AnimeNEXT 2015: The Panels

Obscure anime, cultural education, and animators galore!

As we discussed in our three-way con report, AnimeNEXT has really been stepping up their panel game lately. In this post, Ink, David, and Evan run through their favorite (and LEAST favorite) panels from fans and guests alike at the New Jersey anime convention.

Symbolic Shorthand: an Introduction to the Importance of Folktales

This panel centered around allusions to folktales sporadically appearing in anime and the morals said references were intended to bring to the minds of a Japanese audience when thusly invoked. It would’ve been easy to roll Folktales from Japan for an hour, but the presenter focused instead on more tongue-in-cheek fare. She summarized the tales themselves to relay the necessary basics and then pointed out, as organized by theme, each anime example’s visual and narrative aspects that hinted at children’s tales of old. This was a double-edged sword of sorts however. Some of the orated tales may have been described or retold in a bit too much detail and consequently felt drawn out (if you’ll pardon the pun). The first half of the presentation was still impressive, however, which made the last quarter or so seem to lack some steam. With some thirty minutes to go and no more extended examples, the panelist turned to general imagery. She continued to explain the cultural relevance of specific items, but for some reason it felt tacked on and lacking in nuance or depth. (To be fair, the presenter said she was notified about doing this panel at the last minute.) I’d recommend seeing this panel if it comes to a con near you, because it does a good job of revealing some of the underpinnings of simple gags and images prevalent in the stories which we swallow without wholly understanding due to not having been raised on the basic cultural building blocks that are Japanese folktales. –Ink

Penguindrum: A Panel for Lowlifes Who Will Never Amount to Anything

Kunihiko Ikuhara specializes in anime that eyes can dig into and minds can masticate, and Reverse Thieves Alain and Kate offered up slide after slide of the fruits of their sleuthing efforts in order to help the audience grasp some of that which might not have been so evident in a first or even second watch of Mawaru Penguindrum. Via visual- and nomenclature-based clues, the Thieves tracked down specific books, places, and people. As if flipping over these bottom-side-up puzzle pieces wasn’t enough, the infamous duo started aligning edges and forming a framework for fostering understanding concerning the context of such an enigmatic show. The presentation was, by the gumshoes’ own admission, about half of all the evidence they had to report. The approximate 50/50 split between buried references and thematic exploration was not frustrating, however, and seemed well balanced (especially for an Ikuhara analysis). Of course, knowing that there’s twice  as much content waiting for yearning ears only makes me want to hear the rest. If it pops up at a con near you, do not hesitate to attend — regardless of whether you’ve seen it or not — and make sure to bring an apple for the teachers. –Ink

Giant Robots, Short Stories

One of the delights of anime con fan panels is the sometimes super-niche panel subjects. Tom Aznable (@TomAznable) went two levels deep with “Giant Robots, Short Stories,” a panel about short mecha anime. I walked in partway through, but caught a number of cool clips from projects both bizarre and familiar. The panel was segmented based on categories (OVAs, commercials, video games), and included gems like Robot Carnival (soon to be released by Discotek Media), Gridman (part of Studio Khara’s Animator’s Expo), “A Farewell to Weapons” from Short Peace, the game Quo Vadis 2 (featuring work from Macross’s Ichiro Itano and Haruhiko Mikomoto), the superb short "Powered Armor vs. Micro Berserker," pachinko animations (of course), and the highlight, a series of glorious otaku-targeted ads from Ryuukyuu Bank featuring giant robots and magical girls. Throughout, Tom provided interesting notes on shared staff that tie each project to major touchstones in anime history. Buried in all of this was a video that’s fascinating for a different reason: Project HAL is a student project from three Japanese art universities in which three teams of students animate a CG robot fight sequence based on the same provided storyboards and designs. The variations between the two serve as an effective way of isolating the effects of animator’s decisions and make the videos good educational tools for animation literacy. Only two schools completed their videos so far; the Tokyo one is embedded above, and the Osaka one is here.  –Evan

