Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shuichi Okita - Japan's Rising Star Behind the Camera

He may have only made four films so far in his fledgling career, but director and screenwriter Shuichi Okita is well on his way to being one of my favorite Japanese filmmakers. While Okita’s talent has already been recognized in Japanese film circles (his third effort, “The Woodsman and the Rain” was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival), he is still far from being a household name in his homeland, let alone abroad. Compared to other, more internationally known, directors from these shores, like Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, Okita’s style is fairly low-key and lighthearted, both in the themes he tackles and the way he goes about doing so. There are few profound statements, spectacular set-pieces or innovative visual effects, just good old-fashioned storytelling with engaging, sympathetic characters and a generous helping of laughs as well as a few tears. At the age of 36, Okita is still maturing as a filmmaker, and if there’s any justice his fame will also continue to grow both in Japan and overseas. Below is a personal mini-ranking of his three mainstream releases so far (his debut, "Ryoichi & Kiyoshi," was seemingly so low-key that I've yet to be able to track it down!).

1. “The Woodsman and the Rain” /「キツツキと雨」(2011)

This is the film that first introduced me to Okita’s gentle charm, and it’s the one I’d most highly recommend. The “woodsman” in question is Katsu (played by Koji Yakusho, from "13 Assassins"), a recently widowed lumberjack who seems far more comfortable cutting down trees with his chainsaw than interacting with anyone around him in the run-down village where he lives. His hermit-like existence is brought to an end, however, with the arrival of a film crew from the city, attempting to make, of all things, a low-budget zombie movie. After initially agreeing, with great reluctance, to help out the crew as a kind of local guide, Katsu then gets roped into being cast as a zombie extra, and slowly but surely a smile starts to show through his stubborn scowl. While Katsu’s character is the emotional center of the story, he’s not the only one to be transformed for the better by getting involved in the gory world of zombies. The crew’s hopelessly nervous rookie director Koichi (Shun Oguri) also grows over the course of the film, thanks largely to his unlikely friendship with Katsu. Indeed, the most enjoyable part of the film for me was observing the developing relationship between these two troubled individuals from such different backgrounds, how it gradually changes from bemused awkwardness to mutual grudging respect. If "Woodsman" does have a message, apart from “crappy zombie movies are bloody fun!”, it’s that the catalyst for change in a person's life can sometimes come from the most unlikely source.

2. “Antarctic Chef” / 「南極の料理人」 (2009)

I’ve long had a fascination with the incredibly harsh environment of Antarctica, in particular the brave, eccentric, or possibly mad, people who choose to venture there. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Okita’s second film focuses on this very subject. It follows a group of eight men who are holed up in a Japanese Antarctic research station for over a year, chronicling in a humorous and sometimes moving way the various issues that they face, with each other and their isolated circumstances, and how they manage to deal with everything, some more successfully than others! Among the rag-tag team, there’s the cheerful and super-fit doctor, who thinks nothing of going for half-naked bike rides in a freezing blizzard, the grumpy researcher, who cares only for his precious ice core samples, and his green young assistant, who develops a severe case of homesickness. Above all, though, there’s the chef, Nishimura (Masato Sakai) whose skill and enthusiasm for his work helps to keep everyone more or less sane. "Antarctic Chef" does have some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (I especially loved the team’s aerobic sessions, their only regular contact with women, albeit through a video screen), and its depiction of the lovingly cooked meals and the interaction around the dinner table is really well done. On the other hand, as a poignant character study, it’s not on the same level as "Woodsman" and the story jumps around a little too much, which I found slightly confusing at times. Those are minor gripes, though, as overall it works as what I feel it’s meant to be – a lighthearted portrayal of male bonding.

