Shining in the Storm: An Interview with Nick Minarik from Gundam Planet

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Minarik, one of the minds behind Gundam Planet, an online and offline store in New Jersey dedicated to selling Gunpla, or Gundam plastic models that fans can build themselves. They even hold workshps at their store! Gundam Planet’s been serving New Jersey and New York anime fans for over 5 years now, and I wanted to highlight everything he and the company have been doing to promote a love of Japanese popular culture. You can find out more about Gundam Planet at their official site and their YouTube page.

Waku Waku +NYC: Hi, Nick! Could you tell us about yourself and Gundam Planet?

Nick: Well as for myself, I went to college in Vermont and was the first writing major at my school (Castleton State), and as part of the program I had to take part in an internship. I’ve been a big Gundam fan since the early 2000’s and I had recently been browsing the GP website and noticing a lot of errors in spelling and grammar, but it was otherwise a beautiful site. I approached them to set up an unpaid internship that would essentially have me edit the entire site’s contents, and they were very receptive to the idea, and that’s how I got my start.

As for GP itself, the website was started in 2010 by the owner (who’s a web design genius) with a focus on clean, well-presented contents. I started the internship in 2012, so they had already been pretty well established by the time I came around.

Waku Waku +NYC: Wow, three years now! Are you still an “intern” or has your title grown, seeing as you’ve done so much to improve the site overall.

Nick: Haha yeah, they’ve been nice enough not to kick me out by now! In 2013 the old manager had to go back to Japan, and since I’d become familiar with the systems and inventory, the owner asked me to step up and take over as manager.

Waku Waku +NYC: Good to see your passion’s paid off! So, how did Gundam Planet get started in the first place, and what inspired GP to provide workshops for customers?

Nick: Well the owner realized that Gundam was a growing niche in the US, so he decided to make that the focus of his own website. He develops websites for many clients as part of his IT consulting business, but this was his first that he directly controlled from concept to completion and beyond. Basically, he had a really good eye for what was becoming popular at the time.

Waku Waku +NYC: Based on what you’ve said, I assume the owner (shall he remain anonymous or can we talk about him by name?) is also a huge fan of Gundam.

Nick: I’m not actually next to him right now so I can’t get his opinion on that, but I kind of like keeping the mystery alive regardless. “The Owner” has a nice ring to it. And strangely, not really! He’s a big fan of classic super robot anime shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s like Mazinger Z and Grendizer, but the rest of us at the store are definitely the Gundam fanatics. We do all the freaking out over Gundam for him!

Waku Waku +NYC: I’ll have to ask him all about his favorite mecha series if I ever get the chance!

Something you mentioned sounds intriguing, specifically Gundam’s growing fanbase. Gundam has always had a devoted fanbase, but its success in the US has been…uneven to say the least. Around 2010 and maybe even before that, what do you think has been the key to bringing in new fans to Gundam and indeed Gunpla? And for that matter, what’s changed since the days of Mark Simmons’ Gundam.com, Toonami airings of Gundam Wing, and more?

Nick: All great questions, I’ll try to do them justice. What I’ve noticed is that the key to new Gundam fans is that they “rediscover” it. For so many people my age (mid 20s), we were introduced to it when Gundam Wing aired on Toonami in 2000. Back then, there was a Bandai America division that released North America specific Gundam toys and figures that you would see in Walmart and Toys R Us, and it was all very accessible and affordable. Of course 8-12 year old kids are going to love action figures of these amazing robots that we’d never seen before, so we all got really hyped on them.

Not too long after it all started though, Bandai America stopped making any Gundam anything, so they all stopped being available very suddenly. That’s when some of us “fell out” of the fan base, because even though we still loved it, we had no way to come by it.

Then in recent years, the internet has become so vast and filled with content, all of us who remembered liking Gundam found some way to go back and revisit it and get into it again. Gundam Planet is a great example of a store that capitalized on the returning interest, because it made available something that had been unavailable to us for a little while.

