Tuesday, September 30, 2008

People I like

While I'm rambling on stuff that's not really related to Japan in any way, I just wanted to throw some names out at you. These are all people that have influenced me in one way or another, and who deserve more attention for being the hilariously broken people that they are. (You may have to scroll down, since the blog is messing up the table.)






























































































































Ashleigh Brilliant Master of one-line thought-provokers
Tom Lehrer Musical and political satirist and mathematician
Alice Cooper Bizarre at its best
Raymond
Smullyan
Logic puzzle maker and magician
Richard
Feynman
Physicist and samba player
George Carlin Of course
Marty Feldman He of the funny eyes
Mel Brooks You have to watch "The
Twelve Chairs
"
Allan Sherman "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda"
Peter Sellers You need to hear the old "Goon
Show
" tapes
Godfrey
Cambridge
Gotta love that voice
Frank Gorshin One of the best mimic comics ever
Leonard Barr Funniest man on the planet. Ever.
Peter Cook Beyond the
Fringe
William
Goldman
Princess Bride and Marathon Man. 'nuff said
Stan Freberg Voice actor and ad writer
Chuck Jones Wilie E. Coyote, Super Genius
Tex Avery Understood progression
Bob Clampett It's Time for
Beany!
Daws Butler Beats Mel Blanc
as a voice actor hands down
Paul Frees How can you not like Boris Badenov and Inspector Fenwick?
Smothers
Brothers
Mother always liked you best
Laugh-In Why can't we have this show now?
Ernie Kovacs Showed why TV can be funny
Groucho Marx Why that elephant was in my pajamas, I'll never know
Ian
Anderson
Aqualung, Locomotive Breath, Wind Up
Lily Tomlin One ringy-dingy, Two ringy-dingy...
The Monkees Randy Scouse Git,
Head


Eric Von Zipper
You are my idol, but I am my own ideal
Randee
of the Redwoods
I hurt myself, watching this guy on stage
Big Daddy Roth http://www.mrgasser.com/images/posterfink.jpg

These names are in no particular order, and it's by no means a complete list. I'll make a new list someday with more people on it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dwight Fry


(Dwight Frye, from retrocrush)

Ok, I have to admit that I'm a net junkie. Give me an excuse to look up something and I'll be accessing Google, wikipedia and youtube just like that. What got me started this time was this nagging need to listen to Weird Al Yankovic's "Virus Alert" just one more time. Then I got to thinking, "What other songs have I never seen the videos for?" Which led me to tracking down songs from PDQ Bach (Art of the Ground Round), They Might be Giants (Particle Man) and Tom Lehrer (The Elements Song, and Poisoning Pigeons in the Park). But, the person/band that I spent the most time on was Alice Cooper.

Alice hit it big in the 70's, when I was still in high school. I became an instant fan. I picked up the "Love it to Death" album, and just played it over and over in my room (until I took it to my part-time job at a public TV station and someone stole it). There were two songs that appealed to me the most, "Sun Arise" and what I called the "scary song". The "scary song" was about someone stuck in a mental asylum and he breaks out. It was scary to me because I always had the fear in the back of my mind that my strange sense of humor could get me committed, and I'd never be able to convince anyone to get me released. So, I could relate to the idea of someone being in an asylum and wanting to get out. And "Sun Arise" was just a silly song that broke the tension after the "scary song".

Anyway, as I was searching youtube, I found a video for "Sun Arise", and I finally got the interest to get the title for the "scary song". It is "The Ballad of Dwight Fry". Now of course, I had to find out who Dwight Fry is. The answer is, Dwight Frye was a film actor in the 1930's and early 40's who specialized in playing crazies. He's best known as Renfield in the 1931 "Dracula" film with Bela Lugosi. He died in 1943, at age 44, of a heart attack while riding a bus in Hollywood. Alice wrote the song as a tribute, and as speculation of what Dwight would have done in an asylum in a straitjacket. The youtube footage of Alice in concert gives a much rougher version of the song - the album version was cleaner and easier to listen to. But, I now like both versions.

Man, I wish I had access to wikipedia when I was a kid.

"Mommy, where's daddy? He's been gone for so long. Do you think he'll ever come home?"

The anniversary of Dwight's death is coming up on November 7. We should throw him some kind of tribute. Maybe something involving flies...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

PDQ Bach's "Art of the Ground Round"


(Portrait of PDQ, from wiki)

I'm sure that there are people out there that know of PDQ Bach, but I haven't met any of them. So, I'm hoping to spread the infection a bit. PDQ Bach was one of the many sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, but not one of the talented ones. Composer Peter Schickele has made a career of "discovering PDQ compositions on commission", and he presents a number of these so-called "works" in live concerts. If you like classical music, you probably already know of PDQ, and if you hate classical, you'll love PDQ.

One of my favorite pieces is the "Art of the Ground Round", a parody of the style of music known as "a round". When people sing "Row, Row Your Boat" in turn, that's a "round". The "Art of the Ground Round" completely destroys this style of music. Check out the lyrics below and try to see what happens to them when they're sung in "round" style.

-----

Loving is as easy as falling off a log, a cattle of a cat and a doggle of a dog, dog.
When you're hot you know you're hot, and when you're not you're not. Hot.
Cold, cold loving is hard but hot, hot.

-----

Please, kind sir, that portrait I see, if that's your daughter present her to me.
Look! Her face could launch a thousand ships, thousand ships, thousand ships.
Very well, it can be arranged, if you please, sit you down, make yourself at home,
While she's up dressing she'll be down in a jiffy,
she's up dressing she'll be down in a jiffy, jiffy, jiffy, jiffy.

-----

The next one's not a real round, but it's the one I like the best.

Jane, my Jane. You are my queen.
For your hair is your crown.
And your breath is like down.
With your eyes black as nuns,
And your face like the suns,
You are my queen.

That you remove when you retire.
Wind of a compost heap on fire.
Like nuns they cross themselves each day.
Set over Pittsburgh USA.
For a day.

-----

There's other pieces in the set, but I'll let you discover them by yourself. If you like this music, please support Peter by buying his albums. If you don't like this music, then let's talk "Weird Al"...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

47 Ronin

Tokyo is huge. There are thousands of stores, small shops and businesses within just a 7 mile radius. Open that radius up to include the entire city, and the number of places you can visit basically exceeds the possibility of doing this all in one lifetime (much less within a 1 week vacation trip). Which is why so few Tokyo natives have themselves visited all of the big tourist sites. (Plus, it would cost too much to check out everything.)

On top of all this is the fact that Tokyo (or Edo) has a history that dates back to well before 1457 AD, when Edo Castle was first built. This means that just about anywhere you go, there's something to visit or gawk over. One of these things is the cemetery in Sengaku-ji, 1 mile out from Roppongi (the embassy and nightlife district). Sengaku-ji (Sengaku Temple) contains the remains of the 47 Ronin, a true event that took place in Tokyo on 1701. After visiting the temple, walk around the twisty little roads that litter the backyards between the temple and the Sengaku-ji train station to get a feel for what the ronin would have been going through at the time.


(Sengaku-ji Temple)

The story is fully described at the wiki page, and has been turned into kabuki plays and even film. As a recap, the lord of a small domain in the countryside is called to Edo along with some of his retainers. The lord runs afoul of a corrupt court official and makes the mistake of drawing his sword against a representative of the Shogun. The lord is ordered to commit seppeku. In revenge, the retainers turn ronin (masterless samurai) and wait a full year and a half before exacting revenge against the house of the corrupt official. After that, the ronin also commit seppeku to follow their lord into the afterlife, and their ashes are then interred in Sengaku-ji.


(Ooishi Kuranosuke)

The temple itself is nothing all that interesting, being surrounded by apartments and modern office buildings. However, the statue of the lead retainer, Ooishi Kuranosuke, is very impressive, and the cemetery itself does have an air of age and history. If you come to Japan, this is a place well worth visiting. Afterwards, there's a really nice little dessert shop half a block in front of the temple gate that serves good coffee and shaved ice if you need a snack.


