Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Like A Sturgeon

Think I mentioned on this blog somewhere at some self-indulgent stage that I released an album through Auricular Records in the US last month, and for once under my real name instead of hiding behind an alias.

Anyway, just for another free plug it's called Hackneyed Record Crate (thanks yet again to the people at Auricular for supporting these kinds of disparate, inadvertently eclectic sounds!) and today I got motivated enough to pull the finger out and hack together a video clip to go with one of the tracks, 'Like A Sturgeon', which I did a while back in collaboration with American noise guru (and a mate of mine) Noisepsalm.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Tekkonkinkreet

Even as Studio Ghibli made a surprising flop that year with Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea), 2006 was a highly competitive year for Japanese anime thanks to Madhouse’s double-treat Paprika (directed by the great Satoshi Kon) and Toki o Kakeru Shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), helmed by one-time Ghibli reject and current anime wunderkind Mamoru Hosoda.

But to be completely honest, a little-heralded feature by an unknown foreign director stole the entire 12 months’ viewing pleasure when it screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival that October.

One of the causes for the subversive impact of this movie, Tekkonkinkreet, was its sound track – it gloriously debunked the Japanese practice of using a J-Pop band, Joe Hisaishi, and/or a rising Japanese teenage pretty face chanteuse doing the score, or even opting (as in the cases of Appleseed and the Ergo Proxy TV series) for a famous international DJ-cum-band, like Radiohead, on the opening and/or closing titles.

Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート) instead boasts a stunningly experimental sound track: no surprise, really, when you consider that it’s been composed by eclectic British duo Ed Handley and Andy Turner – aka Plaid, a one-time backing band for Björk.

Yet while Plaid is known to people who’re into improvisational electronic music, as well as open-minded patrons of European digital-art festivals – not to mention journalists writing about music distant from the mainstream – they’re otherwise not famous at all.

Still, “I'm a huge fan of Plaid,” admitted Michael Arias, the director of Tekkonkinkreet, when I interviewed him back in 2006.

If Arias’ moniker doesn’t sound as Japanese as it should, that’s because he’s an expat American. “I’ve actually been here in Tokyo for 15 years, which is probably longer than most of my co-workers have lived in this city,” he said.

And while Tekkonkinkreet was Arias’ feature movie directorial debut, he’s hardly a novice. Before moving to Japan, and since, he has been involved in tweaking the CG on movies as far a field as James Cameron’s The Abyss, David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, and the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy.

Arias also produced, helped supervise, and worked on the CGI for 'Beyond', the best segment of the Matrix animation off-shoot The Animatrix, as well as on another of the segments, “Second Renaissance”, back in 2003.

His lack of notoriety is surprising, given the fact that this film was a hugely innovative anime putsch produced by Studio 4°C – the junta behind Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, and Satoshi Kon’s collaborative movie Memories (1995), Otomo and Tensai Okamura’s Stink Bomb (1995) and Morimoto’s Eikyuu Kazoku (Eternal Family, 1997/98).

Masahiko Kubo and Chie Uratani, who were the joint animation directors here, worked on Trigun and Hayao Miyazaki movies respectively, and art director Shinji Kimura previously cut his teeth on ‘80s anime classics like Otomo’s Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Tenshi no Tamago (Angel’s Egg).

Behind the scenes there’s been another pivotal 'crew' member: the guiding influence, support and inspiration of Studio 4°C’s resident enfant terrible, Koji Morimoto.

“I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to muster that kind of energy again!” Arias confessed four years ago. And he kind of hasn’t, aside from the live-action movie Heaven’s Door (2009).

“At the time I had an incredibly talented and supportive crew working with me. A lot of effort and emotion went into each frame of the movie, and I’m enormously proud of what we achieved.”

Like the people behind the score (Plaid) Tekkonkinkreet is certainly inventive in tone and style; Pokémon this movie most certainly is not.

