Thursday, June 9, 2016

Animated Thoughts: Miku Expo 2016

Miku Expo 2016 in Toronto
I don't like live music. Never have. It's way too loud. The crowds can get really annoying. The timing and sound quality is almost always better on CD. It's just not for me. It's very rare that I will enjoy a live music performance, though it does happen from time to time--a ticket to see Sarah McLachlan perform is always worth the money. And seeing the Cybertronic Spree live and in-person at TAAFI last month was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had at an animation festival.

But, you gotta stay open to new experiences...

Case-in-point: A friend of mine is really into the Vocaloid scene. He's a big fan of Hatsune Miku and Megurine Luka... and magical girl anime, much to his fiancé's chagrin. Eh, fair enough. We can't ALL be fans of giant robot anime... and the Madoka Magica series was well worth the time spent watching it... but I digress. Well, as it turned out, this year Crypton Future Media was taking the Vocaloid characters on tour. And Justin wanted to go but he'd never been to Toronto before. Since I visit Toronto a couple times every year, and am an aficionado of most things geeky and animation related, I was chosen to be his guide.

Now, I had seen Hatsune Miku in concert before. Since I took a friend to see "her" performance at the Lady Gaga concert back in 2014 as a graduation present, I kind of knew what I was in for. So it wasn't much of a challenge to convince me to set up the trip. I enjoyed the smaller set Miku performance in Detroit and figured I'd appreciate a full hour-and-a-half concert in Toronto even more. That, and it doesn't take much to convince me to visit Toronto for something animation related! Therefore, the previous month, when I had some free time at the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International, I put together a list of Japanese pop-culture, anime, and Asian-themed sites in Toronto that he might enjoy. Eh, if you're going to make the drive out to Toronto to see a Vocaloid concert, may as well get as much of the J-Pop experience as you can!

Just in case you don't know what a "Vocaloid" is, here's a quick ten minute primer on Real Future that Fusion posted on their YouTube channel.

Thursday:

I picked up Justin early in the morning and we made good time to Toronto. Timed the bridge just right and we missed all the semi-tractors then zipped right straight through the Canadian border--thank you Nexus pass. We talked almost non-stop the entire way. Have made this run so many times in the past by myself, was really nice to chat with someone instead of being stuck in my head the entire time. Well, we arrived at 2 p.m. and after an early check-in, it was off to the St. Lawerence Market (my brother had put in a request for Anton Kozlik's Canadian Mustard).

But on the way there from Union Station, I showed him the Sony Center "just in case we got split up on the way to the concert". In truth, at the hotel I had checked my e-mail/Facebook and saw a post from the Miku Expo stating that they'd be selling concert-specific merch a day early. Figured I'd surprise him since they weren't expected to have any at the show due to the import taxes between Japan, Canada, and the States. Thankfully, some deal had been worked out prior to the show.

The folks at the merchandise table saw Justin and I coming a mile away...
When we showed up at the Sony Center, they were still setting up, but we were, like two of five people who had seen the post and shown up. I bought a t-shirt, a keychain, and the music CD of the 2016 Expo's partial lineup. Eh, I'm not above picking up a couple souvenirs. And we were both happy to get our merch right then instead of fighting the crowds at the show.

"All your merch are belong to us..."
After picking up Ted's mustard order, we perused the St. Lawerence Market--Justin is both a foodie and a professional baker. Then I showed him Toronto's underground city as we walked all the way up to Dundas. I tagged a couple Japanese restaurants in the underground that I'd like to visit on future trips. Unfortunately, Uncle Tetsu's Angel Cafe isn't hooked up to the PATH, but we made it as far as the Eaton Center before going outside.

"Uncle Tetsu" doesn't have much in the
way of souvenirs so I kept my coaster.
I got tacit approval ahead of time from Justin's fiancée to take him to Uncle Tetsu's--thought it'd be funny to watch him squirm a little.

Have never been to a maid café before, mainly because I have no interest in being fawned over by a teenage girl who calls me 'onii-chan.' I've skipped the maid cafés at all the anime conventions that I've attended in the past. A trip to Japan is on my bucket list, but the only themed café I'm interested in attending are the ones where you can hang out, have a soda, and play with bunnies.