(Close-up of crest on the money box in front of temple)


(Close-up of pillar detail on temple)


(Same pillar, different angle)


(Cemetery, with urn markers for some of the 47 ronin)


(Urn marker, probably for Ooishi's wife (not sure, though))

Friday, September 26, 2008

End of old TV Season, Summer 2008

Man, talk about a blood bath. 32 anime series are ending as of this week. Granted, this is only 50% of what's on right now (32 shows are still airing). But, with the new season starting, a lot of shows only lasted 13 episodes (a few made it to 26 eps) meaning that they never really had a chance to gather a following beyond those fans of the manga.

Shows ending include:

Code Geass
Birdy Decode
Special A
Yakushiiji Ryoko's Case Files
Neo Angelica Abyss Second Age
World Destruction
Monochrome Factor
D.Grey-Man
Himitsu - The Revelation
Sekirei
Itazurna Kiss
Macross F
To Love-ru
Strike Witches
Mission-E
20 Menso no Musume
Slayers Revolution
Wangan Midnight
Seirei no Moribito

Of these, I was just getting interested in Birdy Decode and Seirei no Moribito, and I really wanted to watch Ryoko's Case Files (not able to because I don't have a DVD recorder right now, and the show ran at 1:00 AM). The other shows I didn't really care about. Interestingly, the October Newtype magazine listing didn't include a mention of Meitantei Conan, so I'm not sure what the status of this one is.

For those that care, Naruto and Bleach are still running, as are Yugioh, Zettai Karin Children and Pokemon.

I'll run a list of the new shows when I can confirm them from the TV station websites, but they should all be starting with the first week of October.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Manga Review: Eye of the Dog, Jyuzo



Eye of the Dog, Jyuzo (by Masaki Segawa), Grade: A

Ok, here's a title that I really like, that probably won't be brought to the U.S. any time soon. It is available as a fan download, if you can handle .rar files. And, if you've read Basilisk or the Yagyu Ninja Scrolls manga, then you kind of know what to expect. But, while the above two titles are based on someone else's novels, it looks like Jyuzo is a completely original work.

"Onikiri Juzyo (i.e. Demon-cutter Jyuzo)" is subtitled as "Eye of the Dog, Jyuzo" in English on the cover. The artwork is clean, highly detailed, and combines a mix of traditional pen and ink work along with computer graphics. The CG art clashes with the pen art, but does add a sense that the CG monsters are a thing alien to the rest of the world. Segawa is a master at drawing fast-paced sword battles, but the need for occasional long, drawn-out explanations does make the action drag at times. The character designs do get recycled from Basilisk and Yagyu Ninja Scrolls (Jyuzo looks a lot like Jubei Yagyu), but there are a lot of original characters as well. (And, when talking about Segawa's works, "original" takes on all new meanings). This is an adult story, so the sex and violence may offend some readers.

The story is very convoluted, and trying to unravel it over the course of its 2000-year span would take all of the fun out of it. This is a thick 4-volume series published 3-5 years ago, so it's still pretty new.

Starting in the middle, about 1800 years ago in a mythical Japan, a magician, Seibei Abeno, sets about to create a conflict that will pick up 800 years later. In order to do this, he turns a fellow magician, Douman, evil; while simultanously ensuring that Douman will meet defeat at the hands of his lover, the shape-changing kitsune (fox spirit) Osaki. He also creates a handful of humanoid dogs, and some super-powered humanoid ravens, and raises a human girl, Kotori, as his own daughter. Seibei tricks Douman into getting into a position where he is trapped along with Osaki inside a dagger protected with a magic seal.

The series starts with the events that unfold 800 years later. Seibei is long dead. Most of the magical creatures are still alive and mostly physically unchanged. Two children, the descendants of Kotori, are currently living in their father's house. The dagger has been handed down from Kotori to the youngest of the two children, Kanako. Kanako is betrothed to her step brother, Jyuzo. Jyuzo has just returned from a training sabbatical, where he has consumed the soul of one of the magical creatures, the dog god Gouza. The sabbatical was designed to make him strong enough to protect Kanako. About this time, Kanako's older full brother, Genzou, sneaks into the house to steal the dagger, which he intends to pawn for some quick gambling money. Their father interrupts him, and Genzou pulls the dagger out of the sheath, thus releasing Douman and Osaki from their 800-year imprisonment. Douman immediately steals Genzou's body and tranfers Genzou's soul into Kaneko's body. From here, things start getting difficult to follow, but the point is to figure out what Seibei wanted to have happen 800 years into his own future, between Douman, Jyuzo, Kanako, Genzo and Osaki.

Summary: Onikiri Jyuzo is a great action manga set 1000 years in the past in a mythical Japan, and has lots of sword fighting, magic, weird creatures and bizarre plot twists. Many people will be put off by Segawa's style, but if you're not one of them, that is if you like Yagyu Ninja Scrolls, then you'll really like Jyuzo.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Who is Agnes Lum?

Ok, stop me if you've heard this one...

Last week, I'm walking to Shinjuku station from my last Japanese lesson when I pass a used book store. On impulse, I step inside and end up buying a handful of books, including "This is the Police Box in front of Turtle Park" (Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen Mae Hashutsujo, usually shortened to "Kochikame"). Kochikame has been running in Shonen Jump since 1976, and I still read it every so often. Well, the thought occurred to me that it'd be interesting to see how the series started. So, I bought volume 1. Which I started reading yesterday.


(Kochikame cover from onemanga.com)

I get into chapter 2 and there on the back wall of the police box is an announcement poster that reads "Agnes Lum wa hatashite 'shojo' nano darouka?" (Is Agnes Lum really a virgin)? So of course this raises the question of who Agnes Lum is. Asking aound, I'm told that she was a really famous singer from the 1970's. Checking the net, I learn that she was an Hawaiian-Chinese star that hit it off as Japan's first real pin-up star, model and singer. (I didn't know this.)


(Agnes, from wikipedia)

Further, I learn that Agnes was the model for Rumiko Takahashi's Lum-chan from "Urusei Yatsura" (all of which is actually heavily documented on the net, if you can believe the net, indicating that this stuff is new to only me).


(Lum-chan, from the furinkan.com website).

Finally, I get to the last page of the Kochikame chapter that started all of this, and three of the cast are being punished for breaking up the neighborhood, by having their heads shaved and having to stand with signs around their necks. One sign says "watashi wa rumuchan ga daisuki na" (I really love Lum-chan). I get the feeling that Kochikame's author, Osamu Akimoto, isn't really a big Agnes fan.

All of this from a simple impulse to step into a book store.

-----------------

Notes:
Kochikame started in 1976 and is still running.
Urusei Yatsura ran from 1978 to 1987.
Dr. Slump, which had character designs and poses very reminiscent of the early Ryuotsu character in Kochikame, ran from 1980 to 1984. Indicating that Toriyama may have been influenced by Akimoto.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Japanese Poe

Living in, and growing up in the U.S., it's easy to get tricked into thinking that all great literature has come from the States and western Europe (specifically England). While a few non-English speaking writers have made names for themselves in the U.S., (like Nietchze), they're not really high on anyone's reading list. So it sometimes comes as a shock to trip over people like Maurice Leblanc (creator of Arsene Lupin, prototype of the Monkey Punch character Lupin III). Yet, even with Japan's rich history of literature, all anyone really knows about is "The Tale of Genji". (Not including modern-day manga).

One writer well worth reading is Natsume Soseke, who wrote "I am a Cat", a commentary on various people he knew, as well as on just broad character types, in the early 1900's. Soseke is considered a national treasure, and his face was on the 1000 yen note until 2004.


(Ranpo, from the wikipedia entry on him)

However, the person I really want to highlight right now is Edogawa Ranpo, a famed Japanese mystery writer active from 1923 to 1955 (died in 1965). The name "Edogawa" may be familiar to anyone that reads "Meitantei Konan" ("Case Closed") as being the pseudonym Jimmy Kudo uses after being turned into a kid - Conan Edogawa. In that manga, Kogoro Mouri is named after one of Edogawa's detectives, as is the fake name Conan's mother sometimes uses - Fumiyo, Kogoro's wife in the mysteries.

