Saturday, January 29, 2011

Alan Oldham Gets Beyond Djax

Back in the mid 1990s in Melbourne when I used to buy most of my vinyl from my mates at Octave Records, the stand-out 12-inches on the shelves were the ones by Djax-Up-Beats, the Dutch label run by Saskia Slegers (aka Miss Djax).

A stand-out not just because the music sitting pretty on this wax – sourced from the likes of Mike Dearborn, Steve Poindexter, K. Alexi Shelby, Claude Young and Thomas Heckmann – was sensational, but because the actual record labels on each one of those 12-inch releases were even more gorgeous. Turns out they’d been lovingly designed by another essential musical contributor from Detroit, Alan Oldham (DJ T-1000), and he even took up the time to draw up a few thumping action-based comics for Djax as well.

Seventeen years on Oldham is still making essential tunes and in fact has a brand new LP on the cards. Funnily enough it’s called the Beyond Djax LP, it will be coming out in March 2011, and in the promo notes it’s listed as the companion CD to last year’s sold-out art show in Amsterdam.

“I had a gallery show late last year, at a venue in Amsterdam that also sells limited-edition toys,” Oldham related in an email interview I did with him this week.

“I was in the middle of a tour, so I was present for the opening, and it was attended by such friends as Dave Clarke, DJ Bone, DJ Kammy, Ritzi Lee, Shinedoe and other friends and art lovers who came in from Dresden, Paris, Berlin, and London. It was a very successful show. Ben Sims bought two pieces right off the wall! I was in A’dam for a week, so I painted new pieces to replace the ones that sold, and they sold too. There were only two or three pieces left over at the end of the show, which lasted a month. The CD digipak will contain pics from the opening! There’s also a hardcover art book to go with the event.”

On the new LP, ‘Theme From Vectra’ is cited as a score for Oldham’s comic-book, Vectra: Black Girl From The Future. That comic, like much of the man’s artwork, has a clear nod in the direction of Japanese manga.

“Well I was into anime and manga years ago, before they were so available in the United States,” he says.

“Although we had Speed Racer when I was a kid, anime didn’t really make an impact with me stylistically until Macross came to America as Robotech. Then, I met a girl in college named Reiko, who gave me a few original manga from Japan, which I still have in storage. That really opened my eyes. I then changed my superhero-type art style to a manga-inspired one, and created Johnny Gambit. It was one of the first American manga published in the USA, along with Reggie Byers’ Shuriken and Doug Rice’s Dynamo Joe. Wow, that was long time ago – before I got into electronic music.”

The track ‘Theme From Vectra’ is futurist electronic tech stuff that somehow captures the essence of the speed, style and colour of the comic.

You can read more of this interview over on a new blog thingy I'm doing for the Elektrax label on electronic music; it's called Techno How? ...get it? ;)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The National Diet Building

No, it has nothing to do with calorie control or losing weight, not even in the current global financial straitjacket - but has everything in common with the U.S. Congress and British Parliament, both of which have been adapted, to some degree, into the system of government here.

We’re talking about the Diet of Japan (locally known as Kokkai 国会), which like its British, American and Australian equivalents includes two legislature: the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.

They meet in the National Diet Building (Kokkai-gijidō 国会議事堂) in Chiyoda-ku, fairly close to the Imperial Palace and right next to Nagatacho and Kokkai-gijidō-mae stations on the Tokyo Metro.

As of August 31, 2009, the place has been rather shaky thanks to the electoral overthrow of the Liberal Democratic Party - which had ruled virtually continuously since its inception in 1955.

The "new" government (formed by the similarly named Democratic Party of Japan) is a thing most Japanese are still trying to get accustomed to as they've already churned through two prime ministers - Yukio Hatoyama, and the current incumbent Naoto Kan.

But the rocky political road has been pretty much continuous since Junichiro Koizumi served five years in office up to September 2006; since then there've been five PMs.

Perhaps it all has to do with the hidden side of the diet building - the fact that this is also the place that Princess Hinoto lives beneath in the CLAMP manga classic, X - which was made into an anime movie by director Rintaro in 1996 and later ran as a Madhouse TV title thanks to Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll).

