Day one at Anime Central is in the past, and as such I have prepared a recap for your perusal. Read on to discover what was discussed in VisualArt’s panel!
Day 1 - Friday, May 20, 2016
Upon arriving in Chicago Friday morning, I took a bus to the convention, collected my badge, and entered the main exhibition hall. Directly to the left of the entrance is the VisualArt’s booth, providing plenty of exposure to all who walk past. The booth size is comparable to what they had at Anime Expo 2015, though without the gallery area for displaying artwork.
Several of the staff members manning the booth were retained from the company’s time at Anime Expo, helping to maintain the feel exuded from that event. I understood this also provided me an opportunity to ask about some of the goods in detail, so I inquired about some of their more unique items. While it was not advertised well, the wall scrolls being sold are all 1/1 convention-unique items made by the same renowned kakejiku-makers who produced the ones at sold at last year’s international events and come in a traditional wooden box. There are only four pieces in total per event, and as of last night ACen’s had not been sold. You can see the boxes marked on top of the shelves in the photo below:
The Rewrite reflection art being sold is numbered to 30 with all pieces having been signed by Itaru Hinoue on the 5th of April, 2016. The artwork also comes with a quality frame. Na-Ga’s hardcover ‘rindou’ is serially numbered with a metal plate on the back cover, similar to what was offered at Anime Expo. It seems odd they did not mention this in any of their recent promotional material; it will be interesting to see if they make it more of a focus going forward.
I also noticed one item in a rather large, striking frame which was not mentioned for sale. I asked Ichinomiya (marketing/sales) about the item; he told me the item is a framed piece of Rewrite 3D-cut artwork which hangs in the offices of VisualArt’s. Similar to a dango they have brought around to events for years, they have also brought this framed artwork with them to conventions as a good luck charm. The item contained several notations including signatures and a note saying it is from their main office. I asked if the item was for sale, to which I was told ‘not officially’, but technically yes. They had discussed that is anyone inquired about the item (which, I might add, was largely hidden from view), they would be willing to part with it for $1,400. He stressed this was a true 1/1 piece with no additional copies made but also indicated they they had no intention of pushing for it’s sale. It certainly would be quite a collection centerpiece to a Rewrite or Key fan!
The plush dango (which are adorable & squishy-soft, btw), microfiber towels, and the ‘slightly damaged’ Clannad artbooks seem to have been the best sellers of the day, though the CDs and some of the other artbooks also sold well. I’ll add a photo of my purchases later on.
The main event of the day was the certainly the VisualArt’s panel conducted by Takahiro Baba, Shinji Orito, and Na-Ga. I arrived to the area approximately an hour ahead of time and was surprised to see only a small line of people, about a dozen or so. I chatted with those present as well as with some con representatives, but they didn’t seem concerned.
The line of people one hour before the event.
As the convention approached, more and more people lined up, and soon two ‘lines’ had formed to get into the main ballroom size presentation area. I would estimate the room was somewhere between 2/3 to 3/4 capacity at the start of the event. I could hear the strumming of a guitar inside the area as well, causing me to anticipate some live music by Mr. Orito. I continued to take pictures as some friends of mine snapped some of me as well
The lines of people shortly before the event.
VisualArt’s dictated some rules for the panel which were even stricter than the rules placed on attendees at Anime Expo. No photography or videos could be taken at any time of anything, a rule which was strictly enforced. People who even motioned as though they were going to take a picture or look at their phone were questioned, as a gentleman sitting near me experienced firsthand. Here is the only photo I was able to find of the panel area, courtesy of VisualArt’s:
The panel started out with introductions. Takahiro Baba came out wearing a grey suit, jeans, and an unbuttoned while collared shirt. Shinji Orito was wearing a white button-up with a lightweight blue sweater and a grey t-shirt while Na-Ga wore a black graphic tee with a black floppy-top baseball cap.
