Monday, August 23, 2010

Dry Fruit Japan-style

Aside from this wayward blog I also get to run an equally aberrant record label called IF? Records, through which we release a bunch of electronic-inclined stuff on vinyl and through digital means.

Most recently we've been able to get stuff out by people like James Ruskin, Luke's Anger, Dave Tarrida, Paul Birken, Wyndell Long, Ben Mill, Dave Angel, Kultrun, Justin Berkovi, Mijk van Dijk, DJ Hi-Shock, Koda, Ben Pest, Bill Youngman, Enclave, E383, Donk Boys, Jammin' Unit and Justin Robertson - people across the board whom I respect and cherish as musos.

Last week the label put out something I've wanted to do for ages: a release focused solely around some of the best Japanese artists currently cutting sounds.

The source material was a track called 'Dry Fruit', put together by the somewhat enigmatic Tsuyoshi K (he doesn't tell anyone what the 'K' stands for), who started out making fringe, left-of-centre electro-pop stuff as Gadget Cassette but more recently changed name to Cut Bit Motorz and at the same time began pushing through more tech-house related sounds.

Funnily enough, even though we live in the same city and constantly email each other as well as remix each other's tunes, we haven't ever actually met.

But that didn't stop us releasing a digital slab of mixes of 'Dry Fruit', in which we got on board some of his more experienced Japanese peers - DJ Wada (Co-Fusion), Toshiyuki Yasuda (Robo*Brazileira), Takashi Watanabe (DJ Warp) and Tomi Chair - to do the rejigs, making it an entirely Japanese putsch that criss-crosses eclectic, tech, electro, house and (dare I say it) a marginally more progressive stance.

Truth is I really dig working with this elusive digital mate and Tsuyoshi is breaking ground with his own work (he recently remixed the Dead Agenda track 'Chaos Theory' as well as Tomi Chair's 'Stroboscope') and you'll probably brush up against the guy more often in future outside of this obscure forum.

"Regarding digital, there are great outlets online through which to dig up music from all over the world, and then share it about - which is fantastic," Tsuyoshi espouses.

"With this EP I've been most surprised about these people actually choosing to do the remixes in the first place, and it's exciting. I want you to listen to them by all means."

Propaganda bomb out.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Japanese Musicians Rule OK! (Part 2)

Two weeks back for my hack Flash in Japan column over at Forces of Geek I did a feature story on a bunch of cool, talented and rather diverse musicians based in this country (Japan), asking for the feedback on a swag of hotch-potch questions.

We ended up with far more material than we could run in one sitting, so we called that Part 1; without much further ado here’s Part 2 - kept nice and relatively simple - with the further feedback from Masaya Kyuhei, aka DJ Q’hey, Tsuyoshi K, alias producer Cut Bit Motorz, Akiko Kiyama, Ko Kimura, Takashi Watanabe (aka DJ Warp), DJ Wada (Shuji Wada from Co-Fusion), Tatsuya Oe (Captain Funk), Jin Hiyama, Toshiyuki Yasuda and Lili Hirakawa.

Luckily none of these people objected to my more obscure, self-indulgent queries—which this time around all related to that most essential of topics: anime and manga.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Love Exposure vs. Battle Royale

Why had I not heard about this movie?

Not Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル) - I picked up that DVD a few years ago (in Australia) and it remains one of my favourites.

I'm talking about Love Exposure (愛のむきだし), a 4-hour 2008 romp directed by poet/filmmaker Sion Sono that I watched tonight thanks to the prescient people at Madman in Oz, who sent me the promo unexpectedly.

I loved it.

If you go to Wikipedia they say that it's "a 2008 Japanese movie, written and directed by Sion Sono. The film gained a considerable amount of notoriety in film festivals around the world for its four-hour duration and themes including love, family, lust, religion and the art of up-skirt photography. It won many awards and positives reviews."

Which is kind of simplistic, really.

This is a film that forces together Quentin Tarantino and Ryuhei Kitamira, a four-hour compendium of self awareness, Christianity, hip fun, tragedy, comedy and farce/flip moments that borders on the hentai (perverse) and hard knocks.

The story itself tips towards some perverted moments and blood/gore, along with cult religion, panties photography, domestic abuse, and a soundtrack that gloriously includes Beethoven's 7th Sypmphony, as also recently used to such good effect in The Fall.

The acting tour de force here comes, equally surprisingly, from Takahiro Nishijima (from J-Pop band AAA) as our hero Yu.

All up, it's a sensationally surprising and engaging flick.

