Friday, 25 July 2008

Old School Anime: Captain Harlock

Ever since I watched the Galaxy Express 999 Movie which I blogged about on the Nakama Britannica blog, I have become fascinated by old school anime. One of the characters featured in the movie is Space Pirate Captain Harlock, protector of the Earth from space.

He is also the inspiration for Alex Rowe, the silent and brooding character in the brilliant Last Exile. Needless to say, this sparked my curiosity and I have been watching the Captain Harlock anime series. Its dated by modern standards but the storyline is engaging enough to keep me coming back. The people of Earth are a prosperous society and mining food and materials from other planets means that the people of Earth no longer need to worry. Unknown to them an alien race is intent on conquering the planet, but the pleasure seeking humans do not take the threat seriously. After astronomers are mysteriously assassinated, one astronomer seeks to change things, but he is hunted down by the Mazones, leaving his son Tadashi wanting revenge.

After warning the Prime Minister he realises the futility of the situation and feeling that the government no longer protects the people of Earth, decides to join Captain Harlock and his crew to fight the battle in space. Tadashi feels out of place among what seems like the laziest crew around, but his curiosity about the captain keeps him interested. When he asks Harlock what it is he fights for, his cryptic answer is liberty. Pressing further, he is told by another space pirate that part of liberty is freedom and, much to Tadashi's annoyance, this also includes the freedom to keep secrets.

The series has some really cheesy parts, but its humour and Harlocks sense of justice and 'protector of the little folk' routine are enough to keep me watching. I'm also watching the movie version called Arcadia of My Youth, which explores Harlock's back story in an alternative setting. What I find interesting about the whole Captain Harlock saga, is that the studio have created a character that they use in a number of different series, the opening above is from Endless Odyssey, a more darker take on the space adventure. Even though the Captain Harlock series is 30 yeards old, there is something in old school anime that has captured my imagination and while there continues to be such gems forgotten in the anime attic, I will continue to explore and seek them out.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ayabie: Meet my new favourite band

Whilst in Tokyo, I stumbled across a HMV on the twelfth floor of a department store in Shinjuku. I wanted to know more about new J rock bands that we in the West might not know about and one of the bands suggested to me was Ayabie, who on first inspection appear to be a rock band, but also do pop songs with a funky edge.

I picked up their new single, Mikazuki no Kiseki, and it wasn't until I returned back to London did I hear it and realise just how good they are. Surprisingly, the b-side to the single is very catchy, what I have now termed as 'supper happy music' which has yet to leave my cd player. As the cd is in Japanese, I have no idea what the track is called but its the kind of song that can lift your spirits so easily. If you like An Cafe, you will most certainly like this. Above is their TheMe song with Aoi wearning oversized arm warmers for the novelty value!

Talking more to the sales assistant, I came across an unusual problem. The girl who could speak English knew very little about Visual Kei music. We then had a three way conversation between me, the English speaking girl and their J-rock expert. It was quite the experience, but with a little help from Google, we understood each other and they managed to suggest a bunch of cds worth investigating.

The sales assistant asked how did I know so much about J rock and I explained to her that J rock is very popular in London.(As it turned out, I actually knew more about J rock than her.) I explained that every time a Japanese band plays London, it always sells out, it seems the Japanese are not always aware of just how well their music sells overseas. Walking around the store I realised that most of the music was foreign and only a small section was Japanese.

My most surprising discovery was a hip hop style cd, which had Gaijin in retro poses on the back on what turned out to be pizza music- literally music to listen to whilst eating pizza. I was equally baffled and in awe at the sheer audacity of the idea and walked away thinking, only in Japan...

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Tokyo Stories: Getting lost in translation

A lot of the interesting things that happened on my Tokyo trip were the incidental moments, things that frankly, got lost in translation with often humorous results, so I thought I would mention a couple of those here:

Music transcends barriers

As many of you will know, I'm a Gackt fan, and as any Visual Kei fan will tell you, designer h.Naoto often designs many of his sometimes down right crazy outfits. It was whilst in Harajuku that I stumbled across the designers boutique where I bought a punk rock tie. On returning home, I realised it goes with nothing that I own but hey, let's get back to the story. Taking my purchase to the counter, I am ever thankful that I decided to wear my An Cafe t-shirt that day.

