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Anime Festival Asia 2009

by Justin Sevakis,

Anime Festival Asia in Singapore is one of the largest anime conventions in the world, hosting over 45,000 fans. Justin Sevakis was invited to attend this year, and will be updating this page with his experiences and photos from the city and the festival throughout the next week.

Days 5-6 - Saturday and Sunday, November 21 and 22

The professional event over, it was time for the main draw, the Anime Festival Asia event that's open to the public. Kids from all across Singapore filled the place, which was mobbed both days. The con itself utilized only two large ballrooms of the Suntec Convention Center right in the heart of the city. How in the world do they fit 45,000 attendees into two little rooms?

Well, AFA is a commuter con. Sort of like New York Anime Fest, attendees mostly live locally, and go home at the end of the day. Most of them don't stay the entire time; some are in and out in just a few hours, others spend one or two days. The first room, the concert hall, is where all the screenings, appearances and concerts are held. Some of the performers, Shokotan in particular, really got the crowd fired up. Meanwhile, the show floor is the trade show/exhibition area, with toys for purchase. The floor is dominated by a huge booth from Bandai (selling mostly toys); other exhibitors included UCC, who was selling Evangelion-branded canned coffee, and Animax, the South Asian all-anime cable channel and the sole functional anime content business left in the region. Since the two rooms aren't really divided, the entire event is VERY VERY LOUD. (This despite a fanbase that's much more reserved -- no yaoi paddles and flash mobs here.)

Hey, he is not anime. What is HE doing here!?

Two things are scarce on the show floor: DVDs and yaoi. The yaoi is understandable -- adult content is very tightly controlled in Singapore, importing is difficult and closely scrutinized, and nobody wants to really be seen displaying that stuff in the open. There's plenty of yaoi fans in Singapore, but for them their world is entirely online.

The DVD bit is quite a story. For those who weren't paying attention a couple of years ago, their local boutique VCD/DVD publisher Odex decided to take an RIAA-like approach to piracy and start tracking down end customers and suing them for downloading. Their approach to this was similarly problematic; one suit was filed against a 9-year-old, the head of Odex was seen on IRC being a jerk about the matter, and the mainstream press pretty much ate them for lunch. Most fans were not enthused by the company to begin with (and often complained about their sloppy work), but the legal case was seen as a huge betrayal. Protests were organized, Odex was held up as an example of legal power gone completely out of control, the penalties being sought completely out of whack with the crimes supposedly committed. Finally, Odex gave up on the DVD business and now exists solely as a licensing conduit for Animax.

Many of the fans I talked to were still bitter about the incident, and many still refuse to buy Odex DVDs in any form. Unfortunately, there are one or two other DVD publishers in Singapore, and they seem to be collateral damage. Today the Singaporean DVD market is in shambles, arguably in worse shape than in America, and the country's anime consumption is nearly 100% fansubs. It's a textbook example of the problems with legal enforcement of electronic piracy: suing your customers is incredibly bad business.

Odex still exists, and some of their stock can still be found at a few DVD stores here and there. There are plenty of anime shops around town (including a few chains), but they mostly specialize in cosplay accessories, toys and models.

Ah yes, the cosplay. As one might expect of a more buttoned-up Asian culture, there is significantly less cosplay at AFA than at most American cons, but what is here is quite vibrant. The fans I saw that cosplayed really went all the way -- there were no lazy "oversized white shirt + jeans + eyeliner = L" sort of cosplay here. It also helps that Singapore has a much higher population of skinny Asian teenagers, who can therefore do much more faithful impressions of animated skinny Asian teenagers.

It was a fun show, but overall incredibly similar in scope to a small American convention, albeit one with much cooler guests. I got the distinct feeling that being an anime fan here meant having to work a little harder. The fan scene here got started a bit later than in the states, but after years of work and event organizing, the fan community was starting to get noticed: cosplay culture occasionally makes the front pages of the style section of the country's major newspapers. One gets the impression that the it's all very close to mainstream, even if you don't exactly see people dressed up as Visual Kei artists walking down the street every day.

The next day, I got to visit the offices of Animax Asia, which boasts the coolest office of any anime related company I've been to. (Let's face it, even in Japan most of their offices are pretty spartan.) I sat down to chat with their exectuive staff, and these guys are pretty cool. They even agreed to send me copies of a few of their hastily-produced English dubs for goofing purposes!

That bit earlier about Singapore not having up-to-date technology? Dead wrong. Turns out I was just in a crappy part of town. Everything here seems like it was built yesterday. The food is phenomenal. The people are friendly. The fan community, vibrant. Bust on it for the ridiculous fines and the "big brother" ethic all you want, but Singapore is incredibly safe, clean, and nice. It's almost as if it were a perfect society in which nobody falls through the cracks. In fact, the only thing that really got on my nerves, honestly, was the weather. And slow pedestrians. But I can put up with those... I'd come back here for the food alone!