But, I didn't want to judge Uncle Tetsu's solely by the concept so figured I'd give the real thing a try. And I'll admit it, the maid café was fun. The girls were cute and friendly yet not overbearing or sickeningly sweet and the food was decent. Everything was well lit and very tasteful. While you were encouraged to take pictures of and with the maids, everyone was expected to keep their hands to themselves and behave respectfully (which I personally appreciated since I really don't like people hanging on me). Strangely enough, there were far more women than men at the café.

The Angel Special
Well, after finishing our meals, we were on our way out and one of the maids saw Justin's Hatsune Miku messenger bag. Next thing we knew, we got swarmed by all these maids 'ooh-ing' and 'ah-ing' over his bag and talking about the concert. Apparently one of the young ladies was from Sapporo (where Miku's backstory has her hailing from) and another was going to the concert on Friday. Normally unflappable and with a razor sharp wit that often matches my inappropriate sense of humor, Justin was caught completely off guard and it was deliciously amusing. We finished chatting up the maids and got a photo on the way out.

"Maiding" it up at Uncle Tetsu's :3

And then it was back to the hotel to recover from the walking--but we still found time to explore some game stores, the Silver Snail comic book store, and every Asian-themed curio store on Yonge Street from Dundas to Bloor! Later that night, we discovered a really good Japanese restaurant a couple blocks from the hotel that made it on my list of restaurants that deserved a return trip.

Friday:

The day was one big blur that began in Chinatown.

Toronto's "Dragon City"

'King Kasma' from "Summer Wars"
We started out at Sonic Boom Records over on Spadina--Justin is also a composer and bass guitarist so thought he'd enjoy a store where the basement is filled with new and used vinyl.

An hour later, we hit AnimeXtreme, then Navito World, then Meeplemart.

Lots and lots of anime, manga, and gaming stuff... It was hard for both of us to stick to our budgets given the wide selection of product and the fact that the exchange rate put the U.S. dollar worth $1.26 Canadian. But, we were both careful.

I ended up only buying a 'King Kasma' figure from the anime movie "Summer Wars" at Navito World--seriously, if you haven't seen Mamoru Hosoda's "Summer Wars" yet, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie with your family. I'm an 'English sub' kind of guy, but the English dub that Funimation did for Summer Wars was top notch. Seen it many times and I still get choked up near the end--you'll understand why when you watch it.


We tooled around Chinatown some more, grabbed some dim sum for lunch, then checked out Kensington Market. Without trying, we actually ate at Rol San, a restaurant where I had spent time with my fellow TAIS members after one of the summer screenings.

Made the sad discovery that it looks like Twylite Fashion, the Gothic Lolita store in Kensington Market, may be gone for good as I couldn't even find the seamstress whom she was working with. Was an extremely niche market to be sure, but I had hoped they'd survive. She's still got her Etsy store, so, hopefully will get to say 'hi' to her if she ever makes it back to Detroit's YoumaCon. On the bright side, Justin found lots of other little stores that he'd like to take his fiancé to when they come back to Toronto on their own.

'Miku, Miku, you can call me Miku...'
Then it was time for the concert. After a quick change of clothes at the hotel, we made our way back down to the Sony Center.

Even though we were about an hour early, there was already a crowd filled with Vocaloid cosplayers. Amusingly enough, throughout the evening, we kept running into people from Michigan. The couple sitting next to us at the show: from the Detroit area. The mother and her two daughters standing in line next to us at the stir-fry station in Marche's after the concert? Ann Arbor. Apparently we weren't the only people who didn't want to go to Chicago to see Miku!

Other than all the glowsticks that would occasionally obscure my vision of the stage, the concert was really enjoyable.

Instead of just a short six song Hatsune Miku-only set list, like they did at the Lady Gaga concert, Miku Expo had performances from Hatsune Miku, Megurine Luka, Kaito, Meiko, Kagamine Rin and Kagimine Len. As the headliner, Miku had the largest number of songs in the 26 song setlist.

Hatsune Miku performing 'Ten Thousand Stars'
The one song I wanted to hear was the first one they played ('the World Is Mine'). And I discovered some new songs that should be part of my somewhat limited Vocaloid playlist ('Blue Star', 'Ten Thousand Stars' and 'Miku'). We were close enough to the stage to see some really good detail on the animated characters, but next time, would love to be front and center.

Miku after a quick costume change
The autofocus feature on my iPhone's camera was a touch problematic due to the fact that these are 3d animated characters being projected on a pane of glass from behind the stage. Fortunately, with a little tweaking, the auto-lock function worked wonders once I got a character in focus.

