Saturday, January 30, 2010

PREVIEW: Satoshi Kon's The Dreaming Machine

Late last year I interviewed essential Japanese anime director Satoshi Kon (he of the notoriety of Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and the brilliant Millennium Actress), and that interview appeared in the January issue of Impact mag over in the UK.

I'll be running with the somewhat lengthy interview on this site sometime in the next couple of months.

In the meantime, however, Kon is gearing up for the release of his long-awaited next anime movie: Yume Miru Kikai (The Dreaming Machine) is coming up through Studio Madhouse and it has its own funky new website here. The movie features central characters called Ririco, Robin and King - and all of three are automated. Kon has dabbled quite extensively with technology (and its impact on people) before, but this time there's a different slant.

"This is my own original story - therefore different from my previous work," Kon told me during that recent interview we did; it was the first time we'd chatted and he was surprisingly open, humourous and verbose.

"While I was developing the script, I heard about a movie called WALL·E... and I got a little nervous that it might be similar to mine. I can't tell you how relieved I was when I learned that the two stories were totally different," he laughed.

"In The Dreaming Machine, only robots are there. I want the audience to enjoy the adventures of robots who survived even after their parents - human beings - had become extinct. After Paprika, I ended up taking a vacation for over a year, so we've just started development on this. You can see this movie in 2011."

Here are some sneak preview images from the new film.

Also on board is art director Nobutaka Ike, who performed the same role on Millennium Actress (千年女優 Sennen Joyu, 2001) and Paprika (パプリカ, 2006).

Till then, if you haven't checked it out already, here's the promo teaser (below) for Kon's Millennium Actress - perhaps my favourite anime flick from the 2000s, even up against stiff competition from Miyazaki's Spirited Away and Oshii's Innocence.

Essential viewing.

© 2009 Madhouse

SPOTLIGHT: Linebarrels of Iron

Ahhh, Linebarrels of Iron!

Back in 2008, for Anime Insider mag, I interviewed series producer Hiroyuki Birukawa and director Masamitsu Hidaka about the title; since that mag's now defunct, I'm guessing there's no problem sharing it here since FUNimation over in the US this month released the DVD box-set of the first 12 episodes.

Ask veteran Pokémon director, Hidaka, about his involvement helming the Gonzo series, Linebarrels of Iron (鉄のラインバレル, Kurogane no Rainbareru) and his response comes across as excited as it is free-wheeling.

“The story within the original comic consisted of exciting battle scenes and the fascinating stories of each character,” he explains. “So, I’ve placed a special value on those points when creating the animation version. I’m always trying to work out how I can showcase the cool and coquettish mecha battle scenes - both by employing a sharp sense of speed and presence, and by including contemplative action scenes in the animation. And while I’m aiming high for the twin ideals of beautiful and cool, it’s still, beneath it all, cute mecha-anime! I just hope you enjoy it, and that it’s fun for fans to watch.”

In most celluloid productions it’s the director who dreams, creates the art, and has his head in the clouds. The producer is the grounded financier who stabilizes the ship, handles the organizational side of things, and sees the big picture a little clearer. They’re often also the people who see the production through - from a scrap of note-paper to the screen version.

So it seems with Linebarrels of Iron series producer, Hiroyuki Birukawa, who has been with this particular anime title since Day One.

“I know the chief editor of the monthly magazine, Champion Red, published by Akita Shoten here in Japan,” Birukawa informs me.

“He and I have known each other for quite a long time, and one day he showed me the latest manga they did - and it was Linebarrels of Iron. The moment I saw that sample comic, I knew that this was something I wanted to create as an animation, and asked them for the rights to create it.”

Birukawa previously dabbled with another famous Gonzo production, Last Exile, and is quite clearly the man to talk to when you want a concise explanation of the storyline behind the studio’s new series.

“The main character, Kouichi Hayase, was an ordinary kid in high school, who was constantly teased but had a dream of someday becoming a hero,” recounts Birukawa, with the heroic patience of a man perhaps used to dealing with less focused types.

“The first cool point of this anime may be how this character develops through many events, including a parting with good friends, to become a true hero. The second cool point is the mecha action. As you may have seen in the past, all 3D robot-action scenes always had a rectilinear movement, which was quite unreal. The director, Hidaka-san, and I have talked about this quite extensively - and we’ve gone back to how 2D robot-action scenes were shown, in order to include that point within our 3D robot-action scenes for Linebarrels of Iron.”

Birukawa’s fascinating lesson, which threatens to put this writer out of a job, is far from over. He has more about the new series that he’s keen to share - and enlighten us with along the way.

“If you’ve seen the series trailer, Linebarrel strikes a particular pose, before stabbing ARMA, the enemy robot. It’s like kabuki, wherein you adopt one pose before you give it movement.

"We actually call it tame in Japanese. We believe tame and kire - fast action moves after tame - are the most important points when showing cool mecha action. And Hidaka is a pro at robot action.

“Also luckily for the 3D action scenes, we have Itano-san [Ichiro Itano, the director of Blassreiter and veteran planner of The Super Dimension Fortress Macross], who is fantastic at checking these kind of scenes and translating them into action.”

Adding to the superlative mecha developments is the teamwork involved in the series structure, scripts, and ideas.

“The creative producer, Goro Taniguchi, has so many excellent ideas about the animation he wants to include, while Kiyoko Yoshimura is fantastic at including these, as well as expressing character descriptions in the story.”

Despite his professional nature and assured eye on the whole production, you can almost see Birukawa blush when it comes to talking up his favourite character in the series.

“It’s Emi Kizaki,” he admits. “She is cute, sexy, and also smart! There’s a Japanese slang word, tsundere [meaning a volatile personality that ends up being good-willed] and she has that perfect tsundere factor...”

© 2008 Eiichi Shimizu,Tomohiro Shimoguchi, Akita Publishing/GONZO/Linebarrel Partners

Friday, January 29, 2010

I Want My Fugu!

There’s a question on my mind, and it’s one I’ve mulled over for years, ever since Homer Simpson demanded fugu (河豚) at a Japanese restaurant, that time when the sushi chef was out canoodling Ms. Krabappel on the backseat of her car. Cue assistant chef’s stressful splicing and dicing of the deflating delicacy.

