Monday, December 28, 2009

The Plastics: Making Me Wish I'd Come to Japan in the Late 70s!

I vaguely remember seeing this band on SCTV many years ago. Back then most musical acts on SCTV stupefied me with boredom as they interrupted the flow of comedy. But some-- Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics-- frightened/fascinated me. The Plastics must have made some impression because here I am in Japan almost 30 years later.

Actually, this band no longer existed by 1982 when their video for "Top Secret Man" appeared on SCTV during a bizarre segment called "Midnight Video Special" where Rick Moranis' video deejay character Gerry Todd does technological battle with Dave Thomas' borderline offensive Tim Ishimuni. Perhaps Tim Ishimuni is totally offensive nowadays; back then we were idiots but we had great music. Of course, this episode also featured the Johnny LaRue-hosted "All Girl Friday Night Pajama Party." LaRue is another major life influence, perhaps not quite equal to Pink Lady and Shonen Knife but important nevertheless.

No more crane shots, LaRue!

EDIT: RAB linked this in the comments and it MUST be added to this post:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This Is What Christmas Looks Like in Tokyo...

Specifically, Shibuya and Ginza. Someone made this neat little video and while I can't fully endorse their choice of music, it does seem to fit the Japanese Christmas spirit somehow. The person who made this video has a fine eye for detail, and zeroes in on some choice imagery to truly express the way Japanese Christmas feels.

Check out the Salvation Army members at 2:52! We had some here in Hamamatsu in 2004, but I haven't seen any since.

It's interesting for me personally to see these familiar sights through someone else's eyes. In this case, we seem to be struck by many of the same things. It's kind of a shame none of my friends or family ever made the trip across the Pacific to walk through these colorful, energetic venues with me. But through the magic of YouTube, we can share a musical glimpse. Enjoy the Christmas magic, Tokyo style!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Season is in Full Swing in Japan...

That's Maeda Aki, future star of Battle Royale and Linda, Linda, Linda, doing a Japanese version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." Maeda Aki is still bouncing around in film and TV work.

Meanwhile, downtown Hamamatsu is decorated with holiday lights and Christmas songs blare from the outdoor speakers on Yuraku-gai and along Kajimachi-dori. The giant tree at Entetsu department store puts on its nightly performance of ever-changing lights and festive songs. KFC is doing brisk business and so are all the baked good shops offering Christmas cakes. Even the bowl-bearing cat in front of the stationery store not far from our school is wearing a Santa costume.

Why is Christmas so popular in Japan, where only about 1% of the population are Christians? I have no idea. Maybe it has something to do with the Japanese love for cute things and shopping. The secular traditions of Christmas-- Santa, Christmas trees, novelty songs and bargain sales-- certainly push those two buttons. While New Year's celebrations in Japan seem closer in spirit to my family's Christmas observations, Christmas here is merely a fun time for lovers to go on romantic dates and exchange gifts bathed in the splendor of holiday illuminations. Everyone looks pretty in new winter clothes under the lights.

Another thing: It's also bounen-kai season here. Bounen-kai are "forget the year" parties, a time to get properly shit-faced and put aside all the lousy, stinking things that happened to you over the past twelve months. You know-- six day work-weeks, spending hours daily on a crowded Yamanote line train, getting up at 5am to make lunch bento for your kids, coming down with the "new flu," H1N1. If you work for a company or are a college student in a club or have lots of friends, you'll probably have more bounen-kai than you can safely attend in December. I know of one older guy-- a real party animal-- who had two on consecutive nights, took Saturday off and then had another on Sunday.

You'll have no trouble forgetting a year when ending it in a series of alcoholic black-outs.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kitano Takeshi's Brilliant Ending to Zatoichi

Why not? The updated Rutger Hauer version, Blind Fury (1989), was on TV here in Japan the other night.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's Always Fun When Peter Payne's Blog Updates Overlap My Own Experiences...

Peter Payne has a fun entry on his J-List Side Blog about Brad Pitt's recent appearance on Bistro SMAP, the talk show where members of SMAP cook for their guests. Read his entry, because it has a screen cap from the show featuring Pitt and his partner-in-crime, Quentin Tarantino. You will also learn the meaning of SMAP, which came as a surprise to me.

It's an acronym! Who knew? Probably lots of people. But not me.

Anyway, Pitt's appearance on Bistro SMAP must have been a big hit, because it was mentioned to me on three separate occasions this week. Usually I have to interrogate people viciously to get even the slightest mention of something they did recently or watched on TV. It's almost as if these things are state secrets. But Brad Pitt on Bistro SMAP?

That's something to talk about freely!

One of our movie buff girls discussed it and actually mentioned Tarantino. That's what she called him-- simply Tarantino. She smiled and added, "He talks... A LOT." That was my cue to launch into my world famous Quentin Tarantino impression (although I didn't do the weird lip thing he does because I didn't want to frighten away the students). I talked in a Tarantino-esque voice about how great and cool Japanese movies are, spewing it out rapid-fire with no pauses even to breathe for close to thirty seconds.

She's right, by the way.

I didn't do the Norm MacDonald version. MacDonald's is brilliant, but I believe in making a character your own and not doing some other person's take. So yes, I do a Quentin Tarantino impression which I think is quite good, aided by my slight resemblance to him. The giggles greeting my little performance made it worth the effort. I find that ESL students, especially here in Japan, tend to worry about speaking speed and find demonstrations of lightning fast American-style English to be hilarious and frightening simultaneously.

It's like a magic trick involving fire. How did he do that? Do I still have my eyebrows?

This is probably one reason the students are usually afraid to tell me these things.

When You Want Good Food, Go to Tokyo!

The newest Michelin Guide awards more three-star ratings to restaurants in Tokyo than in any other world city. More even than in Paris. That's barely scratching the surface, because there are thousands upon thousands of restaurants in Tokyo.

I'm sure that's true of any city of equivalent size. But I'm from a small town so having access to this many eateries blows my little provincial mind. I wonder how long it would take you to eat at every restaurant in Tokyo if you ate three meals a day and never repeated. Could you do it in a few years? Would it take a lifetime?

Someone should make the attempt and blog their experiences. As for me, I'd be happy just hitting a few of these three-star culinary superstars before I die.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


This is a video by Hiroshi Hiyashi (I don't know him personally but if he happens to read this, I want to tell him great job!) of Hamamatsu Castle. Hamamatsu Castle is a reconstruction of the original castle and it sits within a park not far from downtown Hamamatsu. Hamamatsu-jo is known as the "Castle of Success" because its rulers each went on to illustrious careers. Most prominent among these is Tokugawa Ieyasu, who completed the unification of Japan and established the Tokogawa bakufu, the shogunate dynasty that ruled Japan for about 265 years. The park features a large field that's popular for frisbee tossing, soccer ball kicking and baseball tossing... and the ever-popular hanami, or cherry blossom viewing picnic.

There's a carp pond, shady garden paths and even an art museum within the park. When the weather's pleasant, Hamamatsu Castle is a relaxing place to spend an afternoon.

