The moral of this first paragraph can be summed up in three words. I'll tell you them right now: "Japan is expensive." Now I'll go ahead and write the first paragraph anyway. Aspiring autobiographers pay attention:
There's this animated series on television right now called "Samurai Champloo." Chances are if you read this site every day you find the wording of that first sentence slightly patronizing. Chances are one in five of you is squealing "SAMURAI CHAMPLOO?! Of course I know about that!" To you, I say, relax. Not everyone knows about it. I really mean this. Not everyone knows about "Cowboy Bebop," either, the series to which "Samurai Champloo" is a spiritual sequel. "Cowboy Bebop," which no Japanese person I've ever met has ever seen any of, encompasses twenty-six tales of gorgeously animated space bounty-hunters in gorgeously scenic places hunting varied eccentric criminals to the tune of virtuoso jazz/rock/blues/pop-fusion music composed by one Yoko Kanno. "Samurai Champloo," of which I've only seen the very interesting first episode, seems to be about Samurai and acid-hip-hop composed by Tsutchie from Shakkazombie, an underground-ish abstract hip-hop group I've been observing with interest for a long time, since before the internet got hold of Jet Set Radio and deemed Guitar Vader "the coolest indie band in Japan." I met them once, actually. Guitar Vader. Guy and a girl. They were playing a club called Hearts in Omiya. Guy on guitar, girl on keyboards, drum machine behind them. Girl dressed in Hello Kitty, squealing vocals like a little girl on helium, guy whispering kind-of-perverted sounding things softly into a microphone, audience looking at them like everyone's stoned. Smoke in the air. I talk to the guy after the show. "That was interesting." He replies, "Man, we was just fucking around. Trying to get a rise out of someone." I don't know if they did it. Either way, their attitude represents a current trend in Japanese "art," whether it's animated, cinematic, or scribbled on a train-tunnel wall. Guitar Vader now have an album out, a couple of them, even, and they can be purchased at an indie record shop for about 3600 yen each. That's about thirty of your dollars, or twenty of your pounds. "Samurai Champloo," as a sequel to "Cowboy Bebop," is a Japanese animation that fans of Japanese animation feel much deep, loving pride for. Like "Cowboy Bebop," I hear, its fans are swearing that it is fitting viewing for even non-fans of anime. Let's face it, anime fans -- most of the time the average beer-drinking Joe doesn't want to watch little girls in pink outfits with saucer-eyes and purple hair piloting robots in space in hopes of killing God. Now, "Cowboy Bebop," that's something different. It's a kind of institution. Director Shinichiro Watanabe says that the goal behind it was to fuse genres to a point where they created "A new genre, one which will be a genre unto itself." To a point, they succeeded. "Cowboy Bebop" is, to one end, an anime about anime; in fusing the bounty-hunter concept with the space-pilot concept, in making the big-breasted girl the one with amnesia, in making the comic relief a normal-looking Welsh Corgie rather than a penguin with a bib, in making the conclusion deal with one man's quest for revenge and a sweetly-stated message about the past and the present, and in blanketing all this with music composed by an actual living prodigy, they made something that even a shotgun-owning hater of "those Chinese cartoons" can watch for fifteen minutes and then not want to turn off until all thirteen hours are gone. They have created a tool that can be shopped around, and explained as "This is what we can, at the moment, do." It's being rereleased on DVD right now in Japan, you know, alongside "Samurai Champloo," its fellow gateway-drug anime. Both of those shows cost 7600 yen for two twenty-minute episodes. Yes, that's about seventy of your dollars. Almost forty of your pounds.
We will not discuss illegal downloads.
So Japanese animation has an excellent tool for demonstrating to the world exactly what it can do. Yet, in its current form, it is available only to the deranged souls who spend every yen of their salary on anime and anime-related goods. "Samurai Champloo" airs at two in the morning, when all of the normal people who think anime is either kids' stuff or utterly sick have gone to bed and are dreaming about things that smell like hospitals. In this way, anime and all things related to it do not need to leave their small circles. People who like it know where to find it. What's most tragic is that anime seldom attempts to reach out of its small circle. It knows who its fans are, and year by year, it goes on toeing the line, testing the limits of how much its fans will pay. To wit: Mamoru Oshii's rather disappointing "Innocence" (called "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" in the west), recently was released on DVD. The cheapest box you can buy is the "Special edition," which is 4,000 yen. Then there's the "Dog Box," which contains a plastic figurine of a dog and costs 29,000 yen. Then there's the "Limited Edition," which contains a resin doll of a robot girl in a kimono and costs 70,000 yen. Yes. That's about seven hundred of your dollars. Four hundred of your pounds. For a movie and a resin doll. The interesting point here is the doll of the dog -- it's a basset hound, you see -- as the "middle" package, it is interesting. Only die-hards will buy the 70,000 yen package, that's a given. However, if someone has seen "Innocence" and considers themselves a fan of "Ghost in the Shell," they're going to feel guilty if they don't at least get the middle package.
