Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Hie in Ho Chi Minh (personal essay on a visit to Vietnam)



When Roland Kelts was commissioned by a travel magazine to write about Vietnam, he was drawn to the vestiges of its war with the United States. But he was seduced by a man on a motorbike.

James Salter wrote that there were people we were born to talk to, and like so many of them in my memory, Hie was just there, short, squat and round-faced, a smooth-skinned twenty-something slowing down next to me as I walked. I answered his questions tersely, hoping he'd leave, but he stayed with me, turning the engine off and pushing his bike alongside: You live in Japan, ah. Oh, you're from New York. I want to go there. How can I go there?

At the hotel I asked about Hie. Mr. Lai squinted through the lobby window. "He's okay," he said.

For the next 13 days, Hie took me everywhere he thought I should go. He showed me how to slouch into the sunken nook of his vinyl bike seat and drape my arms across his belly and squeeze hard enough not to fall off, but not too hard. He took me to a smoke shop where an elderly couple at the counter handed me top value in dong for my dollars and yen and a free pack of clove cigarettes. I folded the bills into my right sock and a Ziploc bag I wedged between shirt and belt above my crotch because Hie told me to. "The thief will cut your fanny pack or back pocket with a small sharp knife." I soon trusted everything he said. (As I write this, I don't know why.)

Hie showed me how to cross the streets, none of which had traffic lights or signs. Look straight ahead, like this, he said, eyes comically wide. Don't look at drivers. If they know you see them, they keep going.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

After disaster: my personal essay 7 years after Japan's tsunami ("Ghosts of the Tsunami")

After Disaster: Embracing a Living Past through “Ghosts of the Tsunami” (Words Without Borders)


I flew out of Tokyo two days before March 11. There was a mild tremor as I packed, causing the overhead lamp in my kitchen to sway. I crouched over my suitcase, arms extended in my usual high-alert stance, but the earth soon resettled and I went back to folding my socks. Mild side-to-side rocking and the occasional vertical jolt are standard stuff in Japan, the most earthquake prone country in the world.

During the days of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, I was in Oregon and California, giving university lectures and an NPR interview about, of all things, Japan’s obsession with apocalypse in its art and popular culture. I would not have remembered that tremor on the ninth had it not been for what happened on the eleventh.

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Friday, March 02, 2018

Meet the man behind the anime at Netflix

Netflix is animated about anime

Roland Kelts

Taito Okiura

Netflix’s director of anime, Taito Okiura, tells me he feels like a local baseball player who got drafted into the U.S. Major Leagues. Except, he doesn’t play the sport.

A producer and entrepreneur with over a decade of experience in the industry, Okiura was offered the job twice by Netflix before joining last October. He was unavailable three years ago when first tapped by the company to help open its Japan branch. In 2016, he took a conference call with the talent acquisitions department from corporate headquarters in Los Angeles.

“I told them I wasn’t sure how serious Netflix really is about anime. Then I hung up the phone,” he says.


(© BONES / PROJECT A.I.C.O.; © KAZUTO NAKAZAWA / PRODUCTION I.G)

But Netflix knew how passionate Okiura was about anime. In 2007, he was a key producer on the then-groundbreaking transcultural project, “Afro Samurai,” written and illustrated by Takashi Okazaki, animated by Japanese artists, voiced by American actor Samuel L. Jackson and scored by rapper RZA. Later that year he co-founded David Production Inc. (“JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”), which he sold to Fuji Television in 2014.

Last summer, when Okiura learned that Netflix was again seeking a director for its anime operations, he took the initiative. “This time it was up to me,” he says in his airy Omotesando office. “I really applied myself. The timing was right, and I didn’t want anyone else to have this job.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Monday, February 12, 2018

Thank you, Columbia University Alumni Japan

My generous thanks to Hajime Kosai, my fellow Japan alum from Columbia University, and a brilliant audience at Aux Bacchanales in Tokyo. Hope to see you in the UK & US next month.


(photos: Hajime Kosasi)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Foreign anime artists launch studio in Japan



Arthell Isom and Henry Thurlow of D'Art Shtajio (Ben Gonzales)

In an interview with Buzzfeed two years ago, American animator Henry Thurlow, who had moved to Tokyo from New York six years earlier, summed up his dilemma. “When I was working as an animator in New York, I could afford an apartment, buy stuff and had time to ‘live a life,'” he said. “Now (in Japan) everything about my life is utterly horrible, (but) the artist in me is completely satisfied.”