The castle was the first touristy spot I visited on my very first trip to Japan way back in 2003. My friend Mike and I were still a bit jet-lagged but I was definitely feeling the excitement of having fulfilled a lifelong dream-- visiting Japan. We got lost looking for the castle, turning back at one point; a few years later I learned we were mere yards from the park entrance and there would have been no way to miss it if we hadn't psyched ourselves out.

I'm not a believer in destiny or fate, but I do enjoy coincidences. We came to Hamamatsu because we have friends here, without knowing the Tokugawa connection. Since my interest in Tokugawa Ieyasu-- extending back into my childhood-- was one of the reasons I initially came to Japan, it was thrilling to learn I was beginning my personal journey here in a place where he had some of his earliest successes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Melt-Banana: "Green Eyed Devil"

Here's someone's energetic but unfortunately blurry video of Melt-Banana performing their song "Green Eyed Devil" from their 2007 album Bambi's Dilemma.

Their newest sound sensation, Melt-Banana Lite Live Ver 0.0, hits November 3rd. The smart kids are already lining up at the record stores.

Melt-Banana is Now in the US!

According to their MySpace blog, Melt-Banana is in San Diego and marveling at the number of In-N-Out Burger restaurants there. Perhaps this video has something to do with their hamburger fascination:

If they come to your town-- or within driving distance-- you really should go see them. But don't tell them I sent you. They don't know me from Ronald McDonald.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Spookey Month: The Last Spookey Video!

And we wrap up our Spookey Month celebration with this blurry video of Hamamatsu's own punk trio Spookey. Happy Halloween, world!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Spookey Month: This Is Halloween's Big Year in Japan!

I thought so. Ever since the Hamamatsu Freshness Burger restaurants decorated for Halloween in the middle of September, I had this inkling the autumnal winds of my favorite scary holiday were a-blowin' throughout Japan. Now the Japan Times has a news story confirming my suspicions.

And I couldn't be happier about it. This is much better than the screwed-up version of Valentine's Day that's prevalent here-- women have to give men chocolate on February 14th; it's obligatory in some cases! Everyone can enjoy the ghoulish fun of Halloween equally.

But this new emphasis on Halloween didn't stop workmen from erecting the giant Christmas tree at Entetsu Department store last week. Nor did it stop them from putting blue lights on the trees along Kajimachi-dori downtown. And Col. Sanders was wearing his Santa costume at KFC as of last Wednesday. Hey, I love Christmas too, but one holiday at a time, please!

Spookey Month: Junior High Students Tell Ghost Stories

Junior high and ghost stories seem to go together here in Japan. I was looking on YouTube for some clips of this old TV drama from the 1990s about junior high kids investigating ghosts and the supernatural, but found this instead-- an English class project where the students narrate ghost stories in English, with clever visual effects. Fantastic job by one and all!

And now here's a short clip of a ghost story involving junior high kids, directed by Shimizu Takashi, who also directed the Ju-on (Grudge) series. It's called "Katasumi" and features the first appearance of Fuji Takako, who would play the ghost in almost all the Ju-on films:

Lessons learned? First, never fulfill your obligations and certainly don't complain about having to do so. And second, never leave your injured friend alone by the rabbit hutches.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spookey Month: Teke-Teke, the Woman Who Runs on Her Elbows

She has to run on her elbows. She doesn't have legs. Teke-Teke is another in our ghastly catalog of modern Japanese horrors. Once a normal woman, a railroad accident in Hokkaido cost her her lower body and now she wants to cut you in half as well. Teke-Teke crawls across Japan on her elbows, making the sound which provides her name: teke-teke-teke-teke-teke-teke.

If you hear this story (or perhaps if you merely read it... sorry...), within three days you will see Teke-Teke's lower half wandering around. I don't know if Teke-Teke's legs also have a name or if they do anything sinister. Teke-Teke herself preys on schoolchildren. And like many other Japanese ghosts, she inspired not one but two horror movies:

In the movie, she goes after high school kids; they make inviting targets for movie studios too!

The fun and informative site Scary For Kids also mentions a variation on Teke-Teke, the unfortunate Kashima Reiko. Kashima Reiko is another of those ubiquitous school toilet ghosts of Japan.

I don't know why Japanese school bathrooms attract the supernatural; perhaps there's something about the energy fields here in Japan and various social anxieties surrounding body functions in relation to bathrooms lead to psychic manifestations-- malevolent ones, indeed. Japan is a land haunted by many yokai and oni, so it may be that school bathrooms represent easy pickings to some of the nastier spirits here.

Whatever her motivation for haunting school bathrooms, poor Kashima Reiko lost her legs in an auto accident and now hangs out in toilet stalls where she waits for someone so she can ask them, "Where are my legs?" If you give her the wrong answer, she tears off one of your legs. There are different answers you can give her if she asks you. One is to say, "At Meishin Expressway." She'll then ask, "Who told you that?"

Just tell her, "Kashima Reiko told me that."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Spookey Month: Shonen Knife's "It's a New Find"

The legendary Shonen Knife, one of my favorite-ist bands of all. This song is full of good advice.

And apparently, Shonen Knife are playing a Halloween show somewhere. Lucky you if you're going to it!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Spookey Month: I Have No Idea What This Is...

Who is she? She's delightful. She's mysterious. This video has a dreamlike David Lynchian quality that's perfect for Halloween. Do you like Shinjuku? Do you know Shinjuku?

Yes to both questions.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spookey Month: My Melt-Banana Video... Again!

Because you just can't get enough Melt-Banana in your morning banana diet, here's the video I accidentally made last August at O-Nest. I thought I was simply taking a photo, but I'd switched my digital camera to the wrong setting. Amazingly, I didn't twitch too badly when I realized I was video recording.

Spookey Month is all about Halloween and my favorite Japanese bands.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spookey Month: Oh, Look, It's Tomie! And Tomie!

Tomie. So lovely. Too beautiful to live, too immortal to die. Or... something like that. This is the trailer for the 1999 Japanese horror film Tomie, based on the grisly manga series by Ito Junji. Like Tomie's various body parts, the Tomie films have taken on a life of their own, the most recent being 2007's Tomie vs Tomie.

Isn't this trailer creepy? I think it's the semi-documentary presentation of the street scene with a farty electronica soundtrack. The furtive, anonymous guy with the mysterious bag and his protective reaction when the other man bumps him. If you're familiar with the Tomie stories-- as I am-- you don't need to see the denouement in order to feel gooseflesh. You already know what's in the bag and why he's so concerned...

The manga stories are generally set in high schools, though. Not having seen this film, I'm not sure how closely it follows the comic's very loose storyline. I don't remember Tomie kissing any girls-- in the stories she's aggressively hetero-- but in 1999, why not? A decade before Katy Perry and a billion YouTube videos of drunk suburban kids made girl-girl kisses aimed at impressing heterosexual boys blandly mainstream and even cliche, they were a sure-fire way to label your protagonist as dangerously transgressive. From expression of love to movie trope to cynical marketing scheme to lame attention-getting ploy in just ten years. That's progress for ya!

Tomie has been played by a number of young women over the years beginning with Kanno Miho. I'm loathe to cite Wikipedia, but their Tomie films article has this gem:

Tomie is played by a different actress in each film, and the role is as coveted by Japanese actresses as Emmanuelle is in France.

