Friday, August 28, 2009

Yomiuri column on Miyazaki, Horibuchi, Schodt and elections

[with Hayao Miyazaki backstage at UC Berkeley, 7/25/09]

Soft Power, Hard Truths / Miyazaki, Horibuchi and the virtues of change

Roland Kelts / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

When animation master Hayao Miyazaki observed that I was not wearing a necktie before our onstage conversation at the University of California, Berkeley late last month, he promptly unknotted his own necktie and stuffed the balled-up garment into the hands of his longtime producer, Toshio Suzuki. Then he smiled and nodded at me. He was ready.

Miyazaki was similarly casual throughout the evening, charming the 2,000-plus audience with a playful Cheshire smile, and deftly sidestepping questions that didn't appeal. I was prepared for worse; Miyazaki is notorious for terse rebuttals and curmudgeonly grunts. And while he did emit the occasional groan, he was also surprisingly candid.

"Disasters are things to be lived through," he said of the apocalyptic themes in his work. "They're not evil. They bring people closer together. In fact, when I go to the top of a skyscraper in Tokyo, I feel the hope that the seas will come a little closer. It would be wonderful if I could see the end of civilization in my lifetime, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. So I have to use my imagination."

Viewers of Miyazaki's latest film, Ponyo, which recently had its U.S. release, see the mother of all flood tides engulf the movie's seaside town. Instead of destroying the town's buildings and inhabitants, however, Ponyo's disaster refreshes its characters' lives, cleansing them of hoary misperceptions and ossified ways.

Across the Pacific, Miyazaki's homeland was slouching toward a transformation of its own. With the general election set for Sunday, the 54-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party is widely predicted to be nearing its end. "It takes a long time for the need for change to register in Japan," a colleague at Tokyo University told me. "But once it does, it strikes like lightning." [more here at 3am magazine]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Seiji Horibuchi's New People/J-Pop Center opens tomorrow

A little over a year ago, I filed my Yomiuri column (re-posted below) after giving a talk at the Japan America Society in San Francisco and meeting Seiji Horibuchi, the founder of VIZ media. Seiji told me about his dream project, the four-floor J-Pop Center, which he planned to open in the heart of the city's fading Japantown.

Later in the year, I met Seiji in New York. The subprime spiral was in full downward motion; the economy was tanking. I asked Seiji about his project and he laughed -- somewhat ruefully, I thought.

The J-Pop Center, now called "New People," opens tomorrow. Read it all about it here.

I had hoped to take Seiji up on his gracious invitation to be on hand, but deadlines have me grounded in NYC. Nevertheless, I hereby raise a transcontinental toast to Horibuchi-san and his grand vision.

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / Manga magnate aims to redraw San Francisco

Roland Kelts / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Historian Ronald Takaki wrote that while New York's Statue of Liberty once meant "America" to generations of arriving European immigrants, it was San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge that, for Asians, symbolized a landing on U.S. shores.

No surprise then that the city remains an American hub for all things Asian and Asian-American. When I made my own landing there earlier this month to address the Japan Society alongside consumer critic Mariko Fujiwara, I was greeted straight off the plane by a Japanese-American University of California Berkeley professor and his Korean-American literary editor wife. They set about curing my jet lag with a round of spicy selections at an Indonesian luncheon.

A few hours and a hazy nap later, my palette was stirred by spices from yet another Asian nation. Author, translator and Osamu Tezuka aficionado Frederik L. Schodt escorted me around the corner and down the hill from my hotel into a smoky Indian diner.

Jet lag has rarely faced tastier antidotes.

The following day was all about Japan. Fujiwara and I were greeted in the Delancey Street Screening Room by an alert and intelligent audience whose familiarity with Japan far exceeded Pokemon and Harajuku pixies. We discussed the challenges of an aging population and a lethargic youth, and also the opportunities in expanding transcultural exchanges and mutual respect.

In the audience that evening was Seiji Horibuchi, the pioneering founder of Viz Media, one of the first and largest Japanese entertainment companies to take root in American soil. Horibuchi moved to the Bay Area more than 30 years ago. He founded Viz in 1986. Two years ago, he launched Viz Pictures, a spin-off that focuses on releasing live-action features to complement the mountains of manga, anime, toys and related merchandise the parent company already handles.

As he quickly recited last year's hit manga titles in the United States, Horibuchi sounded like a man who's just getting started. In fact, he is.

Over dinner after the event, Horibuchi unveiled to me his most ambitious project to date, making it clear that he was moving beyond manga and anime on a mission to revitalize the city of San Francisco itself.

