Saturday, December 10, 2011

Yer Lotus?

Tokyo Drift
Meet Japanese anime voice actor Junichi Suwabe—the kind of man who drives the city for pleasure.

Some nights after work, Junichi Suwabe likes to take the long way home, adding an hour or so to his commute through Tokyo just for the pleasure of driving. He courses over the elevated expressways encircling the world’s most populous city in his carbon grey Lotus Evora — one of only 50 such models in the entirety of Japan — and takes in the view. Tokyo at night is a luminous jumble of skyscrapers, flashing and streaming neons, and flickering four-storey video screens stretching in all directions, seemingly borderless. Seen via satellite, Tokyo is the brightest city on earth.

“There are many places in Tokyo that are beautifully lit at night,” Suwabe says, gesturing broadly toward the park and skyscrapers outside his recording studio office. “And driving my Lotus is a real mood-changer. Driving it past all those lights can really make me feel much better.”

Suwabe is something of a celebrity in his homeland, famous on sound if not on sight. A seasoned voice actor and popular radio talk show host, his rich, edgy baritone can be heard frequently throughout Japan on television and movie voiceovers and in internationally renowned anime series like Bleach, Gundam, and Vampire Knight — not to mention such global video game megahits as Final Fantasy and Street Fighter. He is also an active blogger and deejay, mixing overseas tracks with Japanese sounds to produce infectious hybrid recordings available on CDs and through his Internet radio show.

“I use my voice to express things,” Suwabe says, shrugging in modesty. “That’s the work I do.”

This slim, diminutive, and very intense man has been focusing on my questions during our conversation like a seasoned interviewee accustomed to public probing. Intensely protective of his privacy, he politely asks me not to print the location of his home even as he cultivates his fans with obvious affection. In a nation riddled with carbon-copy salarymen, Suwabe is an original. His sartorial ensemble is strictly cool casual: open-necked cotton shirt, dark plaid vest, tapered slacks, and chic sneakers. This is what he wears to work after walking his pet chihuahua, a lean and bright-eyed fellow aptly named Zero.

“I’ve always been drawn to the casual coolness of the Lotus design,” he says when asked about what drove him to seek out this particular model. “You can immediately see that it’s a classic sports car, but it’s not overly garish or flashy; it’s subtle, no matter which model. I really love sports cars, and the Elise and other models are definitely sports cars first, and that’s good. But my Evora is even more subtle.”

In many respects, Japan is a nation of restraint. Politeness, subtlety, and etiquette are critical to interactions, and it is often too intricate for foreigners to decipher. The Japanese language is, by Western standards, indirect, vague, and characterised more by nuance than necessity.

“I chose a subtle colour and design deliberately,” he says as we walk along an adjacent park beneath the bright yellow leaves of ginkgo trees. “I wanted to express the fact that I was more settled down in my 30s. Outside, it’s a calm car, and a lot of the calmer colours match the design of the Evora perfectly. But the interior is paprika, a reddish colour.” He smiles. “There’s some real passion inside, you see.”

Suwabe’s passion for cars, and for the Lotus in particular, emerged early in his life and was rooted in popular culture, the very domain that would eventually become his discipline. Japan’s post-World War II economic juggernaut hit its stride in the 1970s, when a supercar boom swept the nation. As a boy, Suwabe regularly encountered Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches, and as the F1 bug bit into his nation’s deeper passions, he became enamoured with the Lotus racing team.

“I’ll never forget the John Player Special colours sported by Lotus,” he says. “I loved that.”

But it was narrative — the stories of popular culture from both home and overseas — that hooked Suwabe on the distinctive appeal of Lotus design and style. While he always loved cars, the now-infamous appearance of a Lotus in The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 made a marked impression. “I saw the movie and the Esprit submarine car and thought to myself, ‘Wow, so that’s it,’” he says. “Very cool.”

"It's very hard to put into words the experience of the Lotus. It's about the senses. Just by driving it, I feel a surge in myself."

