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The Philip Rational
"A Day at the SANA with Synthespians."
By Philip Wesley (2013)
Published: May 2nd, 2013.
These articles may contain strong language, viewer discretion is advised.

I lay awake at night thinking about things all of the time
. When I am not committing acts of sound terrorism through snoring; I am awake. When I am awake, I am always thinking. Every single moment of every single day is just my mind running and telling me to think about things. The worst times for thinking happen when I am in the shower. The scalding hot or frigid cold water pours over me and I suddenly become Nikola Tesla. I would say Einstein or Edison; but I would never murder animals for fun or consider Eugenics to be a good idea. Ahem. The point of the Philip Rational is to get all of those thoughts out onto the internet before they vanish from my head like The Silence. I am pretty confident that all of my great ideas hang upside down in caves somewhere. All of them are just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting people. MY IDEAS WILL FALL!

There must be other people
who get wrapped up into ideas, thoughts, and questions. There must be others who are burdened by the heavy weight of "Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How!" So many questions to weigh us down! One particular question weighs heavy on the minds of the Japanese Consulate, and the Rocky Mountain Anime Association. That question is" "Why is anime so popular in North America?" In order to find out the answer, I would have to visit a SANA: The Summit on Anime in North America. The Summit took place on March 23rd, 2013 during a ridiculous blizzard. Sarah and I closed the store for the day and headed out toward the event that was to take place at the Denver International Airport Marriott at Gateway Park. The snow and ice had another idea; so before we arrived at the event, we got up close and personal with a cement barrier.

Although the wheel arm had to be repaired later.

Of course, I would never let anything like that get in the way of discussing burning, weighty questions! We attended the event and I will break down what was discussed and then give you my opinion of what was discussed. The event was divided into several keynotes  and then completed with a final  round table discussion on the main question.

The first keynote was by Doctor Alisa Freedman and was entitled Anime Academy: How Fans Have Changed Universities. Alisa hails from the University of Oregon and is an Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Film. The main push of her presentation was to illustrate how anime has affected college culture and general acceptance of Japanese culture. You see, Doctor Freedman bases her idea on "Soft Power," where the "cute" side of a culture tends to soften opinion of a culture. This softening of opinion through shared culture has evolved due to the ease of access provided by the internet and the personalization of culture via personal expressions like fan art or original characters. She spoke of the progress of integration of Japanese culture as part of curriculum and general every day thought. In a way, she states that the ease of access to anime may be one of the driving forces contributing to the popularity of anime. In social terms, this would mean that the person with widest acceptance of friends generally attracts more friends. I thought it was quite a well done keynote.

The next keynote was from Christopher Bevins and Sarah Sullivan of Funimation and it went over the general history of Funimation and a few notes about localization and how the industry has changed over the years. Overall, a fairly interesting look at one of the largest players in the Anime Industry today. To that wit, the presentation did feel a bit commercial until the rollicking question and answer portion of the keynote.

The third keynote speaker was Doctor Ian Condry, who was taking the place of Kevin McKeever. Kevin was stuck at the airport. The snow is a harsh keeper of secrets, time, and people. Heaven help us if it should ever start to remember things. Dr. Ian Condry examined "Who Make Anime Successful." He presented a bit of history about the development of animation and then addressed the collaborative nature of anime as a whole. Doctor Condry touched on how anime has evolved in terms of presentation to match, in a more personal way, the audience that consumes it. I am about to make a terrible Doctor Who reference in that you could say that anime is like the Great Intelligence and reflects back what it is fed by both fans and creatives. Doctor Ian Condry also spoke at length about the future of anime through crowdsourcing. For this example, he brought up the Vocaloid Program: Hatsune Miku. Doctor Ian Condry also took the opportunity to promote his new book: "The Soul of Anime" and I highly suggest people read it. One thing I love to do in the Philip Rational is talk about the future and I feel that Doctor Ian Condry is looking toward the right directions when it comes to the future shape of anime. I felt the talk was excellent and I must take a moment to mention something about SANA before we go further.