Urbanime: American Urban Culture and Anime

Even though the concept behind this panel was nothing but postulation, I actually held out hope for a good discussion because of the guidebook description. This was due to the fact that my suburban caucasian self once lived in a cramped apartment with three African-American kids from various inner cities (Newark, Camden, Jersey City) at Kean U. I came back from class one day to find them watching some loud and obnoxious cartoon. “What the hell is that,” I asked half-choked with shock and laughter. “Yo, dude, this is Pokemon! You ain’t seen it?” From that point on, I had at least a couple discussions with my anime-addicted roommates about the lack of racial representation on network TV and how they felt watching whitewashed programming. Those discussions were intimately more telling than the nigh-racist garbage flung about by the presenter of this panel, which he admitted to be “...something [he] completely pulled out of [his] backside.” Filled with offensive generalities, loose associations, and baseless claims, the panel, at least by the time I had to leave to get ready for my own panel, seemed more of an excuse to excuse his own love of harem and ecchi anime than any sort of poignant, research-based examination/discussion. How the half-filled room didn’t laugh in his face or leave in disgust is beyond me. Although maybe, like me, they were either deluding themselves into thinking it was performance art or similarly enjoy NASCAR just to wait for the moron running in circles to get dizzy enough to wreck himself. A room this big should’ve gone to a greater panel. I’d release the audio recording I took, but I’m not that cruel. (Just click on that pic and read for yourself a small taste of what I mean.) Instead, I’ll urge this panelist to do his homework before wasting more time and space or stealing precious laughter meant for intentional humor. –Ink

Poetry in Anime: The Power of Words in a Visual Medium

This was my first time seeing The Panel Ink Was Born to Do, and it was worth the wait. Though he got a little emotional at times, which made the delivery a little shaky, he filled the presentation with a balance of research and personal warmth that helped connect particular poetic references in anime to their historical and literary background. The part I saw of the panel included anime series like Kino’s Journey, Flowers of Evil, Shakugan no Shana, Free!, Shirobako, and Space Brothers, and tackled poems from various styles and countries. Like the best literary analyses, this panel made me rethink seemingly throwaway scenes and lines in my favorite anime, providing a view into a different medium and a number of different cultures. –Evan

Urashiman

A confusing panel title (it looked at first glance like a video screening) almost resulted in me missing this panel, but I’m glad I made it. Translator and convention guest Neil Nadelman chatted with a shamefully small audience of five brave souls about Future Police Urashiman, a time-traveling sci-fi adventure from Studio Tatsunoko whose popularity was overshadowed a year after it aired when Macross came out. Bolstered by choice clips from the series, Neil laid out the unique comedic tone and fun characterization that made him fall in love with Urashiman, and provided details on how to track it down in English. This is luckily pretty easy now, since Sentai Filmworks has licensed the series and has put the first half on Hulu. More is on the way in DVD form, with translations from Nadelman himself. I knew next to nothing about Urashiman before the panel, and walked away excited to check it out, so mission accomplished! –Evan

Even More Awesome Animation Not from Japan

Need a break from the anime you came to celebrate but still want to be amongst those who came to celebrate it while watching something animated? This panel, which I’ve caught bits of here and there with ne’er a duplicate clip shown, reminds attendees that animation is not stuck in any particular rut and that creators worldwide have fantastically unique ways of bringing images to life to create stories as varied as the people who tell them. (Can you say, “musical suicide shop?”) The panelist’s self-proclaimed goal is to have enough animation at the ready to accept requests by country and proffer clips without fail or hesitation. It seems the world needs to step up production to meet his demand, but the array of geographically diverse clips I’ve seen over the years via this panel and its successive semblances is astonishing in both breadth and style. It’s a clip show, and there’s very little to do but sit back, relax, and be exposed to new things that might awe, but that’s absolutely nothing to complain about. Even at bare minimum, the panelist’s charismatic intros (kept brief, I assume, for time limitations) are more than engaging enough to foster perpetual transitions until room clear. –Ink

The Heart of When They Cry

Late night laissez faire meant lols, lulls, a tea party, and warning for spoilers which didn’t end up seeming like such (at least to the uninitiated me). Citing the various incarnations of Higurashi and Umineko (audio dramas, VNs, manga, anime), panelist Katriel Page (Fox of Hearts, Study of Anime) looked at various instances within the stories to contemplate what character, tone, and context had to say about love, magic, and truth and the similarities and difference by which they were defined. Page was laid back to the point where the panel felt fluently conversational despite its obvious structure (there was, as is usual in Page’s panel slides, so much more information displayed than talked about), so pacing was truly at the whim of night’s time and temperament. This air inspired a lot of back-and-forth with the 18+ audience, which given the themes of the panel, was warmly welcomed if only slightly frustrating for those of us on speed (read: caffeine). While I’m a big Higurashi fan, I still don’t know what the big deal is about the tea party in Umineko … but now I’m raring to find out. My only regret about attending this panel was that I never got to ask the ultimate question, “Who is best girl, Mion or Shion?.” Help keep a good panelist panelling. –Ink

