Friday, April 30, 2010

Tokyo Disneyland

The keys to this particular magic kingdom have been handled by an organization of amalgamated Japanese companies known under the alias of the Oriental Land Company (OLC), which originally contacted the Walt Disney Company in the 1960s with plans for an amusement park, but were knocked back.

The company reapplied a decade later, and this time succeeded in arranging a licensing contract.

Tokyo Disneyland opened to the general public on April 15th, 1983, and has developed into the most frequently-visited theme park in the world – with over 17 million visitors a year.

Now, with over 45 rides covering an area of 115 acres, Tokyo Disneyland continues to experience larger crowds by the day, to the point that there’s barely room to breathe, let alone stroll, and queues of up to three hours are often the norm on weekends and public holidays.

One time we queued for over two hours for one of the older skool, more humdrum rides - Snow White's Adventures.

Tokyo Disneyland is pretty much modeled on L.A. Disneyland, except for one important omission – there’s no Matterhorn - while the Haunted Mansion here is located in Fantasyland and has the same facade as the one in Walt Disney World in Florida.

There are also attractions unique to Japan’s visitors: the Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour, which features Disney villains, and Pooh's Hunny Hunt - which is a surreal and hilarious spin-out of a ride that just begs to be experienced.

And where else will you experience swash-buckling Pirates of the Caribbean rabble-rousing and carousing... in gruff jidaigeki-style Japanese voices?

If all this isn’t enough, right next door is Tokyo Disneyland Resort's second mega-attraction: Tokyo DisneySea, opened in 2001, and boasting its own array of rides, shows, dining, and so on – including Journey To the Center of the Earth, Sinbad's Storybook Voyage in the faux Arabian Coast area, Storm Rider, Ariel's Kingdom, and the Indiana Jones Temple of the Crystal Skull ride.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Gumyo-ji Temple Sakura Beer

Thanks to Yokohama's oldest surviving place of worship, Gumyo-ji Temple (みょうじ) - which was apparently built a millennium ago - comes one of those joys you stumble across anew even after almost a decade in Japan.

In this case that joy is something that combines two of my favourite interests: beer and sakura (cherry blossoms).

Sakura Beer is a specialty of Gumyo-ji, one I had no idea about until today when my student Toshie - a Yokohama native - presented me with a bottle of the stuff wrapped in Disney character face-cloths (Pluto and Donald, luckily, rather than Mickey).

According to the label, it was brewed using yeast sourced from cherry blossoms grown in the temple's own grounds, and the bottle needs to be gently rolled rather than shaken prior to opening - which I figure is the case with most beers anyway; common sense is international after all.

While this brew is the day's undoubted treasure, the temple itself is also a treat.

It was established by the Shingon sect (supposedly by a priest named Gyoki) somewhere between the 8th century and the 11th and is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, the Eleven-Headed Kannon... a fairly formidable 1.8-meter tall carving that also dates back to around 1,000 years.

Now for that beer.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Toshiro Mifune: Sexy Beast 三船 敏郎

1984 might’ve been the year that the Macintosh was introduced, Terms of Endearment won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Australia swapped national anthems (finally ditching ‘God Save the Queen’), but it was also the year that a major Japanese magazine conducted a national poll; when the results were in the actor Toshiro Mifune, at age 64, was declared the winner of the ‘Most-Japanese Man’ competition – singled out from all Japanese males, past and present, over the nation’s known history.

This is no minor feat when you fathom that the Japanese trace their recorded history back two millennia.

Mifune was prolific in the acting industry long before attempting English language roles in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 or the TV miniseries Shogun.

His filmography at tips the 180 mark, over a hundred of which were produced prior to his turn as Lee Marvin’s violent Man Friday in Hell in the Pacific (1968); the list stretches from his first film in 1947 through to the his death at age 77, fifty years later.