That really puts Tomie in perspective, huh? That's the best comparison you could come up with, Anonymous Wiki Contributor?

This is what happens when you let just any idiot edit your encyclopedia. Taken at face value, it may even be true. Just as porn actors covet parts in sleazy porn movies, many of us covet a lot of stupid-ass things as much as certain Japanese actors covet the role of Tomie, but most of us are sensible enough not to use our desires for crap as a basis for comparison. For example, "Tomie is played by a different actress in each film, and the role is as coveted by Japanese actresses as a cheeseburger is by me at lunch."

Also true, but no less ludicrous.

I want to see this added to the entry on the James Bond film series: "James Bond has been played by a number of different actors, and the role is as coveted by British and American actors as Emmanuelle is in France."

Notice how the statement is also unattributed. The only time you'll ever find a reference to the parts of Tomie and Emmanuelle being somehow equivalent in status is in the mixed-up mind of that particular Wiki editor. You won't find it in a quote from any of the Japanese actors who have played Tomie.

Nothing like third Tomie Sakai Miki telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "I wanted to be Tomie as much as I'm sure any French actor has wanted to be Emmanuelle. In fact, whenever we compare the desire for any part here in Japan, our standard of reference is Emmanuelle. Even though we have no idea who or what the hell Emmanuelle is."

Note to Wikipedia-- you might want to edit that sentence into something non-idiotic.

Tomie vs Tomie's Tomie looks the most like the comic Tomie as far as I'm concerned. They even gave her Tomie's little beauty mark, just below her left eye:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Spookey Month: Battle Royale

Someone put the first 8 or so minutes of the infamous dystopian sci-fi/horror flick Battle Royale on YouTube, but I'm not going to link it here. Go check it out for yourself. Or, better yet, go rent or buy the DVD. Right now. Watch it in its entirety, then come back here and read this blog post. Or read the blog post, then go watch it. Either way is fine by me.

Adapted from a novel by Takami Koshun and directed by Fukusaku Kenji, Battle Royale tells the story of a junior high class taken (along with two sinister ringers) by the government to an island and forced to kill each other off until only one remains-- the "winner." Both the novel and the film have engendered quite a bit of controversy over the ensuing years, but they also have their share of cult followers, of which I happen to be one. More so of the movie; the book left me kind of cold.

The movie stars the invincible master-of-all-trades Kitano Takeshi, otherwise known as "Beat" Takeshi; this guy is omnipresent on Japanese TV hosting various shows, teaching filmmaking, writing art criticism, making his own movies. A universal genius who's seemingly tireless. It also features Maeda Aki, Shibasaki Kou and Kuriyama Chiaki in key roles. Maeda plays Noriko, the perennial outsider and nice girl who becomes the story's co-protagonist. Shibasaki is Mitsuko, one of the many villains in the story, a crazed bad girl who decides to play the game to the hilt. And Kuriyama is Takako, an athletic and somewhat independent gal whose vanity proves at least one luckless kid's undoing... and her own.

Shibasaki and Kuriyama impressed Quentin Tarantino so much he wrote parts for them in Kill Bill; unfortunately, Shibasaki was unable to participate.

Her fight with Uma Thurman's character would no doubt have been the stuff of cult film legend. As it stands, Kuriyama does the honors, basically playing an even more insane variation of Shibasaki's Battle Royale character.

The movie's full of cheesy moments and nagging plot holes. How does a junior high teacher become an official in the BR program? If the result of each year's battle is such a media frenzy, why don't the students know anything about it? And while most of the young actors were actually teenagers, few of them look nearly young enough to be junior high kids. Not even Kuriyama Chiaki, who was-- as incredible as it may seem now-- only about 15 or 16 years old when she made this movie:

But flaws aside, it's the little moments that make Battle Royale such a pleasure. Maeda's awkward outsider's charm-- at the movie's start, no one bothers to tell her the entire class is taking the day off-- and the way silent killer Kiriyama (Ando Masanobu) uses a megaphone to broadcast a dying girl's final squeals to her friends on the island:

And then we have the "Lighthouse Girls," a group of cheerful, popular students who set up a peaceful little society in an abandoned lighthouse. All the best of friends, their plan to somehow escape the game ends tragically when paranoia and secret jealousies erupt in a close-quarter gunfight:

But don't worry. Shibasaki, Maeda and Kuriyama are all still alive, doing well. They're always popping up in movies, TV dramas, on magazine covers or simply wearing gorgeous blouses in the fashion spreads within. But I'll always remember their desperate 48-hour stint on some nameless island off the coast of Japan where they dared ask-- and answer-- the question, "Could you kill your best friend?"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spookey Month: Former Prime Minster Koizumi Junichiro's Silver Mane to Inspire Ultraman to Greater Heights of Heroism

It's not very frightening news-- unless you're completely phobic about controversial and charismatic retired prime ministers-- but Koizumi Junichiro will provide the voice for Ultraman King, mentor of the Ultras, in the upcoming release Dai-Kaiju Battle: Ultra Ginga Densetsu, The Movie (Great Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legend, The Movie).

This is, if its title is to be believed, a movie of some sort. I'm guessing it features monster battles. Perhaps even great ones.

In other entertainment news, Mr. Koizumi's incredible swept-back hair has been signed to a multi-album deal by SonyMusic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spookey Month: Anatomical Monstrosities of Japan!

Ever wonder what Gamera and Godzilla look like underneath their skin? Wonder no more!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spookey Month: Kappa, Kitsune and Tanuki

Kappa are some sort of spirits or creatures that live in various bodies of water here in Japan. They're generally small, have physical features such as turtle shells and web hands and feet, are sometimes helpful... and are always polite.

This can come in handy. For a kappa also has a bowl-shaped depression on top of its head. It's filled with water and is the source of the kappa's power on land. If you meet a malicious kappa, one way to defeat it is to bow deeply. The etiquette-happy kappa will feel compelled to return the bow, spilling its head-water and becoming quite helpless.

Kappa are a mixed lot. They're credited with teaching the Japanese the medicinal art of setting broken bones, but also frequently steal children to eat them. Interesting trade off, huh? Kappa are also known for their delicious kaiten-zushi, or conveyor belt sushi. In downtown Hamamatsu, there is a homeless man sometimes found sitting on a bucket in front of the 7-11 on Yuraku-gai; he has a large domed head fringed with hair and bears the nickname "Kappa."

Kitsune are magical foxes. Like foxes in Western folklore, kitsune are tricksters. Highly intelligent, they sometimes assume human form, usually that of a bewitchingly beautiful young woman. In this guise, they sometimes marry mortal men. Kitsune have been known to possess people; again, usually young women.

Rain while the sun shines is known in Japan as kitsune-no yome-iri, or the "fox's wedding." Master filmmaker Kurosawa Akira includes a striking fox wedding in his film Yume (Dreams):

This proves unfortunate:

Tanuki, or "raccoon dog," is another magical Japanese animal spirit. Like the kitsune, tanuki are shapeshifters. They are frequently mischievous, but at least one was downright malicious-- this wicked tanuki clubbed an old woman to death and made her into soup which he then served to the woman's husband.