After everyone had become situated, Na-Ga announced he was going to conduct a live drawing of Angel Beats’s Kanade, to which the crowd loudly applauded. He then exited the stage to an area where he could work on his illustration while having progress broadcast to the audience from time to time. (This setup was very similar to how Itaru Hinoue conducted her illustration at Anime Expo.) Takahiro Baba then began a presentation he made using VisualArt’s RealLive visual novel editor. While much of the content provided would be well known to Key devotees, some gems were offered as well. For instance, early on Baba explained, “We are VisualArt’s. If you know us, you are an OTAKU.” The emphasis on ‘otaku’ caused the audience to erupt into raucous laughter. He also said they had determined the English name for Key’s ‘crying game’ genre: “Onion Crying Simulator”!
I’ll summarize some of the more interesting points of the presentation for you:
- The presentation covered all of Key’s series one by one. Interestingly, if an animated version of the VN exists, images from the anime would be used to depict the series as opposed to its respective VN opening.
- Planetarian was Key’s first download-only title. It sold 200 copies. Lack of sales jumpstarted the production of a physical edition. It has now sold over 20,000 copies.
- A disproportionate amount of time was spent describing Tomoyo After, most likely because it is the most recent green lit VN from Key about to hit the English speaking market
- The first box art for Kud Wafter was rejected by Takahiro Baba because she looked too young
- Baba acknowledged the popularity of Rewrite in foreign markets, though he admitted, “I’m not sure why, though…”
- Baba also acknowledged that Charlotte received mixed reviews, but that there was more Maeda wanted to contribute to the series going forward. He elaborated that they intend to proceed with this vision.
- Shinji Orito recently started writing songs for vocalists outside of Key. Takahiro Baba elaborated on Orito’s skill: “I would ask who wrote a song I liked, and more often than not it was Orito.”
- Baba on why Na-Ga and Itaru Hinoue do not like to have their pictures taken: “Illustrators don’t want people imagining them instead of cute girls.”
- On Itaru Hinoue: She says hello to everyone at Anime Central. “She definitely wanted an invite to visit.”
- Baba: “Maeda is so shy he often won’t come to work. There’s no way he’d come to Anime Central.”
- Visual Art’s currently has almost 50 staff members
- In order to prove the presentation was developed using their RealLive engine, Takahiro Baba initiated a Rewrite-themed scene where he made several funny faces with Shinji Orito and a real-life Mask the Saitou!
- A slide revealed ‘Key’s main theme’: A young girl meets a cruel fate, finds/walks together with the protagonist, and develops a love-relationship
- Baba is a big fan of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
Near the end of the presentation, Mr. Baba made two major announcements: First, Hikari Mimamoru Sakamichi de will be released within two weeks! Furthermore, Angel Beats! -1st beat- is planned for an English release. He finished the presentation by saying that as VisualArt’s transitions more into the anime sphere, they hope to be known as a company known for creating ‘anime about onion cutting’.
Throughout the presentation, the projectors switched from the slideshow to Na-Ga’s progress, to which he would respond, “Hai! Na-Ga desu!” He penciled in Kanade, then inked her outline, and finally began coloring her in. As it stood, he needed more time to complete the image, so Takahiro Baba invited people to come up front and ask a question. I, along with a few others, accepted the invitation. My question was as follows:
“This question is for Takahiro Baba. You’ve mentioned that you appreciate the passion that creators exhibit when pitching an idea to you, and that at times you’ll accept riskier proposals if they are unique enough. You’ve also mentioned the importance of molding these creators from artists into entertainers. How does VisualArt’s accomplish this?”
Baba appeared to appreciate the question, saying that it is VisualArt’s goal to turn their creative staff into celebrities, and that once this happens, the rest will begin to take care of itself. While a seemingly simple answer, this talks to a core value of VisualArt’s success and is actually quite insightful. I thanked him for my answer before he called out as I walked back to my seat, saying, “I like your shirt, and the jacket!” I was wearing a t-shirt illustrated by Shinji Orito as a giveaway for the Key 10th Anniversary fes. with a 2007-edition Little Busters! jumper on top. I gave back a cheerful ‘Yeah!’ with a smile and a thumbs up, causing both Shinji Orito and Na-Ga to laugh.
