Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Anisongs! Anime & J-Pop cross the language barrier in Las Vegas, for The Japan Times

Lantis looks to woo a dedicated fan base with anisong tour

By Roland Kelts

As soon as the music starts, the language barrier at overseas expos of Japanese pop culture is breached. Legions of non-Japanese fans, most of whose knowledge of the language is limited to basic greetings and exclamations, burst into karaoke-style singalongs, mimicking dance moves and waving glow sticks. Their instant fluency lasts for about three to five minutes. Then the song ends and they retreat to their native tongues.

The Japanese music industry hasn’t had an international chart-topper since Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” (Ue o Muite Arukou) — released in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1963. And while contemporaries Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and virtual idol Hatsune Miku generate millions of YouTube hits, they are lightweights next to South Korean Psy and his one-off wonder, “Gangnam Style,” which is now famous for overloading the file-sharing site’s view counter last month.

The language barrier is what most Japanese industry producers cite as their chief obstacle to global success, especially in Western countries. But it’s also true that some managers seek to avoid associating their acts with established anime and manga fan bases abroad. In two recent cases in New York, I was told that management in Tokyo didn’t want “anime fans” or “otaku types” in the venues, at least not in the front rows, because the concerts were being filmed for Japanese DVD release. They targeted rock fans and club-goers instead, presumably seeking some kind of hipster sex appeal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Coming of Age in today's Japan, for Utne Reader

The Satori Generation

A new breed of young people have outdone the tricksters of advertising.
By Roland Kelts

[Photo by Flickr/Kathleen Zarubin]
Young Americans and Europeans are increasingly living at home, saving money, and living prudently. Technology, as it did in Japan, abets their shrinking circles. If you have internet access, you can accomplish a lot in a little room. And revolution in the 21st century, as most young people know, is not about consumption—it’s about sustainability.

They don’t want cars or brand name handbags or luxury boots. To many of them, travel beyond the known and local is expensive and potentially dangerous. They work part-time jobs—because that is what they’ve been offered—and live at home long after they graduate. They’re not getting married or having kids. They’re not even sure if they want to be in romantic relationships. Why? Too much hassle. Oh, and too expensive.

In Japan, they’ve come to be known as satori sedai—the “enlightened generation.” In Buddhist terms: free from material desires, focused on self-awareness, finding essential truths. But another translation is grimmer: “generation resignation,” or those without ideals, ambition or hope.

They were born in the late 1980s on up, when their nation’s economic juggernaut, with its promises of lifetime employment and conspicuous celebrations of consumption, was already a spent historical force. They don’t believe the future will get better—so they make do with what they have. In one respect, they’re arch-realists. And they’re freaking their elders out.

Monday, January 05, 2015

On Haruki Murakami's "The Strange Library," illustrated by Chip Kidd, for The New Yorker

Illustrating Murakami


Haruki Murakami’s illustrated novella, “The Strange Library,” arrived in the mail last month looking like a Christmas card from a bipolar ex. Two cheery and colorful cartoon eyes adorn the card’s top half; beastly fangs in sepia tone snap down below. When I slid open the envelope-like front cover, its button seal bearing the numerals “107,” I expected to find menace, and I did. One dark-rimmed emerald green eye glared at me from the broad interior fold, embedded in hair and encircling a black pupil. On the smaller bottom flap was the upside-down half-moon mouth of a smiling child, skin pink and over-bright, canines pristine.

Two realities trading places, the threat of violence in an uneasy state of play: classic Murakami, of course. But also vintage Chip Kidd, the associate art director at Knopf who has been designing U.S. first editions of Murakami books since the author’s 1993 short-story collection, “The Elephant Vanishes.”

Kidd’s designs contain eyes and other facial features, circular motifs that seem to swirl through kinetic colors, and bold, arresting closeups. In a display case in his Upper East Side apartment, Kidd devotes a shelf to his “Murakami face trilogy”—the covers of the author’s three longest novels, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Kafka on the Shore,” and “1Q84,” boasting, in order, a painted mechanical bird’s eye, a head that looks like an inflated golf ball, and a photograph of a young woman’s face, parts of which are strategically concealed behind the book’s title and dust jacket.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sanrio's kawaii 3D anime J-Pop "Nutcracker", for The Japan Times

Sanrio’s ‘Nutcracker’ offers visual experience in 3-D

By Roland Kelts

For anyone raised in the West, the year-end holidays in Japan can be a jarring experience, at least for the uninitiated. Decorated trees, illuminated boulevards and carols in convenience stores coincide with Colonel Sanders statuettes remade into Santa Claus and mini-skirted chorus girls in reindeer costumes on TV. If you live in Japan for more than a few years, however, you might come to embrace this topsy-turvy, roller-coaster version of the holiday season. Just close your eyes and enjoy the ride.

