Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sanrio's kawaii 3D anime J-Pop "Nutcracker", for The Japan Times

Sanrio’s ‘Nutcracker’ offers visual experience in 3-D

By Roland Kelts

For anyone raised in the West, the year-end holidays in Japan can be a jarring experience, at least for the uninitiated. Decorated trees, illuminated boulevards and carols in convenience stores coincide with Colonel Sanders statuettes remade into Santa Claus and mini-skirted chorus girls in reindeer costumes on TV. If you live in Japan for more than a few years, however, you might come to embrace this topsy-turvy, roller-coaster version of the holiday season. Just close your eyes and enjoy the ride.

This year, that ride took on a psychedelic technicolor glow in cinemas nationwide, courtesy of Sanrio’s “The Nutcracker” (“Kurumiwari Ningyo”), which was released on Nov. 29. The stop-motion animated film, loosely based on ETA Hoffman’s original story and the Tchaikovsky ballet, is credited to Sanrio founder Tsuji Shintaro, with additional writings and song lyrics by the late avant-garde author, poet, dramatist and director Shuji Terayama. It was originally released in 1974, and remains the only feature-length film ever produced by Sanrio.

The 2014 version underwent a radical makeover at the hands of director Sebastian Masuda, founder of seminal Harajuku clothing boutique 6% Dokidoki, art director for pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and now a conceptual artist who has exhibited in New York and Miami. Many consider Masuda the father of the kawaii fashion movement. Veteran producer Masayuki Tanishima assembled a crack team to “re-create” the movie into something he considers completely new. This included digitally transforming a now-primitive and painstaking 2-D animation technique, stop-motion, into a more fluid and interactive visual experience in 3-D.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Disney's Japanamerica, for The New Yorker

Japan and America Meet in “Big Hero 6”

By Roland Kelts

I first heard about Disney’s “Big Hero 6” and its unprecedented hybrid setting—an urban mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo—at this summer’s Anime Expo, North America’s largest annual convention devoted entirely to Japanese pop culture. Amid the throngs of cosplay (costume play), anime, and manga revellers and garishly lit promotional booths, the news of “Big Hero 6,” delivered by a bright-eyed and green-wigged young companion, didn’t sound promising. I pictured a crudely expanded version of San Francisco’s existing Chinatown, with maybe a few additional sushi counters and one or two Pikachu or Totoro dolls cluttering the background.

Instead, the movie’s metropolitan portmanteau is a marvel of architectural alchemy. Shibuya skyscrapers with pulsing video screens hug San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Victorian Mission duplexes line hilly San Fransokyo neighborhoods, aglow from the pink-white light of Japanese cherry blossoms in full bloom below. Trains from the Yamanote and Chuo lines, two of Tokyo’s central and most popular railways, stream by on elevated tracks. The sprawling Yokohama Bay Bridge connects the financial district to San Francisco’s East Bay, which may well be home to Oaksaka and Berkyoto in this Japanamerican universe.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hosting "Tomorrow" in Tohoku, for NHK

I host the documentary, "Tomorrow," on ongoing post-quake/tsunami volunteer & recovery efforts in Tohoku, northern Japan, for NHK television. The film was shot not far from where I once lived with my grandparents in Iwate Prefecture. Summary here

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Meet half-Japanese Ryan Potter / Hiro Hamada in "Big Hero 6", for The Japan Times

Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6′ animates a bridging of cultures

This year’s Tokyo International Film Festival was hot on animation, featuring screenings of the collected works of Hideaki Anno, creator of the epic franchise, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” and 3-D shorts directed by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, producer of “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros.” But the festival’s opening animated film was from America — even if Japan is very much on its mind.

The world premiere of “Big Hero 6″ (released in Japan as “Baymax”) from Disney and Marvel Comics took place in Tokyo on Oct. 23. It opened in theaters in the United States on Nov. 7, and will drop in Japan on Dec. 20. Last month, as I swung through Los Angeles, where the film was produced and directed, the pre-release buzz was palpable.

The eponymous hero of the film is a “Hiro” — Hiro Hamada, a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian boy genius with a flair for robotics. Hamada and his robot companion, Baymax, fight evil forces who threaten to destroy their home city — an urban hybrid called “San Fransokyo.”

The city is a visual astonishment: meticulously detailed renderings of San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods with Tokyo’s Odaiba Rainbow Bridge spanning its bay and Shibuya skyscrapers hugging the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Animation critic and historian Charles Solomon notes that the artists had long stays in both cities, where they studied the architecture and skylines to combine them into a single metropolis.

