Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Anime Boston 2013 Con Report

Overall, Anime Boston 2013 was a good experience. It’s generally the best anime con I attend, and this year was certainly the most fun I had at an anime con since Anime Boston 2012, if not quite the stellar experience I expected based on past years.
I’ll start with the bad. First and foremost is something that had nothing to do with the con, which is that I spent the weekend in a less-than-stellar mood. Part of this was general tiredness, part of it the fun of discovering that somebody in a random town in New Jersey was making hundreds of dollars of purchases with my debit card, and part of it was the surprising discomfort of attending an anime con while single, which I last did in 2001. The problem is that I was 20 then and am 32 now, but the cosplayers are all still 20, so I got to spend the weekend feeling like a dirty old man. Not that I did or want to do anything untoward, it’s just that noticing someone much too young for you is attractive is very different when you're single as opposed to when you’re in an exclusive and committed relationship. Or maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, another thing that wasn’t really the con’s fault, but in this case was entirely avoidable, was security. There was a bombing in Boston not long ago, and therefore we had to go through ridiculous Security Theater in the form of security guards searching the bags of every person who went into the convention center. This created a MASSIVE crush right outside the convention center around noon Saturday, because the main entrance is in a mall. There was basically a solid mass of people, most of them trying to enter the con but blocked by and blocking a small number of people trying to go in the opposite direction, and it’s a miracle no one was trampled. That crowd, which was created entirely by the security measures, was a lot more dangerous than a couple of terrorists who were already caught or killed. This year’s Anime Boston was no more likely to be bombed or shot up than last year’s—actually, it was less likely, because there were two fewer terrorists living in the city.
Crowd control in general was a bit of a problem. The panel rooms just aren’t big enough for the convention—every panel I participated in or attended was filled to capacity (with the exception of one panel in Hall D, which is the ginormous room I two-thirds filled for the Madoka panel last year), and I was turned away from several panels I wanted to see because the room was full. (And one panel I only got into by pretending to be a panelist, by prior arrangement with the real panelist.) Apparently guests were given priority for the larger rooms, which would make sense at most cons, but I’ve found AB has a more intellectually inclined, less (for lack of a better term) “fannish” audience. I strongly suspect Charles Dunbar is a bigger draw than Laura Landa. (Never heard of either of them? My point exactly—you’re going to go to the one with the more interesting panel topic, not the one with Guest next to their name.)
Now, the good: Great panels, as always. I go to conventions for the panels, and Anime Boston never disappoints. I’ve said many times that every con should look to AB to learn How Panels Are Done, and I stand by that. Highlights included:
Totally Subversive Toons: I only got to see a few minutes of this one, but what I saw was great. This panel is different every year, but always a blast. The TV Funhouse segment with Jesus and the original version of the “Birds of Prey” song from Batman: The Brave and the Bold were particularly entertaining.
Charles Dunbar: A highlight at any con. His panel on the artists and folklorists who preserved Japan’s Yokai culture, from 17th century encyclopedists to the creators of Pokemon, was particularly fascinating. I know little about Japanese history, and what I do know is mostly political and military history, so this panel was a real eye-opener about the cultural history. The “three worlds” concept—the material world, the spiritual world, and the hidden world that forms where the two overlap—was particularly interesting, given my fascination with Celtic myth and Faerie, which is essentially the same concept.
Beyond Pokemon: Despite living with Viga for half a decade, I’d never actually seen this panel of hers before! It was both entertaining and informative. I’d watched and played Pokemon quite a bit back in high school, and to a lesser extent since, and been aware that Digimon existed, but most of the other shows she talked about I’d never heard of. I’m not actually going to watch any of them now (although I do hope to get around to Shadow Star Narutaru eventually), but now at least I’ll have some idea what people are talking about if they mention them. (NB: This is the panel I pretended to be a panelist on, at Viga’s invitation. This consisted of me making snarky comments during the video clips, and shutting up during the informational segments.)
Cheer Up Emo Kid: A great panel on uplifting anime, either because they’re cheerful or sweet or energizing or just plain funny. I now need to watch Inferno Cop, and so do you. It’s like Adult Swim, if Adult Swim shows were funny!
Judge an Anime by Its Cover: A weird but entertaining panel by Rym and Scott of Geeknights (whom I find amusing panelists but insufferably smug when they podcast) in which they went through the upcoming anime of next season and discarded half of them entirely based on their promo images and capsule descriptions. Much of this was generally good advice (for example, never trust a work where half the premise involves made-up nouns, or one where a character’s boobs fill up forty percent of the frame in the promo image), and asked a question that pretty much sums up my view of where the industry lies right now: “Why is so much anime made by and for perverts?”
My Own Panels: Animes Miserables was virtually unchanged from last year except for one key factor, attendance. Last year we had half a dozen people, this year we were standing-room only, and the result was far more energy in the room, more and better questions, and a couple of grand singalongs. Plus I relish an opportunity to inflict Arm Joe on as many people as possible.
Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo also came off great, with solid content and some good questions. And people really liked my choice of AMVs for the transitions—I got requests at panels later in the con to show the Homura version of the opening. The one downside was the slides themselves—I’m not very good at making visually interesting slides to begin with, and these were made in a hurry, so visually the panel was less than great. I can’t wait for Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3: The Search for More Mami next year, when we can get it right.
Reading Too Much into AKB0048: This was a blast. We got to pull our usual trick on the audience, of fannishly playing up the show to rev them up, then hit them with the problematic elements (though we really should have added in something more on male gaze), and then just as they’re starting to question, point out the hidden depths (in this case, glorious use of pop-Jungianism). A good panel, but I think we should revise it before Connecticon.
Analyzing Anime: At long last! I’ve been doing Analyzing Anime 101 for years, and always wanted to do a 201. AB is the first con to let me do so, by giving me a two-hour block in which to present both. I spent the whole weekend nervous about it, but it went really well! It was the best-attended version of Analyzing Anime better—on a good day I typically get a dozen people, but this was a good 50, filling the small panel room. And people responded well to the second half—lots of good questions that showed I was getting people to think, which is the whole point. One audience member even asked about post-positivism, which made me downright gleeful. I love Anime Boston audiences.
I ended up not going to any events this year, nor did I go to the game room or any video screenings. In fact, now that I think about it, I basically did nothing but present or attend panels all convention, which as far as I’m concerned is proof of a great convention.
Overall, great con, and I will as always return next year.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Analyzing Anime 201 Notes

