Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ken Ishii: Bonus Extra

Ken Ishii has been one of my fave techno and electronic musos since 1995, when I first stumbled across a little record titled ‘Extra’ released through R&S Records.

While a superb track unto itself, ‘Extra’ offered not only three of the coolest remixes of 1995 (by Luke Slater, Dave Angel, and Luke Vibert in Wagon Christ mode) but also one of the most insanely brilliant video clips ever made – an anime outing conjured up by none other than Koji Morimoto at Studio 4ºC.

Over the intervening 15 years Ishii has released innumerable EPs, albums and remixes (most recently one for my Sydney mate DJ Hi-Shock) through esteemed labels Sublime, Studio !K7, and more recently his own label 70Drums – through which, at the beginning of this year, he released the brilliant KI15 – The Episodes double-CD.

On top of his personal production work (as Rising Sun, UTU and Flare along with his own moniker) Ishii worked as a sound recordist in 1998 Darren Aronofsky’s movie Pi, and he’s been Japan’s #1 techno DJ/ambassador for years.

I’ve been lucky enough to interviewed him a few times since ‘98 on a variety of subjects, from music itself through to Star Trek and Akira Kurosawa, and he’s given us some honest feedback and invaluable suggestions with regard to our label IF?.

Anyway, a few months back I was preparing a book on Tokyo/Japanese culture from a more offbeat perspective, and in the process interviewed several talking heads I both respected and admired; unfortunately the publishing company, after initially green-lighting the project, killed it and several others when the financial downturn kicked into gear.

So, rather than bury an entertaining chat from a less-tread angle, I decided to run with the interview here.

What do you think is the coolest place in Tokyo, and why would you take foreigners there when they visit?

Tsukiji, where the big fish market is. There are hundreds of traditional food stores and sushi restaurants in one small area as well. There’s almost no influence from Western culture that you can see around this area – that's why.”

What do you think is the most off-beat place in Tokyo?

“Akihabara. It’s originally an area for you to buy home electronics, but it has turned into a Mecca for otaku people over the past 10 to 15 years. I can’t even keep up with the changes. You can discover lots weird people/scenes you can’t see in Shibuya or Aoyama.”

What are both the good and bad points of Tokyo for you personally?

“Tokyo is handy, you can get whatever you want any time: the modern, the traditional, the Asian and the Western. However it’s far from anywhere else – from Europe, North and South America, and even from most of the other Asian countries. And it’s hectic and there are too many people everywhere.”

Do you like sake?

“I drink sake only when I have good traditional Japanese food, so I don’t have much knowledge about it.”

What’s the best Japanese beer?

Premium Malts from Suntory is definitely the best beer from our country.”

What has been you favorite anime in your lifetime?

Akira, since it led the existence of anime into another level with its more futuristic and spiritual vision. It also widened the anime market – it created a more adult and serious fanbase in the scene.”

Who do you think has been the most important Japanese electronic artist to date, including people like YMO and Isao Tomita?

“You already have my answer - YMO and Isao Tomita. If I add one more, Plastics.”

Do you like matsuri [summer festivals]?

“I used to go to a village dance festival – we call it bon odori – every summer when I was a child. No reason; everybody loves bon odori in this country!”

What do you think of girls who wear traditional Japanese garb like kimono, obi and geta?

“I find them nice, as it’s simply beautiful. However it’s not easy to wear kimono properly and therefore rare to see young women who wear this in real life, actually.”

By the way, as a closer, here's that acclaimed video for 'Extra':

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tokyo International Anime Fair 2010

I've loved Stan Lee since making the goldmine discovery of ancient '60s Marvel comics in the shed of my grandmother Nanny Bergen's house in Richmond, Melbourne.

The titles that grabbed me then were The Avengers, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and The X-Men, and my admiration of Lee increased two-fold when I was about 12 and sent him my idea of an Aussie super hero called Southern Cross (yep, he had the Eureka flag emblazoned across his chest) - and Stan "The Man" actually wrote back to say that he liked it.

He didn't actually use it - but he said he liked it. 'Nuff said, and all that jazz.

Which brings me to a discovery I made yesterday at the first day of this year's Tokyo International Anime Fair.

We call it "TAF" for short; for reasons as-yet-unknown, the organizers drop the “I” bit, maybe because it just looks better in terms of the logo design.

Think displays by anime producers like Production I.G, Gonzo, Mad House, Toei, Studio Ghibli, Aniplex, Sunrise, and Bandai flaunting their upcoming wares, and not just the scantily clad pseudo-cosplay girls outside their booths.

TAF is also the host of the annual Tokyo Anime Awards and this year’s Animation of the Year was Mamoru Hosoda’s superb Summer Wars.

Anyway I'm digressing (as usual).

