Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas from beautiful Japan!

And Happy Holidays. This year's festivities included a lively school party with a lot of fine folks and a one-day stint as Santa Claus for 80-plus energetic kids. I hope everyone is looking back on a successful and enjoyable 2008 and looking forward to an even better 2009!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from the NBC Saturday Morning Superstars!

NBC’s Saturday Morning Thanksgiving Holiday Feast!

Join us this Saturday at 8am (EST) on your local NBC channel for a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, featuring all of your favorite NBC Saturday Morning stars!

The Smurfs (8:00am EST/7:00am CT)- When that dastardly Gargamel destroys the smurfberry bushes, can Papa Smurf find the magic spell to set things right in time for the Smurfberry Harvest Feast? And what happens when the Smurflings help Brainy mis-use Mother Nature’s Horn of Plenty? Guest-starring Johan and Peewit!

It’s Punky Brewster (9:00am EST/8:00am CT)- When Glomer goofs up again, it’s up to Punky, Margaux, Cherie, and Allen to fix the holiday turkey before Henry gets home! Will Punky and pals learn a Thanksgiving Day lesson in caring and sharing?

Alvin and the Chipmunks (9:30 EST/8:30 CT)- Alvin, Simon and Theodore compete with the Chipettes for a spot on a Spacy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float. Will Alvin’s dirty tricks ruin Thanksgiving for everyone, or will he learn the true meaning of friendship and giving thanks?

Mister T (10:00 am EST/9:00 am CT)- Mr. T and his daring yet caring gymnastics team volunteer at an inner city youth center on Thanksgiving Day. When a gang of mean punks try some rough stuff, it’s a cranberry bet that Mr. T and the kids will show them the error of their ways in time for pumpkin pie!

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (10:30am EST/9:30am CT)- Spidey, Iceman and Firestar fight the Juggernaut. Guest-starring those uncanny mutants, the X-Men!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Here's the story of a real nut...

Some giddy prankster was recently arrested for scattering 200 beetle larvae on a train in Neyagawa, Osaka prefecture, and disrupting the daily rail schedule. When the police nabbed him, they found he had thousands of the squirmy little things in film cases. His excuse?

"(The worms) wiggle around and are so weird. I like seeing people surprised."

Here's some advice-- next time, try baking a cake or making delicious popcorn and serving it to the passengers. Or jumping out and screaming, "Boo!" Or simply saying something nice and complimentary to your seatmate.

Everyone likes to get compliments, right?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Meet the Tightsmen!

What happens when four guys want to play rock music during the height of Japanese Beatlemania? All you need to succeed is a catchy guitar-based sound and a visual gimmick. These gimmicks grow ever more baroque as the best ones are quickly snatched up. The Beatles had their bowl haircuts, matching collarless suits and pointy-toed boots. The Tightsmen have... tights.


The upcoming film GS Wonderland friended me back on MySpace, so I'm going to do my best virally to help the movie become a hit. Word-of-mouth marketing circa 2008 meets group sound circa 1968.

Smashing Barriers in Nihon: A High School Girl Drafted by the Pros!

Yoshida Eri, a 16-year-old high school girl, has been drafted by a new professional baseball league here in Japan. She's a sidearmed knuckleballer who threw a hitless inning against the competition during her tryout.

But she hasn't let the attention go to her head. As she humbly said at a press conference: "I always dreamed of becoming a professional. I have only just been picked by the team and haven't achieved anything yet."

This is exciting news. It's a breakthrough and shows how far we've come here on planet Earth. But if you want to see how far we still have to go and why in simply being drafted she's accomplished something important, scroll down to the comments section if you dare. Imagine if your every move were accompanied by an outpouring of that kind of ignorance and hostility.

Anyway, to end on a positive note, "Ganbatte, Yoshida-san!"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

When obsessions collide... Kuriyama Chiaki's gear new '60s music flick "GS Wonderland!"

On Myspace yesterday, I friended what I thought was either a strange new band or the return of some old musical combo called the Tightsmen (but they haven't friended me back). I took one look at their crazy pageboy haircuts and knew this was something for me. The keyboardist... this striking femininity about his face actually caused a few confused feelings... but there was something very familiar about him... I'd seen him somewhere before...

Then I realized it was none other than Kuriyama Chiaki styled up for the candy-colored mod milieu of '60s Japanese pop-rock known as "group sound."

GS Wonderland!

As you can see from the trailer, her new movie features pop/op art kitsch, lots of period nostalgia, with styles accurately and lovingly recreated. And an overload of screaming girls in Canarby Street Twiggy-inspired looks. As a super-fan of Chiaki, Japanese pop culture and '60s rock- especially groups like the Beatles and the Kinks- this is the new movie for me. One of those rare flicks I know I'm going to see in the theaters although I'll only understand about 10% of the dialogue. The retro audiovisual experience and the fierce presence of Kuriyama Chiaki as she works her way through her gender-bending boy rock idol life will be more than enough to keep me riveted.

Now if only the Tightsmen would friend me back, Japan would swing like a pendulum do!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Japan Says "No" to Pot-Smoking Tennis Pros

According to the Japan Times, police arrested a professional tennis player and his actress girlfriend for possession of marijuana. The investigators found the weed at the girlfriend's place, and she told them it was for her and her boyfriend to smoke together. Kind of sounds romantic: the couple that burns one down together stays together. And the story segues into information about Keio University students getting busted for pot, too.

What the devil's going on here? A pot pandemic?

It's funny to me that back home, a college student pot bust would barely make the local papers in the town where it occurred. In the U.S., it's almost a given that our college students are high on pot at any given hour of the day or night. Either stoned or stinking drunk. But here this is national news. Not huge national news, but national nonetheless. Keio is going to be Bong University in a lot of people's minds from now on.

The age-old alcohol versus marijuana debate continues. In Japan, it's fairly common to see old dudes drinking beer on the trains... at 9am. And I've seen some people just absolutely blotto hanging off each other and talking nonsense; even though it was in Japanese and I could barely understand it I could tell it was booze gibberish. Last year while waiting to do karaoke, we watched as a group of friends found a large garbage bag for their partied-out buddy (slumped on the sidewalk) to get sick in. Amusing, but kind of tender and touching in a way. After-work parties, late dinner at the izakaya with friends, sitting around at home getting quietly smashed. Bounenkai season is coming up and that means a full December calendar of year-end booze blitzing-- Japan is a drinking nation.

