Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Japan's dying "tokusatsu" (SFX) tradition for my latest column in The Japan Times

Preserving a classic Japanese art form: tokusatsu magic
JUN 12, 2013

Our monster is scaly, spiky, reptilian — a cross between a dinosaur and an irradiated insect that shrieks like an angry bird. Our hero is lean, faintly muscular in a rubbery skintight suit with inscrutable praying-mantis eyes. They face one another, stomping left to right like sumo wrestlers, posing karate-style. The humans below clasp their hands in hope, their city fragile as cardboard.

When the battle begins, the urban landscape — a meticulously detailed scaled-down model — is in flames, its buildings easily smashed and tossed through the air. A few lasers and fireballs fly, but in short order monster and hero grapple, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, tumbling into one another, grabbing body parts and twisting, turning, punching. It’s mano-a-mano — and it’s thrilling.

Before anime and manga became Japan’s calling cards overseas, Japanese monster movies and TV shows were the face of its popular culture. I was a 6-year-old living with my Japanese grandparents in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, when I got hooked on the “Ultraman” series. I usually watched it with my grandfather. They didn’t have an air conditioner at the time, so we both sat in our underwear on the tatami. After the monster and Ultraman grappled, we did, too.

Only later would I realize that the human physicality of the fights and the easily crushable model cities were essential to the appeal of the show, engaging my imagination actively in the fantasy. Tokusatsu, a Japanese term usually translated as “special effects” moviemaking, denotes the unique craft behind the Japanese monster movie and TV phenomenon. Other nations produced sci-fi epics and monster movies, of course, but no one did so with the style, √©lan and sometimes comic absurdity of Japan.

The original “Godzilla” movie, featuring special effects by Eiji Tsubaraya, is largely credited with establishing the tokusatsu look and style in 1954, distinguishing it from American science-fiction movies, which were dominant at the time. Now, nearly 60 years later, the tokusatsu tradition is dying.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Social clubbing starts in Japan--my column for The Japan Times

Social clubbing takes off with iFlyer service

Clubbing in Japan is a kick. The country’s zeal for global pop trends and its prominent club scene draws big-name DJs and performers from the international circuit. Japan’s hodgepodge approach to urban planning means that clubs seem to blossom nearly anywhere — in the back alleys of unsung neighborhoods such as Tokyo’s Yoyogi, with its funky music haven, Zher the Zoo, or behind nondescript docks in the Hyogo Prefecture capital of Kobe. Despite recent crackdowns on after-hours dancing, Japan’s club scene continues to thrive past the midnight hour, buoyed by itinerant hipsters with wads of cash.

But knowing which clubs to go to, and how to get there, can be mystifying. If you’re like me, you stumble home in the wee hours clutching handfuls of flyers — brightly colored glossy paper rectangles luring you to the next night’s gig, sans context or reason. By breakfast, you won’t remember what they were supposed to mean or why you kept them.

The Internet has trimmed the paper chase a bit, but online adverts for nightlife still confuse. One person’s classifieds are another’s headache. Nice to know there’s lots to do — not so nice to not know what to do.

Malek Nasser, a British techie then based in Osaka, was one expat who wondered why the Japanese club scene was in such disarray, and thought he could do something about it. “In 2005-06, I was looking for something to do, and I moved to Tokyo. The scene in Osaka was more bar-based. But in Tokyo, I lived in Shibuya and I wandered around these streets, seeing big venues like Club Asia.”

Nasser noticed that each club ran its own website, but none of them were connected. Like their piles of glossy flyers, the clubs were promoting themselves in a chaotic shower of invites with great offerings, but little impact.

Nasser set out to make the greatest event website ever — and he used Tokyo and Osaka as his testing grounds. The result is iFlyer.tv, a user-generated Web portal with everything you need to know about nightlife in Tokyo and Osaka. And it’s now going global.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013