The cashier immediately saw my t-shirt, her eyes lit up all sparkly, like they do in manga and she started talking in Japanese to say what I later figured out to be, "I love An Cafe too." I then said I saw the band in London and used that universal phrase understood by all An Cafe fans: " I love An Cafe. Miku rocks." Which was followed by a thumbs up. As I began to leave the shop she then gave me a map with all the local hang outs and explained where else I could also explore. I understood none of it, but it was the thought that counts.

(Trying to) order in Japanese

For much of my trip, we had our translator Phil, but one evening three of us decided to venture off on our own and order dinner. Standing outside a restaurant with fake plastic food in the window, we finally realised our dilemma. How the heck were we going to order food? I was amazed to learn that another traveller (I use that term lightly, tourist would be more accurate, but traveller makes me feel more like Kino, so please indulge me.) Mike had the exact phrase in his phrase book which said, "I would like a table for three people." Amazed at our sheer luck we were then about to go in. But after standing outside the shop window for five minutes and looking very gaijin, I took the lead and went in.

If your Japanese sucks, resort to plan B:

Hand movements.

Holding up three fingers, I said, "three people," and then slowly said, "English menu?" Which did the trick and we were carted off to our table.

Now... what you get on an 'English' menu can be equally baffling as Japanese. We went to an Italian style eatery, but reading the menu we came across a dish entitled Seafood spaghetti which said, and I'm not making this up:

Spaghetti with seafood and a selection of stuff.

Mike gallantry ordered it, simply to find out what the mysterious 'stuff' could be.

When a soda, may not in fact be a soda.

Another quirk about Japanese culture is ordering drinks. I ordered a melon soda which turned out to be a neon green concoction, the kind of stuff that you would see in a mad science laboratory billowing creepy smoke. And in case you are wondering, it tasted nothing like melon. This then started my craze to buy strange drinks such as one called Pocari Sweat or fizzy drinks which never tasted like what they claimed on the tin. It was a good way to loose change in those vending machines, but Grape Fanta, tastes nothing like grape. My hunt continues...

McDonalds: Japanese style and eavesdropping

Okay, at the start of my trip, I had promised myself I would not eat in a McDonalds. After all, I hadn't travelled half way across the world to eat in a McDonald's, right? But with a hungry tummy in Akihabara, I caved. I know, I'm weak. Walking up to the counter, I said "chicken burger" and the chirpy sales assistant flipped over the Japanese menu to reveal English underneath. Wahey! I thought.

The chicken burger turned out to be teriyaki style in a nice bun, nothing like the fast food we get in the UK. It was when I went to throw away my rubbish that I got confused. Japan is big on recycling, and chucking what into where was mind boggling. After five minutes of standing like a zombie a college guy offered to help. I thanked him as without his assistance I would have been standing in front of the bin for ten minutes, defeated by a recycling bin no less! He asked where me and my Australian friend were from. Saying London, he said my accent sounded British and it was then I realised that he had moved near to us to listen to our conversation, to practise 'understanding English.' It then made me realise how eratic my conversation had been:

Journalism. Robots. How the English dub has messed up Death Note. Fansubs: YouTube or Veoh. Dreams. Why doesn't Grape Fanta taste like grapes? L has his own TV show. I can't talk and eat at the same time (But damnit! It wont stop me trying anyway!)

Feeling embarrassed but thankful, I walked away. After hearing that conversation, he must think all foreigners are weird.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Akihabara Tech: Break dancing robots and Otaku

Being a self confessed geek, I was more than a little curious about exploring Akihabara, an area of Tokyo famed for anime/manga goods and what would be my elusive search for a Maid Cafe.

Anyone who reads manga will know about Otaku, or extreme geeks, which carry a negative connotation in Japan, but in the West, especially America, Otaku are becoming more accepted due to the wealth of spending power they have to buy goods.

