Thursday, March 22, 2012

L'Arc~en~Ciel take Manhattan this Sunday

Osaka’s L’arc-en-Ciel becomes first Japanese band to headline Madison Square Garden 

Rock group from land of rising pop culture builds a North American audience

A concert by L’Arc-en-Ciel

A concert by L’Arc-en-Ciel was moved to Madison Square Garden after outselling the smaller Theater at MSG.

They’ve got no major radio play, no prime video exposure and no mainstream media trumpeting their fame and glory.
So how did L’Arc-en-Ciel, a Japanese band with a French name, become the first rock group from the Land of the Rising Sun to headline Madison Square Garden?
On Sunday, the four-man band from Osaka will play the storied 19,000-seat arena, which surprised even the show’s promoter. Three month ago, the company (AEG) booked the group into the smaller Theater in the Garden — capacity: 5,000. But so many tickets were sold, they were bumped up to the big room.
According to Roland Kelts, author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.,” the seeding of the band’s American audience came not from the music world but from the rapidly growing demimonde of graphic novels and animated films known as anime.
“The band and their management reached out to that community of fans, and that’s a significant base to tap into,” Kelts says. “Every year they have an anime convention at the Javits Center and they fill the place. One in Baltimore drew over 30,000 people over four days.”
“Anime conventions connect to a lifestyle and image that’s about fashion and attitude,” says Ted Kim, CEO of MNet, the only national English-language channel for fans of Asian pop culture. “That’s all part of this weird Asian music puzzle that’s starting to click now.”
L’Arc-en-Ciel’s first American concert, in 2004, was held in connection with the Baltimore anime convention, allowing them to play before 10,000 people.
“Japan is thought of as the country of anime,” wrote the band’s one-named singer, Hyde, in an email interview. “We hadn’t made an approach to America [before that\]. But eventually we noticed that a lot of people were being nice enough to wait for us to come.”
The group had waited far longer. It has been together for more than 20 years, forming in 1991 in industrial Osaka (think Detroit, only Japanese). Its songs take a theatrical approach to gothic-synth music and heavy metal — sort of like Queen performing a mashup of Depeche Mode and Metallica.
The band’s name means “The Rainbow” in French. “Lots of people had names in English,” Hyde wrote. “We just never thought of a good one.”
L’Arc quickly became a multi-million seller, not only in their own country but later in China, Korea, Taiwan and yes, France. A show last May in Tokyo, to benefit victims of the 2011 tsunami, drew more than 100,000.
L’Arc isn’t just a popular phenomenon. By offering a contrast with the many manufactured Japanese and K-Pop acts and adding solid songwriting and musicianship, the group has become a critical success as well.
Its latest CD, “Butterfly,” released last month, features the odd burst of English lyrics, as have their albums for the last 10 years. The group released its first disk in the States, “Smile,” back in 2004, keyed to the Baltimore date. The band members, however, still don’t speak much Anglais. “It’s kind of a weak point of mine,” Hyde wrote, “but I do my best.”
That may become less of a problem as younger Americans find themselves increasingly open to all things Asian. “I’ve met with people who are not Asian who have told us they don’t want our music videos subtitled or the host to speak English,” says MNet’s Kim. “They’d rather hear it in its natural language.”
That makes sense given the escalation of such global Japanese brands as Hello Kitty and the Pikachu character from Pokémon. These days, you can see the latter in balloon form, floating right alongside Snoopy and Bullwinkle, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Witness, too, the trajectory of sushi. “Twenty years ago, the idea of eating raw fish was disgusting to many Americans,” Kelts says. “Now you see it in every supermarket.”
Kelts, whose mother is Japanese, ties the increasing interest in Asian cultures to a generational change. “While an older generation of Americans looked to the U.K. and Europe for cues as to what’s cool, this younger generation is looking to Asia,” he says.
You see that in ad campaigns, which often use Asian models to push any product meant to look futuristic. “It’s a different look and perspective,” says Kim.
Kelts admits this mind-set can lead to a certain objectification and “exoticism.” But as mainstream audiences delve further into the wealth of Asian cultures, they’ll become exposed to more of its nuance and depth.
Access to world culture via the Internet has helped such sophistication evolve. The Web proved key to spreading the world about L’Arc, allowing many fans to find out about the group by researching soundtracks to popular anime movies like “Full Metal Alchemist,” written and performed by L’Arc.
The audience for their music here is hardly all Asian-Americans. Kim says L’Arc’s concerts draw many ethnicities and age groups. No doubt that crossover has boosted his network. In the last three years, MNet has tripled its distribution to 11 million homes. (It’s seen in N.Y. on Time Warner and Verizon Fios).
It helps that Western pop stars have gotten on board. Gwen Stefani pushed Japanese pop culture a few years back by featuring on her tour the Asian backup singer/dancers Harajuku Girls (named for an area of Tokyo).
At the same time, Justin Bieber has reportedly done some recording for his upcoming album with Japanese pop star Jin Akanishi. Already, Akanishi’s first U.S. single, “Test Drive,” featuring Jason Derulo, has hit No. 1 on the iTunes Dance Chart.
Likewise, Japanese designer/DJ Nigo has worked with Pharrell and Kanye West. (Nigo has his own store and fashion line here in SoHo, titled Bape). And, last year, the electro-band Far East Movement became the first Asian-American band to score a Top 10 U.S. pop hit on Billboard.
Whether such toe-in-the-water tests of Japanese culture can explode into a sustainable phenomenon remains a question. No group from that part of the world has ever maintained a U.S. crossover. In fact, no group comprised of Asian-Americans has sustained one either.
“Except for kung fu movies, I don’t think that people have really wanted to let in that sort of ‘yellow’ image,” Hyde wrote. “But already a lot has changed in the past 10 years.”
“Somebody will make a breakthrough,” he believes, “and soon.”
Read more:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ishinomaki, Miyagi-ken, w/Stu Levy for the LA Times