In other news -- yes, it's a realistic basset hound. Much like the realistic corgi from "Cowboy Bebop."
Now, I don't like anime. I have, however, through a group effort, seen "Cowboy Bebop," and I've always liked Hayao Miyazaki's "The Castle of Cagliostro" enough to call it my favorite film. I read Marvel Comics until the age of eleven, when I started reading Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, finding it to be an excellent revision of the "American Style" of comics. I don't keep up with the current anime trends, though I do see enough, sometimes, to feel revolted, revolted against, and/or just plain stupid. "Naruto" is about as good as mainstream anime gets on television these days. The basic idea of a ninja high school is compelling enough to warrant it a seven-o-clock on Sundays time slot. (It also features a theme song by The Mass Missile, a band I used to hang around with a couple years back; starting December 1st, Japan's greatest new indie rock band, Sambo Master, will provide the theme song, which is hella cool.) Naruto succeeds because, ironically, it doesn't try to reach out. It is comfortable with what it is. It's a goofy story about a boy in a ninja high school. Sometimes he transforms into a pretty woman, getting laughs from his peers, and sometimes he cries over the body of a fallen beloved teacher who's been impaled with a giant ninja throwing-star. In some scenes, characters eat heartily and share big laughs. In others, people bleed and cry. It's standard stuff that doesn't aspire to art, and it entertains people fluffily. "One Piece" is a different idea altogether. I don't know what the fuck is going on there. I actually read the first two volumes of the manga before I got disgusted by the main character's off-putting pluck. He sneers, sails, and punches his way on through an adventure that, from episode one, is plotted to be neverending. He's looking for a treasure, the "One Piece," which will make him the "Pirate King," though where the hell that is, who knows? The one episode I saw recently begins with the characters' pirate ship in the tentacles of a giant octopus which is cooing like a baby chick as one character lights a furnace beneath it, which accounts for it flying through the air like a balloon. This dog-deer-hybrid-thing is running around with a body-builder's physique, making these loud nasal sneering sounds. The hero is sitting on the ship grinning widely and talking without moving his opened mouth about "WHATFUNADVENTUREISLOLLERS." I'm sitting there eating my udon, and after all of three minutes, I think, enough of this bullshit, let's watch soccer.
If you ask an office lady who never watches anime yet does not immediately jump to conclusions and say she hates it what the best anime on television is, she'll probably reply, "That 'Full Metal Alchemist' is pretty good, I hear." And this is where the Shakespeare of modern Japanese television art enters it's tragic fifth act. "Full Metal Alchemist" is an anime in the "Cowboy Bebop" mold, with one drastic difference: it is completely devoid of quality. It is a mishmash of genres, yes. It combines medieval fantasy with drama and a robot. Well, sort of. The robot is actually the main character's little brother. The main character is a student of alchemy who, in a quest to revive the dead body of his mother, accidentally lost his hand. So he made a metal hand. In an attempt to get his hand back, he accidentally eradicated his little brother's body. He then acted quickly, and transferred his little brother's soul into a big, empty, suit of armor. In one episode I saw this year, a boy who the brothers are helping for some reason is offered movable shelter inside the empty suit of armor. The huge, fearsome suit of armor talks, don't you know, with a high-pitched schoolboy's voice. This is the idea of "human comedy" mixed with "dark thematic elements." On paper or in hypertext, it sounds all right. In execution it is piss-poor. The animation is clearly overproduced. During fight-scenes the theoretical camera ducks and sways like in "Cowboy Bebop"'s kooky martial arts battles. Yet in "Full Metal Alchemist," the battles all have an armored fist around their throats. This context we call "continuity" cripples it; "Cowboy Bebop"'s action scenes are free spirits born of just-cropped-up situations and played out like a long-cigaratte-smoking Django-Reinhart jazz guitar solo. "Full Metal Alchemist"'s fight scenes are like an orchestra of six-hundred swarthy men sitting there, staring at violas like they're seeing them for the first time. Every villain the main character fights has to have some connection to the story. The story is like a snowball going down a hill at this point; it's picking up so much size that sooner or later every episode is going to be pre-mandated to consist entirely of the main character glaring angrily at the viewer for twenty-two minutes while fierce, belching symphonic music screams. The music, it bears describing, has perhaps the most ridiculously lopsided production-value:composition-quality ratio in anime to date. Sure, those are real violins blaring and real tympanies heralding the arrival of a guy in black whose role only owners of the Complete Character Ultimanium understand even partly. Still -- the thick suit of armor has nothing inside. This is what makes Beethoven roll over in his grave. Last time I heard, new skeletal autopsies revealed Ludwig didn't hate Chuck Berry so much anymore.