But most tanuki are relatively harmless, preferring a life of alcoholism and gluttony. Tanuki are also known for their oversized scrotums, referred to as kintama. Sometimes these scrotums are larger than the tanuki itself.

I first learned of tanuki from Tom Robbins' delightful novel Villa Incognito, part of which is set around the Lake Biwa region of Japan. This novel features a young woman who may or may not be descended from a tanuki. Japanese noise band Melt-Banana has a song called "Chicken Headed Racoon Dog;" it wasn't until after I read the Robbins novel I realized the song was about a tanuki... sort of. Tanuki statues are a fairly common sight around Japan. They and their magical scrotums typically stand in front of restaurants or shops to invite commerce and prosperity. Sing it now:

Tan-Tan-Tanuki no kintama wa
Kaze mo nai no ni
Bura bura bura

(Tan-tan-tanuki's balls
there isn't any wind
but still they swing swing swing)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Spookey Month: Have a Cosplay Halloween!

Sure, you can drag out last year's Sarah Palin costume. Or be zombie Michael Jackson... just like those other 3000 people you'll see Halloween night wearing that costume. The Scooby Gang? Yawn. It's been done. The Simpsons? How 1991. Why not do something different this year?

Why not cosplay for Halloween? J-List has a ton of ready-made cosplay outfits and accessories from manga and anime like Hell Girl (perfect for this holiday), Inuyasha, Evangelion, Naruto and Bleach. I'm not trying to get you to buy from them-- just to check them out for some cool ideas. There are lots of cosplay suppliers online to choose from. What I mostly want you to do is just look at how cute and cool the models on J-List look.

Doesn't that inspire you? No?

Okay then. How about this?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Spookey Month: More Spookey For You. And You.

Spookey rocks the Devo glasses in Berlin.

Yesterday was the 3rd Annual Yaramaika Music Festival here in Hamamatsu. Bands played in various locations around town-- the station, Zaza City, in front of the former Joshin store and others. I watched a little rock combo do a credible cover of the Bill Haley and the Comets 50s chestnut "Rock Around the Clock" followed by Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." Full-on katakana pronunciation made them a lot more interesting than any versions by someone like me would have been.

Some bands on the schedule: Boogie Woogie TINA, BLUE STONE, Vio Ray, GlayBerklee, Elephant Flow, MOJO KINGS, CLAYCLAW-AKIRA, Place In The Sun, FromSnowFlow, Heart Warm Company, THE BILLY ON DOLLARS, @mikan', Shiny Gospel Singers, ICE CREAM CAKE and-- my favorite-- Masturbation Love Session.

But no Spookey.

Saturday saw performances by various junior high and high school brass bands down at the station. I watched a large band consisting of about 40 sailor-uniformed girls and one uniformed boy (smartest kid in his school, evidently) doing a lively take on the Bill Conti classic "Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)," complete with towel-waving choreography. Pretty neat!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spookey Month: More TsuShiMaMiRe

It's TsuShiMaMiRe again. I'm loving this band, especially when the singer/guitarist botches the lyrics and cracks up at her own mistake. Someone down in the comments on YouTube claims she says, "Baka da ne" under her breath. Under the giggles.

There are so many great bands in Japan.

And thanks to the person who shot this video and posted it. Or people.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spookey Month: TsuShiMaMiRe

Wow! Here's another all-girl rock band from Japan. I was looking for more Spookey on YouTube and came across this. TsuShiMaMiRe. My first experience hearing them and they rock. Oh how they rock.

"Ebihara Shinji" the song is named after Ebihara Shinji the man. During their earliest days, like a lot of Japanese bands, TsuShiMaMiRe played street lives. These are performances... well... on the street. You can sometimes see bands doing this around Shinjuku Station and in other places in Tokyo. Or even here in Hamamatsu from time to time.

On this particular day, their first ever street live, TsuShiMaMiRe faced a thunderstorm, which meant their audience consisted of but one homeless man. And that man was Ebihara Shinji.

Part of my mission here during this Spookey Month celebration is not only to explore the mysterious and supernatural aspects of living in Japan, but also the musical. To uncover sounds that are new to my ear via my fannishness for Spookey. Here's one instance where it's already paid off!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spookey Month: A Wild and Windy Night!

The first typhoon to make landfall in Japan in two years came ashore in Aichi prefecture, just west of Shizuoka, at 5am this morning. One man was killed while delivering newspapers, and 24 others suffered various injuries. JR officials halted some shinkansen lines and airports in affected areas cancelled flights.

We had lashings of rain and strong winds preceding the storm here in Hamamatsu last night, so much so my A/C unit made popping noises as the outside vent cap flapped up and down in the gusts. It was definitely the kind of night you'd expect oni or yokai to be abroad, wandering about and spreading terror and bad luck. This morning, we have broken cloud cover and just a bit of blue peeking through.

Spookey Month: More Spookey!

The wonders of YouTube. Once again, this is Spookey. Spookey is an all-girl punk trio from Hamamatsu, Japan. They're not scary, just cool.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Spookey Month: Japanese Ghost Videos and Photos

Have you ever had a photo developed and discovered something surprising in the background? The undead or a spirit from the other side, for example?

These kinds of stories show up on Japanese TV every once in a while. Last year around New Year's, while I was staying in a Tokyo hotel, I watched a fun documentary about unexplained phenomena around the world and in Japan; UFOs and the like. The best part was the bit on ghosts appearing in the backgrounds of amateur videos and snapshots. The host was the multi-talented and omnipresent Kitano Takeshi. His celebrity guests really got into the ghost segment, squealing, oohing and ahhing, and laughing at some of the more obvious fakes. During a video of a hip hop dancer practicing his moves outside around sunset the camera revealed what appeared to be a severed head lying behind one of the concrete planters behind him.

Kitano snickered and said, "That's not a ghost. That's a homeless guy sleeping back there!"

Some of the video clips in the YouTube offering I'm linking here today are from Japanese TV dramas-- hey, if you accidentally capture a crew member in the background of one of your shots, it's a sign of incompetence, not supernatural intervention.

A popular "ghost" image is the unexpected hand. You see them eerily protruding from figures in the photographs. I saw one where a hand pokes out from between the sweaty thighs of a soccer player. There are probably plenty of people who would like to get their hands into exactly that position. But during a match? Another shows a hand on top of the head of a Chinese national team basketball player during a game. Most of these I discount as either optical illusions or outright fakes.

Lock the door as twilight falls. Dim the lights. And check out the creepy video and decide for yourself which are which. But beware... for those of you with a sensitive nature, perhaps more attuned to the sinister forces lurking just beyond the ordinary in our universe, some of these photos may prove... quite unsettling.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Spookey Month: Rokurokubi, the Ultimate Rubber-Necker

Rokurokubi are a type of oni (demon) with the appearance of ordinary women. They may even marry and live completely blameless lives during the day. At night, however, they reveal their true nature-- their heads rise as their necks stretch to impossible lengths. These snake-like necks allow the heads to swirl about and appear around corners when least expected.

Which is what the rokurokubi enjoy most of all. Being oni, they love to scare ordinary mortals. They also like to spy, which is only natural when your neck allows your head to roam independently of its body. You can probably find all kinds of weird hiding places for eavesdropping or windows to peer into and find out everything there is to know about your friends and neighbors.