Waku Waku +NYC: Mecha in general has been somewhat neglected in geek fandom beyond general references such as Voltron.

Nick: You’re right, all of us here get so annoyed of hearing “Oh that looks like Transformers!”

Waku Waku +NYC: Do you think there are a lot of fans of giant robot and science fiction anime, a silent but powerful fan base that needs sites like Gundam Planet?

Nick: Well that comes back to the internet again, where these fan bases are no longer silent and are actually finding places to congregate and share their passion for the subject and kind of consult each other on the best places to find what they’re looking for.

Waku Waku +NYC: I remember the Gundam fandom used to be like that too! It seems like history repeats itself with new generations, just like in Turn A Gundam.

Nick: Ahhh, you did your research!

Waku Waku +NYC:  A lifetime’s worth!

Nick: (You could have also gone with the Endless Waltz of history ;))

Waku Waku +NYC: What would you say is the appeal of Gundam models and Gunpla?

Nick: Basically, Gunpla is Bandai’s line of incredibly high-quality model kits of mobile suits found throughout the Gundam universe. They’re all pre-colored and snap together without glue, so it’s very accessible and you really get a fully functional action figure when you’re done building!

Imagine you’re watching this show and you see this amazing robot, and that appeals to something inside all of us that makes us go, “Man, I want that thing” in some form. The fact that Bandai is making so many of these robots available in a physical form that’s enjoyable to build is a large part of its appeal.

The designs of the suits and the technology of the models themselves are also 100% unique. There’s really nothing else like it in terms of how much the hobby is determined by your own level of commitment!

Waku Waku +NYC: How much time have you devoted to building Gundam models?

Nick: Uh I’d be kind of scared to actually evaluate that number

Waku Waku +NYC: So you’d call yourself pretty hardcore then

Nick: Recently it’s been less, because surprisingly, working at GP gives you much less time to build models. But overall, definitely the high hundreds of hours

Waku Waku +NYC: As someone who’s built models but never really painted them or anything, the dedication of Gunpla builders is amazing to me. I still have a poor unfinished Master Grade Master Gundam somewhere!

Nick: I don’t paint anything either, and that’s what I mean by the hobby being determined by you. You and I don’t paint but so many people do. Some people barely put any time into cleaning up the plastic, some people remove seam lines, it’s really incredible.

Waku Waku +NYC: Do you find that there has been any significant changes in the Gundam fandom in the NY/NJ area, both from your perspective growing up in the area, and from seeing Gundam Planet grow?

Nick: Well strangely, no one close to me ever had any interest in Gundam growing up, so I never had any idea that anyone really cared about it. So that makes answering that particular question hard from my perspective

And to be honest, I feel like the fandom has always been there. They just never knew it was so readily available to them now. We get so many customers who come into the store and say either “I can’t believe you guys are right here!” or “Man I used to love all this stuff!”

To me that’s indicative of the fact that everyone who used to love it still does and just hasn’t been able to find a way to come by it. Of course having a place like GP to take your friends when you’re into something like this will have a better chance of hooking them into it also, though.

Waku Waku +NYC: Do most of your customers come from the Wing generation or are they into the newer series, the 00s and SEEDs?

Nick: You nailed our three most consistent sellers with those series. Wing always has sticking power because of the nostalgia factor. People will always, always lose their minds over how amazing Heavyarms is no matter how old it is.

Waku Waku +NYC: Years ago I mentioned to a Japanese classmate that the top Gundam series at the time in the US were Wing and G, and he was amazed. It goes to show that Gundam Planet knows its audience

Nick: G Gundam is also a big one. People love it for the cheese factor.

That was another struggle for the owner, that he knew the Japanese market very well but not the NA market. That’s where I came in, with the perspective of a consumer that was also part of the target audience.

Waku Waku +NYC: What do you think about the recent anime Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Fighters TRY? Have they brought more fans to Gunpla, and do you think those series are good ambassadors for Gunpla in general?

Nick: I liked them both, but they’re definitely not anywhere near my favorite series in the universe; however, I can definitely acknowledge that the idea from Bandai’s point of view is actually genius.