This year, that ride took on a psychedelic technicolor glow in cinemas nationwide, courtesy of Sanrio’s “The Nutcracker” (“Kurumiwari Ningyo”), which was released on Nov. 29. The stop-motion animated film, loosely based on ETA Hoffman’s original story and the Tchaikovsky ballet, is credited to Sanrio founder Tsuji Shintaro, with additional writings and song lyrics by the late avant-garde author, poet, dramatist and director Shuji Terayama. It was originally released in 1974, and remains the only feature-length film ever produced by Sanrio.

The 2014 version underwent a radical makeover at the hands of director Sebastian Masuda, founder of seminal Harajuku clothing boutique 6% Dokidoki, art director for pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and now a conceptual artist who has exhibited in New York and Miami. Many consider Masuda the father of the kawaii fashion movement. Veteran producer Masayuki Tanishima assembled a crack team to “re-create” the movie into something he considers completely new. This included digitally transforming a now-primitive and painstaking 2-D animation technique, stop-motion, into a more fluid and interactive visual experience in 3-D.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Disney's Japanamerica, for The New Yorker

Japan and America Meet in “Big Hero 6”

By Roland Kelts

I first heard about Disney’s “Big Hero 6” and its unprecedented hybrid setting—an urban mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo—at this summer’s Anime Expo, North America’s largest annual convention devoted entirely to Japanese pop culture. Amid the throngs of cosplay (costume play), anime, and manga revellers and garishly lit promotional booths, the news of “Big Hero 6,” delivered by a bright-eyed and green-wigged young companion, didn’t sound promising. I pictured a crudely expanded version of San Francisco’s existing Chinatown, with maybe a few additional sushi counters and one or two Pikachu or Totoro dolls cluttering the background.

Instead, the movie’s metropolitan portmanteau is a marvel of architectural alchemy. Shibuya skyscrapers with pulsing video screens hug San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Victorian Mission duplexes line hilly San Fransokyo neighborhoods, aglow from the pink-white light of Japanese cherry blossoms in full bloom below. Trains from the Yamanote and Chuo lines, two of Tokyo’s central and most popular railways, stream by on elevated tracks. The sprawling Yokohama Bay Bridge connects the financial district to San Francisco’s East Bay, which may well be home to Oaksaka and Berkyoto in this Japanamerican universe.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hosting "Tomorrow" in Tohoku, for NHK

I host the documentary, "Tomorrow," on ongoing post-quake/tsunami volunteer & recovery efforts in Tohoku, northern Japan, for NHK television. The film was shot not far from where I once lived with my grandparents in Iwate Prefecture. Summary here

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Meet half-Japanese Ryan Potter / Hiro Hamada in "Big Hero 6", for The Japan Times

Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6′ animates a bridging of cultures

This year’s Tokyo International Film Festival was hot on animation, featuring screenings of the collected works of Hideaki Anno, creator of the epic franchise, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” and 3-D shorts directed by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, producer of “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros.” But the festival’s opening animated film was from America — even if Japan is very much on its mind.

The world premiere of “Big Hero 6″ (released in Japan as “Baymax”) from Disney and Marvel Comics took place in Tokyo on Oct. 23. It opened in theaters in the United States on Nov. 7, and will drop in Japan on Dec. 20. Last month, as I swung through Los Angeles, where the film was produced and directed, the pre-release buzz was palpable.

The eponymous hero of the film is a “Hiro” — Hiro Hamada, a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian boy genius with a flair for robotics. Hamada and his robot companion, Baymax, fight evil forces who threaten to destroy their home city — an urban hybrid called “San Fransokyo.”

The city is a visual astonishment: meticulously detailed renderings of San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods with Tokyo’s Odaiba Rainbow Bridge spanning its bay and Shibuya skyscrapers hugging the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Animation critic and historian Charles Solomon notes that the artists had long stays in both cities, where they studied the architecture and skylines to combine them into a single metropolis.

Friday, November 28, 2014

COOL JAPAN: Doraemon in the USA, for the ACCJ


Exporting Doraemon

The tricky art of translating Japan’s biggest anime series

By Roland Kelts

[Photos courtesy of Tokyo Otaku Mode]

In 2008, Japan’s consul general appeared on stage at Sakura-Con, the largest anime festival in the Pacific Northwest, grinning mischievously with his hands behind his back. “Ohayo gozaimasu,” he said to the crowd of 10,000-plus, many of whom roared the greeting back.

He turned around, slipped a mask over his head and faced the audience bearing the plastic countenance of a wide-eyed bright blue cat.

A few murmurs arose. Someone at the back shouted, “Doraemon!”

A week earlier, the robotic cat manga and anime character, Doraemon—a cultural icon in Japan akin to Mickey Mouse in the United States—had been dubbed Japan’s first “anime ambassador” by the foreign minister.