For those precious insular types without an operational TV who may’ve missed this episode, and double-up on the offense by having no access to Wikipedia or even a moth-eaten edition of the Encylopædia Britannica, fugu is the Japanese name for blowfish, and the majority of these fish have extremely high levels of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin in their ovaries, liver, intestines, gonads and skin.

These little fellas, with a penchant for getting sizable relatively quickly, in fact get honorable mention on both Wikipedia and in the Britannica for being the second most-poisonous vertebrates in the world. There’s also no antidote. That doesn’t seem to faze the Japanese, though - apparently some 10,000 tons are consumed here each year.

When I first came over from Australia, I really had no choice but to play Homer and indulge in the expensive dish, and the best way to have fugu is sashimi-style, sliced exceptionally thin and raw, and served with a special dipping sauce called ponzu (a canny blend of citrus juice and soy sauce).

You can also have it deep fried or conjured up in a nabe (hot pot), but for me it’s sensational as sashimi, combined with fugu hirezake: Toasted fugu fin served in hot saké. It smells a wee bit fishy, but has quite the celebratory kick to it.

You can usually tell the fugu eateries by the huge store-front tanks full of the fish: Swimming, carousing, looking a little the worse-for-wear, and occasionally floating listlessly upside down.

The allusion of those bottom up types runs a little close to home when it comes to fugu.

Both in fiction and reality the fish has had a huge impact on the culture of this country. While it’s the foodstuff of kings (but not the emperor, apparently), lauded in haiku, and all Japanese office workers with big annual bonuses aspire to tuck into the aquatic delight, there’s a hint of the morbid and suicidal involved, along with some mention of egos quashed. Fugu, while outrageously priced, is the Russian roulette of the wining and dining set - and fatality is, after all, the great leveler.

Theatrical rumor has it that the flamboyant Chairman Kaga (played by actor Takeshi Kaga), of Iron Chef notoriety, died of fugu poisoning after the series ended in Japan, but kabuki star Bando Mitsugoro VIII really did die (of paralysis and asphyxiation) just hours after a stint in a Kyoto restaurant in 1975 - having thrown care to the winds, boasting invulnerability, and tossed down four of the fish’s highly-toxic livers.

And then there’s that question I hinted at earlier, the one that’s followed me ever since I saw Homer carted off to hospital with suspected fugu poisoning.

The origin of the fish’s consumption in Japan remains unclear - it definitely goes back centuries, and there’ve been possible fugu table scraps found in burial mounds that date back to the Jomon Period, over 2,400 years ago.

The question for me is this: Who were the very first people who decided to snack on this exceptionally unattractive fish, and how on earth did they work out which bits were OK for consumption, and which other parts would grant them slow, excruciating death?

Were short staws involved? Furry dice? Some kind of class-system pecking order? Or just manic rounds of jan-ken-pon (rock-paper-scissors)?

Personally, every time I eat fugu (which has actually been only twice), I canonize the experience - then spend the rest of the night fretting that I’ll die in my sleep, much like the unluckier pioneers of aquatic vertebratic cuisine before me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hot Pink Sake for Valentines!

Feeling a romantic inclination for next month's Valentine's Day? Ditch the hand-made chockies or Cadbury Roses, and real flowers? ...pfft.

Wine and dine your loved one with a pink-coloured nigorizake.

While regular sake is clear or vaguely amber in hue, nigorizake (濁り酒, or ‘cloudy sake’) is usually a thick milk-white in color and brings with it a swath of sediment - chiefly because it’s only roughly filtered, then decanted with some of the original fermentation mash (moromi). It’s sweeter and less refined but far more playful, and like a James Bond martini it needs to be shaken, not stirred.

Now, even better, it's pink - thanks to those fine beverage makers at Nakano Shuzo Sake Brewery in Oita Prefecture, who also obviously have a playful sense of humour and are charging just ¥880 per bottle (about $9.00) - cheaper than a bunch of humdrum roses.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Edo-Tokyo Museum 江戸東京博物館

Founded 15 years ago, right next door to Ryogoku Kokugikan (the Tokyo sumo stadium) in Ryogoku, is this fittingly over-the-top home to the 400-year history of Tokyo.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum (江戸東京博物館, Edo Tokyo Hakubutsukan) towers at over 62 meters, ostensibly in homage to the former Edo Castle which was the same height.

Inside you’ll find original artifacts, representations and installations that capture the developing culture. There are also displays that recount the four-century growth of this metropolis, from a humble fishing village, through its establishment (as Edo) as the capital of Japan by Ieyasu Tokugawa in 1603, and on to a city of 12 million people now.

Think scale models of towns and buildings from the Edo, Meiji and Showa periods, along with a large-scale recreation here of the iconic Nihonbashi bridge – the eastern terminus of the Nasendo and Tokaido roads, which linked Edo and Kyoto.

A great way to lose yourself in Tokyo’s past, before all the redevelopment - even if most of this isn't really... well... real.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: The Idiot 白痴, 1951

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably my favourite Russian writer, but not for reasons you might expect – I’ve never read Crime and Punishment, and I’ve only seen the 1958 William Shatner film version of The Brothers Karamazov.

But about 20 years ago I stumbled across a slimmer tome (skinnier because he never finished it): Netochka Nezvanova, which basically translates as ‘Nameless Nobody’, ended up as a birthday prezzie for my Mum that I also ended up scouring myself.

For some reason I loved it; probably it was the melodrama and the age I was at the time, and it even shaped the name of the musical project (Little Nobody) that I’ve worked under for 15 years and is a key element in my upcoming novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat.

Anyway, I digress.

Apparently Akira Kurosawa also shared a passion for Dostoyevsky, and had wanted to make The Idiot even before he shot Rashomon.

Called Hakuchi in Japanese, here we have the 160-minute tale of Kinji Kameda, told several years after his being unfairly accused of war crimes and reprieved only moments before being shot – an experience which has given him nightmares ever since and a life that is a blank slate of either innocence, goodness or idiocy; the different people he meets here choose one or the other.