Build Fighters has definitely not only brought more people in, but also widened the appeal of the show. A lot of Gundam series (08th MS Team, War in the Pocket, etc.) are really heavy, really serious affairs that don’t really give younger viewers a chance. The more fun-loving approach is something that parents can feel comfortable introducing to their kids, or older siblings can show younger siblings. Plus, it was streamed for free on YouTube with subs in all languages, so literally anyone could watch it.

Waku Waku +NYC: Have the recent Gundam Unicorn and Gundam: Reconguista in G [G-Reco] anime had any success bringing in new customers? And what are your thoughts on each?

Nick: Gundam Unicorn is very heavily interwoven with the plots of the other Universal Century* timelines, so newcomers to Gundam would probably find themselves really confused at times in that OVA. Also, the hour running time of each episode could be a little long for some, even though the animation is absolutely gorgeous.

However, the suit designs being so incredible probably does have a large part in that particular line of kits’ popularity, although it’s hard to say what percentage of buyers comprise “new” customers.

G-Reco… as the manager of GP it’s bad form to bash any Gundam properties, but if I had to pick the biggest flop I’ve seen, that’s the one.

*The original timeline of the first Gundam anime, which over the decades has spawned many sequels and spin-offs that take place within the same universe.

Waku Waku +NYC: Are you excited about all of the Gundam series coming out on Blu-ray?

Nick: Absolutely! Japanese Blu-ray releases are absolute insanity that can actually run upwards of $300 depending on the series. Having domestic releases is going to be so amazing.

Waku Waku +NYC: I’d like to return to Gunpla for the next question: What’s one tip you’d give to beginners and experts alike when it comes to Gunpla?

Nick: I LOVE THIS QUESTION. Everyone who’s going to even think about touching a model kit needs a sharp curved blade on their hobby knife

I know people who have been building for years, and when I make them try a curved blade, they’re always surprised how much easier it is and how much cleaner the nubs on the kits look compared to a straight blade

Waku Waku +NYC: That’s great advice! I should try it myself.

Nick: We have a tutorial on our Youtube channel about that too 🙂

Waku Waku +NYC: Okay, so I have to ask you these questions: favorite Gundam series, favorite Mobile Suit?

Nick: 08th MS Team and the GM Sniper II White Dingo Custom, respectively.

Waku Waku +NYC: You have excellent taste!

Nick: White Dingoes for life.

Waku Waku +NYC: What in particular appeals to you about such a specific and some might say obscure suit?

Nick: Part of it is the attachment to the source material with the Dreamcast game Gundam Side Stories 0079: Rise from the Ashes. It’s one of the best (if not the best) Gundam games ever made and it was a really great localization. Plus, the design is just killer from the color to that crazy medium shield.

Plus how cool is a game that focuses on an elite Federation special forces unit based in Australia after the colony drop? I could go on for days.

Waku Waku +NYC: Especially with your interest in 08th MS Team and a gruntish suit like GM Sniper II, it seems like you enjoy the realistic side of Gundam. What do you think of Super Robots?

Nick: You nailed exactly why I don’t like super robot shows (Except Gurren Lagann). I just can’t really get behind the designs, as shallow as that is. I can understand the appeal but it’s just not for me

Waku Waku +NYC: Ever get into any fights with the boss?

Nick: Usually I leave him alone and he leaves me alone, but sometimes we have words. But like why does everything need to transform? Gosh!

Waku Waku +NYC: Last question! Do you have any shout outs?

Nick: We talking personal or on a business level? I could plug an awesome pizza place by me, haha.

Waku Waku +NYC: Anything you’d like!

Nick: Well I mean for me, this was all because of the amazing people in my life always supporting my passion for what a lot of people would call silly. My parents always helped me find Gundam stuff in the area (Gundam Invasion Tour anyone?), and when I joined the GP Team, the owner was very patient in dealing with my lack of experience in the field–I still haven’t had an ounce of business schooling. He and everyone else at GP are so wonderful, and we’re always helping each other grow as people and as a business.