Strangely, enough, too, there's a van on the beach that's a dead-ringer for a van I discovered down the Miura Peninsula (an hour or so from Tokyo) earlier this week.

The van I stumbled across in the middle of nowhere had quite obviously been retrieved from the sea, with no back-story I could find.

I'd gone in search of the Tsurugizaki Lighthouse that was used in Battle Royale, the 2000 film directed by Kinji Fukasaku and starring 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Chiaki Kuriyama and Kou Shibasaki.

I took some happy snaps of said lighthouse, got sunburned, walked for several hours, and discovered some obscure fishing villages as well as a cliff-side walkway that was more dangerous than fun.

It was also crawling with those beach cockroaches I mentioned in earlier entries (Shikinejime, for instance).

But honestly?

I had one of the best times of my life.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Battleship Mikasa 三笠

Yesterday I went to Mikasa Park - and much as that may sound like the Japanese equivalent of a song penned by Jimmy Webb, it's in fact a stately space by the seaside in Yokosuka, located right next the U.S. naval base there.

A previous resident of Yokosuka was William Adams, the inspiration for the British hero John Blackthorne in James Clavell's tome Shōgun, back in the 17th century; he was more recently channeled by Richard Chamberlain in the 1980 TV miniseries.

It was also in the southern part of Yokosuka in the mid 1850s that Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his fleet of Black Ships, to force the opening of diplomatic and trade relations between Japan and the United States.

Almost one hundred years later American occupation forces landed at Yokosuka (on 30 August 1945, after the surrender of Japan) and the naval base has been used by the US Navy since then.

Yokosuka crops up as the locality of the Sega video game Shenmue, as well as being blown up in the futuristic tactical RPG Front Mission 3.

Director Imamura Shohei set his 1961 film Pigs and Battleships (豚と軍艦) in Yokosuka, and the place was the location of climactic fisticuffs in the Godzilla film Terror of Mechagodzilla (メカゴジラの逆襲, 1975).

But the real reason I went down there was for an exceptionally big ship.

The Mikasa is a pre-dreadnought battleship ordered from Britain by Japan in 1898 and took three years to complete, at the cost of £880,000 (¥8.8 million). Upon arrival in these waters the ship ended up becoming the flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Grand Fleet during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

Named after Mount Mikasa in Nara, the Mikasa is in fact the last pre-dreadnought ship in the world, a survivor of the Russian conflict, running aground in fog in 1921, decommissioning later that year, retirement as a memorial ship in 1926, bombing in World War 2, and extensive dismantling during Japan's demilitarization thereafter.

Restoration work, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, brought the old lady back to life and she was opened to the public in 1961. Now it's a nifty museum with its own cinema, models, paintings and documents, many of the compartments look as they did in Togo's time, and there're some hilarious mannequins "manning" cannons.

The main guns (seen above with a ring-in, unsuspecting live bystander to get a gist of their size) had a range of 10 kilometres and fired projectiles weighing 400 kilograms. It took 40 people to operate them, surrounded by armour weighing in at around 50 tons.

The ship was the major setting for Nihonkai Daikaisen: Umi Yukaba (1983) - variously known in English as Battle of the Japan Sea and Battle Anthem, it tells the story of a young musician assigned to Mikasa’s shipboard band, and depicts the Battle of Tsushima Straits in 1905.

At Tsushima the Mikasa led the combined Japanese fleet into one of the most decisive naval battles in history - almost annihilating their Russian foes.

The movie starred the great Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Togo; it was directed by Toshio Masuda, who helped make Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970 as well working on the anime Space Battleship Yamato series - and was involved as the producer on its 2009 reboot Rebirth Yamato.

There's also an NHK drama called Sakanoue no Kumo, screened last year, which portrays a rapidly modernizing Meiji Japan (1867-1915) and has extensive location and press shots around the Mikasa.

But the best find of this little expedition was the Admiraali Export Beer with Admiral Togo's face on it (see first picture above), which I'm partaking of now as I write these words.

It's quite the tasty amber drop. Yum!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Today was a scorcher, but I finally accomplished something I've been planning to undertake for way too long - yet always for some odd reason placed on the back-burner.

It was at the tail-end of primary school that I discovered that Sean Connery was a far better Bond than Roger Moore, and not via Dr. No (that joy came later).

The revelation came instead in the 1967 production of You Only Live Twice, and it wasn’t just the title-sequence that snagged me.

I know, I know—everyone says Goldfinger is better, and You Only Live Twice tends to be mauled by disgruntled critics trying to build on their largesse, but I love the film.