I'm not sure how dangerous rokurokubi are, or if they have any supernatural powers beyond stretching their necks. In the film clip, the rokurokubi doesn't actually do much to either of the men. She just swirls around on her neck stalk, cackling, and they keel over from fright. I thought at one point she was going to go anaconda on that one jerk-ass and squeeze him to death, but no.

A missed opportunity.

Sure, rokurokubi enjoy shocking people. But I've known non-rokurokubi who delighted in doing the same and with much less justification. They certainly seem less frightening than Kuchisake-onna, who wants to kill you. Perhaps rokurokubi depend primarily on surprise or their victim's weak stomach. If you don't have much a problem with a rokurokubi's bizarre appearance, you can probably get away easily.

Or make a new friend. Or hire her to work for your company; she may come in handy in matters of corporate espionage.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Spookey Month: Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman

I love urban legends, and I especially love them when they deal with ghosts.

A while back I did an entry about Toire no Hanako-san. You know, the tale of the ghost Hanako, who haunts a particular bathroom stall in a school somewhere here in Japan. With Halloween coming up this month, I want to write a few entries about supernatural Japan and with Hanako-san already out of the way, it's time to turn to Kuchisake-onna, the woman with the big smile.

About a week ago, during a discussion of Halloween and ghost stories, a student laughingly reminded me of Kuchisake-onna. While it's fun to read about Japanese ghost lore, it's even more fun to have someone here actually tell you a story. Somehow that makes it seem more authentic, more real. And, like all good Japanese ghost stories, there's a movie version:

Kuchisake-onna is a strange apparition-- according to lore, on some foggy night she may approach you wearing a surgical mask. That in itself isn't so strange. People wearing surgical masks are a common sight here, especially these days when everyone's talking about the "new influenza."

But you can tell you're dealing with Kuchisake-onna when, instead of merely passing by and going about her business, she stops you and asks you, "Am I beautiful?" The correct answer, of course, is, "Yes!" To make absolutely certain, Kuchisake-onna will then remove her mask...

Revealing a grinning mouth that stretches from ear to ear, full of wickedly sharp teeth.

"Am I beautiful, even like this?" she'll ask. And here's where it gets tricky.

Obviously, you don't want to say, "No." This is Kuchisake-onna and she will rip you to shreds instantly. You might think to answer, "Yes" again. But this only buys you a short reprieve. Because the Japanese word for pretty is kirei, which sounds a bit like kire, meaning "to cut," Kuchisake-onna will follow you home and slice you into little pieces right in front of your own house. You also shouldn't try to run away without answering, because Kuchisake-onna is a sprinter who makes Usain Bolt look he's like running underwater. She can cover 100 meters in 3 seconds!

What you want to do is say, "Ma-ma," which is Japanese for "so-so." Or tell her she's average. This pleases her enough for her to let you go. Another strategy is to ask her if she thinks you're beautiful as well. That really confuses her and gives you time to flee to safety, and perhaps you can exchange keitai information and go shopping together one day and maybe have crepes or om-rice in some cute little restaurant. You might even toss her some fruit. Carry some blueberries or a pineapple whenever you take a walk alone at night as a safety precaution. If you meet her in Shizuoka prefecture, try strawberries-- they're especially popular here.

While this story may date back to the Edo period-- Kuchisake-onna began as an ordinary woman, punished horrifically by her samurai husband for infidelity-- the modern take became popular around 1979, in a version where Kuchisake-onna preyed especially on children. In other versions, an inept plastic surgeon caused her disfigurement, or a motorcycle gang, or an auto accident. She may not kill you, but may instead simply cut you in the same way she is. And she might possibly attack you if you smell of pomade.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Spookey Month: Is This Halloween's Big Breakthrough Year in Japan?

There's something in the air. Fall mysteries, cool breezes blowing dry leaves (wet today), thinning sunlight and lengthening shadows. Perhaps the land is haunted now. If we had to judge by Freshness Burger in Act City, we might come to a definite conclusion. They put up their Halloween decorations in early September; I'm guessing the Freshness Burger in the station did, too. Of course Toys-R-Us has had Halloween costumes and decorations for sale since then as well. New supermarket Pare Marche has some small "Happy Halloween" banners hung in various locations, including one in the meat section.

I'm not sure how Halloween-y raw cuts of meat are, unless you're planning some kind of cannibal display. Or, better yet, a Halloween cook-out with a lot of friends in costume.

I was a little disappointed not to see Halloween cakes in the refrigerated foods section at Circle-K tonight. Little sweet cream cakes with orange pumpkin shapes were nowhere to be seen. They did, however, have Nightmare Before Christmas Jack and Sally for sale up front. At least Meiji, maker of delicious foods, is getting into the spirit with some helpful Halloween treat recipes and a fall ad campaign featuring Hirosue Ryoko.

As Christmas becomes increasingly popular here, and so does Japan's unique take on Valentine's Day, perhaps Halloween is the next big thing. Why not? Halloween is pure fun-- a few safe scares, a chance to dress in a crazy costume, sweet chocolate candy and black cats, ghosts, vampires, witches and whatever creatures of the night strike your fancy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Spookey Month: The Literary Ghost Story

It's October, that haunted month. Here in Japan, we've greeted it this year with a splash of rain. This will soon give way to dry sunny days and cooler temperatures. Today's dreary weather is just perfect for kicking off Spookey Month with a ghost story...

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers and has been since I read Kitchen a few years ago. Her spare prose may sometimes seem overly subtle but that only gives it more emotional resonance. The meaning is not only in the text, it's also in what's left unsaid. Hardboiled Hard Luck is my favorite Banana Yoshimoto book, two novellas joined by their similar titles. Hardboiled tells the story of a woman who decides to take a hike in the mountains on her way to a small countryside hotel. At first, the woman is caught up in her observations, rendered by Yoshimoto in delicately understated prose...

And then the story takes an unexpected Lovecraftian turn, complete with an adverb that the old horror master would no doubt find very familiar. The narrator finds herself in a "slightly more remote part of the mountain, beyond the reach of the streetlights" and reports:

I was overcome by an extremely unpleasant sensation. I had the illusion that space had bent itself gelatinously out of shape, so that no matter how long I walked, I would never make any progress.

At this point, Yoshimoto chooses to have the narrator reveal a past, failed relationship with another woman, one who could "see things other people couldn't." She wonders if somehow this supernatural bent has colored her perceptions and describes how their friendship became more intimate and their ultimate break-up. Almost immediately at the conclusion of this expository a passage, she encounters a small mountain shrine, but one lacking Jizo statue, or "any one of the other figures one might expect to find in this place." Despite the flowers and chains of origami cranes, the woman thinks:

Something incredibly evil is resting here -- something that used to live in the vicinity. I'm sure of it.

She feels something heavy and strange in the air, finds a strange grouping of black stones nearby, arranged in a circle and walks away to escape. She thinks of other places she's been where she's felt similar dark or foreboding emotions drifting in the air. She decides:

There are, without doubt, places in this world where something has settled, and it's best for us little humans not to get involved.

