Monday, July 15, 2019

Why Hollywood doesn't get Anime

The Japan Times

No fewer than three big-budget Hollywood films based on Japanese originals opened this year: “Alita: Battle Angel,” “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” While all three were still being promoted, “Gundam” and “Akira” were green-lit for production by Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros., respectively. An adaptation of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog video game will be out in November, followed by Hollywood takes on Capcom’s Monster Hunter next year and Nintendo’s Super Mario in 2022.

The highest grossing anime feature ever, Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 “Your Name.,” is being remade as a live-action film, produced by “Star Wars” reboot king, J.J. Abrams. Hollywood renderings of “Attack on Titan” and the iconic mascot Hello Kitty are also reportedly on the way.

But so far, Hollywood’s versions of Japanese content have received mixed reviews at best, with some earning respectable but not remarkable box-office numbers. Most fans return to the original stories and wonder: Why can’t they get it right?

For Jeff Gomez, founding CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based production company that is now introducing Tsuburaya Production’s “Ultraman” universe to Western studios, the fundamental problems are cultural. Gomez has been a fan of Japanese stories for most of his 56 years — from a troubled childhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Puerto Rico through a lonely adolescence in Hawaii. His was, he says, an upbringing marked by bullying and isolation.

Jeff Gomez (photo Kyle Kirkwood)

Raised by an Afro-Latino father and Caucasian Jewish American mother, Gomez isn’t kidding when he repeats that ’60s anime series like “Marine Boy,” “Kimba the White Lion,” and “Gigantor” saved his life.

“Japanese shows didn’t talk down to you,” he tells me on a call during a business trip to Los Angeles. “They were serious in tone and treated me seriously intellectually. I was an avid reader, so I read all the show credits. As a kid I knew the names Osamu Tezuka and Go Nagai. They were called ‘celebrated creators’ in the English-language write-ups. That was very different from the U.S. model, where most of the writers were just hired hands.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

My take on Broadway's PIPPIN produced in JAPAN

Tokyo Weekender

True to its 2013 source, the Japanese production of the Tony-winning Broadway musical revival of “Pippin” turns the physicality up to 11. Most of the choreography is acrobatic, with actors contorting themselves into seemingly impossible positions, and some is aggressively sensual. Yet on a stage teeming with athletic young bodies in skintight costumes, the one that draws the most enthusiastic applause belongs to 73-year-old Mie Nakao.

The veteran actress’s star turn as Berthe (a role she rotates with Beverly Maeda), grandmother of the eponymous hero (played with idol-boy earnestness by Japanese-Spanish TV star and singer, Yu Shirota), comes during her solo performance of “No Time At All,” a song preaching pleasure at all costs.

After the fourth chorus, Nakao suddenly doffs her dowdy gown and shawl to reveal bared shoulders and legs tucked into a colorful corset. She ascends on a trapeze with the aid of a shirtless hunk, gripping the ropes firmly and twirling as she sings, eyeing his broad torso (and the rest of his outstretched body) with cheeky winks and smiles of delight.

It’s a moment both comical and erotic that is arguably enriched by the cross-cultural casting – a very fit Japanese obasan taking in the views from above and below of a brawny young white dude.

On Broadway, Andrea Martin, an actress in her 60s, played Berthe. Martin recited the song’s original lines about wanting to live “sixty-seven” years more.

“But Mie (Nakao) said to me, ‘I’m 73, and I want to sing that I want 73 more years!” said director Diane Paulus after the matinee I attended on Tuesday. “And it’s true. She’s 73 years old and she’s able to do all that. Amazing.”

Diane Paulus (photo Susan Lapides)

Paulus, 53, is the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, where her “Pippin” revival debuted in 2012 before moving to Broadway. She came to Japan this month with her husband and two daughters to oversee the opening of the Tokyo production, her first time working with a Japanese cast. But this visit isn’t all about business.

Paulus’s mother was Japanese, her father American. She grew up in New York City on breakfasts of miso soup and egg over rice sprinkled with nori, though she didn’t know they were Japanese.

“I didn’t think it was a Japanese part of my life,” she tells me the day after the matinee. “But as a theater director, I was really interested in the Takarazuka Revue and went to see it at Radio City Music Hall. Also, the history of kabuki and all its iterations. Art is everywhere around you here.”