And with that, my trip is over. I have a 20-hour flight back looming in front of me. But fear not, I'll soon have our interviews with Mamoru Hosoda, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa and Shiro Sasaki posted. I'm happy to have come, and happy to have met so many awesome people. Hope to see you all again soon.

Special thanks to Florence Ang at Red Dawn PR for her constant care and feeding; Sean Goh for his insights and archives on the Singaporean fan scene; Akira Sakai, Tomomi Sasaya and Anna Teo at Dentsu Singapore for unprecedented access to the event and its guests, and all the countless cool people I met here. Hope to do this again soon!

Days 3-4 - Thursday and Friday, November 19 and 20

The lack of updates wasn't part of the plan, but it wasn't unexpected -- there simply hasn't been time. It's been an absolute whirlwind few days. I've met some of the most important people I've ever met, worked myself into the ground, and seemingly made a ton of new friends. And god, how I'm glad it's over.

Thursday was prep day for the 2009 Animation Asia Conference, a day-long business seminar featuring lectures and presentations by some of the biggest names in the business. Some were heroes of mine, while others were only tangentially related to the stuff I like. A few were familiar faces, while others had been previously untouchable; people that tend not to be accessible to either American industry nor fans. For them, flying from Japan to Singapore wasn't such a big deal (I think it's merely a 5 hour flight), so they were happy to hop on over and discuss their work.

The prep work was exhausting. The conference was largely sponsored by Japanese advertising conglomerate Dentsu, and as word began to trickle in that some of their heads-of-state would be attending people started to freak out a bit. And, having been brought in as emcee, I was told in no uncertain terms, "you will make or break this show!" Nothing like a little pressure.

It all ended fine. There were some translation hiccups (event organizers, take note: UN-style simultaneous interpretation might SEEM like a great idea, but it doesn't work), but overall it seems like everyone had a good time. Much of what was discussed would really not be of interest to most fans, but here are the highlights...

9am: Keynote by Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, Chairman and CEO of Kadokawa Holdings, Inc.
Mr. Kadokawa is a lovable guy who gives off Grandpa vibes. In spite of this, he's shockingly in touch with online anime culture, and much of his keynote was spent discussing how Kadokawa has embraced MADs (Japanese AMVs and mashups, for the unfamilar) as part of the doujinshi/comiket culture, and entered into a deal with YouTube so that they might actually make a little money from them. This was a huge deal when they made it, since at the time YouTube was getting screamed at it in most of their meetings with content owners. Kadokawa gently urged other owners to do the same, explaining that it was all a part of the ecosystem that builds on a relationship with the consumer. How can you not like this guy? I'll be interviewing him later today.

9:30am: Live interview with Mamoru Hosoda, director of Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Hosoda is the first anime director I've met who I can categorize as "gregarious". As one might surmise from his films, he's just an incredibly warm individual, and makes no secret that even after his experience at Studio Ghibli he's still a giant flaming Miyazaki fanboy. He revealed that he'd never really thought of family life as a theme of a movie, but after Girl Who Leapt Through Time came out, he got married and was suddenly thrust into having to maintain this network of complicated family relationships, some difficult, and some deeply rewarding. And lo, Summer Wars was born. By the way, this film is freaking amazing... I'll have a review later.

10am: Speech by Edmund Shern, CEO of Stormlion Pte. Ltd/Senior VP of Radical Publishing Edmund Shern is a guy that writes and produces in Hollywood, mostly developing projects out of off-the-beaten-path comic books of various types. He used his time to introduce Production I.G and the creative staff behind his new project, Titan Rain. I was a little concerned about it being 3D CG, but then I remembered that Production I.G is actually pretty good at that now, having seen Oblivion Island.

10:45am: CK Phoon, Deputy Chairman of Imagi International I don't think anybody predicted the investment banker brought in to try and resuscitate Imagi would be the most entertaining speaker of the day, but he was damn amusing. Lightly self-effacing, he explained, "I had two Powerpoints prepared, one for if Astroboy did well, and one if it didn't. Today, I'm afraid I'll be using the second one." His presentation then went into the possible reasons why the film did well in China, but weakly in American and totally died in Japan. The theories were mostly second-guessing the idea of revamping such a dated hero in the first place. One interesting note: both in Japan and China the majority of moviegoers were middle aged men. He also noted that he was still looking for a German distributor, since everybody there seems utterly allergic to the mix of child characters and violence, however cartoony.

There was no mention of the fate of the next Imagi project Gatchaman, but a few people witnessed some awkward moments between the Tatsunoko Pro CEO and Mr. Phoon. It would seem that things are still in flux.

11:15am: Shiro Sasaki, music producer and CEO of Flying Dog

You may not know his name, but you most CERTAINLY know his work. A music producer of many years, this is the guy responsible for bringing in and supervising such composers as Yoko Kanno and Yuki Kajiura, as well as other music intensive shows such as Macross Frontier. His presentation mostly discussed how important anime soundtracks can be, but we know all that. I can't wait to interview him later.

As the day wore on the big surprises stopped coming quite so fast and furious. (I'll admit, I was burning out and not lingering during the entire presentations either.) Danny Choo explained to the mostly business-oriented audience what Akihabara culture is like (but not before randomly warming up the crowd with his Gollum impression). Vince Shortino from Crunchyroll talked about their work in promoting streaming anime. Kotaro Sugiyama, head of Dentsu's creative department, showed off some of his company's most amazing work (including the UNIQLOCK and a particularly poignant ad featuring long-distance lovers, but sadly no Softbank Dog or Mameshiba). Finally I headed up a panel with Danny and Vince and an attorney who didn't understand that suing customers that pirate was a very bad idea.

I also had to emcee a formal dinner later that evening, so by the time the night came to a close I was ready to collapse. Overall I was incredibly impressed with the level of organization behind the event -- these guys are real pros. I hope they invite me back next year. I also apologize to anybody I met yesterday that I will absolutely never remember. The night is a blur.

Today I have one-on-one interviews with Kadokawa, Sasaki and Hosoda, as well as an on-stage interview with Hosoda at the Anime Festival Asia show for consumers. Also, Evangelion 2.0 is playing in theaters here -- subtitled. Gotta try to cram that in sometime.

(apologies for the lack of pictures -- I obviously couldn't take many, so I'm waiting to get some from the AAC staff.)

Justin's Singapore Blog - Anime Festival Asia 2009

Day 2 - Wednesday, November 18

It's exquisitely pretty here. So pretty, in fact, that one might forget for a second that they're drenched in sweat and covered in mosquito bites. This is a park that was once a British fort. They do NOT have trees like this where I come from.

I spent most of the day in Chinatown, which is a seemingly never-ending sprawl of insanely crowded malls and food courts. Unlike the rest of Singapore's malls and food courts, these look and feel completely and utterly foreign. There is NOTHING like this in America.

I'll spare you the laundry list of foodstuffs I was way too excited to be cramming down my gullet. Suffice it to say I ate my bodyweight in some local specialties. Unlike our depressing mall food courts, Singapore's food courts are their haute cuisine. They span the gamut from cheap to expensive, decent to tastes-like-being-french-kissed-by-god.

Except for this. Durian, the big yellow spiky fruit infamous among foodies for its rank, decay-like stench, is popular in Southeast Asia, and though there are myriad laws against its consumption in confined spaces, it was being sold here in crepe form. I had long been curious about it (the flavor is supposed to be lovely and custard-like), and got one. It tastes like a desert that had been previously vomited up by an animal.

Throughout all of this, I had my eyes peeled for every DVD shop I managed to pass by, or perhaps an anime shop. Every Chinatown I've ever been to had tons of the former and at least one of the latter. To my utter shock, there was barely anything worth mentioning. Most bigger American cities have more anime stuff to buy.

To start with, there were very few anime DVDs to be had. A few shops had VCD collections (most of which were several years old), but they were all small mom 'n' pop shops. Odex, the company synonymous with the Singaporean anime DVD market, has pretty much abandoned packaged media and now focuses on managing broadcast rights under a new name. After an ill-informed attempt to sue Singaporeans for illegal downloading RIAA-style, people picketed and staged mass burnings of their product... well, let's face it, few companies could come back from that.

There are one or two other boutique publishers, but anime has largely gone underground. I'm told that nearly every otaku here now watches illegal downloads pretty much exclusively. People who absolutely MUST have physical media will either import US product, or cross the border to Malaysia, wherein pirate DVDs can be had pretty easily. It's hard to believe that such a vibrant anime community could have gone entirely illegitimate. You can bet I'll be trying to find out more over the course of this weekend.

Ah, yes. This weekend. The real reason I'm out here is to emcee the industry event on Friday, Animation Asia Conference 2009. Tonight I got to meet a prominent English-speaking panelist that I'm surprised I'd never met before.

Yep, that's blogger and Storm Trooper extraordinare, Danny Choo, along with his maid girl minions. I found it utterly impossible to take him seriously when he's dressed like that and posing for pictures, but once he took off the helmet he revealed himself to be an extraordinarily nice and smart guy. His day job involves holding Japanese companies' hands as they explore the terrifying world of the internet, and holding American internet companies' hands as they explore the terrifying world of business in Japan. Needless to say, he's paid pretty well to do a job that would make most people want to hurl themselves out the nearest window.

Anyway, Danny will be joining me in a roundtable with Vince Shortino from Crunchyroll and a few very big industry luminaries. This is going to be a very interesting weekend.

Day 1 - Tuesday, November 17

I'd been dreading the two-part, 20 hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore, but thanks to a pretty swanky airline (EVA Air boasts the best airline food I've ever had), and a layover in Taipei that was much more entertaining than expected, the exhausting journey wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. I'm sure the sleeping pills also helped.

The back-of-seat entertainment thing was nice, but sure had a wonky selection of films. This is perhaps the only time in history that Tomb Raider 2 will ever be considered a "timeless classic."

The EVA AIR terminal in Taipei features a permanent gate to Hong Kong, which has inexplicably been turned into a massive Hello Kitty play area. The play area was really nothing special (consisting largely of a store and a molded plastic jungle gym), but the merchandise was interesting, as it shows just how much attention was paid to making country-specific Kitty-chan merchandise.

Those are Hello Kitty bean buns, I think. Just slightly more ethnically correct than the giant Kitty-in-a-panda-suit that adorned Yokohama's Chinatown. Either way, this atmosphere must really grate on business travelers who frequent this route.

I was excited to see there was also an official Hello Kitty "I didn't think about you this whole trip" souvenir.

Predictably, this is the real reason I was happy to stop in Taipei. Mmmm, pork chop ramen and soup dumplings...

There was also a big area dedicated to showing off these orchids. I didn't have the heart to tell them that they can be found at every Costco in America.

Anyhoo, a few hours later and I was in Singapore. The first thing you realize when you get outside is OH MY GOD IT IS HOT OUTSIDE.

Yes, Singapore is basically an urban rainforest, lying only 85 miles north of the equator. That means it's a stable 86-90°F year-round, and dripping with humidity. This time of year, short violent cloudbursts happen with alarming frequency.

It's so gross outside that vast sections of the city are devoted to gigantic, sprawling, never-ending shopping malls. Since I had some time to kill, I checked out a few of them. Most of them are utterly indistinguishable from American malls. I won't deny that a few aspects of them are cooler. Hey, check out this Optimus Prime made of BREAD!

Foodie that I am, I was hell-bent on trying something from every little hole-in-the-wall ethnic food place I could find. This place, touting itself as being Chinese/Myanmar, offered some pretty tasty stuff. Singapore is full of shops like this, and I get the impression that I could eat at several of these every day and still never cover the entire city.

I'll admit, I was expecting this place to feel a bit like Tokyo, but it's really more like being in a mashup of a really affluent American suburb and the world's biggest Chinatown. Never was the latter more apparent than in one particular mall, full of tiny little shop selling clothing too small for Americans and random Chinese groceries. It even smelled like Chinatown, with its unique blend of herbs and moth balls. And I'm not even in the Chinatown district of Singapore!

Here is the least rebellious Black Sabbath shirt ever made, carefully wrapped in plastic.

One thing that I had been warned about in Tokyo, but had mostly been done away with by the time I got there, were the squat-style toilets. Lo and behold, they still exist here. And they smell awful. This one in the airport came with a free-dangling water hose. The mind boggles.

But things like that are anomalies. For an American, Singapore feels a bit like going to Canada in that almost everything is exactly like it is back home, but there are just enough small differences to make you feel like you're in some sort of Bizarro-America, only moreso. Banks have entire kioks dedicated to updating your passbook. Power outlets are the gigantic 240v ones they use in the UK. TVs are PAL. Antiquated electronics are everywhere -- computers all seem at least 5 years old, and I've yet to even see a flat-panel TV or a CFM light bulb.

Yet, the city itself seems modern as all get-out. Nearly every building looks freshly built, every road freshly paved. The streets are clean enough to eat off of. Ne'er a cigarette butt or piece of litter is to be found. Singapore is famously an almost-police state, where ridiculous fines and jailtime threaten everybody into compliance. It makes for a pretty nice place, actually. (However, I won't pretend that I wasn't a little unnerved that a law required the airline to remind us -- twice -- that the punishment for bringing illegal drugs into the country was a MANDATORY DEATH SENTENCE.)

I didn't get much time to look around before I had to meet my contact at AFA and her team, and go over our plans for the week ahead. Tomorrow I have a day to see the city, then a day of prep and a weekend of convention. It's a tiny country, but my week here is quicky filling up.

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