We also appreciate all the opportunities to express ourselves given by people like you who seek us out and ask us the real questions, and we can’t thank you enough for that!

Waku Waku +NYC: Thank you for the interview, and I wish for continued success for you and Gundam Planet!

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese pop culture festival in New York City dedicated to bringing together the worlds of Japanese food, fashion, video games, anime, manga, and more. Check us out this August 29-30 at the brand new Brooklyn Expo Center!

Wyatt Bray the Kendama World Champion Thanks to J-Pop

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At the Kendama World Cup this past weekend came a moment almost too perfect for fiction. Nervous from being in the spotlight, 19-year-old Wyatt began to flub his routine. It looked like it was the end of the road for the young Oregon native, until the unlikeliest of events transpired. Hearing the opening to Teen Titans—a cartoon from childhood inspired by anime which features a theme by Japanese pop band Puffy AmiYumi—Wyatt reports entering a trance that he has no recollection of otherwise. When he finally came to, he would find himself a world champion and ¥500,000 (approx. $4000) richer.

We caught up with Wyatt and his family to learn about his journey. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Wyatt was a quirky youth. Then, one day, he found something that changed his life: kendama. A Japanese toy dating back centuries, Wyatt quickly learned that performing with kendama was a unique and wonderful experience. His growing passion for the art would lead him years later to Japan, where he would take the 2015 Kendama World Cup this past weekend by storm.

Kendama is the Japanese variation of the “cup-and-ball” toy commonly found throughout the world. Possibly first coming to Japan via the Silk Road in the 18th Century, it was originally used as a drinking game (messing up meant bottoms up), and over the years became a fixture of Japanese youth. Famously, the popular 1978 anime (turned 2009 live-action movie) Yatterman features superheroes who fight using kendama. Much like the yo-yo (which is also very popular in Japan), kendama appear simple yet allow for a wide range of freedom, expression, and athleticism.

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Wyatt at a family gathering

In the beginning, Wyatt was not naturally talented at kendama, and his family lovingly poked fun at his newfound hobby, according to his cousin Damask Schantz. However, his grandfather, law professor and Portland campaign manager for Richard Nixon Dr. William Schantz, believed in pushing his grandchildren to be their best. Within the environment of a hyper-competitive family, kendama became his path towards success. Suddenly, he could be seen carrying the kendama with him everywhere, and every Christmas when Grandpa Schantz would ask his grandchildren to perform (with the generous gift of monetary compensation!), Wyatt could be seen steadily honing his craft from one year to the next. As he grew from boy to man, Wyatt became calm and collected, a product of his training and dedication.

Eventually, Wyatt’s genuine love for kendama led him to being sponsored by Kendama USA, an organization founded in 2006 to promote kendama throughout the country. Competing at events while also creating videos for YouTube, Wyatt would eventually earn the chance to compete at the Kendama. He did not consider himself the favorite, and saw his friend and teammate, Nic Stodd, as far better than himself. In his own words, Wyatt would have been satisfied with 5th place, because it would mean an opportunity to return next year, but more importantly it would mean finally earning the respect of his friends and family. As it turns out, Wyatt would accomplish much more.

Japanese pop culture was the catalyst for Wyatt to bring out his full potential, but the skill and work had to be there in the first place. From a quirky youth to a devoted practitioner, Wyatt’s journey to Japan was as much internal as it was external, the fruits of his labor and love. Now an inspiration himself for eager aspiring kendama-ists, he now has a new challenge to face: the pride and burden of being at the top.

-Carl

Kendama USA will be at Waku Waku +NYC! Whether you’re entirely new to kendama or are already practicing, stop by and learn from the best!

Natural Selection and Option Selects: The EVO Championship Series

The Evolution Championship series, also known as EVO, is the largest fighting game tournament in the United States, and it’s set to return to Las Vegas this weekend. Having been in existence for 14 years through multiple iterations of fighting games, technological changes, and even generations of gamers, what I find most fascinating about EVO is that, true to its name, it is both a showcase of a survival of the fittest philosophy, as well as an example of change and adaptation.