My general impression of Otaku was what I had seen in anime and manga: spectacle wearing men with bad taste in clothes and socially withdrawn. But that was before I fell in love with Genshiken and started to appreciate the finer side of being geek. For the first half of my trip to Tokyo I had not seen anyone who looked like an Otaku, but that all changed the second I left Akihabara station. I resisted the urge to take out my camera and take pictures, but on the surface all those stereotypes appeared to be true.

It wasn't until I started talking to a sales assistant in one of the many technology stores did I see a different side to Akihabara culture. When I spoke about the Otaku stereotype, even the sales assistant couldn't pinpoint the exact reason why people would buy robots/figures with such enthusiasm but he was surprisingly protective of Otaku culture.

Oddly enough, I saw very few women in Akihabara, but I am told there is another area in Tokyo that caters for female Otaku, which I will discuss in another post.

It was whilst in a robot shop, I met an expert in robotics. In the West, we generally get the impression that every home in Japan has a robot, but this is not the case. Robots as I found out are still really expensive. He showed me a yellow robot sitting behind a case worth £3,000, this robot had appeared on the cover of many newspapers a few years ago, but even today only a few people can actually afford them.

This is where I saw the break dancing robot pictured above. Those who do own robots, mostly buy them for the fun element, and this little robot stole the show, bopping away in Michael Jackson style. I only spent a few hours in Akihabara, but it is definately an area I would have liked to explore in more detail.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Studio Ghibli Museum: reliving childhood the anime way

My very first introduction to anime was through a Studio Ghibli film, Howl's Moving Castle, so it was with much delight that I visited the museum which was designed by Hayao Miyazaki, the famous director behind many of the studio's works including Spirited Away.

Entering the building the first thing you realise is that the museum was fundamentally created for children, with portholes grown ups have to peer down to see and elaborately constructed toys with devices that whizz and twirl.

It soon became a game of figuring out which anime's the figures and toys came from, a huge furry cat bus was by far the most impressive 'exhibit' and I say that casually as there was an army of kids playing with it, sticking their heads in and out of the windows. Whilst there are some exhibits behind glass, majority are on display so that you can touch and feel them, it felt more like being in a toy shop than in a museum.

Walking around the many rooms, there were many sketches and animation cells on the walls in a replica studio, early sketches of Howl and Kiki at different stages of the animation process so that you can follow the early pencil sketches right the way through to the end images inked in striking colours. A lot about anime is watching the final end product so it was nice to see the bits in between.

One of the perks of visiting the museum was that you get to see a mini film made by the studio and the one I watched was a humorous tale of pond life, with a water spider and a creature that lives beneath the lake. With no words and relying on vivid colours and sound effects, it was an interesting experience, watching anime in its simplest form.

And no visit to a museum would be complete without a visit to the museum shop, where there were DVDs, plushies and even Studio Ghibli cookies! Overall, it was a pleasant experience. Too much about adult life is about being grown up, but the true joy about this museum is that wandering around it doesn't take long before you are behaving like a kid again, with that childish curiosity that adults sometime loose when they grow up. And that, by far, is not a bad thing at all.

Tokyo Nights: Shinjuku night life, decadence and Host Clubs

Tokyo is a mesmerizing city, blinding neon, bustling with energy and activity, with a culture both exotic and alien. I've just come back from Tokyo and I'm already missing the city, being back feels a little strange, when you've seen how different other cultures are around the globe, it somehow made me realise how small my world really is. I guess you can say I'm a little stricken by wanderlust.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be writing about Japanese culture as there is so much to write about but today I will kick off with my first impressions of the city.

Leaving Narita airport we drove across the Rainbow Bridge heading towards the city and unlike the bright and glistening portrayals of Tokyo, my first impression was to see a city in smog. Seen from a distance Tokyo can look like any other city. It wasn't until nightfall when someone flicks on all those neon lights that you really notice the spectacle that is Tokyo city - that's when the city comes alive.