I have to state right now that I haven't read the Edogawa books yet, since I just discovered him from a conversation I had with a friend (and the fact that only two books of his works have been translated to date). But probably the greatest thing about him is his name. Edogawa Ranpo is the pen name for Hirai Tarou. Tarou was a big fan of Maurice LeBlanc, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. And in fact, Tarou took his pen name directly from the Japanese spelling of Poe's name - Edoga Waran Po (Edgar Allan Poe = Edogawa Ranpo). I think that alone is worth reading his works for.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Manga Review: Magikku Kaito Kid, Yaiba and Meitantei Konan

One of the things that's kind of fun about manga, especially if you read it long enough, is being able to watch the progression of an artist's skills over time. You really don't get to see this with western comic book artists, because the staff changes so many times over the course of a specific title, and the artists usually have little control over the story. But, with manga, no matter how the long the series runs, if you wait long enough, it will end and you'll get to see the principle artist go to the next title, with new stories and possibly new character designs.

When I first came to Japan, Yaiba was still running. It ended soon after, and Conan started up a year later (I followed Conan off and on when I traveled to San Jose on business and could stop at the import bookstore there to pick up Shonen Sunday). Over all, Aoyama Gosho has improved a lot in both his story telling and artistic skills. It's easy to see just by comparing the covers of Kaito and Conan.



Magic Kaitou (by Aoyama Gosho, 1988-2007), Grade: C
This is very clearly Gosho's early work. The character designs foretell that of Conan, but they're crude, childish and inconsistent. The line art is clean and simple and the backgrounds are detailed, but the overall manga is a mess. The story revolves around Kaito Kuroba, an amateur stage magician and school student, who discovers that his late father had a secret identity - the magician thief Kaito Kid. Kaito assumes Kid's identity 8 years after his last appearance, and proceeds to steal the world's greatest treasures in order to track down his father's killer.

Magic Kaito desperately wants to be another Arsene Lupin or Cat's Eye, but Gosho's story telling skills are lacking here. The stories are usually short one-chapter stand-alone gags that don't build on each other. The plots run all over the place, from Kid trying to steal a jewel from a corrupt store owner, to fighting a battle of love against a devil-summoning witch, to being replaced by a robot that thinks it's a human. Worse, the "stage magic" used in the series would never stand up in real life; it's just a little too unrealistic (and mostly rip-offs of Lupin III; unfortunately Gosho is no Monkey Punch). The only reason for reading Magic Kaitou is that Kid makes cameo appearances in Yaiba, and is an occasional menace to Conan, and it helps to know where Kid originated from (although there is one full chapter in "Magic Kaito" where Kid goes to Yaiba's house and tries to steal Yaiba's sword, and with chapter 24, Conan shows up as his original teenage self to face off against Kid). The series was more-or-less suspended so that Gosho could move on to other things.

Summary: A weak series that points out most of Gosho's flaws as a young manga-ka. Recommended only to fans of Conan.



Yaiba, (by Aoyama Gosho, 1988-1993), Grade: B+
Yaiba is another rip-off title. Where Magic Kaitou used Arsene Lupin (and by extension Lupin III) as a starting point, Yaiba used Dragon Ball. Yaiba is another gag series, but this one revolves around a young would-be samurai that starts out growing up in the jungle before being brought to Tokyo; as part of the task of growing stronger he chases after a series of magic balls ("hello, this remind anyone of anything?)". The artwork is still clean and detailed, and the character designs don't overlap with Magic Kaito. Yaiba is a kid's fantasy adventure series that involves lots of silly talking animals, dumb villains and the total and complete destruction of every building in Japan. Fortunately, Yaiba doesn't take itself seriously, so it's easy to accept it as the cotton candy that it is. Unfortunately, it is pure fluff, so it only gets a B+ rating.

Summary: A mindless romp across Japan, as the samurai-in-training Yaiba prepares to defeat his arch-rival, demon-sword-bearing Onimaru. Recommended if you need a Dragon Ball fix.



Meitantei Conan, (by Aoyama Gosho, 1988-1993), Grade: B
Ok, I probably don't have to tell anyone about this title; it's gotten pretty over-exposed in the U.S. under the name "Case Closed". What I will say is that I don't really like it. The artwork is clean and detailed as always, but the character designs were recycled from Kaito and Yaiba (after being significantly cleaned up). What I dislike so much is that the basic premise is so silly - a high school detective gets shrunk, and outfitted by a mad professor with a dart gun/voice changer, super-powered shoes, and a soccer ball-ejecting belt. It's like a toy company hired a manga artist to develop a 700+episode running ad for their kids products.

As always, Gosho needed a jumping-off point to start from, and Conan's was a mix of Sherlock Holmes, Kindaichi Case Files, and other older "Hardy Boys"-style Japanese stories. And, in a way, this is another source of annoyance for me. In all these kinds of stories, the endings tend to be so consistently preachy - no matter how justified a killing is, it's always the perpetrator of the current case that is in the wrong because the "boy genius" was able to catch them. The moral seems to be - "hey, you're a victim, shut up and accept it. Society requires victims, and you're it. I was the one brilliant enough to catch you, so now you must suffer *even more*!!! Bwah hahaha!!!" Unless of course if the victim is rich, in which case Conan arrives just in time to save him. Anyway... No, I don't like these kinds of stories.

Summary: Precocious boy detective outsmarts villians and out-thinks police. Recommended only if you're bored. I read it only to find out how many cliches Gosho will recycle this time. Yes, Gosho has improved with time and practice, but there are still a lot of artists out there that are better than him.

(Spoiler: In Magic Kaito chapter 19, it's revealed that the original Kid (Kaito's father) was killed after trying to steal a large gem. There's a secret organization that is also after the world's largest gems since one of them contains the ability to grant immortality, but the organization doesn't know exactly which gem it is. They kill off anyone in competition with them for the gems, giving Kaito a reason to keep harrassing them. This is the same organization that shrunk Conan into small child form.)

--------------------------------------------

Incidentally, if you do like Aoyama's manga, then you'll want to visit his museum if you ever come to Japan. It's on the west side of the country, quite a ways away from Tokyo, on the other side of Kyoto, though.

Overall Summary: We can see Gosho evolve his artistic skills and character designs, starting with Magic Kaitou all the way up to Conan. For this reason alone, it's fun to read Gosho's work and watch his evolution as a manga artist.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

More fun in the grocery store

Know what's cool? Take a couple of slices of Wonder bread and your favorite filling. Spread the filling on one slice of bread, leaving about a 1/4" to 1/2" margin around the edges. Put the other slice on top and then use the edge of a fork or the back edge of a butter knife to pinch the two slices of bread together at the margin point and to cut off the crusts. This should leave you with a completely sealed bread pocket.

Japanese stores sell these at 2 pockets for 100 yen ($1), with fillings that include peanut butter; apple jelly; strawberry jam; and maple syrup and butter. Follow the link and click on "Enter" to view the full selection of "lunch packs".

Way cool.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A story

"I'd been wanting to buy myself a bicycle for a while now, but there were a few hurdles facing me that had caused me to put off actually visiting a bike shop. One, and one of the more important ones, was the question of where the bike would go once I bought it. The apartment complex I live in has covered parking for bikes, but I wasn't sure if it was "first-come, first-served" parking, or if the spaces were assigned to specific apartments.

"The weather had gotten more pleasant now that Summer had ended, and the desire to go out riding around the neighborhood had gotten stronger. So I asked my wife how parking worked here. She told me that she wasn't sure, but she'd check. It wasn't an important question for her, since neither she nor my mother-in-law had learned how to ride a bike. My father-in-law had passed away a long time ago and I'd never met him. However, my wife told me that he'd had a bike that he used to ride, but she didn't know what had happened to it.

"Finally, I announced that I'd buy myself a mountain bike. This forced my wife to call the landlord and ask about bike parking. A few minutes later, the two of us went outside. There, about 40 feet from the front of the building, in the first space in row 10 of the covered bike lot, was a blue 'mama chari'. The key lock and bearings had rusted over and the tires had gone flat, but otherwise the bike was still in amazingly good condition for having spent over 15 years being exposed to the elements.