Indigo Ignited (D'Art Shtajio)

He’s still here. I tracked Thurlow down in a quiet corner of Nishi-Shinjuku, where he is now in what he calls “the inevitable next iteration” of his journey through the anime industry: his own studio.

Friday, January 19, 2018

My review of GHOSTS OF THE TSUNAMI for The Monitor


Author Richard Lloyd Parry

I started reading Ghosts of the Tsunami half-expecting to be bored. Not because of its author, Richard Lloyd Parry, the Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief for the Times of London, who over the course of three books has proven himself an excellent reporter and writer. But as a fellow expat and journalist in Japan, I have already seen so many stories and documentaries about its subject – Japan’s 2011 tsunami. I have visited the devastated region, interviewing survivors and public officials for media in the US and Japan. Aside from some updated statistics and reportage, I couldn’t imagine the book would tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Japanese translation from Hayakawa

I was wrong from page one. “Ghosts” is less an analytical or journalistic account than it is a character-driven, novelistic narrative about loss and trauma in a community disfigured by tragedy. While it is filled with meditations on the rituals and possible meanings of death, it begins with a new life.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Japan's latest Godzilla movie, for The Guardian

Godzilla shows Japan’s real fear is sclerotic bureaucracy not giant reptiles
By ROLAND KELTS


Five years before the release of Godzilla Resurgence (Shin Godzilla), the first Japanese-made Godzilla movie in more than a decade, Japan’s north-east coastline was slammed by a massive earthquake and tsunami, causing a meltdown at the region’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Citizens were either misinformed or kept in the dark about the damage: the government would not even use the term “meltdown” until three months later. In an interview with a national newspaper in 2014, novelist Haruki Murakami diagnosed a national character flaw: irresponsible self-victimisation.

“No one has taken real responsibility for the 1945 war end or the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident,” he said. “I’m afraid that it can be understood that the earthquake and tsunami were the biggest assailants and the rest of us were all victims. That’s my biggest concern.”

Resurgence director Hideaki Anno, a revered otaku (nerd) hero best known for creating one of Japan’s darkest and most elaborate anime classics, Neon Genesis Evangelion, doesn’t let his compatriots off the hook, visually or emotionally. Shots of cars and yachts piling up along canals by the force of water pointedly replicate scenes from the 2011 disasters, turning Godzilla into a personified tsunami. Relief workers and politicians in hazmat suits and light blue jumpsuits respectively echo the surreal imagery of the catastrophe’s aftermath.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

US cons embrace Japan's rock, for The Japan Times

Anime gives Japanese bands a new route to potential fans


By ROLAND KELTS

‘Retro” was the theme at this year’s Anime Boston, the largest anime convention in the Northeastern United States, and that extended to the event’s featured musical acts: veteran pop duo Puffy AmiYumi and 1960s-styled rock quartet Okamoto’s.

“The only other time we played in Boston we performed a short set in a musical instrument store down the street,” says Okamoto’s lead singer Sho Okamoto during our backstage meeting. “We thought we might have 25 people in the hall today, but there were thousands out there.”

Okamoto’s play top-tier venues in Tokyo. Seeing their name on the roster of an anime convention reveals how much more intimate the two media have become.

Anime soundtracks used to travel poorly, with Western fans dismissing the melodramatic scores and lyrics. Songs for TV in particular were often composed to appeal to Japan’s karaoke-driven demographic: Fans would memorize every word and melodic cadence so they could replicate the vocals with friends in an intimate karaoke room.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

KOTSUAGE, my story about grief in 2 cultures, for ENDPAIN


KOTSUAGE, by Roland Kelts
Photos by Yuki Iwanami

The doctor's pencil drawing reminded me of one of those Etch A Sketch toys from the 70s. Its gray lines were asymmetrical and squiggly or squared off like sidewalk curbs. Other times they looped from what I guessed were the body’s nether regions back up to the heart.

He held the sheet of paper to the window’s hazy light. “It’s really just plumbing,” he said.

He was the handsome younger surgeon, swarthy and Mediterranean-looking, and what he was showing us, my younger sister and me, was a solution to the problems they’d found in our father’s chest. Until our meeting that morning, the problem had been singular: an ascending thoracic aortic aneurysm, a swelling of his heart’s central artery that could be life-threatening if untreated.

But when they injected dye into his chest to get a clearer sense of the problem, the problem became plural. The procedure was called a cardiac catheterization, and it transformed his arteries into a multi-colored subway map, where you could see the blood routes that were slowed or nearly blocked.