Monday, November 30, 2009

Tokyo Tower vs. Tokyo Sky Tree!

It seemed somehow fitting when, in late May 2008 at the 12th Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival (SICAF 2008), a charming, quirky little anime feature titled Tokyo Marble Chocolate was awarded the Grand Prize in the Feature Film Category.

After all, much of the anime’s unfolding romantic comedy and poignant philosophizing about love and life in contemporary Tokyo takes place around Tokyo Tower – an obelisk that in 2008 also celebrated its 50th anniversary.

While there are a lot of other symbols of Japan that weigh in much older and further tip the scale in the history stakes, when you're debating the preeminent visual icon in Japan's capital city, and its more famous ones, you can’t possibly ignore Tokyo Tower.

Besides, it’s impossible to miss the tower – painted, as it is, in vivid red and white and gorgeously spot lit after hours. Stature-wise, it reaches upward to a peak of 333 meters, thus edging out its earlier doppelgänger, the Eiffel Tower, by around nine to 13 meters, depending on whether or not you include their antennas in the equation.

Tokyo Tower also continues to dominate the skyline as the world's tallest self-supporting steel tower, easily seen from the Imperial Palace and Roppongi. It boasts an otaku-revered antenna that broadcasts all that vital anime we watch on TV stations here in Tokyo like NHK, TBS and Fuji TV.

The past 50 years have been quite remarkable, and monumental unto themselves in terms of the life of this tower and its impact on this city as well as Japan and the outside world.

It dominates the back-drop in the recent, nostalgic feature movies, Always: Sunset on Third Street, parts one and two, that were directed by Takashi Yamazaki (of Returner fame) and set in the late 1950s, during the tower’s construction. And our metallic altar was used as the titular name of a movie in 2005 that starred Junichi Okada, who more recently did the voice of Prince Arren in Studio Ghibli's Tales from Earthsea.

And just two years ago the movie Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad, starred the very cool Joe Odagiri (Shinobi).

In contrast to such dramatic attention, however, the tower has long been Godzilla’s and Mothra’s favoured plaything, and in manga has been particularly ill-treated: it was sucker-punched in Geobreeders, became the center of paranormal activities in the pages of Tokyo Babylon, and was the focus of some alcoholic excess in Wings of Wishes.

The tower also features heavily in anime.

It was shown destroyed in Cybuster, then popped up in a more romantic light – before being partially ransacked – in Sailor Moon, as well as in other anime like Card Captor Sakura, X, Magic Knight Rayearth, Angelic Layer, Someday’s Dreamers, and Burn Up Excess.

In fact if the anime outings are to be believed, the structure is actually a magnet for mayhem and a portal for inter-dimensional mysticism.

All the iconoclasm may be fictional, but the tower came a hair’s breath from destruction in September 2004, when a 747 accidentally passed within 200 meters, en route to Haneda Airport.

And yet, while the monument may have been crushed, squashed, melted down, transformed, and manhandled like a mammoth toothpick, and represent an object of some cynicism in younger Japanese’s minds, Tokyo Tower wasn’t raised for ruin alone.

Twenty-something Japanese English language school advisor, Shoko Shima, sees the tower in a more positive light. “For me, Tokyo tower is one of the symbols of Tokyo. When I see it, it makes me feel nostalgic. It’s not cute, nor interesting, but I think we need it in Tokyo as an older symbol of the city.”

And acclaimed electronic music producer, Toshiyuki Yasuda (Robo*Braziliera), says that “It is most assuredly a romantic symbol in mid-Tokyo.”

The obelisk was designed by Nikken Sekkei Ltd., and constructed in 1958 by Takenaka Corporation, Japan's oldest architecture and engineering and firm, at a cost hovering at around ¥2.8 billion.

It has an average 2.6 million visitors per annum and has been romantically illuminated at night – with 164 globes that change color according to the season – for enamoured young and old couples alike since 1989. Many of them visit the first-floor aquarium, which houses some 50,000 fish, or the wax museum on the third floor, and then the self-explanatory Trick Art Museum. The view itself is an optional extra.

On a clear day, Mt. Fuji is visible from the tower. On most days, unfortunately, it isn't.