But I don't see the big street brawls around here we used to see regularly down among the frat bars in Athens. It probably happens, I just haven't seen it. Whereas back home on a beer-soaked weekend night a friend and I took a stroll through the middle of an alcohol-induced riot complete with police canine units on the streets and shirtless guys leaping barricades. Our little corner of town was fairly safe, but punch ups were a Thursday-through-Saturday night constant a few blocks over.

Personally, I'd prefer it if more people smoked pot than drank alcohol. We'd probably still have weird crime, but it'd be a lot more mellow. And pizza delivery restaurants would do some bang-up business and perhaps revive our moribund economies.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween from Japan!

I don't know how big Halloween is around here. At Toys-R-Us, they've already started putting out Christmas trees and decorations, replacing the display of pumpkins and witch hats. A few trees downtown already glitter with blue holiday lights at night.

But apparently, something wicked is a-brewin' in Tokyo, specifically in Shinjuku. Getting drunk and exposing yourself in a train station is a far cry from the way we celebrated Halloween back home.... by getting drunk and not exposing ourselves. Although the "naked guy" costume always seemed to be a hit, garnering more photo requests than any other. On the other hand, I advise you to avoid dressing like Hunter S. Thompson unless you want to shake a thousand sweaty hands and have people running up to you and shouting, "Watch out! This is bat country!" all night.

According to my highly inaccurate polling methods "ghost" is costume choice number 1 in Japan, followed by "witch" and "pumpkin." I think I didn't make it clear enough that you could choose any costume beyond just the three main Halloween icons. Those who naturally think outside the iconography-box chose "pirate" (for hanging out with Johnny Depp).

Tonight, Cartoon Network will offer Halloween-themed episodes of the various cartoons they air here (including the 1966 classic It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!), while Fox Japan will show what they call the "Cosplay Halloween" episode of Bones, where Bones dresses up in a Wonder Woman outfit.

My favorite Japanese ghost story is Toire no Hanako-san, or "Hanako's Toilet." This is one of those urban legend type stories that are sometimes told as true, although I've yet to find anyone of any age who believes in it. Hanako is a girl who either committed suicide or was murdered in a school bathroom, and her vengeful spirit continues to haunt the stall where she died. It's even inspired a series of horror films, one of which (or more... I need to do more research) starred Maeda Ai, sister of Maeda Aki who is best known as good-girl Noriko in the ultraviolent cult classic Battle Royale.

And that's Halloween from Japan!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Space Elevator Japan: I learned about this via Melt-Banana's Myspace blog...

It's captured Melt-Banana's interest and now mine, as well. The space elevator. Imagine this: a long tower rising from some earthly location, becoming threadlike in the distance, eventually disappearing into the sky. At the bottom, a car anyone can ride. Up go satellites, cargo containers, people into space, more reliably and cheaply than with rockets. An elevator into outer space, in your lifetime. It sounds like pure science fiction, but it's science possiblity.

The Japan Space Elevator Association aims to make this science fact.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Go! Shinjuku:" a movie!

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This is movie number three of my series about Tokyo, one of the most vibrant, happening cities on earth. The basic theme is how much I love Tokyo. I'm not sure I could stand to live there with a job, but if I had my wish I'd keep an apartment there, one in New York, one in Italy somewhere, another on some tropical coast and just rotate all year long, two or three months at a time.

This movie takes you on a walking tour from a hotel in the heart of Kabuki-cho, Tokyo's notorious "red light district" and my Japanese home-away-from-home-away-from-home, to the south side of Shinjuku station as the sun goes down and the lights come on. A few neat things happened in the editing process, but my favorite has to be the way the waiting crowds suddenly explode into movement at the intersection outside Shinjuku station. Also the repeated images of people running. Just a thing that day, I suppose.

Kabuki-cho is sort of Tokyo's underworld and it embodies the contrasts of living in Japan. Futuristic one moment, poignant the next. Upbeat people shopping and dining and moving energetically, seemingly oblivious to the Dickensian presence of homeless people sleeping on hard concrete nearby.

PS- Enjoy the somewhat improved video quality of the new hosting site I'm trying out. Not too bad!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Comics Can Be Educational Finds International Manga Summit

Kyoto, home of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, recently hosted the 9th annual International Manga Summit. According to a story in the Japan Times, the manga summit concluded that comics can be used to educate people on a wide variety of topics, from the environment to food safety. It also noted that Finnish cartoonists are increasingly influenced by their Japanese counterparts.

Interesting developments, to be sure. But I declare comic books to be fun and entertaining also. Especially Nana. That is some good stuff!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"Go! Harajuku:" a movie!

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This is my newest short film/video, the latest of my audio-visual love letters to my favorite city on earth and some truly cool women. It was shot in Harajuku in August, 2008. Improving but still not particularly competent at moviemaking. Watch the JR staffer on the train platform at the end and you'll see something accidental that actually turns out a little magical. Things like that really help in the editing process.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Go! Tokyo:" a movie!

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An experimental film. Take a fast-paced trip by train from Shinjuku to Tokyo Terminal and discover exciting new things all along the route. Then it's off to places unknown on the shinkansen during the peak O-Bon travel period in August, 2008.

It's pretty ragged in places, but it's only my first attempt at making a movie. I have a higher-quality video version saved on a V-CD.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sunsets in Hamamatsu...

Maybe it's because it's on the coast, but Hamamatsu frequently has some spectacular sunsets. The light quality late in the day, especially this time of year, almost always fascinates me. It does look different from what I'm used to back in the U.S.

That's something I always wondered about, back when life in a foreign country has strictly theoretical. Would the light look different? I think this has to do with being such a movie buff. Film photography has always fascinated me. I've heard it called "painting with light," and I believe it to be so. And yet many otherwise ordinary days end with the sun working pigmented magic on the canvas of the sky. Even otherwise banal vistas become cinematic.