3. “A Story of Yonosuke” 「横道世之介」(2013)

This may be my least favorite of Okita’s short back catalogue, but in my eyes it still has a lot more going for it than most films around these days, from Japan or anywhere else. I’ve heard it described as a kind of “Japanese Forrest Gump,” which on one level is an understandable comparison, in that its titular hero, Yonosuke (Kengo Kara), is a simple soul with a warm heart who manages to touch the lives of those he meets without being fully aware of it. While quite naïve and childlike in some ways, Yonosuke is far from simple-minded though, and the main dilemma he faces in the film, hesitation on declaring his feelings for the girl that he loves, is something that most of us can identify with. Yonosuke’s story is mainly set in the 1980s, during his student days, and I thought all the retro ‘80s touches (clothes, hairstyles, music, décor) were really well done and fun to spot. Like all Okita films, there’s no shortage of awkward/funny moments, usually involving Yonosuke’s wide-eyed reactions at the behavior of those around him (whether it’s his nihilist older brother, relentlessly jolly best friend, or the object of his affection, rich-chick Shoko, who in some ways is just as naïve as he is). Of the three films here, though, “Yonosuke” had the least laughs for me, which is not necessarily a criticism. Indeed, some of its more serious sections were also its most effective, in particular a few flash-forwards to Yonosuke’s college friends in the present day reminiscing about how they met him. These scenes seemed to carry the main message of the film: that certain friendships, however fleeting, and however long ago, never lose their impression on our lives.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: "The Wind Rises" (風立ちぬ) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki, the founder of “Ghibli” film studios, is the undisputed king of Japanese animation. As the medium increasingly becomes dominated by digital technology, Ghibli remains a bastion of tradition, its films largely the work of pencil and paintbrush rather than computer pixels. To many, Miyazaki can do no wrong, underlined by the string of box-office and critical successes he’s helmed since “Nausica of the Valley of the Wind” almost 30 years ago. Over the past decade or so, however, his dazzling reputation has been slightly blemished. In my eyes, at least, the last truly great work to come from his brush was “Spirited Away” in 2001.

Nevertheless, this hardly lessened my anticipation on the release of his latest feature, “The Wind Rises,” here last month. Reading up about the film beforehand, and watching the preview trailer, it seemed to have all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki classic – stunning visuals, of course, but also an intriguing story that takes in the themes of love, war and the power of dreams. In a first for the director, though, the setting is not some kind of made-up mystical world but that of our own, specifically pre-Second World War Japan. The film serves as a homage to Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the Zero aircraft, which played a major role in Japan’s ultimately doomed war effort. Horikoshi’s fascination for manned flight is something that the white-whiskered animator undoubtedly shares, as anyone who’s seen “Castle in the Sky,” “Porco Rosso,” or pretty much any Miyazaki flick, could attest.

“The Wind Rises” is basically an animated biopic of Horikoshi, following him from the beginnings of his plane obsession as a kid to the launch of the famed Zero. Apart from a few dream sequences, there are no major flights of fancy, and this has left many viewers, who presumably went along expecting something more along the lines of floating castles or soaring dragons, severely disappointed. It’s certainly hard to imagine how anyone under the age of twelve could sit through over 2 hours of “The Wind Rises” without dozing off. But seeing as I’m a mature 30-something guy with a keen interest in modern Japanese history, I should have had no such problem. Right?

Well, as it happens, while I wasn't bored by “The Wind Rises” I wasn’t exactly blown away by it either. Around a week on from watching the film, it hasn’t left a hugely positive impression on me to be honest, which is a great shame after I’d had such high expectations. The lack of a fantastical element wasn’t the problem. If anything, I welcomed this more serious and mature take on the kiddy-dominated genre of anime. It was also, as expected, a visual treat, with an abundance of memorable images and lovingly created detail throughout (I especially loved the opening dream sequence where a young Jiro flies joyfully around the countryside in a mini-plane of his own). No, what the filmed lacked for me was an emotional core. Though I was an interested observer, I never really felt that the film sucked me into its world, as Miyazaki's best work can do. Just as crucially, apart from young Jiro at the start, I never found myself caring for any of the characters, particularly grown-up Jiro. Which leads me on to my main gripe: Hideaki Anno.

Hideaki Anno is best known as the creator of the wildly popular "Evangelion" anime series. He also worked together with Miyazaki on Nausica, and they've been close friends ever since. What he has never been, until now, is a voice actor, or any kind of actor. Nevertheless, Miyazaki took the bold step to cast his buddy in the central speaking role of Jiro. And in my view he totally drops the ball. For a start, at 53, his voice is too old for Jiro, who's in his 20s and 30s for the majority of the film. But more than that, he sounds so flat and emotionless, which dragged down every scene when he opened his mouth for me. This effect was exaggerated when alongside the other professional voice actors, especially Miori Takimoto as the love interest, Naoko. Takimoto manages to bring such charm to her character, and there are a number of touching scenes between Naoko and Jiro, but their relationship just wasn't believable for me as I could never see her being drawn to this guy with a robotic, old man's voice, no matter how much of a genius he was.