In the End, Robots Will Fight: The Works of Masami Obari

From beginning to end, robots fought. It was wall-to-wall fighting robots for the hour and change the panel ran through, so many robots punching other robots that to someone like myself, unable to distinguish one fighting robot from the next, it all starts to melt together into one hyperkinetic mess of thickly-shaded crunching metal and cool sword poses. Some people are into it, and I totally get it, but I don’t really get it, not to take anything away from the enthusiasm of Internet-famous Twitter personality and fake BAOH geek, @hazukari. My ears and my eyes perked up at the midpoint when co-panelist Vincenzo Avarello ran through Masami Obari’s fighting game anime adaptation phase, demonstrating the prowess of a renowned mechanical animator when confronted with the human form. That is to say, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer is definitely an interesting footnote in a long and productive career. –David

Great Anime We (Unknowingly) Actually Got

George Horvath has dedicated a good chunk of time, Internet space, and panelling effort towards exposing eyes and ears to anime titles that have never legally crossed international lines. With a positive twist, this panel praises the rare titles that managed the Pacific crossing but either landed under the radar or were simply swallowed by time. It’s easy nowadays to fill your free time with hot new shows and perpetually put off anime history. To this end within today’s simulcast society, Horvath’s panels serve a unique purpose: pop-culture museums where Hovarth is both curator and tour guide leading visitors around with an enthusiasm that serves as advocative sermon. This particular panel feel like a great got-your-nose twist and thumbed nose (a playful gesture of insult), as if, at the end of the tour, the guide turns around and says, “So you know all these treasures sitting beyond your grasp behind red ropes? There are no red ropes!” –Ink

Women in Anime

Following up on an unimpressive women-centric panel at last year’s AnimeNEXT, the panel this year had nothing in relation with the previous one, sharing only the name. This time around, the panel centered on women in anime, as in, women working in the anime industry. Really, you could have just called it “Working in the Anime Industry”, it only so happened that all the speakers were women. Featured guests Michele Knotz, Kira Buckland, and Brittany Lauda, all coming from the voice acting field, gave a roundtable discussion of their experiences and inspirations, but perhaps the unavoidable center of attention here was the participation of animator Aya Suzuki, an international artist with a list of credits that would bowl over any animation nerd. One anecdote that stuck with me after the panel was Aya’s admission to turning down work on the Evangelion movie series, even after being personally sought for by Studio Khara. The reason being, she didn’t see herself as a proper fit for the job, so out of respect for the work as a whole, she turned down a job I’m assuming many animators would dream of taking. More so than many other animators I’ve seen come to these conventions, it’s surprising to see someone so committed to their own artistic principles when it’s so common to hear about the kind of meat grinder the Japanese animation industry has become. There might be hope for the industry yet, as unsustainable as the current path seems. –David

Sacred Symbols/Giant Robots: Symbolism and Symbolic Action in Mecha

Usually, Charles Dunbar’s (Study of Anime) panels start as an exploration of a general idea. Later, after far too many examples amass to fit in an hour slot, he splits off content into separate panels of more intricate focus — not unlike Voltron and its composite lions after taking down the big bad with the final swing of its sword. This panel, which actually grew out of a precisely honed analysis of the religious symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion (and still tackled that title), dissected other lions — Tetsujin 28, RahXephon, Big O, The Vision of Escaflowne, Shin Mazinger Shougeki, Xenosaga, Gurren Lagann and more — as well in order to reason, out loud, why consumers are drawn to giant robot shows and what specific imagery lends to that eye glue. He explored robots as stand-ins for gods and morality, types of heroes and their place in the structure of the moral tale, and so much more. It was a 101 rather than a seminar, a frat party in lieu of cigars and bourbon, and I think that may just be the invitation needed to garner more serious viewers for the oft brushed aside subgenre. –Ink