You couldn't ask for a more boring skyline than the one outside the lobby windows of our school, unless you were overlooking a really grungy industrial wasteland, or some bombed out warzone. But then there would be some kind of nasty, ugly beauty to the blight. Hamamatsu, when you're not looking towards Act City, is about as bland a Japanese city as you're likely to find. Medium-sized office and apartment buildings.

But come sunset with a swollen, blood-red pomegranate of a sun hovering just above them, lightrays like golden bladed knives hurtling at you (and believe me, knives thrown at you tend to get your attention) and clouds turning purple or blue it takes on a kind of gorgeousness of its own. Even concrete squares painted with the right kind of light are pretty.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Japanese Language Edition of the Final "Harry Potter" Book is Released...

I'm not a fan of the Harry Potter series. I read the first one and found it yawnworthy. But don't let my lack of enthusiasm cause you to underestimate the Japanese popularity of the World's Most Famous Boy Wizard (copyright and trademark J.K. Rowling). The movies have been big events here so far and practically every bookstore with English-language stock in town had a special Potter display when the last book came out a year or so ago. Potter fans (Pot-heads?) live throughout Japan, part of a massive international community devoted to this thrilling fantasy world.

And now Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is hitting the shelves once again, but this time in Japanese.

In a scene reminiscent of those worldwide during the book's initial release, fans lined up a day in advance. And many of them wore Potter-related costumes. I'd love to see the photos. I think some people here don't need much of an excuse to indulge in cosplay and the hardcore fan-people tend to do it up in extraordinarily detailed fashion here. Even the book's translator, Matsuoka Yuko, came dressed as a witch to enjoy the magical festivities.

I know a few Japanese Potter fans for whom this is going to be delightful news indeed. Although most of them are more fans of the films than the books and are eagerly awaiting the fall premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Now I'm going to go out on a limb and make a magical prognostication of my own. After ingesting a magical potion, I can see the future and now fearlessly predict billions of yen flowing into J.K. Rowling's bank account over the rest of this year...

Enjoy the magical fun, Japanese Potter fans!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hideo Nomo Retires...

That's all for veteran pitcher Hideo Nomo (or, in Japan, Nomo Hideo). The 39-year-old just announced his retirement from the Kansas City Royals. Winning the 1995 National League Rookie of the Year when he debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Nomo proved that Japanese ballplayers could compete at the highest level in the American major leagues. Employing a unique tornado-twist delivery throughout his career, he pitched 2 historical no-hitters. His first was not only the first for a Japanese pitcher in MLB, but also the first at Coors Field, and his second was the first at Camden Yards.

Nomo paved the way for stars like Suzuki "No Nickname" Ichiro and Matsui "Godzilla" Hideki, plus an influx of top-notch baseball talent from Japan and Korea. Just as African-American and Latin American ballplayers reinvigorated the sport and rewrote the record books before them, Asian players create excitement and increase diversity in our venerable game. It may not be America's pastime anymore, and soccer may be the world's favorite sport, but I'm happy baseball is becoming truly international at last.

Any movement that raises the level of play in my favorite sport or adds interest is welcome. So a tip of the cap to Nomo Hideo, big thanks... and good luck to you!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Prison Fashion in Japan...

I haven't seen this in Hamamatsu yet, but according to a story on, fashions made by young prisoners in Hokkaido are becoming popular in Japan. As part of their rehabilitation program, the inmates at Hakodate Juvenile Prison make totebags and aprons printed with the Japanese character for "jail" and the ultra-cool because it's an English word "PRISON," and they're catching on. Especially with the staff at one Shinjuku bar.

The main thing I came away with after reading that article is... there is no way the woman in that photo is 52 years old. What magic fountain has she been drinking from? What's next- wearing prison fashions made by juvenile offenders keeps you perpetually youthful?

The Japanese Bus Hijacking, July 16, 2008

Japanese police in Aichi prefecture are holding a 14-year-old boy for allegedly hijacking a JR bus at knifepoint. The boy told officials he wanted to "run away." Or, alternately, he did it to "cause trouble to his parents, who had scolding him."

The boy was from Yamaguchi prefecture, but he seems to have started the trouble in Okazaki and was arrested there in Aichi, which is Shizuoka's neighbor. So it's practically local news. I heard about this yesterday during my Bentenjima class and completely forgot to look it up last night after work. So here you have it this morning. Fortunately no one was injured in what seems to have been a stupid stunt or call for attention from a troubled young man.

I think I've been to Okazaki. It was a long time ago, and so much has happened since then I can't be sure. Seems like that was the first place I tried Indian food way back in my life before my present life. If it is the city I'm thinking of, it's home to one of the best Indian buffets in the area and it's much larger than I thought.

After doing some further reading on Okazaki, I found the account of Miss Okazaki, a friendship doll the people of the city sent to America in 1928. Here's an excerpt from the mayor's farewell speech to Miss Okazaki (the idea of which I admit choked me up a little):

Miss Okazaki, you are going far across the sea to America just as Miss Ruth and Mr. Lincoln have come to Japan. Please carry to the children of America a message of good will and friendship from the children of Japan. Miss Aichi and others have gone before you. I hope that you will all work together and show the true worth of Japanese dolls by doing well your great errand of love. I wish you a fair and prosperous journey.

Anyway, back on topic- you should watch the BBC video in that first link. You'll get to see Japanese police working a crime scene (in this case a huge highway bus) by a busy expressway on a broiling summer's day. The official announcement for the ending of rainy season hasn't come yet but it seems pretty obvious we've reached high summer- temperatures are in the lower 90s and humidity is off the scale. I'm sure those guys were miserable out there on the asphalt.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Boom! Boom! Boom! Watching Fireworks in Bentenjima, July 5, 2008

The show lasted about an hour and a half. I'm pretty pleased with my little Fuji FinePix camera's ability to handle low light conditions. Now that I know a little more about it, I can't wait to see Melt-Banana again to get more apocalyptic shots. They're sort of the audiovisual equivalent of these fireworks.

