Saturday, April 7, 2012


For coverage of the Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF), go here. For coverage of the Anime Contents Expo (ACE), go here. For an analysis of how they bleed after a few rounds in the ring against each other, see below:

Annual festivals coalesce the disparate individuals of Japan into a cohesive national persona. They bring people together, invigorate business, and enrich the community while marking the changing seasons—in the case of TAF and ACE, the spring anime season. How do these two competing events stack up against each other, and what happens when festivals betray their intended purpose by dividing instead of uniting?

Over its four day span TAF narrowly missed the 100,000 visitor mark, with a quarter of its traffic coming from the business days. By comparison, ACE's weekend run barely managed to eek by with just 40,000. Clearly, TAF is by far the more popular event. If only it were a simple numbers game!

Despite boasting nearly double the headcount, TAF felt like a ghost town, partially because big names like Kodansha and Aniplex were boycotting the event over the controversial Bill 156, aka “Tokyo Manga Ban,” which was signed into being at the end of 2010 by event chairman and governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro.

The lingering exhibitors didn’t help—no one had their hearts in it, not even the attendees. There was no energy. That sterile miasma unique to trade shows permeated the hall. Which is oddly fitting considering that, at its core, TAF is a trade show.

To its credit, TAF is taking care of business. While overall attendance on the industry days fell 8%, foreign company presence rose by 25%. Reaching out to new clients and negotiating international broadcast rights is hardly the stuff of headlines, but it needs to be done to keep the entertainment machine well fed.

AKB 48 has nothing on this guy. (Source)

Similarly, a steady stream of fresh acquisitions is the key to sustainability. Go ahead and dismiss TAF for being kiddy-oriented—those children shaking hands with Anpanman now may well grow up to shake hands with seiyuu bikini models, or in other ways support the industry. I take back what I said about their being no energy. The kids brought enough for everyone, I just didn't notice until I thought to look down to their level. And when they’re ready to step out of the sandbox and into the exciting world of late-night anime, ACE will be there with open arms.

If TAF is the nurturing parent, then ACE is the “cool” older brother who inadvertently ruins his siblings by introducing them to Dungeons and Dragons before the concept of girls. ACE had it all—concerts, cosplay, limited-edition goods, Kadokawa—and most importantly, atmosphere! There’s a reason that people were camping out in front of the convention center before it opened. It was to be the first event of its kind, an industry-sanctioned fan appreciation day, and we were standing on the edge of opportunity.

With all the buzz and excitement (and lines), it seemed like the long-anticipated “Spring Comiket” had finally materialized. Forget the general public, ACE was all about giving otaku exactly what they wanted. Therein lies the pitfall. Voice actresses and one-day-only merch are going to draw a crowd—the same crowd, the core audience, each time. And lest we forget, insularity is what started the vicious cycle that currently plagues the industry, where studios court the niche in hopes of recouping enough in DVD sales to stay afloat.

10 cents at your local grocers. (Source)

After all the sizzle, we certainly got our steak. But at what cost? 300 yen for a bowl of bean sprouts seems to be the going street price, inflated for gullibility. Catering to the fans soon became exploiting the fans. Consider that, at 1500 yen a ticket, you are forking out the cost of a movie ticket for the privilege of viewing advertisements and queuing up for luxury merchandise. Despite turning the consumer-advertiser model on its head, the organizers still managed to loose money.

Speaking of movies, if you wanted to get your hands on advance tickets for the upcoming Madoka Magica films, you had better set aside the requisite 4,800 yen and pack your sleeping bag—available for ACE attendees only, sorry!

This exclusivity is another crippling symptom of late night anime. Whatever popularity Madoka enjoys with civilians has been won hand-over-fist through word of mouth recommendations and government patronship. But if the limited-release of the film is any indication (16 theaters nationwide with just 2 in Tokyo at time of writing), it hasn't attracted the number of viewers it deserves based on its accolades. Another series fit for prime time, wasted on a midnight time slot. The real tragedy here? So long as they keep making Homu-Homu Figma models, fans could care less.

The lost opportunity created by this dichotomy is analogous to the two events. TAF has mass-market appeal and supports the industry, but lacks the cooperation of big companies to make it relevant to fans. Conversely, ACE knows its niche and delivers the goods, but is too hardcore for the burgeoning light user sector.

The obvious fix for next time would be to move ACE to a larger venue, slap on an industry day, and maybe section off the “older teen” content to keep things family friendly. Assuming, of course, there is a next time. ACE's official statement makes a follow-up event sound ambivalent at best. To paraphrase,

“Our mission is to create a place for fans and anime to come together, with ACE being our offering for this year. We will keep our minds open to the possibility of their being a better means available to deliver something even greater.”

For an event created solely as an act of protest, ACE is running low on piss and vinegar.

In a December 27th interview in Weekly Playboy, Aniplex producer Takahashi Yuma explains that they walked away from TAF not in objection to the bill, but to keep in step with the publishers. The tone of the article implies that, to the studios, ACE is nothing more than a shell game they’re forced to play to keep their client happy. They’d rather focus on making quality shows and push the politics out of the peripheral.

Even Kodansha no longer sounds as hardline as they initially did after orchestrating the split. They may not have been physically present at TAF, but they were certainly on the steering committee. Representatives from Kodansha are quoted as saying that, “We have the same goals and don’t think that a permanent schism is a good thing.” Apparently no-one has filed for divorce quite yet.

Will ACE throw itself back into the bosom of the abusive TAF? Or will they stay their ground to take a beating the following year? Neither option seems very good, as the former weakens the publishers, while the latter further drives a wedge between the industry and the administration who should be supporting the arts.

Despite grumbling about the prices and lines, the fans are already clamoring for next year's ACE and have hoisted it to festival status, albeit a local one. TAF had the wind knocked out of it but still stands, supported by its public popularity. They're both poised to do great things for the industry and community, if only they can stop being so divisive.

ACE's greatest assets. (Source)

Maybe having two events isn't such a bad thing after all. Choice is always welcome. Do you want to shake hands with Anpanman, or giant anime funbags? I only ask that they keep other options on the table for everyone else between the extremes.

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