Been a while, huh? Sorry about that--maintaining a daily pony blog has left me with very little time or energy to write about other animation.

But nothing brings out the writing about animation bug like a con, and I'm at one right now. My favorite, in fact, Anime Boston. And that means it's time for one of those easy posts where I just put up notes from one of my panels.

So, here's Sunday afternoon's Analyzing Anime 201, the sequel to my Analyzing Anime 101 I posted notes for a couple of years ago.

Continuity and Canon: Continuity is the idea that a story represents a fictional "world" and provides a means of exploring it. Different views: Tolkien's "secondary creation." Whatsername's "gossip about imaginary people." Based on aesthetic of verisimilitude, but erases the text/author/reader relationship. Tends to be something fans care about more than writers are critics, precisely because it ignores the text itself and all the craft that goes into it. Canon originates from theology--the Christian canon is the set of books that make up the Bible, for instance. Expanded in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries to the idea of an "English canon"--a set of works that made up "English literature," such as Shakespeare, Milton, and so on. Thus came to mean "the set of books you could make references to and expect intelligent people to know what you're talking about." However, by the late twentieth century the idea of a single canon for the entire language has largely vanished; there's just too many books. You can pick any given work, and it's possible to be highly intelligent, well educated, and well-read without ever having read it. We can, however, talk about canon in terms of implied viewer. In that case, canon is the set of works a work implies its viewer should know. Madoka, for example, expects its viewer to recognize magical girl tropes in general, and Cardcaptor Sakura in particular. To a much lesser extent, it implies its reader should be familiar with basic ideas about the science of thermodynamics, Buddhism, and Goethe's Faust. All of these are thus part of the Madoka canon. Note that canon has nothing to do with continuity--you can talk about multiple works sharing a continuity. Another example: the Rebuild of Evangelion movies clearly expect the viewer to have seen the original Evangelion show, but it's still not clear whether or not the movies share continuity with the show--that is, whether they take place in the same world.