"Full Metal Alchemist"'s theme song is, at the moment, "Relight," by Asian Kung-fu Generation, a band whose bassist was my ex-womanfriend's ex-coworker, and a good guy, though I've no context to meet him ever again. Their band is gaining popularity among women who live in offices and like power-pop with lots of guitars (nothing wrong with that) and no guitar solos (oh hell no they didn't).
It can be purchased on DVD for 6700 yen an episode. If you download it from the internet and/or simply record it with your VCR, you're not a real fan, and you don't get the special-edition trading card, which is completely randomized at every Ani-mate location, forcing you to travel around Tokyo for nine hours, buying twenty copies of the same DVD, then going home and crying yourself to sleep.
Yet there is a solution, a place where anime goes to die. Just off Sunshine City Street in Ikebukuro is a small ramshackle shop next door to a video rental house, a couple of love hotels, the famous Sunshine Cinema, and a place that makes decent cheap pesto. This little shop used to be empty and devoid of life. Now, I think a Japanese magazine -- one of those Tokyo town guides that office ladies pick up before a date so they can be sure to suggest a restaurant that's guaranteed to be appropriately crowded -- must have done a piece on the place, or something, because it's jumping these days. What makes this place cool is cheap videos. For eighty yen, you can get videos. Most of them are shitty old American movies, though I've been slowly putting together a complete collection of "Cowboy Bebop." I'll be done soon. The reason I've been "slowly" putting it together is that it's hard to search at this place. It's just a couple dozen cardboard boxes with videotapes stacked ten-deep and ten-wide. Now that you have to contend with the shoulders of every trendy girl looking for something to watch while she eats her reheated yakisoba for dinner, it's even harder to search. Now that it has a wide horse-trough of a wire basket full of CDs for five yen each, I'm finding even normal-looking rocker guys there, claiming a "friend" told them about the place. It is oddly amusing to me. I asked the manager just yesterday, when I picked up the brand-new Asian Kung Fu Generation single for just five yen, why the hell they have all this stuff. His response was "Overstock. The stores can't sell the CDs at the prices they're charging, so they give them to a buddy of mine for free. He gives them to me for a yen apiece. I sell them for five. It's not a bad business, no. We're on the grow here. We're getting DVDs next week. Two hundred yen each, they'll be. PlayStation2 games will come in a couple of weeks. Four hundred yen each." I ask him, what happens when you finally realize the dream, you know, that dream every businessman has? He tells me, "Well, that's when I start charging normal prices!" He chuckles, then puts on a businessman's straight face. "You just want this? You don't want some more? They're only five yen each." I end up with 200 yen worth of CD singles. I've got them in the changer as I write this. Right now, it's the second B-side on Rip Slyme's "Dandelion." Hell, the B-sides are better than the actual songs, on all of these.
Tamio Okuda's "Sound of Music" is an excellent, excellent song, as well. The coupling B-side is a song of such fierce rock-guitarring that I find myself choking on pretzels. There's an issue at work here, one that, to me, indicates the last bastion of risk-taking in Japanese business. It regards the music industry, though we'll pull it into videogames in a moment: The B-side is always better than the A-side.
Here's how a Japanese band becomes a television-talk-show guest. Aspiring middle-schoolers, get your pens out. I give you all free use of this for an upcoming science-fair project.