As it turns out, despite its innovative artistic bent, Tekkonkinkreet – like most Japanese anime – comes from that most traditional of anime source materials: manga. In this case it’s based on the comic created back in 1994 by Taiyo Matsumoto, the man also responsible for Ping Pong.

“I’ve been enamored since I first read it, about 10 years ago,” Arias said at the time of production. “It really speaks to me in so many ways.”

As in the original story, the movie relates the exploits of two enigmatic street-kids named Black and White – as well as the pivotal emotional relationship between them – and it’s set in a retro-futuristic Asian city that looks like Tokyo... but possibly isn’t.

“When I read it years ago, I thought no one could film Tekkonkinkreet, but the movie really took me to new places,” says experimental musician Kana Masaki.

In the words of the film’s director, these kids (our ad hoc heroes) are pitched in mortal combat not only against the local yakuza crime-lords, but “an extraterrestrial real estate mogul who plans to turn the town into an amusement park and ultimately dominate the world.”

“It’s a simple story,” Arias mused.

“I think it appeals on a universal level, but I really don’t think I’ve ever seen any other movie quite like it – animated or not.”

Despite detractors I think that Tekkonkinkreet is one of the finest anime outings ever produced; quite possibly the over-the-time action quotient helps.

© 2006 Taiyo Matsumoto/Shogakukan, Aniplex, Asmik Ace,
Beyond C, dentsu, TOKYO MX
© 2007 Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

HeartCatch PreCure!

OK, I'll admit it - I'm hooked watching this anime series every Sunday morning from 8:30, and not only because it's my 4-year-old daughter's preferred eye candy.

HeartCatch PreCure! (ハートキャッチプリキュア!) is an infectious, disarming and super cute series that lacks the annoyance value of, say, Pokémon.

Having kicked off on TV Asahi (Channel 10) in Tokyo back in February this year, HeartCatch is the seventh version of the long-running girls' concept created by the 'mysterious' Izumi Todo - actually none other than an alias for the creative types at Toei Animation - and to my mind its definitely the best interpretation to date.

It all started up with our shy, upright heroine Tsubomi (Cure Blossom), swathed in pink, then she was joined by trusty neighbour and fashion-minded sidekick Erika (the all-blue Cure Marine). Today, five months into the series, the third heroine emerged with the gold enshrouded, androgynous Itsuki (Cure Sunshine).

For a young girls' romp, there's a surprising sense of patience in the development of the story-telling arc, there're surreal kaiju-style monsters every week, the villains ham it up, our heroes have a sense of humour, and the character designs are way cool.

While it's obviously aimed at the purchasing powers of the parents of the target demographic, there's something for everyone - even the more critical expat foreigners and their open-minded kids.

Here're the closing credits - the CG animation really doesn't do the show itself justice, but the infectious theme song by Mayu Kudou is being heard right now everywhere over here from kindergartens to keitai ring-tones.

© ABC・東映アニメーション

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fountain Music and Plaza In Crowd

At the moment I'm doing this completely self-indulgent series of articles for Impact magazine over in the UK - focusing on what I've unoriginally dubbed The Greatest Anime Ever Made.

Most of it's selected by me, much of it is obvious (Ghost in the Shell, Akira), and on the feedback front I've conscripted a lot of local Japanese filmmakers, manga artists, anime crew, and - well, since they're cool and I dig their muzak - DJs and producers.

One of these helpful talking heads has been Shinji Tokida, who runs the record labels Fountain Music and Plaza In Crowd, and he cites Akira as the number one anime experience in his lifetime. "I love Akira - I even had the jacket," he recently told me. "I love the drawing touch and the characters' eyes, as well as the universal future concept which struck my mind when I was still in primary school."

Tokida also cited Mamoru Oshii's early opus Patlabor. "Oh, the Patlabor movie - I watched it when I was in elementary school; also I collected the manga and read it on my futon. I was a heavy fan and I remember that I bought the model kit, but I was too young to figure it out and put it together. Still, it was a good memory."

Then he pulled back to the here and now.

"These days I'm only into music, so I don't watch movies or TV and I don't read comics."