Fighting games are in an incredible place today. With more active fighting game communities in existence and a larger community than ever before thanks to the advent of online play, it’s easy to think that the famous impact of Street Fighter II and the legacy of the arcades had never truly gone away. However, prior to the grand mainstream return of the genre in the form of Street Fighter IV in 2008, fighting games had entered their dark ages. In 2002 Capcom barely considered fighting games to be a part of their lineup, and fans were standing up for what they believed in: fierce competition, and an appreciation of strategy, nerve, wits, and camaraderie, as well as a sense of “purity of experience.”

From Arcade to Console

EVO was born from arcades, as that’s where competition was at its finest, and the ability to adapt to whatever the arcade threw at you—whether it was unlikely opponents, difficult controls, or even a bustling yet foreboding atmosphere—was key to victory. New York gamers were well aware of this, as NYC was home to Chinatown Fair, the birthplace of many EVO champions. On the day of a tournament, only the best could move on, and EVO embraced this mentality. Additionally, while many games were adapted to home consoles at that point, most of the time they had minor to significant changes due to differences in hardware. As a result, EVO matches were played out on arcade machines, because that was the competitive standard.

In 2004, however, home consoles had reached a point of development where they were practically as good as the arcades. Between the Playstation 2, Dreamcast, and more, the old adage that having a video game console was like “having an arcade at home” was less an advertising slogan and more of a reality. EVO decided to make almost a full switch to consoles, which was controversial to say the least. EVO had been built with arcade machines, and the idea of the arcade as the default and therefore most common iteration of a fighting game meant that it was forcing players to unlearn what had at that point become gospel to the community.

History has proven the switch to console to be the right decision, as not only are arcades themselves an ever-increasingly rare sight in the United States, and consoles have become the de facto standard for fighting games, but the philosophy of adaptation on a competitive level has encouraged players to learn a lot more about themselves and their peers. For example, where at one point playing with a gamepad instead of an arcade stick was considered ridiculous for “real competitors,” a number of players have rose up using their gamepads, and have even won tournaments with them, most notably EVO 2014 Ultra Street Fighter IV champion, Meltdown Louffy.

Super Smash Bros. and the Philosophy of Adaptation

While competitors at EVO have always been subject to the law of the electronic jungle, the game themselves have also been under scrutiny. While some tournaments have always erred on the side of caution, EVO was willing to throw any decent fighting game on-stage and challenge its players to find the greediest, most exploitable strategies possible and abuse them to no end. The idea is, if a fighting game is deep and complex enough, then people will eventually find ways around it. Another possibility would be that publicizing these strategies at EVO would make them commonplace and thus allow people more access to the strategies themselves, as well as the potential to devise counters. If neither could happen, then a game simply didn’t deserve to be competitive. EVO was willing to experiment where others would not even dare.

And yet, this philosophy of change and adaptation was also stubborn in its own ways. When Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series first became part of EVO, it was done hastily, and so organizers decided to adapt the existing Smash community’s rules, which involved a heavy customization of the ruleset well beyond the default. Smashers had learned how to take their raw materials and refine them into an environment that emphasized skill and the pleasurable competitive experience they desired, and this was evident in the way they played their game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. When the sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out in 2008, EVO decided to immediately throw it into their tournament, reflecting their on-going desire to put the games themselves through trial by fire, but with the caveat that the game would adhere closer to its default rules and that it would be up to the community to change them.

This would be a point of contention between the EVO organizers and the Smash community leading all the way up to the tournament itself, as both sides believed they were in the right. The results themselves were controversial, and both sides left with a bitter taste in their mouths, believing the other to have been too unwilling to change. It wasn’t until a community-wide effort involving a breast cancer donation drive that rose over $200,000 that Super Smash Bros. would make its return to EVO, and this time the Smash community’s rules were embraced. Sometimes the best adaptation is to understand where the players themselves are coming from.

