Otakon 2012: Guests

Japanese guests are a mainstay for any and all conventions I attend, this goes double for Otakon. Whether I know a lot about the guests or are curious to find out more, they elevate the convention and make it even more memorable. I found myself at more than a couple Q&As for Otakon 2012 as well as in the autograph line and at a live musical performance. Every one of the guests was quite lively this year giving me and the other attendees much to be happy about.

I think I am fairly immune to the Otakon Guest Cycle at this point. For those not in the know the Otakon Guest Cycle is a phenomenon that happens every year in the fandom with con season. Since Anime Expo happens before Otakon everyone is wowed by the guest line up at Expo because it is usually rather spectacular. The stunning Sakura-Con line up while being earlier in the year usually gets thrown in conversation as well. Since Otakon usually waits to fairly close to the con to announce any guests the Otakon Guest Cycle starts about two months before Otakon. Everyone gets really nervous that THIS is going to be the year that Otakon has no good guests. I see a good deal of panicked tweets and IMs. Eventually Otakon starts announcing guests and they are usually fairly mid range guests and people get even more worried. “Is this all we are getting!” is the battle cry. Since you have to book your hotel (and apply for press and panels) long before the guests are announced you can feel the palpable tension as no big guests are announced. Then they eventually throw out a few big names and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and is usually pretty happy. And so the Otakon Guest Cycle goes into hibernation until the next year.

But as always Otakon has come through. Clearly Gen Urobuchi was priority number one. Having not only written Fate/Zero but being currently involved with Red Dragon made him the one guest I wanted to see most of all. Hidetaka Tenjin was also fairly cool. As a mecha fan I always enjoy mecha related guests. Also while Masao Maruyama is always at Otakon he is never an unwelcome guest. He is one of those guests that is more often than not willing to shoot from the hip but at the same time is involved with enough projects to always be interesting. My only regret was events conspired from me seeing Maruyama this year. Hopefully I will be able to catch him next year. There were also some talented voice actors and musicians this year but since they are a lower priority for me I was not able to see any of them. Thankfully enough of my friends either attended their panels and concerts or interviewed them so I captured some of that energy and experience. But it is just more proof that there is always more things you want to do at Otakon than you ever have time for.

Tetsuya Kakihara (best known as Simon from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Natsu from Fairy Tail) was my first guest Q&A of the convention which was fortunate because it set an upbeat tone for the rest of the weekend. Mr. Kakihara came rushing in after we were told he had only just arrived in the U.S. a few hours prior. He was bright and energetic giving the crowd a warm welcome even if he did have a mind blip and forget what series Natsu was from; we can chalk it up to jetlag.

He joked around a lot during the rest of the panel which made it fun and memorable. From teasing his translator by speaking in German instead of Japanese, to funny stories about getting nervous for stage performances, to asking the audience questions, Mr. Kakihara seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us.

The panel started with some questions about getting into voice acting as well as him growing up in Germany. Mr. Kakihara talked about the anime he remembered on German TV mentioning Dragonball and Sailor Moon as well as Ganbare Kickers and even Attack No. 1 to which he added his mother was a fan of. He also said Saint Seiya was very close to his heart, in fact when he first visited Japan he said he ended up buying a lot of merchandise from the show! He is a fan of Phoenix Ikki. Mr. Kakihara went on to say he never would have thought he’d be playing characters in the series so many years later.

Mr. Kakihara said he feels quite suited to voice acting and couldn’t imagine a better job for himself. He went on to say that he hopes he adds something to characters with his voice and he wants to bring more developement to whoever he plays. When asked about his branching out to singing he discussed how he really didn’t want to at first but is now having fun with it. But he did say performing in that way is very different. It was mentioned that he did a cover of the Cutey Honey opening and he sang a few bars for us, too.

Speaking a bit more about specific projects, Mr. Kakihara talked about Fairy Tail being a long, ongoing series which creates a family for he and the other actors. On the subject of Fairy Tail, he told a story about getting the role of Natsu but actually wanting to audition for Gray which he wasn’t allowed to. He felt he couldn’t hear Natsu’s voice in his head when he read the manga, but now of course he loves the character.