Other interesting tidbits from the Q&A session included:
- Takahiro Baba’s favorite song is ‘Natsukage’. Shinji Orito’s (aside from his own) is “End of the World” from Rewrite.
- Baba later mentioned that VisualArt’s is ‘certainly open’ to having a KSL Live World concert in the United States
- Na-Ga has a ‘one track mind’ when working, choosing to focus on one task at a time.
- Offers were made to produce a live action rendition of Key works, though such proposals were declined because Takahiro Baba decided that the pool of available actors was not good enough. However, a recent proposal from a Chinese studio is currently under consideration.
- Shinji Orito expressed that he is inspired by making personal arrangements and struggles to surpass the quality of Tori no Uta, believing he has not yet done so. Also, VisualArt’s is currently using the track as the company’s on-hold telephone music.
- Lia will perform the theme song vocals for Planetarian
- Baba noted that Tomoyo After’s ‘Light Colors’ has become more popular recently.
- Describing a character he likes, Na-Ga said he likes Fuko because she is small like an animal.
- Baba on the audience: “I love you guys!”
At the conclusion of the Q&A, the audience got to see Na-Ga’s finished Kanade illustration:
Note: Photo taken after the panel’s conclusion.
Naturally, everyone in the audience adored the final product, especially considering he completed the illustration in approximately one hour’s time. The autograph board/shikishi was made available (along with other prizes) to the winners of an audience wide janken (essentially, rock-paper-scissors) contest. once all the prizes (including a 6-plushie dango daikazoku set) had been won, the panel came to it’s conclusion.most of the audience made their way to the doors, while others, including myself, meandered our way over to the stage where the panelists were shaking people’s hands. As I was walking up, Shinji Orito pointed to my shirt and I said, “You’re quite the artist!” We shook hands and he laughed, saying, “Yes, artist!” Takahiro Baba said in English, “Thank you for coming,” before adding, “Nice shirt!” Na-Ga followed by extending his hand and saying, “Little Busters!” referencing my jacket, I said, “Yes, yes!” followed by a simultaneous “Little Busters saikou!”
It was spectacular.
I walked away with a huge grin on my face from the interaction. I knew I had to wear the same ensemble for the autograph session the next day since it clearly made an impression. As I was leaving, Shinji Orito exclaimed. One of my friends was wearing a shirt saying ‘Subaru Rally Team USA’, and it was clear he was trying to make an effort to converse, saying, “Oh! Subaru! Daisuki Subaru! I own Subaru!” Again, it was great to hear him so excited with a fan.
After briefly retreading my steps at the convention hall, I returned to my hotel room to begin writing part of this post.
Day 2 - Saturday, May 21, 2016
VisualArt’s autograph session was held at 12-noon, though I decided to head on over at 9:30 to take a look around the convention hall. Most of the booths were in the process of being set-up, so the halls were eerily empty. The VisualArt’s booth went under some renovations as well with shirts and a Kanade wall scroll now hanging prominently in view for all to see. I noted that the wall scroll, while of identical quality to those seen at Anime Expo 2015, did not have the inscription ‘ACen’ written on them, meaning they didn’t have to be sold at this convention if demand was unexpectedly low. Regardless, it was clear they wanted to make their booth appear as attractive as possible.
At 10am con-goers began to file in and gather around the Visual Art’s table. When asked about an autograph line, the sales staff said to return 20-30 minutes before the signing. Of course that didn’t last, but it still managed to prevent an semi-organized mob from forming for about an hour.
