Saturday, October 24, 2009

Latest column for the Yomiuri / 3:AM on Miho and J-Pop in the USA

My latest column for the Daily Yomiuri, and co-published by 3:AM magazine in the UK, features interviews with Miho Hatori, formerly of Cibo Matto, and Reni-chan, a 'maid cafe' performer, both of whom have been transplanted from Tokyo to New York to make it in America. It's a little riff on the status of Japanese music performers in the US, via AKB48, of course.

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / Japan's music-makers in America

When Japanese pop idol group AKB48, a heavily produced amateur team of late-teen and twenty-something dancers and singers, took to the stage in Manhattan's aging Webster Hall club last month, we all clapped. These were cute young Japanese girls making their debut in the heart of the West's media maw. Why not welcome them?

But the truth was, as always, more complicated. AKB48 flew to New York to make a splash in the world's biggest media pond. They had already sung and danced to devoted American otaku types at the New York Anime Festival. They filmed a music video in Central Park. A few New York media outlets promoted them heavily.

But during their 5 p.m. performance on a Sunday in the East Village, they were hardly noticed by most New Yorkers.

Although today's Asian pop music scene in America is led by the Japanese, there is a perception in the industry that it all depends on anime soundtracks.

That perception must change.

Last week in New York, I had tea with Miho Hatori, formerly part of the duo Cibo Matto, which was successful in both the United States and Japan. "I came to New York in 1993 and never looked back," Hatori said, sipping from her mug of hot green tea. "It's the most chaotic city in the world, and I love it."

There are just a handful of precedents in today's American music business: Yoko Ono (via John Lennon), Shonen Knife, Puffy AmiYumi. And for eclectic listeners, The Boredoms. Japanese pop music hasn't survived the flight to the United States well, despite the twin successes of anime and manga.

"Today, without anime soundtracks, we're nothing," a New York-based Sony promoter said to me. "We need to [move beyond] anime."

Is that possible? [more HERE, and HERE]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Private Worlds

Dark room with laptop

Late last year when Japan’s master animation artist Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Totoro) addressed a room of mostly Western journalists in Tokyo, many of us were expecting him to talk about his latest fantastical feature film, Ponyo, which was just about to open worldwide. Instead, the 68-year-old director spent 15 minutes issuing a stern warning about the dangers and delusions of living through virtual media. “All of our young people today derive their pleasure, entertainment, communication and information from virtual worlds,” he declared. “And all of those worlds have one thing in common: They’re making young Japanese weak.”

Miyazaki ticked off the usual suspects – cell phones, emails, video games, television – and he also included two more categories: manga and anime. “These things take away [young peoples’] inherent natural strengths,” he continued, “and so they lose their ability to cope with the real world. They lose their imaginations.” [Read more here]

Friday, October 16, 2009

Animation & Adbusters: two new stories

My latest contribution to Adbusters magazine is "Japan's Private Worlds," just released in the new November/December issue--the Virtual World/the Natural World. I set out to explore the nature of privacy in Japan amid questions of digital displacement and engagement, especially at a time when the nation's so-called 'digital natives,' those born and raised with intimate access to mobile and stationary digital media, are behaving very differently than their elders did and do.

My latest story for Animation magazine is "Heart Like a Wheel," also just out in their current October issue. Madhouse's forthcoming boffo anime release, "Redline," debuted at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland this summer and will be released in Japanese cinemas in April 2010, with a US release soon after. I speak with whiz-kid animator Takeshi Koike ("World Record" from The Animatrix) and screenwriter Katsuhito Ishii ("A Taste of Tea") about their attempt to make an anime film that will appeal to America's auto-obsessed inaka tribes in the Western hinterlands. I also try to place the film in the context of meta-anime--works like Afro Samurai that deliberately target Western viewers, and anime films that are, at least in part, about conventional anime conceits and styles, like Satoshi Kon's Paprika.

Both stories are print-only at the moment--but both of the magazines look and feel great.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jake Adelstein's TOKYO VICE

Pal and intrepid reporter Jake Adelstein's first book, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, has just been published in the U.S., and Jake has embarked on a brief book tour ahead of an upcoming 60 Minutes/CBS report on related topics in early November. In our era of cheap armchair journalism and errant blog chatter (like this), Jake's book is something of an anomaly: an account of a singular story researched and written by a writer on the scene--or, more literally, on the beat, whose knowledge of his subject is unassailable, and whose intimacy is so stark it nearly got him and his family killed. What's more, the research, interviews, encounters and writing were initially done in Jake's second language. If you haven't deduced from his name, Jake is not Japanese, but he is very fluent, both linguistically and culturally.

Like most good books, Tokyo Vice is many narratives--a coming-of-age story about a boy from the American Midwest who follows a yellow brick road to his own Oz; a curtain-lifting expose of cronyism, corruption and sclerosis in the world's second largest economy; and a wise embrace of paradoxes--which we can all learn from in the 21st century.

Together with Bob Whiting's seminal account of postwar chaos in Japan, Tokyo Underworld, Jake's book reveals the underbelly of Asia's biggest economy and America's major ally across the Pacific, in English prose as plain and clear as a pool of carp.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Live from St. Louis -- It's Saturday Night!

Mid-afternoon Japanamerica talk (courtesy Fred Schodt)

Christopher Born, me, Fred, Jeni Plough and Patrick Danzen, at the end of a long but not lonely day in Saint Louis.