"A feeling of sadness fell over me. The lot contained at least 100 other bikes of varying ages, and my father-in-law's bike was the first one that people had to walk past to get to the rest of the lot. And for 15 years after his passing, this bike had been quietly ignored. That's a fate that no one deserves, especially not a bicycle that had loyally served its owner without complaint. At least it had fared better than if it had been left in the U.S. - no one had vandalized it. I asked my wife to arrange with the city to pick the bike up for recycling. Then we walked back to the apartment, passing by a pink mama chari, its tires flat and the frame speckled with a growing outbreak of rust."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Job Hunting in Japan, Part 5 - English Teaching

The old standby for westerners trying to find work is the "English teacher" (French, German and Spanish are also popular languages here). So, the competition for English jobs is fierce and the pay is low. There are openings in elementary, and junior and senior high schools, but these require teaching certification and often a few year's experience. There are a lot of language schools here (Geo, GABA, Aeon, etc.) that will offer visa sponsorships, but most job openings go to holders of working holiday visas first; the positions are often part-time (maybe $100 or $200 per week); and some schools want ESL (English as a Second Language) experience.

There's also the JET program, which will sponsor people from different countries to live in Japan and teach English at local public schools, but the program is only for one year, and there are maybe only 50 positions for 5000+ applicants from the U.S. Your odds of getting into this program are low; everything revolves around how well you can complete in an essay writing contest.

This leaves private tutoring. There are two networking sites for students trying to find private teachers:

findateacher.net
This is a free site for listing yourself as a language teacher. The dashboard shows you how many people have viewed your profile, and if someone wants to contact you, you'll get an e-mail notice. You are encouraged to upload a photo, and to keep your profile updated once a month. Recommended prices are 3000 yen per hour for individual students. In addition, findateacher has a monthly party at the Sonoma bar and grill in Shibuya (3000 yen = $30 USD), which is really a networking session for students wanting to talk to the teacher before requesting teaching. Findateacher charges the students an online finder fee for contacting teachers, which is why the parties are so popular (the parties give the students a way to bypass the online finder fee).

findstudents.net
This is also a free to use service for listing yourself as a teacher. The service makes its money selling learning supplies (textbooks and flash cards), making it more popular with the students. Otherwise it's the same as findateacher.

As of September 8, I had 7 hits on my profile on findateacher, 30 hits on findastudent. And 0 requests to contact me for either site after 1 week. So, obviously, having a good profile is important, as is location and how much experience you've had teaching (if you lie about your experience, you'll be blacklisted from the site).

One advantage to private lesson teaching is that you can choose where to have the classes, such as at a coffee shop or library, and when. It offers flexibility to those of us that work part-time at a language school and need to make more money. The disadvantage is that you can't get guaranteed work. Having 5 students a week means getting no more than $600 per month.

Job Hunting in Japan, Part 4 - Age and Gender

If you come from a western country, you may be surprised to find that you're passed over for a job based on age, race or gender. Japan does not have anti-discrimination laws and many ads will specifically ask for "female under 25" for office jobs. If you go to one of the job fairs hosted by Dai Job, you'll see booth banners reading "Over 35 OK" (over 50 still seems to be a problem, though). Face it, the Japanese corporate world wants young, attractive employees and this especially holds true when it comes to hiring foreigners.

And the government wants an educated work force, so you're not going to get a working visa if you don't have at least a university bachelor's degree (as required by law) (assuming that you're coming from a country that doesn't have working holiday visas).

If you find yourself being discriminated against (being older than 40; being female for a high-tech job; not being Caucasian) there's no action you can take against the company. Just move on and keep looking, remembering that if the company is going to discriminate against you at the hiring phase, they're probably going to keep treating you the same way after you get the job. And is that the kind of job you want?

But, there is hope. Japan is an aging society and there's a growing need for foreign workers to fill the positions that open up due to retirement or old age, especially in the health care fields. Japan just brought in a lot of trained health care workers this Summer from Malaysia. This trend is expected to grow over the next few years. (The Malaysian workers don't speak much Japanese right now, which is a point of contention in the media. Being fluent in Japanese might give you a significant edge in overcoming any other factor that you might otherwise be discriminated about.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Job Hunting in Japan, Part 3 - Job Sites

In part one, I mentioned the job finding sites. These are a mixed bag. No one site will have all of the available job openings, and some sites are easier to use than others. Some allow you to upload your resume in both English and Japanese, others just one language or the other. Most jobs listed will be aimed at Japanese nationals, and unless you are 100% fluent in Japanese you won't even be considered for the job. For those listings that are in English, the positions in IT and management will require either JLPT level 1 or 2 proficiency. Unless you have this certification, the website will reject your attempts to apply for those openings. So make sure you take college-level Japanese classes before considering coming here to find work!!!

As for the sites themselves....
Well, the English magazine J-Select ran an article in their July 2008 issue on finding work here, and they included a list of 10 recruiting companies and about 10 job sites. I haven't looked at all the recruiters yet, but I did check out the job sites. Of the group, only 3 sites are at all promising: Dai Job, Gaijin Pot and Career Cross. The rest aren't even worth looking at (the exception is Joblet, which may improve over time).

The good sites:

Dai Job: One of the biggest online sites for Japanese listings. Allows both Japanese and English resumes. Filters out job applications if you don't meet the JLPT language requirements
Pluses: Lots of listings.
Minuses: No e-mail notifications of jobs that match your search conditions. Only one or two search conditions per job category. Hard to navigate through new jobs (new jobs mixed in with older listings). Bi-weekly newsletter mainly shows 10 or so "hot jobs" that are just ads where the company paid more to have the listing bumped up.

Gaijin Pot: Also a has a large database, and allows English and Japanese resumes. This is really more like a craigslist in that there are lots of off-topic forums and tons of classified ads. Most of the job positions are for English teaching jobs. Filters out applications that don't meet the BJP language requirements.
Pluses: Lots of job listings. Daily e-mail notifications for new jobs that meet your search conditions A good search engine. Easy to navigate.
Minuses: This is more like a newspaper classified ads section, and only a fraction of the site is dedicated to the job search. (It's fine if you're looking for an immigration lawyer, a car or an apartment, though.)

Career Cross: A slightly smaller database. English and Japanese resumes. Dedicated to job searching. Language level requirement scaled as "conversational, business and native".
Pluses: E-mail notifications of new listings. "Shopping cart" lets you store job ads for later reference.
Minuses: Only 3 search conditions at a time. Fewer jobs than the above two sites.

The less useful sites:

Career Builder: English resume only. Primarily a site for finding jobs in western companies.
Pluses: None.
Minuses: No jobs listed for Japan. Website wants money for bumping your resume application up in rank to the employer company.

Hot Jobs: This is just Yahoo Jobs. All English text, no job listings for Japan.

Jinzai Bank: All Japanese test, no instructions in English. Primarily aimed at Japanese natives only.

International Monster: This URL just links to Monster's country selector page. Almost no listings for Japan, and the few listings there are over 1 month old.

Work in Japan: This is just the English page from Dai Job. Same as going to www.daijob.com and selecting the "English" button.

Joblet: A clean, focused website dedicated to foreigners trying to find work in Japan. English resume.
Pluses: Simple, and easy to use. E-mail notifications of new listings.
Minuses: Very small database. Weak search engine. E-mail notification is for all new listings with no filtering based on the type of work you want.

The useless sites:

Asia Net? No idea - it's a dead link.

Job Dragon: Talk about dead slow - website locks up for minutes at a time, and never did come back from processing my resume when I uploaded it. A waste of effort.

Jobs in Japan: An amateurish attempt to make an online version of a newspaper listing. Almost no jobs listed, and most are for actresses in porno films. A complete waste.

Job Jungle: This is just a wrapper on top of a shopper site. A complete waste.

Summary:
I definitely recommend registering with Dai Job, Gaijin Pot and Career Cross, and maybe Joblet. Keep on top of the listings and try to apply to anything that you think you can qualify for. And be patient. Very, very patient.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Job Hunting in Japan, Part 2 - Networking and Meishi

If you ask anyone with recruiting experience how to proceed with a job hunt in Japan, they'll probably suggest all of the following - register with the recruiter agencies, register with the online job sites, and network, network, network. In any case, don't slack off on doing the job hunting yourself, because requests for interviews aren't going to just fall in your lap.