One of the best anime studios, Bones (they made Fullmetal Alchemist and Wolf's Rain) had a stall that featured this giant fellow (above) and a bunch of fliers promoting Heroman (ヒーローマン), a new series set to start screening on Japan's TV Tokyo this April.

It's billed as "Stan Lee's newest superhero" and credits him as original creator, with scripting on the show by Gyo Yamatoya (Naruto).

This year's TAF (my ninth in a row) was that kind of event - oddly surprising, occasionally invigorating, yet on the whole a wee bit lacklustre compared with its predecessors.

While the industry proved that there's still a lot of life to it there was no stand-out anime series or movie to talk up here, no Summer Wars or Ghost Hound; no new series of Fullmetal Alchemist.

One of my favourite animation companies, Studio 4°C, did however have these funky underpants retailing for ¥4,000.

There were also some interesting looking series I'll probably get round to talking up once I finish wading through the hundreds of posters and fliers you get swamped with at these events.

Live action rather than anime-wise, there was some promotion for December's big budget remake of Space Battleship Yamato (宇宙戦艦ヤマト) and Klockworx has a new movie coming out in May called Big Tits Zombies (it's subtitled Deadly DD-Cups).

No doubt we'll be reporting more on that shortly.

“TAF is the Mecca for anime fans around the world,” Makoto Tsumita, the former marketing manager for the international division of essential anime production house Gonzo, told me about three years ago.

At that time Japan produced almost two thirds of the animation watched around the globe, “and 70 percent of this is produced in Tokyo,” a spokesperson for the TAF Executive Committee Secretariat told me in article that year for the now defunct Geek Monthly, making the argument that this city was the natural setting for the hugely successful anime trade affair.

“It’s the best place for foreign buyers to find everything under the same roof,” reported Stephane-Enric Beaulieu, a spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

In 2007 the event drew close to 107,713 people over four days, up 8.8% from the previous year’s attendance. If yesterday is anything to go by, we may see a dip this year - they had 13,076 visitors on the first day, albeit business-only.

Also, thanks to the success of Avatar, there's a heavy fixation this year on anime in 3D; at the Gonzo booth you can catch comparisons of 2D and 3D renderings of Last Exile and Blassreiter, and neither series - even though I dug both in their original format - looked so cool as they do with this technology.

TAF opens its doors to the general public over the weekend, and takes place at the cavernous Tokyo Big Sight - 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.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ryuhei Kitamura versus Kitamura Ryuhei

"Versus was the movie that changed my life and it means everything to me. The spirit of it is pure me and that's why it was so special. Fight your destiny, find out who you are, fight through to the end for your love; it ain't over till it's over... That theme and message came from within me."

So assesses Ryuhei Kitamura in a moment of absolute clarity.

These moments are peppered right throughout any interview with the Japanese director; far from being a scatter-logical talking head or playing things close to his chest with a bunch of guarded one-word answers, like some of his more famous brethren, Kitamura unfurls things freely and easily and occasionally hits home with these moment-of-certainty comments.

Versus (2000) was Kitamura's big breakout movie, a canny combination of action and horror that in many ways has served to define or at the very least delineate his work since.

"It's all me," he agrees. "It's all Ryuhei Kitamura-style, and I'm not going to try to change or steer away from anything. I'm only trying to get better." Versus, it becomes clear, was an apotheosis in Kitamura's career; a punctuation mark he always tends to refer to for its apparent sense of purity in his cinematic vision.

"When I was making it exactly ten years ago I hadn't even started off my career properly, I had no money, and a very murky future. But somehow I had faith in myself, and all the cast and crew believed in me and gave me the incredible courage to finish it."

Kitamura pauses for just a moment.

"I don't know how I survived two years of making the film, but somehow I did and here I am now. Versus is me. It was the very beginning, and now there will be a new Versus. It's part of my life and I can't escape that."

The new Versus he's talking about is Versus 2, which is already listed on but the director admits he hasn't actually started it yet.

"This year [2010] will be tenth anniversary year of Versus so I'm thinking of doing something special. The original film means a lot to me and has huge fans all over the world, so I can't do anything easy or cheap - I can't guarantee anything in the long run, it's a definite that I'll do the new Versus in the future for sure."

At the moment Kitamura says he's in post-production on Shadows, a movie he's producing rather than directing. "It's a supernatural horror takes place in Thailand, and I'm working with writer/director John Penney and stars Cary Elwes and William Hurt. I'm producing many projects now."

On top of this Kitamura is also in pre-production on a movie he's going to direct that's called Taekwon.

"It's my version of The Karate Kid and it takes place in Korean Town in Osaka, Japan. It's the story of a Japanese street-fighting kid who meets a Korean taekwondo martial arts expert. I wrote the script and am producing the movie now; we start shooting this spring."

