A few thoughts on Otakon, Part I

Otakon, the anime convention based in Baltimore, was this past weekend. I went, as I have for the past ten years or so, and had some of the same thoughts that I’ve been having for the past few years. To save my friends from having to hear them all again, I’ll collect them here.

Otakon has lost some of its glamour for me. There are tons of people, lines are long and movement in the hallways is slow. These are not new developments. The con has been getting larger fairly steadily over the past decade. That I can deal with – more fans is, in general, a good thing for anime in America. But as it gets larger, it’s also getting more… corporate, for lack of a better word. For example, where most of the anime shown used to be fansubs, I think everything was licensed this year. The various companies have gotten better about turn-around times for getting anime from Japan to America, but there are a number of series that aren’t licensed that I would have liked to see – but haven’t.

That perhaps irritates me the most; Otakon has traditionally been how I got introduced to new, interesting series. Over time, as I got more and more immersed in anime, I have found fewer new series through Otakon. However, this year there was only one new series that a)was interesting and b) was watchable. By “watchable”, I mean subbed.

I was irked to find that the program only noted whether an anime was subbed or dubbed occasionally – and most of the time it wasn’t noted, the anime in question was dubbed. Subbed versus dubbed is a longstanding debate, but most of the fans dedicated enough to go to cons either (violently) prefer subbed or are willing to go either way. Those that choose dubs and dubs only are few and far between. And regardless of the fans’ preference, there is also the issue of viewing rooms. Otakon’s are large, and people enter and exit throughout showings. I figured out years ago that I simply couldn’t guarantee that I would hear enough of an episode clearly enough to make trying to watch it dubbed worthwhile. (As far as moving closer to the speakers is concerned, if I get close enough to be able to regularly hear the dialogue my ears hurt. A lot.) That is to say nothing of the fact that the a fair amount of editing goes into translating Japanese for dubs.

So why did Otakon show series dubbed so often this year? Because of the anime companies. Here I am particularly thinking of Funimation, on account of Baccano. Before I rip into them, let me first point out their new online viewing system and the speedy uploading of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Funimation normally rocks, but they’ve given me a perfect example of what I did not like about Otakon this year, so I’ll run with it.

Funimation has been letting people watch Baccano on their website dubbed (only – other series are available subbed or both subbed and dubbed). I don’t watch anime dubbed, so I haven’t watched Baccano. But it looks interesting, and I really wanted to see it. For the record, I do not buy DVD’s unless I have seen enough of a series to be sure that I want to buy it. In other words, when I see the first four episodes of a series at Otakon or any other convention, I am basically auditioning it – if it passes the audition and I can find it at a non-absurd price, then I buy it. And if I like a series, I recommend it to quite a few other people.

So there I am at Otakon, and Baccano is on the program. It didn’t say subbed or dubbed, and this being Otakon I assumed subbed. I managed to finish shopping in the dealers’ room, get food, et cetera, and be in the viewing room at the appropriate time on Friday… only to hear English. From the very back of a crowded room. That was full of busy chattering.

I was gone in under a minute.

Now, what companies like Funimation are trying to do is get a series popular amongst a large population of Americans. Anime licensing fees are high, particularly for popular series, so they are pressed to expand audiences.* And to get the largest audiences they have to show series on television. Dubbed. I get that. But at the same time, they want to use anime fans – who have large, influential networks, are willing to pay large sums for DVD’s and are used to agitating to get the newest release into stores – to advertise for them.

Here’s where I see a problem. I feel like the companies – companies, moreover, who have historically worked with fans, rather than against them – are beginning to ignore their core consumers’ wishes a bit. At the same time that Funimation is rolling out its own online viewing option, I’m hearing about anime companies contacting potential downloaders based on specious evidence, just like the RIAA did in the bad old days. It seems as though the companies feel that offering anime online in more venues constitutes some sort of lenience on their part, for which they believe they are due something from fans. Never mind that they are making money off of online viewing (or should be – if they aren’t, then there is a problem in their advertising fee structure).

So what is the result of all of this? It doesn’t look like the anime and manga boom will spread much further than it already has (see the slowed growth of both anime and manga sales prior to the economic collapse). But a number of the companies are still trying for just that. Tokyopop’s recent troubles are solely due to their single-minded pursuit of all things vaguely Japanese-ish and all fans of that style.

I don’t know if they ever switched back, but a year or two ago they changed their website entirely. The old version had its problems, certainly, but the new version was a total mess. Focused on online time-wasting of a half-deviantArt, half-MySpace variety, it took me something like twenty minutes to figure out how to get to a simple list of their new releases – every time I tried. Eventually I think they dropped the new releases list off the site entirely. When a company so loses track of what it’s selling that they don’t even advertise it on their website, you know that they’re headed for rough waters.

However, what really sunk Tokyopop was their determination to go after so-called American manga. I doubt they realized it, but they were marketing their American manga to the manga fans that started a boom in Japanese language studies, a group unlikely to be enthralled by a fake-Japanese art style. And they didn’t seem to market their works to American comics fans, who might have been intrigued by the new-to-them art style, or online comics fans, who already followed some of the American manga artists. In the end, there just wasn’t a large enough audience to suddenly begin sustaining a hybrid form like American manga to the extent that Tokyopop, which banked on the idea to continue explosively expanding their business, wanted.

Well, that’s my view of the industry today, a few days after my tenth? eleventh? Otakon. Clearly I’m a crusty old soul, but I like to think of it as tough love. I like the dubs of Gundam Wing and Slayers as much as anyone, or the speedy turnover of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, or any of a number of other things that the industry has done, but I spent most of this year’s Otakon, like last year’s Otakon, wandering around the dealers’ room and Artists’ Alley, looking at Japanese-language artbooks, Alice in Wonderland-style clothing and anime-inspired artwork – not buying DVD boxsets. I’m not the only one, guys. Y’all need to get on top of this.

The follow-up to this will focus on trends in anime, and will, in theory, appear soon.

*High licensing fees are a continuing problem for anime companies (and probably manga companies too). However, that’s part of capitalism: The push and pull between what Japanese companies want in licensing fees and what American consumers will pay eventually evens out. Obviously that’s an untenable idea for the American companies, but the solution seems to be more explanation to the Japanese side (including hard numbers), rather than irritating the available consumers in vain attempts to find that one series that will be the next Pokemon, or selling single volumes of a series for $40 apiece, only to release a boxset for $39.95 within a year of releasing the last single DVD. (That’s definitely why I cut back on buying anime.) Personally, I wouldn’t mind if they just quit dubbing anime and passed the savings from voice actors’ and audio engineers’ salaries on to fans.

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