A year from now, Viz Media will open the J-Pop Center, a three-story entertainment complex that aims to envelop visitors in the entire Japanese pop culture gestalt, from food to fashion, art materials to toys, and on to magazines, household goods, manga, anime and movies.

"I really want people to appreciate Japanese craftsmanship, quality and design," he says. "We might even have high-tech robots."

At the core of the complex will be a 150-seat art house movie theater specializing in Japanese live-action and animated feature films. The second floor will be dominated by fashion boutiques of the kind found in Japan's Marui department stores, with a particular emphasis on Gosu-rori (Gothic Lolita) designs, whose worldwide appeal Horibuchi calls "a 21st-century phenomenon."

The first floor will provide the full panoply of J-Pop goods that have a clear "visual appeal. We'll be targeting strictly American customers." An expansive cafe will provide the appropriate Japanese-style refreshments.

But most important for Horibuchi is the complex's strategic location: In the heart of San Francisco's Japantown, the longest-lived and largest of the Japanese urban neighborhood communities in the United States. More than 100 years old, Japantown has survived the forced internment of its residents during World War II and the real estate booms and busts of the dot-com era.

Standing in the city that was the first shore for generations of Asian immigrants, Horibuchi tells me that his J-Pop Complex is more than just a business venture: "It's an historic opportunity to show the true value of Japan."

Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." ( available in both English and Japanese. His column appears twice a month.
(Feb. 22, 2008)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"The Soul of Japan," my latest for ADBUSTERS

The Soul of Japan

The Soul of Japan

My latest contribution to Adbusters magazine is now out in the August issue. An excerpt and link to the full story below:

Japan has a curiously utopian image in the West right now. Everything from anime and manga to sushi and sudoku seems to emit the whiff of cool culture in the globalized 21st century. Even Japan’s renowned bullet train is on the export docket: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is said to be negotiating with Japan Rail to purchase Japanese high-speed train intellectual property for an upcoming Los Angeles-Las Vegas line, and possibly extending it to San Francisco and other West Coast destinations in the coming years.

But inside the borders of this ancient archipelago, self-confidence is scant. While the aftershocks of a collapsing US economy cause tremors throughout the rest of the world, Japan is suffering a homegrown earthquake.

Unemployment stats have hit their highest points since World War II; the government is now subsidizing major corporations to beef up their staff rosters; immigrant workers are being laid off by the score; and the long-standing governing oligarchy, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, is on its knees.

Hapless Japanese consumers have stopped spending any capital – political or fiscal. And why shouldn’t they? Japan, designed since the end of World War II to be America’s most passive and dependable Pacific ally, has finally hit paralysis.

“What most people don’t recognize,” wrote Masaru Tamamoto, 
a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, this spring in the New York Times, “is that [Japan’s] crisis is not political, but psychological.” [more here]

Monday, August 10, 2009

Miyazaki West Coast roundup in LA Times

Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times
Miyazaki wowed fans at Comic-Con San Diego recently.

The famous Japanese director tells an American audience that he deeply mulls the stories behind his popular films, including the upcoming Disney venture, 'Ponyo.'
By Charles Burress
August 9, 2009
Once the standing ovation died down, anticipation among the 6,500 people packed into a Comic-Con convention hall in San Diego was almost electric as they waited for the first words from the silver-haired alchemist of animation, Hayao Miyazaki.

To the opening question from Pixar leading light John Lasseter about how he develops his stories, the white-jacketed, 68-year-old director replied, "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking -- thinking about my stories for a long time." Then with an impish smile, he added, "If you have a better way, please let me know."

His answer sparked laughter and affectionate applause, if little revelation, and foreshadowed much of what was to come in Miyazaki's ensuing West Coast tour before thousands of fans in the last week of July, a visit that provided rare U.S. exposure for the reclusive Japanese creator of "My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke" and the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away.

Before a sold-out crowd of 2,000 at UC Berkeley, "Japanamerica" author Roland Kelts asked Miyazaki about the perception that "true evil . . . if it exists, is very hard to pin down in your films."

The good-guys-versus-bad-guys formula often falls through the rabbit hole in Miyazaki stories, particularly the ones that suggest a moral philosophy in their portrayals of individuals caught in conflicts between destructive civilization and a mysterious powerful Nature.

Kelts pointed to the wizard father in Miyazaki's newest film, "Ponyo," comparing him to Shakespeare's Prospero as "more of a troubled man than an evil one."

