Sunday, August 30, 2009

Melt-Banana at Shibuya O-Nest: The Motion Picture

Melt-Banana at Shibuya O-Nest, August 29, 2009

I went to Tokyo over the weekend to see Melt-Banana, one of my favorite bands. I've seen them four times now-- once in America and three times in Japan. This is the second time I've seen them perform at Shibuya O-Nest, a small venue on the sixth floor. You go up the world's worst elevator, a cramped, creaking funhouse-style ride that whispers of imminent death to find yourself in a sleek bar. To get to the actual performance space you have to go down a spiral staircase. And then you're in a surprisingly small room, a lovely intimate place with wooden floors and matched black metal railings marking the the pit; no matter where you stand, you're close to the stage.

Melt-Banana headlined a four-act line-up.

Here's the weird thing-- I think some kind of European celebrity or actor or model attended the preliminaries but skipped out on the main act. On my way across the famous Shibuya scramble in a flood of people suddenly there appeared some photographers with some serious camera equipment and in the center of the action, a young woman with arms outstretched, standing above the crowd in a seeming act of levitation. It turned out she was standing on a short steel stepladder with a spotter behind her. Halfway through the second act, I realized she was right there beside me in O-Nest with a group of middle-aged men who seemed very out of place. She was a pretty, freckle-faced young woman with her dark hair pulled back in a simple ponytail and a huge toothy grin and she was rocking out to the solo performer on stage while a camera team videotaped her.

Was the vaguely Jim Morrison-looking avant-garde musician on stage somehow related to her? Boyfriend? Husband? Were the middle aged men making a documentary about someone we should all know and her exciting visit to the modern sound palace that is the O-East/West/Nest complex?

I'm going to have to look into this!

The crowd size proved a mixed blessing. It seemed pretty sparse compared to the other Melt-Banana shows I've attended. Those were sold out and there was no way to approach the stage without taking a serious ass-whipping from the writhing crowd. Even the show where they opened for Red Krayola in this same venue back in 2005 was packed, if sedate. On this night a few guys in dreadlocks swirled about in front of the stage and also this particular guy with a round, shaved head who appeared at one point to be wearing diapers. So perhaps it's true; unlike a lot of top J-Pop acts, our little Melt-Banana is more famous abroad than at home here in Japan.

Otherwise you'd expect the place to be a sweaty mob of moshing loonies. So while I felt more secure and was able to take some decent photographs (considering my lack of photo-taking talent, that is), I felt a bit let-down by the turn out.

If Melt-Banana felt any disappointment, they didn't show it. They launched into another of their patented fierce sonic attacks, shredding the night with their unique sounds.

It was an exhausting trip, paid for with leg soreness and a bleeding blister on one of my toes, but it was worth it. It's always worth it to bask in the noise-glory that is Melt-Banana.

My biggest frustration was in finding O-Nest. I didn't get as lost as I did in 2005, but I spent more time wandering the back alleys of Shibuya's Love Hotel Hill than I felt necessary. And I'd do it again. And again!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

According to Melt-Banana...

This is good. I'm not exactly sure what it is. Summer Wars. Some sort of animated movie? The artwork itself is excellent; the characters look a lot like people I actually know. Just a tidbit from Melt-Banana's MySpace blog.

Tomorrow night, I'll be seeing them live in concert at Shibuya's O-Nest, where I saw them open for Red Krayola a few years ago. The crowd for that show was a bit more subdued than the one at the Shin-Okubo show in 2007. Has it really been almost two years since last I saw them?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Astro Boy!

While I'm on the subject of how American comics are merely a relatively tiny part of the worldwide phenomenon that is the comic book, one of my favorite Tokyo hotels has a blog with an entry discussing Astro Boy.