Just over five years ago Kitamura had wrapped up the final installment in Japan's longest, most misunderstood cinematic franchise, when he helmed Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004.

It was somehow equally appropriate that Kitamura's style and intent on the finale was equally misunderstood in some quarters.

The critical reaction was a startlingly mixed bag, as reflected in the movies 50% rating on, with some calling it 'A rush of explosive excitement' (Cinefantastique) and others claiming it focused too much on action and not enough on story (Boston Globe).

Personally I loved everything about Final Wars - it was all too apparent that it'd been made by a fellow old-school aficionado of the humble kaiju (Japanese monster) movie.

Kitamura himself recalls the experience with obvious relish. "It was great!" he enthuses.

"I mean, it was Godzilla. It was the 50th anniversary. And it was the final movie. Who could say no? It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I had a great time making it and am very proud of the movie. I even decided to use the old fashioned man-in-rubber-suits style and it was pure fun - think big explosions and motorcycle chases, and I even got to shoot a few scenes in Sydney, where I'd learned film making in the first place. Lots of great memories."

Final Wars was the 28th Godzilla movie - so it's pertinent to know whether or not the director sat through all the previous 27 films before shooting his own.

"Yeah, I did," Kitamura confirms.

"In fact I loved the Godzilla movies back in the '70s, but not so much the ones released in the 1980s and '90s. Godzilla movies back in the '70s were never just monster movies... There were always messages and themes that reflected the time and world within which they were made, and they combined this so well with straight-out entertainment. They lost that touch in the '80s. I'm an honest guy and that's what I told the producer in the first meeting. Strangely, the producer liked what I said and I was hired to do something that was not only new, but also classic in a sense."

So is the kaiju movie still alive and well in Japan in 2010?

"I don't think so. These days, Japanese film studios are only interested in making dramas based on novels, manga or another TV series. Nobody wants to do expensive, old-fashioned kaiju movies. For me, the beauty of the kaiju movie is the retro man-in-rubber-suits style, not CG; it has more soul. Godzilla: Final Wars was the last movie made in that style. I'd be more than happy to revive the tradition in the future and do a new kaiju movie."

Kitamura has previously let it be known that his favourite kaiju character is King Caesar, who first appeared in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla in 1974 - then reappeared 30 years later in Final Wars.

"I simply love that original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla movie," says the director. "The moment King Caesar wakes up is my favourite moment in all of the Godzilla movies. It was so hard to choose which monsters would be in Final Wars - everybody has their favourite, and unfortunately we couldn't put them all in. So some tough choices had to be made."

Some foreign audiences know Kitamura best for Azumi (2003), a film that turned out to be an energetic, sometimes touching, and definitely underrated action set-piece that was dubbed ninja J-pop by one reviewer.

"It was my first big movie, based on a manga comic that was a huge influence in my own style," he muses.

"It took me two long years from start to end; I put all my energy into it and I'm so proud of it. The producer, Mata Yamamoto, hired me after he watched Versus. That was back when I was a complete nobody, and he gave me the big break and also believed in me. I was an angry, young, reckless director, and we had so much fun and a lot of fights making that movie."

It turns out that the original manga, by Yu Koyama, was a pivotal factor in Kitamura's own development as an artist and filmmaker.

"I grew up reading the great comics of Yu Koyama. He was my favourite comic author, so I was extremely happy when I got this job [to make Azumi], but also it created an unbelievable sense of pressure because I loved the comic so much. Then again, I realized that I understood the spirit of Azumi better than any other director, so I was 100 percent confident that I was the right one to accomplish the mission."

Joe Odagiri's turn as the effete killer Bijomaru Mogami is as funny as it is eerily scary - it turns out like an amalgam of British vocalist Morrissey's live performance tic in the '80s (when he inanely tossed flowers into the crowd) blended with Ben Kingsley, in Sexy Beast mode, dressing up as Boy George.

"The original comic series is really long - there are something like 48 volumes, a huge story arc, and tons of characters - so it was very difficult but really important to choose which episode and which character to incorporate. I thought about it again and again and created an original story for the movie, and for that chose Bijomaru for the main enemy. I think I made the right choice, and Joe Odagiri did a fantastic job."

Some of the criticisms of Azumi were that it was too violent, especially given the laid-back, somewhat zany nature of the opening part of the story. By the end, with Azumi herself drenched in blood and most of the principle characters dead, the scenario could be seen as quite bleak.

"I agree, and that's what I wanted to do. It's easy for me to make movies without blood or violence, but Azumi wasn't that kind of movie," Kitamura says.

"The whole concept was about war, life, death and terrorism. I never agree that having violence in a movie is a bad influence on kids. F**k no. It's not a f**king videogame," he asserts.