View from the VisualArt’s booth, 10:10am
View from the VisualArt’s booth, 11:10am
As the session approached, order was eventually achieved as a line was officially formed. The first 70 people in line (supposedly; I think they allowed for more) got the opportunity to present one item each to Takahiro Baba, Shinji Orito, and Na-Ga. For my friend and I, there was no question for the items we wanted to present, which included the Air & Little Busters! Analog collector’s edition vinyls as well as an Anime Expo copy of Na-Ga’s rindou numbered out of 100.
Shinji Orito signing our albums; image courtesy of VisualArt’s
They talked amongst themselves about the album and again about my shirt with Takahiro Baba asking Shinji Orito if he really illustrated the design on my shirt to which he sheepishly replied in the affirmative, partially covering his face with his hands. Personally I like the design, much of which could be seen in the photo here:
After meeting up with some friends and CLANNAD cosplayers I headed over to the press event, getting a seat in the front row. Surprisingly, Na-Ga did not attend until the conclusion, meaning all questions were fielded by Takahiro Baba and Shinji Orito. Even so, the interviews took up the entirety of the allocated time, and I was able to have several questions answered.
Press photo courtesy of VisualArt’s
My questions were as follows:
Q1 to Shinji Orito: It has been several years since OTSU has released an album. Are there any plans to revive OTSU in the near future?
A1: OTSU (pronounced how it sounds, not as letters) was founded because Orito felt he could create an event suited for clubs. This was before KSL Live World, which turned into a much larger and more popular type of event. As OTSU was able to lead the path to KSL Live World, Orito and Baba feels it’s mission has been fulfilled and that no more OTSU albums are expected to be released. However, a small possibility remains for revival, as he says he loves club music and would be open to working on one if an opportunity arises.
Q2 to Takahiro Baba: You’ve been quoted as saying you formed VisualArt’s as a game company franchiser to eliminate developer inefficiencies by providing creators with a team of experienced personnel. From your experience, what is the area fledgling game companies most often overlook or need assistance with?
A2: Baba indicated many startup studios may not be aware of what their limits are. ~“Even though every creator is inspired by the games they love, their experience and ability do not match their motivations. We offer guidance with that, allowing them to focus on game development with less distractions.”
Q3 to Shinji Orito: You have often said that Tori no Uta is the gold standard by which you compare your work. What would you consider a perfect composition?
A3: Orito indicated he doesn’t think there is such a thing as a perfect composition, instead always wishing to strive beyond what has already been accomplished.
Q4 to Baba & Orito: In a recent interview, Lia said she was discovered at a studio in Los Angeles and that another was intended to try out for a singing role, eventually Tori no Uta. How did you determine she was the right person for the position?
A4: After speaking with the VisualArt’s representative, Lia was given a chance to win the position by submitting a demo tape to I’ve Music [a VisualArt’s subsidiary]. Shinji Orito said, “Many I’ve demo tapes were received and hers was the best.” Takahiro Baba continued, “Lia was living in California and we wanted to record in Los Angeles at the time, so it also proved convenient.” [Note: In Japan, recording in L.A. is considered very significant. It helps establish the aura that a song or artist is significant. Recording in Los Angeles indicates how serious they were about Tori no Uta.]
Q5 to Shinji Orito: Can you describe to us a time when you struggled composing a song but decided to continue with its development due to a vision you wished to fulfill?
A5: With a pained countenance due to remembering challenging work, he said ~“Actually not Tori no Uta. Every time I open up my mental drawer, there is less and less to draw from. A recent example of a song would be ‘Orpheus’.” He mentioned that it was written to commemorate VisualArt’s 20th anniversary, a momentous occasion, and therefore he felt intense pressure to do an excellent job. The lyrics for the song were written by Takahiro Baba himself.
The majority of the questions were asked to Takahiro Baba despite mine slanting to Shinji Orito. Based off of this tweet, he seems to feel a bit self conscious about how he answered the questions. Personally, I thought he did an excellent job despite having to consider his answers quickly. (Don’t feel bad Mr. Orito, you did great!)