It's almost impossible to understate the importance of Dr. Tezuka Osamu to comic book history. He's a guy comic fans should mention in the same breath as Will Eisner and Jack Kirby and we could probably make a case that Tezuka's influence and importance is categorically greater than either gentleman's. His work ranged over a wider series of genres than theirs-- everything from animal stories to fantasy to science fiction, from literary adaptations to children's stories, from bizarre medical dramas to porn. This genius creator even did a biography of Buddha. While Kirby will always be "The King," in Japan Dr. Tezuka is "The God of Comics."

Anyway, according to this blog entry (which you really should read because it's cool and has some fun photos and I'm staying at this hotel next Saturday night), apparently if you go to Takadanobaba Station, which is located in Takadanobaba ward (the birthplace of Astro Boy himself), you'll hear the melody of the Astro Boy animated series instead of the normal Yamanote Line departure bell. I did not know this, but I've heard it many times before and I'll definitely keep an ear open the next time I'm passing through Takadanobaba. Which will probably be some time next weekend.

Now as much as I love Stan Lee, the day New York subways start using the "Merry Marvel Marching Society Theme Song" as their departure music, then I'll dethrone Dr. Tezuka and put The Man up there in the pantheon of Comic Book Gods.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bankrupt Yubari Seeks Funds... Again

Unable to find work since taking a chair laden with nails to the back of the head, psychotic teenaged bodyguard Gogo Yubari has filed for bankruptcy in Tokyo and is seeking a government bailout...

Actually, the bankrupt city of Yubari, which gifted Kuriyama Chiaki's memorable Kill Bill character with her surname, has asked the Japanese government for help. Yubari is a former coal mining town that's tried just about everything to become a major tourist destination, from building a museum to its hardscrabble past to holding an international film festival. They even built an amusement park with government money at one point, but nothing worked. Now Yubari's population is about a tenth of what it was in the 1960s. It's a complex tale and at its center are someone's hopes and dreams of keeping their beloved hometown afloat in the rough waters of changing times.

I think they need to capitalize on Quentin Tarantino's use of their name somehow. I'm not exactly sure how that would be possible. Borrowing more money to build yet another white elephant museum-- no matter how cool or hip-- is probably out of the question.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

One Quake Fatality

This is sad. The Japan Times reports a 43-year-old woman died in the quake, apparently from falling books at her apartment. Nearly 5000 houses were damaged and more than 120 people injured. On the plus side for O-Bon travelers, the road repairs on the Tomei Expressway should be finished by now. Life continues here in a nation where the earth shakes every five minutes, there are 2000 earthquakes you can feel each year and 20% of the world's earthquakes occur.

In one of those strange coincidences life throws at you from time to time, the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up aired last night on Star Channel. This heartwarming flick features an earthquake as a plot point-- Katherine Heigl's character gets an inkling her relationship with baby-daddy/lovable stoner Seth Rogen isn't going to work out when, in the aftermath of a strong tremblor, she finds the baby books he promised to read stashed away and forgotten in a paper sack.

I'll take cinematic earthquakes over the real thing any day of the week. Hmm... I seem to be thinking about this a lot lately. I should've become a geologist.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

We Got Off Very Light Here in Hamamatsu

The Shizuoka earthquake yesterday morning injured 112 according to today's Japan Times. Here in Hamamatsu, there appears to have been little or no damage. Elsewhere in the prefecture, people went without power and water. An expressway shoulder collapsed, inconveniencing some motorists. And a Sapporo beer brewery in Yaizu suffered the loss of hundreds of bottles, leading several confirmed beer drinkers to buy extra during their daily booze purchases at the local combini as a hedge against possible price-hikes or shortages.

The Japan Times story states this is the first quake of magnitude 6 or more recorded in Shizuoka since 1944.