"Not that I mean anything against video games; I love them. What I mean to say is that kids shouldn't feel that killing is just like playing a video game. I was making a live-action movie, and Azumi was serious - not like more fun movies Versus or Midnight Meat Train. Azumi had to feel real and painful when she's killing somebody."

Kitamura puts it another way: "If you cut someone... it hurts, and blood comes out, and that's what the audience should feel.

"With this movie I couldn't go into a clean, sterile safety zone. I know if I took out the violence and thus avoided the ratings issue, and maybe cut out 20 minutes to make it a two-hour movie, it would've been a much bigger hit - but I just couldn't do that. I had to do the right thing for the story. That's the most important thing for me. Violence and length were the two big issues I had to fight about all the way through. I'm just glad I had the strength to fight till the end, and kept the movie I really wanted it to be."

Azumi was also actress Aya Ueto's big break, and she shone in the pivotal title role.

"We met more than 150 beautiful actresses and couldn't find our Azumi," Kitamura recalls.

"One day I saw Aya on a local poster for a baseball campaign, and I instantly knew that it was her. She was an absolute nobody at that time and I had to fight against everyone else to cast her. I only feel respect and love for Aya - she's a wonderful girl and an amazing actress. We did a new animation movie together called Baton this year," for the City of Yokohama 150th anniversary celebrations.

Direction of the sequel, titled Azumi 2: Death or Love, fell into the hands of Death Note director Shusuke Kaneko.

When I ask for Kitamura's opinion on this sequel, he responds with another of those moments of clarity I mentioned.

"I don't want to answer this question. The fact that there was never an Azumi 3 is the answer. I have nothing against Mr. Kaneko - he's been a great supporter of me since Versus. But I don't want to even think about Azumi 2."

Which brings us full circle to how he actually first got started making movies.

"I grew up watching movies back in the '70s and '80s - Hollywood, Japanese, Australian, Italian; action, horror, sci-fi, drama... everything!" He laughs. "I spent most of my time in cinemas and didn't go to school much. Movies were instead my school, my teacher, my life.

"When I was 17, I started thinking about my future and it was natural for me to decide that I'd become a film director. It all started as my fantasy, my own imagination, and I could make that real... That's the best thing about movie making. So I promptly quit high school, went to Australia, and entered film school. That was the beginning."

Why Australia?

"For simple reasons. Mad Max, director Russell Mulcahy, and INXS, all of these together conspired to make me go Down Under.

"I wasn't great student at school, I was poor, but those were happy days for me. From 1987 to 1989 I went to the School of Visual Arts in Sydney, I lived in Paddington, Rose Bay and North Sydney. I love Australian movies and Australian rock - not only INXS but also James Reyne, Jimmy Barnes, Icehouse... I still love them."

Citing favourite international film directors is deceptively easy - "James Cameron, George Miller, Peter Weir" - but when it comes to chalking up a list of preferred fellow Japanese directors, Kitamura stumbles.

"That's a tough question to answer. There have been too many great directors in Japan, and I can't pick just one or two," he then sighs.

"However, that said I feel bad that I can't find so many directors that I respect in Japan these days. But if I had to choose just one... I'd say Shunji Iwai [Fried Dragon Fish]. I really admire his talent and highly respect him. I think Swallowtail Butterfly [1996] is one of the most original and beautiful Japanese movies ever made."

Finally, as per a recent interview bent, I just have to ask Kitamura what he thinks is the most offbeat place in Tokyo. Interestingly enough, he opts out of the city altogether.

"Tokyo is a boring city," he asserts.

"I love my hometown, Osaka. I think it's Latin Japan - totally different from Tokyo, more funky, more crazy, and more sexy."

To get you in the mood for Versus 3, here's the trailer for the one that started it all a decade ago:

Interview © 2010 Andrez Bergen
‘Godzilla: Final Wars’ images © 2004 Toho Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved
‘Versus’ images © WEVCO / Napalm films / KSS

Monday, March 22, 2010

Masayuki Yoshinaga: Goth Lolita Guru

Masayuki Yoshinaga and I have a couple of things in common.

We were both born in the same year, we relocated our lives to Tokyo, and the two of us like to indulge in a spot of photography.

But Osaka-born Yoshinaga has had a tiny bit more success behind the viewfinder than I’ve stumbled across here in Japan – he’s had solo exhibitions at the Parco Galleries in Tokyo and Nagoya and was part of a group exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art.

Above and beyond the impressive local inroads, however, his images were also exhibited at the Dazed & Confused Gallery in London as part of the JAM: Tokyo-London Exhibition at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery in 2001, at the Barbican Gallery in London in 2002, and at M Wakasa Presents and the International Center of Photography in New York in 2008.