Anyway, this issue shouldn't matter for those watching the eventual dubbed versions of "The Wind Rises." I usually prefer subtitles to dubbing in foreign language films, but I think I'll make an exception in this case. It will be interesting to see how much the viewing experience is improved for me minus Anno, but I'll have to wait a while to test this out as the film won't be getting an overseas release until some time next spring. I'd still encourage anyone, especially Miyazaki fans, to see "The Wind Rises," as there's plenty to delight the eyes if not the ears. Just don't expect a classic.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: "Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami

The growing popularity of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famous, and some would say greatest, living writer, was confirmed last month with the publishing of his latest novel. “Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is a somewhat less ambitious and significantly shorter work than his previous effort, “1Q84,” but that didn’t stop it from shattering sales records here in Japan, as it shifted over 1 million copies within just one week of hitting the shelves. So great was the expectation for Murakami’s first novel in four years that a number of bookstores opened their doors especially at midnight on the day of release, to oblige desperate fans unable to wait another minute to start reading. While I’m a huge admirer of the author myself, I was patient enough to wait until the following morning to get my hands on a copy. Now, a few weeks later, having reached the end of my own little pilgrimage through the book’s pages, I’m ready to share my thoughts.

Without giving too much away, the story follows Tsukuru, a quiet, unassuming guy in his mid-thirties (like pretty much every other Murakami protagonist!), who in this case designs train stations for a living in Tokyo. While fairly happy in his job, he has trouble forming meaningful relationships, all because of a traumatic experience from his student days when, suddenly and without explanation, his four closest high school friends cut off all contact with him. Tsukuru is referred to as “colorless” because he was the only one of the group not to feature a color in his surname, and the “pilgrimage” of the title basically involves him setting out to meet these four friends again, sixteen years after the ties between them were cut. By discovering the reason behind this puzzling rejection, he hopes to be able to put his mind at rest and move on with his life.

Reading “Colorless Tsukuru…” on the back of “1Q84” – a typically sprawling and surreal Murakami tale featuring parallel dimensions, shady religious cults, a town of cats and kids in cocoons – the thing that struck me most a few chapters in was how comparatively normal it was. It reminded me a lot of Murakami’s breakthrough novel “Norwegian Wood,” a story that is similarly rooted in the real world and follows a main character scarred by his relationship experiences as a young man. When making this comparison, however, I found “Colorless Tsukuru…” to be lacking in some ways. For example, “Norweigen Wood” contains much more in terms of interesting social commentary, being set in the turbulent Tokyo of the early 1960s, and it also has a cast of more engaging characters. None of the people I encountered during the course of “Colorless Tsukuru…” really jumped off the page and grabbed my attention like, for instance, Midori or Reiko from “Norwegian Wood” managed to.

Although I wasn’t exactly blown away by this book, or captivated by its characters, I did find plenty to enjoy in it, and by the end I was firmly rooting for Tsukuru to achieve his long-sought-for peace of mind. I also liked the fact that, unlike the bloated “1Q84,” this was a much more streamlined and compact story, which never dragged. It could have done with more a bit more characteristic Murakami weirdness and dry humor to lighten the overly melancholic tone, but there were enough genuinely memorable and moving passages within it for me to give it a firm thumbs up. I especially liked the story-within-a-story early on, told to Tsukuru by his college friend, about an aging pianist who claims he carries around the gift of death, which he's willing to pass onto anyone who wishes to die in his place. Indeed, the grim specter of death looms over this novel from its opening line: "From July of his sophomore year at college to January of the next year, Tsukuru Tasaki was mostly thinking about dying."

