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Event Report: Lantis Matsuri at AnimeNYC

by Cindy Sibilsky,

Hype and expectations ran high for the Lantis Matsuri 2019 Concert Series at Anime NYC. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Japanese music label Lantis, the lineup of popular anisong stars featured two solo artists ZAQ and TRUE — the latter has performed all three years of the New York convention — plus the idol group trio Guilty Kiss from Love Live! Sunshine!! Aqours! and all five current singers from the supergroup JAM Project, who only had two of its members (Hironobu Kageyama and Hiroshi Kitadani) performing last year.

Tickets of all tiers sold out in approximately ten minutes of going on sale (according to the convention) back in August — a generally unprecedented boon for any ticketed event — and the organizers were forced to add another block of standing-room-only spots in an attempt to accommodate the astonishing interest. Queues snaked around the Special Events Hall, spilling into the food court two hours before the show began so that fans could snag the best view of some of their musical heroes and heroines. The hall hit capacity at 3500 attendees and the show was streamed live so that the otaku who were not present (including those in Japan) or unable to get a ticket could enjoy the experience digitally, all with a live multi-cam switching, from the comfort of their own devices. Armed with more glow sticks than I have ever seen in action outside of Japan, the anisong fanatics were ready to rock!

The show was held in the Special Events Hall at the Javits Center and began with a newcomer (to Anime NYC at least) ZAQ in a duet with convention concert veteran TRUE performing the title theme song to Kyōkai no Kanata (originally recorded by Minori Chihara) (English title: Beyond the Boundary). ZAQ continued her opening set solo and performed “Gekijouron” the new theme song to High School DxD, “Serendipity” from Flip Flappers, “Caste Room” from Classroom of the Elite, “Overdriver”, the opening song for Rail Wars!, and “Sparkling Daydream” another main track from the anime Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions!. The last two songs got the biggest responses, with cheers and chanting from the concert-goers.

It's hard to be the kick-off act all on your own (after the single duet) without a band, backup singers or any kind of cohorts to share the stage, but ZAQ was up for the tough task and elevated the audience's mood with her bouncy enthusiasm and quirky charisma. At the end, she was dripping with sweat from the effort and expenditure of energy. Clearly overwhelmed and humbled by the experience, she made a note to mention how excited she was to be performing with such icons and stated, “I'm in awe of how music can unite people and cultures despite language barriers.” Of all of the artists, ZAQ is probably the most relatable and down-to-earth. She was relaxed-looking in a sparkling denim jacket, crop top, boots, shorts and a flannel wrapped around her waist that hinted at a bit of punk rock sensibility, not in sound but in style. She's sweet with a bit of an edge, like hard candy.

The second act was Guilty Kiss from Love Live! Sunshine!! Aqours who performed their original signature songs: “Strawberry Trapper”, “KOWAREYASUKI”, “Guilty Night, Guilty Kiss!” and “New Romantic Sailors”. Lightning bolts on the LED screen behind them (lightning can apparently strike thrice) cued the trio, along with their animated avatars, to begin. This is when the crowd reached a riotous fever-pitch frenzy of shrill squeals of delight! At first, I thought it must have been the headliners JAM Project, but it would seem that I am a little out of date or out of touch with the adoration level of young otaku for their idol stars. “Guilty Kiss is the reason the show sold out so fast and completely,” explained Anime NYC founder and creator, Peter Tatara, Leftfield Media's Director of Content and Communities. Having now seen them in person, it is easy to understand their appeal, especially to younger generations. They are almost super-humanly adorable, flawless-looking tiny young idol stars who are just like their anime avatars in dress and visage (only even more kawaii), with a little steampunk twist clad in corsets and jackets with bows, bangs, buns and bunny ears. Their performance was the clearest crowd-pleaser and showstopper, complete with choreography and theatrics to complement their vocals that were sung in clear, vibrant high tones. They seemed to never even break a sweat. As they pranced around the small stage, each and every gesture (wink, kiss, hair flip) elicited shrieks of glee as the fans proclaimed “We love you!” Their songs are catchy, danceable bubblegum pop confections with an almost cavity-provoking sweetness that is befitting of their appearance and appeal. As the cherry on top of their successful set, Guilty Kiss were joined by ZAQ and TRUE — creating a one-night, one song only mini female anisong supergroup — to sing “Kuusou Mesorogii (Yosei Teikoku)”, the opening theme to Future Diary.

TRUE, who has now performed thrice for New York and visiting anisong otaku at Anime NYC, remained onstage after the others departed to perform her solo set. She began with “Blast!”, the sunny, jazzy theme song from Sound! Euphonium The Movie - Our Promise: A Brand New Day then continued with “Butterfly Effector” the opening track for Hina Logi: from Luck & Logic, followed by a very emotional rendition of “Sincerely” from Violet Evergarden — a ballad with a twinkling piano that evolves into sweeping string arrangements. She was clearly moved to visible tears as she turned to the audience and said, “This song is the most important to me, think of someone you love as you listen.” After that she brought the energy up again with a speedier, livelier number, “Another Colony”, the ending song for That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. She closed her set with “Dream Solister” from Sound! Euphonium the Movie - Welcome to the Kitauji High School Concert Band. TRUE carries herself with a certain maturity, more of a woman than a girl. Her voice is resplendent with quivering tremolo and rich vibrato, so the jazzier songs with a bit more musical dimensionality are better suited to her dynamic voice than more typical pop melodies. She is keenly aware of musical intricacies and subtleties, and the girl can really hold a high note! Always fashionable and elegant, TRUE wore her hair in cascading mermaid waves and donned a shimmering top, jewel-toned skirt and thigh-high boots that accentuated her lovely long legs.