“I selected the option ‘taking photographs as a job’ when I started out,” quipped Yoshinaga when I asked him how he landed so well with his tripod, working in a competitive industry.

Another probable reason for this photographer’s success has been his penchant, over the past decade, to specialize in a peculiar niche form of what he calls “documentary” happy snaps of marginalized fragments of Japanese society trying to express their individuality in the oppressive mainstream – hence images of the noisy, nocturnal bozozuku (teenage biker gangs) swathed in nationalist paraphernalia, as well as non-Japanese East Asian and Middle Eastern faces; Yoshinaga cites the gritty work of Daido Moriyama and Miyako Ishiuchi as his favorite photography.

While the man's range is diverse he remains best known outside Japan for a range of images and famous snapshots - showcased at overseas exhibitions as well as in books and magazines that explore sub cultural Japan - that have been more glam than gritty.

These are Yoshinaga’s photos of gosu-rori, or “Goth-Loli” – the hydra like subculture that derives its name from a fusion of gothic romanticism with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita.

Think a quirky combination of regular gothic apparel (all black, with occult and punk overtones) and the vaguely prepubescent chic of girls who wear doll-like Victorian dresses with frills, ribbons and jaunty bonnets – though it’s dubious whether Nabokov would actually recognize his own creation here.

Several off-shoot styles have emerged, such as ama-loli (Sweet Lolita) and Classic Lolita, along with guro-rori – also known as Grotesque Lolita or Injured Lolita, this latter take features some ‘essential’ accessories like fake blood, eye patches, and bandages which are flaunted above and beyond the frilly lace, to give the appearance of Crash-like injuries David Cronenberg would also find appealing.

In its various incarnations Goth-Loli’s influence is evident in manga and anime, with standouts being Nana, Paradise Kiss, Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, xxxHolic, Death Note, Chobits, Le Chevalier D'Eon and Rozen Maiden.

It’s also seeped into Japanese movies –most noticeably in 2004’s Kamikaze Girls (下妻物語, Shimotsuma Monogatari ), directed by Tetsuya Nakashima, as well as Kentaro Otani’s two live-action Nana off-shoots – and blame Goth-Loli for coining the flamboyant wardrobes of visual kei bands like Dir en gray and Malice Mizer.

Yoshinaga himself – who tells us he was initially attracted to the subculture “Because it’s a world I don’t understand” – did close-ups of around 500 Goth-Loli youths in the streets of Tokyo throughout 2006, placing them at underground clubs, next to shrines, and in private abodes.

The resultant images showcase both the singularity and diversity of a remarkably pacific counterculture, and they underscore the sense that here, too, is a uniform for these kids to wear with pride albeit one that’s offbeat and oddly cute and (mostly) nowhere near a sailor suit.

The photographer ended up releasing much of this work in his book (called Gothic & Lolita, suitably enough) for publishing company Phaidon.

Indeed, Yoshinaga believes his photography acts as a key to understanding better the people he shoots. “With a camera as a medium, or as a mediation device, I can get to know people, worlds and cultures that I otherwise wouldn’t comprehend,” he remarks.

During the decade that Yoshinaga has worked to thus establish himself, photography has been in flux, with traditional ISO photographic film stock being gradually superseded by digital technology.

This particular shutterbug, however, is keen to hedge his bets and embrace both mediums.

“I can’t say which is best,” Yoshinaga muses without any noticeable drift toward a single preference. “It depends on the subject and theme.”

Most people would be excused for thinking that Tokyo, a city of 12 million people that gave birth to Goth-Loli and often destroys itself in its Godzilla movies, has its quirks – and there’s no doubt in my mind that Yoshinaga has witnessed plenty of these during his lengthy photographic apprenticeship.

He even cites the city’s “congestion and density” as two of the major inspirations on his photography here.

Yet his vote for Tokyo’s Most Offbeat facet is in itself curiously odd: “I feel strange that subways don’t run 24 hours in Tokyo,” he mulls.

Photos © Masayuki Yoshinaga

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hiroshi Abe's New Trick

I like Hiroshi Abe.

The last time I saw him (aside from in recurrent TV advertising here in Japan) was in the 2008 reshooting of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 epic Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress) – the movie that George Lucas has admitted made such a huge impression on the shooting script for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

As a samurai, General Makabe (in another role played by the late, great Toshiro Mifune) turns out to be perhaps the most fearless and honourable man alive – as well as one of the more charismatic and inspiring. He’s got that rousing leader quality, the sort Russell Crowe delivered in Gladiator, Edward James Olmos brandishes on Battlestar Galactica, and King Hal throws about in the pages of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

It’s also the kind you just didn’t get at all from Orlando Bloom in Kingdom Of Heaven nor Yuji Oda in the 2007 remake of another Kurosawa classic, Tsubaki Sanjuro.

