I went down to Anime Expo this past weekend, surviving almost a week of no sleep and irritable fans. Amongst the many stories worth blogging about, perhaps what seemed most surprising to me about Anime Expo 2010 was the powerful presence of visual novels. While other blogs, such as AnimeDiet, have covered extensively some of the prominent Guests of Honor, I had the pleasure of gleaning some very useful comments from actual visual novel makers, as well as those involved in the localization process. It is my hope that through a bit more digging and scavenging, we, as fans and consumers, can come to understand the workings of game makers in Japan.
Following up on my colleague Akira’s article back in April discussing the self-imposed seclusion of game developer minori* (ef, Wind, eden*) and its relationship with the internet eroge community, I decided to look a bit more in depth at the decisions companies make in bringing their games outside Japan. Luckily, Anime Expo had two wonderful panels for discussing localization of visual novels. The first, JAST USA Bishoujo Game Panel, was held on the evening of Day 1. J-List owner Peter Payne announced a recent acquisition to publish Deus Machina Demonbane from well-known game maker Nitro+ (ChaoS;HEAd, Sumaga, Muramasa), whose game Saya no Uta NHRV has a reviewed before. One of the most interesting things I took from that evening was the difficulty in bringing over eroge.
“Japanese companies have to worry about international releases impacting sales inside Japan,” said Payne, after I caught up to him to ask a few questions after his panel.
I think sometimes it’s easy for consumers to forget such a simple principle. After all, the farthest thing from the minds of those angry at minori* is the prospect that overexposure outside of Japan could, in fact, be adverse to the companies. Admittedly, it must be a shock to know that your support is wasted on a company not interested in your business. But can we really blame a company for taking their stance? There are numerous reasons staying domestic, ranging from potential backlash due to censorship differences (we’ve seen this in pornography), to unwanted media attention and criticism. Some more famous companies just don’t want the trouble.
For that reason, JAST USA is starting small. “There’re some games that are too famous,” was the response after I asked if they had any big plans in the future. “Those are your Fate/Stay Nights or your KEY games.” Considering visual novels easily sell $70 and up, it’s hard to say that those outside Japan will buy them. Still, according to Payne, a real fan should want to buy legally to show support. “Of course we’re afraid of illegal downloads. But at our prices, we don’t give people a reason not to buy.” Reasonable prices on localized products is one step to expanding the market.
The second panel took place on Saturday evening, hosted by similarly well-known website MangaGamers. This year at AnimeExpo, they had several booths running, covering a large part of the entrance right into the Exhibitor’s Hall at the convention. For the past few years, they’ve brought over maker Circus (Da Capo series, Suika, Valkyrie Complex). However, this time they not only brought them back, but âge (Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, Muv-Luv) and OverDrive (Edelweiss, Kira☆Kira) as well. Needless to say, these are some big names, and the not only were the directors of the companies there, but so were some of their artists and singers. Minami Kuribayashi, for instance.
The first question that came to mind is: Just how many companies in Japan are willing to take the risk on selling their wares internationally? minori* has firmly rejected any possibility that they are interested in translating their products, and there’s a lot of speculation why. But compared to the seclusion self-imposed by the makers of ef, there are other companies out there interested in selling abroad. Are their business plans just fundamentally different from that of minori*?
“We’re a bit divided at the moment,” replied Tororo-dancho, director of Circus. My first question was about possibly joining artists and publishers in opposing the Nonexistent Youth Bill in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Assembly. “We have to obey the law. Deal with the flow.” The original bill and its revision were defeated mid-June, but the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and its allies, who first proposed the bill, haven’t given up. Several other blogs have covered the recent events in detail, but essentially the bill in question is designed to label some types of creative works as harmful to children, both existent and non-existent.
The present article will refrain from delving into the arguments on both sides of the debate regarding the so-called “Tokyo Loli-ban” (amongst other names), but it’s crucial to note that these arguably progressive directors are mindful of the laws back home. This brings us back to a question that was left unanswered in the wake of Minorigate: Just how binding is the text on the box that says “for use in Japan only”?
