More Kawamori, more robots
With Friday not ending until at least 4 am, my body wasn’t very receptive to the idea of being active before noon. So any plans for attending morning panels went right out the window. Not helping were the long lines to simply enter the convention center due to the increased security around the looming Unite the Right rally just a few blocks away. Among the events, I had to pass on was the Right Stuf industry event, a company that has been steadily destroying my wallet over the last few years putting out nearly the entire Gundam catalog on Blu-ray. While I’m sad I wasn’t in the room for the reveal, within minutes my Twitter feed had exploded in anticipation for the G Gundam Ultra Edition. The fan-favorite will be one of the last of the mainline series to make its way over in HD, having only just received a gorgeous Blu-ray treatment in Japan 2 years ago, and now including a headband, art book, and an on-point Tequila Gundam shot glass. This would not be the last time hype for a Yasuhiro Imagawa helmed super robot outing from the 90s would be felt over the weekend.
The first event I managed was Shoji Kawamori’s second talk of the convention, this time on the history of the Macross franchise. Quickly Recapping the previous day’s panel along with the highlight reel (they should really put that online, it’s a lot of fun), the Visionary Creator then launched into his early work in the late 1970s and 80s with Studio Nue. He touched on the Diaclone robot toyline, which would later be licensed in part to become the Transformers project, that he headed up at age 19 with his mentor and frequent collaborator Kazutaka Miyatake.
He then moved into the origins of Macross proper, showing off pages from a doujinshi he put together in high school about a war that had gone on so long, both sides had become financially exhausted and decided to settle the conflict with gladiatorial combat. Echoes of its ideas can be seen throughout the franchise, including the use of AI in warfare and hand to hand battles with larger than life combatants. The panel was a rapid-fire of anecdotes that made me wish I took a better account of the panel than hastily typed tweets from my phone. Stories included him and future character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto being booted from a college lecture due to being too distracted putting together a pitch that would eventually take shape into the original Macross. He detailed the uphill battle to include all of the elements that would become standards of the franchise to this day. Pushing against a strict “no planes, they don’t sell” mantra from the sponsors, Kawamori saw an untapped opportunity and had a prototype transforming Valkyrie made at his own expense in a successful bait and switch maneuver. After reconfiguring the model in person, they agreed to go forward. This is a man who loves transforming robots to the core of his being.
Farther along into production he faced strong opposition from Chief Director Noburo Ishiguro over the resolution of the climactic battle in the episode “Love Gives Way”, which because of extensions due to the series’ popularity would come several episodes before the series ended completely. At the time, fans were split on whether the presence of Minmay’s singing in an action-heavy space war was “stupid” or not. Kawamori, calling himself a contrarian, and seemingly taking it as a challenge overruled Ishiguro with “creator’s privilege” and went ahead with the episode. In it, pop star Lynn Minmay turns the tide of battle through the use of song, rather than superweapons, causing a shift in the way the enemy Zentradi view themselves and their lives of never-ending battle. The event would later be expanded on in the magnificent ending to the 1984 film reimagining Do You Remember Love?.
Moving into the later entries, Kawamori brought up that originally Macross 7 and Plus were pitched as a package deal, expected to fail, and how he was surprised both were given a green light. The Plus OVA was intended as a more serious project that would please longtime fans, while the 7 TV series was expected to turn them off with its looser tone and approach. Basara, 7‘s protagonist, has always stood out among mecha protagonists, being a pacifist who avoids fighting yet is frequently first to head out into battle, ready launch a flurry of speaker pods into the antagonists’ fighters to share his music. The aloof musician has been a favorite of mine and it was amusing to hear Kawamori echo the sentiment. It’s decades past time for Harmony Gold to finally go away forever and let Macross legally makes its way to the west. We need Basara’s song.
Details about individual works grew less and less as he moved through Zero, Frontier and its accompanying films, and finally to Delta as time grew short. What Kawamori made clear was that he wasn’t interested in simply repeating the past, but wished to explore new avenues with an eye for what is happening in contemporary culture. With each entry, he looks to reshape the core ideas of culture’s role in war and those who participate in the respective areas, namely pilots and musicians.