It's not the earth-rumbling itself that makes me nervous, it's what it might be a precursor to. The Japan Meteorological Agency says this earthquake won't lead to the widely-anticipated Tokai quake-- a major disaster that's a geological certainty at some time in the near future. But when the ground starts moving, within the immediacy of the event, you have no way of knowing if the trembling will increase or decrease. That's what's so nerve-wracking. Is it the big one, or is it just another minor shifting in the crust, signifying nothing much at all? Will you be eating breakfast at home and preparing for your routine in a few minutes, or drinking bottled water at a refugee camp that afternoon?

Or are these latest magnitude 6 earthquakes some kind of seismic foreplay leading to the main event this summer? I put some socks and clothes with money and my passport already in the pockets next to my bed last night. I'll probably do that for the next few days at least.

News Photos of This Morning's Earthquake in Shizuoka

Here's a link to some photos of stranded shinkansen passengers in Hamamatsu Station this morning and damage in Shizuoka city. You know what I'd like? Two or maybe three days without a natural disaster.

Monday, August 10, 2009

And Tsuchiya Anna Is Quite Beautiful With an Interesting Take on Life...

She seems to be a little crazy, but in a good way. But take that statement with a grain of salt, because I know absolutely nothing about her other than I've sometimes seen her striking, very dramatic countenance gazing out with intensity and charisma from various book or magazine covers. I really wanted to see her movie Sakuran simply because she looked so interesting in the promotional material.

But I didn't for reasons that remain a mystery even to myself. It looks like the anti-Sayuri. A film like this would be a career-maker in the US. But I suppose she already has a career, so instead it's just one more highlight. Not to take anything away from Nakashima Mika, who was certainly pefectly cast and did a fine job, but doesn't it seem Tsuchiya Anna was born to play Nana?

More Shizuoka Quake News

This morning's local earthquake caused the emergency shut-down of two nuclear reactors here in Shizuoka prefecture. It also prompted a concerned phone call from my boss' wife, which made me feel quite warm inside; I work for good people. According to the Wall Street Journal, this latest earthquake reached a magnitude of 6.6 and shook buildings as far away as Tokyo. Reuters reports Japanese authorities peg the quake as a 6.5. This time around things got scrambled and about 40 people suffered minor injuries, including a 5-year-old boy who had a TV fall on his foot.

Oh, and an electronics parts factory in nearby Kakegawa may have caught fire. But the true test of an earthquake's power is how it affects certain celebrities. Jessica Simpson felt today's rumble while in bed watching CNN (and understanding what exactly?), but there's no word on Beyonce's reaction.

This has been a very seismically active summer vacation for me. After Sunday night's quake and now this one, I'm thinking about moving to someplace on top of solid bedrock.

The Tremblors Continue...

Just a few minutes after 5am this morning, as I was coming out of some vivid dream (the details of which escape me), the apartment building began to shake. It felt almost as if some invisible caregiver were trying to shake me awake, but the intensity abruptly increased. The window frames rattled, an empty Volvic water bottle fell in my kitchen, the bathroom door opened a crack.

I hopped up, put on a t-shirt and some socks, grabbed my passport then stood in a doorway. The shaking subsided but still lasted much longer than I would have liked. Now I have my lights on and despite its being only 5:20 and very rainy outside (the sun is barely up on a dimly-lit, drizzly kind of morning), I'm ready to bail at a moment's notice. That's probably not what to do in an earthquake but I'd rather take my chances on my feet than risk being buried if an earthquake strong enough to drop this building strikes Hamamatsu.

Cars continue to run outside, their tires whirring on the wet pavement, people on their way to work as on any normal day. As for me, my stomach did some flip-flops and my knees did a minor variation of what the earth put us through this morning.

According to the Japan Meteorological Agency earthquake information site here, this morning's quake occurred at 5:07am and reached a magnitude of about 6.6 on the Japanese scale. The epicenter was just off the coast of Shizuoka, to our east. Apparently, what I felt was in the range of magnitude 4 or 5. I do not want to feel anything higher. Ever. The thing about earthquakes is, you never know until later if you felt the worst of it-- which in this case would be considered very mild to anyone except a person hailing from the seismically boring state of Georgia-- or if you were just feeling the outer edge of something much worse.