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Hiroshima and Hayao Miyazaki: America's musician for Studio Ghibli

The Japan Times

American composer, arranger and violinist Chad Cannon’s first encounter with Japan came via a Nintendo video game called Ninja Gaiden, which he and his fellow childhood gamers in Salt Lake City, Utah, mispronounced as “Ninja Gayden.” Later, an older sister, also a musician, would return from a tour of Japan bearing a gift shop special: a Hokkaido-shaped clock that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Now 33, Cannon is an accomplished artist immersed in Japanese culture. He has toured with the renowned violinist Midori Goto, and performed solo concerts in schools and evacuation centers throughout the devastated Tohoku region after the March 11, 2011 disasters. In 2016, he composed the original score for the award-winning Hiroshima documentary, “Paper Lanterns,” whose recording features shakuhachi flute player Kojiro Umezaki and vocalist/lyricist Mai Fujisawa.

Fujisawa’s father, veteran composer and conductor Joe Hisaishi, best known as the man behind the music of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s films, is why Cannon was back in Tokyo last week for two long days of studio work. Since 2017, the duo have become musical collaborators, and Hisaishi asked Cannon to create the arrangements for his latest score: the soundtrack for “Ni no Kuni,” an anime feature film based on a Studio Ghibli-inspired video game series, developed by Level-5. The film will be released in Japan on Aug. 23.

Cannon says he was tasked with enriching the music in some of the film’s fight scenes, adding drums and other instrumentation to raise the aural intensity.

“I haven’t played the game,” he admits, “but I’ve watched the film a few times and it’s classic anime. This contrast between aggressive violent scenes and really cute sentimental stuff in another world. You don’t usually see that in Pixar movies.”

Equally striking are Cannon’s credits on both sides of the Pacific. Based in Los Angeles, he has orchestrated with top-shelf Hollywood composers Conrad Pope and Timothy Williams for the soundtracks of “The Hobbit” trilogy, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” the upcoming “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” and the monster of transcultural franchises, “Godzilla.”

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

My hero, ULTRAMAN, hits Netflix as anime

New 'Ultraman' anime is a family affair

The Japan Times

I first met anime director and mechanical designer Shinji Aramaki in Tokyo 12 years ago. He had just completed “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” the second in a trio of epic CG-animated films based on Masamune Shirow’s four-volume 1985 manga.

“Ex Machina” was a global collaboration: co-produced by Hong Kong/Hollywood director John Woo, costumed by Italy’s Miuccia Prada and scored by Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono.

Since then, Aramaki has become anime’s go-to guy for Japanese franchise reboots and sequels targeting international markets. As the nation’s domestic audience ages and its youth population shrinks, producers are scrambling to dust off older titles that might resonate both at home and abroad. That has them going to Aramaki a lot.

Now 58 and the father of two adult daughters, he is currently working alongside screenwriter/director Kenji Kamiyama on anime adaptations of 1989’s “Ghost in the Shell” for Netflix and 1982’s “Blade Runner” for Cartoon Network and Crunchyroll.

Last month, Netflix released the duo’s anime version of “Ultraman,” based on a 2011 manga that was a continuation of the classic long-running tokusatsu (special effects) TV series, which debuted in 1966. Ultraman and his brethren (the Ultra Brothers) are alien beings that descend to earth and merge with a human to help the Japanese branch of the Science Patrol battle exotic monsters bent on destruction.

Netflix 2019

The legendary Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-70) of “Godzilla” fame created the original live-action TV show, the first in Japan to be exported. Over the past five decades the Ultraman brothers became ubiquitous in Japan and other parts of Asia through posters, costumes, T-shirts, toys and adverts for products ranging from Honda vehicles to Hawaiian vacations. Ultraman merchandise alone generates over $50 million (¥5.5billion) a year in Japan.

Kyodo 1966

The 13 CG-animated episodes released on Netflix are loaded with fights, replacing the TV series’ “suitmation” (actors wrestling in rubber suits) with digital motion-capture footage. But the focus is on the heroes’ inter-generational dynamics — more psychodrama than monster-of-the-week.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Japan's "virginity crisis"

Virgin territory: why the Japanese are turning their backs on sex

The Guardian
Young people in Japan – particularly men – are shunning physical love, and they’re not the only ones

The grounds of Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park have been colonised by beautiful youth: women and men beneath the cherry blossoms surrounded by bottles of wine, sake and shochu, cases of beer and plastic bags stuffed with finger foods – drinking, playing games and sharing smartphone screens as the buds bloom and fall.

Hanami (flower-viewing) parties are a centuries-old rite of spring, a national symbol of life’s beauty and brevity. But as I walk by them this month, I can’t help but wonder if any of the pink-faced revellers are hooking up, or even care enough to try.

“Sexless Japan” is now a reliable media meme. Bolstered by a plummeting birth rate and an ageing population (leading to dire predictions of a future Japan devoid of Japanese), this portrait of the nation’s celibate society has been further enhanced by a paradox: Japan’s cultural imagination is embedded with erotic imagery, from 17th-century shunga woodblock prints to what non-Japanese today often mistakenly call hentai (perverse) pornographic manga and anime. The sex lives of the Japanese, the story goes, have been almost entirely sublimated.