Networking is a really big issue in Japan. Japanese people aren't going to trust someone that they just meet cold. Instead, they'll be much more receptive to someone that is recommended to them by someone they trust. So, you want to go to parties, attend industry meetings and events, and otherwise just keep yourself visible. Don't push too hard - you'll create the wrong impression if it looks like you're just using someone for making contacts. In essence, look at it as having a large circle of friends that help each other out. The more real friends you have, the more likely that they'll suggest your name to a co-worker or boss when an opening pops up. Remember though that this will take time, so be patient and make sure that you have a financial reserve that you can fall back on as needed.

Having said this, there aren't that many networking opportunities. Maybe events at the U.S. or Canadian embassies, a couple of cycling and outdoors groups that get together occasionally, and one group that shares an occasional monthly "British tea" gathering. Being fluent in Japanese may result in your learning about other industry events that aren't advertised in English magazines, which gives you another reason for getting certified for Japanese proficiency (JLPT level 1 or 2) before coming here.

MAKE SURE YOU BRING MEISHI!!!!!

"meishi" is the Japanese name for business cards. These are your life blood when networking. Always have 10 or 20 cards on you where ever you go. Treat the other person's card with respect, reading it carefully to understand their job function and company they work at, since this is crucial in determining how they will treat you and how they expect you to treat them (watch them for examples for how to treat the cards). You can get meishi printed up at certain office supply stores or online. You can also get cheap, decent-quality card holders from one of the many 100 Yen Shops in town. On the meishi, at least include your name, phone number, address and e-mail address. You may want to include your webpage URL if it has work-related info on it. Definitely include your company name and job title if you have one. Try to have the card in English on one side and Japanese on the other, if possible.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Job hunting in Japan, Part 1 - Intro

In a previous blog entry I wrote a series of tips regarding coming to Japan and learning to live here. I may accidentally repeat some of that advice this time, but I suggest that potential job seekers go back and read all the entries from July.

In essence, finding a job in Japan has gotten much harder since the 1990's. More foreigners have arrived with basic skill sets that increases the amount of competition you'll face for a given job, plus Japanese companies have gotten more picky about who'll they'll accept for a position. In addition, the economy has nose-dived again, so that at best you can expect only $40,000 (USD) per year for most non-management jobs. Most of these jobs also require JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) level 1 or 2, or JETRO's BJP (Business Japanese Proficiency) level 1 or 2. So, study for Japanese language proficiency before even thinking about getting a job here. Being "conversant in Japanese" doesn't cut it any more. Tech companies want proficiency certification. (And the Japanese government requires a university degree before you can get a work visa.)

Keep in mind that if you don't have a British, Canadian, New Zealand or Australian passport, you're going to be fighting an uphill battle. Those countries have an arrangement (called a working holiday visa) with Japan that allows those nationals to hold a job for 9 months (renewable up to 2 times or so) without needing a sponsored working visa. So, most Japanese companies will hire from working holiday visa holders first, since it's a real pain to fill out the paperwork to sponsor someone for a working visa. This means that if you're from the U.S., you either need to marry a Japanese national, or find a company to sponsor you. It really is becoming more important to join a company based in your home country and get them to station you in Japan, if at all possible. Some international companies, like Tokyo Electron, have Japanese job openings listed on their websites. Or, join the military and get stationed here as part of your service.

English teaching used to be a big opportunity for U.S. citizens, since U.S. English was highly prized in the 1990s. However, the switch has been to British English (mainly because of the visa issue). Also, one of the biggest English schools in Japan - Nova - was discovered to be horribly mismanaged and went into bankruptcy and it's upper management faced criminal fraud charges. Since then, student attendance at the other schools has dropped, and the best wage you can expect is about $28,000 annually (just above the poverty level). The schools still do offer visa sponsorship, but the preference is again for working holiday visa people. There are many openings for English teachers in elementary, junior high and senior high schools, but those positions usually require some prior teaching experience and certification (either as an ESL (English as a second language) instructor, or one of the other certifications). It is possible, too, to advertise yourself as a private English teacher for one-on-one lessons, but unless you have a working visa already and are trying to teach on the side, you'll probably be able to work as a private language teacher only if you have a spouse visa.

More in detail later.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Two month anniversary.

Today marks my two-month anniversary since coming to Japan on July 15. I might as well use this opportunity to give you a quick status update.

I've been job hunting for about 6 weeks now, and I received my first interview 1 week ago. It's for a part-time English teaching position in Akihabara, for a 28-hour week (Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday). The hours are a bit awkward, but it gives me a stable starting point to build from. I'll be signing the contract this week, and then I need to take a 3-day certification class. The job itself won't start until October. It's just a 3-month contract, to be renewed in February. So, I won't be locked into anything really long-term.

Been watching some anime (Kitaro, Bleach, Soul Eater, Seirei no Moribito, Conan, and Birdy Decode), but there's not a lot on worth watching on any given night (and I only really like Kitaro and Soul Eater; everything else I watch just for the Japanese practice). So, I spend the majority of my days job searching, reading manga for the practice, doing homework for my Japanese class, and writing my Japanese learning game in Flash. Occasionally, we go out for dinner at a nearby okonomiyaki or Chinese restaurant, which is fun but expensive (average $50 per meal for 2 people; $160 for two people at a sushi place in the Ginza two nights ago).

Regarding the game, I've got beta versions of an intro chapter and a hiragana/katakana practice game completed. And I'm working on a game for learning situational Japanese vocabulary (hiragana and kanji) that I hope to get working at a beta level pretty soon.

For the Japanese class, it's been a good experience for me. It's only 90 minutes each Thursday night, but for something that's offered as a free promotion it's been a great value (my last class from the promotion is this Thursday, then I have to decide if I want to go for the regular classes). I've been learning where my mistakes are in both writing kana and in speaking, and I'm slowing correcting them. And, I am making myself understood more at parties when talking to Japanese people that don't know much English. So, overall, it's been a good thing. Plus, working on the Flash games is also good practice for my learning new words and kanji. Unfortunately, I wanted to try the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this year but I missed the cut-off date. It's only offered once a year, in December, and the registration window is from July to September 12. I didn't get around to checking the official website until last night, and then discovered I was two days too late. Sigh. Well, there's always next year. Besides, I'm probably only good enough to pass level 4. I'd like to try level 3, but I'm still weak on the kind of grammar they'd be testing for.

On the job hunting front - I'll run a series of blog entries on my experiences starting tomorrow. Suffice it to say here that the market is tight all around, and anyone planning to come to Japan to find work should be laying down a strong framework well beforehand.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fun in the grocery store

Know what's way cool? You go to the local neighborhood grocery store in the middle of the Summer and you grab one or two small containers of ice cream or kakigori (shaved ice with fruit, and/or flavored syrups - my favorite is the coffee float, but my wife likes the azuki red beans) for a little under $1 each, and you go to the counter where the checkout person asks you a question you don't really understand. For this to work out right, you nod your head "yes", and they hand you a small plastic bag and a metal token. You pay for the ice creams and head over to a big metal machine that looks like the one that dispenses filtered water into the gallon bottle you bring to the store with you. But, this time, when you pull open the big metal slide door, you see a strange nozzle pointing down from the top of the enclosure, with a metal handle on each side of the nozzle. You take the plastic bag and hang it under the nozzle from the metal handles. Close the door, put the token in the machine and press "Start".

There's this huge "whoosh", and frozen flakes fly out from around where the door fails to make a complete seal. A second later, you open up the door and remove the bag. You now have an inch of dry ice flakes lining the bottom of the bag to be used to keep your ice cream from melting on your walk back home. The best part is that the dry ice evaporates, so you don't get all that free running water you'd get from normal ice.

Now, that's way cool.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fuichin-san - A follow-up

First, it looks like the Helen McCarthy article on the making of the "Fuichin-san" anime has gotten lost. The link I included just goes to a website hijacking page, implying that the original domain name might have gone up for grabs and someone else snatched it.