How's the rest of Japan? The last time I felt something like this, Niigata got hammered, so I'm always concerned. Experts have been predicting a large one in this area for some time. Are we building towards it this week, or have the recent seismic events lessened the pressure and put it off for a few more years?

And then the rains came...

The last few days have not been very kind to Japan. A taifun (or, if you prefer, typhoon) hit Hyogo prefecture. At least 12 people are dead and more are missing. One man and his car were swept into a river by flooding. This is hard on the heels of a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that shook Tokyo. Fortunately no one was killed in the quake and if there were any injuries they must have been quite minor.

In a totally bizarre story, popular actor/idol singer Sakai Noriko turned herself into police after spending a few days on the lam after her husband was arrested for drug possession. This has been all over the news for a week now. Last Monday, Sakai's husband Takaso Yuichi, a self-proclaimed professional surfer, informed on his wife after police busted him with some kind of stimulants stashed in his underwear. So Sakai bought some underwear of her own in Shinjuku then took off for Yamanashi prefecture. At one point, her whereabouts seemed to be near the infamous Aokigahara Sea of Trees, a popular suicide spot, there was some speculation she was going to end it all over the incident. Apparently, she came to her senses and now blames her husband for enticing her into a life of illicit drug use, despite her squeaky-clean public image-- she's even been involved in anti-drug campaigns.

Her recording label canceled the "greatest hits" collection CD they planned to release in September. Wow, in America, they would've moved the release date up to August in order to cash in and Penthouse magazine would have interns calling her talent agency around the clock. Poor Noriko... she's going to be raked over the coals to an amount that would seem excessive even to celebrity-media-saturated Americans.

Celebrities on drugs. That's the current controversy this August in Japan. The police have vowed to crack down on the entertainment industry. Not only has Sakai Noriko fallen, but actor Oshio Manabu recently found himself in handcuffs after a Roppongi hostess died of an Ecstasy overdose in his apartment. Adding to his woes, his wife dumped him in the immediate aftermath of his arrest. Still, I wouldn't trade any of these people for your Lindsay Lohans or Mischa Bartons. Just keep 'em, please.

Crazy times here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Strong Earthquake Tonight...

Just before 8PM tonight, I was settled down, watching From the Earth to the Moon on channel 901 when I felt a shimmy, a slight trembling. My bed tends to do this when strong winds rock the building, or when traffic is particularly heavy outside in the street, or when I shift my weight. This vibration continued for a seconds despite my keeping as still as I possibly could. I put my right foot on the floor to feel if the entire building might be moving...


So imagine my surprise at checking MSN and finding out an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 had shaken Tokyo.

That's the thing about earthquakes-- when you feel them ever so slightly in your home, you can never be sure if someone elsewhere isn't getting the ride of their lives. The first time I felt an earthquake here in Japan, it spelled death for people in Niigata. And I'm on summer vacation this week. One of my favorite vacation activities is checking into a business hotel in Ikebukuro and exploring all over Tokyo. For some reason (laziness), I didn't do that this year but I probably would've been there tonight otherwise.

Coincidentally, the From the Earth to the Moon episode I watched was the final one, dealing with Apollo 17. That's the flight geologist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt flew on to study the moon's geology and to bring back samples of its bedrock and proof of possible lunar volcanic activity.

While there's no word on damage or injuries in Tokyo tonight, we can only hope for the best.

Update: Another news source has the quake's magnitude at 7.1.

Second Update: CNN also pegs the quake's magnitude at 7.1 and reports there's no information about damage or injuries so far. Right now, TV broadcasting seems normal, so despite its strength the quake may not have had too much an immediate effect. Here's hoping we lucked out.