Enjoying Fireworks is Easier with Friends: July 5, 2008

My friend wore a gorgeous navy blue and white yukata with a parasol print. She looked like she'd stepped right out of some Edo Period artwork. A lot of others wore more bright, candy-colored yukata with floral prints. Yellows and pinks and reds with green. Which is fine and cute, but I prefered this more elegant look.

If only the photographer had done her justice!

We watched the fireworks at someone's house, just off the water and not far from the Singing Bridge and the festival area. This house was huge by Japanese standards because it was not only living space but also had been their bakery shop (the ovens/factory were about a kilometer away but they've long since vanished). After they closed shop, they converted it into a living room. Upstairs is a fully-equipped English classroom.

It's quite a lovely home and they certainly made us feel welcome. In the former shop, which is now a comfortable space with nicknacks in cupboards, a low sofa and a carpeted floor, they'd laid out a massive spread of sushi, watermelon, oranges, cherries, beer and soft drinks and more. We sat on pillows around the food-covered coffeetable and I ate like a hobbit at his most rapacious. Yeah, I made a pig of myself.

After dinner, as the sun set and twilight came on, we took benches from the classroom out onto the railed roof, plus some beer on ice and enjoyed the sky-flower show.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Getting to the Bentenjima Hanabi Matsuri, July 5, 2008...

Down at the station on a hazy, steamy July day, these junior high kids were tuning up for a performance:

Dads and moms prepared to videotape every musical moment of their kids' orchestral movements in the afternoon:

In the meantime, the station was bustling with festival-goers, because the massive Bentenjima Hanabi Matsuri was on and the weather was conducive to eating lots of yakitori and takoyaki and watching explosions in the night sky:

As crowded and hectic as things were, the station staff had it all pretty much under control. There were special ropes out guiding people in a snaking line and it only took us about 5 minutes to buy my ticket. My smarter, prettier friend had already purchased a train pass a while back. We had to stand on the train, though.

If you look at this next photo, you'll see to the left the community center where I teach on Wednesday afternoons. This bridge is the famous Bentenjima Singing Bridge. It actually sings to you as you cross it on a windy day. The song is pretty monotonous, with lyrics consisting only of "Ooooooooo..." but still:

Below, people gathered in the main festival area:

In the waters of Lake Hamana, you can see the big red torii (temple gate). And boats lying at anchor in anticipation of the pyrotechnics.

You don't see a lot of people swimming here, although there's a nice hotel right up against the water. Bentenkan... since 1998.

Here's a better view of the shore, with the torii:

And another one:

The square-ish building in the foreground was just built recently. Behind it is Bentenkan and some apartments. Those places have amazing views almost daily. But the view on this night would be extra-spectacular:

And here's a lovely postcard-like shot I took of the sun setting over Lake Hamana:

Next time I'll post some photos of the actual fireworks. We didn't go down into the crowds because we had a nice house to go to, and sushi to eat, so there won't be any photos of the craziness among the food stands.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Still More Bentenjima Fireworks...

Here are 6 minutes and 30 seconds of the Bentenjima hanabi matsuri, July 5, 2008. I edited together a few of the previous clips and some "recently discovered" footage.

The end result is frequently monotonous unless you're a real hardcore fireworks fanatic, but the climax is quite exciting.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

More Bentenjima Fireworks: July 5, 2008

Here's another video I made of the Bentenjima fireworks festival. I think Kitano Takeshi already made a much better movie with the same title, but my version is shorter and features a good friend of mine wearing a yukata in the foreground. But I haven't seen Kitano's movie yet, so for all I know it also features a good friend of mine wearing a yukata in the foreground.

Now let's watch as the good people of Bentenjima light up the summer sky:

Bentenjima Fireworks Festival: July 5, 2008

Let's see if this works. I went to the Bentenjima Hanabi Matsuri this weekend and tried to use my Fuji FinePix camera to take some video.

Every so often during the show, the announcer would begin a countdown, we would hear a thump and then a small star would start rising into the night sky, only to explode with a massive burst of sparks and after a delay a blast and concussion we could feel from all the way across the water. It felt like a gentle push against the chest and knees:

The show went on for about an hour. I believe I was told there were 3000 shells used, down from 10000 a few years ago when Bentenjima's community finances were better. But this could be the result of miscommunication.

People tell me the Bentenjima fireworks are some of the best in Shizuoka, but others insist Fukuroi's are supreme. Other than these, I've only seen Toyohashi's. And those were good enough for me, but they really can't compete with Bentenjima's air bursts reflected in the dancing waters of Lake Hamana, with boats floating beneath.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The "Juno Effect" Cause For Concern in Japan

In two different contexts yesterday people asked me about the movie Juno's effect on high school kids in America. You know, the cute Academy Award-nominated flick starring Ellen Page as a smart and funny teen who gets pregnant and throws everyone's lives into comic confusion by deciding to carry the child to full-term and then give it up for adoption.

Something to do with its having fingernails.

Juno is playing here in Japan, and I'm not sure what its impression is here. Some of the humor is pop culture oriented; for example, Juno claims at one point to be Morgan Freeman and asks her friend if she has any "bones that need collecting." Actually, it was Denzel Washington who was in the film The Bone Collector, but Juno's mistake is our boon... unless you're someone who's only vaguely aware of who either Freeman or Washington are, or that there ever was a movie called The Bone Collector. And why would Juno say that in the first place?

But I do know what the impression those 17 pregnant girls at Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Massachusetts and the media's inevitable (and stupid) linking of that phenomenon with what I consider a pretty innocuous and sweet little movie have made here... at least on a few people.

They have the impression that teen pregnancy is now a fashion in the United States.

You know the United States. That place where all the weird stuff happens. The gun murders; Santa Claus; the unceasing refering to a presidential candidate by his race (Black Obama?); a growing number of young comics-obsessed people who proudly refer to themselves as "otaku;" people eat enough food for three at each meal; Angelina Jolie adopting every kid in sight; the grotesquely weird and complex American football; monumentally large cars, streets and houses... and now the Juno Effect.

