Tuesday, September 17, 2019

My New York Times story on Tokyo's renewed Hotel Okura

The New York Times

TOKYO — The outcry over the demolition of the 53-year-old Hotel Okura in Tokyo surprised no one more than some Japanese historians and architectural specialists.

Monocle, the global lifestyle magazine, had circulated a petition, savetheokura.com, to register the “outrage from admirers of its unique design.” Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, an Italian luxury brand, filmed a video memorial and started a social media campaign, #MyMomentAtOkura.

The hotel’s modernist postwar lobby artfully balanced elements of traditional Japan, like lacquered plum-blossom-shaped tables and chairs, with visions of what was then futuristic, like a lighted world map displaying global time zones. It was frequented by United States presidents including President Obama, and other heads of state, celebrities, artists and designers. It played a central role in the 1960s James Bond novel “You Only Live Twice.”

Hotel Okura Co. Ltd., whose largest investors include the Taisei Corporation, a construction company, and Mitsubishi Estate, Japan’s second-largest real estate developer, plans to build a 38-story high-rise with 510 rooms, 102 more than the Okura, and add 18 stories of office space. The renovation is estimated to cost $1 billion. The company promised to “faithfully reproduce” several beloved artifacts in the lobby, including wall tapestries, paper lanterns and sliding doors, the lacquered furnishings and map of time zones.

The hotel’s main building and its signature lobby were demolished in September. The South Wing, erected in 1973, will remain operational, and the owners plan to replicate the lobby’s mezzanine, based on a Japanese painting known as “Bridge of the Dream,” and its hexagonal ceiling lights. A newly designed bar will try to recapture the stylish retro-chic of the former Orchid Bar, the Okura’s elegant, dimly lit cocktail haven loved by diplomats, expatriates and journalists. The new complex will also incorporate upgrades to meet the latest standards in earthquake-resistant construction technologies.

But those plans have done little to assuage the concerns of preservationists, many of whom contend that Tokyo is destroying its greatest postwar architectural assets to accommodate the 2020 Olympics and a recent surge in tourism. In a twist worthy of Bond, the most outspoken critics are not from Japan.

“When the reconstruction was announced, many foreigners, especially well-known designers, voiced their regret,” said Yoshio Uchida, professor of architecture at Toyo University. “The magnitude of their protest was beyond our imagination.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Britain & Brexit as seen from Japan

‘Seen from Japan, Britain is no longer recognizably British’

The Guardian

A nation of islands shaped by limited space and imperial ambitions, garden aesthetics and ceremonial teas -- and stoic, stiff-lipped reserve in the face of adversity: Great Britain, or Japan?

For many Japanese, Britain has long been something of a western mirror and model nation, a land whose geographical and cultural character were recognisable and achievements often admirable: a doppelganger off the coast of another continent and equally rich with tradition, history and parochial pride. At least, until Brexit.

Only three months after the June 2016 EU referendum, the Japanese government voiced its displeasure over Britain’s choice in unusually un-Japanese language. A 15-page memorandum issued in September 2016 by the otherwise soft-spoken ministry of foreign affairs “strongly requests” that the UK consider the facts: Japan invests a lot of money and employs a lot of workers in the UK, but Japanese businesses can’t and won’t stay in the UK if it exits the EU without the single passport and sustained immigration. In other words: with no deal.

Three years later, Japan is still pleading the case. This June, the foreign minister, Taro Kono, said that he bluntly told Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt: “’Please no no deal. Please no no-deal Brexit.’”

Since then, Johnson has made a no-deal Brexit seem like a no-brainer – a fait accompli for Brexit cheerleaders.

“I think most Japanese look at Britain today with disbelief, shock and horror,” Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University told me recently. “There are quite a few of us who are Anglophiles, but the Britain a lot of Japanese came to like and admire is open, cosmopolitan and increasingly integrated in Europe. The fact that Britain is inflicting on itself tremendous economic damage for what seems like a very un-British extremist ideology is astounding.”

Seen from the relatively stable shores of Japan, its western mirror image is not only cracking up – it’s no longer recognizably British.

• Roland Kelts is a Japanese-American writer and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US. He lives in Tokyo.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The future of anime? LeSean Thomas' "Cannon Busters"

'Cannon Busters': Bending anime rules in all the right ways

The Japan Times

South Bronx, New York native LeSean Thomas is making anime in Tokyo partly owing to a mistake. 

In the early ’90s he bought a video cassette of what he thought was “Akira” but turned out to be a behind-the-scenes “production report” documenting the film’s creation. Instead of returning it, Thomas watched it every day. When he saw director Katsuhiro Otomo and his team working through the night at their cramped desks, he thought: That’s what I want to do.