And once again the toys were on the table. Demonstrating two classic design Valkyrie figures, one coming in the near future, and then another Lego prototype, a Draken III fighter from Delta. These were seriously complicated pieces, taking several minutes each to change form. His dedication to their design could felt in the delicate maneuvers needed to transform them and how every aspect of the shape had purpose both in vehicle and robot mode. Signing off for the day, Kawamori threw up a Walkure hand sign, much to the pleasure of the audience that had absolutely never pirated any of these shows and movies that have never been officially licensed in the United States.
To cap off my Kawamori experience, more than a few of these tales carried a bit of embellishment to my ears. Especially early on, Kawamori cast himself as the lone voice with the vision carry through amidst naysayers and skeptics, not mention the multiple instances of “oh wow what a coincidence” when it came to popular films such as Star Wars and Top Gun having familiar touches. He made sure we knew he thought F-14s were cool first. But he remains an important figure in the anime industry and was none the less entertaining to listen to. Kawamori, while maybe not the most humble guy around, still strikes me as someone with a strong sense of purpose and a distinct voice. Watching the man passionately show off his toys was worth the price of admission all on its own. Making a note to myself that it’s high time I get around to watching Earth Maiden Arjuna, which from what I understand is an unfiltered Kawamori on full blast.
Following his panel, an attempt was made to procure Kawamori’s autograph. A few of the gang and I entered what would ultimately pan out as a doomed effort. Hoping to get my recently viewed copy of Aquarion Evol signed, we stood around for well over an hour in what appeared to be a reasonable line. But as later word would indicate, there was no cut off for the number of items you could have autographed, so people were having Kawamori sign upwards of 6 items each. In the end, we walked away empty-handed, but the time spent obsessing over Evol‘s hole themed episode or what makes Macross 7 so endearing is hardly what I’d called wasted. Readying for evening events, I made a return to my hotel room to recharge my phone and let the body recover to a degree.
Once modestly repowered, I returned for the informative and clip filled “Anime Face Lift” panel focusing on remakes, reboots, and other such reimaginings of age-old properties. The panel started off highlighting the Osomatsu franchise with footage from the black and white 1966 Osomatsu-kun and the later 1988 series, which were surprisingly not wildly dissimilar to the recent 2015 iteration. Aside from taking a much more straightforward and child-friendly approach compared to more contemporary, metatextual minded Mr. Osomatsu, the comedic rhythm of sight gags, miscommunication, and overreactions was immediately familiar to someone whose only experience was with the newest entry.
Next to get the spotlight was Osamu Tezuka’s unlicensed doctor Black Jack, who after beginning life as a manga lead has made far more animated appearances than I had thought through the years. Starting with cameos in the 1979 TV movie Undersea Super Train: Marine Express, the 1980 Astro Boy series, and several others before he would finally take center stage in Osamu Dezaki’s high tension, Gothic OVA series that spanned most of the 1990s. It remains to this day the beginning and end of my Black Jack experience. After rounding out Black Jack’s more modern TV outings, we moved to the final subject of the panel, Go Nagai’s Devilman. Thanks to Masaaki Yuasa’s excellent Crybaby adaptation earlier this year and Nagai’s original manga series making its way to store shelves, people actually have a pretty decent entry point into the demon-fighting adventures of Akira Fudo and Ryo Asuka. Touching on the wacky original tokusatsu inspired Toei TV series, developed in tandem with manga, the 1980’s OVA series, and finally Crybaby‘s introduction of machine gun-toting Bad Influence Ryo to finish things off.
After a stroll through the massive airplane hanger sized video gaming area and a much-needed sandwich, it was time for the late-night portion of the day’s robot programming to begin. First up was “Gattai!! Mecha Anime of 198X”, a whirlwind tour through that most mecha of decades. The specter of Gundam was apparent, having either directly influenced or shared key creative staff in the night’s many examples, but it was made it clear early on that none of Sunrise’s flagship franchise iterations would be taking up the spotlight. Hitting a mix of beloved classics (at least to the robot inclined fan) like Patlabor, Armored Trooper Votoms, Space Runaway Ideon, and Project A-ko to lesser-known titles such as Space Warrior Baldios and Hades Project Zeorymer, the panelists struck a good balance between historical contextualization and entertainment value. This really means that in one minute they were talking about the production woes and ensuing storytelling disaster of a canceled series and in another they were singing along with the opening of Aura Battler Dunbine.