I didn't see it- and I wouldn't have understood much of it even if I had- but evidently some Japanese news program ran a segment on the Gloucester 17 and, if the questions I fielded yesterday (as one of the few representatives of America available to understandably curious people) are any indication, it must have used Jamie Lynn Spears and a few Juno clips to illustrate the kinds of stories and influences kids in America watch and internalize.

This is one of those common media dysfunctions. Of course local media only report on those bizarre or tragic international stories, giving the Americans Joe and Jane Lunchbox and their Japanese counterparts Hiro and Hiromi Bento some seriously skewed ideas about foreign cultures. Thus, in America, Japan is the land of sex robots and tentacle porn where salarymen never go home and their kids wear sailor suits to school; and in Japan, America is the land of never-ending gun crime, buffet dining, Beyonce songs and action flicks with steroidal monstrosities leaping in front of massive explosions.

And teen pregnancy crazes.

No one reports on the commonplace and who would watch it if they did? Even I tend to focus on things that are fun and esoteric, like the street fashions, the avant garde music and various subcultures. But you have to understand that these things aren't representative of anything but themselves and their participants. And that every culture has these undercurrents. It's a matter of perspective and normalcy is relative to familiarity.

When you think someone else is bizarre, chances are they're thinking the same thing about you. In fact, both Japan and America are pretty boring, workaday places most of the time. The vast majority of people in either country want basically the same banal, inane, comforting things. They go to work, come home, have dinner, watch TV, go to bed and do it all again the next day. We actually have a commonality of values- family, friends, law and order, doing the right thing at the right time, fitting in, being liked, being nice. Something to think about.

And while thinking about it, enjoy the tribal avant-sounds of "Umo" by OOIOO:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"The A-Team" is coming to SuperDrama TV...

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. They promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

You don't need to look that hard or be personally vetted by Mr. Lee if you live in Japan. Thanks to the on-the-ball programmers at SuperDrama TV, Hannibal, Faceman, Kong and Crazymonkey are about to drive their black GMC Vandura from Kanto to Kansai to save missing journalists from Mexican drug dealers, stop evil SWAT teams and their murder-for-hire schemes and prevent greedy ranchers from taking over small family farms. You know, all those common nuisances we face here in modern Japanese society.

Sgt. Bosco "Bad Attitude" Baracus: Waitaminute, fool! Did you say "Hannibal, Faceman... Kong and Crazymonkey?" What do you mean with all that crazy jibberjabber?

That's right, B.A. In Japan, you're called Kong and that crazy fool "Howling Mad" Murdock is known as Crazymonkey. I'm not sure why the name change, but there you have it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indy Jones Mania is Peaking in Japan!

In Japan, he's known as "Indy."

You call him Dr. Jones, doll!

Nope, sorry, Short Round. Just Indy. Occasionally, Indy Jones. But much like Capt. Jack Sparrow is affectionately referred to simply as "Jack" and Billy Blanks is likewise called "Billy," most people know the man with the hat and the whip without any qualifiers. Either it's a cultural thing where people here tend to shorten names or phrases into easily pronounced cuteness, or else people are getting lazy in their old age. Or my old age. Or Indiana Jones' old age.

One week before the Japan-wide release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the merchandise is ubiquitous. Actually, it has been for more than a month. The Zaza Toys-R-Us even has a special display near the store's front, near the video games and (more importantly) the cash registers.

At first it was fully stocked with dozens of those wall-eyed Indiana Jones 3 3/4" figures. I don't understand why Hasbro would send out millions of toys sculpted in the shape of renowned archaeologist Henry Jones, Jr. and allow every single one of them to sport goofy eyes, as if he'd been crossbred with a flounder or a chameleon. But they did. It's universal... even the dozens I saw in a famous Ginza toy shop over Golden Week shared this trait. The ol' wandering iris.

Matt Groening reportedly won't let his Simpsons characters be depicted cross-eyed, preferring a slight wall-eyed expression, imparting them with an existentially alienated appearance. So too George Lucas and Steven Spielberg with their intrepid adventurer. A wall-eyed Dr. Jones is a globetrotting Dr. Jones, I guess. And his peripheral vision is off the charts. But poor Sallah doesn't know what eye to look at when speaking to his old friend.

Now the toy pickings are slim. Shoppers made off with the picks of the lot, mostly the younger Indy despite his funked-up eyes. The nifty Hasbro 12-inch figures (I pre-ordered the more deluxe and costly 1/6th scales Indy's from Sideshow Toys and Medicom because they are works of mother-lovin' art, baby!) are still plentiful, but if you want any of the smaller ones you have to choose between some seedy characters in robes, a couple of Nazi soldiers wearing what appear to be Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker caps, old Indy... and Mutt Williams. There are a ton of Mutt Williams figures to be had. So many, they will probably still be available this time next year. Sorry, Shia.

Up the escalator you'll find Toho Cinemas (known as Virgin Cinemas until it got laid) which is incredibly tricked out Indiana Jones and the Various Movies of Doom-style. There are massive decals for the new flick on the windows, a display featuring a fake crate with a familiar-looking brown fedora lying on top of it and a widescreen TV monitor on which trailers for all 4 movies play on an endless loop, and The Store is fully stocked with action figures, books, posters, the soundtrack CD... and that amazing Japanese movie souvenir, the program.

Called a "brochure" in Japanese-English, these are colorful photo-filled booklets. The Crystal Skull program is a glossy, oversized example. Lots of artwork- stills, storyboards, set and character designs. An overview of the film series and the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV show. If only I could read Japanese!

Two weeks ago, on a whim I bought a few packs of Topps Indiana Jones Heritage cards in hopes of pulling a hidden treasure... like Indy himself, I came in search of fortune and glory. The set contains photo cards of various scenes from all the films, plus some randomly-inserted autograph cards and hand-drawn "sketch" cards featuring actual art by professional illustrators. I got a sketch of Sean Connery as Professor Henry Jones, Sr. signed by "MB," who I'm guessing is Mark Brooks.

Actually, it looks a little tight for a "sketch," but not as resolved as a finished piece. Somewhere in between, what one of my old graphic design teachers might have called a "semi-comp." It's a good, instantly recognizable likeness, and I was very pleased with finding it. It gave me a little thrill, actually.