More than 20 years later, Thomas, now 43, has become an anime showrunner with “Cannon Busters,” a 12-episode series based on his 2005 comic book of the same name and rendered by Tokyo animation studio Satelight Inc. The multinational project was created by an American, co-financed by Britain’s Manga Entertainment Ltd. and Taiwan’s Nada Holdings Inc., produced by a Japanese studio and released on major U.S. and Chinese streaming portals, Netflix and Bilibili.

Thomas is leading a new generation of overseas fans who not only love anime but also, increasingly, want to play a part in creating it. His journey to Tokyo took him from New York to Los Angeles and Seoul, while he honed his craft as an illustrator and animation director, producer and storyboard artist on A-list animated shows “The Boondocks” and “The Legend of Korra.” 

His original story for “Cannon Busters” combines elements of Edo Period (1603-1868) Japan, American Westerns, steampunk and Eurocentric high fantasy, with a few mecha anime robot tropes on the side. 

“There are cultural motifs that we can identify and racially code,” Thomas tells me over coffee in the Yoyogi neighborhood of Tokyo, “but none of it takes place on earth.”

Lead character S.A.M. from "Cannon Busters" (Netflix) 

He first encountered Japanese animation as a teenager in the public housing projects of the Bronx, where a friend showed him a VHS tape of opening sequences and clips from a handful of late ’80s to early ’90s original video anime series. Suddenly the manga panels he’d been admiring as a reader and budding artist were moving across a screen.

“That tape was a game changer for me,” he says. “I’d never seen anyone animate anything like that. Compared to Hanna-Barbera, ‘Looney Tunes,’ and American comic books I was consuming at the time, the way anime was drawn was just a higher level of detail and technique. It was just amazing.”

In Los Angeles, Thomas worked with some of the biggest names in American animation — DreamWorks, Sony Pictures, Nickelodeon — yet remained dissatisfied with their emphasis on comedy and theatrical characters over background and environmental design.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

How Disney ripped off Tezuka: The Lion King vs Kimba The White Lion

Big Little Lions: Disney's New 'Lion King' Dodges the 'Kimba' Similarity Issue

The Hollywood Reporter

Over the years, however, many anime fans have speculated that there were, perhaps, other reasons that Tezuka Productions declined to take legal action against Disney, with some even suggesting that the company might have paid them off in secret. 

However, in the 2006 book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. by Roland Kelts, Tezuka Productions' Yoshihiro Shimizu insists they never received any compensation.  

"Of course, we were urged to sue Disney by some in our industry. But we're a small, weak company. It wouldn't be worth it anyway. … Disney's lawyers are among the top 20 in the world."

Monday, July 22, 2019

Anime's aging artists keep going: Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) has a new series

Anime's aging but active artists: Mamoru Oshii on his latest project, 'Vladlove'

The Japan Times

Writer and director Mamoru Oshii is best known for creating sci-fi thrillers that challenge orthodoxy with their philosophical musings and provocative, often nutty, imagery. His most famous film, the 1995 anime epic “Ghost in the Shell,” features a stone-cold cyborg heroine who dives nude off a skyscraper and is memorably dismembered by a tank.

But at a Tokyo press conference last week to introduce his latest project, a 12-episode slapstick comedy series titled “Vladlove,” all Oshii wanted to talk about was girls. Real ones. And a vampire named Mai.

“This time I wanted to take on a girl-meets-girl story,” he said. “The main characters are five schoolgirls. There won’t be any hot guys.”

Oshii is the series’ creator and chief director, working with fellow anime veteran Junji Nishimura (“Ranma ½”). Financed by Ichigo Animation, a newly formed subsidiary of a real estate and clean energy company, it premieres on TV and streaming platforms in spring 2020.

With a combined age of 130 years, the two men slouched atop stools on either side of a small stage in the basement of Akiba Cultures Zone, a six-story mall in Akihabara that sells anime-related merchandise. They presented a slide show of character sketches, during which Oshii jokingly admitted that he didn’t know anything about high school girls and had to ask younger people what they were like.

BlooDye, a female idol-pop group whose singers are all four decades younger than the directors, performed the show’s forgettable opening song before a series of photo shoots including Ichigo Animation’s Yutaka Nakanishi. No questions were taken, and many of the reporters grilled staffers in the lobby afterward for more information.

It was hard not to see the entire affair as a symbol of what’s wrong, and potentially right, with the current state of Japan’s anime industry. Like the rest of the country, its elders are aging fast. Skilled young talent is scant in Japan, and for employees under 40 or so, long hours and low wages have always been the norm. Studios are relying upon a thinning crop of seniors like Oshii, 67; Nishimura, 63; and Hayao Miyazaki, 78, all of whom are old enough to consider putting down their pens for good.

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.