This focus on death is just one of a number of common Murakami themes covered during the course of “Colorless Tsukuru…” There are also musings on the blurring between dreams and reality, the connection between music and memory, and nostalgia for lost innocence of youth, as well as exhaustive descriptions of what people are wearing and eating (though unusually no mention of cats!). Indeed, probably the main criticism leveled at Murakami is that he tends to repeat himself from novel to novel. While I accept this is true in a way, I don’t believe it's necessarily a negative quality. Reading a new Murakami novel is a bit like meeting up with a close friend after many years, just as Tsukuru does – you hope they haven’t changed too much as this may cause you to lose what made you friends in the first place. It didn’t bother me that this story ploughed over some familiar furrows, as this familiarity itself was comforting. That said, it’s not so interesting if the friend/book in question stays completely the same, and there were enough distinguishing elements to this latest work to keep me turning the pages. In any case, to me there’s something seductive about Murakami’s simple yet powerfully evocative style whatever he's writing about. I wouldn't put it past him to make even the latest stock market reports a pleasurable reading experience!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

AKB48 Theater - Heart of Cuteness

In the world of Japanese popular culture, AKB48 are a pop behemoth of Godzilla-like proportions. They are not only huge in terms of actual size (a world record 86 members) but in the scale of their success (over 20 million CDs sold to date) and general all-pervading kawaii (cute) influence here in Japan. It seems that every other billboard and TV commercial features the sweetly smiling faces of the group's more famous members plugging everything from chocolate to smartphones. Much more than just a musical act, AKB48 is a phenomenon, with a fanatical, overwhelmingly male fan base who worship their favourite members as idols (kind of like Justin Bieber beliebers but with more facial hair). While I don't count myself among their ranks, I was still pretty excited to be offered the chance by a friend last month to gain access to the holiest of holy sites for the group's cult following - the AKB48 Theater!

"Japan's most sophisticated show", apparently.

Located in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, from which the group takes its name, the AKB48 Theater represents the spiritual home and focal point for the whole AKB48 empire. When record producer Yasushi Akimoto launched the group back in 2005, the main way he aimed to distinguish them from their pop idol rivals was to exploit the “girl next door” appeal and make the members more accessible to the fans, as real people rather than just pretty faces on a TV screen. This was largely made possible through establishing the dedicated space of the AKB48 Theater, where performances could be held on an almost daily basis by rotating the deep member roster. It’s not hard to see why Akihabara was chosen as the group’s base - the place is swarming with otaku (geeks, or obsessive fans, particularly of anime and computer games) who come to shop in the area’s many electronics and hobby stores and hang out in maid cafes. A typical otaku may be a single guy in his 20s-30s with a penchant for bubbly young girls with squeaky voices and wide eyes who perhaps remind him of his favorite anime character – in short, the kind of guy most likely to fall for the adolescent charms of AKB48! It also seems completely appropriate that the theater itself can be found on the top floor of Don Quijote, a discount chain store that sells, among other things, computer games, anime DVDs and figurines.

The show that I went along to was especially for fans born in the month of April. A friend of mine had got hold of 2 tickets by applying online through a random lottery system, and kindly offered the spare to me, being a fellow April birthday boy. On stepping off the escalator shortly before the performance was due to start, we were ushered to a space by the theater entrance where we had to join one of several lines, divided up according to ticket number. We were then subjected to another lottery, this time to determine the order in which we could enter the theater. Unfortunately, our line number was one of the last to be drawn, meaning that we had to settle for a standing spot near the back. It didn’t matter too much though, as the theater itself was surprisingly small, with a capacity of just over 200. On reflection, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised – like most massive empires, AKB48 come from humble beginnings, and besides, the small size of the venue serves to make it more intimate, helping preserve accessibility to the fans.

The 16 members who took to the stage for this particular performance were all classed as kenkyusei (literally "research students" though closer to interns), which meant there was a distinct lack of familiar faces for me, as well as a relatively, ahem, youthful tone, with an average age of 15-16 years old. One face I did recognize was 20 year-old Minami Minegishi, a prominent member of the main group who had been demoted to the ranks of kenkyusei a month or so previously for the shameful crime of spending the night at the apartment of a Japanese boyband member, which broke the strict ban on AKB members having relations with the opposite sex. She must have been performing in a wig on this day, as she’d shaved off her hair when caught as a sign of contrition for her subversive behavior!