I rarely buy bubblegum cards of any kind (not since the baseball card bug bit me in the early 1990s and I recovered when things became too collector-oriented and speculative and plain nasty... just like comic book collecting before the market collapse!) and so have little experience with these things. Anyway, Mark Brooks or whoever drew this... my fedora is off to you.

Thanks, brother! Your color cards look especially nice!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Quake-Filled Weekend...

Around 10 or 11 Friday morning, as I surfed the Net from the comfort of my bed, I felt a vibration. My bed seems made to rock, so I assumed at first it was caused by my body having shifted. But it continued for maybe 10 seconds, stopped, then began again. Or course, quakes are common here in Japan. That was just one of many I've experienced, and not even a spectacular example.

But the quake that struck northeastern Japan around 8:43am Saturday? The big one that brought down a highway bridge, sent mud and rocks cascading down hillsides and killed at least 6 people (including one man who ran outside his home for safety only to have a car run him down)? The one that caused 15 liters of radioactive wastewater to spill from a nuclear power plant holding pool?

That one I didn't even feel. A friend had to tell me about it later that day. My mom knew more about it than I did.

According to the Japan Times Online, there are hundreds of stranded tourists in several mountain resort areas around the area, and three foreigners and a Japanese camper unaccounted for in one camping area hit by mudslides. We can only hope they're okay and soon to emerge with nothing more than a more thrilling vacation story.

I need to put some serious thought into making an earthquake preparedness kit. Every household in Japan should have one. A change of clothes, bottled water, canned food, towels and more. Yeah, I need to get on that!

And Now It's Time For...

... Name That Tune, starring everyone's favorite rock band, Melt-Banana. Take it away, rockers!

For those of you playing along at home who said "Heart of Glass" by Blondie... you win! In-studio contestants guessing correctly and those who sent in their replies by August 4th are in luck! Tell them what they won, Don!

Don: A neeeewwwwwww tattoo! Courtesy Black Lion Tattoo Parlor and Piercery in lovely downtown Burbank, Cali... FORNIA!

Thanks, Don! Agata shreds this song to tiny quivering pieces with the fur still attached and at 1:30 Rika loses her pick and gropes on the stage floor to find it. Yasuko boards an interstellar rocket and waves bye-bye to Debbie Harry.

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

Wolf and cat.

Through the Magic of Ryoko's Sudsy Time Machine, You Can Relive Japan's Decadent "Bubble" Era!

This is a trailer for Hirosue Ryoko's Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, a science fic... er... fantasy flick that came out in 2007. A researcher creates a time machine inside a washer, rather than a sexy DeLorean with its shiny stainless steel body and gull-wing doors. I suppose a washer is more economical and practical. The DeLorean would use increasingly expensive gasoline and require difficult-to-acquire plutonium, while the washer not only provides temporal shifts but also covers the traveler in a pleasantly aromatic detergent foam.

When the scientist doesn't return from her trip to 1990, the government does what any responsible group of leaders would do- it sends the woman's frivolous club hostess daughter (Hirosue) back to rescue her mother... and also Japan's national finances.

The subtitles at one point have Ryoko raising a glass of champagne and screaming that she loves the bubble, but my translation is closer to, "The bubble is so cool!"

And, indeed, it was.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Japan's overheated economy was the envy of the world, especially in the United States where every day we had news reports of Japanese corporations buying choice commercial real estate in New York City and Putney, Georgia. Cell phones were roughly the size of Greyhound Scenicruisers and required users to wear nuclear-powered mechanical exoskeletons in order to carry them about, an aging Arthur Fonzarelli gave up his Harley for a Suzuki dirt bike, Mothra became CEO of Levi Strauss and started shipping weathered jeans back to the mother country where newly affluent Japanese teens paid thousands of yen for them only to grind them into a fine powder and snort them off mirrors in nightclub bathrooms.

Yes (according to the film trailer), the bubble years were a time of "exuberance and over-indulgence, ruled by lust and decadence!" And also dangly earrings and old guy lechery. How very different from Japan today where we've successfully eliminated dangly earrings.

In the States, those bubble years were characterized by Michael J. Fox films, acid washed denim, white high-top Reeboks and brightly colored t-shirts. As the era wore on, these increasingly gave way to pocketfuls of kryptonite and attempts by two or more princes to kneel before various young women and demand they choose a proper mate. Eventually it all collapsed both in Japan and America in an orgy of flannel and Timberland hiking boots. This led to a period of retrenchment in the late 1990s in which groups of self-styled "neos" experienced bullet time while still others became ill with some sort of "bug," from which untold millions of Beanie Babies perished.

All of this will be addressed in the sequel film, entitled Millenium Fantasy: No Scrubs.

Napoleon of the Stump...

This has nothing to do with Japan, but it's an election year back home and this song tells the story of a man who accomplished everything he set out to do, then removed himself from public life and promptly died.

While the man himself was from perfect and perhaps can be harshly judged from a modern perspective- an aggressive expansionist, he confronted Great Britain and negotiated the purchase of the Oregan Territories, waged war with Mexico (inspiring Henry David Thoreau's night in jail and brilliantly conceived literary work Civil Disobedience) and also was a lifelong slaveholder who supported extending the Missouri Compromise into the newly-acquired western territories- there's no denying James K. Polk's presidency was incredibly successful.

James K. Polk, little-celebrated 11th President of the United States.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Akihabara Knife Attack...

On Sundays, the main street in Akihabara is closed to traffic so the shopping throngs can walk freely, safe from danger, buy duty-free electronics and the latest computer games, visit maid cafes and shop for manga and cosplay goods. Yet last Sunday, June 8th, suddenly a white rental truck came driving along, plowing into people, and then a man with a knife stabbing passersby. When a cop tried to talk to him, the man stabbed the officer repeatedly. When he was finished the man had killed 7 and injured 10 more.

Why? People who work there are trying to understand it. Akihabara attracts tourists and geeks alike. And evidently, one twisted, unhappy individual with mayhem on his mind. A 25-year-old from right here in Shizuoka prefecture, a temp worker with more problems than solutions.

