Naka-Kon 2016

More than anything Naka-Kon this year reminded me that anime is a business and as a business it is emphatically geared towards young teens. While this is understood implicitly, knowing something to be true and actually experiencing it are two different things entirely. Naka-Kon was dominated by crowd-pleasers, and hit all the right notes, yet somehow still fell flat for me, but then again I was not the target audience.

Case in point would be the Funimation-led panels. Funimation’s approach has always been to sell what is admittedly a youth product as a youth product; you can see (and hear) this in their hyperkinetic approach to voice acting and dubbing in general. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; but, arriving at the Funimation Favorites panel, I experienced what at the very least felt like a tightly scripted sales event, rather than an actual panel led by actual fans.

Another example would be the Justin Tindle Q&A. Even after sitting and listening for thirty minutes, I can’t recall a single thing that the person said. It was mostly just a rambling collection of in-jokes and random loud noises, the aural equivalent of a human pinball machine – which, is honestly, a sort of compliment for a voice actor.  Still, you would expect some kind of overarching narrative thread; What’s it like being a voice actor? How did you get your start? Which characters have you identified with the most? Have you ever interacted with your Japanese colleagues? And so on.

There were a number of Japanese guests, the most prominent being the Earthbound Papas with frontman Nobuo Uematsu. Their Q&A session was extremely low-key; you could tell how much they enjoyed working on Final Fantasy VI, and how much of a game changer it was both for Uematsu and the game music industry in general. Interestingly enough, he claimed that the most interesting system to write for was the original Famicom, with its limited sound chip and memory.

Also present was Mamorou Yakota, who led the most substantive presentation and panel that was unfortunately sparsely attended. An industry veteran for almost 30 years, his main focus has been on character design and illustrations. One of the most interesting insights he gave was regarding the previous necessity of physically shipping animation cells back and forth between Japan, China, and Korea. With digital animation, data can be uploaded almost instantly, and there’s no need to index and store physical cells, since they’re aren’t any. In places like Tokyo, where space is at a premium, this must be a major relief.

SakeVisual’s presensation on making visual novels was an unexpected highlight of the day, although my developer friend sitting next to me nearly lost it when the first question to come from the audience was, “If the game engine they use is free to license, why do they charge money for games?” SakeVisual’s lead did a good job of gently explaining that  illustrators, musicians, and coders all expect, and deserve, to get paid for their time. I don’t know if this illustrates the growing disconnect between producer and consumer on the Internet, or the Internet and outside reality in general, or just the difficulty in understanding how businesses work when you’re only 15.  

In truth, though, in terms of wanting something for nothing, I’m the biggest hypocrite of all. The thing I love about conventions are the industry insider panels, where you get some juicy gossip, some pithy insights, some esoteric recommendations, and often, but not always, some really good advice. These discussions tend to be the most expensive for conventions to provide, as they involve actual working professionals, some of whom have to be flown literally from the other side of the globe. These discussions also tend to have the least real interest among the majority of convention participants, who are mostly there to dress up, shop, and socialize. In effect, me getting to personally ask Nobuo Uematsu what he thinks of the work of Susumu Hirasawa (he likes it, esp. Paprika) is subsidized by the thousands of attendees milling around outside who weren’t even born when Final Fantasy VII came out.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as geek conventions become more and more of a business and less and less a labor of love that the programming will be increasingly tailored towards the actual interests and desires of the majority of attendees, who, like most popular culture consumers, tend to skew towards the young side. If I want to continue to consume geek culture at the qualitative level I have been previously, I will either need to either start paying the sticker price, or else find a way to get more people, particularly young people, interested in what I happen to be interested in.

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