Sunday, June 26, 2011

Monitoring the Microsieverts

I'll be the first to admit it - I'd never even heard of microsieverts, and I grew up during the Cold War, until a couple of months ago when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant blew its lid post March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Given that I live in Tokyo, we're said to be far safer than residents in Fukushima itself, since we're 230km from the ongoing fiasco. Mostly I like to believe that, but it's tricky when you harbour some suspicions about TEPCO, the owners of the plant, and just how much information the Japanese government is giving out.

Things like bunnies born without ears, irradiated tea, and YouTube clips of Geiger counter readings in playgrounds in nearby Kashiwa, here in Tokyo, do cause you to fret just a wee bit. The only thing to do is to keep a baker's dozen of eyes on all sources of info - official and hysterical - and draw a line somewhere down the middle.

That and a lucky rabbit's foot will hopefully see things through. Right?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mutant Cherries (Japan)

When I was a kid I grew up on Marvel Comics from the '60s (sourced from my older step brother's horde) and the '70s, and via The X-Men - as well as the 1970 movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franciscus and Charlton Heston - I learned early that radiation causes mutation.

In the case of The X-Men the process granted them some pretty nifty powers; in Beneath the Planet of the Apes the mutants might've been able to read minds, but it seemed to me at the time that they were also bludgeoned with the ugly stick several times over.

Being a Cold War kid meant you seriously expected the end of the world to come from nuclear warfare (since there were something like seven missiles aimed at every major city in the world) and/or the radioactive aftermath.

Mother Nature was another matter entirely.

I grew up being wary of bushfire risks in Australia, and we once caught a Greyhound bus south from the Gold Coast with flames on either side of the highway, but I'm too young to remember it and my mum paints her own memory vivid.

And yet while the earthquake and tsunami here were scary tastes of nature at its most volatile, nothing really prepares you for big business gone incompetent.

These are two cherries we got in a batch as a gift yesterday from a friend.

They're sourced from the prefecture next to Fukushima, where the nuclear plant is still spewing radioactive stuff while the inept owners (TEPCO) blunder on and refuse to give clear details about very much at all - including accurate reading updates regarding the levels of caesium-137 et al that are slipping out and across the country.

The cherries are seriously deformed; it's like those three cherries on top of the TEPCO logo were sent back to DNA design school but dropped out too early.

I went cherry picking when I was 18 back in Australia and in a week of plucking the buggers I never came across anything like these. The Siamese ones are particularly striking, but my daughter says the other one, with a poking out appendage, has an eye.

Speaking of eyes, it all reminds me of the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons.

Worrisome? Hmmm. I'll get back to you on that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Perc Trax vs. Blank Records

Wunderbar news, this.

Two of my favourite Japanese DJ cum producers are getting together with a certain UK industrial/techno enfant terrible named Ali Wells - better known as Perc - here in Tokyo at Module on 24 June.

Ali runs the appropriately-named Perc Trax, which has been one of my preferred labels over the past few years, and I recently interviewed him for the Techno How? site.

The two Japanese guys are Jin Hiyama and his brother Go. Jin is a good mate of mine (he played at my book launch in March), and I interviewed Go a couple of months ago here.

This should be an absolutely brilliant gig; shame is that it shapes up I may not be in town to actually appreciate it...

Address: 150-0042東京都渋谷区宇田川町34-6M&IビルB1F/B2F
Cost: ¥3,000 on the door.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kanji Can-Can

I think it’s high time that I talked up kanji in this wayward blog.

While I’d like to assume that most people know precisely what I’m on about, I guess I should throw in a morsel for those people not so interested in things Japanese: In case you don’t know, kanji is the stuff you see on scrolls and painted in big black letters on banners – logographic Chinese characters used in the modern Japanese writing system.

Sometimes in movies you see people dabbing big brushes in ink and artily doing strokes across washi paper.

Kanji is grammatically flexible – it can twist itself into nouns and adjective and verb stems – and personally I have a delight/despair affair with the beasties. It’s a bugger to remember the thousands of characters and their various pronunciations, let alone acquire the talent to reproduce the multitude of lines.