I'm not really an Akihabara kind of person, prefering Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku. But on my last trip to Tokyo I decided to explore there and spent two fun, rain-splashed afternoons strolling around, looking for hardcore otaku and akiba-kei (fanboy/girl and Akihabara fanboy/girl) sites, checking out the maids in sexy-cute Victorian costumes outside the station as they shilled for their cafes, finding toy and model shops chock full of colorful plastic toys. I've been planning a big photo essay post about Akihabara...

Before it just seemed frivolous and fun. Maybe even harmlessly creepy in some respects. Now it seems a little haunted, tainted. Despite having so frequently lost friends and family (including someone very close recently to something so stupid as to be almost incomprehensible), I can only imagine how the victims' families must feel. In some cases they must have actually watched the murders taking place in broad daylight, amid the same sights and sounds I drank in so recently and thoroughly enjoyed. What a horrific disconnect from reality that must have been. For them, those buildings and signs forever have a different meaning. Something sinister, I suppose.

I don't think there are any broad trends at work here; analyzing Japan and making absolutist statements tends to be a favorite pastime of ex-pats living here. But this is a personal tragedy for real human beings. Whatever external causes you might name, there are almost certainly many more internalized ones, dark places inside this young man that are his and his alone and universal at the same time.

My heart goes out to those left behind.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Onion Discovers "Battle Royale"

The Onion AV Club has a fascinating regular feature called "The New Cult Canon," about films the cinema cognoscenti are into these days. They finally got around to covering that ultimate in cool cult flicks, Battle Royale.

And you can read it here.

The article neatly sums up all that is good and bad about Battle Royale, so I won't rehash it here. Suffice it to say, if you don't like violence, don't see this movie. I find it less disturbing than Suicide Circle, but others may have a lower threshold of nausea than I do. On the other hand, where else can you see Kuriyama Chiaki, Shibasaki Kou and Maeda Aki together in one all-singing, all-dancing, all-shooting movie?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Japanese Ghost Stories from Peter Payne!

I always enjoy Peter Payne's J-List blog entries, but today's is of a particular personal interest because it's one I'm familiar with firsthand. Here's what Peter wrote:

Do you know the story of Toire no Hanako-san, or Miss Hanako of the Toilet? It's a Japanese urban legend that can be found at most every elementary school here, and it goes like this: if you go to the fourth stall of a specified girl's bathroom, usually on the third floor of the school, knock three times and call out "Hanako-san, are you there?" then you'll hear her reply, "Hai" (yes). Open the stall and you'll see a shimmering figure of a girl with bobbed hair with a red skirt on standing there. It's the ghost of Hanako, a girl who committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates (ijime), who is said to haunt the girl's bathroom looking for revenge. Or in an older version, Hanako is a girl who was playing hide-and-seek in the school bathroom during the war and was killed in an American air raid because she couldn't hear the air raid siren.

Three junior high school students of mine related this story in class one day. Their version didn't include Hanako's physical description but was otherwise identical. Also, in their telling, Hanako-san is the bully victim. Bullying has a lot more currency these days than American air raids. And of course, they don't believe it any more than American teens believe in Bloody Mary or the Lover's Lane Hook.

Here are some more Japanese urban legends from Peter Payne:

Hanako-san is part of a pantheon of "school ghost" stories that are well known in Japan, like Kuchisake Onna or Split-Faced Woman, a female ghost who asks you if she's beautiful before trying to devour you, and Teke-Teke, the upper torso of a female who claws her way around Japan searching for her lower half, which was severed in a train accident in Hokkaido. Anyone hearing this story will supposedly see Teke-Teke's lower half walking aimlessly around the countryside within three days. Let us know if you see anything!

They told me about Kuchisake Onna. What would you say to her if she asked you that question? And don't worry- I doubt Teke-Teke's legs are going to cross the Pacific Ocean to show up in Athens or Albany to terrify anyone... but who knows? Maybe that's why she can't find them!

I love this stuff. Ever since I read my first book of urban legends. Or maybe it was the Halloween episode of Real People featuring the "true" ghost stories. Anyway, make sure you click on the J-List blog link. You have to scroll down a little, but it's worth it because you can see a couple of artist's interpretations of poor Miss Hanako.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A sure-fire method for boosting tourism...

Evidently, customs officials here in Japan are giving away marijuana to random travellers passing through Narita Airport near Tokyo. Looks like I planned my trip home for the wrong date!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The 5678s...

Courtesy of some helpful soul on YouTube, it's the band Quentin Tarantino featured in the first Kill Bill movie, the 5678s. They're a Japanese garage rock/rockabilly/surf trio with a stripped-down sound and they've been on the scene since 1986.

I wish I could say I was into them ahead of the Kill Bill wave, but no. Not that cool. But I wasn't even thinking that much of them until one day back in 2004 when I was upstairs in a now-defunct punk cd and vinyl shop here and found a compilation of theirs, Bomb the Rocks- Early Days Singles. It features essential tracks like their cover of "Woo Hoo," the awesome "Three Cool Chicks" (complete with spoken middle section), "Jet Coaster," "Guitar Date," "My Boyfriend From Outer Space" and the stunningly titled-and-performed "I Was a Teenage Cave Woman." Just about the only track you don't get is "I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield," a singular omission.

On look at the cartoony cover, with the band smilingly facing off against zombie motorcyclists in WWI German helmets and I knew I had to have it, Kill Bill and Vonage commercials be damned!

If you like high energy, retro styling, raw screaming and twangy surf-style guitar, then you'll probably love this. Even if you're (like me) not particularly a Quentin Tarantino fan.

It's a boring, rainy Saturday in Hamamatsu. Today's tasks included ripping the door off my closet while trying to prepare a workspace so I can get back into drawing in my spare time. What does the closet door have to do with drawing, and why did I destroy it? I'm still trying to figure that one out.

But it's fixed now, and I managed not to crush any of my bare toes while doing it. And my drawing area is all set up and ready to go. I really need an angled drawing table with an incandescent light, but that's not going to happen in this tiny apartment. So I'm making do with a kidney-shaped coffee table and a pillow on the floor. If the rain ever stops, I'll go buy a tracing light that'll provide the angle I need to keep distortions out of my work.