We have a main star who isn’t Toshiro Mifune or Takashi Shimura, though both appear here (of course). The focal point is instead actor Masayuki Mori, previously in Kurosawa’s Tora no o fumu otokotachi (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, 1945) and Rashomon (1950), and who much later starred as Dark Lord Yamikubo in Zatoichi 21: Blind Swordsman's Fire Festival (1970).

It’s all very Dickensian and melodramatic, set in the harsh snows of Hokkaido in northern Japan; while emotional and a shade wrenching, it isn’t what I’d label one of Kurosawa’s better efforts. Mori is fantastic and he does achieve a surprising level of sympathetic depth as Kameda, but his over all performance comes across as a bit mannered.

Better are the powerhouse performances here from the women, namely the great Setsuko Hara (said to be the inspiration for the protagonist of Satoshi Kon’s essential 2001 anime movie Millennium Actress, though in my recent interview with Kon he watered that theory down quite a bit) as the icy former concubine Taeko Nasu, Yoshiko Kuga (the effervescent schoolgirl from Drunken Angel) as Ayako, and Noriko Sengoku in a brief but typically provocative performance.

© 1951 Shochiku Co., Ltd

Friday, January 22, 2010

Smoking Out Old Tokyo

One of the things I can't help doing over here is seeking out the trace-elements of old Tokyo, hardly an elementary pastime since much of this has been removed by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, the carpet bombings of the mid '40s, assorted fires, and the rapid pace of reconstruction and renewal that Tokyo willingly submits itself to every day.

Today I discovered these gems in Shintomi, not more than 100 metres from Ginza - one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world and the most expensive real estate in Japan.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Takashi Miike vs. 13 Assassins

This news has been floating round for a bit but I've been waiting for more concrete info and images: Takashi Miike will this year be releasing his remake of 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), the one-time 1963 B-movie jidaigeki drama (directed by Eiichi Kudo) which these days has a far better reputation and starred Kô Nishimura - a veteran of several movies by Akira Kurosawa.

The new version is now up on but is a little threadbare in the details (the synopsis there says simply "A group of assassins come together for a suicide mission to kill an evil lord"); it looks like the stars are going to be Koji Yakusho, who shone in the original Japanese version of Shall We Dance as well as in Babel, and Yusuke Iseya - who I all-too-briefly met on the set of Jiro Shirasu last year.

Yep, Miike - responsible for some insanely cool, odd, and witheringly gory cinema over the past 15 years - is doing a samurai period film.

Luke's Anger "Bruce Wobbelaar"

Not exactly Japan-related, tho' I guess Luke did visit Tokyo last year. This is the new hack video I just put together for an upcoming track from British electronic music wunderkind Luke's Anger. It's being released through Jerome Hill's label Don't Recordings on vinyl shortly.

I love this fella - much of his muzak soundtracks my life at the mo'. Check him out.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tsukiji: Big Fish Out Of Water

Stats have it that there’re almost a hundred centralized wholesale markets in 56 cities across Japan: 50-odd for fish, 19 for flowers, and 10 for meat. Tsukiji, here in Tokyo, is the heftiest of the lot; in fact it’s the biggest fish market in the world. Remember the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the U.S. government stores the Ark of the Covenant at the warehouse that stretches off into the horizon, without apparent end?

Tsukiji is just like that.

Also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market and as “Tokyo’s Kitchen” - or more simply Tsukijishijo in Japanese - it everyday handles somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 to 2,900 metric tons of seafood, dabbling in over 400 varieties of aquatic vertebrate, crustaceans and cephalopods (this includes 300kg slabs of tuna).

Employed to oversee the whole circus are around 65,000 people. This in effect makes Tsukiji the largest fish graveyard on the globe, as well as one of the bigger wholesale food markets in general.

It’s located near Ginza, just a brisk walk from Tsukijishijo Station on the Toei Oedo Line or alternatively the Hibiya Line’s Tsukiji Station.

Inside the market they have auctions in the wee hours, and the best time to be there is around 5:30am - though don’t wear your best footwear as parts of the place are awash in fish blood and hosed-down produce. It’s not really for the light-of-heart or vaguely animal rights-conscious, let alone people on the cusp of vegetarianism for ethical reasons, as you’re going to see a lot of sea creature carcasses, guts, squirming eels, and very big live craps tied in shoddy Gordian knots.

But you also get to witness people practicing their slice-and-dice techniques on both frozen and fresh tuna and swordfish, using intimidating sword-like shivs of their own that’re over a metre in length - just steer clear of the gas-powered go-carts and the guys lugging around huge blocks of ice, as they’re even more dangerous.

Set up early on in the 17th century by shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, this sprawling hub was originally a more humble affair located near Nihonbashi Bridge, not far from the current Tokyo Station.

But after the general destruction of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the market was shifted to reclaimed land in the Tsukiji area - right next to a small Shinto shrine called Namiyoke Inari-jinja, built on the water’s edge of Tokyo Bay (before land was reclaimed from the sea to eventually house the market) in the mid 17th century.

Inari is apparently quite the chipper deity in Japan, with around 32,000 shrines (over a third of Shinto shrines in this country) dedicated to the Japanese kami of fertility, rice, agriculture, industry, worldly success - and foxes.

Thus the shrines are usually decked out with not only vermilion-coloured torii-gates, but also a bunch of statues of kitsune (foxes) who may or may not be messy eaters since they have bibs tied round their necks.

Namiyoke Inari-jinja itself also goes for much dragon and lion iconography, since the original attempts at land reclamation, commenced in the 17th century by the Tokugawa government, were often washed away in storms. When success was actually achieved, people celebrated by lugging round dragon floats - symbolizing control of the clouds - and a huge shishi lion’s head, renowned for its oddly calming roar that was probably aimed at virulent nature itself.

After the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market was relocated next door, Namiyoke Inari-jinja became the unofficial guardian shrine of the marketplace, and it’s dotted with memorial plaques and statuettes donated by several of the market’s trade groups.