Friday, November 28, 2014

COOL JAPAN: Doraemon in the USA, for the ACCJ


Exporting Doraemon

The tricky art of translating Japan’s biggest anime series

By Roland Kelts

[Photos courtesy of Tokyo Otaku Mode]

In 2008, Japan’s consul general appeared on stage at Sakura-Con, the largest anime festival in the Pacific Northwest, grinning mischievously with his hands behind his back. “Ohayo gozaimasu,” he said to the crowd of 10,000-plus, many of whom roared the greeting back.

He turned around, slipped a mask over his head and faced the audience bearing the plastic countenance of a wide-eyed bright blue cat.

A few murmurs arose. Someone at the back shouted, “Doraemon!”

A week earlier, the robotic cat manga and anime character, Doraemon—a cultural icon in Japan akin to Mickey Mouse in the United States—had been dubbed Japan’s first “anime ambassador” by the foreign minister.

But at the time of the consul general’s performance, Doraemon had neither aired nor been published in the United States. Only the most diehard American otaku (geeks) knew the character even existed.
“Doraemon is the biggest manga and anime series in Japanese history,” said Tokyo-based American writer and translator Matt Alt, citing the title’s 45-year domination of Japanese popular culture. “His face is almost everywhere in Japan. If you’re here, chances are, you’ll see it.”

Over the past year, the gap between the character’s ubiquitous presence in Japan and his lack of recognition in America has finally been narrowed. The anime series, translated into English and localized by Los Angeles studio Bang Zoom! Entertainment, launched on Disney XD on July 7. The English-language manga debuted in digital formats in November 2013 and is currently being released, volume by volume, online.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Monday, October 06, 2014

Blue Bottle Coffee goes to Tokyo, for The California Sunday Magazine

Tokyo Brew
James Freeman takes Blue Bottle to the city that inspired him.

I am on my way to meet James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, and every inch of Tokyo feels sun blasted and overstuffed — except where he is. Freeman is hunched over a cup of coffee inside a Tudor-style café called Chatei Hatou, a 25-year-old relic of Japan’s bubble-era economy, nestled between a narrow okonomiyaki grill and a basement bar on a hill in Shibuya, one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. When I step in from the glaring street, it’s like walking into a well-appointed cave. The café is spacious, cool, and dimly lit; the soundtrack is classical; and the white-haired, blue-eyed Freeman has the long 12-seat wooden bar all to himself. It’s his favorite place in the world.

“See, I love that,” he says, breaking off mid-greeting. He nods toward the barista, who wears a necktie and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. “I love that he warms the saucer. He pours hot water in the cup, then splashes some onto the saucer. It’s more refined to have the saucer the same temperature as the cup.

“If we can learn from that,” he says, “and compete here in Tokyo, that will give us an enormous competitive edge in our markets back in the U.S.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

COOL JAPAN: Hatsune Miku live this month in LA & NYC, for the ACCJ


First Sound from the Future

Hatsune Miku weaves her magic for US audiences this fall

By Roland Kelts

Not all trends sweeping the domestic market in Japan strike gold with overseas audiences. The exceptions are headliners such as Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and the manga series One Piece, with its record-breaking 345-million print run worldwide. Most Japanese pop culture phenomena are for the home crowd only.

Sports manga, such as Slam Dunk, rarely find a mass audience in the United States. Even trendy fashions, like last decade’s yamamba girls with their towering platform soles and bronzed faces, fail to charm most foreign tastemakers.

In the 80s, when I was a teenager set free in Tokyo streets by my Japanese mother, I was entranced by quirky Japanese idol groups, fantastical haircuts, and animated television graphics. Still, I didn’t think any of it would register with my peers in America.

It was altogether too light, too cute, too whimsical and self-conscious: a brightly twisted mimicry of Western tropes. Why opt for a cheery, slippery copy when you can get the hard-won original in New York, London, or Los Angeles?

I was wrong about a lot of it. After Godzilla became a global sensation, several Japanese pop icons filled the screens and streets of Western cities.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Manga's fastest-growing market is India, for The Japan Times

New markets may save Japan’s manga exports
[Simon & Schuster India]
The North American manga business took a beating last decade. After peaking around 2005-06, the lethal storm of oversaturated shelves, a collapsing U.S. financial industry and the bankruptcy of major American bookstore chain, Borders, left publishers and distributors in a panic. Downsizing, restructuring and layoffs became de rigueur.