It’s no accident that Akira Kurosawa, the writer/director with whom Mifune did his superior work, orchestrated most of these Japanese films. By the time the rest of the world cottoned on to the actor, he and Kurosawa were estranged, having made their last film together in 1965 after a partnership that lasted almost two decades.

There’s his well-meaning rookie cop, eerily akin to a young Gregory Peck, who loses his gun on public transport in Stray Dog (1949); the brash samurai charlatan in Seven Samurai (1954); his hyperactive, paranoid dynamo in the Macbeth-as-jidaigeki-drama, Throne of Blood (1957); a bespectacled salaryman with the slow-burning vendetta in The Bad Sleep Well (1960); the ailing yakuza gangster in Drunken Angel in 1948.

Over the 98-minute course of Drunken Angel (this is one of Kurosawa’s shorter tales) the actor is by turns brutal and suave; at other moments there’s a scary vitality to his agitated, hollowed out face-of-impending-doom performance – in particular the show-stopping manic turn he makes in a drunken dance hall.

While the film stock may have dated, the style and performance here most certainly hasn’t.

Perhaps the most memorable and famous of Mifune's roles is the blasé, mysterious stranger in Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro the following year – himself the role model for both Clint Eastwood’s and Bruce Willis’ Man with No Name characters in A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.

The stand-out collaboration is debatable, but if you want to angle things in Mifune’s corner, toward the movie in which he rattles bones most as the sexy beast/enfant terrible of old-school Japanese cinema, you’re going to have to settle on 1958, when the actor was 38 and at the height of his stagecraft.

Star Wars aficionados interested in finding out the source material for Episode IV are duty-bound to investigate a B&W movie made that year by Kurosawa in the widescreen TohoScope format, starring Mifune, and originally released in Japan in December – because The Hidden Fortress has most of the key elements of a plot used 19 years later when the first Star Wars movie was released.

But in truth it’s Toshiro Mifune, above and beyond the superior script and direction, who shines.

Cast in the principle role of General Rokurota Makabe, the actor’s turn here sparked the whole ‘sexy thing’ reference in the somewhat dubious headline for this article – and without doubt contributed to his man’s man award in 1984.

As a samurai, General Makabe is perhaps the scariest, 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.

Think effortlessly debonair, man-of-action panache, and gravelly speeches that’d embolden even an inert, pen-pushing sloth like myself to pull myself to my knees, yell a bit, shake a blunt spear about in the air, and cheerfully follow both his magnetic persona and/or twinkling eyes into battle – at least some of the way, before diving for cover.

You just know that Makabe is like Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, and he’ll never actually cop an injury at all. The guy wears serious bravery on his sleeve, and acts like it’s a regular wristwatch.

Most of all, though, while the steely scowl and the gruff baritone are the hallmarks of any encounter with Mifune in the reels of The Hidden Fortress, there’s also a barely repressed machismo that hovers there as he strokes his chin in thought, seemingly not amused or divorced from the events that transpire around him – then throws back his head with riotous laughter, more than a little bit mad.

Each facet is a thrilling moment that keeps your eyes glued on this fascinating, sexy beast of a man and his scene-chewing performance.

Here's just a taste of Mifune & Kurosawa combined.



This story is also online at the Aussie online Filmink site, as they're publishing a 4,000-word (hardly) epic ramble I hacked together to coincide with the Akira Kurosawa centennial-since-his-birth in their May 2010 issue.

All images and clips © Toho.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Super Jetter! 未来から少年スーパージェッター

I know, I know - I'm ready for the quip:


In case you're one of the unlucky many in the dark (actually, this should read about 99.999% of the global population if my calculations are correct) and/or you don't happen to cotton on to the name straight off the bat, Super Jetter is the story of a 30th century crime-fighter who jetted about in a time-skipping vessel called Ryusei-go (Shooting Star).

It played along the same lines – while it's been somewhat overshadowed by - contemporary 1960s anime peer Prince Planet, aka Planet Boy Popi (遊星少年パピイ) over here in Japan.

You can't even begin to compare it with Osamu Tezuka's iconic Astro Boy.