Interesting costume choice - pajamas + jacket

Moving on to the performance, to be honest, I’ve never been much of a fan of the AKB48 brand of bouncy, saccharine pop, and I wasn’t exactly converted through the experience of hearing it live. Having said that, it was perfectly listenable, inoffensive fluff. We weren’t treated to any of the group’s big hits, as the set list was exclusive to the AKB48 theater, but I wasn’t too bothered about this as most of the songs sound pretty much the same to me anyway. I actually found some of the song titles more interesting than the songs themselves (pajama drive, moody mermaid*, angel’s tail*, Joan of Arc in the mirror*). One thing I was impressed with was the bewildering array of costumes. For instance, as well as a fetching pajama and jacket combo for “pajama drive,” the members strutted their stuff in shiny space suits, marching band outfits and, of course, the obligatory school uniforms.  (*rough translation)

Now, I couldn’t write about this experience without touching on the slightly creepy aspect of it all. The fact that a fair proportion of the girls on stage weren’t even out of high school made me feel like a bit of a “dirty old man” just being there. While the dancing and costumes couldn’t exactly be described as Rihanna-level raunchy, it was hard to escape the fact that I was in an audience made up of around 95% grown men who were most likely not just there for the music. I don’t want to simply label AKB fans as perverts, however. If that was all there was to the attraction, then they could get their kicks more easily on the Internet or elsewhere. For me, the key part of the whole performance, and the secret behind AKB48’s mass appeal, was epitomized in the breaks between songs, when the members interacted with the audience and each other. One typical exchange involved members taking it in turns to say what they were “into” recently. The responses were mostly pretty standard, teenage girl stuff (a certain kind of ice cream, their pet dog, sleeping), though there were a few weird answers such as one girl's fondness for the smell of a particular fellow member's sweaty BO. I had to laugh when one of the younger members said she was into 葉っぱ, which basically means “leaves” but could also refer to a certain kind of recreational drug (she most likely meant the former but I prefer to believe she was talking about the latter)! My point is that they basically came across as normal teenage girls, without any airs or graces, just having a good time hanging out with their friends. They didn’t appear as untouchable stars but as genuine, approachable, personalities. A final, personal touch was laid on after the show when everyone in the audience received a mini birthday card handwritten by one of the performing members (mine had misspelled her message “Happy Biathday” but that merely added to the charm).

So, while I’m far from being a convert to the legion of AKB fans, I do feel that I at least have a bit more appreciation for their appeal after visiting the ABK48 Theater. Whether you're an otaku or not, as a quintessential taste of the bizarre/kawaii mixture that characterizes much of modern Japan it's an experience I'd recommend.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Bewitching Beats of Toe

On a baking afternoon in July, chilling with a beer in a field in Niigata, I was roused from my slightly drunken reverie by a sweet sweet sound wafting on the breeze, all twangley guitars and rat-a-tat drumming. It was one of those all-too-rare love-at-first-hear experiences when I knew within a few beats that here was a band that I'd never grow tired of. The occasion was the Fuji Rock Festival and the band was Toe.

One of the great things about music festivals is stumbling across new music that you wouldn't usually get exposed to. In this case, I was particularly pleased that my new musical love was Japanese as I'd been waiting in vain for an artist from my adopted home with the potential to not just be "big in Japan" but around the world too. I feel that Toe have a better chance than most of their contemporaries of gaining overseas recognition, partly because they rarely sing in Japanese (actually, they rarely sing at all), but mostly because their music has a universal quality that transcends boundaries or nationalities. But don't just take my word for it - check out this highlight from their latest live DVD (the track kicks in properly on about 1 minute).

I don't generally like pigeon-holing bands in a particular genre anyway, but Toe defy classification more than most. On the surface, their make-up of two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer would suggest them to be a rock band. However, their instrumental-heavy sound is closer in style to jazz than rock. While all four members are blessed with undeniable musical talent, I'd have to say that the drummer, Takashi Kashikura, is the stand-out performer, and the one who the band revolves around. I'm no expert on drumming but I know a genius with drumsticks when I hear one. For him, drumming isn't just about keeping a beat, it's about creating a frenzied throng of beats for the listener to get lost in. Kashikura is actually a very busy man, as he plays in another, even better-known, Japanese band, The Hiatus, who are much more straight-out rock, and incidentally are pretty damn good themselves.