Regardless, all this is set to end in a way when Tower Tower is superseded by its younger, more virile replacement, the Tokyo Sky Tree – currently being constructed in Sumida (see below, this week) - which aims at almost twice the size of our existing aging hero.

Turns out that Tokyo Tower just isn't tall enough in the 21st century to offer complete digital terrestrial television broadcasting coverage - but at least this may mean that Ol' Red will be left in a secure retirement from attacks by Godzilla and his kaiju cronies.

The Tokyo Sky Tree will just have to lean to deal with the abuse.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Best Japanese Songs of All Time?

Japan's Metropolis magazine asked 16 local writers and musicians to describe a formative encounter with a Japanese song. The resulting mix — from folk to noise to metal and enka — represents a half-century of sounds from one of the most diverse music scenes on the planet. This is my bit of the feature; the rest of the story can be found online from today HERE:

When local kids here in Japan deride enka, I try to nudge them in the direction of singer Sayuri Ishikawa’s classic 1977 outing, 'Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki'.

Literally translated as “Winter View of Tsugaru Straits,” this song represents the ’70s and Japan at their best. Mournful and kitsch, grandiose yet poignant, the music here sublimely infuses a funky orchestral backdrop with graceful power vocals that drift toward Gloria Gaynor.

The song was conjured up by lyricist Yu Aku with composer Takashi Miki (a.k.a. Tadashi Watanabe), who passed away earlier this year and who was also responsible for the insanely catchy 'Anpanman no March' theme song.

This is the first and only enka number I’ve actually fallen in love with — there’s fuyu (winter, left), my favorite season (I have a silly tattoo of the kanji to prove it), and as a hack DJ I’ve dropped this song between techno and hip-hop tunes in clubs as far afield as Beijing and Melbourne... and it’s (somehow) worked.

It’s also the one song I coerce my Japanese mates to sing at karaoke — they’re never quite Ishikawa, of course, and they grimace a bit, but they always give it their best.

Read the rest of this story here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Throw Away Tokyo Pt. 2

As a bit of an addendum to the last entry in this rambling blog thingy, I'm actually pursuing a strain of thought instead of the usual mad intent on erraticism. (is that even a real word? If not, it should be.)

I can't really take credit, however, for sticking to the theme - that belongs to my mate Lee, a fellow expat (from Canada) living here in Tokyo. He saw my rant on the postmodern buildings and responded in kind.

"Did you ever see this poor old building in Ueno? It was demolished about two years ago. It was barely 10 years old," he said in an e-mail I got the other day via Facebook.

"I'll tell you a short story," he continued in follow-up repartee.

"When I first came to Japan I lived with a friend of mine in eastern Saitama for a month before I started working at Nova. From her place I would take the Joban Line to get into Tokyo, and at a certain point on the line between Minami-Senju and Mikawashima stations I could just barely make out the top of that building for fractions of a second through the cracks in other buildings as the train went along.

"After several trips, I was able to see enough of the building to realize it actually had a crazy triangle shape on the top. I became captivated with it and would always look for it as I took the train, trying to figure out what this weird building was, but at the time I was not familiar with the layout of Tokyo and had no clue where it was or how to find it. For me at the time, it was just one of those weird mysteries that made Tokyo more interesting.

"Now it's gone."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tokyo's Postmodern Purge

One of my preferred sci-fi flicks from the early ‘50s is The Thing from Another World, with James Arness menacing a crew of American military trapped on an
Arctic base. The direction, while credited to Christian Nyby, smacked more of Howard Hawks’ style — and while Hawks is listed in the credits just as a producer, people do have their doubts.

Anyway, my lasting memory of the movie is the final paranoid riposte, “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”, and the truth is that in Tokyo, you really do always have to look heavenward.

It’s a lesson I thought I’d learned after I first arrived in this city and cottoned on that some of the coolest cafes and record shops are tucked away on the sixth or seventh floors of inconsequential skyscrapers.

But I think a recurrent crick in the neck negated Ned Scott’s warning in recent years, and my gaze had fallen back to ground-floor level—that is, until I stumbled across an article, in the oft indispensable, Tokyo-based English language lifestyle magazine, Metropolis, that reported on buildings slated to be condemned in this self-reinventing city of flux.