At roughly the same time, a Japanese manga [graphic novel] series revolving around cars and car-racing hit the shelves. One in particular, The Circuit Wolf, was aimed at a young male audience and featured a memorable car as the weapon of choice on the racetrack.

“The main character drove a Lotus Europa,” Suwabe says, as if explaining the obvious. “I loved the story, and I loved the car. As an adult, after trying many different kinds of cars, I had to learn about the history of the Lotus. And it really inspired me. After that, it was the only car I ever wanted to drive.”

Youthful passion often gives way to pragmatism, of course. But here’s where Lotus’s attributes have come to suit the 30-something Suwabe to a T. “Lotus makes lightweight sports cars,” he says, running his hand across his Evora’s hood to demonstrate, “and they make the best cars I’ve ever driven. This is especially critical when you consider Japan. The traffic situations we have here are brutal; there’s not much room.

Large engines, large encasements, and heavy cars — there’s just not enough space here to manoeuvre that kind of vehicle. We don’t have many places where you can use a car like that to its fullest. Instead, you need a car where you can enjoy the handling and savour the joy of driving even when you have to drive rather slow.”

Suwabe sighs and eases back into the arms of his reclining chair. “After comparing lots of different types of cars, I concluded that Lotus was the very best.”

Minimalism, restraint, and pragmatism are three characteristics that have typified Japanese culture and aesthetics for centuries. It’s no accident, after all, that the nation which invented the Walkman has also produced the haiku poem and the ikebana art of flower arrangement — all forms of expression that speak to the essence of their materials.

“It’s very hard to put into words the experience of the Lotus,” Suwabe concedes. “It’s about the senses. Compared to other cars, the Lotus gives you more of the feel that you’re in control, that you’re really there. This may sound spiritual, but I feel myself being one with the car. I really feel that strongly. Just by driving it I feel a surge in myself. I feel uplifted.”

In a city of 30 million people, experiencing the sensation of being an individual — let alone an individual connected to the car you’re driving — is no small feat. It’s important, also, to note that Suwabe is not your typical working stiff in the Tokyo megalopolis; his fame and creativity as an entertainer and artist mean that he can work on what the Japanese call “flex-time” — flexible hours independent of the rush-hour madness.

Still, he needs to commute — and he needs to commune with the masses.

“When I’m stopped at a traffic signal in downtown Tokyo, the reaction is incredible,” he says. “Pedestrians at the crosswalk just start staring at my Lotus, then stare at me, then back at the car. I actually worry that they might bump into someone. And it’s then that I know they’re real car lovers.”

Would he define himself similarly?

“Oh, yes,” he says. “I read magazines, of course, and check out information on cars on all sorts of web sites, too. I also attend every Tokyo Motor Show. Recently there has been a decreasing number of foreign makers, but that’s supposed to change next year, which is good news.

There really is no viable Japanese competitor in the sports car market. Europe still dominates, and Lotus is at the top.”

Suwabe adds that the conventional appeal of the sports car is about speed, but that’s not so helpful in crowded, space-saving urban Japan. There’s nothing comparable to the autobahn here — nor are there straight, horizonless freeways, given that the Japanese archipelago is just slightly smaller than the state of California.

“I can only go 60 kilometres per hour, according to the law,” he says. “Late at night when the traffic is light…” He pauses. “Look, please just say I go the legal speed. Maybe on a straight stretch I can get up to 100, and I’m not saying I never do that, but even going the legal speed limit, the Evora is so low to the ground and handles so well, it feels like you’re going faster. It really does.”

Suwabe has owned both the Lotus Elise and the Exige, and since the Evora is his third, it’s safe to say he’s drunk the Kool-Aid. “You can really feel [Lotus founder Colin] Chapman’s original principles in the Lotus car of today,” Suwabe says. “His belief in the power of brilliant handling and a direct connection to the driver. No other car drives like the Lotus.”

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