Following up, Mr. Kakihara lamented the fact that he never gets to play the cool, stoic character roles who have very few lines. He went on to say he always seems to be the hot-blooded characters who talk a lot. He brought up working on the Super Robot Wars games where there is nothing but yelling!

As for his work in Princess Princess and some BL titles, Mr. Kakihara joked around with the audience pretending he didn’t know what they were talking about. Going on say he didn’t even know what BL stood for. He also said, rather embarrassed, that we fans know too much!

No voice actor panel would be complete without a few requests from the audience for certain lines. So it seemed only fitting that Mr. Kakihara ended the panel by shouting “WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK WE ARE!” It’ll remain a fond memory for me.

At the beginning of the panel Mr. Kakihara mentioned this was his first U.S. con, but you’d never know it; he knew exactly how to interact with his U.S. fans and gave us a great time.

Hidetaka Tenjin is an interesting guy to bring to a convention as he is not someone who immediately jumps out as you as a name unless you are pretty deep into mecha fandom and model kits. You say Yoshiyuki Tomino or Go Nagai and most mecha fans will at least be passingly familiar with their work. While Mr. Tenjin has worked on artwork for so many mecha series, it is mostly things for box art and ancillary projects. He did not design the VF-1 Valkyrie but he might have done the art for the package that your VF-1 Valkyrie model kit came in. I have noticed that the more abstract the contribution to anime and manga the guest has the less people are interested in them. Still I always like that Otakon is will to bring over guests that are slightly outside the box.

I will applaud his Q&A right off the bat for having some great visuals. He started with a nice selection of art he has done over his career in a slide show with commentary. Most of it was mecha but he had a few images outside of robots to show his versatility. That might seem slightly odd but it is an inspired way to give you a concrete understanding of what Hidetaka Tenjin’s skills are. As someone who has never heard his name before I saw it on the Otakon web site it gave me a great sense of who he was. And that is clearly a mecha guy. When Star Wars came up in the conversation with the audience it was clear that he knew the ships and armor inside out. But the second the Jedi came up he strained to remember anything. I don’t think I could pick a more succinct methods to illustrate his bias towards mechanical design. I will say his preference for the Destroid Tomahawk was unexpected. But I guess that sort of thinking is what separates the hardcore from the casual.

I saw Hidetaka Tenjin again because he was at the Satelight panel as well. They started by going through the history of Satelight. The biggest mishap was the laptop they were using for the presentation died in the middle but thankfully they had a back up that also had everything on there as well. That is being prepared. They were fairly extensive with their company history. That meant that they showed their bombs as well as their hits. They did not dwell on the bombs but that is expected. We did get to see some exclusive footage from an as of yet unreleased Macross Frontier music videos and a taped interview with Shoji Kawamori. I think it was fairly clear that they have him all but chained to the office to just work on AKB0048. I have to say the more I heard about AKB0048 the more interested I am because it seems like they are getting away with some unusual stuff just because anything AKB48 will rake in insane money in Japan so they can experiment. I was amused that we learned from Carl Li asking about Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzuu is that Shoji Kawamori is in charge of things that transform. Be that planes into humanoid robots or girls into mystery solving animals. That was undoubtedly a revelation.

Yuuka Nanri, who’s autograph I got earlier in the convention, started her Q&A by showing the opening to Kids on the Slope. And truly that was why so many of us were there, it was clear by looking around the room where you could even spot a pair of guys cosplaying as Sentaro and Kaoru. And the first question from the audience was a request for her to sing A Few of My Favorite Things which she did in the show as Ritsuko. After a quick Google search for the lyrics, she delighted us with a verse.

A number of other Kids on the Slope questions were asked including what she thought of the ending. Ms. Nanri said for the anime she felt a bit frustrated on how it ended but at least everyone seemed to have some happiness. She continued on to say she hasn’t finished the manga yet because she doesn’t want to read the final volume and have it be over. Ms. Nanri mentioned that she met the manga-ka for Kids on the Slope and felt a real connection to Ritsuko’s pain in the series. When asked about her favorite characters, she talked about Sentao being a very Kyuushu boy and that she felt close to him because she is from Nagasaki, too.