There’s more to the National Diet Building, however, than its laid-to-waste fate in a couple of Godzilla movies and in the 2006 disaster flick Japan Sinks.

The structure itself has a far-flung history and international input that began with initial designs by German architects in the 1880s, right up to its completion as a finished structure in 1936 - to a plan by public competition winner, Watanabe Fukuzo, some input from fellow winner Takeuchi Shinshichi, and a nod in the direction of the original Germanicic concepts.

It’s a majestic building, with the lofty architectural ideals supported by stained glass, flowing drapes, and marble throughout.

Suiting the reputed punctuality of both Germany and Japan, who shared a hand in the design, there’s a tour of the building every 60 minutes - right on the dot.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Doraemon vs. Mobile Suit Gundam?

The latest Doraemon movie will hit cinema screens across Japan in early March, when I'm fairly certain it'll surge straight to the top in box office receipts in the very first weekend it plays.

That process is actually like clockwork every year in this country.

But despite the fact he isn’t at all well known in the Western world, this isn’t some recent-hit sensation – and the title has a history to die for (or at the very least to swoon over in gob-smacked new ways) in terms of anime.

For starters in 2002 Time Magazine dubbed Doraemon the cuddliest hero in Asia, and in 2008 the Japanese Foreign Ministry appointed him their first anime cultural ambassador.

Doraemon started out in manga form in the 1960s, fashioned by Fujiko F. Fujio – a smoke screen coined by its real creator Hiroshi Fujimoto.

It did the big switch to TV in 1973, promptly fizzled, and then was revamped by TV Asahi six years later.

Doraemon hasn’t surrendered his grip on Japanese TVs over the three decades since, or the Japanese everyman’s psyche; I swear that every person in this place can draw his happy face.

And yet while you might be forgiven for thinking this show must set some sort of TV animation record (The Simpsons is a decade younger), it in fact comes in second to another Japanese series, Sazae-san (40 years on air).

Then there are over two-dozen theatrical movies, including the latest, which is titled 映画ドラえもん 新・のび太と鉄人兵団 ~はばたけ 天使たち~, or just plain Doraemon: Nobita and the New Steel Troops: ~Angel Wings~.

Regular readers here, if you indeed do exist, have probably picked up that I’m not a fan of these squiggly “~” things that Japanese animation companies just love to use when they translate their titles from Japanese to English. I know I whine about it often enough.

But grammatical aesthetics aside, the film looks to be a wonderful piece of robot-army-invading-Earth-mayhem, and in the Doraemon universe this promises to be a hoot rather than anything bone-chilling like Michael Bay‘s disgraceful work on Transformers.

So what’s the franchise fuss all about, anyhow?

Doraemon, it turns out, is a blue, dysfunctional mechanical cat from the future (of course) who has no ears but boasts a magical, four-dimensional pouch the envy of any self-prepossessing marsupial.

He’s been sent back in time to sort out Nobita, the good-for-nothing school kid ancestor of the people who built him – but usually instead of accomplishing his task, complete madness breaks out that includes subtle, often ingenious anime references to domestic culture (Mobile Suit Gundam is cheekily alluded to in the new movie) as well as Hollywood classics like West Side Story.

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.

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 bit rear-visionist in recent years: Nobita’s Great Adventure into the Underworld (2007) may have been the 27th feature released by distributor TOHO (of Godzilla notoriety, who do on average one Doraemon flick per year), but it was in fact a rebake of the sixth – released way back in 1984.

Besides, exotic locations are nowhere near 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 smash 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 Doraemon Is Cool website.

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

At least The Orb got it right. As much as I rarely champion their music, they did a very cool video clip to their track ‘From a Distance’ (on the Bicycles & Tricycles album, 2004) that tracks the printing up of a Doraemon manga – then embarks in some trippy cut-ups of characters and images from the series.

Doraemon © FUJIKO PRO

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Toshiaki Karasawa: 21st Century Boy

Toshiaki Karasawa has this week been doing Wonda coffee commercials on TV and on billboards around Tokyo, including a huge one I saw today at Shinjuku Station - which reminded my frazzled mind to put a link here to an article on this way cool guy that I recently tossed together for Forces Of Geek.