In June every year, the shrine plays host to the rather wild Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri festival, which harks back to the original purpose of Namiyoke - lions, dragons, and all - and in turn underscores the more recent relationship with the neighbours, as many of the market’s traders are those people sweating under the mikoshi.

But Tsukiji isn’t just festivals, shrines and fish.

It was the star of the 2008 film Tsukiji Uogashi Sandaime (築地魚河岸三代目, also known as Third Generation Tsukiji Fish Market Man or The Taste of Fish), directed by Shingo Matsubara of Ultraman: Tiga fame, and based on a 2000s manga series by Masaharu Nabeshima and Mitsuo Hashimoto; then again, the story here centers on a businessman who quits his high-flying bank job to work for his father-in-law at the fish market.

Tokyo’s Kitchen also pops up in the ‘90s manga version of Shota no Sushi (将太の寿司, Shota’s Sushi or King of Sushi) by Daisuke Terasawa, and - while I’m unsure if it appears in the live-action spin-off that played on Fuji TV in 1996 - I have it on good advice that the market features in Haikei, Chichiue-sama (拝啓、父上様), a.k.a. Dear Father, starring Kazunari Ninomiya (Letters from Iwo Jima, and the voice of Kuro in Tekkonkinkreet), which was broadcast on the same channel 11 years later.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Metropolis Magazine's Japanese Clubbers' Almanac

Published today here in Japan (well, in Tokyo anyway) in free weekly English-language magazine Metropolis.

The lowdown on 2009 - and wishlists for 2010 - from some of Japan's top artists, producers and labels including DJ Kentaro, Fumiya Tanaka, DJ Mayuri, DJ Baku, Takkyu Ishino... oh, and my crap 2 cents' worth as well.

You can the article out online HERE.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Scandal (1950)

Another Akira Kurosawa slow-burner released 60 years ago, this is lighter-weight-Kurosawa - which still means quite a chunk of substance.

An indictment of tabloid journalism the year before Billy Wilder’s much more hostile Ace in the Hole and possibly autobiographical in some content, Scandal (醜聞, Shūbun) tells the tale of a chance encounter and a photo taken by a paparazzo at a mountain resort that leads to a fabricated gossip magazine story and resultant legal battle.

Toshiro Mifune plays one of the two innocents caught up in the affair: Honest artist Ichirô Aoye, a debonair type with a penchant for pipe-smoking and motorcycles. Although he plays it straighter here than most of his other roles, it’s a treat to see hints of Mifune's later trademark tics and mannerisms drift into the performance; Aoye may also indeed be the actor's most likable part - if a little straight and bland.

Takashi Shimura, in the role of seemingly dodgy attorney-at-law Hiruta, puts in a performance both seemingly familiar yet at odds with Kenji Watanabe – the painfully humble, barely audible public servant he would play two years later in Kurosawa’s acclaimed Ikiru (To Live).

Here he’s all bluster, ramble and smelly feet, but beneath the verbosity and a struggle with inner demons is a man with a dying daughter who’s his best conscience. The man may have a destitute rooftop office with the pigeons and the laundry, but there is an honest bone in there.

Noriko Sengoku puts in another spot-on performance as Aoye’s life-model and best friend Sumie, while Yoko Katsuragi is ethereal in the role of Hiruta’s daughter Masako.

There are moments reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, but as with most Kurosawa films this really is its own creature.

Personally, while I enjoyed the experience but I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is one of Kurosawa's stand-out pictures.

Perhaps the weakest link is Yoshiko Yamaguchi, aka Shirley Yamaguchi, who appeared two years later in King Vidor's Japanese War Bride.

In this film she isn’t given much to work with in the role of Miyako Saijo, the other participant in the “scandal” - but at least she gets to sing a lot.

1950 Shochiku Co. Ltd.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Yoji Yamada's Younger Brother

So, there's a new movie coming out at the end of this month from Yoji Yamada (山田 洋次), the Japanese director best known for Tora-san - he helmed 46 of the 48 Tora-san movies that popped up between 1969 and 1995, the year before lead actor Kiyoshi Atsumi's death.

In 1993 Yamada also directed A Class to Remember (学校, Gakko), the winner of best film and best director at the Japan Academy Prize the following year.

Personally I was pretty swayed by this director's 2002 outing The Twilight Samurai (たそがれ清兵衛, Tasogare Seibei), and not only for Hiroyuki Sanada's performance and Isao Tomita's soundtrack - it also won 12 Japanese Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.

The new movie, Otôto (Younger Brother), stars Yu Aoi (the voice of Shiro in the cool anime Tekkonkinkreet), Ryo Case (Letters from Iwo Jima), and comedian Tsurube Shôfukutei - whom I previously met (alongside about a dozen MP extras he likely doesn't remember) on the set of I Want to Be a Shellfish.

Find out more at the official website. In the meantime, here's the preview for the movie.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Space Battleship Yamato 2010

Remember Uchū Senkan Yamato (宇宙戦艦ヤマト) anyone?

Most people probably won't since the series was first screened - under the lacklustre ulterior title of Star Blazers - in the US and Australia in 1979.

In the Western version there was deviously reduced violence, toned-down dialogue, and the complete deletion of the partaking of sake. Alcoholism and sexual innuendo were completely whitewashed or at least visually clipped out on the editing room floor and/or erased from the English dub.

Best called Space Battleship Yamato in English, the series was created by Licca-chan designer Miyako Maki's husband - the great Leiji Matsumoto (Captain Harlock and a swag of Daft Punk videos) - and actually screened on TVs in Japan in 1974-75.

It tells the story of the beleaguered inhabitants of Earth who, under hostile alien attack, secretly build a massive spacecraft inside the ruins of the Japanese battleship Yamato.

The first 90-minute movie spin-off, released in 1978, outclassed Star Wars at the Japanese box office, and quite understandably there've been a wad of sequels since then; the Yamato iconography - for both the space craft and the characters - is absolutely huge here in Japan.

And now there's this: A live-action rebake slated for a December 2010 cinema release, directed by Takashi Yamazaki (Returner) and starring SMAP's Takuya Kimura (Love and Honor), Aya Ueto (Azumi), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Departures), and Japanese favourite - but someone I just can't warm to; maybe it's the use of the single name? - Koyuki (The Last Samurai).