Story for the Los Angeles Times:

[Ishinomaki Shotengai, March 2012]

-- By Roland Kelts, reporting from Ishinomaki, Japan   
IN early March 2011, Stu Levy was having a career meltdown. His 14-year-old company, TokyoPop, an L.A.-based importer and distributor of Japanese manga and anime, had just imploded. Borders bookstores, one of his company’s premier retailers, was in bankruptcy and owed TokyoPop close to $1 million –- and Borders wasn’t paying. 
Levy was in Tokyo, making amends with his Japanese suppliers, when the giant earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis struck. Within days, he was making his way northeast, driving up the coast with a friend past increasingly tattered landscapes to volunteer for the recovery efforts.
“I didn’t even think about it,” Levy, 45, said. “I had to do something. Doing nothing was intolerable.”
Along the way, Levy was stunned by the vast amounts of mud and absurd sights amid the wreckage. The sludge “had spread across the landscape, poured into buildings and across the pavement,” he recalled.
Adjacent to one stretch of highway en route to the battered city of Sendai, the only meeting point for non-government volunteers at the time, he came upon masses of beer cans fanning out across fields. A nearby Kirin factory had been hit by the waves of the tsunami and disgorged its contents.
In chilly Sendai, he slept in cars with other volunteers. He was accepted by a local volunteer group called JEN, which stands for Japan’s Emergency NGOs. “They let me contribute,” he said, “which is all I could ask of them then.”
[Stu Levy and Minato Shogakkou]
JEN moved its volunteers to the coastal town of Ishinomaki, some 200 miles north of Tokyo, where needs were more urgent. Ishinomaki is a city of about 160,000; 3,000 locals died in the disaster, and tens of thousands were left homeless. The disaster left the town without its primary economic engines, fishing and farming. Levy pitched in hefting boxes and shoveling mud.
“Maybe it was cathartic,” Levy said. “When you lead a company, you feel needed. When your company fails, you feel lonely. Maybe I volunteered in Ishinomaki partly to feel needed again.”
Locals learned that Levy was an amateur photographer, and one of them asked him to record their efforts on film, so that the residents’ children would understand the work their parents had done to survive. Levy, who also has experience with film and TV production (he served as an executive producer on the 2011 Sony Screen Gems film “Priest” and created a Hulu TV show, among other projects) decided then he could do something bigger: create a documentary that could raise money to support recovery efforts.
Over six weeks between April and August last year, he recorded footage in Japan, allowing locals -- teachers, students, politicians -- as well as foreign volunteers, to tell their own stories. He talked to musicians, animators and others (American and Japanese) into working on the film without pay. The result is “Pray for Japan,” which will play Wednesday night in more than a dozen cities and will have a one-week engagement in AMC theaters in New York and Los Angeles starting Friday. Proceeds will go to JEN. 
["Pray for Japan premiere in Ishinomaki]
The tales of the survivors are moving. There’s Kento Ito, a high school senior who lost his young brother, mother and grandparents, picking through the rubble of his family home. And Yoshiaki Shoji, a local volunteer leader, who recalls on camera his difficult decision to withhold a donation of rice balls from hungry evacuees at a shelter, because there were not enough to serve everyone. “Giving some to some people and nothing to others would be unfair” and cause problems, he said. Eventually, he said, they were able to give every evacuee at his center half a ball.
Levy brought his film to Ishinomaki last week and showed it to residents. One 52-year-old man, surnamed Ono, said he was surprised by the results. “I thought that a film about volunteering would be boring,” he said, “because volunteering is basically boring. But this is full of many different people, and tells their stories. It’s inspiring, and sometimes, it even feels fun.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Indie anime and female auteurs

