Tuesday, December 29, 2009

End Of Year 2009/10 Top 10 Shenanigans

Well, I kind of had no choice, what with the plethora of Top 10 lists that currently bamboozle the senses, all focused on the decade known as the Noughties, the Naughties, the Aughts, the 00s, the 2000s or the Zeros, depending on your cultural upbringing or sense of humour; it seems everyone and his dusted-down and/or bedraggled dog is conjuring up one list or another, and I keep expecting to read one that highlights the ten best kinds of staple (I'm talking stationery apparatus, not food product) over the past 10 years.

In that case my vote goes with Zebra, the Japanese stationery manufacturer established in Japan in 1897, since theirs are the only ones I've actually been able to use over the past 8 years anyway. And I have a soft-spot for the name still, exactly a decade after I was editor of a little magazine of the same moniker back in Melbourne.

What a somewhat mad 10 years it's been over the intervening period.

For what it's worth - which is likely extremely little in these circumstances - here's my ¥2 worth of Top 10 inanity, even if these tens don't exactly restrain themselves to the past decade but count towards something in the atmosphere at least (maybe they've tainted the water supply?):

Seiji Fujishiro
Yayoi Kusama
Yoko Umehara
Shirow Masamune
Yoshitomo Nara
Yumiko Kayukawa
Takashi Murakami
Aya Takano
Ryoji Arai

Seijun Suzuki
Akira Kurosawa
Yasujiro Ozu
Mamoru Oshii
Satoshi Kon
Ryuhei Kitamura
Takashi Miike
Hayao Miyazaki
Mamoru Hosoda
Shinichiro Watanabe

Takashi Watanabe (DJ Warp)
Tatsuya Oe (Captain Funk)
Toshiyuki Yasuda (Robo*Brazileira)
Shin Nishimura
Shuji Wada (DJ Wada)
Kenji Kawai
Gadget Cassette
DJ Krush

Millennium Actress
Spirited Away
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Battle Royale
Tekkon Kinkreet
Tokyo Marble Chocolate
Mind Game

Ghost Hound
Fullmetal Alchemist
Paranoia Agent
Samurai Champloo
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Samurai 7
Wolf's Rain
Le Chavalier D'Eon
Zenmai Zamurai

Takoyaki: Octopus balls swamped in mayonnaise, special sauce and dried bonito flakes
Ikura don: Salmon rose with wasabi, chopped shiso and Kikkoman soy sauce on rice
Yakitori: Grilled chicken and the bird's assorted parts on sticks
Mori soba: Chilled buckwheat noodles served on a bamboo mat with a dipping sauce
Ramen: Noodle soup, especially tonkotsu (pork broth)
Fugu sashi: Blowfish served up super-thin and raw with a lip-smacking ponzu dip
Hachinoko: Bee larvae snack, great with beer. Really.
Basashi: Raw horse served sashimi style, often with ginger and daikon radish
Ikayaki: Grilled squid, often served with lemon and Kewpie maynonnaise
Tsukemono: Japanese pickled vegetables

Tokyo Parasite Museum
Tsukiji Fish Market
Nihon Minkaen Open-Air Folk House Museum
Jiyugaoka cake shops
National Film Centre
Nakagin Capsule Tower
Tin Toys Museum
Yakitori Alley, Yurakucho
Yamamoto-tei Tea House

The quirky culture of Sake consumption
RX-78-2 Gundam statue terror
Tokyo's Postmodern (architecture) Purge
Shikinejima: Flying Fish Island
I was an MP in Post-WW2 Japan*
Tokyo Tower vs. Tokyo Sky Tree
Crow Castle
Toho Studios
Panda! Go, Panda! - the zaniest anime ever made?
Godzilla vs. Mothra

Monday, December 28, 2009

'Star Trek' in Japan

It’s official: Midway through 2009, one in seven citizens of Japan had heard of Star Trek.

I know this, because I finished personally quizzing 60-odd people round then for an article that popped up in the late lamented Geek Monthly to coincide with the late May release of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot here in Japan; these are the stats I conjured up from those loose discussions.

The margin of error was open to contention, since I interviewed people only in Tokyo, my test subjects were limited to students of English, techno DJs and musicians, or creative anime types, and the age group stretched from 18 to 72.

The one-in-seven figure is itself a stretch, since two inclusions in the ‘yes’ category confused Star Trek for Star Wars. One time when I asked the ongoing question - “Have you heard of Star Trek?” - my tipping-the-scales 72-year-old English student declared “Of course!" ...thence proceeded to enact a rather sprite air-lightsabre cut-and-thrust routine.

It isn’t as if Japanese television consumption has been limited to only jidaigeki samurai dramas, or home-grown animated sci-fi romps like Mobile Suit Gundam.

Most of the 35 to 45 age-bracket grew up on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s British-made futurist marionette romp, Thunderbirds, in the 1970s.

Even when I arrived in this country eight years ago, Thunderbirds was still playing on NHK at primetime Sunday evenings. The week I sneaked through Customs, it was the turn of the episode ‘Cry Wolf’, set in Australia; for about an hour after, I had to explain to my Japanese hosts precisely why someone fresh off the boat from Melbourne didn’t sound like the outback butchers of pronunciation Thunderbirds had portrayed.

Then there’s the George Lucas factor.

Given that it’s based in large part on a classic Japanese movie (Kurosawa's Kakushi-toride no san-akunin, aka The Hidden Fortress) that starred the late, great Toshiro Mifune at his formidable best, it should be no wonder that the Japanese fell in love with Star Wars when it was (finally) released in Japan, midway through 1978.

But they seem to have completely missed the boat when it comes to the various TV series of Star Trek stretching from 1966 to 2005, and don’t even tarry with the 10 cinematic offerings before this year's reboot.

We’re not talking just your Joe Average salaryman or office lady here. I also interviewed techno luminary Ken Ishii, and he was a member of the Thank-God-There’s-At-Least-One-In-Seven Party.

Even so, Ishii echoed an ongoing issue for most Japanese.

“Of course I’ve seen Star Trek, but I never was careful with the different titles and series - so I don’t know which is which,” he admits.

“As you know if you live in Japan for a while, they tend to put a Japanese title on major Hollywood films, so we can hardly remember the original English titles, especially for the ones I watched when I was a child.”

Fellow Tokyo musician Toshiyuki Yasuda put it more frankly - “Sorry, I don't know much about Star Trek. All I can remember is a bald head” - while Tatsuya Oe, who produces under the alias of Captain Funk and is considered one of the city’s top DJs, found himself apologizing.

“Actually, I don’t have much knowledge about Star Trek, though I do like it,” he explains.

“Here in Japan, we could say that Star Trek got the short end of the stick because they lost the chance for focused TV broadcasting in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moreover, people got more familiar with the series after Star Wars fever hit Japan, so they were even misunderstood as a kind of pale imitation, at least around the time of my childhood. According to Japanese Wiki, video games of Star Trek seem to have been more popular.”

In terms of his own experience, Oe referred back to Jean-Luc Picard and crew, instead of my own favourite - James T. Kirk.

“I sometimes watched Next Generation on TV, and Geordi La Forge was very impressive and cool when I saw him first - he reminds me of ‘80s future electro-funk, like Midnight Star,” he reports.

Even so, Oe did manage to cite the influence of Classic Trek, albeit from unusual quarters: “Leonard Nimoy appeared on a certain TV commercial here in Japan.”

That was for Teijin - a textile and pharmaceutical company (teijin.co.jp).

Think the artistic types at Production I.G, the animation studio behind Ghost in the Shell, should be more in the know when it comes to matters Trek? Well, I’ll confess to that kind of inkling having crossed my own mind, but you can hit delete right about now.

Star Trek doesn’t sound too popular here,” says Francesco Prandoni, our man at I.G, when I bounce the subject off him. “They’re all Kamen Rider freaks around me.”

Our contact at fellow anime studio, Gonzo (Afro Samurai), proved far more fruitful in this instance.

Star Trek?” laughs Kaz Haruna, at the production company’s International Division in Tokyo. “How did you know I was such a huge Trek geek? Of course I know the movie is coming out; it may be the most anticipated one for me this year!”

30-year-old Haruna quickly shapes up as the jewel in the Trek Japan crown; the fount of Starfleet know-how that could reboot my own otherwise listless task.

“I remember watching reruns of the original series when I was a kid, but what really got me interested in the whole franchise was Next Generation, which I watched in real time,” he gushes, and it’s not long before I idolize every single word.

Thank god someone in this city knows Trek, and doesn’t believe that Kirk likes to bulls-eye womp rats.

“Although it had its moments, the start of the show was not that great,” Haruna continues with great gusto. Now I know for sure he’s seen the Next Gen series.

“I think I even stopped watching around the second season. But from the third season, it really became a high-quality show, and I was hooked. The ships and gadgetry were always something to drool over, but what really grabbed me was the balance of sci-fi, action, and drama, not to mention all the moral and human problems the crew faced. It gave a kid a lot to think about.”

When it came to favorite characters, Haruna is also quick on the uptake, like Captain Kirk with his trusty flip-communicator.

“I’d have to say Jean-Luc Picard. He’s supposed to have a French background, but Patrick Stewart is so English. So many breaks in his office with a cup of Earl Grey! Really, though, his balance of wit and bravery always got me excited. Sometimes as gung-ho and daring as Kirk, but always with an air of intelligence and class.”

Then the truth seeped out: Haruna had spent 19 of his 30 years living in America, and suddenly there’s just so much less wonder as to why he knows his Star Trek from his Star Wars.

While that piece of news may have shaded the gloss of my personal revelation just a tad, it did effectively introduce a new angle, one that I’d like to believe dawned on me in that split second, but more likely bludgeoned me about the head later on.

The angle? That Haruna has the unique cross-cultural insight a Johnny-come-lately expat like me could never hope to grasp, even after 96 months in the country.

“Having lived in both Japan and the United States,” our Gonzo rep muses, seemingly reveling in his new role, “it’s evident that Star Trek has had a much bigger cultural impact in the States. One of Star Trek’s biggest philosophical views was that there was no racism in the future. The crew of the Enterprise consisted of officers from all races, some not even human. In these terms, the way the show influenced Japan - which is not as culturally diverse as the US - was completely different, and somewhat minimal.”