Having director Yamazaki "return" to sci-fi/action after a long stint doing more popular domestic comedy-drama (the Always double-header and The Animal Doctors) is possibly the greatest thing to happen to this genre in Japan since 2004, when Ryuhei Kitamura unleashed Godzilla: Final Wars and Kazuaki Kiriya pushed through Casshern. Yamazaki's earlier work Returner (2002) may have been flawed, but it still rocked on a lot of levels and bears up to repeated viewing.

While the original anime predated both Star Wars and the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, the preview (below) does intimate that the makers indulged in much viewing of Ron Moore's recent Galactica reinvention - which, really, can only be a good thing.

Keep an eye on the official website - there's not so much on there at this stage but it's sure to develop over time, methinks.

Here's the sneak preview:

© 東北新社 / 2009 ヤマトスタジオ/「宇宙戦艦ヤマト 復活篇」製作委員会 / Yoshinobu Nishizaki

Friday, January 8, 2010

Plastic Fantastic Licca-chan

Licca Kayama, better known as Licca-chan (リカちゃん), is the Japanese equivalent of Barbie – though these days far more popular here than her American predecessor.

She was introduced to Japan in 1967 (the same year that the only James Bond film set in Japan, You Only Live Twice, hit cinema screens) by a toy company over here called Takara. Founded in 1955, they've since merged with fellow Japanese toy company Tomy Co., Ltd. to make... well... Takaratomy Co.

You know Leiji Matsumoto, right? The creator of essential anime and manga titles like Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Railways, and several videos for Daft Punk?

Well, Licca-chan was created by Leiji Matsumoto's wife Miyako Maki – a former shojo manga artist herself before she got married and became a housewife. Since then the Licca-chan dolls, like Barbie, have had their figure and features as much as their wardrobe refined to suit the faddish preferences of youth cultures along the way, though in this case our vinyl chloride resin heroine tends to be oriented towards the Japanese sensibilities of height, looks, and definitely fashion trends. In some ways, she makes her American girls' doppelgänger look downright butch and fashion insensible.

You can check out some of the subtle changes here.

The Takara/Tomy conglomerate had sold over 53 million in 40 years as of 2007. She's insanely popular not only with young girls but their mothers and grandmas; it shouldn't be any surprise then that my wife Y digs Licca-chan almost as much as my 4-year-old daughter C, who has five or so members of the Kayama clan and their mates, plus the family house.

Takara has even provided an extensive bio including her age (11), blood type (O), which school she attends (Shirakaba Elementary School) and the names of her best friends (Isamu and Izumi), her ex-boyfriend Takeru and current flame Len-kun, her twin siblings (Miki and Maki), as well as several other relatives – including an older sister Rie (below), a flight attendant who was mysteriously removed from the toy family line-up in 1974.

Licca-chan herself was born on May 3, 1967, to Orie Kayama, a Japanese fashion designer, and Pierre Miramonde, a French musician. Her papa Pierre apparently liked his wife's family name (Kayama) so much that he adopted it as his own surname.

Licca's favourite books are Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess – both extremely popular girls' titles in Japan and themselves made into anime series. As it turns out, Licca-chan not also loves dogs, eating Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and reading the Doraemon manga series, but also likes cross-dressing and role-playing.

For instance there's Choro Q Licca, aka Race Queen Licca (who has her own racing car), a few Hinamatsuri (Doll's Festival) Licca-chans worth up to ¥289,000 ($3,100), bridal Licca, Chukyo Women's University High School Licca-chan, Mosburger Licca, the über-tanned Loco Neo Licca, Super Doll Knight Licca, and rollerskating Licca-chan; back in the '90s there was even Street Licca – who was a DJ in pink Converse runners carrying a très cool Rough Trade record bag – as well as a special ice-skating Licca for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. And in 2001 a pregnant adult version of Licca-chan was introduced to coincide with the birth of Aiko, the daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.

There's a specially-produced Licca doll clad in a tiara and a gown studded with 880-odd diamonds worth about ¥100 million; I've even seen over-the-top fan-made Goth-Lolita Licca-chan creations, but one of my personal faves is Spy Girl Neo Licca which passes our heroine off in clothing territory previously explored by Emma Peel in The Avengers.

For an exhibition at Seibu Department Store in Ikebukuro last year food artist Rika Fukuda created “Licca-chan’s candy house” while about 20 fashion brands that participated in the Kobe Collection 2008 autumn/winter show presented their latest works made in Licca-chan’s size; Issey Miyake even did a mad pleat design for our plastic fantastic femme two years back.

At one stage Licca-chan circulated in manga-form in Kodansha's monthly Nakayoshi, and she was granted her own 52-episode anime series Super Doll Licca-chan (produced by Geneon, animation production by Madhouse, and broadcast on TV Tokyo from 1998 to 1999) that was directed by Gisaburo Sugii – an animation director on Osamu Tezuka's original, iconic '60s TV series Astro Boy.

There was a weighty tome published in 1992 for Licca's 25th anniversary, a gorgeous book named simply Licca Book, another by a psychiatrist, and these days countless blogs, fansites and websites. For starters magazine Numéro ran with its hilarious Licca's Paris Collection Report last year, with happy snaps of our heroine at the fashion shows, and even better is the online photo-shoot that is Licca's World Tour.

Coincidentally, straight after I wrote up this piece, my mate Toshiyuki Yasuda - one of the coolest electronic musicians in Japan - e-mailed me with a link to a compilation he'd assembled to sound track precisely that and titled Various Artists - Licca World Tour.


On top of all this there's also even a theme park called Licca Castle. It's way too far from Tokyo for us to check out, though.

At the Yokohama Doll Museum in 2007, they sold out 1,000 specially made 40th anniversary Yokohama Motomachi Licca-chan dolls in three days.

She's even sometimes ventured overseas, though in disguise. A Licca-chan video game was released for the Nintendo DS platform in Japan in 2007, later released in the US and other English-speaking territories in 2008 as "Lovely Lisa".

