Monday, September 15, 2014

Samurai Spirit in the Stands: A Look at Japanese Football (Soccer) Culture

It’s only a few months since the FIFA World Cup wrapped up in Brazil, though for Japanese fans it may well seem like an eternity since their beloved “Samurai Blue” were still in the hunt for glory. After much pre-tournament hype, which saw the Japanese media and public alike predict a strong showing for the national team, their hopes were brought crashing down to earth as Honda, Kagawa and co. went out at the group stage with a solitary point. It wasn’t all gloom and doom for Japan at the World Cup, however. For one thing, the Japanese supporters out in Brazil earned rave reviews, in particular for their habit of picking up litter in the stadium after matches. Seeing the widespread attention that this conscientious behaviour drew from the world’s media, I started to think about the many other ways watching football (or "soccer" as it's called here) in Japan contrasts to the usual experience of fans in most western countries, especially my country England. Below are a few of the main aspects that sprang to mind.
Just to be clear, these observations are based on watching J-League (Japanese professional club) games rather than the national team, though there doesn't seem much significant difference between the two.

It’s a family affair
The first time I went to watch my local J-League team Kawasaki Frontale a few years ago, 
one of the things that struck home most was the number of women and kids in the crowd 
around me. Back in England, while the make-up of crowds is more mixed than it used to be, 
men are still in the majority. Family groups are an even rarer sight in English football 
grounds, but in Japan they’re very much the norm. As a result, on match days the area 
around the stadium can often seem more like a funfair than a sports venue. There might not 
be any roller-coasters in sight, but there’s usually a range of kid-friendly activities laid on, 
hours before the match even kicks off. To give you an idea, recent pre-match entertainment 
at Frontale has featured a petting zoo and a meet-and-greet session for the popular cartoon 
character Doraemon. It’s really admirable how much effort Japanese football clubs 
put in to making the match-going experience one that all the family can enjoy. More than 
anything, getting kids to regularly come and support their local team is a great way to 
ensure the long-term health of the game here.

You (don't) only sing when you're winning
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Japanese football spectators who I've mixed with and observed is their unshakable positivity. In an English football ground, you'll often hear moans and outright abuse shouted from disgruntled spectators at players who are having a stinker or at the referee when he makes a call they don't agree with. Not so in super-polite Japan. Even when their team is performing terribly, on the wrong end of a thrashing, the fans' support never seems to waver. Indeed, the communal chanting efforts of Japanese fans can really be a sight and sound to behold. Supporters have quite a repertoire of songs, and the "ultras" section, which usually takes up one side of the ground, rarely lets up with its chanting throughout the game, whatever the score. It's a much more orchestrated affair than the average English game, with a number of appointed leaders standing at the front facing their fellow fans, conducting the chanting through megaphones. It pains me to say it, but even at my beloved Liverpool FC, which has some of the most vocal and passionate fans in England, the match-day atmosphere can be strangely subdued if things aren't going well on the pitch. Some English teams, including Manchester United, have actually started to experiment with specially designated "singing sections" in an attempt to raise the noise level in their stadiums, with mixed results. These teams could certainly do worse than follow the example of their J-league counterparts in this respect.

Match-day gear
When it comes to deciding what to wear to the match, most Japanese fans don't even need to think about it. Replica shirts rule, and not just any old shirts either. As well as being the latest version, it should have the name and number of your favourite player on the back. Compare this to the average English football stadium, where you're likely to see just as many fans in their everyday clothes than sporting the colours of their team. In the eyes of many hard-core, season ticket-holding fans in England (usually middle-aged men), replica shirts are for kids and day-trippers. Now, I personally don't wear a replica kit to the game here myself (for a start, at around ¥12,000/£70, they're even more expensive than in England!) but the sight of virtually a whole stadium of supporters in matching coloured tops is pretty damn impressive!

Small is beautiful
While the English Premier League is a hugely successful global brand, with its top clubs boasting millions of dedicated followers, from New York to Hong Kong, it's fair to say that the J-League is a very modest, local affair in comparison. There are no multi-million TV deals, and few big money overseas signings, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, the fact that the average J-League player is on a fraction of the wages of their Premier League counterparts has a great deal to do with the lack of over-inflated egos here. I'm consistently struck by how articulate and good-natured most Japanese players come across when interviewed on camera. Admittedly, bad boys and egomaniacs like Zlatan or Ronaldo only add to the attraction of this beautiful game, and we watch players mainly for their skill on the pitch, not their manners off it. However, when the players are approachable and down-to-earth, rather than seemingly living on another planet, it can strengthen the bond between them and the fans. That certainly seems to be the case in the J-League. For example, Kawasaki Frontale hold fan days at the stadium at least a couple of times a year, where fans can come along and meet their favourite players, getting their replica shirts signed and exchanging a few pleasantries in the process. Meanwhile, most fans of Premier League clubs could only dream of getting so close to their heroes.

