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.