Second, I decided to register my copy of NJStar, which is a really powerful wordprocessor for using Nihongo under Windows, and has real-time kanji look-up. I then used this to translate the Toshiko Ueda biography information on the Ekura Animal site. This led me to doing a google search on her, and I still couldn't find much, even in Japanese. So, I ended up writing my first wiki entry yesterday. I've never done anything on wiki before, but it looks like there's a 4-day waiting period between registering an account, and being able to make a wiki entry public. Anyway, there's almost nothing written about Ueda-san and Fuichin-san, and I want to try to change that by writing up her bio and bibliography.

Third, turns out that Ueda-san wrote 5 different long-running manga titles, including 1 that ran for 11 years, and another for over 20 years (she was still working on this last title even after she turned 80). She also won a Shogakukan award for best children's manga, and a "distinguished service" award from the Japan Cartoonists Association. I wish I knew about her earlier, because she died just this year, in March, at age 90.

Ueda-san lived in Harbin, Manchuria from 40 days after she was born in 1917, to around the time she graduated from elementary school. She returned to Japan, fell in love with manga, and apprenticed under a popular shojo artist for a few years. Then, she returned to Harbin, where she worked in the office of the Manchuria Railroad before switching jobs as a writer for the Harbin daily newspaper. After this, WWII broke out, and when it ended, Ueda-san was interned for 1 year before being repatriated to Japan. During the internment period, she drew manga to cheer up everyone. After returning to Japan, she started drawing professionally, with her first story getting published in 1957 at age 40.

The Fuichin-san manga only ran 5 years. It's placed in Harbin, and is a call-back to the time that Ueda-san lived there as a child. While "Fuichin-san" didn't run anywhere near as long as two of her other manga, it's the one that she is now best known for. Her manga has become collector's items. I did a check on Amazon.co.jp, and there's maybe only one copy available of any given volume of her manga, and the asking prices are between $75 and $80 each.

Ueda-san is one of the people that helped shape the face of Shojo Manga as we know it today, but she's virtually unknown outside of Japan (and even in Japan, people under 40 don't know her). For this reason, I'm trying to write up the wiki entry, and to make her a little more visible to western audiences.

More of the Fuichin-san artwork can be found here:
Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Anime review: Toshiko Ueda's Fuichin-san

A review of the "Fuichin-san" anime, Grade: A



As I mentioned in a previous post, I visited the Suginami Animation Museum in Tokyo a couple of days ago, and as I was looking around, I met the director of Studio Ekura Animal, Toshiyuki Honda, and producer Hitomi Toyonaga. They were sitting in a room dedicated to an exhibit of Toshiko Ueda's manga art. Ueda was born in 1917 in Tokyo, but grew up in Manchuria. After WWII, she returned to Japan and began drawing manga based on her earlier experiences. One such manga, "Fuichin-san", revolves around a lively country girl named Fuichin, and her experiences in and around her town. "Fuichin-san" ran from 1957 to 1963. It's as much an example of what early shojo manga looked like in mid-century Japan as it is a window on the changing face of Manchuria at the beginning of the century (some of the characters are blond and blue-eyed from Russia, and a nearby river has steam boats in the port). Fuichin herself is lithe, cheerful, headstrong, and about half the height of all of the adults around her. The stories can take on a darker tone, but there's a lot of simple, everyday humor as well.



Toshiyuki Honda is a cheerful, helpful man about my age. He's been around in the anime industry and is currently running a small studio that draws the inbetween cels for other studios as kind of a job shop. His studio, Ekura Animal, worked on the latest Lupin III movie that came out in July - "Sweet, Lost Light" (I missed it because I didn't have access to a TV then). However, while Ekura Animal largely assists in the production process on other people's films, they do also tackle personal projects. One such project was the "Fuichin-san" movie, released theatrically in Japan in 2003.



Ekura Animal's 60-minute "Fuichin-san" is obviously a work of love, a tribute to Ueda's manga. The character designs have been cleaned up a little to make them easier to animate and are slightly modernized, but otherwise the flavor of the original has been maintained. The background artwork is highly detailed, looks historically accurate (I can't be sure though, because I don't know the architecture of that period) and is really attractive-looking. The animation is mostly smooth, although a couple shortcuts have been taken (nothing eye-jolting though). Some of the sightgags are obviously aimed at children, but the fight scene in the silk cloth warehouse was well-done and very funny. And I really liked the music, which has a strong "Chinese flavor" to it.

The story is simple: Fuichin's father works as a gate guard for a wealthy merchant. Fuichin herself is a go-getter shoe shine girl. She meets the merchant on the street, talks him into getting his shoes shined, and then refuses to accept a tip, or a reward for returning his dropped wallet. The merchant is impressed by the girl's carefree attitude and decides to ask her to be a friend to his son, Riichuu. Riichuu is a young boy (around 6 or 7) who is bullied by the friends his mother has picked for him, and is locked up in the house to study Russian and the piano, also at the orders of his domineering mother. Fuichin breaks through the boy's shell by demonstrating an ability to befriend his pet puppy and parakeet, but she stomps off after being insulted by the mother's friends. Riichuu then escapes the house to try to plead with Fuichin to come back, but is then kidnapped by beggars that want to sell the boy for some quick money.

My favorite part of the film was in the closing credits, where the film's artwork does a fade into a matching scene from Ueda's manga. The rest of the closing credits contains stills from Ueda's cover art, giving us a glimpse at Ueda's skills as an artist. I'm not sure if any of Ueda's manga is still in print, but I hope that it is.

Summary: Toshiko Ueda was one of the first women to enter the male-dominated manga field, and she helped form shojo manga as we know it today. "Fuichin-san" is largely unknown to western readers, and that's a shame because her works are funny and well-drawn. Studio Ekura Animal's "Fuichin-san" anime is an excellent recreation of Ueda's work, and deserves recognition for trying to bring "Fuichin-san" back to mainstream audiences. It's also a very good movie in its own right. I liked the "Fuichin-san" anime and I highly recommend it to all fans of manga and anime history.

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References:
Studio Ekura Animal
Helen McCarthy Article on the making of "Fuichin-san"
Ekura Animal information page on Ueda Toshiko
Cast list from the anime

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(All artwork used here belong to their respective copyright holders, and is used solely for the purpose of reviewing the "Fuichin-san" movie.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Harajuku Sunday, Part 2


(Food stalls in the park; Osaka-yaki and Yakisoba)

Ok, when you get to Harajuku station, head to the south exit, in the direction of Shibuya. Follow the crowds up the hill and along the bridge over the train tracks. Take a left at the t-intersection (a right will take you into a part of Yoyogi park that contains an exhibit on the Imperial family) and go about a block. You're now facing the back entrance to Yoyogi park. Stay on the sidewalk that follows the outside of the park alongside the street. But, at this point you probably don't need my directions any more - just go check out the noise.


(Punk band playing in the park)

Sunday afternoon in Harajuku means amateur band day. All kinds of groups will haul their gear out and set up to get in some practice before an audience (with their speaker stacks about 20 feet from their neighbor bands). In the past, several groups had gotten scouted this way, and ended up signing professional recording contracts. The day I was out there, I saw 2 punk bands, a couple straight rock bands, a Caribbean-style steel drum group, and a couple of people that just liked to ham it up for the audience (although to be fair, one of the hams, who played a little keyboard, sang and otherwise just mugged it up, had the largest fan following around, with 30-40 people all copying his dance actions along with him). I thought that one of the punk bands (click here to see video), and the steel drum group, were both pretty good.


(Steel drums group)

But it's not just about the music. There are a few artists, and many used crap street vendors set up as well. In addition, there are the street dancers. I think some of these dancers were performing when I first came to Japan 15 years ago. This time there were the 1950's greasers dancing to rock (click to see video), and the accompanying sock hop girls. Not sure what happened to the cheerleader girls or the roller skate girls - maybe they retired, or just took a break this weekend.


(Some of the 50's greasers on break)


(Sock hop girls)


(More sock hop girls)


(Drawing by one of the artists there)


(No idea)

If you visit Tokyo and really want to have some fun, Harajuku *HAS* to be on your itinerary.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Harajuku Sunday, Part 1

You can't live in Tokyo for any length of time without feeling the pull of Harajuku on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Harajuku is on the main Yamanote train line, between Shinjuku and Shibuya, and the Harajuku station is near the south entrance to Yoyogi park. So, the park is calling you just to go out for a stroll.