But I really do dig this series and it was commemorated in Japan just a few years back with the release of the CR Super Jetter pachinko machine; there are also some wayward otaku aficionados over here who do remember the man and his spiffy flying car.

One of these is Osamu Kobayashi.

He was the director of the anime fashionista series Paradise Kiss for Madhouse Studios and previously directed Gad Guard, Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad and End of the World; more recently he was a guest director on Gurren Lagann - and way back worked on the 1993 anime reinterpretation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm... better known internationally as Battle Angel Alita, the on-again/off-again live-action love project for director James Cameron.

Super Jetter, according to Kobayashi, was his favourite anime when he was a kid, and the reason for his own abiding affection for the 45-year-old show?

“Because I liked the central character, and the science fiction mind-set was interesting,” he quite simply declares.

It's the simplicity that works for Super Jetter as well. Sadly Osamu Ichikawa, the man who did the voice of Jetter, passed away just last year.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Flower Power 花見-style!

Every spring in Japan, the hanami (花見) – literally “flower viewing” – is a cultural necessity, and it just so happens to be a (sake) barrel of fun as well for those able to get time off work and indulge in some good spirit(s).

While this year's version hasn't really been anything to write about, at least in Tokyo (the weather's been all over the place), usually in March or April - depending upon when precisely the nation’s fabulous cherry blossoms (sakura 桜) decide to unfurl - millions of people unfurl their own blankets in crammed public spaces... ostensibly there to watch the delicate, snow-like shower of flowers, but also to catch up with friends, impress the boss, drink vast quantities of sake, carouse, get drunk, sing, and be raucous in exceptionally unJapanese ways.

These parties often stretch from daytime into the night (when the name is changed to yozakura), and lanterns hung up to drink by and warble prolific.

Needless to say I love it, but regardless set out to uncover just why the custom is so darned popular in the hearts and minds of young Japanese creative types some 1,300 years after it’s said to have kick-started during the Nara Period.

(Director of Tokyo Marble Chocolate, character designer and unit director on Oblivion Island, as well as key animator on Mamoru Oshii's Sky Crawlers and an in-between animator on Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away):
“We Japanese enjoy the different feelings and peculiarities of each and every season.
In spring, we have fun under full-blossomed cherry trees, eating and drinking and romping around with our friends. And the sake you drink, surrounded by pink cherry petals dancing in the air, is somehow tastier than usual. In Japanese, we have even coined the word, hanamizake – which refers to the sake you sip under the cherry trees. Then, of course, you need to be careful not to quaff too much booze...”

(Highly-regarded DJ-around-Tokyo who also makes music under aliases like Captain Funk and OE):

“I'm not specialist about hanami, but I think it’s interesting and so symbolic, and a typical way for Japanese to behave – it’s like a small initiation into Japanese society, especially for people just starting out in companies.
“There are much more important (hidden) elements than seeing (mi) the blossoms (hana) themselves.
“There are also some vital things for any hanami party organizer to consider: (a) deciding who to invite; (b) adjusting schedules of participants; (c) claiming a decent space to actually see the blossoms; (d) preparing sheets, drinks, blankets, karaoke machines, and so on – while ensuring that the boss’s favorite songs are loaded into the karaoke machine; (e) getting everyone together; (f) making sure people who drink too much don’t get into fights, go hunting, or generally kill themselves.
“After that there’s the big clean-up, an assurance to the boss that you’re one very smart and reliable person, and follow-up calls and emails (Otsukare samadesita!).
“Perhaps a good hanami organizer should become a good worker in Japanese society – though it must seem weird to people coming from overseas…
“So, needless to say, I’m not talented enough to organize hanami parties!”