Other than the ones my own incompetence creates.

I'm learning how to draw some of John Kricfalusi's characters. Not that I have a chance of working for him, but he's been putting up a lot of turn-arounds and story sketches and challenging talented young artists and professionals to audition for the new cartoons he's producing. Lemme tell ya- it ain't easy. I've seen some of the submissions and there are some talented cats and kittens out there and even most of those don't have what it takes to function in the rarefied Kricfalusisphere where the Sputniks beep.

So for me, it's just a personal exercise. I'm also doing some illustrations of my own and piddling with ideas for a couple of comics. I'm really thinking I'd rather just design the characters, write the scripts, provide some rough layouts, maybe draw the covers then let someone else more capable do the actual finished story artwork. I'd have to find a person with a similar set of aesthetics as mine, who's willing to actually put out the pages. I'm not sure how the rights and all that stuff are supposed to be split. I've got scripts for the initial 2 issues written already, outlines for several more and the first 5 pages of the first roughed out pretty solidly... one more pass and the pencils are done... but not enough steampower to write and draw everything myself.

So I don't know how that'll work out.

Also, now that I have a workspace I can get back to editing the 6 short stories I've written. To this end, I had to kill one of my blogs, and I'm not certain how regularly I'll be updating this one. Hope it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Nana volume 4:" a Japanese Comic Review!

Nana vol. 4
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe
Translation: Goto Koji

Let me tell you right now the outfit that Sachiko wears in scene where she inadvertently faces off with Hachi outside the restaurant where she and Hachi’s boyfriend Shoji work just absolutely kills me! What is that… some kind of fleece Alpine bonnet? With dangling puffballs? And her backpack matches her full-length skirt; obviously, she made both of them herself… she’s a fashionista with a pixie cut!

Sorry, I have a weakness.

On a cold night, Nana Osaki keeps her hapless-in-love friend Nana company as they wait in the parking lot outside for Shoji to get off work. Hachi learns Nana is from some frigid prefecture where snow is common, and listens as her punk friend sings some soft song to the night….

That’s when Yazawa Ai brings Hachi, Shoji and Sachiko together for a tearful confrontation where the painful truth emerges. The build-up is exquisite, as is the payoff. Nana sticks up for her friend, ready to pound the two-timing Shoji right in the face with one of her ring-laden fists. And Hachi? She’s the one who’s been betrayed, and this after waiting a whole year, saving every yen for the move, sacrificing everything to live her dream for both of them. How does she react?

Nana volume 4 is like an emotional elevator for Hachi and the hapless readers. Up- Hachi’s growing fascination with Nana. Down- Shoji. Up- tickets front row center for a Trapnest concert in her hometown. Down- no one to go with. Up- Black Stones’ first Tokyo show. Down- Nana’s gosu-rori groupie Misato.

The middle section depicts the show itself, and Yazawa throws in a lot of little reportorial details. The place only holds a limited number of standing-room-only bodies, the cover includes a ticket for a free drink. I once ordered a Coke at one of these shows and the bartender looked at me like she’d just met Forrest Gump live and in person. Oh yeah, I’ve been to quite a few shows here in Japan; only we don’t call them “shows” or “concerts” here. The preferred term is “live.” You might tell a friend the next day, “I went to Black Stones’ live last night.”

“Where was it?”

“At the live house.”


The show takes place in a small venue somewhere in Shinjuku (Check out local landmark, the Epson building, as Junko and Kyosuke drive past on their way to the show). After the first band, the crowd’s ready to split, but Hachi and Misato (in sausage roll hair, her floral and petticoated skirt and knee-socks, she looks like a living doll) perform a little impromptu sketch:

Hachi: Ya wanna know what? This next band is, like, the best band in the world!

Misato (shouting): I totally agree! Doesn’t Blast just totally rule?! The singer, Nana, is amazing! Her voice is so strong and beautiful!

Their interest piqued, a few curious onlookers filter back into the live house. Yazawa makes even the extras stand out. There’s the tall girl in the spiky, modified-ducktail haircut and star print tee who wants to know if the band’s all girls, her friend in the plaid beret, the buzz cut dude wearing a slick motorcycle jacket and his pal with the rolled-up sleeves and sweatband on his wrist. Everyone seems to be fully accessorized. It must be a blast for her to come up with these distinct and accurate hipster looks. I’ve seen these people! At lives!

And then Blast takes the stage, Nana tying a rose to the mic stand.

There's even a chance the show might've taken place in Shin-Okubo, a neighborhood just a stop from Shinjuku on the Yamanote Line. It's certainly close enough for Junko and Kyosuke to drive there, and there are a few live houses just outside the station within easy walking distance. In fact... here's one now. You've seen the Nana version of a live show in Japan, now here's the real thing. Melt-Banana at Earthdom, September 2007:

What it lacked in Nana-like elegance and fashionability, it more than made up for in energy and power. Melt-Banana's total sonic attack destroyed eardrums and the crowd moshed with frantic intensity. I ended up hobbled like an oldster, leaning on my umbrella as if it were a cane, my body sore, but my heart soaring. Welcome to my world!

That’s at least one of the many ways this book gets its addictive hooks in you- presenting the familiar and the ultra-dramatic side-by-side. Like the semi-similar Love & Rockets, Nana presents a heightened reality filled with situations that are similar to things you’ve been through, only amplified for fictional effect. Nana is an unrepentant soap opera, in comics form. And that Yazawa Ai is a fiend. Pure evil, I tells ya! She created these characters, all the cute girls and pretty boys, put them in a fun milieu and set them into motion with Nana and Hachi as the story’s beating, bleeding, loving hearts, their every action creating emotional chaos, making the readers want more, more, MORE.

Pure wickedness.

And, as always...


And you can read my other Nana reviews here, here and here. I'm not trying to turn this blog into a Nana fan site... it's just turning out that way. If the Nanaishness is too much for you, check out my Melt-Banana show reviews here and here.