When you get to Harajuku station, take the central exit. This places you directly in front of the entrance to the Fashion Street, and dumps you into the middle of the crowd of freaks and gawkers. Notice that many of the freaks are from Europe, and have enough metal in their faces to build an amusement park, and wear enough black leather during the Summer as to make you break out in a sweat just by being in the same city as them. There are a few goth lolis and straight punks, but they're outnumbered by the ranks of "mundanes" out to stare at everyone else.


(looking down the Fashion Street)

Welcome to the home of Japanese teenage fashion. This street is about 4 blocks long and lined with shops offering clothes, accessories and photos of pop idols. Granted, the shops spill out over several side blocks, but the main traffic is down this one street. Often, European designers come here to steal ideas.


(People waiting to get a crepe at shop on left, shot from a side street)

It's also a great place to come for a crepe. My favorite crepe shop is here, back towards the end of the street. There's maybe 40 different flavors on the menu. On my most recent trip, I got a piping hot ham, pizza sauce and cheese crepe along with a cold peach melba crepe (canned peaches with ice cream and whipped cream). I love this place.

Oh, and if any of you remember my previous blog entry about intolerance and knee-jerk labelling of those that are "different" from you, when I say "freaks", I really mean "my people".

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bits and Pieces

Just some random stuff this time.

1) I uploaded a new knol to the google site. This one is a list of anime and manga related museums in Japan. It's not a complete list, so if you know of any other museums or galleries, please let me know. The link is given in my knols list on the right side of my blog.

2) The Japan Times ran an article on the big manga summit held this weekend at Kyoto. The article was so pointless that I decided to fire off a comment to the editor. Unfortunately, my comment is probably as badly written as the original article was.

"I guess I should be happy to see any kind of story regarding manga appearing in the Japan Times, but the recent coverage of the 2008 Manga Summit just left a bad taste in my mouth. Instead of running photos of cosplayers, why weren't there any images of the manga-ka at the Summit? Who actually attended the Summit? Who were the big-name artists there? As it was billed an "International" summit, I guess that some comments from non-Japanese artists are to be expected, but why no interesting quotes from Japanese artists? Manga is still largely a Japanese-only artform, yet the Japan Times has almost no coverage of its Japanese practitioners. In fact, the Sept. 8 article told us almost nothing of what happened there. I guess there's one benefit from all of this - I'm more intent on going to next year's summit, just to find out what the reporter left out of his story."

3) I visited Harajuku this weekend, which is always a blast. I uploaded two videos to youtube (the links are to the right of my blog), 1 for a band playing in the park, and the other of a 50's greaser recreation group dancing to a boombox. I'll run a write-up of Harajuku in a couple of days.

4) After visiting Harajuku, I went to the Suginami Manga Museum (the incentive for writing the museums knol) where I met the head of the anime studio Ekoru Animal. The studio created an updated anime based on the older manga "Fuichin-san". I'd never heard of Fuichin-san before and I think this is one that anime fans should know more about. So, I'll write an entry on it in the next few days as well.

5) A couple people have been playing my hiragana/katakana game and have given me feedback on it. Thanks! I'll try to incorporate the feedback in the next version. Right now, I'm starting a kanji memorization game that will go into beta testing in a week or so.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Manga Review: Ryoko, Mushishi, KOR, Alive

It's been a while since I last wrote about manga that I like, so here goes.



Ryoko Yakushiji's Strange Case Files (written by Yoshiki Tanaka and illustrated by Narumi Kakinouchi): Grade A.
Last year when I visited Japan, I was idly checking out Kinokuniya Books for something new to read when "Ryoko Yakushiji's Strange Case Files" caught my eye. I liked the character designs (attractive, and without thick heavy lines) and I ended up getting the first 3 books. They didn't disappoint. The artwork is mostly shojo style, but without all the cutesy flowers in the background. The story follows Ryoko Yakushiji, an elite, flamboyant Tokyo cop that specializes in paranormal cases. As Ryoko, and her hapless male assistant, investigate further weird murder cases (murderous plants; weird little squirrels with human faces that eat human brains), it looks like there's something darker taking place behind the scenes.

Yoshiki Tanaka wrote the original novels, setting the tone and direction for the series. But, it's Narumi Kakinouchi's artwork that keeps bringing me back to the manga. I thought that the character designs felt familiar, but it wasn't until now that I realized why. Narumi has a long and illustrious history, having worked on the "Dr. Slump", "Kimagure Orange Road" and "Urusei Yatsura" anime series. And, she illustrated the original "Vampire Princess Miyu" manga (which I also really like).

The TV anime is currently running late nights on Tokyo's TVK network.

Summary: If you like intelligent, fashionable female ghost busters and cute gun-toting maids, you'll love Ryoko Yakushiji.



Mushishi (by Yuki Urushibara): Grade A-.
"Mushishi" is an ongoing series running in monthly Afternoon magazine, and brought to the U.S. by Del Rey. It is another entry in the supernatural genre. When I first encountered Mushishi in Afternoon, I was unimpressed. The artwork is mostly pencil and brushed watercolors, and it comes out looking muddy. The character designs are inconsistent, and various characters often are difficult to tell apart. The backgrounds are largely forests or woods, and therefore don't standout all that much. It wasn't until I started reading the Del Rey editions that I realized that the appeal to this story isn't in the art, but in the spiritual element.

A long, long time ago, when life was just getting starting on Earth, there was a splitting point where life as we know it got started, but the original proto-life also continued to thrive. Normal people can't detect this proto-life, called "mushi" (insect), but special shamans (mushishi) can. Every so often a human gets entangled in the life force of the mushi, and it's up to the mushishi, Ginko, to figure out what's happening and to try to minimize the damage to both sides.

Japan's Shinto religion has long held that places have power - the tops of mountains and the bottoms of valleys - and small temples are placed there to worship those "local gods". "Mushishi" is an attempt to reframe the Shinto system to explain where these places get their power (from the abundance of proto-life) and how humans can occasionally run afoul of it.

Summary: "Mushishi" is a supernatural series that tries to avoid slipping into horror, while still telling variants of well-known ghost stories (like the bamboo baby). Recommended.



Kimagure Orange Road (by Izumi Matsumoto): Grade A:
You may notice that I tend to give high grades to manga that I review here. Largely that's because I tend to review only manga that I either enjoy, or that pisses me off for some reason. And, I really like KOR. It's not a pure supernatural adventure story like the above two titles, but the main family are all ESPers, and some of the anime was drawn by Narumi Kakinouchi, mentioned above for "Ryoko Yakushiji's Strange Case Files".

KOR is a love triangle sitcom. Our primary hero and the narrator of the series is Kyosuke Kasuga. His family's secret had been discovered again and they've moved to a new town. On his way to his new school, he encounters local thug Madoka Ayukawa and falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Madoka's best friend, Hikaru, decides to claim Kyosuke for herself, and that's where things get messy.

The original KOR manga ran in Shonen Jump, and ended after 156 chapters. The artwork is a little cartoony, and the use of ESP is generally just done for comic effect. The character designs don't stand up all that well over time, but it's one of the first series that I found when I started reading manga, and it has a soft place in my heart because of it.

Summary: A high school romance comedy with bad girls and clueless boys. Recommended.



Alive - The Final Evolution (by Tadashi Kawashima and Adachitoka): Grade A-.
Another ESPer story. This one a lot more action oriented, and a lot more grim. Taisuke Kanou is an average high school student who enjoys spending time with his friends Hirose and Megu. Then, the world is plunged into "nightmare week" as thousands of people commit suicide. At the end of the week, Hirose has developed the ability to drill large holes into people and buildings, and he kidnaps Megu before running off to join a group of power users planning to take over the world. Taisuke slowly discovers that he too has powers (creating fires, later healing injuries) and he chases after Hirose in the hopes of proving that his friend is not a villain. Along the way, more power users come out of the woodwork, all heading to Hokkaido and all leaving trails of bodies behind them.