What about the football?
Never mind how passionate the fans are or how approachable the players are, the thing most people who've never watched J-League football in Japan are probably wondering is "What's the standard like?" Well, for those readers familiar with the English game, I'd say it's a similar standard to the Championship (i.e. one level below the Premier League), although the pace is generally less frenetic and there's more focus on the sort of close passing game favoured in Spain or Italy than the "up and at 'em" style of the English lower leagues. Adding to the entertainment value, there's generally plenty of goals, due just as much to dodgy defending than sparkling attacking. And another plus is the general unpredictability of the competition - in the past decade alone, there have been seven different J-League champions, some of them rising from mid-table obscurity in the course of one or two seasons. So, if you're a football fan living in Japan yet to get a taste of the J-League, why not give it a go and support your local team? You may well find yourself becoming a convert like me!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Takashi Miike - A "Bloody" Good Director

Takashi Miike is a truly one-of-a-kind film director, not only in terms of the outrageous and freaky films that he makes, but also the astonishing rate at which he churns them out. Since he burst onto the scene in the early ‘90s with gangster flicks like “Bodyguard Kiba” and “Shinjuku Triad Society”, he’s helmed an average of roughly 4 features per year, which is virtually unprecedented. What makes this number even more impressive, though, is the consistency in quality and sheer variety of his work. Inevitably he’s been responsible for the odd miss among the many hits, and he’s best known for violent action and horror, though he’s also tried his hand at children’s films (“Ninja Kids!!!”) and courtroom drama/comedy (“Ace Attorney”).
I’ve picked five Miike films that I feel best represent his eclectic back catalogue - often jaw-droppingly violent, sometimes pant-wettingly scary, but certainly never dull.

Audition / オーディション (1999)

This film is first on the list partly because it's the one that introduced me to Miike, but also as it made the biggest impression on me. It's the tale of a widower who gets more than he bargained for when deciding to 'audition' suitable candidates to be his next girlfriend/wife. Sounds quite light-hearted when you put it like that, doesn't it? And indeed it starts off that way, but by the end it has descended into full-blown horror. I guess you could say I was "lucky" in that I went into it not knowing much about what to expect, which made the final twist all the more shocking. In the intervening years, though, the film's reputation has spread, to the extent that it's now seen as a touchstone for slow-building horror filmmaking. Any self-respecting horror fan will likely have seen "Audition" already, but if you like a good fright and you haven't yet experienced this shock-tastic masterpiece I heartily recommend you do so. Just don't expect to want any repeat viewings for a while...

The Bird People in China / 中国の鳥人 (1998)

One of Miike’s most thoughtful and touching works, this film marks the first proper departure from his early fixation on violence and crime. Largely filmed on location against the stunning backdrop of China’s mountainous Yunnan province, the story follows the odd couple of mild-mannered businessman Wada and mildly psychotic gangster Ujiie (it wouldn’t be a bona fide Miike film without a yakuza in there somewhere), who are dispatched on a haphazard mission to scout out some rare gems. What they find instead is a kind of enlightenment, as their stay in the isolated mountain community amongst the so-called “bird people” makes them reevaluate their modern-day lives. There’s still enough crazy and comical touches to keep die-hard Miike fans entertained – I particularly enjoyed Ujiie's foul-mouthed antics and the story thread involving a bunch of raft-pulling turtles – but it’s the final, more contemplative, scenes of the film that really stayed with me.

The Happiness of the Katakuris / カタクリ家の幸福 (2001)

If there's one film that encapsulates Miike's wonderfully eclectic approach to filmmaking, this is surely it. Part comedy, part musical, part human drama, part animation (and of course don't forget the horror!), it tells the story of the Katakuri family's seemingly doomed efforts to attract guests to their newly opened guest house near Mount Fuji. Naturally, the shade of comedy is rather black, with one running joke focusing on the unfortunate habit of new guests to die in increasingly bizarre circumstances. It's all handled with a lot of warmth and charm though, making it, for me, the most enjoyable watch out of all of Miike's many movies. My favourite thing about the whole film is probably the daughter's love interest, played by rock musician Kiyoshi Imawano, as a U.S. naval officer who claims to be nephew of Queen Elizabeth II (?) and speaks with the most hilariously awful 'Japanglish' imaginable!