Miyazaki responded: "To have a film where there's an evil figure and a good person fights against the evil figure and everything becomes a happy ending, that's one way to make a film. But then that means you have to draw, as an animator, the evil figure. And it's not very pleasant to draw evil figures. So I decided against evil figures in my films." Again, laughter and applause.

Miyazaki, who refused to come to the U.S. to receive his Oscar in 2003, came this time, a bit reluctantly, to help promote Disney's Aug. 14 release of "Ponyo," about a goldfish princess who falls in love with a human boy and strives mightily to become human herself. Tickets quickly sold out for the man Lasseter has called "the greatest animation director living today, the greatest director living today." Many American children have spent hours on repeated viewings of "Totoro" -- featuring a cat-bus and a forest creature shaped somewhat like a giant pear with fur.

Many settings

Miyazaki's settings vary -- a contemporary Japanese seaside town in "Ponyo," a European-type village of the late 19th or early 20th century in "Castle in the Sky," and a post-apocalyptic community clinging to a medieval existence in "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind."

But all his films share a painterly aesthetic, hand-drawn with nuanced colors and exacting frame composition, to enhance his fantasy worlds that often blend myth, environmental destruction, shape-shifting spirits and complex human characters. The leading roles belong to independent-minded, resourceful young females, and several films reflect conflicted views of technology, partly embodied in fanciful flying machines seemingly dreamed up by an eccentric genius from the Industrial Revolution.

He has also spawned a growing body of academic analysis. "There are more people writing papers on Hayao Miyazaki in the United States than any other Japanese artist that I'm familiar with," said Frederik Schodt, a manga expert and co-translator of the newly published English version of Miyazaki's book "Starting Point." Miyazaki's "films are both popular and subversive, especially in regard to conventional gender coding," writes Tufts University professor Susan Napier.

While Miyazaki "bristles" at being described as the Walt Disney of Japan, Napier finds similarity but also key differences in the animation pioneers. Both sometimes draw on stories from other cultures, but unlike Disney's tendency to imbue the characters with American values, Napier says, Miyazaki creates "characters that, while retaining certain characteristics linked to Japanese society, are distinctively more independent in thought and action than the group-oriented characteristics traditionally celebrated in Japanese culture."

Similarly, Miyazaki himself reflects and stands apart from his society. His enormous popularity in Japan stems in part from his unsurpassed mastery of animation, a medium embraced by the culture at large and, at its best, regarded as more intellectually ambitious than its American counterpart. At the same time, in an environment that stresses group harmony, the outspoken director can be sharply critical of others in his field and unafraid of challenging traditional views, whether related to women's roles or espoused by the ruling political conservatives.

And if you want to avoid his disfavor, don't call his films "anime." He calls them animation or manga films, saving the term "anime" for quickly made products of lesser quality, largely for TV.

One reason for fascination with Miyazaki may be his contradictions. The director whose films typically end with an uplifting affirmation of humanity suitable for children is the same director who told his Berkeley audience, "It would be wonderful if I could see the end of civilization during my lifetime." The man who is able to entrance children, and adults, with his animation is the same one who complains about children spending too much time with virtual reality instead of being outdoors in nature.

UC Berkeley honored Miyazaki with the Japan Prize, first given last year to writer Haruki Murakami, for contributions to the understanding of Japan. Miyazaki provided further fodder for academics in his brief acceptance remarks, which consisted of an extended metaphor about those in the entertainment field needing to insert a pipe down through the sheets of paper full of data and figures that fill our daily lives. "We have to start fishing from way down below where there is no paper," he said through an interpreter. "And the only way that we can really justify our presence and our work is to continue to make this effort to make this hole and go deeper and deeper."

He is highly revered in Japan, where the top-grossing films are typically American, except in years when Miyazaki's work is showing. "Ponyo" led last year's list, grossing about $160 million, nearly triple the amount pulled in by the top U.S. film, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Limited U.S. audience

And though he's also popular in the world at large, his work has seen only limited release and ticket sales in America. While "Howl's Moving Castle" grossed $230 million internationally, it pulled in only $4.7 million in the U.S.

But this time Disney is staging its largest ever Miyazaki debut with "Ponyo," in more than 800 theaters, and has assembled a constellation of talent for the dubbed voices, including Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neesom, Lily Tomlin and Betty White. The leading children roles, the goldfish/girl named Ponyo and the boy Sosuke, are voiced by Noah Cyrus (Miley's younger sister) and Frankie Jonas (kid brother of the popular singing trio). The dubbing is the only difference from the original, in line with the policy of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli that no cuts or other changes be made for the international market.