The artwork is clean, and the character designs are consistent. Adachitoka is a skilled artist, giving his characters a wide range of emotions while also presenting highly detailed fight scenes. Tadashi's writing keeps the story flowing, while skating just this side of "believable" with his explanations for why the world's been thrown into turmoil. The best part of this story is that the characters all realize that they're in a fight to the death, and they don't waste time whining to each other that it's not right to kill under any circumstances (ref. Code Breaker and Elfen Lied).

Summary: "Alive - The Final Evolution" is a boy's action fantasy series pitting power users against each other for the fate of the planet. The current plot arc is nearing its end, and I'm hoping that it doesn't wimp out in the finale. Recommended.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

2008 Manga Summit

The city of Kyoto is hosting the 9th annual Manga Summit this weekend. I'd learned of this summit only a few days ago, so I couldn't really schedule to attend it. I visited the English webpage, but there's virtually no info on entrance fees, events or who will attend. I sent an email asking for info, but never got a reply. The Japanese page is where all the details are, but I can't read everything. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll be able to go next year.

One of the people that will be featured at this Summit is Machiko Satonaka, creator of over 400 shojo manga titles, and executive director for the Japan Cartoonists Association. While shojo comics did exist before Machiko hit the scene, she is credited with being highly influential in defining shojo manga as we know it today (I can't find the reference for this anymore, though). The English links for her are woefully incomplete, and it would be a good thing if someone that knows her works could take on the task of documenting it for the rest of us. In any case, while Tezuka has been called the godfather of manga, I think it's a safe bet to say that Machiko is shojo manga's godmother. I just wish I could have had the chance to meet her this weekend.

One more thing about the summit - it's being held in the Kyoto conference center. One of the promotional points is that Kyoto is the home of Japan's first large-scale manga museum. If you're a manga fan, then this place should be at the top of your list of places to visit (along with the Ghibli museum and the Tezuka museum).

Friday, September 5, 2008

For all you Gundam Heads!

Every so often, something comes out that makes me really love living in this country. This time, it's UFO CATCHER!!! ;-)

UFO Catchers are a lot like the crane arm machines in the U.S., only a lot better. Back in the 1990's, the prizes in the UFO Catchers were largely plush dolls based on various anime series like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. At the time, it cost the arcade owners 300 yen to buy a doll, and a number of anime fans got to the point where they could even get two dolls with a single 100 yen attempt (I averaged 1 plush doll in 3 tries, and would give up if I couldn't get it in 5 tries). So, the arcades were losing money on these things and they took to breaking the springs on the arms or packing the dolls into too tightly together for the arm to pull them out. Eventually, other things started showing up in the Catchers (and other versions of the Catchers came out) including music CDs, game cartridges, plastic figurines, cosplay outfits, oversized pillows, key chains, food, etc.

Today, we've got this! A music speaker for plugging into an MP3 or CD player, or your laptop, in the shape of a Gundam robot head. These speakers are only available from specific UFO Catchers in Japan, and it's probably going to run 200 yen per attempt. Still, it's pretty cool.

"Intruder detected! Intruder Alert!"

(I tried uploading a link to the picture of the Gundam speaker, but the picture kept coming up empty.)

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In other news, the "Elfen Lied" manga has finally ended. Most manga have either weak, sappy endings, or they just fall apart completely (ref. "Shaman King"). For "Elfen Lied", it's a weak, sappy ending, but it's not a total loss. Overall, it wasn't a really bad manga, but it definitely could have been better. Be interesting to see what Lynn Okamoto goes on to next.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Goro Miyazaki

I was surprised to learn recently that Hayao Miyazaki (67, director of "Ponyo" and "Totoro") has a son. I guess I shouldn't have been, but I hadn't heard anything about Miyazaki's kids up until just recently.

On Thursday, Aug. 28, the Japan Times paper ran a small blurb on the sales figures for "Ponyo", Miyazaki's latest film (reviewed in an earlier blog entry). According to the blurb, "Ponyo" has brought in $100 million USD from Japan to date. It may not be his most successful film, but it will be one of the top.

Anyway, the blurb also mentioned that Miyazaki's son, Goro (41), had directed "Tales from Earthsea", which had been very successful in 2006. What's interesting about this is that one Japanese TV station ran a documentary on the making of "Ponyo" (also reviewed in an earlier entry), and during the entire show there was absolutely no mention of Miyazaki's family. Nothing about whether he was married or separated, or if he had kids. When Miyazaki was shown at home, he was by himself as if he was single and had never had a relationship with anyone else outside of work.

Then I checked out the wiki entry on Goro and now I think I know why. Goro had stayed away from animation, preferring to focus on landscaping. Then, while in charge of designing the new Ghibli museum, he was approached to direct "Tales from Earthsea" and Hayao became angry that Goro had gotten a directing job without having had any other animation experience first. Things got messy and the two stopped talking to each other. Apparently, the rift is starting to heal over, but Hayao still doesn't seem to want to discuss anyone other than his deceased mother in public. So, I still have no idea if he has any other kids beyond Goro.

As for "Tales from Earthsea", I haven't seen it. It's gotten tepid reviews from western critics who largely expected "like father like son" and were disappointed. However, the film was accepted by Japanese audiences and nominated for two Japanese film awards, so apparently it wasn't a bad first-time attempt. Then again, there's no word that Goro has decided to follow up by directing a second film, so this was maybe just a one-shot experience.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Only in Japan - the LDP, JASDAQ and Toei Studios

It's been over 6 weeks since I started this blog, and at times I've wondered if I've set the bar too high by trying to write a new entry per day, and to not repeat myself. Then I stumble across something new to talk about, and I end up with about a week's worth of material in my stockpile. To make matters worse (better?) something will pop up that needs to be mentioned right away, postponing my needing to dig into the stockpile for another day.

For those of you that don't follow Japanese political news, there was a big shakeup this week - Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced Monday night, without forewarning, that he was resigning. Apparently, Fukuda's Cabinet had lost popular support, and the ruling party has been unable to pass legislation due to divisions in the Diet. Fukuda claims that his resignation will allow this mess to be straightened out. To fill the void, the ruling party's (the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP) secretary general, Taro Aso, says that he will run for Prime Minister to replace Fukuda.

Now, what's interesting about all this from our point of view is that Aso is known to be a big manga and anime fan. And as a result of Aso's declaration to run for Prime Minister, the stock prices for various anime and manga companies jumped on the JASDAQ boards on Tuesday, according to the Wednesday Japan Times. Toei Animation was up 150 yen to a high of 2450 yen. Mandarake hit 353,000 yen. Broccoli Co., an anime goods maker, was up 45% to 84 yen per share. And, We've Inc., an anime studio was up 10% to 8260 yen. This is expected to just be a blip, since none of these companies will be showing larger profits over the long run, but it's still worth noting.

To put this into perspective - something like this would never happen in the U.S., even if Stan Lee himself made it onto the ticket.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Changes... (Part 3)

When Japanese children grow up, they're under tremendous pressure to succeed. Companies usually hire new employees from one or two specific universities, maybe 200-500 new hires at a time. Therefore, if you want to get into a specific company you need to know what university they hire from. Then, the universities usually only accept applicants from specific high schools. So, you're now looking for the pre-school that's most likely to get you into the high school you want. You want to talk about stress - Japanese kids can have their entire future planned out by age 6, and they're going to be working hard all along the way to compete against everyone else also trying to get into those schools and companies, and not everyone is going to make the cut.

For this reason, Japanese adults are very lenient towards young children. "Let the kids play now, while they have the chance". They're unlikely to rein their kids in if they get too loud or boisterous. But, there's a one more exception to the rules of proper behavior. And that's when you get into college. If you make it into a university, you're pretty much guaranteed to get hired when you graduate, plus the company is going to put you into a multi-year training program to indoctrinate you into its ranks, so there's little real reason to study at this point. College becomes a 4-year vacation, and college students usually use this time to lose themselves in their hobbies, like making model figures of anime characters or pop idols, to form dancing groups that perform in Yoyogi park, or to form a band.

This means that the most eccentric people you're going to meet in Japan are college students, because the rest of society knows that this is the only time those kids are going to have to "be themselves". The day of reckoning will come once they enter the role of "corporate drone" when their college freedoms will get yanked away from them. In the meantime, no one will berate a college male for reading "Nakayoshi" magazine on the train.