up and die, that she's not even trying, she's different and weird and can't she just read the atmosphere already. She can see yokai (called Phantoms, here), and the otherworldly, and fears that she is different. That she is not the lady her parents wanted her to be. After trying to save a boy (Yato, the minor god) from an oncoming bus, she is struck by it herself and is now on-the-fence between the Near Shore, where the living are, and the Far Shore - in other words, between the living, and the dead. She's not quite living, but she cannot sleep when she ought and falls asleep / "loses her body" frequently - but she's not entirely dead, either.
She seeks Yato's help, and Yato agrees - charging the five-yen coin customary donation ("everyone knows you give five-yen coins to kami!"), because after all, there's no such thing as a free wish.

This is no Attack on Titan, and unlike the other Funimation-released show Inari Konkon Koi Iroha (available through Funimation at last check), this show does have battles and start out with more drama. In a way it's a bit like Inari Konkon as a series had a slightly older brother; instead of focusing overmuch on the relationships between characters and making it a slice of life / romantic comedy, this series is action, recognition, and about two hurt beings. This is no great like CLAMP's xxxHolic, but it's fun and interesting - a look at how deities and the forgotten operate in modern Japan, alongside modern anxieties like passing major exams or the pain one might experience in hospitals.

That's why it appeals to me: because it is about the lost and forgotten. The broken, the desperate. 
And how important recognition can be.
From Episode 1 of Noragami.

2014 personally brought a lot of change into my life, and while it's been rough, I have received a lot more personal and professional support. I got out of a toxic situation. I presented at more panels and traveled to more places than last year. I've worked harder on this site and on panels, translated for ghost and monster stories, and got to meet more people such as the wonderful Helen McCarthy or Zack Davisson. I also had more work opportunities than I had before, even to the point of writing for Anime News Network and starting work on a game.

For those things, I'm grateful, but there's always the phantom of seeing other things: loss of work, jeers, insults, threats. So as we near the end of 2014, I hope that those phantoms - born out of emotional pain and anxiety - can melt away, like softly falling snow upon a shared umbrella, and usher in a better 2015.