But at the time of the consul general’s performance, Doraemon had neither aired nor been published in the United States. Only the most diehard American otaku (geeks) knew the character even existed.
“Doraemon is the biggest manga and anime series in Japanese history,” said Tokyo-based American writer and translator Matt Alt, citing the title’s 45-year domination of Japanese popular culture. “His face is almost everywhere in Japan. If you’re here, chances are, you’ll see it.”

Over the past year, the gap between the character’s ubiquitous presence in Japan and his lack of recognition in America has finally been narrowed. The anime series, translated into English and localized by Los Angeles studio Bang Zoom! Entertainment, launched on Disney XD on July 7. The English-language manga debuted in digital formats in November 2013 and is currently being released, volume by volume, online.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Monday, October 06, 2014

Blue Bottle Coffee goes to Tokyo, for The California Sunday Magazine

Tokyo Brew
James Freeman takes Blue Bottle to the city that inspired him.

I am on my way to meet James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, and every inch of Tokyo feels sun blasted and overstuffed — except where he is. Freeman is hunched over a cup of coffee inside a Tudor-style café called Chatei Hatou, a 25-year-old relic of Japan’s bubble-era economy, nestled between a narrow okonomiyaki grill and a basement bar on a hill in Shibuya, one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. When I step in from the glaring street, it’s like walking into a well-appointed cave. The café is spacious, cool, and dimly lit; the soundtrack is classical; and the white-haired, blue-eyed Freeman has the long 12-seat wooden bar all to himself. It’s his favorite place in the world.

“See, I love that,” he says, breaking off mid-greeting. He nods toward the barista, who wears a necktie and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. “I love that he warms the saucer. He pours hot water in the cup, then splashes some onto the saucer. It’s more refined to have the saucer the same temperature as the cup.

“If we can learn from that,” he says, “and compete here in Tokyo, that will give us an enormous competitive edge in our markets back in the U.S.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

COOL JAPAN: Hatsune Miku live this month in LA & NYC, for the ACCJ


First Sound from the Future

Hatsune Miku weaves her magic for US audiences this fall

By Roland Kelts

Not all trends sweeping the domestic market in Japan strike gold with overseas audiences. The exceptions are headliners such as Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and the manga series One Piece, with its record-breaking 345-million print run worldwide. Most Japanese pop culture phenomena are for the home crowd only.

Sports manga, such as Slam Dunk, rarely find a mass audience in the United States. Even trendy fashions, like last decade’s yamamba girls with their towering platform soles and bronzed faces, fail to charm most foreign tastemakers.

In the 80s, when I was a teenager set free in Tokyo streets by my Japanese mother, I was entranced by quirky Japanese idol groups, fantastical haircuts, and animated television graphics. Still, I didn’t think any of it would register with my peers in America.

It was altogether too light, too cute, too whimsical and self-conscious: a brightly twisted mimicry of Western tropes. Why opt for a cheery, slippery copy when you can get the hard-won original in New York, London, or Los Angeles?

I was wrong about a lot of it. After Godzilla became a global sensation, several Japanese pop icons filled the screens and streets of Western cities.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Manga's fastest-growing market is India, for The Japan Times

New markets may save Japan’s manga exports
[Simon & Schuster India]
The North American manga business took a beating last decade. After peaking around 2005-06, the lethal storm of oversaturated shelves, a collapsing U.S. financial industry and the bankruptcy of major American bookstore chain, Borders, left publishers and distributors in a panic. Downsizing, restructuring and layoffs became de rigueur.

“The bankruptcy of Borders in 2011 was definitely the final straw in forcing me to close down the office and stop print publishing,” says Stu Levy, the founder and CEO of Tokyopop, a pioneer and stalwart of the North American manga market that once introduced millions to the iconic “Sailor Moon” series. Levy believes rampant digital piracy and reduced print runs combined with the closing of Borders to force his hand.

But after the losses sustained in the wake of Japan’s natural and nuclear disasters of 2011, manga publishers and their overseas partners see signs of hope — though not necessarily where they were looking for them.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On tour in California, Oct. 2014

I'll be touring California with the Monkey Business team next month, Oct. 11 - 25. Six cities -- San Diego, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley -- w/Tomoka Shibasaki, Hideo Furukawa, Steve Erickson, Hiromi Ito, Peter Orner, Dean Rader, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Gooossen and more. Readings, signings, conversation, fine wines & spirits.

[Sayaka Toyama, graphic]
Specs after the jump.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sold-out in Ottawa

My thanks to the Embassy of Japan, Canada; the Ottawa International Animation Festival; Prof. Tom Keirstead, and a sell-out audience in Canada's capital city.

[Photos courtesy Ryo Tokunaga, Embassy of Japan, Canada]