SANA is the GDC of the Anime Industry and I will make the audio from SANA available to you, our readers, in the next few episodes of Radio DMG. The audio will be uncut and was recorded by our audio equipment which was in the chair next to me. So, you get to pretend you are there and sitting next to me. Which might be a little annoying but I think everyone will find a way to manage. For those wondering, GDC is the Game Developer's Conference that takes place every year. At the GDC, many luminaries of the video game industry gather to discuss game design and try to figure out how to make video games more popular. So, when SANA was announced, I was thrilled at the opportunity to attend such a great meeting of both industry professionals and culture specialists.

The fourth keynote speaker was Kevin McKeever of Harmony Gold and he talked a bit about the early days of anime on television. In particular, he talked a bit about how Robotech contributed to the modern anime fanbase. He also talked about the economic conditions that led to the anime boom in Japan and then a bit about Stagflation and Quantitative Easing and the effect that it has on the Japanese economy. I love to talk about the future and I love to talk about politics. Specifically if I am talking to politically aware people. Too many people are not at the right level for conversation when it comes to politics and I thoroughly appreciated Kevin presenting a primer on our current economic malaise. I love listening to other business people talk about business. Although I do not feel he really presented a way forward from where we are currently. I feel we can fix our economic problems by removing the source of those economic problems.

The final keynote speaker was Jerry Beck and he was the speaker I was most excited to hear about. Jerry Beck is one of the few people in the anime industry that you could call a legend. He is an animation historian and the founder of Cartoon Research, Cartoon Brew (with Amid Amidi), and the new Cartoon Scoop. He talked a bit about his background and how he got into animation. He also recounted his early days when he and a friend of his named Carl Macek started to bring over various anime. You have Jerry Beck and Carl Macek to thank for the anime industry today. Jerry and Carl are responsible for bring over the following movies: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Akira, Kiki's Delivery Service, Ghost in the Shell, NeoTokyo, Castle of Cagliostro, Wicked City, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, Ninja Scroll, and many, many more. The keynote was a fascinating look backwards at the challenges that anime had in setting down roots in the United States.

The final event was a round table discussion on the main question of SANA: "Why is Anime so popular in North America?" My opinion on why anime is so popular is that anime uses characters that are usually a bit of a "blank slate" from which the viewer can attach their own values or even ambitions. The initial attraction to anime comes from content or subject matter that presents a different view from what is seen in most American animated shows. The content matter is the bait but the real "hook" of anime comes from the characters. We attach emotions to the characters we see because this is how people associate with media. I feel that the subtle simplicity of anime is why it has universal appeal. Since the one thing I love to speculate is the future of anime, let me tell you where the medium should be going. Looking at the concepts addressed in SANA, the only logical future for Anime is to go forward with a "Star System" or "Virtual Actorship."

Virtual Actorship is the use of an established character in multiple settings that are different from their initial debut. A good example of this is how many variations of Neon Genesis Evangelion are available. The main characters of the mecha series can be found in manga that are in a completely different genre from Mecha. If I may bring this toward video games, we see Mario, his friends, and his foes in all sorts of different genres and styles of games. We have Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, Mario RPG, Paper Mario, Super Mario Bros., Dr. Mario, Mario Kart, and many more styles of game. Mario has achieved Virtual Actorship. This is also similar to how Osamu Tezuka would have a "Star System" of characters who would have minor or major roles in multiple franchises. Osamu Tezuka, the "Grandfather of Manga" was also very open and honest with his system. If you saw "Duke Red" in Metropolis, there was a chance you might see him again in Kimba: The White Lion or Astro Boy. He might even have a slightly different name or be the complete opposite of his previous appearance. Osamu Tezuka would joke that he "paid" the actors in his "Star System" and some of them were free agents or represented by parodies of well known talent agencies. Anime needs to do this with various characters. We already have Hatsune Miku, but no one is using her as a virtual actor that makes appearances as "herself" or other characters in shows and movies. I hope that the future of anime means we get three sets of names in anime credits: The character name - The virtual actor name - The voice actor name. This would be good because then companies could develop their virtual actor and sell the use of the virtual actor to companies for use in shows. So, you would have a drama where the characters are all played by known virtual actors representing various groups or development houses. This would be like Pixar putting Merida from Brave in a sequel to The Incredibles as a "different" character and than crediting her as "Character - Merida - Voice Actor" in the credit sequence. Considering that many Pixar characters are already stylized, this would not be too much of a leap of logic.