Megurine Luka performing "Just Be Friends"
In order to give an idea of what the concert is like, I recorded the following two clips from the concert, but there are others on YouTube that people recorded from Toronto's Miku Expo performance. If you want to see more, I highly recommend those filmed in 1080p by YouTube user: "xtokashx." The video and audio quality he got in his videos was amazing--especially considering he was filming from the balcony on his smartphone!






After the concert, we walked across the street for dinner at Marche and I regaled Justin with stories of what it was like coming to Toronto in the 1970's and how it's changed over the years. And he schooled me on Miku and the vocaloid phenomenon. This lesson on electronic music would come in handy the next day when we went to the Miku Expo Short Film Festival at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Saturday:

Once again, we were served well by going to the event early. There were two screenings of the film festival being held at the AGO's Jackman Hall, the first at 11 a.m. and the second (which we were attending) at 1:30 p.m. Well, they let us in early and we got the chance to peruse the Snow Miku merchandise that Navito World imported from Japan for this event.

Gah! My achin' bank account...
Justin and I checked in, picked up our Miku Expo pins and exclusive "Toronto Expo" sticker. The rest... well, again, they pretty much saw us coming a mile way... I picked up some Vocaloid pins and curios to make a shadowbox when I got back into town. Whatever I didn't use, I figured I could give away as prizes the next time I spoke at an anime con. We then dropped off our purchases at the car, ran over to the Asian Food Court on the corner of Dundas and St. Patrick for a quick lunch, then back to the AGO to get in line for the screening.


Now the Short Film Festival, that was much more what I am used to. It was a mixture of 2d and 3d music videos and two documentaries--one by three Japanese guys who did a five-day cross-country trip to see both of the 2014 Miku Expos--one in L.A. and one in New York. The other documentary was much more thought provoking as it looked at the open-source media Vocaloid phenomenon from a social standpoint and included interviews with officials from Crypton Future Media (the creators of Hatsune Miku). The individual six episodes that comprised the full "Mikumentary" can been on the Mikumentary YouTube channel. Or you can watch them all in the following playlist. After the one-hour screening, they invited up Crypton Future Media CEO Hiroyuki Itoh who took questions from the crowd. As one would expect, my personal favorites leaned towards the technical side of the productions.

Hiroyuki Itoh (r) and his translator (l)

Paraphrasing Hiroyuki Itoh's answers:

Q: How are the vocaloids animated?
A: Through a mixture of mo-cap and traditional keyframe animation. They are animated frame-by-frame for the most part, but the animators aren't shy about using a live model in order to make the characters movements more fluid and lifelike.

Q: How is the concert synched between the performers and the Vocaloids?
A: The animated videos of Miku and the Vocaloids are all pre-recorded (animated) and played during the concert. The videos are synched to the musicians using a "digital metronome" such that the timing cues are fed to the musicians' headphones (guitar, bassist, drummer, keyboardist)--that way, as the show progresses, the musicians know exactly what marks they need to hit and when.

Q: How is the show line-up decided?
A: It's based on what songs are most popular, then they add in new songs as well as some songs from earlier performances.

After the last question was answered, we walked back to the car, put the 2016 Expo's music CD into my car's CD player and made the drive back to Michigan.

So the big question: if the Miku Expo didn't have a short animated film program included with the concert, would I still go? I'd have to say so. Yes. If we're talking just about the music, I'm more of a Megurine Luka and IA fan. Their "voices" aren't as high-pitched as the other Vocaloids and I like "their" songs better than the others (save some of Miku's). The vocal styling's at the concert itself are pretty much what you hear on the CDs, after all this isn't a performance with live singers--just live musicians. But more than the Hatsune Miku social phenomenon, what really interests me is the technology. As I mentioned before, the Vocaloids are being projected on a sheet of glass from a couple of back mounted projectors. That's pretty much it. But it's the combination of an appealing character design, good choreography, some catchy J-Pop tunes, and a talented quartet of musicians that makes the show worth the price of admission. And when you factor in a crowd of adoring fans, it's easy to get swept up in the show and forget that you're listening to a live band play music in step with a pre-recorded animated character.


Much like the Cybertronic Spree, Miku Expo appealed to my sensibilities more as an animator than as a music fan, but the kid inside me who grew up listening to Kraftwerk and Thomas Dolby in the '80's and wore out my 'Beyond the Mind's Eye' VHS tapes in the '90's was just as pleased with the performance. All told, the trip was well worth the expense and I'd go again, even if I had to make the trip by myself.