Because of much of her work has been with music and characters who sing, many of the questions surrounded her experiences with Yuuki Kajiura and Yoko Kanno. Ms. Nanri started working with Ms. Kajiura when she was still in highschool. Ms. Nanri went on to talk about Ms. Kajiura’s depth of imagination which she was guided through. When asked about which Gundam SEED song she liked best, Ms. Nanri spoke of how Akatsuki no Kuruma was such a pivotal moment in her life that it will always be special for her. As for meeting Ms. Kanno for Kids on the Slope, Ms. Nanri said she was a fan so it made her quite nervous. However, once Ms. Kanno started playing the piano in the studio, Ms. Nanri felt her love for the work and it calmed her down.

When I stepped up to ask her about her new album which was soon to be released, we were treated to a video of her live performance of LIVE ON. This probably looked like I was an audience plant! But it was just luck on my part. Sadly the sound in panel 1 was quite low but we still enjoyed what we saw of the DVD.

Questions about the differences between voice acting and singing revealed that Ms. Nanri finds singing more lonely as you are a single person on a stage in the spotlight. With voice acting there is a group dynamic though it is still very nerve-wracking. Ms. Nanri discussed how very little time you have to fix your voice after a group rehearsal before recording the real thing. But you want to strive to have harmony with the other actors.

There were a few requests for lines from My-Hime/My-Otome which Ms. Nanri tried her best to comply with but it had been a long time since she did those roles. The audience loved her nonetheless and enjoyed every moment we were able to spend with her.

Of course the panel I was most interested in was the Gen Urobuchi Q&A. He started things off amusingly enough coming out in the Assassin hoodie I put in an APB not too long ago. He jumped right into questions but considering that a huge line formed immediately and within the hour they only got to about half of the people in line it was probably for the best. Unsurprisingly the questions mostly focused on Madoka and Fate/Zero. I was a little surprised that quite a few people mentioned liking Saya no Uta but no one really asked any Saya no Uta questions. I found it most interesting that the Q&A made it very clear that Madoka was a collaboration. It was clear from how he answered questions that everyone contributed different elements and that none of it was simply a single auteur vision.

I do have to say that if you read the ANN write-up of the panel they do clean up one guy’s question. The seemingly polite, “Are you planning to do work on any more of the upcoming Fate installments?” was anything but. The guy stated that Fate/Zero opened up big plot holes between itself and Fate/Stay Night. So then he asked if Mr. Urobuchi wanted to go back and rewrite Nasu’s Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Hollow Ataraxia. I have to say that is some brass balls to ask question like that. Not only did he state that Fate/Zero was sloppy but that Mr. Urobuchi should go back and redo someone else work. We all joke about the obnoxious fans asking obnoxious questions but that was a fairly clear-cut case of someone just being plain rude. Mr. Urobuchi of course answered it with maximum politeness but that was still rather nasty.

Continuing the Kids on the Slope love at Otakon was the Q&A with Masao Maruyama (perennial favorite at Otakon) head of the new studio MAPPA. Of course, Maruyama himself isn’t new to the business of anime having previous been with Madhouse for almost 40 years before forming his new studio. His hopes for the new endeavor is to make animation projects that no one else can or will. You could tell from the way Mr. Maruyama spoke that this studio is very personal for him and each project will likely be hand-picked.

One of the most fascinating parts of Mr. Maruyama’s talk came when asked about getting Shinichiro Watanabe to direct Kids on the Slope. Mr. Maruyama first said that he was working with Mr. Watanabe on many projects in the past three yeras that just didn’t come together over at Madhouse. When Mr. Maruyama decided that Kids would be the first TV anime work of MAPPA, he knew he wanted Mr. Watanabe even though he usually only directs original stories. Still he told the reluctant Mr. Watanabe  “You are doing this!” and emphasized that really no one else could do it. The music part of Kids is what really convinced Mr. Watanabe and once he was on board Yoko Kanno wanted to be, too.