Yokai Girls Gone Wild

...or as I like to call it, Japan’s Fear of Women Projected via Folktales. Japan has a virtual pokedex maxed out with creatures conjured by minds which cowered in dim spark of consciousness otherwise surrounded by the dark of the unknown. By expressly exploring female monstrosities in this particular installment of his series of yokai panels, Charles Dunbar exposes more than the ludicrous, the curious, and the macabre in Japanese lore: he pulls back a very thin veil and calls the trend for what it is. Like any good essay, the point is simple and backed up with multiple exemplifying instances. So while Dunbar only made a comedic aside about the underlying theme of the showcased monsters, the rolling out of wave after wave of examples, explained in great detail and with passion from Dunbar’s own encyclopedic noggin’, drove the point home as subtly as something so overwhelming can possibly be — all with his trademarked blend of charisma, intelligence, and humor. –Ink

Kill la Kill, Inferno Cop, and [REDACTED] with TRIGGER

Trigger returned and packed the house again, with Hiromi Wakabayashi and Shigeto Koyama bringing in animators Sushio and Takafumi Hori along for the second outing after the overwhelmingly positive reception last year. This time around, the guests gave a showcase of recent short animations they’ve done for the Animator Expo series, some of which may still be seen online on the project’s website. The biggest response to the panel, possibly even bigger than the super-secret [REDACTED] video at the end, could either go to SEX and VIOLENCE with MACHSPEED or Obake-chan, both of which tie very closely with Trigger’s origins at Gainax. Obake-chan outright takes its cues for its best gags from Evangelion and MACHSPEED is the next best thing our undeserving world will get to Panty & Stocking 2. This was easily the biggest event of the con, so why, why would the panel be placed to run concurrent with the chiptune concert next door? Everyone was clinging that much more desperately to every word spoken by the guests with the droning bass bleeding out from the walls. Nevertheless, it’s great to see Trigger come back to New Jersey, even if this was more of a chance for them to hang out and bask in the adoration of their fanbase rather than to reveal anything truly mindblowing. I was disappointed not to hear anything about Ninja Slayer aside from a flurry of YEARRTs from the audience at the mention of the title, but perhaps the world isn’t ready for Trigger to break it down for us yet. Maybe the real tragedy here is Tattun’s inability to get a reaction for Inou Battle, but no one can say that’s surprising. This was a panel where you just had to be there to really feel the energy in the room, but you could get an approximate experience from home by watching Inferno Cop inside of a buzzing fridge. –David

Elisa Concert

Live music is an important thing. It’s electric. Specifically, it’s human. Combine ~60% water and the electricity which is emotion and thought, and the resulting dispersion, upon reacting with other conductors (the audience), is amplified exponentially. The name Elisa never struck a chord (if you’ll pardon the pun) until I realized she sang the song backing the OP for Season 3 of The World God Only Knows. I remembered it as far more a complex tune than what it really was and therefore was looking forward to this concert way more than I should have been given what was presented. Now I know bringing along accompaniment is not within the budget for mid-sized cons, but making vocalists sing along with recorded tracks just dampens the live experience to me. It’s glorified karaoke, and the acoustics in Main Events didn’t do the singer’s talent any favors. Still, there was a room full of eager ears awaiting the vocals of this siren, and I’m glad she could have that. Almost with obligation, I stayed until the song I wanted to hear was over and then left certainly no worse for my time but not particularly moved either. –Ink

Lost Anime

A piece of production art from The Gourd SparrowLost Anime was the only Mike Toole panel I caught in its entirety, and boy was it worth it. The subject this time, as usual, was a pretty specific niche topic: anime whose footage is or was once lost, unable to be watched or studied. Mike meandered through the decades of Japanese animation history, touching on interesting tidbits and titles as he went. The interesting part is how many titles are actually big deals; Tezuka’s Big X, Toei and Isao Takahata’s Ken the Wolf Boy, the first 23 episodes of Doraemon, and the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood movie were interspersed with obscure projects like Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero, Robotan, Spaceman PiPi, and an early Toho film called The Gourd Sparrow. He even included some very recent projects, like Gothic Made, a film from Mamoru Nagano (Five Star Stories) that screened in Japan then disappeared with no home video or digital release. To his credit, Mike managed to make a panel about "anime that you can’t actually watch" visually interesting by including whatever snippets he could find for each, whether it was a trailer, a segment of the original anime, or even production artwork or advertising. –Evan

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