But is "Ponyo" representative of his work as a whole? The G-rated film seems targeted to young kids, with 5-year-olds as the two leading characters., a fan site, notes "an obvious change" in "Ponyo," where "character designs are clean and simple and shadows seem to have disappeared."

Asked if he is concerned about American audiences seeing "Ponyo" as typical of his work, Miyazaki said in a brief interview, "What I've been doing in a sort of haphazard way without much thought before, I've tried to clarify in 'Ponyo.' " For example, he said, Studio Ghibli returned to sole reliance on pencil drawing in "Ponyo," abandoning limited use of computer graphics in some films to supplement Ghibli's trademark cell animation. He didn't mention that he did a major part of the drawing himself.

What about those who see deep meaning and mythology in his work? "I don't intentionally make deep movies," he said. "It's not that I set out to make films that deal with myths, but as I develop the story, aspects of older stories or myths enter into the story."

Nor does he seek inspiration in the contemporary work of others in his field. "I don't read manga anymore, I don't watch movies, I don't even watch the animation of my friends these days," he said. When he did watch films, he says in his book, he was "hardly a high-brow person," preferring the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times" to art-house movies. He makes films, he says, for Japanese audiences, particularly children, and is happy when audiences abroad also enjoy them.

And if he seemed at times like Coyote Trickster during his visit, he can also be frank and refreshingly honest. Why didn't he come for the Oscars in 2003 but came this time, including appearing at a sold-out tribute to him in July at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? "In 2003, I didn't want to come to a country that had just started bombing Iraq," he said. "This time it's an order from my producer that I come." He chuckled and added, "Combined with my friendship for John Lasseter."

Friday, August 07, 2009

"Redline" update: World premiere 8/14 at Locarno Film Festival

Here's my latest for the Yomiuri in Japan: a story about the world premiere of Madhouse's "Redline" anime feature, including interviews with director and animation artist Takeshi Koike ("World Record") and screenwriter Katsuhito Ishii ("The Taste of Tea"). The boffo, over-the-top racing caper will debut next Friday, 8/14, at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland--beneath the stars in the open-air Piazza Grande, no less.

The story features interviews with both Koike and Ishii that I conducted with them back in Tokyo:

Anime with Texas roots to debut in Switzerland

"Manga Impact: The World of Japanese Animation," a special program at the 62nd annual Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, will include next Friday's world premiere of the Japanese anime Redline in the city's historic central square, which can accommodate more than 8,000 viewers.

Also featuring tributes to Yoshiyuki Tomino (Gundam), Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and the Gainax studio (Neon Genesis Evangelion), "Manga Impact" is devoted to furthering the West's highbrow embrace of Japanese pop culture.

Redline, from Madhouse Studios, is one of a growing list of 21st-century Japanese-produced anime features that seek to return that embrace by deliberately targeting Western audiences.

"We really want non-Japanese to see and appreciate this work," says Takeshi Koike, Redline's director and chief animator in the Tokyo offices of Tohokushinsha, the film's worldwide distributor. "We were thinking of people who don't normally enjoy anime or know anything about it when we came up with the ideas."

The "we" he refers to is himself and veteran film director, screenwriter and illustrator Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea), who began collaborating a decade ago on the edgy underground film, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl.

Ishii was immediately drawn to Koike's distinctive style and skills, which he describes as a next-generation cross between the action-oriented bravura of Yoshinori Kanada (who worked on many Studio Ghibli films), and the meticulous design and artistry of Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll).

Ishii first encountered Redline's eventual target audience several years ago, when he stayed with a friend in the flatlands of rural Texas and discovered a phenomenon jarring enough for a Tokyo urbanite to record. Unlike city dwellers in such places as New York, rural Americans spent their weekend hours lovingly washing, polishing and endlessly tinkering with...their cars. [more here]

Monday, August 03, 2009

Keio Academy talk, 7/30/09


Thanks to Rieko, Miyoshi-san and the other fine folks at Keio Academy New York for a very fulfilling, tour-ending talk last week before a keen 'japan-american' audience (literally half and half), whose questions were astute and plentiful. It was an honor to be invited back, and this year I was better prepared for the age group.

A few photos (courtesy of Miyoshi-san) of me and the kids below. I launched from Tokyo to Sydney three weeks ago, trekked through Brisbane, Melbourne, LA and San Francisco/Berkeley. Seven cities in 14 days.

Lovely to wrap this leg at 'home' in New York:

(Awaiting the intro & cue)

(JapanAmerican kids 1)

(Queries about the cover--Who? Why?)

(JapanAmerican kids 2)