Thirteen Assassins / 十三人の刺客 (2010)
Not to be confused with "Seven Samurai", this is Miike's best-known stab at the Japanese period action genre, and in my humble view it stands up pretty well alongside Kurosawa's masterpiece. Loosely based on a historical incident from 19th century feudal Japan, a group of samurai are hired to assassinate the sadistic half-brother of the Shogun. Much like "Seven Samurai", the first part of the film concentrates on the group coming together, building up their various characters, before the final chapter erupts in one of the most epic and entertaining fight sequences you're ever likely to see on screen. Apart from the stunning action, there's also some fine acting on show, not least from Koji Yakusho as the group's stoic leader, and Goro Inagaki (best known as member of clean-cut Japanese boy band SMAP) putting in a delightfully OTT turn as the aforementioned sadistic target of the assassins.

Lesson of the Evil / 悪の教典 (2012)

Considering the increasing number of mass school shootings nowadays, this tale of a psychotic high school teacher who ends up slaughtering most of his students with a double-barrelled shotgun is about as un-PC as you can get. However, political correctness has never been much of a concern for this punk rock-loving director, unless he’s sticking his middle finger up to it. In a way, “Lesson of the Evil” is classic Miike, in that it starts off fairly sedately, with an undercurrent of unease, before climaxing in a no-holds-barred bloodfest which is so over-the-top it’s just as likely to induce guffaws as gasps. Hideaki Ito is perfectly cast as the teacher, Mr. Hasumi, whose good looks and charming nature blind those around him to his dark, twisted soul. While I found the first half of the film, spent gradually chipping away at Mr. Hasumi’s façade of normality, to be genuinely creepy, the concluding set piece is basically "Battle Royale" on speed!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dancing in the moonlight with Tsukiyoi

For many "gaijin" like me who have fallen under the spell of Japan, a big part of the attraction is the mish-mash of cutting-edge modernity and quaint tradition. Like spotting a kimono-clad lady in a subway train, or an ancient temple standing in the shadow of a gleaming skyscraper.

The aural equivalent of this can be heard in the music of “Tsukiyoi”, a duo who combine traditional Japanese sounds with contemporary electronic beats to create a thrilling and enchanting blend that is all their own. "Tsukiyoi" literally means "intoxicated by the moon", which reflects the often other-worldly vibe of the music. The pair’s traditional half is represented by Kou, a petite young lady with a mighty voice whose chosen instrument is the koto, similar to a harp but with fewer strings and played on its side rather than upright. Bespectacled DJ and music producer Tetsu is the Yin to Kou’s Yang, adding his brand of infectious house grooves to the mixture, in a way that perfectly complements the soulful vocals and emotive koto strings.

Kou and Tetsu got together in 2011, and their first release, “Rokudan”, was a modern instrumental arrangement of a 400-year-old koto piece. Perfect as background music for getting a massage or meditating, it was nevertheless unlikely to trouble the charts or dance floors of Tokyo. The following year, however, saw the duo expand their sound, raising the tempo and slipping in Kou’s powerful vocals on the hypnotic “Yougao”, supposedly named after a character from the ancient Japanese novel “The Tale of Genji”. Listening to the duo’s subsequent releases, from the exquisitely languid “Lovers” to the uplifting “Origin”, it’s clear that they are becoming gradually less reliant on the traditional/modern angle as their confidence grows along with their fan base. For example, while the koto remains a key element of many tracks, it doesn’t always feature. Kou has other tricks up her billowing kimono sleeve, not least her haunting, ethereal voice, which is perhaps showcased most impressively on “Lovers”. Her singing on this track has an almost timeless quality, transporting the listener to a mystical place. It starts off fairly soothingly but gradually builds to a rousing climax, along a wave of synth sound.

The duo are clearly influenced not only by traditional Japanese music but by Western dance and pop music. One of their more recent songs, "Samsara", even borrows from the back catalogue of the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, using the melody from his 1983 hit "Human Nature", which was later ripped off by the 90s girl group SWV. Personally, I much prefer this koto version! See what you think...

If you live in Japan, there should be plenty of chances to see Tsukiyoi in person over the coming months, as they're starting to tour more frequently, often to sold-out, though small, venues. Fans in Europe shouldn't feel left out either, as Tsukiyoi will be performing at the "Japan Expo" in Paris in July. It remains to be seen whether Kou and Testsu will achieve proper fame, at home or abroad, but in this music fan's humble opinion they're the ideal ambassadors for Japan's music scene, demonstrating great pride for their country's culture while absorbing all kinds of overseas influences, one thing that Japan has excelled at over the years.

Check out more information on Tsukiyoi at their official site:

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 totally drawn in by the story, 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 tale, 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 lead to the loss of 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.