Yes, I'm sure H.P. Lovecraft or even Stephen King could tell us a thing or two about such places. I just finished reading King's 'Salem's Lot, where the Marsten House symbolizes just such a place-- a citadel of pure evil brooding over the more banal kind of the small American town below. Yoshimoto's tiny mountain shrine seems connected in space and time with all of these sinister places, but in a more indefinite way. What does it mean?

The woman finally makes it to her hotel and that's where the fun really begins. There's a fire in the local udon shop where she has an unsatisfying dinner. She finds herself feeling empathy with ghosts and after a hot bath, finds herself in their company.

It starts with a series of dreams about that past lover, now named Chizuru. Chizuru prays in a shrine, Chizuru seems more beautiful than in life, but less substantial. After the dreams, the narrator wakes to a knock at her door and meets a naked woman who claims to have been shut out of her room. This leads to an extended flashback where the narrator describes her childhood, and offers more details of her relationship with Chizuru, including the strange detail that Chizuru "always went to bed wearing an array of objects that glowed or lit up," in order to ward of ghosts. During lovemaking, where Chizuru always topped, these objects frequently poked the narrator and hurt her.

After their break-up, she has a final phone conversation with Chizuru and later learns Chizuru died in a fire. You know-- the day before they talked on the phone.

Back in the hotel, the narrator talks with the strange woman, then decides to call the staff and help her. She learns her visitor is actually the ghost of a woman who came to the hotel with her lover to commit suicide together. It's a long, fitful night full of more dreams of Chizuru, hot tea and sympathy from the hotel staff woman. In the morning, the narrator regains some sense of normalcy and closure with Chizuru.

This is a story of deeper emotions hidden just under the surface of Banana Yoshimoto's nuanced prose. I enjoyed especially the narrator's matter-of-fact approach to these strange events, and the way they're intertwined with her unresolved feelings about leaving Chizuru and her guilt at what happened afterwards, paralleled by her unfinished udon and the fire at the restaurant. It's interesting, too, how Yoshimoto involves the hotel staff woman. The narrator hardly has to convince her. The unreal is evidently always close at hand in this rural place with its sinister shrine nearby. Ghosts are real. The ghosts in our lives definitely are.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October is Spookey Month!

October, the month of Halloween. It's the creepiest, kookiest, scariest month of the year. You might even say it's the spookiest. And the coolest, grooviest band in Hamamatsu is Spookey, the all-girl punk/pop trio that rocks my musical socks lately.

That's why in conjunction with myself over at my comic book blog, When Comic Books Ruled the Earth, I've decided to declare October "Spookey Month."

Spookey shows you how to rock Halloween:

I'll try to keep all my posts here related either to music or to the paranormal aspects of living in Japan. Let's celebrate Spookey and Halloween together, shall we?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"We Hope This Gets You Lai-"

These guys are awesome. Between this and the Spookey video, my Wednesday is shaping up to be most pleasant. They need their own TV show, including the dog as their sidekick. Now use their advice and go forth and multiply.

Spookey: A Blast of Awesomeness From Right Here in Hamamatsu!

Spookey. An all-girl punk/pop trio with a Go-Go's vibe. Kind of lo-fi, cheeky and fun. Hamamatsu is a very musical city with a lot of bands, but Spookey has to be the coolest of the lot. They get extra points for having a Rickenbacker guitar in the line-up. I love Rickenbacker guitars!

I have yet to see them live, but I ordered their latest CD release, Shakin Pop'n Roll from It ships "within 1 to 2 months" according to Amazon, so I should have it just in time to put it into a heavy Christmas rotation here in the musical capital of my world. Spookey seems to hit the road lot (especially in Europe), but according to their MySpace blog, their planned October-November tour didn't come off. Well, they'll no doubt be rockin' across the world soon enough.

Once again, this is why I came to Japan.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Shibuya's Krispy Kreme Restaurant

Imagine my surprise to find Krispy Kreme has established yet another outpost in its War of Sweetness. Which could be either a war against sweetness or a war supporting sweetness, I guess. Rest assured, I mean the latter.

This Krispy Kreme restaurant is just a short walk of maybe 4 minutes from Shibuya Station's Hachiko exit. Just keep Shibuya's cylindrical tower of girly-youth fashion, 109, on your right as you walk up a gentle hill. Eventually you'll smell doughnuts.

It's actually underneath a large building. Unlike the Krispy Kreme I usually visit, which is in Shinjuku, just south of the station, this restaurant has a dining area with lots of tables. On this particular Saturday night at the end of a steamy August, young couples occupied most of those tables. I walked right in-- the hot doughnut light was out, unfortunately-- ordered my three doughnuts and sat at a long bar at the window.

This place looks better with people in front, don't you think?

I'm not sure what it's called in Japanese, but in English most people here refer to it as simply "Krispy Doughnuts." I have no idea why the "Kreme" part gets dropped. Maybe there's some assonance with Mister Donut, which is probably Japan's favorite between these two giants of deliciousness. Krispy Doughnuts' fluffy offerings tend to run a bit sweeter than most Japanese enjoy their snack treats. But that hasn't stopped Krispy Kreme's rapid proliferation in Tokyo, not one little bit!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bear Attacks Are Rare in Japan

But I'm not saying they never happen.

Happy Belated Birthday, Ami!

Actually, her birthday was a few days ago, September 18th. Yes, I'm talking about Onuki Ami, half of the Japanese pop-rock duo Puffy, better known as Puffy AmiYumi in the United States. Seems by the time their music hit America, someone had already taken the name Puffy. Despite my having missed it, I'm sure Ami had a very joyous birthday surrounded by friends and family.

What you may not know about Puffy AmiYumi is Ami personally keeps the fans up-to-date on their various musical projects and her own happenings and feelings in a blog hosted on the band's MySpace page. It's in English, as well. When she's not directly updating everyone on Puffy's latest gigs or TV spots, she's expressing her thankfulness for having loyal, supportive fans and promising to do her best to keep them entertained and happy in the future. Ami also posts interesting little tidbits and anecdotes such as the story behind Yumi's recent cracked rib and how excited she was to buy the Beatles' new re-mastered box set (I'm not sure if she bought the mono edition or the stereo). And also all about her dream job-- working in a book store where she can stock to her heart's content.

I guess it's not surprising Ami would take the time to do this now that we're in the Twitter Age, but few celebrity blogs or Tweets pack as much charm and positive energy as one of Ami's blog entries. They're just so... nice. Niceness is a very underrated quality. The follow-up comments from fans are usually fun, too. When I've had a bad day, an Ami post really perks me up.