The next and final act was the headliner whose songs and presence are synonymous with anisongs (the “JAM” stands for “Japan Animationsong Makers” after all) — JAM Project. All five vocalists (Hironobu Kageyama, Masaaki Endoh, Hiroshi Kitadani, Masami Okui, and Yoshiki Fukuyama) came in hardcore and swinging with “THE HERO!! Set Fire to the Furious Fist”, their famed theme song from Season 1 of One-Punch Man, the action-packed dryly comedic anime about an unlikely hero with an unmatched advantage over both adversaries and peers — a single knockout strike. Some performers end on a high note — they started on one! They followed up by another solid uppercut choice, “Uncrowned Greatest Hero”, the opening for Season 2. The band was outfitted in black leather with cobalt streaks. Layers of heavy metal guitar riffs revved up the energy, though they were all on backing tracks, as were the other acts, not with a real band as the singers are used to when performing in Japan, but they gave it their usual all anyhow. The sheer power of the quintet of vocalists, each coming from unique training, background and influences — from metal music to classic British and American rock of the 70s and 80s, to gospel and even some folk — made the songs feel more layered and dimensional despite the lack of live instrumentation. The enthused audience were chanting along and waving their glow sticks in approval. But the crowd really erupted when the heroes met the idols and Guilty Kiss returned to join them for an exciting rendition of “Savior in the Dark” from Garo, an eight-singer version and anisong group crossover unlikely to be heard again in that manner. They resumed with the JAM Project members alone on “Genkai Battle”, the outro tune from Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, then finished strong with a Super Robot War Medley featuring “Tread on the Tiger's Tail”, “Gong” and “Skill”. JAM Project songs tend to have an epic, victorious, adventurous feel and they performed as if they were playing to a full house at Madison Square Garden, the famed 20,000+ seat arena, just a few blocks away. Even though the cramped stage and a rather dull atmosphere didn't match their energetic output, they still gave their all and left fans hungry for more. Kageyama, who was there the previous year when an epic snowstorm rolled in and wreaked havoc on New York City joked, “Last year you welcomed us with the biggest snow we have ever seen. This year we can go sightseeing!” Kitadani, who also performed in 2018 offered a promise and a threat, “I'll be back!” with a wink and salute.

After JAM Project took their bows, they invited TRUE, ZAQ and Guilty Kiss to return and each member of the Lantis label represented themselves by offering a personal message to the attendees (mostly in Japanese with some sparse, broken English, but the fans seemed to either understand them fully or not care and cheer anyhow). They finished triumphantly with all performers singing the official Lantis Matsuri 2019 theme song “Starting Style!! 2019” as waves of multicolored lights swayed in unison while karaoke-style lyrics were projected on the screens to encourage a sing along. Before they all departed the stage, no doubt exhausted yet grateful for the warm reception, Kagayama declared, “We want to come back next year! Maybe I can pull some strings...”

But while many of the fans left walking on air, others were grumbling about the poor sightlines, sound quality and lack of production values. I could help but feel the same, especially with such talented acts who had to work extra hard to compensate. While Anime NYC, now in its third year, seems to have found its flow, the Concert Series still seems to be finding its footing. It's taken three steps forward and one step back from the inaugural year where the artists (three female solo anisong artists) performed on a pop-up stage in the cavernous, warehouse-like space in the bowels of the Javits Center. Last year was a complete contrast to that.

In 2018, the artists (a mix of anisong solo stars, two members from the group JAM Project and an entire idol group, Morning Musume) took the stage over two nights at the Hammerstein Ballroom, a real, 2,000+ capacity concert venue with all of the built-in lighting and sound capabilities that gave the show production values worthy of such acclaimed acts, only blocks from the convention center. That year marked a historic achievement for anisong artists — it was the biggest Japanese Concert Series New York City had ever seen.

For 2019, the concert was held at the Javits Center instead of an off-site location, however nearby in proximity. (Note: Hammerstein this year was booked for BravoCon, a convention hosted by Bravo TV network). This comes with both benefits and drawbacks. It's certainly easier for the attendees to stay in one place (particularly those heavily adorned with cosplay gear), better for security, crowd control, etc. — and certainly better for the economics of such an endeavor.

But the Special Events Hall, or at least the way it was set up, is not very conducive for a pop and rock concert. The wide space with a barely elevated stage and three screens is more suited for a TED Talk-style lecture or a large discussion panel (like some that were held there over the weekend). Even a film screening (which was also held in that space) proved a bit tricky in the Hall. There weren't clear sightlines for those further away from the screens, and instead of the kind of surround sound that one is used to in a concert venue or movie theater, the sound was too concentrated from the front speakers in order to reach the back from one main source instead of being more evenly distributed.

This is where I feel a bit conflicted due to my roles and personal, in-depth knowledge of these things. As a producer of live events and tours myself, I am all too aware of the financials and limitations that go into such performances — especially when dealing with foreign talent — which is one of the reasons why these Japanese bands and artists don't perform very often in the States, despite their followings. But I have also seen such acts in their native country — they sell out arenas, have full rock bands, laser light shows and even the occasional pyrotechnics. It's certainly something to see and feels more appropriate and worthy to match the grand epicness of the songs and themes. Granted, I am aware that kind of production value is implausible, if not utterly impossible in this setting, however, I do believe that there is a happy medium that could amp up the production values — sound, light, video, maybe a local backing band — to make it an even richer experience not only for the audience, but the artists. We all deserve it and so do they. So my challenge to the organizers for the fourth year of the Anime NYC Matsuri Concert Series is to rev it up another notch. If things keep progressing, who knows? Maybe the arena-style performances will one day be possible. Goodness knows the demand is building, if not quite there yet.

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