In Star Wars, General Makabe ended up necessarily spliced into the two characters handled by Harrison Ford (as Han Solo) and Alec Guiness (Obi-Wan Kenobi).

And while the original Kurosawa title literally translates as “The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress”, any mention of villainy and/or camouflaged bunkers were eschewed in the title of the lacklustre 2008 incarnation with Hiroshi Abe, which opted instead for The Last Princess.

Possibly they had Leia more in mind. “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece,” Kurosawa, who also co-wrote the story for The Hidden Fortress, once said.

“With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film.”

In the driving seat this just-passable second time round (or the third, if you want to include Star Wars) was Shinji Higuchi, a man respected for his skills with SFX and story boarding rather than any panache as a director.

Higuchi previously helmed Lorelei (2005) and Japan Sinks the following year; his choice for the role originally played by Mifune and the one that inspired Han Solo?

Former model and regular TV actor Abe – himself a capable individual who unfortunately, in this case, lacked the raw charisma of either Mifune or Ford in their prime.

But as I mentioned I do dig the man's work, in everything from his TV activities to Godzilla 2000 (ゴジラ2000 ミレニアム Gojira ni-sen mireniamu, actually made in 1999).

And his best role to date has been his cynical physics professor, Jiro Uedain, out to debunk things supernatural in the recurring TV series and cinema incarnations of the surreal Trick.

It's witty, pokes fun at a lot of other more dramatic TV programs and movies, has some hilarious recurring and cameo characters, and co-stars the sublime Yukie Nakama... as the hokey failed magician Naoko Yamada.

So the good news is that there's a new Trick movie upcoming in May (the release date is 8th May 2010), starring Abe, Nakama and an array of other suitably oddball characters.

It's called Gekijoban Trick: Reinouryokusha Battle Royale and is directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who did the recent 20th Century Boys movies.

Here's the trailer:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Japanese Americans!

It's official: I'm typecast as a walk-on WWII era American MP, at least according to Japanese cinema.

If anybody actually bothers to read this hack blog you may've stumbled across a story about a previous outing I had in the movie I Want To Be A Shellfish (私は貝になりたい Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai, 2008), starring Yukie Nakama (Shinobi, Trick) and Masahiro Nakai (SMAP), directed by Katsuo Fukuzawa.

I did another film role yesterday, for 16 hours at the stunning, historic Tamioka silk mill in Gunma - just over 2 hours from Tokyo - for an upcoming TBS TV series called Japanese Americans (橋田壽賀子ドラマ) also directed by former rugby player Fukuzawa.

This time the stars were Nakama alongside SMAP's Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Death Note actor Kenichi Matsuyama, and veteran actress Pinko Izumi - who kindly offered donuts to me and Jon, the only other gaijin on the set.

Apparently this blog's ol' fave Kiichi Nakai is also starring in the show, but sadly he wasn't in the scenes they shot with the other actors (above) yesterday.

Yep, I'm an MP again - this time at the beginning of WWII, shepherding Japanese Americans into a detention camp. When will they figure out that my accent is all wrong for these rolls?

And, in the grand scheme of things, what's it all about anyway?

Well, this autumn TBS plans to broadcast the five-episode drama series, written by screenwriter Sugako Hashida, to coincide with their 60th anniversary. It apparently is set to focus on a Japanese family who emigrated to the United States around a century back and their tribulations with the advent of the Pacific War. You can read more about the plot HERE.

Crazy time as usual, particularly six MPs (none of whom were really American; think instead one Aussie, one Brit, and four fill-in Japanese crew members) lining up in formation and marching around a compound for a couple of hours on end - in the late evening in what felt like sub-zero temperatures, but probably wasn't... quite.

Ahhh, the things we do for art - and a fistful of yen. Go figure.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Doraemon ドラえもん

The latest Doraemon movie hit cinema screens across Japan yesterday (Saturday 6th March) to much hoo-har on TV.

Nobita's Great Battle of the Mermaid King (映画ドラえもん のび太の人魚大海戦, Eiga Doraemon Nobita no Ningyo Daikaisen) will quite possibly it'll surge straight to the number one spot in box office receipts in the very first weekend or two it plays here, if previous Doraemon outings are any indication.

This isn’t some recent-hit sensation and in fact the title has a history to roll up and perish for – or at least swoon over in gob-smacked new ways - in terms of anime. It's actually the 30th feature film in the series.

Doraemon (ドラえもん) started out in manga form in the 1960s, fashioned by Fujiko Fujio – a collaborative smoke screen coined by its real creators, Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motoo Abiko.