Licca-chan images © Takaratomy Co.
Rie Kayama image thanks to Brentlovesblythe.
Licca-chan and busted toe piccy by me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: The Quiet Duel (1949)

What can I say? Comparing this Akira Kurosawa-directed film with Drunken Angel, released the previous year (and spotlighted below on Jan. 3rd) is like comparing milk-based food products and soft, white, porous sedimentary rock.

In Shizukanaru Ketto (The Quiet Duel 静かなる決闘) Toshiro Mifune plays the complete antithesis of his wild, downwardly-spiraling gangster from the earlier movie; this time he's the doctor, and a dedicated one at that, who falls victim during the war to one of his own patients: during an operation to save the man's life, he cuts himself and thereby contracts the soldier's syphilis.

Rather than wallow in despair, however, he returns to his father's hospital in Japan after the war, and throws himself into his work - helping those less fortunate with a genial smile and a warm sense of humour, even while breaking up with his fiancee to save her from the risk of also contracting the disease. He also refuses to mention his illness to anyone.

Mifune is superb in the role; he's like the doctor you always wanted to have, perhaps bearing even more humility and kindness because of the desperate phase of his own life.

Takashi Shimura as always shines in the role of Mifune's father, and there're those typical, perfect moments of Kurosawa humour and warmth even amidst some devastating and frustrating drama. The action is minimal and there's not a katana blade in sight, yet this is superb stuff.

But the real revelation here is Noriko Sengoku, the atypical Japanese actress in the prominent supporting role as apprentice nurse Minegishi.

While her earlier role for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel was a pivotal one it was also brief; here she has much more room to move and develops through the movie - from a self-destructive, selfish single mother early on into the feisty, dedicated, supportive head nurse at the conclusion.

Along the way, Sengoku more than holds her own in the company of Mifune and Shimura - so as a footnote it's interesting to note that she's still acting even now - at the age of 87.

This Kurosawa flick is a little difficult to find, but I got mine from the people at Madman in Australia.

Images © 1949 Kadokawa Herlad Pictures Inc.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Michiko to Hatchin

If Fuji TV wanted to kick off their 50th year on air with a sizeable bang, they certainly picked the spot-on anime series to do so: Michiko to Hatchin (Michiko and Hatchin) sizzled when it first hit screens back in October 2008, and at the time it promised to be a solid ratings-puller and critical smash for the terrestrial station that also airs Japan’s longest-running anime series, Sazae-san.

The new series proved to be one of the unexpected anime viewing highlights for me personally at the time, as much for its faux exotic locale (the principle action is set in a sun-drenched yet often all-too-noir Brazil) as for the rather cool cast and crew at play behind the animated cels.

On top of these elements it was an insightful spotlight on people of Asian (in particular Japanese) decent who live in South America, like the nikkei burajiru-jin: descended from a wave of Japanese workers who emigrated to Brazil a century ago, making the country home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan. Really.

But don’t think this series is some kind of travelogue. It’s a stunning mixture of styles and sounds, influences and moments, and the energetic, action-packed, sexy, funny, and strangely touching story of the burgeoning relationship between central characters Michiko Malandro and Hana ‘Hatchin’ Morenos: the former a wild criminal on the lam after a prison escape, the latter a girl oppressed by abusive foster parents. When the two hook up following a (literal) motorcycle drive-through and the discovery of identical tattoos, they begin a search for the same elusive individual - Hatchin’s dad, who happens to be Michiko’s old flame.

In between are an array of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, including police officer Atsuko Jackson, and crime syndicate head Satoshi Batista, while the whole caboodle was ackaged together in mesmerizing fashion by Manglobe Inc. - the animation studio set up in 2002 by Sunrise producers, Takashi Kochiyama and Shinichiro Kobayashi, and the subsequent powerhouse behind Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo.

Shinichiro Kobayashi, the president of Manglobe, obviously wasn’t content to rest on the laurels of two previously revered anime titles. “I wanted to make a fusion of the road movie with diva action carnage, within the realm of a totally Latinized world,” he explains. Kobayashi also sees a clear delineation between this new outing and the two prior titles, which were both directed by men.

“This time it’s the female director’s view,” he says, referring to the head of an exceptional cast and crew.

Director Sayo Yamamoto has tweaked the storyboards on Eureka Seven, Death Note, Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo, and directed episodes of all of these classic series save for Death Note. So don’t think anything vaguely too girly here - some of the action and domestic violence encountered by our heroines is hair-raising, yet it tends to skip the voyeurism some of her male counterparts indulge in.

On script honors is Takashi Ujita, a writer who previously worked on an array of independent live-action movies, while character designer Hiroshi Shimizu moonlighted in key animation on FLCL, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Millennium Actress, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. Mecha designer Shigeto Koyama was previously involved in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society as well as Gurren Lagann.

Then there’s the additional crew member’s name that jumps right out here, in the atypical role of music producer: Shinichiro Watanabe, the illustrious writer/director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, co-director of Macross Plus, and responsible for two segments from The Animatrix.

This series also just so happens to be a Japanese acting train-spotter’s delight, since most of the voice actors are themselves established and respected live-action actors.

Kanji Tsuda, cast in the role of Hatchin’s father, Hiroshi, is a veteran from classic ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano movies like Sonatine, Hana-bi and Dolls, and featured in movies by famed directors Yojiro Takita, Katsuhito Ishii, and Takashi Shimizu.

Yoko Maki (Michiko), who was cast in the American version of The Grudge, started her career in the 2001 remake of Lady Snowblood (renamed Princess Blade), while Suzuka Ohgo (Hatchin) popped up in Memoirs of a Geisha - in which she played the childhood Zhang Ziyi - then also costarred with Ken Watanabe in Kita No Zeronen (Year One in the North).

Jun Murakami (Shinsuke Rodriguez) was one of the stars in the ninja live-action movie Red Shadow (2001), and Takeshi Wakamatsu (Father Pedro) appeared in the far better ninja romp, Fukuro no Shiro (Owl’s Castle, 1999), starring Kiichi Nakai.

The skill of these people, from art and image through to dulcet vocal tones and spot-on dialogue, works nicely.

Dark and cute all at once, there are recurring themes throughout the series. There’s the search for Hatchin’s father (and Michiko’s former lover), Hiroshi, who abandoned his child and may be dead, but perhaps isn’t; there are the eccentric cameo inclusions, some heavy emotional development for the key characters involved—most strikingly the love-hate/mum-daughter relationship between our two heroines. And there’s Michiko’s ongoing hot water escapades, and the joyful obsessions with food, music and fashion.

“About the fashion,” Kobayashi reports, “We had an up-and-coming designer here in Japan do the fashions. For the art we practically went to Brazil, and that experience is reflected in the animated vision we created here. And for the music I invited on board Kassin, a very popular musician from Brazil. It’s a plus.”

There’s also the inclusion of teen romance, drug-addled hitmen, a doctor lugging fish out of people’s tummies, motorcycles crashing through windows, and one character’s attempts at bullfighting with a soup ladle - all of which up the ante and made this perhaps the best animated series I was going to watch well into 2009 and beyond.

And yet - I haven't.

After a lukewarm response from Japanese audiences and just 22 episodes, the series concluded (with a few unsatisfactory character resolutions) in March last year.

Go figure.

images © 2008 manglobe / Caliente latino, All Rights Reserved.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Toho Studios

Located in a surprisingly wealthy part of Setagaya here in Tokyo is the sprawling home of Toho Studios. Not only is Toho the largest and most famous film studio in Japan, but it’s the owner of one of the more internationally famous film logos, on par for Asian cinema aficionados with MGM’s Technicolor roaring lion.

On location at the studio, you’ll discover a collection of sound-stages, outdoor arenas and warehouses, plus a stream lined with gorgeous cherry blossom trees, all of it originally set up in 1936 by railroad and showbiz entrepeneur, Ichizo Kobayashi.

After pumping out propaganda films during World War 2, Toho overcame a brush with bankruptcy and disfavor with the American occupation forces to unleash a wad of critically successful and internationally-regarded movies by Akira Kurosawa, such as Drunken Angel (see the January 3 entry here), Yojimbo, Ran, and Seven Samurai - a scene from which is now boldly embossed as a huge painted mural across the outer wall of the studio.

It’s at least 10 meters high, and you can’t miss it when you visit the hallowed halls that also saw through films directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (The Birth of Japan), Shiro Moritani (Japan Sinks) and Ishirō Honda (The Mysterians).

In 1954, Honda got together with Toho to skewer the science fiction world when they unveiled the first Gojira movie – better known to you and me as Godzilla – and the studio followed up with over two dozen sequels. The original is still an absolute classic 56 years later and features JapaneseCultureGoNow! fave Takashi Shimura.

I picked up my copy for just ¥980 (about $9) a couple of months ago thanks to the new DeAgostini kaiju classics series. Yum.

While Toho’s star has waned in recent years, the studio continues to produce movies in conjunction with Japanese TV companies like TBS (the Masahiro Nakai/Yukie Nakama WW2 drama, I Want to be a Shellfish, for instance - the one I did the walk-on, gate-pushing MP bit for in the earlier entry here on October 8, 2008).

Toho is better known these days as major playing distributor for smaller production houses like Asmik Ace - the company that unleashed the Ring movies - along with anime studios Production I.G and Studio Ghibli.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Drunken Angel (1948)

Did I ever confess my love for Madmen?

No, no, not the Emmy and Golden Globe-winnning TV series - I haven't yet had the chance to see it over here in Japan, and anyway that's actually two words, "Mad Men", instead of one.

What I'm gushing about are the real-life people (plural) who helm Madman Entertainment back in my hometown (Melbourne). I call 'em Madmen just to keep myself amused. Stupid pun, I know.

They cover the Australian DVD market with the best in Asian cinema, particularly Japanese (they release something like 99% of all anime there) and I love their work.

Anyway, I'm currently working on a long-winded Akira Kurosawa article and they shot me through a swag of movies I hadn't seen along with others I hadn't watched in far too long, and the box arrived just in time for Christmas.

I know, I know - that sounds weird; living in Japan yet ordering Kurosawa films from Australia. But the fact is that most available Kurosawa DVDs in this country don't come with English subtitles, and my nihongo is nowhere near good enough to carry something as weighty as one of Akira's cinematic tomes.

Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948) is the Kurosawa film that, rumour had it a little while back, Martin Scorsese wanted to remake around the same time that he re-baked Infernal Affairs.

Credited as the first yakuza gangster movie, Drunken Angel stars the great, somewhat underrated Takashi Shimura as the title character, a frequently sloshed, no-nonsense doctor (Sanada) with a heart buried beneath his gruff exterior.

This is also the first of 16 films that Kurosawa did with actor Toshiro Mifune.

With absolute aplomb, Mifune inhabits his downward-spiraling hoodlum (Matsunaga), a man suffering from tuberculosis and a penchant for the importance of honour - in an industry sorely lacking such values.

Over the course of 90-odd minutes, Mifune is at times charming and suave; at other points there's a scary vitality to his agitated, face-of-impending-doom performance - in particular his manic turn in a drunken dance hall scene (see clip below).

While the film stock may have dated, the style and performances here most certainly have not. There's a contemporary edge to both male leads, in their intriguing relationship, that continues to work 62 years later - and almost 100 years since Kurosawa was born (in March 1910).

The post World War 2 environment around them - this was, after all, just three years after the the cessation of hostilities - is reminiscent of the backdrops in Carol Reed's The Third Man, released the following year: dismembered, dangerous and far from picturesque.

Images © 1948 Toho Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hifana & Maharo

I adore Japanese kids’ TV. While I’ve ostensibly watched it for the benefit of my daughter Cocoa, she’s definitely less charmed by the whole telly experience than me.
I’d put my own fascination down to some madcap antics and a glaring culture crevasse between myself and the people who script these shows: Animated programs like Zenmai Zamurai and the Ryoji Arai offshoot A Country Between the Worlds, along with comedy duo Itsumo Kokokara’s exercise program, Algorithm Taisou, and the puppets in Pitagora Switch.