Catching sights of Tokyo 43 years ago are a hoot, plus there’re the clumsy ninja at the training school near Himeji Castle, and Bond’s sham Shinto wedding and equally counterfeit Oriental makeover.

Ernst Blofeld’s hideaway volcano set (erected not in Japan, but at Pinewood Studios back in the UK) and the Tinkertoy rockets are downright superb, especially for someone who grew up on Godzilla and Thunderbirds - which also happened to be a hit in Japan.

So what if I later learned that James fired blanks in his declaration that the correct temperature for sake is 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit (it's only one of many temperatures), or that his casual mid-afternoon drive to Kobe, with ill-fated flame Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), is actually a five hour ride?

I had a minor crush on the other Bond girl in the picture, Mie Hama (as Kissy Suzuki), Bond's ring-in bride later on in the yarn, and remain mesmerized by the vocal cords of Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger Tanaka) - though I've since heard that most of Tiger’s lines in English were dubbed by another actor.

Over on IMDB they say this was the handiwork of Robert Rietty.

Oh yeah, and this nifty flick has the “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond” line itself that I’ve appropriated and delivered (with far less panache than Charles Gray or Tamba/Rietty) at Narita Airport on countless occasions.

And You Only Live Twice is also the reason that the month I arrived in Japan I promptly purchased the 48th printing of Instant Japanese: A Pocketful of Useful Phrases, first published in 1964, by Masahiro Watanabe and Kei Nagashima. It’s collected dust since but looks cool on the shelf, even if I’m the only one who makes the silly connection to that Moneypenny moment early on in the film.

Anyway, I digress. As usual.

So where exactly was I? Oh yeah - today's little escapade.

I had a day off and decided to walk somewhere in the vicinity of the footsteps of Connery, Tamba, Wakabayashi, and Lewis Gilbert and Cubby Broccoli's film crew - to visit the places where they shot the fifth Bond film back in 1967.

First up? The Hotel New Otani, a 10 acre oasis in Chiyoda that used to be the private garden of a 17th century daimyo but was reinvented as a hotel in 1964 to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics.

The exterior of the building was sequestered by the Bond film crew to play Osato Chemicals, a cover organization for Blofeld's SPECTRE.

Straight after visiting Mr Osato's office, Bond exits via the main entrance, and is almost murdered by a carload of hired gunsels before Aki rescues him and they dash off together in her sleek Toyota 2000GT convertible.

The hotel's extensive, gorgeous gardens were also used in some of the ninja training scenes in the film.

Other parts of You Only Live Twice were filmed outside Tokyo - in or near places like Himeji Castle, Kyushu and Miyazaki - as well as Spain, the Bahamas, and back in England.

But here in Tokyo Bond took in a dose of sumo, an onsen, a massage by scantily-clad young women, chased skirt, then was escorted down to Tiger Tanaka's private transportation hub (cue personal train) - in actual fact Nakano-Shimbashi Station, not far from Shinjuku on the Marunouchi Line.

So I trained it over there after the Hotel New Otani. It's an old station that's pretty much unremarkable; somewhat unexcited by the place, I exited and wandered the surrounding streets a bit, futilely searching for more evidence of a shoot that probably never left the station.

There wasn't much of note to be found anyway - aside from a couple of interesting old houses that were no doubt in much better shape 43 years ago... oh, and the other highlight of the day: the bizarrely sculpted and twisted Chinese Night Pub.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Amateur Ballet 2.0

This afternoon we got the pleasure of a freebie - an open "showcase" theatre performance by a local ballet studio in Toritsudaigaku. Basically we went because my wife and I both like ballet and our daughter loves it and is currently taking lessons at age four.

So this performance was supposed to be focused around students our daughter's age.

Or so we thought, anyway. While it started off with kids in the three-to-seven age bracket, suddenly we were faced with their peers in the forty to fifty age group, all of them wearing brief, glitzy leotards and tutus.

And when the male dancers appeared, they were far more manicured and show-boating than their female partners. I've never before seen such tailored eyebrows.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Japanese Musicians Rule OK! (Part 1)

Godzilla has many kaiju enemies and friends, like King Ghidorah, Biollante, Mothra, etc.

I assumed the majority of Japanese musicians, especially ones involved in the techno and electronic music sphere of things, would know all about Godzilla and would have an opinion on same, like a preferred friend/foe.

I was wrong - partially.

Most of these people seem to have vague feelings but nothing solid enough to slap a ribbon on it and call it assertive.

“Sorry, I don't have enough knowledge to select a Godzilla co-star,” quips Toshiyuki Yasuda.