From Melt-Banana to Puffy AmiYumi-- my musical tastes really run the board, don't they?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Melt-Banana's Fall 2009 US Tour Itinerary

10/29 Visalia, CA at Cellar Door

10/30 San Francisco, CA at Slims

11/01 San Diego, CA at Casbah

11/03 Tucson, AZ at Plush

11/04 Phoenix, AZ at Hollywood Alley

11/06 Denton, TX at Haileys

11/07 Austin, TX at FFF Fest

11/08 San Antonio, TX at White Rabbit

11/09 Houston, TX at Walters

11/10 New Orleans, LA at Republic

11/11 Pensacola, FL at Sluggos

11/12 Birmigham, AL at Bottle Tree

11/13 Athens, GA at 40 Watt

11/14 Gainesville, FL at Common Grounds

11/15 Tampa, FL at Crowbar

11/16 Orlando, FL at Back Booth

11/18 Columbia, SC at New Brookland Tavern

11/19 Chapel Hill, NC at Local 506

11/20 Washington, DC at R and R

11/21 Baltimore, MD at Ottobar

11/22 Philadelphia, PA at First Unitarian Church

11/23 New York, NY at Bowery Ballroom

11/24 Boston, MA at Middle East

11/25 New Haven, CT at The Space

11/27 Buffalo, NY at Mohawk

11/28 Detroit, MI at CroFoot

11/29 Cleveland, OH at Grog Shop

11/30 Chicago, IL at Bottom Lounge

12/01 Minneapolis, MN at Entry

12/02 Madison, WI at High Noon

12/03 Iowa City, IA at Picadur

12/04 Sioux Falls, SD at Nutty's

12/05 Omaha, NE at Waiting Room

12/07 Denver, CO at Bluebird

12/08 Salt Lake City, UT at Kilby Court

12/10 Missoula, MT at Badlanders

12/11 Seattle, WA at Chop Suey

12/12 Portland, OR at Berbati's

12/14 TBA

12/15 Pomona, CA at Glasshouse

12/16 Los Angeles, CA at Troubadour

Melt-Banana is touring the United States this November and December, playing sets with Melt-Banana Lite. They're really one of the most amazing bands you can ever experience live. And look at all those dates. That's one mammoth tour, and more than likely, they're coming to a spot somewhere within easy driving distance of where you are... right... now. That is, if you're living in America. If you don't go, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Twilight Connection and Noriko's Hamamatsu Rumor...

Yesterday, events reinforced for me the inescapability of Twilight mania. I'd been able to ignore the warning signs-- students shyly asking me from time-to-time about vampires and American high schools and movies with vampires in American high schools-- but yesterday brought another revelation. Soon I must deal with this glittery media-born monster, and hopefully on my own terms. Because one of my Bentenjima students has ordered the Twilight movie on DVD from Amazon. Not only is her daughter suddenly way into Twilight but... wait for it...

She actually knows the people who live in Bella's house in Forks, Washington.

Actually, I'm not sure which house it is. There seems to be more than one, but I don't know enough about Twilight the book series or Twilight the movie to know exactly which house my student was talking about. But whichever house or location it is, this student did one or more homestays in that general vicinity years ago and got to know quite a few people in Washington state and the Vancouver area of British Columbia. Once her daughter got bitten by the Twilight bug... or vampire... she did a little research and viola! She's actually been to these locations. Perhaps she even stayed at Bella's house. I'll have to ask her again in a couple of weeks when I see her again just to confirm it.

It's like my own interest in visiting places mentioned in Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto novels, or eating a Jackson Burger just like Hachi does in the Nana manga, or in finding the exact spot Noriko and Shuya ran away to in Shibuya at the end of Battle Royale. It's exciting to have a direct, personal connection to some fiction universe you enjoy, to have an opportunity to slip onto the screen or between the pages or into a comic book panel and walk around, and so I feel compelled by personal experience to support fannish inclinations.

To a point.

The student told me her daughter, who has long been interested in retracing her mother's homestay footsteps in America, wants to visit the high school in Forks. I told her to tell the girl there are no young, gorgeous vampires in American high schools. She laughed and nodded; they're used to my asinine sense of humor in Bentenjima. I then added, "I can also promise her there are no old, ugly vampires in American high schools, either." And my student laughed harder.

Also, this week I learned there's possibly a Hamamatsu connection to the Sakai Noriko drug scandal. Apparently-- and keep in mind this is merely rumor and so probably isn't true in the least-- Noriko occasionally did some of her "experimentation" at a bar here in Hamamatsu. Most of the people who told me this did so sort of comically, as if they weren't completely convinced of it. And it reminds me about a year or so ago when people told me repeatedly a famous singer-actor was living in an apartment in Bentenjima for the summer, yet no one had actually seen him for themselves. So to say I'm dubious about this new rumor is an understatement. True or not, now Hamamatsu is famous not only for unagi, but also for the ease with which one might buy drugs here.

Nice to be known, huh?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eye on the Bulldozer

Here are photographs of Hanatarash's infamous "bulldozer" performance. I'd heard the legends, but I had no idea if they were true or not. Looks like they are! But correct me if I'm wrong-- isn't this actually a backhoe?

And in video form, with soundtrack:

And you wonder why I'm in Japan!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Even More Melt-Banana: August 29, 2009 at Shibuya O-Nest

Nothing much to say about these. Melt-Banana's performance was energetic as usual, there weren't that many people there, not a lot of moshing or stage-diving. Most of the audience were just your ordinary music-loving youngsters, but there were a few more extreme types in the crowd. They did some swirling dance moves in ront of the stage and added a little excitement:

But mostly the evening was all about Melt-Banana:

They're touring the United States in November and December, so if they come within your travel-range, you need to go see them. A Melt-Banana Christmas? Maybe you'll get to see and hear them do their famous "White Christmas" cover. Why not?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mary Blair Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, July 18th-October 4th

I really dig Mary Blair's art and it's hard to overestimate her influence on graphic arts. I seriously doubt we would have had The Powerpuff Girls without Mary Blair. I'm sure we could make a long list of animation designers, graphic artists and illustrators who have at least tried to cop her deceptively simple, somewhat geometric style and superior color sense. But I was late discovering her work, much to my embarrassment.

How'd I finally come around? Well, a couple of years ago, the art museum here at the Hamamatsu Castle Park held a Disney show with lots of recently rediscovered hand-painted backgrounds from actual Disney movies, cells, pre-production artwork and sketches dating back to "Steamboat Willie." The standout artist of it all was Mary Blair; seeing her paintings up close just about popped my eyeballs out of their sockets. You know, in a good way. I even bought an expensive hardcover art book so I could scrutinize the woman's colorful, fun work. When I was in Tokyo a week or so ago, I noticed these big train station advertisements for a Mary Blair show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo:

No great feat that. They're pretty big and fun to look at. A gorgeous photo of the artist-- herself quite striking in an South American-style peasant blouse-- and a bright-colored Alice falling past a mirror. Pure visual joy. I hope to see this show in person before it closes. It'll be a near thing. My entertainment expenses are tapped out thanks to Melt-Banana. Not that I'm complaining; that show was worth every yen and the toe-blisters, too.

But Mary Blair? Her artwork in a show with planning support by the fabulous Studio Ghibli, home of Miyazaki Hayao, maker of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro among other animated enchantments? Actually, I may already have seen at least some of these paintings; she was well-represented at that Disney show. This might be something I'll regret not at least trying to see, though. A day trip? Why not!

Oh, and while you're here-- go see Ponyo!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sweet Streets: Art Inspired by Japanese Street Fashion - MELT-BANANA's MySpace Blog |

I'm not really intending this to be a Melt-Banana fan blog, but it sure looks that way, doesn't it? Well, I am a fan and they have so much going on lately, so here's this:

Sweet Streets: Art Inspired by Japanese Street Fashion - MELT-BANANA's MySpace Blog

Shared via AddThis

Melt-Banana has a song on a compilation CD that comes with Hi-Fructose volume 12 and apparently has something to do with the current show Sweet Streets: Art Inspired by Japanese Street Fashion at Gallery Nucleus. I don't pretend to know what's going on (okay, sometimes I do), I'm just excited by this seeming collision between several things I love. Moments like these place me in danger of going all solipsistic on you.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More Melt-Banana News and... Covers...