In fact,  Virtual Actors are not a leap of logic at all. Hollywood already makes virtual actors and calls them "Synthespians." Most of the time, a Synthespian is just a replacement over an existing actor; like Gollum in the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. Or an actor like Arnold Schwarzenegger may be placed in shots and movies where he was not available in person. Hollywood treats Synthespians as a special effect instead of an actual character. In the future, as the grass in the Uncanny Valley becomes more fertile and blue, the line between what is a "person" over a "Synthespian" will become thinner and easier to cross. Anime needs to create new Synthespians for several reasons.

The Anime Industry needs to adopt Synthespians because:
  • Refinement costs are cheaper than creation costs.
  • The Synthespian becomes an attraction for initial brands and future brands.
  • The Synthespian can become the drive or product of a company allowing for the creation of rights for the Synthespian making it easier to enforce copyright and trademark laws marking the malleable nature of the Sythnespian.

The first, and major reason that anime needs to adopt Synthespians is for money. Character development is tough and expensive to do. But if you create a character once, and then refine them repeatedly, you cut that cost drastically. Once you create Hello Kitty, you can change her roles and then set specific guidelines for what products she can appear in or on. Per the second reason, the continued use of the same character allows fans to become more familiar with that character to the point that they consume a product or franchise based on their love of the character featured inside of the product or franchise. These kinds of customers develop a personal attachment to the character. Think of it as a friendly "Stockholm Syndrome" enforced by "Soft Power." This exists in video games with characters like Mario, Kirby, or Sonic. While we have yet to see Sonic in a standalone Golf title, we have seen him in Pinball, Kart Racing, and even the Olympic Games with the other major Synthespian: Mario. When enforcing copyright and trademarks, the use of a character as a Synthespian allows variations of the same character to no longer qualify as parody. Instead, they may qualify as theft, should the copyright or trademark holder choose to pursue their use as such.

The last point should be considered a way of protecting the "rights" of a Synthespian. Yes, I am advocating the idea of giving RIGHTS to a "fictional" character via giving them "representation" instead of just use as a brand. It may be time to let Mickey Mouse play other characters on a more frequent basis. Would you consume a product where the main character is Mickey Mouse, but he is not being called "Mickey Mouse." He might be a character that has a different personality than older times where he played "himself." Take for example: Mickey's Christmas Carol. Mickey is the headlining Synthespian in that film. He is never called Mickey in the short film, instead, Mickey is Bob Cratchit, Donald Duck is Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew Fred, Willy the Giant is The Ghost of Christmas Present, Jiminy Cricket is the Ghost of Christmas Past, Goofy is Jacob Marley, and so forth. Daisy is not a love interest for Donald in this film. She plays Isabelle, a love interest for Ebenezer Scrooge (Uncle Scrooge). Each of the characters we already know are playing roles where they are NOT Mickey and Donald, but Bob and Fred. They are other characters in this and when I saw it the first time, I was a bit surprised that the relationship between Uncle Scrooge and Daisy was one of love interests. We usually have Daisy Duck as an established love interest for Donald Duck, not Scrooge McDuck. That first bit of trepidation gives way to the story needs and the mind adjusts to accept their roles in Mickey's Christmas Carol as different from previous roles. Anime needs to embrace this idea and make their characters the final draw. If this seems kind of crazy or confusing, let us take a moment and consider that Nausicaa (Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind), Kiki (Kiki's Deliver Service), Sheeta (Castle in the Sky), and San (Princess Mononoke) are all similar in design but with subtle differences. What if Studio Ghibli had created a Synthespian and specficially marketed that character as "playing" those characters. They all have differences but they are generally similar. Saying or selling them as the same Sythespian would open up a marketing opportunity where this Synthespian would have a set look and then slightly altered looks for the movies she is in. Satoshi Kon kind of did this with a character design he uses in Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, and then Paprika. What if we considered one of those characters to be the "set" character and then the characters in the other films to be that character playing another role? Does the concept make a little more sense? Fictional characters playing other fictional characters with an approach that is taken seriously. This would further allow the personal attachment of consumer to product.

So, there are my thoughts on why anime is popular and what can be done to increase that popularity. I think we need to embrace the concept of "Synthespians." I loved the experience of SANA and I hope that the summit happens again next year; but I think we should embrace other questions about anime and the industry of anime in general as a subject. Overall, it was a superb event! I look forward to attending SANA 2014.

Viral Speak 2.0

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