1. First, the guy with the vision gets together the band. This is usually the guy who can't play guitar, or can play guitar yet, sorry jack, can't write song lyrics worth shit. Should the former find the latter or the latter find the former, they're off to a good start. Then they find a bassist who never talks and a drummer who can't stop getting arrested for publicly dipping his penis into schoolgirls' bowls of ramen.
2. They make a song. It's usually not very good.
3. They make more songs. One of them ends up alright. One of them ends up as something handed down by God.
4. They ask a friend who has a band if they can open for them at a show.
5. In a perfect world (which this is, for I am the one writing this essay), their opening performance blows away the benefactors'.
6. Someone in the audience freaks out. Someone else in the audience rubs his chin and thinks of getting rich, then he gets their phone number, hops in his Benz, and hits the road.
7. The band records a demo. The band is paying approximately 16,000 yen a week for practice, draining them financially to the point where they have to squat in warehouse in utter squalor. The recording of the demo costs them around a thousand of your dollars.
8. The producer hears the demo, picks two songs -- the alright one, and the one handed down by God -- and decides to re-produce them as a single.
9. The just-alright song is the A-side. The God-handed song is the B-side. The price for two songs is 1,600 yen.
10. The A-side becomes an anime theme song. The kids hear it and buy it because they love the anime. The music lovers hear it and buy it because it shows promise. Both the former and the latter hear the B-side and freak out.
11. The band records an album. It retails for 3,600 yen.
12. They're on TV. They get girls to come shake big booties at their poolside parties.
This is, of course, how it goes in a perfect world. In Japan, what you must understand, an artist's world is always perfect. More than fifty million people live within one-hour commuter distance of the megalopolitan borders of Tokyo; word spreads. In a somewhat Trotskyite sense, the spread of the word, here, is more important than the message itself. That is by no means meant to be construed as "The music is more important than the lyrics." It's to mean that the single is more important than the album, even though the single won't sell as much as the album will, even though both the A-side and the B-side will be contained on the album. It's to merely hint at this dark truth:
13. Despite its holiness, the single -- A-side, B-side and all -- winds up selling to a guy in a sweater on a rainy day for five yen at a dirty shop as buzzing with activity as Tsukiji's fish market on Sunday. He takes it home, listens to both songs, and then puts on another CD without feeling particularly moved.
14. THE CDs ARE ALL COPY-CONTROLLED AND WILL NOT PLAY IN MY CD-PLAYER.
Mr.Children, probably the greatest ever of Japanese pop bands, understands the idea of making a B-side better than an A-side. The A-side is always the song that plays on the radio for six months, annoying half the people who listen to it, bothering the other half because it "sounds just like every other song they make." The Mr.Children fans all know, however, that the other song on the single is the one they're buying when they put down their money. They're buying the unknown. They're buying something the band doesn't want them to know about until they pledge their fan-allegiance. In a way, this can be construed to sound like cruel business -- in a way, it is a way of withholding the real product from the public. If one looks at it optimistically, it's more admirable: the standard A-side is, on one hand, by no means a shabby song -- it's merely similar to everything the band did before that song, and since the band is obviously already famous, their previous stuff can't possibly be bad. The B-side is where the band makes progress and astounds the careful listener. The key is that the progress is always audible to the first-time listener because we have the A-side for comparison. When the singles are finally grouped together as an album, the A-side and B-side songs from the singles are always included. The singles were no more than a revolution-spreading tool. The singles build up hype for the album. The album contains six tracks that the rich or obsessive music-lover can pick up via CD-maxi-singles for 1,200 yen each (or five-yen, if my little secret shanty-shop lasts past the new year). And it also contains six to ten new songs, one of which is played in short clips on Japanese television around the clock. The one that is excerpted for public approval is always the second-best song on the album. The first track is always an introduction. The second track, which will never be featured anywhere outside that album as long as the lead singer and the producer are both alive, is a shining, choking feat of brilliance. When the singer dies of stomach cancer in his late sixties (Japanese rockers tend to do that; they're a straight-edged lot, excusing X-Japan's Hide and Yutaka Ozaki), that brilliant second track song will be placed on a remembrance album, which will come packaged in a smooth fat cardboard box covered in foil-stamped art. The other tracks will be the second tracks from all of the band's other albums. The first track will be an unreleased song, one the producer heard, recorded, and said "Yes, this is so good the public must not hear it until we are all ashes in a Buddhist cemetary in our private ranches in Hiroshima." Hiroshima seems to be where all the rockers claim to be from, these days.