As it was, I already knew about Minoru Takeyama.

He’s one of Japan’s more famous architects, a Waseda and Harvard graduate, as well as a professor, author, and innovatory thinker; the man even worked at one stage in the early ‘60s with Arne Jacobsen, deviser of the seriously pricey Series 7 chair.

Takeyama is best known here for the landmark Ichi-maru-kyu (109) building in Shibuya, erected in the late ‘70s — but a decade before, in his mid 30s, he’d conjured up a couple of far more iconic towers in Kabukicho, a few minutes’ walk from Shinjuku Station, and thereby created some of the earliest examples of Japanese architectural postmodernism.

It’s these, rather than the 109, that give Takeyama kudos in architectural circles in the West, and what I didn’t know was that I’d passed these buildings by on several occasions, without ever noticing. It wasn’t until the Metropolis piece that I got the heads-up, realized my error, and started watching the skies again.

Once you do raise your eyes from the garish thrall of the surrounding men’s host clubs, you get to see the pop art colors of Nibankan (Number Two Building, 1970, above), which looks like Roy Lichtenstein had a hand in the palette, and the monochrome, superbly Gigantor-styled Ichibankan (Number One Building, 1969, pictured at the end of this article).

Both buildings have, however, seen far better days.

They’re now bereft of tenants (Ichibankan completely so) and in disrepair, while the owners — apparently love hotel and business accommodation operators, Sankei Hotel — act suitably indifferent.

“The buildings are in a terrible state,” Takeyama told me for this article, which was recently published in Geek Monthly over in the US. “My understanding is that the my client sold the ownership to an entertaining company rather recently. I have no contact with the new owner, and just wish that they preserve the buildings.”

One senses Sankei are biding their time, and the buidings themselves are just waiting to be demolished — as is the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza (below), right near Shinbashi.

A mesmerizing structure that deigns to juggle some 140 boxes (modified containers that vary in size, depending on the source material you check, but around 4 x 2.5 meters), stacked at angles on 14 tottering floors, this was the first ‘capsule hotel’ per se — designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, and constructed between 1970-72.

Kurokawa had previously helped to found the Japanese Metabolism Movement in 1959, an architectural group equally philosophical in tone, with an eye on technological advances; they envisaged a futurist city whose principle structures would be flexible and encourage an organic growth potential.

Ten years later, Kurokawa apparently conceived of the Nakagin Capsule Tower while abiding by the maxim of “metabolism, exchangeability, and recyclability”.

Truth is, though, that I’m not quite sure what two of these ideas entail, nor how they relate to this rather cool building that’s slowly crumbling away due to overt lack of maintenance.

Apparently the designer was into the idea of replacing the capsules where necessary (hence the ‘exchangeability’, which is the bit I’m blessedly able to nut out), but nobody’s ever bothered to follow through, and the structure is now quite visibly on its last legs.

Ironically, while the Nakagin Capsule Tower was originally under construction, Minoru Takeyama was busy setting up the group ArchiteXt (long before the founders of Excite started using the same moniker—sans the big ‘X’ — for their new-fangled Internet portal in 1994) — to counter the Metabolist ideals that Kurokawa espoused; they instead they cited equally dizzying concepts like contradiction, discontinuity, individualism, and pluralism.

The fate of both divergent schools of thought seems to have been pretty much the same.

Like Ichibankan and Nibankan, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is overdue for demolition, in this case due to reported fears of use of asbestos in the construction, as well as concerns that it’s not an earthquake-proof building.

Coupled with the costs of making structures seismically-sound and attractive to an aging clientele forever interested in things new, developers in Tokyo place precedence on the wrecking ball rather than on landmark properties that’re getting a wee bit long in the tooth.

You get the impression that all three buildings are blocking the path of funkier, newfangled residential crystal palaces — while the government certainly hasn’t wasted a lot of time considering notions like artistic architectural heritage and its preservation for future generations.

It’s an impression that Takeyama agrees with 100%, and he also stresses local ignorance. “Both of my buildings are recognized among foreign architects, but not known domestically in Japan,” he says.

So, when this combination mindset takes its natural course, I might as well ditch the sage advice from The Thing from Another World, and stop watching those skies after all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat - the novel

Big news for myself this week relates not to hack muzak but hack writing - my novel is finally starting to emerge from its 18-month sub-editing purgatory!