I once wrote about this phenomenon (sekkusu-banare, drifting away from sex) in these pages, and talked about it in a BBC documentary called No Sex Please, We’re Japanese. Both times I was careful to imply what is now obvious: it isn’t just happening in Japan.

Read >>

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Donald Keene, 1922 - 2019

Writers recall their initiation to Japanese literature via Donald Keene

The Japan Times

Roland Kelts, author:

Bookforum asked me to review Donald Keene’s memoirs, “Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan.”

I said yes and winced. Keene was in his 80s at the time and had a lot of life to remember. His book would be massive. But then he, too, was vast: a bridge from my America to my Japanese mother’s land and literature. Also, a graduate of and professor emeritus at my alma mater, Columbia University, whose Center of Japanese Culture bears his name.

A slim package arrived: 200 pages. In one chapter, Keene jet-sets around Europe, lobbying for Mishima’s Nobel, when his mother falls ill in New York. He arrives at her bedside too late. She can no longer speak. One cannot live and love in two worlds at once, he observes. The chapter closes so softly I had to put the book down and stare at the wall, shaken.

Keene did what Kafka asks of writers: Ax the frozen sea within us.

Read >>

Friday, April 05, 2019

#Metoo meets #anime

#MeToo allegations roil U.S. anime conventions

The Japan Times

Over the past few months, the #MeToo movement breached the American anime convention industry. Most feel it was inevitable. Many say it’s about time.

The first salvo was fired in mid-January in the form of a Twitter thread accusing veteran American voice actor Vic Mignogna (“Dragon Ball Z,” “Fullmetal Alchemist”) of homophobia, anti-Semitic behavior and unwanted sexual contact.

Soon the charges from fans, some of whom claim they were underage at the time of the alleged transgressions, were joined by those from con staff members, professional cosplayers, fellow voice actors and an ex-fiancee.

Less than a week after the first tweets dropped, Mignogna released a public statement rejecting accusations of bigotry, proclaiming the innocence of his intentions and apologizing to anyone who felt violated by his “show (of) gratitude or support.” He has not been formally charged with anything.

Some Twitter users, including those in the actor’s fan club, aggressively defended Mignogna. The hashtags proliferated: #istandwithvic (for) and #kickvic (against), and now, #vickkicksback (anti-against).

The controversy expanded on Jan. 30, when an article appeared on the Anime News Network (ANN) site, one of the largest English-language industry portals. Its headline, “Far From Perfect,” was borrowed from Mignogna’s personal apologia to his fan club members.

Lynzee Loveridge

Lynzee Loveridge, ANN’s managing interest editor, compiled firsthand accounts, mostly anonymous, from a handful of fans and one cosplayer, all of whom felt mistreated, insulted or physically victimized by Mignogna’s actions. ANN also published photos of the actor embracing young autograph seekers. The article consolidated and at least partially legitimized the social media posts.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Haruki Murakami at 70: my latest interview

Still swinging for the fences: Murakami in conversation

The Times Literary Supplement

“You see, I’m like a cat”, he tells me, twice. “I know the best position, and I go there straight. And I do it on my own time. Many people don’t like that about me.”

Despite Murakami’s discomfort in Japan, and the disdain he receives from Japanese literary critics ten or more years his junior, his legacy is everywhere in contemporary Japanese culture. He’s there in the unvarnished prose and surreal happenstance in the work of younger writers, including Sayaka Murata (whose bestselling Convenience Store Woman is an eerily Murakamiesque blend of the magical mundane punctuated by violence) Mieko Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa (who wrote what he calls “a remix” of an early Murakami story, entitled Slow Boat), all of whom claim that his model as an independent, uncompromising artist forged their paths from the parochial forests of Japanese letters to the broader plains of world literature. The authors Masatsugu Ono and Aoko Matsuda, twenty and thirty years younger than Murakami, both pursued his double-life as a translator, Ono tackling French novels, Matsuda the short stories of Karen Russell.

For his part, Murakami has returned the favour, publicly praising for the first time a younger Japanese writer, Kawakami, and her novel, Chichi to ran (“Breasts and Eggs”) (2008). “She has a vision, voice and attitude. She doesn’t care what anybody else thinks, or about her reputation. She just writes what she feels is important to her.”

Murakami’s influence is there, too, in anime’s youngest superstar, the director Makoto Shinkai, who studied literature as a student, specializing in Murakami’s oeuvre. Shinkai’s best-known films, Five Centimeters Per Second and the box-office record-breaker, Your Name, swirl elliptically around stories of lost love, longing and the mysteries of time.