Other interesting responses from the press event were as follows:
- When asked if Key will be producing more 18+ games, Takairo Baba answered, “Do users want more love or something more? … We will make what they want.”
- Regarding Harmonia: Baba wanted the game released to English speaking fans first to see how said fans would react to a title. He is familiar with how Japanese fans are likely to react, but not English speaking ones. As VisualArt’s expands Westward, getting such fans’ reactions is critical to their success.
- Harmonia is complete! …with the exception that Takahiro Baba is displeased with the game’s sound quality. Revisions to correct this are currently underway.
- On why Kanon 2006 was created after Kanon 2002: Baba emphasized that it was not that they disliked Kanon 2002, but felt there were areas it could be improved upon. He offered an example of Shiori’s ‘cape’, which he did not like in the 2002 version. He attributed the eventual improvement to ‘better animation technology’.
- Takahiro Baba on the upcoming Rewrite anime: “Most people do not appreciate the true meaning of Rewrite to this day. … We can’t afford to leave anime fans in the dark like that.” This is why an additional route is being added to the anime not found in the visual novel.
- Rewrite+ will be receiving an English adaptation!
- On what it was like working with Sekai Project: President Baba said that he was happy to work with Sekai, that the president is generous, and that he loves them
- President Baba noted that he used to write and publish games of his own before coming to terms with the limitations of his abilities (and also recognizing his strengths)
- Baba on Technology: “I would like to walk around town with an Oculus Rift and meet a girl.”
- Baba confirms: Half of the text for Angel Beats! -1st beat- has been translated into English!
- Baba said he thinks it would be interesting to have a game where it is possible to explore changing character’s ages.
- Asked if there have been or will be homosexual characters in Key games, President Baba said that no homosexual protagonists have been pitched to him yet. He continued by saying that the current version of RealLive allows for characters to be influenced by player actions, so some characters may become increasingly ‘friendly’ or hostile towards characters of the same gender.
As the press session concluded, President Baba gestured towards me, saying, “I did not expect such knowledge of our games! Specific questions! I expected them to be more general.” I responded by saying, “When you love something, you dive into it headfirst.” There’s a lot of passion among Key fans!
Day 3 - Sunday, May 22, 2016
Unlike the prior two days, no VisualArt’s events were scheduled for the convention, so I decided to hang out by their exhibition booth. After the press event on Saturday Key decided that they would be holding a silent auction for the three large banners displayed at the booth. Bidding would start at $150 for the Kagari and Tomori banners while the sheet depicting Akane and Kanade would start at $450. Bidding would end at 1:30pm. While many people stopped by the booth out of curiosity, only a handful of serious bidders participated.
When the auction came to a close, the winners were announced: an Anime Central staff member won the Tomori Banner [UPDATE: $263] while another gentleman won BOTH the Kagari Banner and the Akane/Kanade sheet. I was surprised by this, not only because of the total cost but because I knew of competitive bids placed by others. While the bid amounts were not disclosed by VisualArt’s, the fortuitous gentleman did disclose his bids upon being asked: a hefty $400 for the Kagari Banner and a staggering $1,500 for the Akane/Kanade sheet. Paul Milligan (Amaterasu) confirmed the figures and said the gentleman made the purchases as ‘an admirer of great art’. While we couldn’t disagree, we were nonetheless impressed by the figures.
Image courtesy of VisualArt’s
Despite a self-imposed memorandum on not signing fabrics, Takahiro Baba, Na-Ga, and Shinji Orito decided to sign the banners. (I can only assume they felt the price warranted an exception!)