The first 2 chapters are now online as a bit of a freebie teaser HERE; there're
some typos I noticed the other day, but otherwise pretty much tweaked into (final) submission, with huge thanks to Kristopher and Bob - the two best people I could ever imagine helping me to reign in the beast - and gratitude going out to Scott Campbell on cover art chores (the version here is the initial rough sketch Scott ran by me way back at the beginning of the editing process).

So, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat is finally going to be published in 2010... thank god! The people generously running with it are this way cool, semi-punk, ideologically wunderbar publisher in the U.S. called Another Sky Press and I love 'em to death.

Along with Scott, they've become mates and a virtual family over the course of the past 540-odd days of fine-tuning.

So what's the novel all about, anyway? I think my editor, awesome scribe Kristopher Young, put it way better than I ever could in a recent interview with Verbicide:

"We’ve spent... wow, at least a year at this point hammering his novel into shape. It’s a huge undertaking; he’s got this brilliant voice that only he could have, but it needs fine tuning, so that’s what we’re doing. The book itself is sort of... well, indescribable, really — noir-ish, subtly sci-fi, hard boiled, futuristic. Think Blade Runner with a touch of Sam Spade, a smattering of Orson Welles circa Touch of Evil, or better yet, The Third Man. And a shot of some good bourbon."

Anyway, enough blabbering.

If anyone here ever gets time, have a peek, download the PDF, and I hope to hell you dig... No correspondence, however, will probably be entered into as I'm just too goddamned busy finishing this baby and the off-beat travel tome!


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Shusuke Kaneko: Kaiju Man

Check out Shusuke Kaneko on and you’ll find that he’s currently involved in post-production on the movie Bakamono, starring Hiroki Narimiya (from both Nana movies and the Honey and Clover live-action TV series) and Miho Shiraishi, who previously appeared in the bizarre Calimari Wrestler (2004).

At the beginning of this year he also helmed the over-the-top rival opera singer romp Pride, starring Hikari Mitsushima – a.k.a Sayu Yagami in the Death Note movies.

Which is no coincidence, since three years ago Shusuke Kaneko directed both Death Note and its sequel Death Note: The Last Name.

The man responsible for the sequel to Ryuhei Kitamura’s Azumi popped up a decade before as one of three directors for a 1994 American/French adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.

He then steered into kaiju (monster) territory when he directed a trilogy of movies featuring Gamera, the giant flying turtle (1995 to 1999); two years later Kaneko hit paydirt when he helmed Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

While recently the principle involved in the Ultraman reboot TV series, Ultraman Max (original Ultraman director Akio Jissoji and the great Takashi Miike were others alongside him), at the same time that the Death Note spotlight fell, Kaneko in fact started out in the 1980s as an assistant working in the roman (romance) porn industry for respected production company Nikkatsu – just like fellow directors Tatsumi Kumashiro (Woman with Red Hair) and Koreyoshi Kurahara (Antarctica).

These days, at the age of 54 and with the Death Note movies on his resume, Kaneko is one of Japan’s more in-demand film-makers and he made time in September to chat with me in an interview this month published in its entirety in Impact magazine – nicely translated to full effect by my wife Yoko.

Here's the straight Q+A version.

Why do you enjoy directing, and which part of creating movies makes you the happiest?

“I’m happy when I feel my originality and talent are alive – the times that I think other directors would never shoot like this, or they wouldn’t think that way; the moments when I know my choice is the best choice. That moment comes all of a sudden while I’m making a script, shooting, editing. If the moment becomes continuous it can be fun, though sometimes it’s not. So I can’t say which process, in general, makes me the happiest.”

I note that you are now completing postproduction of the feature Bakamono – could you tell us more about this movie?

“Yes, we’re working on that now. This movie is about a guy who lives in a local city for about a decade, from the age of 19 to 29 years old. He doesn’t have any skills – he was raised by a sweet family, so he’s a nice guy but rather stupid. He is hurt in love, becomes an alcoholic… then he become a ‘man’. This story describes his path with a bit of a poetic touch.”

How was the earlier experience of directing the Death Note movies?

“Because of my super-tight schedule, the work required lots of concentration from me. The offer came on 10 December 10, 2005, and at that time it was already planned that the first-half movie would be released in June 2006, and the rest of the story in the second part in November 2006. So shooting took place in February and March 2006. I had also committed to work on Ultraman Max for TV around the end of the year and the new year, so while making the script for Death Note, I shot Ultraman Max. It ‘s fun to think back to that busy time now.”

Had you read the original manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata before doing the Death Note movies?

“Two years before I got that offer, my elementary school son brought me the first volume of the comic. At the time I thought the concept was interesting, but I didn’t imagine that that kind of thing would be made into a movie, so I didn’t read the rest of it. But straight after I received the offer to make the films, I went straight to a manga café and read the whole series – then went to the meeting.”

Why do you think the Death Note franchise has been so successful in Japan?

“When the Internet had established itself across Japan, Death Note appeared [in 2003] and it created a realistic setting for an otherwise impossible story. The imaginative superstition – that you’ll die if you write your own name in the notebook – coincided with the phenomenon that an anonymous note on the Internet could harm a person quite physically.”

Some people argue that the Death Note stories encourages kids to be violent...

“I think it’s possible. But there’s a lot of other stuff that makes kids violent. I certainly don’t think I’m making good stuff in the educational realm.”

Could you tell us more about the Ultraman Max experience, directing with Takashi Miike and other directors?

“Tsuburaya Productions offered me a job as main director, and I was in the position of controlling the scriptwriter selection, other directors and the cast. The producer approached Mr. Miike to shoot two episodes as a guest director, so I thought he would be great for that job. My view of the Ultraman Max world was closer to that of the original Ultraman rather than science fiction; an anything-is-possible place. So I wanted the other directors work freely and I think Mr. Miike could do so in that way too.”

How did you get involved directing the Gamera movies, from Gamera: Guardian of the Universe in 1995 to Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris in 1999?

“I can’t describe that in such short space, but I think people thought me suitable for the Gamera directing job since I had just given a presentation to the producers, Diei Motion Picture Company, on Ultra Q.” [The 1966 sci-fi/kaiju monster series was the most expensive TV series in Japan at the time.] “I wasn’t a Gamera fan when I grew up. I hadn’t exactly thought Daiei’s monster films were childish, but I liked Toho’s monster films better when I graduated from elementary school. Just before I got into adolescence, which is when I got into girls, I was also a manic fan of monster movies; at that time I was making a monster illustration book by myself. Therefore, when I was directing Gamera, I felt happy that I could revert back to my childhood.”

In 2001 you directed the wonderful Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

“There was something I quite deeply felt about that... I started with Gamera, and reached up to Godzilla. Since Toho studio was producing movies more systematically than Daiei, I could hop on that flow and make movies myself. Then again, we had more time to prepare for Gamera but there wasn’t enough time to think about Godzilla – I feel like we made that movie on impulse power. But, of course, Gozilla is charming.”

Imagine a battle between Godzilla and Mothra. Who would win, and how?

“They had fights so many times already, so please talk to Toho about that suggestion, and get them to offer me the director’s chair so I can start dreaming up ideas!”

The rest of this interview has been published in the November issue of British anime & action movie magazine Impact - see HERE for details.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tokyo Parasite Museum

Situated not all that far from Meguro Station, in Tokyo, is an unforgettable rejoinder to the foodstuffs unveiled elsewhere in this hack blog.

The Tokyo Parasite Museum is a trendy dating locale for young couples (no joke), and right near its entrance you get the gist of the theme: There’s a Godzilla-sized specimen of a tapeworm, 10 metres (30 feet) in length, that was extracted from some poor fool in Yokohama.

Established by a group of Japanese University parasite-specialist professors, the museum showcases some repellingly mammoth and subversively fascinating microscopic exhibits - revealing a collection of grotesque real-life freeloaders, most of ‘em uglier than those imaginary alien terrors from old sci-fi movies. Move over, Predator and James Arness.

This is the only museum in the world where you can see 300 varieties of parasites lumped together in specimen jars, and the notes make you aware that many of them are naturally ingested with… food.

It’s enough to put you off the delights of sushi. Well, almost, anyway.

Mmm... sushi.