 

And now…

EVO 2015 has more games than any previous iteration. Between Ultra Street Figher IV, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign, Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax, Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat X, and Tekken 7. Each game boasts a unique community, and this makes running the tournament all the more challenging. This makes sense, as EVO has historically shown both a desire to push itself to the limits and a willingness change with the times. All the same, however, sometimes the biggest changes come from remembering the core beliefs that EVO were founded on.

EVO never fully abandoned the core philosophy of testing games at the extremes. This year marks the first time that the new Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4) will be at EVO, and amidst a controversy within the Smash 4 community as to whether or not custom moves—special variations in characters’ techniques that can sometimes drastically change how they play—should be allowed, EVO has allowed them. One gets the feeling that they’re hoping to see just how high the game can soar, or indeed crash and burn, when pushed to its limits.

Moreover, 11 years after the move to consoles, an arcade tournament is coming back to EVO. Tekken 7 isn’t even available on consoles, which necessitates bringing actual arcade machines of this brand new game to Las Vegas. For many, the contraptions will look out of place, but to those who remember EVO’s roots, it’ll be in a certain sense a return home.

Whether you’re competing in person, crushing all those who dare to attack you, or watching at home as a family man (or woman!), I hope you enjoy EVO 2015.

-Carl

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese pop culture festival coming to New York City this August 29-30. Games, anime, manga, food, fashion and more, Waku Waku +NYC is a celebration of the best of Japan!

Please Take a Look: The Legend of Satoru Iwata

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By Official GDC (Flickr: GDC 2011 – 3/2 (Day 3)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday, Nintendo announced to the world that its president, Satoru Iwata, had passed away at the age of 55 due to a bile duct growth. The weight of his death was immediately evident, as fans and industry veterans gave their condolences, but also their respect for a great man in the industry who made a difference in more ways than one.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Nintendo was the pinnacle of the video game industry. Under the lead of President Hiroshi Yamauchi (who had himself passed away in 2013), Nintendo rose out of the ashes of the 1983 Video Game Crash through a combination of excellent games and strict copyright protection. The “Nintendo Seal of Quality” kept Nintendo from being flooded with low-quality games, thus bringing up the reputation of Nintendo as a whole. However, by the time of the Nintendo 64, the world had changed. The harsh policies which had protected Nintendo up until then became just as much a weakness as it was a strength. In 2002, Yamauchi stepped down and named Iwata as his successor. Nintendo had been a family business operating for over 100 years, well before the invention of the computer, and Iwata was tasked with bringing Nintendo into the next millennium.

If Yamauchi was the stern, yet caring father, both respected and feared, then Iwata looked to be the wise and gentle dad you could come to for advice any time. He had the aura of an everyman, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that, under his direction, Nintendo captured the world with the Wii, expanding video games to audiences that had rarely even thought of video games. At the height of the Wii’s popularity, one could often hear stories about children being unable to play their favorite video games because their grandparents were occupying it.

Of course, one could argue that this was merely an outward image, and when it comes to media and marketing, often times the surface doesn’t match up with what lies underneath. However, from every single report about Iwata that has ever surfaced, all evidence points to the man’s greatness, a level of talent, dedication, and love for games matched only by his humility. After his death, Kirby and Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai called Iwata the greatest leader he’d ever known, and Earthbound’s Shigesato Itoi described him as the kind of man who would always put others first.

Most have come to know Iwata as the President of Nintendo, and for his lovable Nintendo Directs, but he had been a part of the company for decades. First programming the original Balloon Fight in the 1980s, he became known as an incredibly efficient programmer who could solve even seemingly impossible tasks. He re-created the Pokémon engine from scratch for Pokémon Stadium and even improved upon it without any design documents available to him. When Pokémon Gold and Silver seemingly could not fit on the limited space of a Game Boy cartridge, Iwata stepped in and not only fixed their problem but figured out how to compress the data so well that they could add the Kanto region from the first game as well, which is to this day one of the best surprises in video games. He completely rewrote the code for Earthbound in order to get the game finished in time for release. Perhaps most amazingly, he returned to the trenches one last time to  debug the complex code for Super Smash Bros. Melee so it could make its release date, after he had already become the General Manager of Corporate Planning at Nintendo.