In the eyes of the Japanese companies, it may be absolutely binding. Admittedly, I myself am no specialist in regards to Japanese law, but should this clause prove to be legally binding, then third party exporting of such products internationally may constitute a breach of copyright law. Of course, we can claim that (in the U.S. at least) the first-sale and exhaustion doctrine covers this product, but take pause for a moment and note that the said doctrine should apply to copyright within the United States. An exporter of Japanese goods purchasing the items in Japan has potentially violated domestic law once they send the goods for use internationally, before the said doctrine has a chance to set in for the third-party exporter and consumer. Thus, minori* is absolutely right in insisting that even the purchasing of a product meant for use in Japan only is a violation of the law. And companies don’t want to lose PR because they’re condoning foreign distribution of a product that potentially could be criminal in another country. It would cause them to potentially lose sales within Japan.
Or perhaps put them in a legal quagmire. Controversy spurred by both domestic and international criticism of the Japanese eroge market has caused domestic re-evaluation of Japan’s child pornography laws. If minori* wanted to prevent something like this, it’s too late.
On the other hand, localizations exist in order to make sure that the said product is fit for international consumption. And not only are there economic and legal problems, but cultural and religious ones as well. “To be honest, we didn’t think there would be understanding from foreigners,” said the chief executive officer of âge, Hirohiko Yoshida. Similarly, Tororo-dancho responded: “There’s a difference in morals.”
They’re referring to the different perception of morals between Japan and foreign countries. After all, this isn’t the first time that the West has attempted to force its sense of ethics onto Japan. For the same reason these companies were hesitant at first, minori* may have decided to hide itself and prevent trouble.
As I finished up my questions for the directors, outside a closed convention center around 12:30 AM, there remained a beacon of hope for overseas fans of eroge. The MangaGamer’s panel was filled with fun events, giveaways, and a raucous crowd led by OverDrive representative Hiroshi Takeuchi that cheered “Moe!” periodically throughout the 2 hour long event. “After tonight, I really think we can be understood,” continued Yoshida. “We’re trying to take small steps. It’ll take a long time, maybe 10-30 years.” MangaGamer has plans to provide a way to digitally tour Japan through a bishoujo game; this is an important first step.
“We need to go with the flow, since it’s hard,” commented Tororo. Indeed, localization of visual novels must first overcome several barriers, both in Japan and abroad.
“It’s possible, though. After all, American movies are one of my influences. Having localized products is good,” interjected Takeuchi.
In the end, it might come down to a cultural problem after all. Yoshida lamented: “It’s sad that there are people demanding regulation without understanding.” Perhaps the source of economic and legal problems alike is simply a lack of understanding. But at a time like this, as foreign fans of a niche market operating in Japan, maybe we should be willing to accept and understand the position of the companies on this issue, instead of criticizing them for abandoning us. More than ever, they need our support.
Wrapping up with the questions, I thanked the directors for their time, as well as making the trip over to the U.S. However, I was corrected on one point. “You’ve got it backwards,” said Yoshida. “We didn’t come just to visit fans. We can be here because of the fans themselves.”
It’s good to know those of us outside of Japan are appreciated.
I refrained from touching too much on the topic of illegal downloading and the internet in this article. I’m hoping to tackle the subject in an article in the near future, also based on my experience at Anime Expo. The topic is quite complex, and I am hoping to focus on one part of the issues for now.
Minorigate and the original article belong to Akira.
The links to other blogs regarding the Tokyo Nonexistent Youth Bill are some of the places where I have read and obtained information. Much thanks to the excellent work of Dan Kanemitsu, Icarus Publishing, and mt-i.
All questions and responses for interviews during Anime Expo were conducted in Japanese by me. I have transcribed from recordings and notes into English for this article.
The image is uploaded by Radioactive on moe.imouto.org.