Third Update: The quake temporarily stopped the trains (including the shinkansen) and a baseball game between the Yokohama Bay Stars and our own local favorites Chunichi Dragons. If those continued, then we must be in pretty good shape. That's a huge relief. We have earthquakes in Georgia but only about every 150 years or so and I slept right through the one in my lifetime. So I take this quake stuff very seriously.

Today's Cross-Cultural Fun...

Yuraku-gai was all decked out for some kind of festival today. Tall bamboo poles covered with large, colorful tags lined the street and shiny metallic decorations hung above. I met a friend and we had Indonesian food, then went to check out the movie listings in front of Zaza City. A mixed group of college-aged young people were handing out... get this... free hugs. They had little homemade signs lettered in English on brown cardboard squares. I tried to get my friend to take them up on the offer, but she wouldn't.

Later I saw a number of people accepting the freebies, though. I'm not sure what the purpose was, other than spreading joy and warmth at random. And possibly swine flu, but that's a story for another time. Little children squealed with delight after their hugs and their parents joined in the fun. Their faces goofy masks of hilarity, two of the huggers chased down a middle-aged married couple and embraced them, all the participants smiling broadly.

In front of a bank closed for Sunday, a lone man in full-on Scottish attire-- Glengarry cap, jacket, kilt and sporran, knee socks, brogues, the full kit-- played a mean set of bagpipes. In between songs, a woman more casually dressed (but with black elbow-length gloves to protect her skin from the summer sun) handed him a cordless microphone and he explained how the bagpipes work and the various parts of his costume. I heard Sukkotorando and Igirisu, but that's all the Japanese I understood. He had quite a crowd there, next to a bus stop. While I watched, he played three songs including a mournfully beautiful "Amazing Grace."

We applauded after each tune, but I couldn't stay. I biked up a street and found it blocked to traffic, long white tents set up right there in the street, and heavily made-up girls preparing to dance for an even larger crowd.

And luckily for everyone, it was cloudy and only warm instead of hellishly hot and humid for a change. The perfect day for enjoying a free hug, some bagpipe music and street dances. What are you doing to me, Hamamatsu? Making me fall in love with you all over again.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tales of the Urban Explorer

I ate dinner at Denny's last night. Eating at Denny's is such a quintessential Japanese experience. They're everywhere here and so engrained in the culture I've actually shocked-- shocked-- people by telling them it was originally an American restaurant chain. What? That's crazy! With close to six hundred restaurants nationwide, Denny's is as Japanese as baseball, Mongolian sumo wrestlers and curry rice for dinner!

Actually, Denny's Japan is part of the wild-n-crazy Ito Yokado/7-Eleven corporate family. 7-Eleven convenience stores used to be wholly American. Way back before you were born, a Japanese company licensed the name. They were hugely successful, opened a ton of stores, then bought controlling interest (65%!) in the American 7-Eleven 1991 when it went into bankruptcy. While the American 7-Eleven branch still has its corporate headquarters in Dallas, the bosses there answer to IYG Holding Company, which is owned by Seven & I Holdings Co., Ltd. (the consolidation of Ito-Yokado Co., Ltd. and Seven Eleven Japan... I think). This "lifestyle conglomerate" also owns Denny's Japan. These days, you don't get much more Japanese than that.

Something similar happened with Tower Records Japan. It went independent from the parent company via management buyout in 2002 and when the American Tower stores all went under, it became fully established as a Japanese entity as well.

The food at Denny's has been Japanized. I never ate at a Denny's in the States, but somehow I doubt the American menu offers "hamburg steaks" with fried eggs or sausages on them, miso soup, various kinds of ramen and tempura. You can get pancakes with ice cream on top, though. Japanese Denny's offers cheap, fairly delicious food, fast service and a clean, pleasant place to sit and chat with friends, so much so the verb deniru ("to hang out at Denny's") entered the teeny-bopper lexicon for a while.