It can be kind of an odd sight to witness president of a corporation, even one as beloved as Nintendo, receive such a massive and heartfelt outpouring of emotion, but I think it’s clear why Iwata was different. Starting as a humble yet hard-working programmer, he slowly rose to the top of Nintendo, doing so not through the political game but through honesty and a genuine passion for video games. Taking Yamauchi’s advice to never be afraid of risk, he carried forward Nintendo’s history of innovation into a new era, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Iwata’s legacy continues to inspire creators of all stripes to keep reaching for their dreams.

The Meaning Behind Yusuke Urameshi!

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Yesterday we announced on Facebook that Justin Cook, voice of Yusuke Urameshi from Yu Yu Hakusho, Super Buu from Dragon Ball Z, and Hatsuharu Sohma from Fruits Basket, will be at Waku Waku +NYC this August 29-30! Evidently a lot of you New York anime fans love Yu Yu Hakusho (who doesn’t?), so I thought I’d give a fun bit of trivia.

Have you ever wondered about Yusuke Urameshi’s name? It’s actually a play on words meant to evoke an image of the occult!

The Yu in Yusuke means ghost or spirit, and is the same “Yu” in Yu Yu Hakusho!

Urameshi, though written with different Japanese characters, is a homonym of urameshii, which means “bitter” or “resentful,” and is said to be uttered by ghosts in Japanese folklore.

Altogether, it makes for quite a spooky name!

So what do you think? Actually, a lot of anime characters’ names are like this, and I encourage you to look at the other Yu Yu Hakusho characters as well.

And don’t forget to buy your ticket for Waku Waku +NYC, the best New York Japanese pop culture festival!

-Carl

Before the Death of Superman, There Was Ultraman

If you’ve looked at Google today, you’ve probably noticed that today marks the 114th birthday of Eiji Tsuburaya, Japanese special effects legend and creator of Ultraman. I think it’s worth stepping back to appreciate it, even if you’re not necessarily a fan of Ultraman.

I come from the era of Saturday morning cartoons as an institution. Every weekend, I would wake up to the earliest cartoons around, but this was before I became an anime fan, and would only later find out that many of my favorite series were indeed from Japan. Among these works was Ultraman: Towards the Future, an Australian-Japanese co-production that introduced many kids to the idea of the warrior from space who could grow to titanic proportions to fend off alien invaders.

Out of the many episodes I watched of Ultraman: Towards the Future, what has stuck with me most all these years is the finale, when Ultraman is battling his final adversary, Kilazee. Children’s entertainment at this time in the US rarely ever concluded. Episodes were meant to be shown out of order, and in many ways having a series feel “eternal” was and often is still preferred, so having Ultraman vanquish his last opponent gave a sense of completion.

That series was created in 1990, and by the end it left an impression on me. That said, the impact of its finale has nothing on the climax from original Ultraman in terms of long-term effects on the collective imagination.

[Spoiler Warning] In the final episode of Ultraman from 1967, after months of their hero being cheered on by the children of Japan, after successfully vanquishing invader after invader, Ultraman is utterly defeated. His opponent, Zetton, now one of the most famous monsters in Japanese culture, was literally designed to counter every strength and exploit every weakness that Ultraman had, and in the end Ultraman is simply overwhelmed. Zetton is only eliminated once the humans, who had been protected by Ultraman the entire time, decide to return the favor, developing a weapon that can defeat the dangerous creature once and for all.