Although I have only recently discovered them, Toe have been around for 12 years already, in which time they've released two full-length albums and a number of EPs. Visiting their website (, I was thrilled to see they have just been touring in Europe through September. I really hope they can continue to spread their fan base even further outside of Japan, as their spine-tingling tunes certainly deserve to be heard by as many people as possible in my opinion. For those reading this in Japan, Toe will also be performing with their label-mates Tangled Hair, in mid October, in Yokohama and Tokyo. I certainly plan to be there, and to continue to support this magical band for many years to come.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Red Ronin's Selection: Recent Japanese Films

If you're a foreigner in Japan with a desire to improve in the local lingo, as well as broaden your cultural knowledge, then one of the most effective, and fun, resources is to be found on the shelves of your local DVD rental store. Japan is currently experiencing somewhat of a "Golden Age" of cinema, with more domestically-made films being released to larger audiences than ever before. However, much like elsewhere these days, the quality releases seem to be vastly outnumbered by the mindless dross. So, I've decided to provide the service of selecting five of my personal favorite Japanese films of the past couple of years. These are all fairly mainstream and accessible fare (no hardcore horror or art-house cinema, I'm afraid) which should be easily located on your next trip down to Tsutaya (other rental stores are available). I've tried to include a variety of genres to suit tastes, and while I can't guarantee you'll share in my gushing praise of the films below, you should at least be passably entertained by them (which is saying something in the current worldwide dross-infested film climate!)

1. Suteki na Kanashibari / Once in a Blue Moon  (Comedy, 2011)
The latest effort from cult director Koki Mitani, has both great charm and a barrel-load of laughs. While most Japanese comedies seem to be of the hysterical, slapstick variety, with little room for subtlety, Mitani's tongue-in-cheek style harks back to the days of classic Billie Wilder comedies such as Some Like it Hot. The plot centers around a young lawyer, played by Mitani's muse Eri Fukatsu, who attempts to solve a murder case with the help of the ghost of a Samurai warrior. Sounds pretty ridiculous, which it is, but a host of great performances and clever twists mean that the story never drags, and there is even a genuinely emotional ending.

2. Youka-me no Semi (trans: Eighth-day Cicada) (Drama, 2011)
Based on the acclaimed novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, this harrowing tale of a baby kidnapping also went on to garner multiple awards for its lead actress Hiromi Nagasaku, deservedly so in my humble opinion. The story is split in two, alternating between the kidnapping's immediate aftermath, and the present day, where the baby in question has grown into a young woman. Nagasaku's portrayal of the kidnapper, Kiwako, is truly heartbreaking, as she manages to generate great sympathy and pity for a character who could simply be condemned for her actions. It's certainly not an easy watch, but this is a film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

3. Futatabi / Swing me Again (Drama, 2010)
While this wasn't as big of a commercial hit as the other films on this list, in terms of feel-good power it's hard to top. It's a classic "road movie," with the two travelers in question being an elderly jazz trumpeter (played with suitable gruff charm by comedian Ichiro Zaitsu) and his surly grandson who also happens to play the trumpet. Zaitsu's character has suffered from the debilitating Hansen's disease for the past 50 years, and now that he's in recovery he tries to seek out the other members of his former band for one last performance. Needless to say, the search mission doesn't all go smoothly, but there are plenty of smiles and tears along the way. Even if you're not a big fan of jazz (and I'm not), this is an enjoyable and rewarding film, with real heart.

4. Gantz (Action, 2011)
As with so many major films in Japan these days, Gantz originates from a popular manga series, in this case a sci-fi action caper where a team of seemingly random challengers are tasked with battling a formidable lineup of "aliens" one-by-one. I won't bother trying to explain the complicated plot, as to be honest I was kind of left behind half way through. However, that didn't really effect my viewing enjoyment, as in terms of special effects and action set-pieces, this is one of the most impressive Japanese films I have seen in recent years. Just leave your brain at the door and enjoy the ride! (but don't bother with the sequel, Gantz: Perfect Answer, as that really is a bit of an overblown mess)
5. Tantei wa Bar ni Iru (trans: The Detective is in the Bar) (Action/Comedy, 2011)
One of the most interesting things about this film for me was its location of snowy Sapporo, a refreshing change from all the films and TV shows set in and around Tokyo. The "Detective" of the title, endowed with lashings of cynicism and dry humor by Yo Oizumi, spends much of the film getting beaten about by local Yakuza, as he doggedly investigates the disappearance of a young woman. The plot and atmosphere of this film reminded me in some ways of a Raymond Chandler effort, complete with the obligatory femme fatalle, played here admirably by the gorgeous Ko Yuki. Anyway, in the genre of detective-based action/comedy, I definitely recommend this over the wildly popular but frankly annoying Odoru Daisosasen (trans: Dancing Major Investigation) series.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mr. Children come of age at 20

