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SakuraCon 2009 Round-Up: The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

So, with the anime industry having weathered a miserable 2008, I was worried there wasn’t necessarily going to be a whole lot of news out of SakuraCon this year. I mean, there were only 3 industry news panels (only 2 of which were from distributors,) FUNimation was the only company with a promotional booth, and the dealer’s room as whole was the thinnest I’ve seen in years. While it was great to have yoshitoshi ABe back at the con, it’s not like that was going to result in any announcements, was it?

Boy, it’s nice to be wrong.

ABe announced not only a new anime project named Dispara, he did so before the official announcement in Japan (May 20th). He also let loose that it’ll be set in the Taisho Era and that most of the original staff of Serial Experiments: Lain would be reunited for the project. Additionally, he talked about a Wii-ware game he was working on named Martyr to Duty which features 12 stories about different police officers who are killed while attempting to stop different criminals. Additionally, he showed test footage from a 3D-doujinshi anime project named Ryushka Ryshuka about a mischievous little girl and her antics.

The news train didn’t stop there at all. FUNimation dropped the viewership numbers for the first 24 hours of having Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood online; the first episode was streamed over 22,000 times in only a day, in spite of server bandwidth issues on launch day. FUNi also announced that full episodes of FUNi titles would start streaming on AnimeNewsNetwork.com, focusing on subtitled content first and foremost as they felt that ANN’s readership would appreciate that. They reiterated their recent pick-up of VIZ titles for the FUNimation Channel, and stated that the linear channel is already generating profits for FUNi. Also, in talking to Adam Sheehan, FUNimation’s events and conventions manager, at FUNi’s booth, I found out that FUNimation hadn’t seen the uncut version of Strike Witches before licensing it, they were keeping their options open as to which version was released to DVD, and it’ll probably be profitable even if it’s not a popular title as they didn’t break the bank to acquire it.

Editors Philip Simon and Carl Horn of Dark Horse Comics also announced the acquisition of the Blade of the Immortal prose novel at their panel. The novel retells the first four volumes of the manga. They also showed off proof copies of the upcoming Clover omnibus (which looked great and had a fresh translation), the Ah My Goddess! Colors book, and a piece of art from an upcoming Yoshitaka Amano artbook.

All this good news was reflected in the State of the Industry Panel, which rather than being an hour of industry reps chewing out the fans for not supporting anime and manga, was quite hopeful and positive. All the industry people from the FUNimation and Dark Horse panels participated in addition to panel moderator Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica and a University of Japan professor. Adam Sheehan pointed out that con growth was still accelerating, clearly showing that the demand for anime wasn’t fading, and Carl Horn seconded that point by mentioning that Diamond Distributors says manga readership is still on the rise, and that issues with bookstores pulling shelf space has more to do with financial problems with some of those chains. Horn further drove the point home by mentioning that Amazon’s manga sales were up. Sheehan even mentioned that it would seem that anime is rebounding ahead of the rest of the economy, as with other niche industries. Further still, both the anime and manga industry panelists mentioned that the Japanese are beginning to get a much better idea of how anime and manga are marketed in America, the result of which was more proactive participation in the localization and marketing process on the part of the Japanese companies and creators, and that the US companies are happy to have the input. They were even positive on Crunchyroll since it’s gone legit.

In fact, the only areas where I heard caution or worry was in regards to Blu-Ray growth (FUNimation at least is trying to not outstrip demand, and so is entering into that market slowly but surely), and doing reissues of titles, which for anime and manga can be a licensing nightmare. Even New Generation Pictures, who lost a lot of localization business with Geneon’s exit from the industry and Bandai’s restructuring, was still upbeat at their Q&A session because they’ve ended up getting tons of video game work to supplement their bottom line.

All that positivity aside, one might wonder how the actual con life was this year. Well, as I said earlier, the dealer’s room felt smaller than last time, and even companies that had been regulars as recently as 2008 were absent. Last year, Tokyopop was making a push for Gakuen Alice; this year, they were missing entirely. Even Dark Horse, which did a panel at the con, didn’t have a booth. Of course, the lack of impulse buys and industry reps to pester aside, getting Yoshitoshi ABe’s latest artbook/doujinshi autographed (with a nominal wait time in line at that) was a huge highlight for me, and was the perfect bonus for the last day of the con.

There were also scads of great cosplayers (only a fraction of which are appearing in this article,) and somehow, the GIRUGAMESH jokes weren’t overwhelming to the point of annoyance. On that note, Girugamesh, Smile.dk and The Slants layed down great sets from what I caught of them, and an amazing local chiptunes collective set up a PA in front of the convention entrance and performed for about 3 hours, laying down fresh beats via their Gameboys. There was also a general camaraderie amongst the otaku in attendance, as displayed in everything from a giant game of spin the bottle(s) for glomps that never dissolved into chaos or discord, and in a general sociable-ness that even exceeded what I’ve experienced at previous SakuraCons.

For a year when one might have thought a pall would have hung over the con, there was hope from every angle, and that maybe the best news of all.

Photography by Jim Betts of CosplayHunter.com.

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