“I don't know much at all about Godzilla,” admits Jin Hiyama, while both DJ Wada and DJ Warp select Mothra as their champion - but for somewhat dubious reasons.

“Because he’s peaceful?” Wada wonders aloud; “Because he can fly and is really cute,” suggests Warp.

“I like King Ghidorah,” Cut Bit Motorz says, “though I’m not well-informed about Godzilla. I think I like Ghidorah because his name and appearance are so striking.”

Lili Hirakawa is more assertive, to a degree.

“I think I like King Ghidorah too - but I have a sad story about this. I accidentally got a tattoo of King Ghidorah on my left arm! I asked for the Japanese eight-headed dragon Yamata no Orochi but the tattooist gave me King Ghidorah, which has only three heads, and unfortunately it also has a foot missing... So it’s a very funny dragon. Anyway, some people talk to me when they see it and they’re like ‘Oh, hey! You like King Ghidorah, huh?’, so I’ve gotta keep saying yes every time. After 10 years, I finally started to like King Ghidorah. To tell the truth I don’t know much about it - I’ve never seen a Godzilla movie yet.”

“I’d definitely support Godzilla,” assesses technopop musician Electron Tee. “He’s much cooler—and, besides, I hate moths!”

Techno DJ/producer Shin Nishimura agrees, aside from the anathema toward common streetlight variety flying insects. “Godzilla would win by jumping and punching with that tail of his,” he pictures.

Ko Kimura, however, sees more in the machine. “Mechagodzilla is best for me because it looks really cool!”


Bon Odori

And now for something relatively different.

Compulsorily celebrated in early to mid-August in most regions of Japan, Obon week is one of the country’s three major holiday seasons.

Which is probably why it plays havoc with domestic and international travel, and raises the prospect of completely booked-out accommodation or outrageously stiff hotel rates.

On top of these, business itself comes to a standstill, as much as this concept is possible in an über-metropolis like Tokyo. Most shops, banks, ATMs and stores are closed for the duration of the week, during which employees, and obviously the artificially-intelligent types that run the ATMs, are coerced by their bosses to take mandatory vacation (or leave-without-pay), all in observance of this thing called Obon.

So what’s all the big fuss about, anyway?

While Obon is the annual Buddhist event in which to commemorate and memorialize one's ancestors, it’s also believed that the freewheeling spirits of these dearly departed return to this world in order to visit their relatives.

And - yep - it all happens round Obon time.

So the festival has shaped-up as an significant traditional custom in Japan, as well as a bit of a late-summer cleaning fiesta: people from the big cities return to their home towns to visit and clean their old folks' graves, then scrub their own places too.

Colourful paper lanterns are propped up in front of houses to guide the ancestors' spirits home (just in case they’ve forgotten), there’s a swag of ceremonial food and sake on offer, and Japanese rediscover of modicum of religiosity.

But the big deal and the biggest fun at Obon time are the oh-so-special evening dance-offs, dubbed bon odori.

Kids and their grandparents don summer kimonos (yukata), and as the bon odori music plays, they perform a dance routine that is, in some respects, choreographed the same way throughout Japan.

There are specific moves that I like to call “The Shoveller” and “Vogue”, but these get lost in the (written) translation here.

The typical bon odori dance involves people lining up around a high wooden building made especially for the festival, called a yagura, which doubles as a bandstand for the musicians, taiko drummers, and guest crooners.

It also bears an unnerving resemblance to the ever-collapsing watch-tower in ‘60s US sit-com F Troop.

Some dancers proceed clockwise, and some dancers sidle counter-clockwise around the yagura, depending upon the particular festival, but never the twain shall meet.

Amidst the traditional soundtrack is inserted a bunch of enka classics and famous anime TV tunes, like those for Doraemon and Pokémon - and grandmas are just as likely to bop away at these, with adept panache, as their whippersnapper descendants.

Somewhat creepily, it’s also a widely held belief that those spirits of deceased loved ones are jigging in step at the same time.

There are even more traditions and customs to round out this one-week extravaganza - kids who’ve caught goldfish at carnival booths are often subsequently heard shrieking as ghost stories are told, Buddhist shrines are decorated in outrageous new ways, processions of people march in the streets, and fireworks fill the sky. You’d swear you can even smell brimstone... but it’s probably just gunpowder.

At the tail-end of Obon, floating lanterns are lobbed into rivers, lakes and seas in order to guide the spirits back into their world, perhaps so they can choreograph new heavenly dance moves for next year’s event.