Right now, though, McDonald's appears to be the en vogue venue for teenaged chilling. That's what the kids tell me. In the current Japanese economy, even high schoolers have to economize, and Makkudo offers an even cheaper alternative to Denny's. But I'm old school, so it's Denny's for me. I like to read and dine in quieter company these days.

After dinner, I decide to do some bike exploration. A few weeks ago, I finally found Shizuoka University and just beyond it lies a bridge that intrigued me. I had this idea I could cross it and end up in a rural environment, with nothing but rice paddies and maybe a few tiny houses and orange trees scattered here and there, and mountains ringing it all panoramically. Instead, I found more suburban sprawl. Hamamatsu resembles an American city in that respect-- a central downtown area and a vast ring of suburbs with shopping centers, fast food franchises, bowling alleys and used car lots. Traffic can be a nightmare.

I did find a vantage point for a spectacular view of Hamamatsu's downtown skyline, dominated by the mighty Act Tower. This is a landmark you can see from miles away. In fact, it's so huge after I turned east and went four or five blocks and looked back, it appeared to be essentially unchanged. The same size. That's big.

It's fun to bike into virgin territory, to be the only foreign face. You never know what will pop up in front of you. An old woman riding a bike, a lone high school girl in her uniform pedaling along, a car driving on the sidewalk. Eventually, I found myself back in familiar surroundings. The raised Enshu Railway tracks on my right, where the famous akaden (red train) runs. A middle-aged man in a gray three-piece suit putting his bicycle in a rack outside a small apartment building. The Yamaha factory complex. Two silver-haired men wearing three-button polos and golf slacks chatting casually, their arms folded across their chests. A stylish young woman happily talking to a friend on her cellphone at the street corner, ending her conversation with a cheerful, "Bai bai!"

Then I picked up a few snacks at the Circle-K convenience store where the younger of the two clerks seemed to be thoroughly enjoying a one-sided conversation with a hump-backed, pot-bellied old woman who had something on her mind and wanted to share it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Japanese Pair Win World Cosplay Championship!

You didn't know there was such a thing, did you? I certainly didn't! Apparently, over the weekend of August 1-2, there was a World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya, Japan, which is just a short train trip from where I live... and I wasn't invited! And during that elite conclave of bright and creative minds and bodies, a Japanese pair dressed as samurai from a Sony Playstation video game kept the cosplay crown here in Nihon, where it belongs.

That's right. Where it belongs. Because in my admittedly limited experience as an observer of cosplay (never a participant, dammit all), I've come to believe Japanese cosplayers are truly the world's finest. Not that other nationalities haven't represented well. For example, Star Wars cosplayers. A stormtrooper uniform might seem pretty prosaic because of how many there are these days, but a lot of those babies are hand-crafted. I mean, seriously-- store bought helmets and armor and whatnot don't cut it with the hardcore stormtrooper cosplayers. So even the ubiquitous stormtrooper suit requires a massive investment of time, money or both. But have you ever been to a cosplay costume shop in Tokyo? They have multi-colored contact lenses there, for crying out loud!

To me, that's pretty freaking extreme. I'm scared enough of just ordinary, vision-correcting contact lenses. And don't get me started on how disturbing I find the old "injury to the eye" motif in film and literature. So I have a shuddery respect for someone who will risk blindness in order to look like a cartoon weirdo.

Plus, in Japan there are professional magazines devoted to cosplay available at mainstream bookstores. Seen anything like that in Borders or Books-A-Million or whatever mega-bookstores are still in business back there in North America these days? If you go to Harajuku on a Sunday, among the lolis and the decora, the Nigerian dudes shilling for nightclubs and restaurants and all the tourists and shoppers, you'll spot a few stray cosplayers out for a stroll. Heck, I've seen them in Hamamatsu Castle Park during the summer. Just walking around in broad daylight dressed like anime, manga or video game characters.

All hail the winners. And remember-- in cosplay competitions, there are no losers. Just some amazingly creative people having fun.