To make things trickier, a single kanji may be used to write one or more different words, and deciding which one depends on context, intended meaning, use in compounds, and/or sentence location.

While I’ve loved the simpler Japanese katakana lettering since I was a kid (when I first saw neon Tokyo signage through the eyes of Cubby Broccoli’s film crew in the Sean Connery-James Bond flick You Only Live Twice), I’ve had a more cautious, developing relationship with kanji that probably started with Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in my early 20s.

So the funny thing is that kanji, not katakana, made such a big impact on the novel I published last month – which is based in Melbourne, Australia, not Tokyo, Japan.

The first completed treatise of what’s now known as Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat was completed in 1992, while I was living in Richmond, an inner city suburb of Melbourne, and there was nothing Japanese about it whatsoever.

But when I moved to Tokyo in 2001, the seepage began to set in.

I wrote up a redux of the decade-old tome the following year – and thereafter again let it sit pretty, collecting dust, for the five years leading up to 2007. Then I did a major reboot, was accepted for publication through Another Sky Press in the U.S., and rewrites and editing took the better part of the next three years.

Somewhere along the line inserting kanji into the text became a big part.

As I mentioned, in 1992 there was none, not even mention of our protagonist Floyd's tattoo fuyu (‘winter’) – probably because I didn’t get it myself until 1994 in a particular winter of discontent; that’s something Floyd and I share, aside from drinks.

Likely the kanji settled itself in my brain 15 years later, after I’d watched in excess of a dozen Akira Kurosawa movies on the trot (all within one week) at the beginning of 2010.

While I do love Kurosawa and would readily volunteer myself to sit through this process another time round, there was a reason for my committed viewing: an article I was writing for Australian magazine Filmink to celebrate the centennial since the great man’s birth.

In Kurosawa films there’s occasionally kanji that dominates the screen all by itself – accompanied by a sparse, minimal score by a composer like Fumio Hayasaka or Toru Takemitsu – and it's powerful stuff even if you can’t understand what the devil it says.

So in Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat I decided to do a Kurosawa and throw in meaningful kanji, some of which isn’t even explained in the text – meaning that anyone who scoots through this piece will have a wee bit more insight than anyone having read the book.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

AWOL: Sanja Matsuri Festival, Asakusa

'Matsuri', the Japanese word for festival, has a special meaning in this country that beats (hands down) the notion of a festival in a lot of other countries.

As my insider at anime studio Production I.G once told me, albeit sarcastically, “Japanese love their matsuri” - and he was spot on.

That affection usually doesn’t get much bigger than this: Sanja Matsuri Festival (三社祭), literally the Three Shrines Festival, in Asakusa. It's one of the three more over-the-top annual Shinto matsuri here in Tokyo... and also happens to be considered the wildest and weirdest.

Purportedly established to honor the triumvirate that set up Senso-ji, the ancient temple at Asakusa almost 1,500 years ago, the festival actually kicks off at the adjacent Asakusa Shrine on the third weekend of May, and has done so since the early Edo period (1603-1868).

That is, it usually has every year but was cancelled in 2011 as a direct result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami up north-east, and the subsequent power supply problems (related to the travails at the Fukushima nuclear power plant) that have gripped the region.

So May came and went without any dose of this festival, and that's just plain sad.

It usually takes over the entire district, involving hordes of locals, hundreds of thousands of spectators, and a dozen or more mikoshi (portable shrines) lugged along by chanting, sweaty bearers of all ages, many of whom also happen to be members of the yazuza clad in happi jackets and exceptionally short pants.

There’s also taiko drumming, shamisen, other kinds of traditional music, performance art, a highly-charged atmosphere, beer, Ozeki One Cup saké aplenty - and geisha. Well, not quite the spectacular apprentice geisha (actually called maiko) in Kyoto, but more of a working-class, downtown, down-to-earth Tokyo variant with subdued kimonos and middle-aged lady-next-door looks.

Anyway, here's to seeing the matsuri up and running again next year, and my #1 tip for anybody planning to go: after a cursory look, steer clear of the main drags and investigate the more honestly lively side-streets instead.