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


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


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]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Appearing @ Ottawa International Animation Festival 2014, Sept. 17-21

I will be a guest speaker at the 2014 Ottawa International Animation Festival in Ottawa, Canada, Sept. 17-21, at the behest of the Embassy of Japan.

COOL JAPAN: New monthly column for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan


Cultures Intertwined

American influence on Japan’s soft-power push

By Roland Kelts

In 2002, American journalist Douglas McGray published an article in Foreign Policy magazine called “Japan’s Gross National Cool.”

After spending a few months traveling around the country, McGray concluded that Japan was transitioning from being a manufacturing exporter to a cultural exporter.

What he called “the whiff of American cool” that dominated most of the 20th century was being supplanted globally by “the whiff of Japanese cool,” in the form of cultural products such as manga, anime, fashion, and cuisine.

McGray cited the phrase coined by Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye (who was, incidentally, President Barack Obama’s first choice for ambassador to Japan in 2008): Soft Power.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Haruki Cool for The Japan Times

Haruki Murakami’s Cool Japan

I was in New York last week to host a launch event for the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” My good friend and Murakami translator Ted Goossen, professor at York University in Toronto, joined me, as did pianist Eunbi Kim, whose multi-media project, “Murakami Music,” I saw performed at Symphony Space in Manhattan last year.

With all the talk of the Cool Japan campaign, it’s worth remembering that author Haruki Murakami reigns as the nation’s most potent global cultural export.

I wasn’t surprised to find the venue packed when I arrived. Kinokuniya bookstore’s New York branch in midtown comprises two floors and a basement. Events and readings are staged in the center of the ground floor. Audience members filled the seats and spilled into adjacent aisles, many of them peering over bookshelves.

I first met Murakami 15 years ago on a kind of bet.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thank you Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York City

Summer gigs, 2014 -- thanks to Nobuyuki, Tsuyoshi, Marlan, Ian, Marc in LA; Peter, Nagame, Lars at Embassy of Sweden, Tokyo; Manabu and Lisa at Meiji University, Tokyo; John, Ted, Eunbi and Haruki at Kinokuniya, New York City.

Next up: Ottawa, San Diego, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco and Berkeley.

Project Anime / Anime Expo @ Los Angeles

The Embassy of Sweden @ Tokyo

Meiji University @ Tokyo

Kinokuniya Books @ New York City

NHK "Tomorrow" shoot @ Tohoku