Karasawa is one of my favourite contemporary Japanese actors – alongside better-known types like Ken Watanabe, Kiichi Nakai, Koji Yakusho, Yusuke Iseya, Kenichi Matsuyama and Koichi Sato.

As I mentioned above, like most Japanese actors Karasawa has no qualms about appearing in advertising on tellies over here, and he’s popped up in some hilarious commercials for muscle-fixing shippu (a cold-patch reminiscent of the pain paste Deep Heat that's best known back in former Brit colonies like Australia and South Africa), and he sometimes gets into weird superhero garb to sell houses.

Now he's doing a coffee run. You can check out the commercials here.

Anyway, you can also read more of my wayward homage/diatribe, editorial errors and all (sorry, I hacked this together over New Year, so you can guess where my head space was), courtesy of FOG at Toshiaki Karasawa: 21st Century Boy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Freddie Mercury is Alive and Well and Doing Cup Noodle Commercials in Japan

I think there's not really much more I could add here - the tag-line above says it all.

Seems that news of Freddie's death in 1991 was untimely, at least here in Japan where his solo number “I Was Born To Love You” has now been rebooted as the theme song for local brand Nissin's infamous snack-in-a-cup.

Here's the proof:

I just saw this on TV last night. Hilarious, if a bit bizarre.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings

If the image (left) doesn't grab you straight away, take my word for it - as cheap as it sometimes is.

This was was an interesting series. I always love my Production I.G stuff, and it's great to see it getting the attention it deserves outside Japan.

The complete first season was released overseas towards the end of last year by FUNimation Entertainment in the USA, and it's also out through my fave chaps at Madman in Australia.

I did an interview with the series' character designer and chief animation director, Toku Okubo, back in 2009 for the late Geek Monthly magazine, and it went something like this (well, actually, a lot like this since I just cut and pasted):

Sans Wikipedia, you’d be forgiven for not immediately guessing when the Sengoku Period took place.

So let’s indulge in a quickie history lesson here.

Also known as the Warring States era, the Sengoku Period covers a time of dramatic political and military flip-flop that gripped then-divided Japan, from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th, when shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu took charge.

Think something akin to the barbarity of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), minus the religious hogwash but with occasional earthquakes added into the mix, and you may begin to get an accurate picture.

357 years, two months and six days after the peace treaty that ended the European equivalent of complete chaos (in other words, on July 21, 2005, just to save you wearing down your fingers), Japanese videogame producer Capcom - the makers of similarly rough-and-tumble games like Street Fighter, Captain Commando and Resident Evil - released Sengoku Basara (戦国BASARA, aka Devil Kings) for PlayStation 2.

Obviously the game’s specifics revolved around the mayhem of the Warring States period, and it starred three real-life historical warlords as the central cast: Sanada Yukimura (once dubbed the #1 warrior in Japan), Date Masamune (nicknamed the One-Eyed Dragon, for obvious reasons.), Takeda Shingen (the Tiger of Kai), and Oda Nobunaga (the Devil King himself), a man who conquered much of Japan before committing seppuku in 1582.

Given the ever-popular combination of the slice-and-dice action format with samurai iconography (it sold 1.2 million units in Japan alone), this baby was always destined to reach screens other than PCs, and play on machines dedicated away from games - which is where veteran anime studio Production I.G (of Ghost in the Shell franchise fame) became involved.

Their resultant series, released on TVs here in Japan from April [2009], is not directly based on dusty facts from antiquity, but sets its sights on “paying homage to history” - which gives them plenty of leeway to be creative, especially in the character stakes.

Think contemporary brooding flair and surly, somewhat streetwise youth-culture antics that rest at home in the 21st century living room, rather than the blank, honor-bound rural rigidity probably present four centuries ago.

“It also has a high-octane story arc and fantastic action throughout the whole series,” assesses character designer and chief animation director, Toku Okubo. “I think we’ve created a whole new genre that didn’t exist before!”