According to their MySpace blog, Melt-Banana's US tour kicks off in Visalia, California on October 29th. That's just in time for Halloween. They haven't updated the blog or their website with a full list of tour dates, but if you're reading this in the States, they'll probably be playing someplace nearby this fall, including some dates as Melt-Banana Lite. You really owe it to yourself to see Melt-Banana live.

Speaking of live, they've got a few Tokyo shows going on in September before the international touring starts all over again (they just never let up!). I looked in to getting a ticket for their September 22nd show at Shinjuku Loft but couldn't figure it out. They're playing as Melt-Banana Lite on September 27th at Shin-Okubo's Earthdom live house; I saw the full unit there in September 2007 and it was an incredible show with a sold out house and full-on pit action. I'd truly love to be at that show to see what the heck Melt-Banana Lite consists of (the band plays coy about it in their e-mailings), but you have to visit Earthdom in person to pick up your tickets and that's a far piece for me to go and expensive!

Also it's on a work night for me. Better luck next time, I suppose.

They also promise a Melt-Banana Lite live album for later this year, so my curiosity will be answered eventually. Look for their split singles-- one 7" with Young Widows from the Temporary Residence label and the other a 7"/3" CD from Init Records which will be available on their US tour. I picked up the 7" with Young Widows at Shibuya O-Nest, plus a split CD single with Fat Day. The CD's plastic sleeve features incredibly cute cartoon astronauts announcing, "We are Devo," which is appropriate because this is the CD where Melt-Banana covers Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge."

Melt-Banana frequently covers unexpected tunes in their sets. Since their own sound is so idiosyncratic, doing covers gives them a chance to display their musicianship in more accessible ways while showcasing influences or just having fun. Past favorites have included Blondie's "Heart of Glass," The Who's "My Generation" (I'd love to hear Rika's lead bass on that one) and even Der Bingle's "White Christmas." "Uncontrollable Urge" is unique among Melt-Banana cover versions in that it's a relatively straight ahead rendition of the song. This is in contrast to their noise deconstruction of Queen's "We Will Rock You" and their anarchic take on the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA."

I'm especially fond of the Beach Boys number because of Yako's playful vocal delivery; she approaches the song mischievously, first singing the overly familiar melody in a sloppy, out-of-tune voice, then the chorus in a childlike whisper before launching into a more Yako-esque high speed delivery. At one point she sings the chorus in a drawn-out, contemptuous way. Along with his sonic squeals and riffing, Agata dares to play a real guitar solo and just rocks it. My only disappointment is how Rika's bass seems buried in the mix except for one tantalizingly brief break in the action. That qualm aside, this is how you handle nostalgic covers.

"We Will Rock You" uses an obvious drum machine to make an ironic comment on the mechanical quasi-fascistic nature of the original's beat and substitutes Agata's blistering noise attack for the traditional and tasty Brian May guitar solo.

"Uncontrollable Urge" is recognizable from the start as Yako shouts, "YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAH!" The Melt-Banana treatment consists mainly of Agata's appending his noise-guitar flourishes to the song's sped-up Led Zeppelin riff (which he also nails). Melt-Banana matches Devo's detached sci-fi roboticism with high energy. You want to buy this little CD if you spot it on the merchandise table after the show.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sakura Hotel Hatagaya

When I went to see Melt-Banana the August 29th weekend, I stayed at the Sakura Hotel in Hatagaya. The Sakura group has hotels, hostels, apartments and guest houses all around Tokyo. I usually stay in Ikebukuro because of the area's easy access to pizza buffets, but that hotel was booked solid so I went back to Hatagaya where I'd stayed a couple times before. Actually, I'm pretty sure the Hatagaya Sakura was fully-booked by the time I arrived, too. I was lucky to get my reservation in!

Hotel Sakura Hatagaya is two stops from Shinjuku on the Keio New Line subway. Just Hatagaya, Hatsudai and you're there, in Shinjuku where you can catch the Yamanote Line to Harajuku, Shibuya or any other ward on its loop; or you can catch the Chuo Line to Akihabara and Ginza. The hotel itself is a quick 2-minute stroll from Hatagaya Station's south exit. It's in a quaint little neighborhood with not much action, just an AM/PM convenience store and a Mos Burger. But I was there on a personal musical mission and didn't have time to do any exploring.

Maybe you can find the hidden gems of sleepy little Hatagaya...

But don't let that put you off. The staff are all very friendly and speak excellent English. They seem to be pretty young and they foster a kind of community atmosphere by not only offering free tours and advertising for lots of fun, artsy activities in places like Harajuku but also maintaining a staff blog full of interesting Tokyo info and cultural notes. I didn't avail myself of any of that, but if you're of a mind to, you can probably make friends there very easily. Just knowing that makes me feel part of something positive, or right at home whenever I stay at a Sakura hotel.

I don't like hostels, so I can't tell you anything about that aspect of the Sakura experience. I imagine if you're a young, go-go backpacking type in search of a nice social experience in Tokyo and a cheap, clean place to crash, the Sakura hostels are tough to beat. I always stay in their business hotel rooms because at the end of a long day of walking around Tokyo and sightseeing, I really just want to be left alone and veg on the bed with a book. The business hotel singles are typically small (it is Japan, after all), but feature just enough amenities-- TV, room refrigerator, a desk, a comfortable bed and a private bathroom/shower, a clean and comfy pull-over sleep shirt. There are vending machines and washing machines available, too.

They even have a free breakfast. It's mostly just toast, coffee and juice but it's a nice way to start your day and mingle a little with the other guests and maybe make some new friends. A year or so ago I had a pleasant morning just hanging out, eating some toast with jam and eavesdropping on a very relaxing and heartwarming conversation as a young guy made an acquaintanceship with a middle-aged married couple and they traded business tips and sightseeing stories.

That's the kind of stuff I need when travelling. Nice people when I want them and a simple private room. I don't mind the cramped quarters, although the shower was a little claustrophobic; the curtain kept intruding on my personal space! There was a funky stain on the rug near the refrigerator, but I assume that's just where someone spilled some food and it wouldn't come out completely. Other than that, the room was more than adequate, especially considering the price.

While I still have fond memories of all my stays at Hotel Kent in Kabuki-cho, I've been making the Sakura Hotels my new Tokyo homes-away-from-home and I've been very pleased each time I've stayed at one. Don't expect luxury or floor space to do your at-home exercise routine. These aren't American Holiday Inns. Small rooms are par for the course in most Japanese business hotels. With the Sakura group, double rooms are within the price-range of a single in some of the more centrally-located hotels, so you can always go that route. I'm very tempted to try that myself and pretend I'm Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Sakura Hotel in Hatagaya is a pretty sweet little place to rest your weary bones when you hit that exciting megalopolis we like to call Tokyo. Because that's its name. Tokyo.