When I pitched the idea at Shinji this week that I'd like to extend beyond the anime references and talk to him more about his labels and himself, the man was thrilled. "One of my dreams has been to be interviewed by someone - thank you for fulfilling that!" he enthused.

Without a second to breathe, it seems, Tokida is off - the guy is a joy to quiz.

"I started DJing at 17, scratching records - I'd just changed instruments from the guitar to turntables and got right into hip hop. Then, in my Tokyo years, I came across more valuable music like house, jazz, soul and funk - and at last I arrived at techno. This was my true start to explore the business of music in my life."

The rest of this interview is now online @ Fun in the Murky.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Katsushika Yamamoto-tei Teahouse & Shibamata

Shibamata is another of the hidden joys of Tokyo, a place where history stands still - or at least the locals try their best to carefully cultivate this sensation.

It’s the hometown of the lovable tramp Kuruma Torajiro (actor Kiyoshi Atsumi), who featured in what was once the world’s longest running film series: Otoko wa Tsurai yo (男はつらいよ).

Otherwise known as the Tora-san movies, there're 48 of 'em from 1969-95, most written and directed by Yōji Yamada (Twilight Samurai).

Lead man Atsumi passed away in '96 but you'll find his statue in pride of place outside Shibamata Station.

There're also some wonderfully renovated and reconditioned buildings, in particular the shops along the main strip which leads to the madly beautiful Daikyo-ji Temple - and just around the corner from that you'll find one of the most serene traditional-style homes in Tokyo: Yamamoto-tei.

Construction commenced at the end of the Taisho period (1912-26) as a private residence, but it was opened to the public in 1991 and has been converted into a restaurant.

It's perhaps the principle remaining example in this city of sukiya zukuri, or “teahouse style”, with shoji paper panels and tatami mats - and some breath-taking views of a gorgeous garden, pond and waterfall. In the humid summer months (like now) it's a great place to hang out, hover over green tea, and contemplate... stuff.

Best of all, entry costs just ¥100, which equates to about US$1.

Also to be found in downtown Shibamata - aside from the famous local dango rice flour treats - is one of the funkiest-looking vending machines that this city has to offer.

It's fitted out as a robot, but an old school lumbering ironclad contraption rather than svelte futuristic mecha style.

It might only serve up Coke and a swag of Coca-Cola-owned local beverages, but who cares?

And this is one of the inspirations behind a little piece of vinyl we put out earlier this year.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ryoji Arai: An Artist Between The Worlds

To be honest it’s quite probable that, if you live outside Japan, you haven’t yet heard of Ryoji Arai or of the animated TV series Sukima no Kuni no Polta (Polta: A Country Between The Worlds).

My hope is that some day everybody will get the chance.

First regarding the TV series: Polta’s initially short run on Japanese national broadcaster NHK in 2006 generated such a hugely positive response from critics and TV viewers alike in this country that it prompted production company Aniplex to generate a new batch the following year; it’s been on repeat in various time slots ever since.

While ostensibly aimed at kids no taller than most people’s kneecaps, Polta is such a gamely surreal romp that it comes across as deliriously upbeat and gloriously quirky all at once – due in no small shrift to the original character designs by Ryoji Arai, a man rightly considered the best kids’ book artist in Japan, and a one-time winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in this field.

“I was really surprised!” Arai says now of that honor, which he won in 2005 for the book Refrain Refrain.

...the rest of this interview/story has just been chucked up on the way cool Forces Of Geek website, on which I'll be doing a monthly column from now on. Just click HERE with your mouse thingy to read more - then go explore the that site.

Big thanks to Arai-san for his time, plus Yoko on translation chores.

IMAGES © Arai Ryoji / NHK / NEP, Aniplex Inc.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Hōjō Clan & Hachiōji Castle

You may never have heard of Hōjō Soun, and that's because in war the winners have the bragging rights.

Hōjō Soun was a conspicuous warlord during the Sengoku warring period in the south Kanto region and there's even a statue of the chappie in front of Odawara JR Station.