While this is Okubo’s first major foray into character design, he previously worked on key animation on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, as well as on the Ghost in the Shell TV series and Immortal Grand Prix, and was the animation director on several episodes of Blood+.

Also on board for the I.G ride is director Itsuro Kawasaki, who helmed the Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle movie and did episode directing chores on Ghost in the Shell and Noir on TV. Scripting the armoured descent into anarchy is Yasuyuki Muto, responsible for the movie Afro Samurai: Resurrection, costume romp Le Chevalier D’Eon, and ninja-actioner Basilisk.

Okubo’s own involvement, however, had quite unusual origins.

“Everything started when the producer, Tetsuya Nakatake, held an in-house competition to establish the character designer for this new series. I‘d worked as a key animator many times, but never designed the characters for any project thus far. I thought this was going to be a good opportunity, and I took on the challenge.”

Luckily for us he was successful, as the character designs here are sensational - although Okubo is keen to pass around the plaudits.

“Each artist added his personal touch in creating the spectacular animation for each character’s fighting technique,” he raves.

“And the background art is beautiful. It perfectly matches with the colour palette used for the characters, and this gives a distinctive realism to the animation as a whole.”

The action here is as vital as the rapidly changing story and the range of unique characters involved, and Okubo is quick to make his pick of the cream of the crop of historical figures at play in the series.

“Takeda Shingen,” he blurts out. “He’s a real dandy, and he can fill the screen by just being there.”

With Okubo himself doing all the cast compositions, Shingen most certainly does - it helps when your own design god goes to bat for you.

Here's the opening montage to the series; you'll have to pick up and watch the rest:


Thursday, January 6, 2011

TSMG: the promo video/trailer/teaser thing

Here's a YouTube teaser for that upcoming new novel I'm going to be a heel and shamelessly flog hereabouts over the next couple of months. Hell, it's my novel, I've never had one published before, and of course I'm completely over the moon about the upcoming publication date. Self-indulgent propaganda shells are to be expected.

Pre-order for this tome is available directly from the publisher, Another Sky Press, in the U.S. by clicking this link. There's also a free download feature there for the first 2 chapters (shh!).

Hyperbole out. For now.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Suite PreCure♪

Well it's 2011 and I have no new moxies to report. Besides, you're s'posed to keep these things private, aren't you, like birthday wishes?

But perhaps a steady eye on the future with a smattering of realism might be fun.

I'll admit it - often I'm a bit slow on the uptake, but in this particular case I think it may've been an unconsciously imposed disposition. I've known all along that Japanese animation production house Toei reinvent their Pretty Cure anime series every year, and that they'd done so seven times already since 2004.

But me and my five-year-old daughter Cocoa had grown so attached to the current incarnation, HeartCatch PreCure! over the past 40-odd episodes, and it's been so wildly popular here in Japan, that I fooled myself into believing Toei would change the rules this time round and continue the storyline romps of Blossom, Marine, Sunshine, Moonlight, et al.

You might recall that this was, in fact, my choice of anime series of the year for 2010 - something difficult to swallow since it's a shojo girl's show aimed at little kids. Here's an action shot of all-pink Blossom, however, for posterity:

But now, regardless, we've stumbled across the truth: as per usual, Toei will sink the current series and introduce a new one from next month, actually from February 6th.

It's called Suite PreCure♪, or Suīto PuriKyua♪ (スイート プリキュア♪) in Japanese.

Given that this duo, Cure Rhythm and Cure Melody, have powers that revolve around music, you'd think I'd be the first to be won over - but when Cocoa and I first saw their character designs last night and my wife Yoko (less a fan of the whole Pretty Cure thing) asked us what we thought, my daughter and I both let out a cynical "Hmmm..." at the same time.

Quite possibly this will change; the wavering optimist in me hopes so. Cocoa's already today saying how cute Rhythm and Melody's costumes are.

In the meantime we have just four more episodes of HeartCatch PreCure! to say sayonara.

Check out this clip from an episode a couple of weeks back when Blossom's grandma briefly became the all-powerful Cure Flower. Grand stuff indeed!

In the meantime - happy new year!

© ABC・東映アニメーション