While I try to stay more or less in the loop when it comes to Japanese popular culture - it helps with writing a blog like this for a start! - I must admit that one area in which I have become somewhat out of touch in recent years is Japanese popular music (aka: J-Pop). This isn’t for lack of trying, however. Many is the time I’ve plugged myself into the listening post in Tower Records or wherever, drawn by the exotic promise of the nonsensical band name (Flumpool, Bump of Chicken, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant) and curious to discover some new sonic delights, only to be ultimately underwhelmed. At such times, I find myself getting nostalgic for the days of the late ‘90s / early noughties, when I used to listen to a fair amount of J-Pop, and regularly find bands whose music genuinely moved me and left a lasting impression. Chief among these was the only-slightly-weirdly-named Mr. Children (or “Misu-Chilu” as they are affectionately referred to by most locals).

In a Japanese popular music scene dominated by tweeny girl groups like AKB48 and so-called “visual-kei” acts such as L’Arc En Ciel, who seem to be more about the look and the product than the actual music, Mr. Children have long stood out for me as a proper band with proper tunes. If I had to liken them to any Western band, I guess it would be U2. Apart from the relative longevity and massive popularity, their musical styles are fairly similar, with back catalogs bursting with soaring stadium-sized anthems, tailor made for being played before seas of lighter-waving fans. The two bands’ lead singers also have quite a bit in common. As well as taking on the lion’s share of songwriting duties, like Bono, Kazutoshi Sakurai is a captivating on-stage presence, in possession of a chameleon-like voice just as suited to screeching a rousing rock chorus as it is to crooning a heartfelt ballad.

Fortunately for me, listening to Mr. Children is not just a matter of nostalgia, as they remain just as wildly popular now as they were back in the ‘90s. Indeed, the spotlight is shining on the band stronger than ever at the moment, due to the fact that May 2012 marks their 20th anniversary. To celebrate this landmark (which makes me feel pretty damn old…), two best-of albums have been released, and unsurprisingly shot straight to the top of the charts – “micro” covers the period 2001-2005 while “macro” takes us up to 2010, basically repeating the pattern of their 10th anniversary, when two best-of albums covering their career up to 2001 were released. Mr. Children have barely paused for breath over their two decade career, having released a total of 16 albums and 34 singles to date. This prolific output is even more impressive when you consider some of the obstacles the band have had to overcome, not least in 2002 when lead singer Sakurai was diagnosed with a serious brain infection. The fact that he was back on stage again within a matter months after such a potentially life-threatening setback is testament to his and the band’s unshakable spirit and commitment to their work.

In my opinion these four best-of albums are an ideal showcase of Mr. Children’s charms, and an effective riposte to anyone who thinks that J-pop music lacks emotional power. If I had to recommend one of the four compilations as an introduction to the band, it would be “micro” (2001-2005) as this period arguably represents their popular and creative peak. The fact that 14 of the 15 tracks on the album are credited as either a TV drama or commercial theme song just goes to show how deep the band’s penetration of popular culture in Japan was at the time. Tunes like “Youthful Days,” “Any” and “Hero” have lost little of their impact over the years, while some of the videos, also included in the album package, have rightly earned all-time classic status. For example, the beautifully shot “Kurumi” tells the touching and humorous tale of a down-and-out salaryman who rediscovers his ‘mojo’ with the help of an old acoustic guitar. I dare anyone to watch it without feeling moved!

The fact that Mr. Children have managed to remain at the top of the musical heap in Japan for twenty years is certainly a feat worth celebrating. However, Mr. Sakurai and Co. are unlikely to rest on their laurels. I wouldn’t bet against them continuing the pattern and releasing another pair of best-of albums ten years from now, packed with just as many quality tunes as ever.