Like the Patlabor panel the day before, “Gattai!!” was an event after my own heart. As someone with the patience and resolve to put up with the often sluggish pacing, questionable production values, and other assorted issues of the decade’s many many robot series, I found myself right at home and pleased there are still plenty more I need to hunt down and watch. Worth mentioning was an instant highlight of the evening when near the end, the room burst into “Do You Remember Love?”, finally drowning out the extremely loud hentai panel next door. Very deculture.
The only way to finish out another long day of overdosing on robot cartoons was, of course, to drag myself to an even later panel about robot cartoons. By virtue of starting well after midnight, after two solid days of convention and heat, meaning that everyone in the Gunpla 101 Gundam panel was really feeling the strain – panelists and audience alike. By the hosts’ admission, what was originally going to be a more serious-minded look at Gundam‘s first 39 years was revamped only days before after learning about the late-night time slot to be something more fitting. This was honestly perfect because laughing with, but mostly at Gundam when I should probably be sleeping is one of my very favorite past times. The franchise has an incredibly high rate of unintended comedic value in nearly every series, even those not directed by original creator Yoshiyuki Tomino (though his do feature the best) and it was a blast being in a room with plenty of appreciators of the finer aspects of Gundam goofiness. You know you are in good company when the Gouf Troop AMV shows up and gets the room laughing.
Taking an easy-going chronological path through the series, briefly summarizing and hitting fun talking points, the panelists made sure to highlight classic moments like Zeta protagonist Kamille Bidan’s shaky motivation for joining a bloody war and the Turn A washing machine scene. Gundam can talk a serious game, and there are more than a few avenues of interesting high minded ideas running through the series, but for my money, it’s best appreciated and shared with a sense of humor. When talking about Gundam, the conversation can quickly turn into overly dry lore dives that tend to ignore just how weird these things actually are and I was happy to find the panelists were well aware of that pitfall and deftly avoided it.
The final day began with me putting my best foot forward in a valiant attempt to make it to a 9 A.M. panel. Upon waking up at a perfectly reasonable 8:30 however, my body wasn’t having any of that. After silently saluting those brave individuals who had managed to become functional enough to present themselves to others I fell back into an inky half-conscious stupor for another few hours. Energy had to be conserved for the final event of the convention: the much anticipated Discotek Media panel. With 12 announcements teased, it was set to be an extra special Discotek Day.
Jumping right into upcoming releases, it was an hour filled with long out of print classics coming back, many in HD for the first time in the US, and totally unexpected surprises. More Lupin the Third TV specials and fondly remembered OVAs like Area 88 are well within Discotek’s wheelhouse, but getting into more full tokusatsu series with Space Wolf Juspion and Message from Space: Galactic Wars along with lesser-known (in the US at least) robot shows like God Mars and Voltes V shows a continued expansion for the company. It wasn’t that long ago longer TV shows were a rarity, with the company mostly focusing on movies and short-run OVAs. Now we’re getting a properly subtitled Bo-Bobo-Bo-Bobo-Bo (in what appears to be a hellish undertaking) and brand new English dubs for movies like Hells and The Legend of the Gold of Babylon. It’s a good time for fans of older anime and things seem to be only looking up. I guess it’s time to start caring about tokusatsu.
I can’t not talk about the final reveal of the day, because I’m still not over the fact that Giant Robo is coming back into print and I can finally rid myself of that terrible quality Media Blasters DVD. Those late nights of temptation, hovering over the $150 Blu-ray on Amazon JP have come to an end. Nearly every aspect of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s epic has seeped my bones over the years; it is unquestionably one of my favorite pieces of animation. Hearing that oh so familiar tune of “Charge! His Name is Giant Robo!” lead the announcement was an extra special moment for me. News that Daisaku Kusama and the most powerful robot on Earth are returning was the best possible way I can imagine to wrap up the structured events for my first Otakon trip.
Winding down the convention with a subdued lunch and walk through the dealer’s room before being booted out, goodbyes were said and future meetups were promised. Otakon 2018 came to a quiet, expectedly low energy end. It was a marathon weekend of running around, balancing a schedule with pesky needs to eat and sleep, and tough programming decisions. Two weeks of near non-stop work and a brief cold, likely from running ragged, have dragged out this post far more than I intended. It was supposed to be a quick exercise to get back into the blogging headspace. So I’ll just end it by saying that Otakon ’18 was a fun ride full of great memories and something I absolutely intend to visit again in the future.