Using “only” rubber suits, clever special effects, and a willingness to challenge a young audience, Tsuburaya and his production studio created one of the defining moments in Japanese entertainment. Three decades before Superman would fall at the hands of Doomsday, Ultraman taught children what it felt like to see their hero fall. That’s Ultraman. If you’re an anime fan, then you likely know about Neon Genesis Evangelion, itself one of the most influential Japanese television series ever. It takes from series such as Devilman and Space Runaway Ideon, but Ultraman’s DNA can also be seen in Evangelion. The EVA mecha themselves look more organic than mechanical, just like Ultraman. Their 5-minute battery life resembles Ultraman’s 3-minute time limit (his “Color Timer”). Overall, the tragedy of Ultraman isn’t that far from the trauma of Evangelion. Perhaps most importantly, however, Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion is well-known as a fan of Ultraman and other similar tokusatsu series. According to his wife in her autobiographical manga Insufficient Direction, Anno will go as far as just throwing out Ultraman poses in everyday life. His studio, Khara, is perhaps a reference to Ultraman’s Color Timer.

While to many American and New York anime fans Ultraman isn’t that big of a deal compared to, say, Power Rangers or Godzilla, I hope I’ve helped you to appreciate Ultraman at least a bit more. I wonder if we’ll see at Waku Waku +NYC any New York cosplayers who want to dress as one of Japan’s greatest fictional heroes. -Carl – ­Waku Waku +NYC is a Brooklyn anime convention coming this August 29-30 that will have anime, manga, Japanese food, Lolita fashion, kawaii fashion, video games, and more. Check out the Facebook and the official site for more information!

Is “Cheap” Anime Still Anime?

Is there a kind of nobility in creating anime inexpensively? That’s the question I want to throw out there.

Anime about anime, such as the recent SHIROBAKO portray the world of anime production as one of sleepless nights, retakes, and thousands of complications, where passion and desperation reign supreme, especially because the amount of money traditionally thrown around in Japanese animation is not as high as one sees in Western animations. The amount of work an animator has to put in to create even one minute’s worth of material is not to be underestimated, and yet anime is still often decried as “cheap.”

Hayao Miyazaki himself has talked about the grueling schedules that have been a part of Japanese animation since nearly the beginning, owing to the influence of Osamu Tezuka. However, what makes all of this rather tricky is that creators have found a variety of ways to work within or around lower budgets through sheer creativity, talent, and effort. Whether it’s the famous elevator scenes from Neon Genesis Evangelion where nothing moves, the fancy patterned backgrounds of a SHAFT anime such as Bakemonogatari, or the dynamic work of legendary animator Yoshinori Kanada, who showed the world how individual poses can give the feeling of dynamic animation even when there simply aren’t as many frames, creators have done more with less.

In recent years, technology has become a factor too with the rise of alternative, “efficient” (some might say cheap) methods for creating anime. Flash for example has become a valuable tool, and the increase in series with short episodes (10 minutes or less per episode) show how ideas can be put out quickly and efficiently. Case in point is a series like Wooser’s Hand to Mouth Life, which combines these two qualities together. Another series that works within the confines of a tight budget is gdgd Fairies, another bizarre comedy that’s done entirely in Miku Miku Dance, a free 3-D program that was originally just a way to animate Hatsune Miku models.

The idea of the low-budget anime has arguably reached its apex with Inferno Cop (seen above), an… eccentric… work from the minds of Studio Trigger (Kill la Kill, Little Witch Academia) that was literally created with the idea that the studio would not spend more than two hours per week on it. It literally looks like digital cutouts where “animation” amounts to stock explosions and character portraits sliding back and forth in an almost Ed Wood-esque fashion. And yet, as was clear from Anime NEXT 2015, Inferno Cop is beloved, embraced for its animation (or lack thereof) and how it represents an almost stream-of-consciousness output from the popular animation studio.

What do you think of this direction, the efficient production method that sacrifices arguably some of the textural qualities of anime? Has SCIENCE GONE TOO FAR, or is it just a different avenue for expression and creativity, something that has to be embraced while being cognizant of the fact that money will always be a factor on some level?

Waku Waku +NYC is an upcoming Japanese popular culture convention located in Brooklyn, NY that will combine anime, fashion, food, and more. Why not take a look?