(Director of the Gonzo anime Red Garden):
“My understanding is that hanami is an event that marks a new start for everyone – a new school year, newcomers joining companies, and so on. A lot of people use hanami as a sort of bonding ceremony to welcome freshmen, by making it a big drinking party. I guess that’s because there are many people who cannot bring themselves to open up to others, unless they are spoon-fed the opportunities.
“Personally, I try to take advantage of seasonal events – not only hanami, but other annual events too – as they can provide a punctuation mark to daily life. At the same time, however, I try not to be dependent on them.
“One thing is for sure, though... there’s nothing like sipping sake under cherry blossoms, no matter how cold the weather is. Honestly!”

(Actress in 1 Liter of Tears, Beauty):

“Seeing the cherry blossoms, which mark the beginning of spring, makes me happy.
Sake, food, family, friends… It’s good to get to know each other through the hanami party. When I go to hanami, I feel as if... I wish I could stop time.”

(Director of the anime series Bokurano as well as the Studio Ghibli feature The Cat Returns):
“Cherry trees shed their leaves during the winter, and bloom in springtime, before early summer comes and the leaves begin to sprout anew. Trees that bloom amidst leaves aren’t that uncommon, but in the case of cherry trees, the blossoms dominate the whole leafless tree.
“The sight of a cherry tree in full bloom is such a unique spectacle, and just sitting underneath it makes you feel like you’ve wondered into some ethereal world. It makes you want to spend that special time with your loved ones. I think that the hanami season provokes that kind of sentiment in all Japanese people.”

(DJ/musician better known in Japan as Naotoxin):
“Hanami makes me happy, because spring is my favorite season. We get to enjoy good food and sake and, of course, watch the cherry blossoms. Then I really begin to realize that I’m glad to have been born in Japan. Hanami gives us a great chance to think about how beautiful spring is!”

(The director of anime outings Afro Samurai and Basilisk):
The hanami season coincides with the end and beginning of the school year in Japan, meaning that it is the time of year that graduation and entrance ceremonies are held, or when many people, including new graduates, start new jobs. So, it is the season of parting with old friends, and also meeting new ones.
“Enjoying the beautiful blossoms and the shower of their petals while drinking sake is an activity that makes you realize the Japanese sense of aestheticism, but it is also a very emotional season too, and the beautiful cherry blossoms can have a therapeutic effect in those cases. But since I am not a party-goer, I personally do not enjoy rowdy hanami parties that much...
“There was a rocket-powered kamikaze aircraft, or a manned cruise missile, named ‘Ohka’ (meaning cherry blossom) that was employed by Japan during WWII, and so the ephemeral image of cherry blossoms that begin to shed their petals as soon as they come to full bloom sometimes reminds me of the young souls that died in battle.
Although I’ve never really thought of it this way, I think the cherry blossom season is a very important time of the year for the Japanese people that has been imprinted in our hearts since our childhood.”


(Animator responsible for the iconic Honeinu-kun):
“Well, I think the most important thing is not sake, nor food, and not even the cherry blossoms themselves!
“The most important thing is friends. We plan hanami parties to meet together and talk in a completely unusual situation, in the evening, outside! It’s kind of exciting.
“Oh, and the second most important thing for hanami is a coat – you know, an early April night outside can be very cold!”

(Musician, DJ, Megadolly label boss, former member of Fantastic Plastic Machine - and the man behind Robo*Brazileira):
“Hanami is a good excuse to drink with new and old friends. The immediacy and intransient nature of the cherry blossoms also make people think about relationships and ourselves...
“Especially in my case, as it’s my birthday around the same time!”


(Director of the anime series Dragonaut)
“We often go for a hanami party with the members of our studio. I always hope to go for a hanami again with the staff of the shows!”

Let's hope he enjoyed this year's comparatively lackluster season - which still was fun despite the travails of global warping.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Domo Arigato, Mr. Robota

Some things don't change, like my penchant for things robotic - no real surprise then that the name of my new Little Nobody vinyl EP out today through IF? is 'Robota'.

However there's another trace element influence here. Nope, it's not related to the project by Star Wars art director Doug Chiang - I only just discovered that today on Google while doing hack research for this piece - nor the freaky 'educational and therapeutic devices' promoted here. It isn't even a wayward misspelled homage to Styx's 1983 classic 'Mr Roboto'.