“The bankruptcy of Borders in 2011 was definitely the final straw in forcing me to close down the office and stop print publishing,” says Stu Levy, the founder and CEO of Tokyopop, a pioneer and stalwart of the North American manga market that once introduced millions to the iconic “Sailor Moon” series. Levy believes rampant digital piracy and reduced print runs combined with the closing of Borders to force his hand.

But after the losses sustained in the wake of Japan’s natural and nuclear disasters of 2011, manga publishers and their overseas partners see signs of hope — though not necessarily where they were looking for them.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On tour in California, Oct. 2014

I'll be touring California with the Monkey Business team next month, Oct. 11 - 25. Six cities -- San Diego, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley -- w/Tomoka Shibasaki, Hideo Furukawa, Steve Erickson, Hiromi Ito, Peter Orner, Dean Rader, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Gooossen and more. Readings, signings, conversation, fine wines & spirits.

[Sayaka Toyama, graphic]
Specs after the jump.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sold-out in Ottawa

My thanks to the Embassy of Japan, Canada; the Ottawa International Animation Festival; Prof. Tom Keirstead, and a sell-out audience in Canada's capital city.

[Photos courtesy Ryo Tokunaga, Embassy of Japan, Canada]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Appearing @ Ottawa International Animation Festival 2014, Sept. 17-21

I will be a guest speaker at the 2014 Ottawa International Animation Festival in Ottawa, Canada, Sept. 17-21, at the behest of the Embassy of Japan.

COOL JAPAN: New monthly column for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan


Cultures Intertwined

American influence on Japan’s soft-power push

By Roland Kelts

In 2002, American journalist Douglas McGray published an article in Foreign Policy magazine called “Japan’s Gross National Cool.”

After spending a few months traveling around the country, McGray concluded that Japan was transitioning from being a manufacturing exporter to a cultural exporter.

What he called “the whiff of American cool” that dominated most of the 20th century was being supplanted globally by “the whiff of Japanese cool,” in the form of cultural products such as manga, anime, fashion, and cuisine.

McGray cited the phrase coined by Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye (who was, incidentally, President Barack Obama’s first choice for ambassador to Japan in 2008): Soft Power.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Haruki Cool, for The Japan Times

Haruki Murakami’s Cool Japan

I was in New York last week to host a launch event for the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” My good friend and Murakami translator Ted Goossen, professor at York University in Toronto, joined me, as did pianist Eunbi Kim, whose multi-media project, “Murakami Music,” I saw performed at Symphony Space in Manhattan last year.

With all the talk of the Cool Japan campaign, it’s worth remembering that author Haruki Murakami reigns as the nation’s most potent global cultural export.

I wasn’t surprised to find the venue packed when I arrived. Kinokuniya bookstore’s New York branch in midtown comprises two floors and a basement. Events and readings are staged in the center of the ground floor. Audience members filled the seats and spilled into adjacent aisles, many of them peering over bookshelves.

I first met Murakami 15 years ago on a kind of bet.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thank you Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York City

Summer gigs, 2014 -- thanks to Nobuyuki, Tsuyoshi, Marlan, Ian, Marc in LA; Peter, Nagame, Lars at Embassy of Sweden, Tokyo; Manabu and Lisa at Meiji University, Tokyo; John, Ted, Eunbi and Haruki at Kinokuniya, New York City.

Next up: Ottawa, San Diego, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco and Berkeley.

Project Anime / Anime Expo @ Los Angeles

The Embassy of Sweden @ Tokyo

Meiji University @ Tokyo

Kinokuniya Books @ New York City

NHK "Tomorrow" shoot @ Tohoku

Thursday, August 07, 2014

On Haruki Murakami's latest -- Live in NYC, 8/12

Haruki Murakami's Pilgrimage @ Kinokuniya NYC, Tuesday, August 12, 6 p.m.

To celebrate the release of Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, join author Roland Kelts, who has known and interviewed Murakami for 15 years, Murakami translator Ted Goossen, and Murakami Music composer Eunbi Kim for an intimate encounter with the author's life, work and personal journey from Japan to the world.

Info here.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

On NHK this week

The NHK documentary, "Tomorrow," focuses on post-tsunami relief efforts in northern Japan. I host this week's program on volunteerism. Broadcast specs on TV and online are here.

(It's a tad personal, since I attended kindergarten in Iwate, and my mother was raised there.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thank you, Sweden!

Introducing MONKEY BUSINESS: New Voices from Japan, thanks to Peter MacMillan, Ambassador Lars Vargo and the embassy staff.  With founding editor/translator and dear friend, Motoyuki Shibata.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

JP "Tomorrow" on NHK BS-1, Wed. 7/9, 2 p.m.