The latest, and last, for the Yomiuri.

[Anime auteur Soubi Yamamoto, 22, was inspired to work solo by Makoto Shinkai]

I was invited to write this column roughly five years ago by an editor who asked for a twice-monthly rumination on the soft power of Japan's pop culture. One of the first columns I submitted addressed the gap between the images of empowered females in anime and the status of real women in Japan.

Many women in Japan remain mired in a patriarchal culture that limits their career opportunities. Japan continues to rank embarrassingly low on the United Nations index of gender empowerment, beneath several of its less developed Asian neighbors. Overseas fans of Japanese pop culture often see an illusion of female empowerment, delivered via enticing visuals and storylines, and created mostly by men.

But the status of real women in anime production may be evolving through advances in technology and societal shifts accelerated by post-disaster turmoil.

In Tokyo last week, I had dinner with a frustrated male company manager whose views skew conservative. He told me that what Japan needs now is its own "Maggie Thatcher," a leader who doesn't owe anyone anything because she's a female in a male-dominated world. Regardless of Thatcher's politics, he said, what Japan needs most is power and vision.

I was reminded of Hayao Miyazaki's remarks when I interviewed him in California a few years ago: "All of our best young artists are women," he said. "Maybe I need to make films about powerful young men now to give them the strength to compete."

In the production of anime, Japanese women may also be liberated by changes in the creation of the medium. Just as self-publishing models are enabling writers to reach readers without the third-party involvement of publishers, computer software provides artists in anime the means to craft their art outside of studios, which remain largely male-dominated environs.

Anime auteur Makoto Shinkai, whom I profiled last month, was a pioneer of the new indie anime model in Japan. He created his first anime short, She and Her Cat, entirely on his own, from photographs he took and imagery drafted on the computer tools that were available in 1998. He then wrote, directed and produced his first feature-length anime, Voices from a Distant Star, on his Apple Power Mac G4.

Shinkai told me in New York last year that his goal as an artist was to tell his audience, "You will be OK"--a particularly urgent sentiment in the wake of increasing calamities, he said, not just in Japan, but worldwide.

Hiroshima-based Soubi Yamamato, a 22 year-old female artist from Japan's new generation of anime auteurs, sees Shinkai as an artistic and spiritual model. "The titles that Mr. Shinkai created on his own opened a door for me to this wonderful culture of indie anime. His creations were were like beacons showing me the way high-quality animation can be made by one committed individual working solo."

Yamamoto's first commercial release, This Boy Can Fight Aliens, is a 28-minute story about a trio of young males (one of whom has the power to save the planet) and their fraternal affection and conflicts in the rural home they share. The scenario enables Yamamoto to explore the nuances of human interdependency and camaraderie and the will to survive.

"Although things may be hard now, and you're struggling and feel like you're all alone," she says, "there will always be someone somewhere to help you, and there are definitely some people out there who like you."
I asked Yamamoto why she was compelled to create anime, a traditional, two-dimensional art form in a world of flashier, more lucrative options.

"It's true that the problem with the industry is that animators are not paid well. But anime allows me to express the world I have in my imagination in the most complete way. The appeal is that you can use more than just pictures, because in anime, other elements, such as story, voice and music, are interwoven to create the whole."

"[In Japan] we have had a great manga culture for many years," she adds. "Those of us who grew up close to manga and anime and aspired to become writers and animators during our childhood are the artists at work now."

After five years, this will be the last of these columns on soft power and Japanese popular culture. I thank my editors for publishing them, and you for reading. It feels apt to close with a nod to anime's future and indie artist Yamamoto, who wants us to know through her art that "the world is just a bit kinder than we might think."

Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S." and a forthcoming novel, "Access."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Japan, one year on

In Ishinomaki, Minato Sho.