It did the big switch to TV in 1973, promptly fizzled, then was revamped by TV Asahi six years later - with character designs by Eiichi Nakamura (of Panda! Go, Panda! notoriety).

When you add in the two dozen odd theatrical movies, you're forced to realize that the franchise continues to be a sizzling property in this country over three decades later.

Doraemon hasn’t surrendered its grip on Japanese TVs or the Japanese everyman’s psyche; I swear that every person in this place can draw his happy face and and every third salaryman or office lady uses one of the series’ theme tunes for their keitai (cell-phone) ring-tones.

There’re Doraemon clocks, pop-up toasters, slot machines, turntables, beer-dispensers, ice-blocks, chocolates, drinks, and every other (in)conceivable merchandising possibility.

It's also the country’s second-longest-running animated TV show after Sazae-san.

When I interviewed the TV series’ producer Daisuke 'Dan' Yoshikawa at TV Asahi a couple of years ago, he was at a loss to explain the somewhat miraculous ongoing popularity of the animated mechanoid feline.

“Various elements – combined - made Doraemon a successful property,” he theorized. “But I think that it’s the storyline that makes it so special.”

So what’s that story about?

Our titular character is a blue, dysfunctional mechanical cat from the future (of course) that boasts a magical, four-dimensional pouch the envy of any self-prepossessing marsupial. He’s been sent back in time to sort out Nobita, a good-for-nothing schoolboy ancestor of the people who built him, sans ears, but usually instead complete mayhem breaks out – including subtle, ingenious anime references to Hollywood cinema classics like West Side Story and The Three Musketeers.

The saga also has some serious psychological eccentricities: For starters, aside from regular panic attacks, our motorized feline suffers from an ongoing musophobia that stems back to the future – to a time in the 22nd century, when his ears were consumed by a robotic mouse.

Hapless schoolboy Nobita is not only a lousy athlete and an abysmal scholar but lazy, cowardly, and selfish to boot.

Despite Nobita’s faults, Yoshikawa believed that he’s “just like all of us! People can relate to Nobita, and his story captures a feeling everyone shares. Not all of us get 0% on tests, but we can understand that feeling.”

It’s Doraemon himself, however, who is the undoubted star of the series.

“People love that adorable, cat-like robot,” Yoshikawa confirmed.

While the TV show focus on Nobita’s bizarre everyday family life and neighbours, the movies go for a more exotic, adventurous edge but they’ve been a tad rear-visionist in recent years: Nobita’s Great Adventure Into The Underworld (2007), for instance, may have been the 27th Dora-chan feature unfurled by distributor TOHO (of Godzilla notoriety; they do on average one Doraemon flick per year) but it’s in fact a rebake of the sixth in the series - released way back in 1984.

While he’s easy to sketch, he has a trademark profile and he’s a downright cute and often hilarious character, another reason for Doraemon’s popularity had for years been the quirky vocal effort of Nobuyo Oyama who did his voice all the way from 1979 until 2005.

After such a long haul, that year a bunch of the series’ seiyuu including Oyama and Noriko Ohara (Nobita from 1979 as well as the voice of Nobita’s mum in the 1973 original series) quite understandably bowed out of the series as both people were hitting the age of 70, and made way for new blood.

The transition annoyed some long-time fans of the series but overall passed relatively painlessly for TV Asahi and the show’s producers.

“The main characters are the same,” Yoshikawa said.

Besides, voice changes and exotic locations are not the big issue here, not anywhere as appealing as Doraemon and Nobita themselves, their time traveling exploits and outrageous futuristic devices, their essentially whacked-out neighbourhood buddies and an insane overriding story arc.

These have made Doraemon a hit also in China and South Korea, yet he remains a largely unknown entity in the English-speaking world – a happenstance that I truly believe to be bordering on unforgivable ignorance.

Just look at the evidence: Our fave feline was voted “cool” by 19 votes to 10 (three people opted out ‘cos they didn’t know who Doraemon was) in a two-month poll at the highly esteemed website – just check out:

By the way, we are kidding you. Really. It’s not quite as esteemed as all that.

© 藤子プロ・小学館・テレビ朝日・シンエイ・ADK 掲載の記事・写真・イラスト等のすべてのコンテンツの無断複写・転載を禁じます

Friday, March 5, 2010

Much Ado About Ponyo

It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, straight after releasing their landmark epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (alias 風の谷のナウシカ, Kaze no Tani no Naushika, 1984).

While Nausicaä was groundbreaking stuff in and of itself, Miyazaki - the animator/director behind it - later set about with Ghibli to change completely the way in which we perceive animation, via the release of Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) in 2001.