These programs pan-out on the national broadcaster, NHK, as does Chikaland - which sets its sights on educating slightly older kids (and couch potatoes like myself) by giving them hands-on experience in all manner of professions, aided and abetted by local pros. Some of these guest virtuosos have been J-pop talent like the members of Morning Musume, as well as rock bands (Shonen Knife appeared), chefs, and national team soccer players.

Back in July '09, quite by chance, I switched on the show and tripped out to my favorite musical duo here in Japan, who go by the name of Hifana.

“To tell the truth, we haven't really thought the subject through so deeply,” the two members admitted via e-mail when I quizzed them about their appearance on the show.

One thing that’s hallmarked the career of Keizo Fukuda (KEIZOmachine!) and Jun Miyata (Juicy) since they formed Hifana in 1998 has been a passion for music, along with an apparent wish to share the goods round, which came across in the genial, encouraging way they worked with the kids involved on this show.

Taking into account this outing on the airwaves and their own recorded musical output, the zany samples they employ, and their enigmatic live performances - and the manner in which they’ve won over some of my more seasoned, cynical peers here in Japan - these guys obviously have a disarming sense of humor, yet in interviews like this it’s one they tend to underplay.

“Personally I like humor,” hedges Fukuda, “but it’s not always necessary in my music.”
Miyata shrugs. “I wish audiences would dance and have fun rather than being serious and dark,” he suggests.

In my case I jumped on the Hifana ship quite late. I first stumbled across them in 2006, when I picked up Hifana Presents Nampooh Cable at the HMV megastore in Yokohama.

It was the cover that snagged me - designed by Juicy Mama’s brother.

“The major influences on my art have been manga and ukiyo-e,” reports the Osaka-born, Tokyo-dwelling Maharo (real name undisclosed) three years on. To my mind he’s developing into one of Japan’s most recognizable young visual artists, having designed some superb event fliers and artwork for CDs, DVDs and vinyl, as well as murals and for shoji (paper panel doors).

“For printing, usually I draw with a pencil, scan it, then complete the image with a PC,” Maharo says of his output. “For murals, I use color gesso.”

He also does some hilarious character designs for video, with the stand-outs being the Hifana clips.

Soundwise, Hifana Presents Nampooh Cable was a compilation that included a wide range of musically adept Japanese peers such as DJ/performance artist Tucker, Professor Chinnen, R&B vocalist Keyco, dub guru Zura, Incredible Beatbox Band, and 2002 DMC World DJ Final champion (and Ninja Tune regular), DJ Kentaro.

Maharo’s yellow/red/black/white artwork may have been the hook, but the music that awaited therein - co-produced by people calling themselves Nampooh Office and the Groundriddim Crew - was nothing short of devastating shill. Hifana Presents Nampooh Cable drift-netted my senses and won me over in an instant; I’ve been a Hifana fan ever since.

As it ends up, that 2006 treasure-trove discovery relates to Hifana’s upcoming body of work.

“We’re currently supervising the compilation Nampooh Cable 2, which will be coming out soon,” the boys reported late last year, and there's now a vinyl promo teaser that you can get hold of.

“We’re also in production for our upcoming third album - as well as planning to release scratch vinyl for DJs. We’re also doing session jams, producing music for various other projects, and pursuing our individual DJ activities.”

Hifana has been nothing short of frenetic over the past few years, especially in the live performance domain - an area in which they’re particularly admired and strikingly innovative.

A decade ago Coldcut and Hexstatic king hit me with live gigs in which they entangled visuals with audio; Hifana have taken those inroads a step higher, folding in an intuitive understanding of their machines (turntables, samplers, effects units and DVJ decks) that’s somewhat scary. Their live show, which they dub Fresh Push Breakin’ (actually the name of their first album in 2003), is as much an eye-opening haymaker as it is aurally insane.

Their only disclaimer? “We enjoy creating freely by not being prepossessed.”

Essential parts of that freestyle creativity are Hifana’s found-sound samples, one of the joys of the duo’s live and recorded work - whether or not you speak their tongue. “Japanese narration on vintage vinyl is so funny,” they both espouse. These Hifana then layer above and beneath hip hop beats, bleeps, train announcements, and some glorious pop-culture schlock. “Out of these recordings you can create some fresh tunes, we just have to pay close attention till they combine well.”

The second Hifana album, Channel H (2005), came with 15 music tracks - and 13 music videos created by a collaboration of Juicy, +cruz (Eric Cruz), the VJ Gec group, and Maharo.

One of these videos, for the track ‘Wamono’ (which has Maharo-designed caricatures of KEIZOmachine! and Juicy riding out a Katsushika Hokusai-style animated giant wave, giant fish, and chance encounters with singing mermaids), won an Excellence Award in the Entertainment/Interactive Art category at the 2005 Japan Media Arts Festival.

“We don't really wish our visual images to best explain our music,” Fukuda and Miyata assert. “We're just enjoying the collaboration with our visual team. Hifana wants to show audiences something we think is a fresh live performance, along with the improvements in DJ equipment.”

Which relates back to the music.

“I love music,” Fukuda says with disarming simplicity. “And as for making club music, it seemed so much faster for me to create it, even before I began to dig it. In the process of creating this music, I mostly enjoy the rough sketch of the idea as it starts to become music.”

The man known as Juicy Mama sees things in a shade more practical. “I think I enjoy making music because I’ve been playing in bands since my school days. But as a part of creation, I also enjoy drafting the ideas themselves into finished sounds.”

Esteemed Japanese film directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu take a backseat - “I like Hitoshi Matsumoto,” Miyata says, “and I recommend his on-line short film Zassa [see below], which I saw on YouTube. His Big Man Japan is my recent favorite kaiju movie” - and, as for nominating the best ever Japanese musician, both opt for a rock muso: Lyricist and composer Kiyoshiro Imawano, who died in May 2009.

“He was the master of beautiful melodies, he had messages in his lyrics, he was rebel-minded, and had a sense of humor.”

Images © by Maharo & W+K Tokyo Lab