Mr.Children have regrouped as "Bank Band" now, after fifteen years of ruling the pop-charts, and their brand-new Mr.Children cover album is brilliant. The single is a previous single, "HERO," done newly and acoustically. This is a rare feat. When a band breaks up and reforms again immediately, it's almost always a good thing. It means we get to hear a great new version of a classic song. See also The High-Lows' cover of The Blue Hearts' "Too Much Pain."
The Blue Hearts once sang that "Even when there's nothing inside, as long as you have image, you're gonna be alright." The song was meant to be ironic, and at the end of the day, it is pretty ironic. It's an irony I personally can get behind, at that -- that song hails from the good old days of 1990, before the so-called "Age of Irony" kicked in and everybody started getting so damned self-referential. That "Age of Irony" is a sad thing; these days, if I write a gorgeous novel about a woman who gets ostracized in her local Christian community for giving birth to a child of adultery, though my story may contain such humorous throwaway details as the woman's daily pining for the excellent cookies at the local church's Sunday picnic, I will never be loved for this work, because Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter hundreds of years ago. Now, if I found a literary editor who was rich and famous yet had never read The Scarlet Letter, and I sent him The Scarlet Letter as a manuscript, he'd laugh it off as long, boring, and heartless. Yet it was first. Modern western aspiring artists, struggling beneath the weight of the past, have become ironic, jaded assholes.
Yet for the most part, modern American or British rock trends hold little sway over Japanese music trends. As, most of the time, Japanese listeners of Avril Lavigne can't understand the prankishly bad words she's singing, they are most often not compelled to make music like the music she makes. They might want to dress like her, or at least put posters of her on their walls. They do not, however, want to sing like her. On the other hand, they don't want to look up to Japanese musicians; Japanese musicians, from a Japanese listener's standpoint, though they may produce catchy grooves sometimes, can never, ever, ever be credible artists, because singing while a guy holds a guitar, another guy holds a bass, and another guy pounds drums is something the westerners did first. The uncreative Japanese public have angry eyes for originality, it can be observed. That, or they just don't understand art. I don't understand art, either, so I sure as hell won't judge them.
In the end, it's easy to be jaded about the state of anime, manga, music, and other forms of "art" these days because of the "age of irony." As Murasaki Shikibu wrote in The Tale of Genji, and more than a thousand years ago, at that, the world is in a constant state of decline. Murasaki was an artist, and a writer, so her saying this is the equivalent of her saying "Art is in a constant state of decline." She repeats this sentiment throughout her work. Art is a poison, says she. Art is crumbling. She had only just begun to write the world's "first true novel," though, even then, she was able to see it -- the art she had made was already corrupted. She had chosen the events of her story carefully. Yet perhaps she was feeling guilty, or else just worried, that there were events she had set down in haste? I take it she was fearful of the same thing Ryuunosuke Akutagawa was fearful of when he committed suicide at age thirty-five: The memories of the past, had they not been set down with perfect care, will so brutally poison the memories of the future that the evolution of human beings as artistic animals will be doomed to miserable failure.
These, my friends, are the principles that govern Japanese artistic thinking. Forget what you heard about "moments of nature" and bonsai trees and flower-arrangement and simple beauty. Fuck haiku. Welcome to the real world, where Hikaru Utada, at age nineteen, is able to release a "greatest hits" CD that, in all, humble, honesty, actually contains more than a dozen songs, each of which honest-to-godly did hit number-one on the Japanese charts by historically significant margins. Witness a culture that considers her a genius for being the person who sings these more-than-a-dozen songs.
Welcome to the real world. Your apocalypse will be ready shortly.
And more to the point -- holy shit, I have played Sakura Taisen V: Episode Zero, and lord help us, we are all going to Hell.
Thank you, and see you on the other side.
[I wrote an actual review of this game, too. You can see it here. Just because I don't want to put it here. Just because. It's punchier this way. Punchy layout. Punchy colors. Punchy everything. Never accuse me of not being punchy. Because. I can be. Sometimes.]