But if you really want to look at the heritage behind the latest Studio Ghibli international offering – Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (崖の上のポニョ, Gake no Ue no Ponyo), out now in Australia and North America even though it was actually released in Japan almost two years ago – you need to funnel short-attention-spans back beyond Spirited Away.

There were a bevy of equally vital Miyazaki/Ghibli offerings sandwiched between 1984 and 2001, often with a pinch or two of their hallmark moments of freestyle genre-defying, refreshing humour, and an implicit disarming madness.

All these movies are a gem within their own right, each and every one laden with legions of fans pushing this or that as the Holy Grail of Ghibli anime.

For some, My Neighbour Totoro (となりのトトロ, Tonari no Totoro, 1988) stands highest among these and I'd probably pipe up in their favour.

While nowhere near as thematically complex as Spirited Away or Nausicaä – the titular character here indulges in lots of top-flying, snoozing and cat bus travel – the real stars of this Miyazaki flick are four-year-old Mei and her older sister Satsuki, along with the idyllic Japanese rural backdrop that the animator/director seems to believe has been lost.

The other Miyazaki movies are equal treats in completely diverse ways. Think action and adventure in Castle in the Sky (天空の城ラピュタ, Tenku no Shiro Laputa, 1986), witches and adolescence in Kiki's Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, Majo no Takkyubin, 1989), flying pigs and anti-fascism in Porco Rosso (紅の豚, Kurenai no Buta, 1992), environmentalism in Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke-hime, 1997), and just about everything else in Howl's Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城, Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, 2004).

Despite being now aged 69 (his birthday was in January), and having threatened to retire several times over in the past decade, Miyazaki continues to be the international golden boy of Japanese animation thanks to a belated Oscar in 2004 for Best Animated Feature (for Spirited Away) – and for this "latest" movie, Ponyo, which was an entrant in the Venice Film Festival and was officially submitted for nomination at the next Oscars (but missed out in favour of American fare like Pixar's Up, Coraline and Disney's The Princess and the Frog).

There's also a new Ghibli movie in the works. Called The Borrower Arrietty (借りぐらしのアリエッティ, Karigurashi no Arrietty), it's set for release in July - although this time directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi rather than Miyazaki. Yonebayashi previously did Key Animation on Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo.

With this latest romp Miyazaki has here seen fit to reinvent his vision once again through the wondrous eyes of children. In this case those eyes belong to a changeling young fish-girl, the Ponyo of the title, who goes AWOL from her dad's underwater lair to explore the big wide world but ends up instead stranded in a small fishing village where five-year-old Sosuke lives.

Already the ages should give you the gist of what to expect, with the wealth of imagination owned by a five-year-old allowing Miyazaki open slather to create a freewheeling visual platform for the madcap rush that ensues, during which mistaken vengeance, metamorphosis, manic driving, extinct fish and Noah-type floods all take a role.

It's a far a simpler story-telling technique at play here that owes much more to My Neighbour Totoro than to Spirited Away.

Even so, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea comes across as a visually stunning interpretation of the archetypal fairy tale ("The Little Mermaid"), recast within a Miyazakian dimension that recalls all the best elements of the director's earlier films (especially, for me, Panda! Go, Panda!), along with a bubbling positivity that's been infectious enough to wear down even movie reviewers with a penchant for the cynical.

Ponyo in her human form also bears an unerring resemblance to my 4-year-old daughter Cocoa, so she won me over in no time.

No wonder that the film was released on more screens than any other domestic movie when it was released in Japan in 2008, nor that it took in excess of $150 million at the Japanese box office.

Images © 2007-2010 STUDIO GHIBLI, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Funk Gadget 'Blah Blah' on White Vinyl

I know, I know - this is not really Japan-related, although the original track (which also appears here) was conceived and spat-out in my hack studio here in Tokyo just over a year ago, with the accidental input of the ever-brilliant Paul Birken (long story).

And the remixes concept was also dreamed up here in Japan over the past few months - but the rest of this story, as they say, was a global effort.

The record label is Slidebar Recordings, the sister label of Kitty Corner over in Germany run by Axel Sohns; the artwork is by Marcin Markowski in Poland.

And the remixes are by: Si Begg (Mosquito/Tresor), Patrick Pulsinger (Cheap/Disko B), Dave Tarrida (Tresor/Musick) and Birken (Bonus Round/Tonewrecker).

Oh yeah, and Funk Gadget is me - another of my silly production aliases (I have about 30 of 'em).

This one's a side-project I do for noisier electro/dubstep/cut-up stuff. So, when granted the insane opportunity to conjure up a record for Slidebar (and this lovely WHITE VINYL one at that), I decided to bring along a few of my like-minded mates.

This baby came out last month (February 2010), and you can check out sneak preview sample sounds (and/or order the vinyl, if it's your cuppa tea) here:

Here's the hack video-clip: