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Andrew Osmond on the ins and outs of the Anime Contents Expo

Anime Contents ExpoThere’s nothing obviously surprising about the Anime Contents Expo (ACE), an exhibition of the current anime scene, held just outside central Tokyo at the end of March. It took place a few stops away from Tokyo Disneyland, in a venue called Makuhari Messe, which isn’t so different from London’s ExCel centre. Makuhari Messe also hosts the terrifyingly huge Tokyo Game Show in the autumn, beside which ACE looks pocket-sized. It’s actually about the same size as a London MCM Expo, perhaps even a bit smaller.

What’s really interesting about ACE is how it came into being. Western pundits often talk about how Japan’s pop-culture, especially its comics, seems entirely unregulated. Supposedly any content goes, no matter how extreme. (In recent years, there have been a rash of stories about Westerners being arrested for importing dodgy manga.) However, in December 2010, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly approved a revision to its “Youth Healthy Development Ordinance” Bill. It was targeted at what it called harmful manga – harmful, specifically, to the development of people under 18.

“Harmful” manga were already illegal, at least in theory, but the revision attempted to define what the word meant. For example, it introduced a “marriage test,” suggesting that any depiction of a sexual relationship between characters who could not be legally married should be outlawed. It’s amusing to wonder if that would extend to, say, Mamoru Hosoda’s The Wolf Children. It also outlawed manga whose content was “excessively disrupting” of the social order. So, goodbye to Akira?

However, much of the wording of the bill, even in its revised form, was so woolly that it seems worthless in practice. Some wording suggests the bill would outlaw any sexual content or innuendo in manga. The cynical might wonder if what was left could be called “manga” any more! Of course, it’s arguable that a strict ban on titillation would encourage healthier, less sexist manga depictions of females. However, that doesn’t necessarily follow; the highly-regulated American comics of the 1960s weren’t exactly feminist models.

Shintaro IshiharaIn fact, there seem to be more worrying agendas behind the Japanese bill. Its top proponent was Tokyo’s mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, and his big concern seemed to be less sexism than the prevalence of homosexual characters (he also complained about the ‘casual’ appearance of gay people on Japanese TV). As Jonathan Clements commented in Neo magazine, “the proposal might have begun as a well-meaning attack on images that glorify rape and child abuse, but before the law was even passed, an authority figure was gleefully implying that it could be used to infringe the human rights of law-abiding citizens.”

In the bill’s third year, it’s perhaps still too soon to judge its impact. Arguably, manga was here before, twenty years ago – there was a moral crackdown on manga in the early 1990s, following the horrors of a so-called “otaku” child killer, Tsutomu Miyazaki. On that occasion, the manga publishers themselves reined back some of their excesses (most notoriously, the appearance of child-sex strips in magazines aimed at minors). This time round, the picture is… ambivalent. Last June, for example, a parent complained about frontal nudity in a volume of To-Love-Ru. This title was examined but passed by Tokyo’s Council, as was the incest-themed anime series Yosuga no Sora (reportedly because the show didn’t depict incest as acceptable). This March, though, a sexual manga called Welcome to Sugarpot was reportedly pulled from bookstores “due to Tokyo’s ordinances,” according to Anime News Network.

However, the most tangible result of the Ordinances may be the industrial backlash. The homophobic Mr Ishihara wasn’t only Tokyo’s mayor at the time; he was also the nominal chief of the Tokyo Anime Fair (TAF), which has run since 2002. When the new legislation was announced, ten manga publishers joined forces to become the Comic 10-Shakai Association. (They include Kadakowa Shoten, Kodansha, Shueisha and Shogakukan.) They announced they would boycott TAF; Shueisha’s senior managing director belligerently called for manga to “blow away” Ishihara, and Bleach creator Tite Kubo was among the boycott’s supporters.

At first, there was speculation that TAF could be cancelled. Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, himself expressed concern in his blog, urging all parties to work together. The result, though, was a rival to TAF, Anime Contents Expo. It was first meant to run in 2011, but it and TAF were both cancelled that year because of the Tohoku earthquake. In the two subsequent years, TAF and ACE have both run in spring, a few days and a few miles apart, putting the political dispute very literally on the map.

The audience drawn to this year’s ACE was mostly male – at a guess, the male attendees made up somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of punters. Anyone expecting the clouds of costumes at London’s MCM Expo would be disappointed; the cosplayers were restricted to an adjoining hall or to posing in commercial promotions. Predictably, a lot of ACE’s emphasis was on the new (spring) TV anime season. Attack on Titan – based on Hajijme Isayama’s manga – had the most eye-catching advertising; a life-size inflatable head of one of the man-munching titans!

Second place went to some heavyweight cars (though sadly not tanks), liberally decorated with the heroines of last season’s Girls und Panzer. The most intriguing product, though, was being shown off by Sony. The company was offering to turn fans into figurines by means of a computer body-scan (so you can put yourself on a shelf!) If you’re interested, the Japanese web page is here. On the movie side, Ghibli was presumably holding itself aloof from the event, but there was a huge display for Makoto Shinkai’s next film, The Garden of Words. It opens in Japan in May after an Aussie premiere at the end of this month.

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If nothing else, the event was a useful way to gauge Japanese fan interest in the new products. For example, there were large crowds around a Puella Magi Madoka Magica shop (the movie sequel was being trailered at ACE), and a display stand for last season’s Psycho-Pass. However, you could almost see the tumbleweed blow past a pink stand for the Japanese-dubbed My Little Pony. Of course, there’s next to nothing at ACE in English, but there are still incidental pleasures for foreigners. It’s nice to know, for instance, that anime theme songs are just as thoroughly murdered in karaoke when the singers are Japanese…

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