He's featured in the weighty tomes 'Hōjō Soun's Twenty-One Articles. The Code of Conduct of the Odawara Hōjō' by Carl Steenstrup, 'Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors' by William Scott Wilson & Gregory Lee, and 'War in Japan: 1467-1615' by Stephen Turnbull.

He's also attributed with the telling aside, "A man shows his inmost self by a single word".

This erstwhile leader (really named Ise Shinkuro Nagauji - he became a monk and adopted the name of 'Soun') had humble beginnings, with apparently just six men under his command in 1480; his success was such that by the time of his great-great-grandson in 1590 the clan possessed tens of thousands of them.

In 1493 Soun gained control of Izu province and the following year he secured what would be the Hōjō Clan's future capital: Odawara.

Word is that in order to do so he arranged for the young lord of the castle to be (ahem) murdered while he was out hunting.

In 1512 the ancient capital of Kamakura was added to the Hōjō territories, followed by Arai in 1518.

It was around this time that Soun took on the ancient aristocratic name of Hōjō in order to associate his new and powerful family in this part of Japan with that of the shikken who ruled for 150 years. The new Hōjō family (also known as the Odawara Hōjō) took on the Kamakura Hōjō's mon, or badge.

There's even a t-shirt you can get online with their family crest here at Zazzle.

Hōjō Soun died at the impressive age of 88 but the clan he set up wasn't so lucky.

While their power in the Kantō region in the 16th century grew to rival that of the Tokugawa clan, but eventually they were eliminated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after the long Siege of Odawara (May to August 1590).

Before Odawara fell, however, Hideyoshi's forces laid siege to the unfinished Hachiōji-jō, the castle of Hōjō Ujiteru, brother of clan leader Hōjō Ujimasa.

After he left his own fortress to assist his older brother at Odawara Castle, Ujiteru's keep was left undermanned. While considered unassailable in its position astride Mount Fukazawa, only around 1,300 soldiers were there to defend when 50,000 or more of Hideyoshi's troops arrived; legend has it that families threw themselves into the nearby waterfall and that the waters of the river ran red with blood.

The castle fell in just over a day and was later destroyed by the victorious forces.

As a tourist spot, Shiroyama (as the site is now called), despite being a short bus ride from JR Takao Station, has been pretty much overshadowed by the crazily popular nearby Mount Takao.

That's the joy of the place.

It's a huge national forest that has easy hiking trails and castle ruins, and that infamous waterfall is still there - beside the beaten-down ramparts. The Hachiōji Castle site is in fact one of the hidden gems of Japan, as the pictures here may (or may not) attest.

And it's a beautiful place that's eerily empty.

Possibly this is because of the rumour that the place is haunted keeps some people at bay, or equally it's the ignominious fate of the original owners.

So what did happen to them, anyway?

As I mentioned, the losers rarely write the history. After the Hōjō were defeated in the siege of Odawara, Ujiteru was forced to commit seppuku along with his brother Ujimasa.

But Ujimasa himself still lives on, however, in the video game Sengoku Musou 3 (Samurai Warriors 3), released in Japan for the Wii in December 2009.

Quite bizarrely the Hōjō Clan bigwig's weapon is a cane that has a sword hidden inside, which can also fire bullets.

The Siege of Odawara is the climax of Hideyoshi's story in the earlier game Samurai Warriors 2, while Shuranosuke Sakaki is a long-running manga character and had his onscreen debut in the rather sub-standard 1990 animation Sword for Truth by anime director Dezaki Osamu, which tells of the struggles of the defeated members of the Hōjō Clan to save face by obtaining two mythical swords - and they contract the bad-ass master swordsman Shuranosuke Sakaki to do so.

Shuranosuke Sakaki and the ragtag fleet of Hōjō survivors also pop up in the 1996 live-actioner Legend of the Devil, directed by Masaru Tsushima (Ninja Women) and starring Masaki Kyômoto (Legend of Eight Samurai).

So there is some life after death after all, even for the also-rans.