At first, Mr. Maruyama wanted a musical performance in every episode of Kids but as the production went on he worried over it and it was so intense for the animators. However, when he approached Mr. Watanabe about dialing them back he refused! Half of the money for the entire production of Kids on the Slope went to animating the music performances. It was very tough and time-consuming for the team because not only were they animating musicians playing they also had to match the sound as well. He relied on three animation directors for doing all the music animation in the series, Mr. Maruyama joked they probably never want to work for him again.

Mr. Maruyama also said that he really wants to animate Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto but would want it to be eight hour-long episodes. He knows he needs a lot of money to do it but he still has hopes. Financial matters came up quite a bit throughout the panel. It was brought up again when Mr. Maruyama said he is still trying to finish Satoshi Kon’s final work. He hopes to have everything together to release it within the next five years. We all hope so, too.

The one guest I did not expect to see at all was the Ice Cold Water Man at Opening Ceremonies. I had just stopped in to kill some time before lining up for a Gen Urobuchi autograph. The ceremony started a little late but when the lights went out and the first person on the stage was none other than the vendor who became a meme. He talked for a bit and the crowd ate his shtick up and then Otakon started opening ceremonies in earnest. I’m not sure how I felt about that. Is that exactly how far that joke should have gone or were they beating a dead horse. I do appreciate that the Otakon staff was willing to go that little extra to wink at the phenomenon for the fans. But I think that it clearly shows that we can now just let it go and let the guy sell his beverages in peace.

The only other guest I thought worth mentioning was NIS America. During their anime panel they announced the Umineko anime license. While I was not at the panel the word got to me rather quickly. Some people mentioned it because they knew I was a fan of the game but other people were talking about it simply because of how they announced it. NISA had a Beatrice cosplayer come out and do a skit where she made a witch’s contract with the company to license the anime. It was fairly impressive as it was a way to generate a good deal of conversation without too much effort. Anyone can just announce a title. But something like that is a nice bit of pizzazz without spending much.  I was fairly impressed.

Mikako Joho was the pianist tasked with opening for K-Pop group VIXX, but she stole the show as far as I was concerned. Her light touch on the piano mixed with her soft, sometimes haunting, soprano voice was a wonderful way to end Friday night. She played two original songs and three anime songs that were still unexpected choices that showed off her strengths. The crowd really enjoyed her music sometimes waving and clapping along to the more familiar parts of songs.

Before she performed the opening of Fruits BasketFor Fruits Basket” she said she wanted to do it because you can no longer hear the song live; singer Ritsuko Okazaki passed away in 2004. Ms. Joho certainly did the song justice as its sweet, tinkling sounds fit right in with her repertoire.

She performed a calmed version of “Beautiful World” from Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone to finish off her much too short performance. This song with its ups and downs in the vocals really carried with her voice.

Mikako Joho has been performing live in Japan but is fairly new to the scene as her first single will be released later this year. I really can’t wait to see what her career will have in store for us. I was very glad to be able to pick up at DVD at her autograph signing later in the weekend.

As always a nice selections of guests at Otakon 2012. The spectacular lineup always make Otakon a go to destination every year. If anyone from the staff in charge of guests in 2013 is reading this article I think we both still stand by our requests from this year. Some of them might be down right impossible but new possibilities might open up this year. Who knows? All I know is that whoever the Otakon staff gets in 2013 I look forward to it.

There is always a culmination of things that make a convention unforgettable, but Japanese guests are always high on the list creating one in a life time moments. Being a fan and interacting with someone who’s work you’ve enjoyed gives you have even greater appreciation for it. This year’s Otakon was also special because I became a fan, too, thanks to the amazing Mikako Joho. Otakon you always surprise and delight me, I can’t wait to see who will be on deck for 2013.

More Otakon 2012 posts:

Otakon 2012: Tweets
Otakon 2012: Pirated ANNcast
Otakon 2012: General Impressions
Otakon 2012: 15-minutes with Gen Urobuchi

Otakon 2012: Fan Panels
Crime Scene Investigations #004: Otakon 2012
Otakon 2012: Artist Alley

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