Instead I nicked the name off Wikipedia.

Yep, you read right. I was checking out the entry on robots and the origin of the word, and deep in there I discovered this pearler: "The word robota means literally work, labor or serf labor, and figuratively 'drudgery' or 'hard work' in Czech and many Slavic languages. Traditionally the robota was the work period a serf had to give for his lord, typically 6 months of the year."

Being a lazy git myself with an eye forever on the couch, I decided to call the track 'Robota'. Nothing deeper than that, I'm afraid - though we can always pretend otherwise and toot some people's horns.

For this baby I originally shanghaied into the arrangement Japanese producer Toshiyuki Yasuda - one of Si Begg's favorite musicians who'd just finished working at the time with Señor Coconut, a.k.a Atom Heart - to do his bloody brilliant robot-style vocoder vocals as Robo*Brazileira.

"Robo*Brazileira is my singing alias, a fictitious Brazilian robot," Yasuda patiently explained to the unenlightened (in this case myself) at the time. "For me, the robot is one view-point with which to see ourselves as humans. To see us more cautiously, I think I must have external eyes."

With an attitude and moniker like that I had no real choice but to get the laddie involved.

Then to do their own wind-up remixes of the original combo we first lassooed in the insanely respected Mr. Steve Stoll - a man who's released motorized techno over the years on labels like Proper NYC, NovaMute, Djax-Up-Beats and Harthouse.

I was a huge fan in the '90s and first interviewed him just over a decade ago; fact is that the guy continues to steer my personal techno inclinations pretty darned effectively and I love his drums - both real and programmed.

We also got on board the irrepressible Dave Tarrida, whose output through his old label Sativae and since then through Tresor, Musick, Neue Heimat, Dancefloor Killers and Feinwerk has been my repeated refill cuppa tea for years; his recent stuff continues to kick my butt about.

Rounding out the remixing troupe is Germany's Cem Oral (a.k.a Jammin' Unit/Ultrahigh/4E), the genius behind Cube 40's 'Bad Computa' and Air Liquide's 'Robot Wars'.

How on earth (or indeed off it) couldn't I include him here?

Finally, I indulged in a wee bit of the tyranny-of-distance e-mail mud wrestling thing, this time between Tokyo and Sydney, as me and fellow Aussie Simon Nielsen (DJ Hi-Shock of Elektrax notoriety) did the final mix.

There's a ripe possibility we'd together like to intimate that this record is machine-based disco-funk-tech for the next decade - the promo propaganda sheet says precisely that - then suggest you should hop online and order the wax now, since it's available from today here (surprise, surprise)... but the fact remains that none of these musos, who are also mates of mine, would be so pretentiously narcissistic. They're cool individuals with a great sense of humour and a definite interest in music for music's sake.

So instead, for shameless promotional reasons of a more ulterior bent, I gathered together all the boys involved in the vinyl remixes and bounced around some silly robot-related queries.

Far from earth-shattering, completely self-indulgent and occasionally obscure, this waffling conversation can be online at the Fun in the Murky website.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tokyo International Anime Fair 2010/2011

Well, it looks like my earlier hack "analysis" of this year's Tokyo International Anime Fair (see here) - and its lacklustre nature in 2010 - was incorrect at least in terms of visitors.

We just got the updated figures and over 4 days they had 132,492 people spill through the gates - up from 129,819 last year and almost 3 times the number that attended the inaugural TAF in 2002.

Get your biros (or Zebra ballpoints) ready, as the organizers also advised that next year's TAF - the 10th - will be held from Thursday March 24th to Sunday 27th March 2011.

They've even designed next year's mascot (see the above critter, dubbed TAF-chan), conjured up by 91-year-old Takashi Yanase (やなせ たかし)... the creator of Anpanman.


(Better stick the copyright info here just in case: © Takashi Yanase/TAFEC)