Then comes the twist.

“What I think it did do is get into the minds of the sci-fi and electronics people, because you can see facets of Trek designs everywhere, from cell phones to monitor screens. Almost every bridge design for any kind of spaceship seen in Japanese anime - and that American kids are watching right now on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, and crunchyroll.com - looks very, very familiar...”

Japan Women's National Figure Skating Championships

Let it be known first and foremost before you venture further here: I'm absolutely not interested in sports.

The most sport I've actually participated in is an ad hoc round of tennis once every three or four years, an annual game of ten-pin bowling, Yoyogi Park soccer and/or volleyball for birthday parties, and the long-lost days in Australia when I watched the test cricket on the telly, preferably with beer(s) in hand and mates nearby to distract my wayward attention.

I've never skied or snowboarded; the only real time I tried to go skiing (in Gunma in Nagano a few years back), the kids there were so good that I renounced my intentions and found instead an onsen to pickle myself in. I'm from Australia, not the best place really for snow, but I'd been ice skating a handful of times in Melbourne and Stockholm (where I almost cut someone's throat open with my wildly kicking skate as I flipped over).

So who would've figured that I'd end up gripping my seat, enamoured with skinny Japanese girls skating about?

Yet that's exactly what I was doing last night with my wife Yoko, during the Japan women's national figure skating championships down in Osaka (December 27).

The skaters here vied for the two available places in the Japanese national team for 2010's Vancouver Olympics (Miki Ando had already attained the third slot).

So you had the likes of Mao Asada (Mai Asada's sister, definitely a local favourite, and the scion of a helluva lot of TV advertising) skating against long-time stalwart Yukari Nakano and the up-and-coming Akiko Suzuki, pictured above and, at almost 25, one of the oldest in the field but also a vibrant highlight in recent events.

Personally I'm an Asada fan and have really grown to love Suzuki's exuberance and flair, while having been an Ando supporter since her struggles at the previous Olympics - and all three, as of last night, have qualified for Vancouver as Asada and Suzuki came first and second respectively.

Although she didn't qualify, one of the absolute highlights of the Osaka get-together was Kanako Murakami (below), who turned 15 just last month and is a refreshing mix of quirkiness, talent and bubbly innocence. Expect big things from this kid in the next Olympics.

Unfortunately someone had to miss out, and this time around (much like four years ago) it was again Nakano.

Sports. Bah, humbug.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mandarake stores

Starting out in 1987 in the otaku paradise that is Nakano Broadway, in West Tokyo, manga and anime merchandisers Mandarake have conquered the rest of Japan and these days have stores across this metropolis – in Shibuya, Akihabara and Ikebukuro – as well as in other essential cities like Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Sapporo.

While they’re up against stiff competition in the manga and anime market from the likes of the Animate chain, Mandarake also specializes in second-hand and old school, priceless, and sometimes obscure paraphernalia, not just from Japan, but from around the rest of the world – which accounts for the fact that a manga comic book signed by Osamu Tezuka in 1977 (retailing for ¥200,000 and protected behind glass) was, a couple of years back, sitting right nearby a lonesome Grand Moff Tarkin doll (based on the devious Death Star commander played by Hammer Films regular Peter Cushing) from Star Wars: Episode IV that same year... collecting dust in a bargain bin and selling for just ¥200.

Man, I wished I'd picked that baby up (the Grand Moff, I mean) - but as it is I did end up with a buy from Mandarake's bargain shelves that stumped me at the time, and still does: An Australian O.D.F. soldier I had no idea about that was released in the 1996 G.I. Joe Classic Collection. It was reduced from ¥6,900 to just ¥600, with a bigger layer of dust than that of the aforementioned Star Wars villain.

As Jessie, the Yodeling Cowgirl is wont to say, he was mint in the box, never been opened; if Australian militia types really did dress like this furrowed-brow chappie, our country would be an international uniform designers' laughing stock.

The spiel on the box of this fellow Aussie is likewise hilarious.

"Founded in 1982 after the invasion of the Falkland Islands," it claims, "the Australian Operational Deployment Force (O.D.F.) is highly skilled in quick reactions, often deploying to a location ready for action without any prior notice, regional force surveillance units to understand any situations they face. Wearing the traditional uniform of plain khakis, slouch hat and boots, and armed with an FN FAL 7.62, a Russack, personal equipment belt, pouches and a canteen and holder, the G.I. Joe Australian O.D.F. is ready for action."

I'm fairly certain most of my 21 million compatriots haven't heard about these elusive individuals nor their debonair exploits either, though there's actually some guff about the real-life Operational Deployment Force here... Far less convoluted in their intention and founded two years before the Falklands.

Also available from these incredible stores are lovely tin toys from the 1950s, original animation cels from just about every series you can think of, cosplay outfits, CDs, DVDs, art-books, giant robots the size of you or me and even a wee bit bigger, and anything else obsessive-compulsive-collector related.

Essential one-stop shopping for any anime or manga aficionado, plus other people besides.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

SPOTLIGHT: Wolves of the City: Attack! Number One (1971)

Motorbikes, dynamite belts, Jolly Roger bandanas, bowling balls, American Civil War hats on jaunty angles, gay cravats and half-naked girls with a katana blade or two... what more could you want? Is this serious? The verdict is still out.

Furyo Bancho Totsugeki! Ichiban
(Wolves of the City: Attack! Number One) is, like the 13 films before it, based on American delinquent biker escapades in the mold of the iconic The Wild One and even Roger Corman’s less significant Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra vehicle The Wild Angels.

This particular episode in the Japanese spin-off series is arguably the best of a whole bunch of Furyo Bancho rambling pirate-like biker movies from director Makoto Naito (he co-wrote the 1981 Sonny Chiba and Hiroyuki Sanada flick The Kamikaze Adventurers), which usually starred a young Tatsuo Umemiya and Bunta Sugawara – later both famous yakuza eiga (Yakuza gangster film) regulars in Japan.

Sugawara, however, reinvented himself as a voice actor for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli - as the multiple-limbed fire-stoker Kamaji in Spirited Away (2001), and the world-wise Haitaka in 2005's Gedo Senki.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Mamoru Oshii's 'Assault Girls'

So, I can breathe a little easier as 2009 begins wrapping itself up in neat little patterns. For one thing I finally got to see Asaruto Gâruzu after waiting a few months then missing the Tokyo media screening several weeks back 'cos I had to work my actual day job (doh!). So it kind of rocks that, for Christmas today, I received the DVD-R in the mail and just finished viewing the movie a few minutes back.

I guess I already knew some of what to expect.

If you hadn't twigged already in the course of this rambling blog (if anyone indeed bothers to read it), I'm a huge Mamoru Oshii fan, from right back when I first glimpsed Kōkaku Kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell, 1995) in an obscure Chinatown cinema in Melbourne over a decade ago; I've since watched a couple of fistfuls of his other flicks and have had the opportunity to do two interviews with the man since 2004.

I'm also a bit of an admirer of the four actors here, namely the female leads - Meisa Kuroki (Crow's Zero), Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, and the upcoming film version of Haruka Murakami's Norwegian Wood), and Hinako Saeki (Tachiguishi-Retsuden) - and especially the only male actor, Yoshikatsu Fujiki.

He's been a recurring element in some of Oshii's movies, much like the director's own Basset hound (who unfortunately doesn't appear here).

Fujiki featured in Oshii's early live-action Kerberos saga movie Stray Dog (1991) and was the seiyu (voice actor) who played Kazuki Fuse in the Oshii-written anime Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998).

On top of this background fodder, I also was asked by Francesco Prandoni from Production I.G (god knows why, but I was incredibly chuffed!) to work with him on the English translation rewrite of the lengthy five minute lead-in narration intro to Assault Girls - so I'd been privy to the fact that this was, in some respects, a sequel to Avalon, one of my favourite Oshii movies.

What's the rushed verdict?

Moments both sublime and hilarious; other poignant and, on the flip-side, a little awkward. Funnily enough I'm not sure I was so enamoured with the intro narration I helped negotiate, but once the action kicked into gear (and especially in the moments that the actors used their native Japanese), it kicked serious arse.

Over all I believe I loved the experience Oshii conjured up here, but as I said I just finished watching and I'm probably biased. Give me time to stew on it - and definitely investigate this baby yourself in 2010, if you haven't already.

Hats off to all concerned for something completely different.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

REVIEW: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

The Lupin III franchise, created by legendary manga artist Monkey Punch, had been around for 12 years in comic book form, and a TV series since 1971, when occasional episode director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) helmed this feature-lengther.

The character of Lupin III just so happens to be the great nephew of Arsène Lupin, the daring gentleman thief and detective – a kind of Gallic Sherlock Holmes – created in 1905 by Maurice LeBlanc. He featured in a rash of French flicks in the silent era.

His descendant is an equally enigmatic thief who speaks fluent Japanese (or differing degrees of American English depending on the dub), with an insatiable appetite for food along with an overt weakness for women - including the femme fatale of the series, Fujiko Mine. Meanwhile he’s aided and abetted by his trusty cohorts Jigen and Goemon, in pursuit of some hilarious heists.

Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro (The Castle Of Cagliostro, 1979) is the highlight of a sensational series, and it’s due as much to the assured touch of Miyazaki as it is the enigmatic cast of characters involved in the story. This time Lupin bites off more than he can chew when he tries to rescue a damsel in distress and comes up against the sinister Count of Cagliostro and an international counterfeiting syndicate.

Any fans of subsequent Miyazaki romps like Castle In The Sky, Crimson Pig, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away will find germinating elements from all of those movies at play here.

Incidentally, the late, great Yasuo Yamada, who voiced Lupin, had a habit of also dubbing Clint Eastwood’s dulcet tones in the Japanese versions of everything from Rawhide to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - and he even turned up to play Omawari-san in Panda! Go, Panda! (see last entry).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

REVIEW: Panda! Go, Panda! (1972)

You have to rear-vision yourself way back to 1972 to see where it all really began, 27 years ago with the anime crafted by a young Hayao Miyazaki (then aged 31) and his mentor, director Isao Takahata.

Thirteen years later the duo would found Studio Ghibli (just after releasing their landmark epic, Kaze no Tani no Naushika, or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in 1984), and later still change the way we perceive animation with the release of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) in 2001.

But if you really want to look at the heritage behind the most recent Studio Ghibli offering Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which has finally hit the Western world through its English dub) along with next year's Karigurashi no Arrietty (The Borrower Arrietty, directed by Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi), you need to channel your attentions back beyond Spirited Away and further in time to the early '70s, back to a little show called Panda! Go Panda! and then wonder... Is this the most insane anime ever made?

Well, perhaps not; there was a sequel (Panda! Go Panda!: Rainy Day Circus), released the following year. And, really, you have to watch them both back-to-back for the real lunacy to sink in.

The original press release from distributors Toho was clue enough. “Mimiko lives with her grandmother beside a bamboo grove,” it reported in suitably stilted English. “One day Mimiko's grandmother goes away for a while, leaving Mimiko to herself. A baby panda appears in the garden along with its father, Papa Panda. Mimiko asks if Mr. Panda could be her father too, and he agrees.”

And that’s it. No further warning. Nothing.

In truth, after one viewing you’ll come away convinced that Mimiko is better described as Pippi Longstocking after having sucked up too much caffeine, while Papa Panda is a psychotic prototype-critter for Miyazaki’s later cherished title character from Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro, 1988).

Even so, it’s also absolutely brilliant.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tokyo Big Sight & Odaiba

Located in Koto-Ku on land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay, situated right next to the Odaiba area and Rainbow Bridge - ostensibly one of Tokyo’s most famous romantic viewing points - is the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, a massive structure more lovingly referred to by locals as "Tokyo Big Sight".

Officially, it’s Japan's largest exhibition and convention center.

But more importantly it’s also the place where all the major anime companies flaunt their new celluloid wonders every March at the Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF), and the hallowed halls where Tokyo’s Comic Market (Comiket) rams together around 200,000 people including a fair portion of cosplayers and one helluva lot of manga, for the largest comic convention in the world.

The next of these is due to begin unfurling itself in just eight days, on December 29th.

Constructed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo Big Sight opened its doors in 1996, and since then has welcomed more than 10 million visitors annually for the past several years, with the cumulative visitor count topping 100 million in July 2007, to an area measuring 230,873.07 square meters of floor space.

The building varies in height between three and eight stories, and has a cavernous underground parking annex that rather inanely draws to mind the Who song 'I Can See For Miles'.

The Centre itself is composed of three main areas: the West Hall, the East Hall and the high-tech Conference Tower. The main exhibition halls are located in the West Hall and the East Hall, and there are huge works of art interspersed throughout the center by artists like Hidetoshi Nagasawa, Michael Craig-Martin, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.

But there’s a wee bit more to Odaiba than just Tokyo Big Sight.

While historically-speaking this area has a bit of a mundane past (the name “Odaiba” itself harks back to a string of six island fortresses built way back in 1853 in order to protect Edo - old Tokyo - from attack by sea), the area is considered the romantic hot spot of this 12-million-person metropolis, and it’s no real wonder why when you consider the scenic bay views and the somewhat picturesque Rainbow Bridge.

There are a multitude of all-inclusive, theme park like shopping malls such as Venus Fort, some superbly innovative architecture - the stand-outs are Fuji TV studio’s spherical building designed by Kenzo Tange, and the Museum of Maritime Science - and literally hundreds of restaurants, cafes, shops, and nightclubs.

There’s even a 115-metre-tall ferris wheel which used to be the biggest in the world, but is now ranked at #12.

At one time or another over the past few years, Odaiba has also played host to temporary installations like the superb portable museum entirely constructed of Cosco shipping crates, and the 18-metre, 35-ton RX-78-2 Gundam statue.

In summer, thousands flock to Odaiba for the local hanabi (fireworks) festival, and it’s standing room only - which is an issue in an earthquake-prone country like Japan.

As mentioned above, Odaiba is an artificial island built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Rumour has it that should the next big one hit this city with anywhere near the strength of the last big shaker in 1923, Odaiba will be the first place to sink beneath the waves.

It’s one reason I always pack a flotation device when I go visit.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

REVIEW: Battle Royale (2000)

Perhaps not quite so internationally obscure now - nine years on - as it was when it was first released in Japan, Battle Royale would have made a far more fitting final movie for director Kinji Fukasaku instead of its lesser sequel three years later... which in fact his son Kenta polished off after the director's death at age 72.

You certainly couldn’t take style, content and inspiration any further a field from Fukasaku senior's earlier action-adventure romp Legend Of 8 Samurai, nattered about in this blog two weeks ago.

So clear your frazzled silly-season brain. It’s a not-too-distant future. Japan is again a fascist state. An arbitrarily-chosen bus full of high school kids are knocked out with sleeping gas, kidnapped, then shipped on to an isolated island - where they’re informed by their embittered former teacher Kitano ('Beat' Takeshi Kitano) that the only way they will leave said island is by killing all their classmates – or by ending up in a body-bag themselves.

In order to enforce this mandate, each student is shackled with an exploding collar, à la Wedlock, and Kitano punctuates the students’ plight with a well-aimed penknife to one of the girl’s foreheads, thereby launching a battle for self-preservation.

Shuja (Tatsuya Fujiwara, more recently the star in the live-action Death Note franchise) and Noriko (Aki Maeda; she’s appeared in both Gamera and Godzilla movies, did the voice of Yuki in the Studio Ghibli anime The Cat Returns, and teamed up last year with Kiichi Nakai in Samurai Gangsters) team up, then are later aided and abetted by mysterious transfer student Kawada (Taro Yamamoto, who appeared in Seijun Suzuki's musical romp Princess Raccoon (2005), with Hiroko Yakushimaru from Legend Of 8 Samurai).

There’re some hilarious acting histrionics and amateur execution techniques along the way, and the true stand-outs are Takako (played by Chiaki Kuriyama, a.k.a. Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), Yuko Miyamura (who does the hyperactive and chillingly genki Training Video Girl, and previously voiced Asuka Langley Sohryu in the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion) and – of course - Takeshi Kitano.

While he previously popped up in a not-so-memorable English language role in the Keanu Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Kitano was outstanding in his own movies Sonatine (1993), Hana-bi (1997), and Zatoichi (2003). Here the actor underpins the rancorous teacher - with a 'pen' chance for revenge - with a whimsical ease and blasé humour that’s gloriously disturbing.

Some incongruous orchestral music by Johann Sebastian Bach is thrown in for good measure, as well as an overall soundtrack by Masamichi Amano – who previously scored the ultra-violent anime Legend Of The Overfiend (1989).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Crow Castle

Just a three-hour drive from Shinjuku, on the Keio Line Bus route to Nagano, is Matsumoto – the sister-city to Utah’s Salt Lake City and one of the best places to try basashi (raw horse meat).

The city itself is located on an open plain in the Japanese Alps, just over half an hour from the historic watermills at the nation’s largest wasabi farm (Daio, at Azumino), where Akira Kurosawa in fact shot part of his epic movie about his own fitful Dreams (1990).

But the standout here is Matsumoto Castle - actually a genuine (take that, Odawara faux fort!), gorgeous and immaculately maintained building that dates back to the Sengoku (Warring States) era, prior to the 17th century.

Locally dubbed 'Karasu-Jo' (Crow Castle) because of its somewhat sinister black lines and proclaimed as a National Treasure of Japan in 1952 (one of only four castles in this country to receive the honour), it boasts a cleverly hidden floor, samurai armour displays, loads of weapons, documents, and an awesome view of the surrounding countryside.

Which, I guess, is one of the essential features in the design stages of all strongholds everywhere...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kiichi Nakai

If we had a “Most Underrated Japanese Actor” category here at JapaneseCultureGoNow!, 48-year-old Kiichi Nakai would easily qualify—although the guy has been nominated for and in fact won a swag of Japanese Academy Awards, including best actor.

He also happens to be the son of the late Keiji Sada, one of Japan’s more venerated stars of the silver screen before his untimely demise in 1964, at just 37 years of age.

As an actor himself, son Nakai blossomed as the sensational focal-point of Fukuro no Shiro (Owl’s Castle, 1999), possibly Japan’s most underrated must-see silly ninja movie. While he was nominated for that role, Nakai had previously won the Japan Academy Best Supporting Actor award in 1994 for the drama Shijushichinin no Shikaku (47 Ronin), directed by the late, great Kon Ichikawa, who died just last year.

Two years ago, Nakai sparkled in his supporting role in the high-profile Takuya Kimura (SMAP) vehicle, Hero, for director Masayuki Suzuki.

Incidentally that movie's playing on the telly here in Tokyo tonight - which is the reason I (somehow) remembered to write here about Nakai-san, by extension.

The actor earlier worked with Suzuki on the hilarious 'Samurai Cellular' episode of Tales of the Unusual (2000) in which Nakai played Oishi Kuranosuke, the leader of those 47 Ronin mentioned above - and touted a mobile phone instead of a katana blade.

Ditching such comic antics and going instead for a meatier role, Nakai conveyed a knowing sense of the dramatic in Mibu Gishi Den (When the Last Sword is Drawn, 2003) for which he won the Japan Academy Best Actor trophy, and narrated the tale in director Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005).

He was also the standout in last year’s patchy comedy-drama Jirochô Sangokushi (Samurai Gangsters) and shone even in the lackluster, rather disappointing live-action version of Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo (2007) - playing the mean dad who sells 48 of our hero Hyakkimaru’s body-parts (to demons no less).

These days Nakaii is often seen on the telly hawking Visa card brands and drinks, but I live in hope that he'll return to fine acting fettle shortly.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

REVIEW: Project A-ko

At first glimpse, this one’s so damned ‘80s you might want to lunge at the remote to hit eject before you actually give it half a chance - but given that the original (and best) incarnation was actually made midway through that decade, you have to give a little something of your wayward soul.

Others might wince at the slightly hentai (perverted, for lack of a better translation) undertones that filter through right from the opening sequence.

But above and somewhere way beyond those concerns, the first Project A-Ko movie (1986) is a hilarious parody of the anime that preceded it, from shojo girls’ romance tales like The Rose Of Versailles right on through to the Gundam giant robot sci-fi saga. Sometimes in the very same breath, let alone frame, American comics (by D.C. and Marvel), products (Pepsi cans) and even KFC's founder Colonel Sanders are referenced, action set-pieces are tossed asunder, there's a rampant sense of humour as well as homage, and even the name of the series is apparently a pun on Jackie Chan’s 1983 movie Project A.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Eiko Magami – your average red-haired, super-powered schoolgirl (who’s possibly related to Superman and Wonder Woman) – along with her best friend, the cantankerous, hissy-fit chucking and super-teary Shiiko Kotobuki. Into their lives, with a bunch of killer mecha contraptions, bursts Eiko’s old kindergarten rival Biko, along with an entire invasion fleet of aliens.

And that's just the beginning of this glorious 80-minute fiasco.

Add in a script co-written by Yuji Moriyama (Geobreeders), and a dash of Shinji Kimura, an art director who also previously rendered the background art on Mamoru Oshii’s Angel’s Egg (1985) and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and was more recently the art director on Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy (2004) and the superb Tekkonkinkreet (2006).

Then there's the just-right sleazy '80s synth soundtrack by American producer Joey Carbone (who also did Legend of 8 Samurai - see the previous entry below).

"It was great fun doing the soundtrack," Carbone (right) told me back in 2004 for an article we were doing for Anime Insider magazine, since very few (if any) other foreigners had scored anime up till that time.

"The animation company gave me some guidelines, but basically they let me have a lot of freedom to create what I felt was right. To be honest I wasn't really an animation fan when I took on the job, but that movie really turned me onto Japanese anime and I've been a fan since."

For the Project A-ko score, Carbone worked with a group of fellow musicians.

"We did it in Los Angeles, with my buddy Richie Zito - who composed and produced it with me - and I played keys and Richie played guitar. Also Arthur Barrow played some keys, and George Doering played guitar while engineering the recordings. I chose three American female singers to do the songs: Annie Livingstone, Samantha Newark and Valerie Stevenson. I later took Annie to Japan for promotion of the soundtrack, as she sang the theme song, 'Dance Away'. The Japanese producer, director and music editor all attended the LA recordings and seemed to be very happy with what we made."

Check out the original movie directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima - the later OVAs in the Project A-ko series unfortunately don't stand up quite so nicely.

Monday, December 7, 2009

REVIEW: Legend Of 8 Samurai (1983)

If you’ve seen Hideo Nakata’s Ring series or the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai, chances are you would’ve been impressed by actor Hiroyuki Sanada – he played the estranged yet enigmatic husband of Ring heroine Nanako Matsushima, and easily outshone Cruise in the latter.

Sanada also put in revelatory work as the lead in Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai (2002) and sparkled as the bad-arse wizard-villain Douson in Onmiyoji (The Yin Yang Master, 2001).

Since these inroads he’s been variously wasted in the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer (2008), played the mandatory criminal element in Rush Hour 3 (2007), and was one of the best elements as the ship’s captain in Sunshine (2007), Danny Boyle’s relatively unnecessary retake on Event Horizon.

Fancy, then, checking out Sanada in hot pants, back in the ‘80s when he was a rising, hot-blooded 23-year-old warrior blade in Satomi Hakken-den (Legend of Eight Samurai, 1983)?

Funnily enough I didn’t find this movie here in Japan – I stumbled across it in a $2 bin in New York’s Chinatown back in 2004. All of the Japanese people I’ve shown the cover to, and occasionally deigned fit to screen the DVD before, have never encountered this truly hidden gem.

The truth is that we could’ve done without those bare-skinned pins too, but Sanada – who’d already cut his teeth as a child actor by 1983 – holds up well in spite of his kitsch attire (which includes a string disco body-top underneath armour) and bouffant hair that’s contested only by the female lead, Hiroko Yakushimaru, as Princess Shizu.

Incidentally, Yakushimaru herself (now 45) resurfaced four years ago in Seijun Suzuki’s whimsical musical Operetta Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon, 2005), alongside Chinese starlet Ziyi Zhang and Joe Odagiri (Azumi); since then the actress featured in Takashi Yamazaki’s Always - Sunset on Third Street series.

Also starring here, as the leader of the legendary eight samurai (erroneously called ‘ninja’ in the English dub and brought together by fate to defend the princess) is Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba.

Otherwise known as the sushi chef and grand master sword-smith in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Chiba has been a rip-roaring actor and fight coordinator in an array of Japanese and Hong Kong action movies - with titles like G.I. Samurai, The Bloody Bushido Blade, Karate Bear Fighter, The Street Fighter, The Bodyguard, and Vigilante In The Funky Hat: 200,000 Yen Arm - over the past 40 years.

Here he goes all patriarchal and plays the Jedi-like philosophical sage (with a fatal illness) who brings together the key heroes – but turns out to be patronizing, flawed and judgmental, and the kind of guy you’d really wouldn’t want to be your dad; Alec Guinness he most certainly is not.

The story here revolves around a century-old curse for revenge by the Hikita clan, which was destroyed a hundred years ago by the righteous Satomi clan.

Involved in said revenge are a fitful of prophecies, a spin on 'Beauty & The Beast', an Oedipal sub-plot, reincarnation, birthmarks, redemption, giant centipedes and snakes, guys wearing more makeup than girls, poison breath, Chinese Confucianism, Japanese bushido ethics, Buddhist philosophy, etc, etc...

