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Otakon 2010
Takamasa Sakurai Focus Panel

by Gia Manry,

"Pop culture diplomat" Takamasa Sakurai opened the panel by noting that it was his first time in Baltimore and that he hoped the attendees would enjoy his panel. He introduced himself as a fan of Harajuku fashion, which he was sporting himself.

Sakurai then asked the audience if they could tell what country a particular cosplay photo was from, which turned out to be Brazil. Sakurai noted that Naruto is the most cosplayed series in the world, and extrapolated that it is the most popular anime in the world. But why?, he wondered. After Dragon Ball's popularity, everyone was waiting for the next Dragon Ball, and Sakurai feels that Naruto is that series. The Akatsuki are the most cosplayed characters because it's a very easy costume, much easier than Soul Eater. Next Sakurai presented Spanish cosplayers of the anime InuYasha and Italian Death Note cosplayers.

When Sakurai was in Barcelona, Spain last year, he did a panel at a large Spanish convention called Salon del Manga and was asked to autograph an item, but he refused because they wanted him to sign a Death Note book. Instead he signed a pamphlet for the convention.

The next photo was of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya cosplayers and dancers, and then an Eureka Seven cosplayer from a cosplay competition. Sakurai talked about the World Cosplay Summit, which takes place in Japan on July 31, 2010, featuring competitors from nations all around the world. Sakurai is an executive advisor for the summit, but can't be there this year because he's at Otakon.

Sakurai showed a clip from the Spanish regionals for the 2009 World Cosplay Summit, which featured costumes from the manga Rose of Versailles, and another photo of Italian cosplayers. Sakurai noted that there cosplay is popular all over the world, despite the difficulty of understanding between different languages, cultures, and religions. Sakurai asked the audience if they felt an immediate closeness with people cosplaying from the same show as they were, to nods from the audience. The cosplayers might feel instantly that they could be friends, regardless of where they're from or what language they speak. Sakurai used Vampire Knight as an example and asked how many fans liked the series before suggesting that it might be more popular in the United States than Japan.

A large group of cosplayers at the Spanish Steps in Rome was displayed next; the fans reportedly took over the square after 10pm. Sakurai equated this to taking over Times Square in Manhattan and asked whether fans would like to take part in something like that. Sakurai moved on to D.Gray-man cosplayers in China, where he says that it's quite popular, and that the Chinese Board of Education is supporting cosplay there, which Sakurai is happy to see. Of any country in the world, Sakurai says cosplay may be the least respected in Japan itself.

Photos from Paris, France's Japan Expo were shown next, and Sakurai moved on to talk about visiting San Diego Comic-Con and San Francisco. In the latter Sakurai mentioned the story Baby, the Stars Shine Bright at the Jpop Cultural Center in Japantown. But immediately before visiting the States, Sakurai was in France for Japan Expo, which has the largest attendance of any such event in the world. He showed photos of a Young An reading manga, cosplayers from Hetalia, cosplayers from Bleach, Black Butler, and Vocaloid2's Miku Hatsune, which Sakurai noted was a common cosplay at Otakon.

Hatsune is popular around the world, Sakurai remarked, and then explained who she is for attendees who didn't know: she's a character created to go with a voice bank that goes with a computer program that generates a singing voice, Vocaloid2. Just recently there was Miku "live" concert in Japan featuring a holographic Miku, and she sang to a live band. The audience was also real, Sakurai said, and it was wonderful. It could have been any live artist's concert. But since it was a holographic Miku, she could perform her concert twelve times a day or do a world tour and she'd never get tired or need a day off, although the band members would.

Sakurai moved on to a photo of gothic lolitas from Japan Expo, which Sakurai also said he was seeing a lot of at Otakon. He finds it interesting because it originally came from fashion designers who were inspired by Rose of Versailles, but it's strange to think that the whole world-- even in France --thinks that lolita fashion comes from France.

Seifuku fashion came next, and Sakurai remarked on the interest in Japanese school uniforms thanks to anime and manga. Sakurai noted that most high schools don't require uniforms, but that many students choose to wear it, deciding that it's "the cutest." Japanese high school girls love to dress up, Sakurai said, but it's difficult to come up with good fashion every day and they may not own all that many clothes. But with a uniform as the base, they could add neckties or other accessories to personalize their fashion more easily and cheaply.

Traditional arts like taiko were also on display at Japan Expo. Sakurai apologized that a lot of Japanese people believe that foreigners are only interested in anime and manga and not traditional Japanese culture, but that he thinks it's common for foreign fans of anime and manga to get interested in Japan itself.

Sakurai returned to another photo from Salon del Manga Barcelona, which he said looks just like Otakon. Visual Kei was also popular in Barcelona, along with daifuku (a traditional Japanese sweet) and shougi (a Japanese board game similar to chess). Sakurai noted that while there are some Japanese people at Otakon, in Barcelona there are none.

In the last four years, Sakurai ha visited 47 cities in 17 countries, where he talks about his travels and worldwide anime culture. In Bologna, Italy, he asked whether the students at a university liked anime and manga, and the students responded that it was a stupid question, and joked that the real Italy is very different from its depiction in the manga Hetalia. The Italian students said that they grew up with anime, and wanted deeper questions rather than something superficial. So he asked if they watched Evangelion, and was surprised that all of them had seen it. At this point Sakurai realized that since it was so popular around the world, anime should be used as a diplomatic tool.

Asking if anyone in the audience had been to Saudi Arabia, Sakurai showed a photo and said that it was very different-- an event like Otakon would never happen there, first because there could never be a mixed audience of boys and girls. His audience in Saudi Arabia was all male, dressed in their traditional garb. Women were listening to the panel in a separate room via a television monitor. Sakurai didn't know if anime was popular there at all, so he asked if anyone knew One Piece. He heard loud screams from the auditorium next door. He asked the audience next door if they knew Naruto and received another loud response. Yes, Sakurai concluded, they watch anime over the Internet. Officially entertainment is banned in Saudi Arabia, so they have no movie theaters, Sakurai said, but their love for Japanese anime was no different than that of those sitting in the panel room. One fan even told Sakurai that his name was too long to remember, and to please call him Kira, from the Death Note manga. Sakurai got special permission to talk to the women in Saudi Arabia, and one presented im with a piece of art and he thought that this must be what the women look like beneath their traditional garb.

Myanmar came next, and a 16-year-old girl continues to send him art Naruto is still popular there; fans in Myanmar can't watch it on TV, they have no computers, Sakurai asked how they watch it at all. It turned out that since Thailand is right across the river from Myanmar, residents can watch it on Thai television.

Sakurai next addressed concerns about the anime and manga industry in Japan. He traced a path of interests that fans tend to pick up over time: from anime to manga to language to fashion to society and traditional culture. Anime, he said, was brought over to the U.S. to cheaply fill some of the empty spots on television, such as Speed Racer. Fans were not generally aware that the shows were from Japan until the era of Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. Sakurai said he was thankful that there was so much interest in the Japanese language, since it means fans can get materials faster by importing them from Japan.

A ranking of what Sakurai sees as the most popular anime in the world features One Piece, InuYasha, Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Bleach. Sakurai acknowledged that many series make it over to the U.S., and that there are many fans of more recent shows like Durarara!! and K-ON!. Sakurai polled the audiene for their favorite of the top five titles; Fullmetal Alchemist won in France, and by raise of hand it won in this panel, although Bleach launched the largest screams. Sakurai expressed sadness that FMA was over, and that he feels his history as an anime diplomat is tied to the duration of the series.

Sakurai next asked audience members why anime was so popular around the world. One fan suggested that the stories still apply to him, which Sakurai said was a common response. Another said that they were better than American comics, and a third felt that anime transcends commercial barriers. Sakurai offered that because InuYasha is animated, it's more approachable than if it was live-action, which would feel more distant to foreign fans. Manga blogger Ed Sizemore responded that the series tend to be more character-driven and that their development was more important in manga and anime, which Sakurai acknowledged as another common opinion.

Summarizing his own answer to the question, Sakurai said that people used to feel that animation was just for kids, and Japan was probably the only country ignoring this. The creators used anime as a means of artistic expression that is no different than a movie or live-action drama. Sakurai also noted that it's hand-drawn, one of few forms of animation that still depend entirely on hand drawing because the rest of the world depends on computer graphics. As such, anime is labor-intensive and couldn't make it only on animators in Japan, thus the industry outsources to other countries like Korea.

To demonstrate the difficulty of creating an anime, Sakurai called up eight cosplayers to the stage. Spreading the cosplayers out, he had one hold a position as if he was about to throw a ball, and then had each subsequent cosplayer show the next "frame" of the motion. This was to represent eight frames to show a short motion. Sakurai then showed a work in progress: a home-made animation he created with his computer, which he made along with two creators. The four-minute video featured children playing with a goldfish in a bowl. The song was by Porno Graffiti, who created the first opening theme from the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime.

Sakurai showed photos from Japan Expo 2009 in Paris to display Japanese fashion, and promised to showcase photos from Otakon at his next stop. He showed a photo of sisters, one a "sweet" lolita type and the other a visual kei fan. Sakurai said he asked them what their parents thought, and they responded that their mother was supportive and their father felt excluded. Sakurai said that he is happy to see Japanese fashion used to express individual personality, and showed photos fro Kawaii Festa in Bangkok, Thailand.

Next came a fashion show from the Japan Pop Culture Festival in Paris, which was organized by Sakurai. He hopes to do a fashion show in Baltimore one day. Examples of Japanese fashion were shown from JAPANITALY in Rome, when Sakurai was dressed as a pirate. Sakurai showed photos from tea parties in Inchon, Korea and San Francico, California, along with a uniform fashion show in Rome and a "Gal Circle" in Barcelona, Spain. Sakurai showed photos from another fashion show he put on in Barcelona and another at the Japan Pop Culture Festival in Moscow, where a screening of Evangelion was also popular. More photos from Brazil were also shown, a well as a video of the fashion show.

Sakurai then invited the audience to come to Japan, and introduced the onsen town of Hakone, which is where Evangelion takes place. Briefly, Sakurai discussed the Comic Market, the World Coplay Summit, and the Tokyo Kawaii Magazine, which launched for the iPhone recently. Sakurai is the Chief Executive Editor for the magazine. He noted that AnCafe's Kanon, also an Otakon guest, will be featured in the fourth issue, and he called Kanon himself up to the panel.

Conducting a short Q&A with Kanon, Sakurai asked how filming went and Kanon said that it was great. Asked about his anime fandom, Kanon said that he likes it very much. He particularly recommends Highschool of the Dead, which is available in the United States.

Sakurai thanked the audience, shared his Twitter account, and invited everyone to stay in the room for Kanon's panel, which was to run next.

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