Disappointed in losing out on the auction, one of the bidders decided to purchase the last framed Rewrite Holo-Art Portrait signed by Itaru Hinoue. Several items sold out including well over 100 plush dango, art books, and some of the microfiber towel designs. Remaining were the last copies of Na-Ga’s rindou as well as shirts, tote bags, CDs, and some stickers. Not wanting to ship any goods back to Japan aside from necessities, discounts were placed on some goods while others were incentivized with a promise of a signature from either Baba, Orito, or Na-Ga. Understandably, several people took advantage of this opportunity.
As VA staff members frantically moved about the interior of the booth, Shinji Orito sat silently in the corner of the booth, sometimes standing up to sign a piece someone requested. He appeared vigilant, looking to help when needed but no doubt recognizing that there were too many people walking around in a small place. Already at his side of the booth, I moved towards him and asked if it would be possible to get a picture. (Aside from the winners of the silent auction, I didn’t notice anyone being able to take a picture with a member of Key’s staff.) He agreed, jumping up and quickly shimmying past the side of the booth as though happy to be out of the enclosure. After moving in towards one another, one of my friends snapped a photo of us.
“How cool is that?” I thought to myself. I now had pictures of myself with three prominent Key staff members dating back to last year. I thanked Orito and we shook hands before he returned inside the booth. As far as I’m concerned, that’s about as good as I could hope for considering that Jun Maeda doesn’t travel and both Itaru Hinoue and Na-Ga choose not to have their pictures taken to protect their identity.
Interesting tidbit about Na-Ga: each of Key’s staff members went out of their way to be cordial, and he was no different, sometimes being told that he couldn’t go so far as he wanted. For instance, after taking note of my Little Busters! jumper, he offered to sign it on the sleeve (where an upper-arm patch might be on a uniform) before being told he couldn’t by a staff member. Whenever he signed something for someone, he was always the first to extend his hand for a handshake, thanking the receiver for asking. He is a very likable guy, making it a shame no one could take pictures with him.
As the remaining goods began to clear out, a gentleman came up Na-Ga asking for a sketch. He seemed eager to accept, but hesitated after a moment, considering if he was allowed to do so. He asked Ichinomiya, who responded that they would allow it if he bought one of the remaining -rindou- artbooks. Paul and I looked at one another, as he was presently looking through Key’s display copy and debating whether to buy one. Noting the uniqueness of this opportunity, we asked (technically, he rushed past me to ask just before I did xD ) if he would be willing to provide us with a sketch if we bought one as well. Upon asking, Ichinomiya agreed that Na-Ga could produce another. After a brief discussion, we came to an arrangement where Paul would keep the artbook and I the sketch. A staff member retrieved a crisp shikishi and set it down in front of us. Na-Ga turned towards me and asked who I would like to have sketched. Any guesses? ^^
“Aah, Kanade!” he responded. Watching him work was fascinating; while the video feed during the presentation updated the audience on his progress periodically, it did not show how he began. To prepare, he looked downward while inking some strokes to the side of the board in the air, as though he had trained his hand to follow certain motions for the character. He quickly inked several dots and began the outline of a face, eventually adding features, proceeding onward towards outlines of Kanade’s hair and uniform. In just a few short minutes, he had completed an upper-body portrait of Kanade entirely from memory.
He signed his name and dated the piece, taking a moment to clarify the proper American date format. Looking at the the angel before him, he squinted. Like a father fixing his daughter’s hair for a family portrait, he made one final stroke, adding a strand on her forehead.
From time to time we all get accustomed to the monotonous routines we find ourselves in. We start days expecting they’ll end a certain way, and oftentimes they go how we predict. However, there are times when our assumptions get turned on their heads, sometimes resulting in experiences which exceed our wildest expectations. Today was one of those days. What could have been a normal day at a con became one truly special, made even better by sharing it with friends. I’ll be sure to look back on this con fondly, and am excited for the future of both Key and it’s fans.
Na-Ga’s illustrations of Kanade & Kud; the prefect end to a convention!
Thanks go out to Austin Ross, Paul Milligan, Sean Fitzgerald, and VisualArt’s for providing photography to this recap.