The Japanese-language edition of "Tomorrow," the doc I host on volunteers in tsunami-damaged towns, is on NHK BS-1 in Japan today (Wed) at 2 p.m.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Hosting NHK's "Tomorrow", about post-tsunami recovery

At the following times, streaming here:
NHK WORLD TV Mon. 01:30, 07:30, 13:30, 19:30 (UTC)
NHK WORLD Premium Wed. of next week 17:00 (UTC)
(Japanese language only) Wed. 14:00 (JST)
  Sun. 04:00 (JST)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Talkin' Anime Expo 2014 for NPR, Los Angeles

My conversation with animation critic/author Charles Solomon on Anime Expo 2014 & Project Anime in Los Angeles, on NPR/KPCC.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Off to Los Angeles for Project Anime keynote @ Anime Expo

Roland Kelts to give Keynote Presentation at Project Anime: Los Angeles 2014 

Project Anime is proud to announce Japanamerica author Roland Kelts as a Keynote Speaker for Project Anime: Los Angeles 2014.

Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese writer, editor, scholar and cultural expert. He is the author of the bestselling Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S., and the forthcoming novel, Access. His writing on contemporary Japanese culture, art and literature is published in Japanese and English in publications such as The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek Japan, Adbusters, The Japan Times, the BBC, NPR and CNN.

In his Keynote Speech, “Re-Opening Japan,” Kelts assays the specific trans-cultural reasons behind the misunderstandings and sometimes unintended insults that occur when non-Japanese try to work, collaborate and make deals with Japanese creatives.

Monday, June 16, 2014

On the "Summer of Kawaii" 2014, for The Japan Times

Forget Cool Japan — cute is this summer’s hot global export

Summer is high season for fans of Japanese pop culture. School’s out, weather’s amenable and festivals, conventions and expos shift into top gear in Japan and across the globe.

Many in the pop-culture business are branding summer 2014 “the summer of kawaii” (Japanese uber-cute), and it’s not hard to see why. To inaugurate the season, Japan’s digital diva and holographic pop star Hatsune Miku, cute as her turquoise pigtails, hit the road in late May as the opening act for the first leg of megastar Lady Gaga’s North American tour. Miku’s makers plan to reprise her supporting role when Gaga tours Japan in August. This echoes animated band Gorillaz’s collaboration with Madonna at the 2006 Grammies — beautiful illustrations and flesh-and-blood pop icons share the stage. Expect more.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

On UNIQLO for M magazine and Women's Wear Daily

M: My Name Is Uniqlo

Tadashi Yanai
Photo By Courtesy Photo
Photo By Courtesy Photo
I am on an escalator located in the center of Uniqlo’s flagship store in Ginza, Tokyo, and I am rising. The twelve-story rectangle, with its floor-to-ceiling glass facade, anchors Tokyo’s most luxurious shopping zone.

I usually dread shopping for clothes. The volume of options amid mazes of racks induces nausea. But here, the tightly folded and labeled stacks convey the comfort and clarity of minimalism—even though there’s tons of stuff. “We excel in plenitude,” a staff member tells me.

Back to Iwate for NHK

I attended kindergarten in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, when I lived with my grandparents. I revisited Iwate many times, accompanied by my mother.
Now I am here to host a documentary for NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, on the aftermath of the 2011 quake and tsunami.

Iwate is as beautiful and becalming as I remember it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

On Japan's 'satori sedai,' the enlightened generation, for Adbusters

The Satori Generation
A new breed of young people have outdone the tricksters of advertising.
by Roland Kelts

[photo by Ono Kei]

They don’t want cars or brand name handbags or luxury boots. To many of them, travel beyond the known and local is expensive and potentially dangerous. They work part-time jobs—because that is what they’ve been offered—and live at home long after they graduate. They’re not getting married or having kids. They’re not even sure if they want to be in romantic relationships. Why? Too much hassle. Oh, and too expensive.

In Japan, they’ve come to be known as satori sedai—the “enlightened generation.” In Buddhist terms: free from material desires, focused on self-awareness, finding essential truths. But another translation is grimmer: “generation resignation,” or those without ideals, ambition or hope.

They were born in the late 1980s on up, when their nation’s economic juggernaut, with its promises of lifetime employment and conspicuous celebrations of consumption, was already a spent historical force. They don’t believe the future will get better—so they make do with what they have.  In one respect, they’re arch-realists. And they’re freaking their elders out.

Toronto Japanamerica report