Remember, this is an ‘80s movie, so there’re myriad blue backdrops and pastel colours, and a musical score of soft-rock and desultory synths. Joey Carbone, who worked on the cheesy soundtrack, went on to make the theme music for the classic anime series Project A-ko. On the DVD cover itself, the publishing company (Front Row Entertainment) claims that this version has a “digitally remastered superior picture and sound quality”, so I’d hate to see the original version.

Regardless, the whole caboodle is directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku – who directed a lot of those ‘70s yakuza gangster flicks, often starring Sonny Chiba, that were such a big influence on contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino and Takashi Miike. He also more recently helmed the sublime Battle Royale.

And somehow – somehow - it works.

Actress/singer Mari Natsuki (as the saucy, evil Hikita matriarch Tamazusa, who indulges in blood-baths, much erotic pouting on screen, and apparently shocked local audiences at the time with her full-frontal nudity) is a revelation of superb over-acting.

As it turns out, she worked on a ton of the more homogenized 'Tora-san' comedies over the years – then voiced the sinister witch Yubaba in Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001) and popped up as a mum in Mika Ninagawa’s Sakuran (2006).

Friday, December 4, 2009

IF100: 15 Years of IF?

This baby's been a long time coming.

Celebrating the 100th IF? Records release and exactly 15 years of the label on the job, with some of the original Melbourne (Australia) artists plus brand new ones from the same city – and a wealth of internationals remixing their tunes.

With IF100, think new material by ZEN PARADOX and TR-STORM, who appeared on the first ever IF? release, the Zeitgeist compilation in 1995. Then add G3, aka GUYVER 3, who had the first solo artist release (Perception Camera) through IF? in 1996. Sprinkle in some LITTLE NOBODY (first appearance on Zeitgeist 2 in 1996), ISNOD (who designed the Zeitgeist 3 cover in 1997 and featured on Reaction Hero in 2001), plus SCHLOCK TACTILE (Reaction Hero), SON OF ZEV (one of the IF? live stars in the ‘90s and ‘00s) and DJ FODDER – responsible for the 'Cocaine Speaking' phenomenon conjured up in 1999 and since remixed over 30 times by Mijk van Dijk, Dave Tarrida, DJ Hi-Shock, Pocket, Captain Funk, Jason Leach, etc, etc.

Then fold in brand new stuff by the storming, reasonably more recent Melbourne posse that includes excellent artists like BEN MILL, ENCLAVE, ALKAN, CRAIG McWHINNEY, KODA, ELEKTRONAUTS, VERONICA du LAC, CONVERSATIONAL DENTURES, DICK DRONE, RYSH PAPROTA and KULTRUN.

As icing on the proverbial cake we’ve added in some rather juicy remixes from PATRICK PULSINGER, BILL YOUNGMAN, SHIN NISHIMURA, SECRET SURFER, DSICO, SETTEE OF INDUSTRY, LEON NAGANT M1895 and DJ WARP, plus a Little Nobody remix of E383 and a Chairman of the Board mix of TALL TREES.


1. Isnod ‘Pripyat’
2. DJ Fodder ‘Cocaine Speaking’ (Dsico remix)
3. Craig McWhinney ‘Confined Spaces’
4. Andrez Bergen ‘Merian Cooper’
5. Funk Gadget ‘Blah Blah’ (Patrick Pulsinger remix)
6. Little Nobody ‘Get Away From It All’ (AB- Mix)
7. Ben Mill ‘Dance Floor Confessions Of A Stalker’
8. TR-Storm ‘Cylitic’
9. Koda ‘Snipper’
10. Little Nobody ‘Poiseworks’ (Shin Nishimura remix)
11. Kultrun ‘Underground’
12. Tall Trees ‘Broken Friend (Hurting Youself)’ (Chairman of the Board remix)
13. Alkan ‘In Your Skin’
14. Son Of Zev ‘Swelter’
15. Enclave ‘Pulse Overture’
16. Zen Paradox ‘Mindmelt’
17. Rysh Paprota ‘Her Flew’
18. G3 ‘Onigoroshi’
19. Little Nobody feat. Robo*Brazileira ‘Robota’ (Elektronauts remix)
20. Veronica du Lac ‘Because It Pays So Thin’ (Bill Youngman remix)
21. Jungle Taitei ‘Taitei Drums’ (Secret Surfer remix)
22. Little Nobody vs. Magnet Toy ‘Depth Charge’ (DJ Warp remix)
23. Koda ‘Tilb’
24. E383 ‘Radion 2’ (Little Nobody remix)
25. Kultrun ‘Drift Away’ (Andrez Bergen remix)
26. Schlock Tactile ‘Kouture Krash’
27. Little Nobody ‘Metropolis How?’ (Settee Of Industry remix)
28. Dick Drone ‘Wash’ (Mix 2)
29. Conversational Dentures ‘Suicidio’ (Leon Nagant M1895 Remix)
30. Curvaceous Crustacean ‘An Electric Blanket & Minimum Chips’

Look out for this baby exclusive to Juno Download on December 15, 2009.
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