This photo was taken whilst walking the streets of Shinjuku littered with cafes, karaoke places and er... host clubs. Because there is so little space, all the buildings tower upwards. It was a Friday evening, the one night of the week when the whole of Tokyo comes out to party with an incredible amount of zeal. Drinking, singing, eating are a typical night out and it wasn't long before you couldn't walk a corner without seeing someone passed out on the street. Needless to say, I saw the very decadent side of Tokyo first and it was a shocker!

In the heart of Shinjuku there were people everywhere and everyone from the business salarymen to the rocking teens looked slick. Many of the younger kids looked like they walked straight out of an MTV video. Later on, over the next couple of days I realised that the space outside the station is the place where the kids hang out to look, well... cool.

On that first evening by some bizarre coincidence, I ran into someone I knew who had moved to Tokyo. He took us to a salaryman pub which was quite the experience. Out on the street there were well dressed pamphleteers handing out leaflets who turned out to be hosts. Like most foreigners, I'd always thought that host clubs were aimed at men, but to my surprise, these were aimed at women with many posters of pretty boys covering the nearby walls. Aside from hosts, the other frequent sight in Shinjuku are game centres, imagine London's Trocadero on a bigger scale, these venues are 24hour places, just like the manga cafe's. Walking back to the hotel, I noticed a baseball centre, where you can play baseball any time and this made me realise that the concept of time in this city is a warped one, should you ever need to whack a few balls at 4am, you can do this in Tokyo and surprisingly, many do.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Neon Tokyo: The Anime and Manga Dream

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have wanted to go to Tokyo for three years now. Later on today I will be jumping on a plane at Heathrow, hoping to finally turn a dream into reality.
In the twilight hours of tomorrow morning my plane will be touching down in Tokyo or, “The land of GazettE,” as my friend so aptly puts it. To be honest, I’m both excited and just a little bit nervous about it too. It’s finally happening, and I’m aware that my perception of Tokyo will change forever.

Tokyo, as any anime or manga fan will tell you, is the spiritual home and some might say playground of many fictional hero's and villain's. One way or another, these mediums invariably shape the way we view the city. Hachi, from the NANA manga series, looks down the railway tracks to the sparkling metropolis off in the distance believing that if she could just get to that city, all her dreams will come true. Hopes and dreams are a powerful currency, which bring the two Nana’s together in a chance meeting, yet Hachi soon realises that life in the big city is not at all what she had expected it to be.

Then there are the cyperpunk images of Neon Tokyo, flickering under fluorescent lights. Akira and Ghost In The Shell invite us to the future, a world straight out of a science fiction movie with the promise of technology and just that hint of destruction, with tales of humans flawed morality. For a while now I have been wondering, just what does Tokyo mean to an anime fan? And this is by no means an easy question to answer, but after much thought, my conclusion is that Tokyo offers possibility: freedom from the everyday life, an escape from the 9 to 5 job and perhaps as one Studio Ghibli fan once told me, “an opportunity to dream.”

And I’ve noticed that, the older you get, the fewer dreams you are allowed to have. Maybe they get traded in for reality or perhaps kids are grudgingly told to grow up or perhaps, as I rather suspect, kids feel they have to grow up to be well... more adult. And somehow, it got me thinking back to how I got into anime in the first place, watching Howl’s Moving Castle in what I would call a posh cinema. The adults didn’t get the movie, but the kids loved it, and before I had even known it, that magical spell of anime had worked its magic on me. Even if it means, these dreams get confined to within the pages of a manga book or exist only within your TV set, I think its still important to have a place to dream.

I say this because by the time I reach Tokyo, my whimsical dream will end and sometimes you only realise you wanted that dream to continue forever when you have already woken.

I recently met a man who lived in Japan for a year and when I told him I was going on an anime and manga tour his response was, “You won’t see the real Tokyo!” I have no idea what ‘real’ Tokyo is like. But I’m quite happy to see the fake Tokyo, the one inhabited by cosplay kids and lived out in manga cafe’s, perhaps if I look closely, I can find the real beauty hidden underneath.