Genre: [madoka ending] If you didn’t know what show this was from, what genre would you think it was? How do you know? [madoka beginning] Yet this is from the same show. What genre does it feel like, and how do you know?

We live in a time when genres are extremely flexible and most works belong to more than one. What does genre mean in this day and age, then? One way to understand genre is by means of generic traits, but that runs into a problem because of how much overlap there is between genres. For example, it’s very hard to come up with a set of generic traits for magical girl shows that doesn’t end up including Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another way to define genre is by using lines of descent and influence. In this model, a genre is understood by its influences and ancestors. In other words, looking at the ending, what older anime and stories do you see influencing Madoka? And looking at the beginning, what older anime and stories do you see influencing it? If you trace those back to certain ur-anime, seminal works that shaped entire genres around themselves, you can define its genres by the ancestral works.

Implied Author/Implied Viewer--Every work has creators. It’s tempting to try to use analysis of the work as a way to make statements about the author. For example, what do all the cross-shaped explosions and allusions to Christian or Jewish concepts (the number of the beast, Adam, Eve, and Lilith, the Sephiroth, Gaf, etc) say about its creator Hideaki Ano? [pause for answers] That was a trick question, because he didn’t put them in, Sakamoto did. All works have what is called an implied author. For a work with a single creator, the implied author can be viewed as a sort of persona the author takes on to write the story--for example, an author with strong political views may intentionally suppress those views in order to write a character who holds opposing views without turning them into a strawman. You can also view the implied author as the answer to the question “What kind of person would create this?” In collaborative works, like almost everything animated ever, the implied author is the imaginary writer-director-animator-actor who represents all of the real, individual writers, directors, animators, and so on. On the other side, the implied reader or implied viewer is the imaginary person the creators are making their work for, the answer to the question of “who would watch this.” It’s a very useful concept, because it allows you to talk meaningfully about the apparent intent behind a work even though the intent of another person is always entirely unknowable.

Signifier/Signified: For the rest of this panel we’re going to talk about postmodernism, but to get there we’re first going to have to talk about a core concept in modern analysis, the signifier-signified distinction. A symbol--which can be anything that stands in for something else, an image, a word, an idea--has two parts. The signified is the thing the symbol points to. For example, the signified for the word “rock” is a class of physical objects, rocks. The signifier is the symbol itself, in this case the sound “rocks.” The symbol is the combination of the two; change one and you change the symbol. So, “rock” is a different symbol when you’re talking about music, because even though it has the same signifier, it’s a different signified. Likewise, even though “stone” has the same signified as “rock,” it’s got a different signifier and is therefore a different symbol.

Two important things to keep in mind about symbols. First, the signifier and signified can be literally anything, as long as one stands for the object. A physical object can be a signifier for an abstract signified, such as a flag standing for a nation. A sound can stand for a sound--buzz, for example. A color can stand for an idea. A set of mathematical equations can stand for space and time. The possibilities are endless.

The second thing is that there is no necessary connection between the two. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, there is no goo you can add to a signifier that makes it into the signified. The flag is not “the country minus something.” The idea of a rock is not a rock stripped of something, and conversely, a rock is not matter wrapped around the idea of a rock. This is what I meant in the first hour about meaning being constructed--”meaning” is another word for the relationship between signifier and signified, and that relationship is entirely arbitrary. The map is not the territory,and there’s nothing you can do to the map to make it be the territory.

Postmodernism: Would normally be a much more advanced topic than can be done in a 201, but it’s so important to animation in general, and anime in particular, that I think we should try to do a basic version here. So, the basics: Modernism and postmodernism are both based on the signifier-signified distinction, the fact that meaning is constructed. Modernism largely attempts to reject significance, to see what art can do when you strip it of the requirement to mean anything, for example through absurdist drama or non-representational paintings. Postmodernism, on the  other hand, dives into the gap between signifier and signified and explores it. There are two definitions of postmodernism I really like; one’s mine and the other’s Philip Sandifer’s. Philip’s is “Taking signifiers out of their usual context and trusting them to work anyway.” Mine is “deliberately calling attention to the process by which meaning is constructed.”

 [Wing it from here]
I'll put up a video of the actual panel some time in the next few weeks.