Category Archives: J-Pop Culture

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – Introduction

If you are interested in seeing “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, you might like to know more about this film’s connection to Japanese culture. The following is a short introduction I wrote after screening the film this week.

Imagine, if you will, day in, day out doing the same exact job.  Imagine performing the same tasks without fail, nonstop. Imagine never complaining about it for one simple reason. It is not that someone is looking over your shoulder. It is not because you are trying to set a good example for those around. It is because you absolutely love your profession.  Imagine having reverence for every aspect of of your job, from the raw materials you select, to the masters you work with, to the tools you use.  Imagine dedicating your entire being to the perfection of one thing: your vocation, or in this case, more than your vocation, your very life’s art.

In the film you are about to see, you will encounter an 85 year old chef, whose way of life is dedicated to providing others with the most exacting, succulent, perfect sushi.  This film demonstrates Zen aesthetics found in traditional Japanese arts.  Ideas such as: less is more, what is absent is more important than what is shown, living fully in the moment is better than waiting for the future, and perfecting the practice of a discipline. These characteristics sprang from samurai and their code, Bushidō, or “The way of the warrior.” Samurai embraced austerity, discipline, hard work, and mental preparation. While the samurai are long gone, such values still hold sway in Japan, even as they practically vanish, living on in the cultural imagination.

But not so with Jiro; he embodies these principles, thereby becoming an example to us all.  This gentle man, who is so dedicated to his , his way, his practice, is certainly an inspiration as he “dreams of Sushi.” His example to us is that indeed, hard work, a dash of innovation, and pounds of perseverance will pay off in the end. Jiro’s courses and arrangement of the meal are described by a food critic as a “concerto,” with an ebb and flow inspired by kaiseki ryōri, an delicate form of traditional Japanese cuisine that goes back centuries. Imagine fare so fine, so exquisite, that it’s like consuming the chef’s “philosophy with every bite.” To be sure, it is a joy to see an accomplished artist’s work, to hear a virtuoso’s performance. Likewise, to eat a sumptuous meal at the hands of a master.

On the one year anniversary of the horrific earthquake and tsunami that stole away so many lives, it is comforting to see these important elements of Japanese culture, to see the expert preparation of these mouth-watering gifts from the sea. While so much of Japan’s coast has been devastated, the Japanese people have been persevering with strong spirits and brave hearts–just like Jiro. So, while we may not be able to travel to Japan and indulge in Jiro’s masterwork, we can at least get a glimpse into his world…and marvel. I hope you will enjoy the show!

Thoughts on “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”

The following are my comments, given on 7/19 at our screening of “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl” at Washington University.  While I cannot say I enjoyed the movie to the greatest degree (it’s just not my taste), I appreciate what Uchida Shungicu was trying to do with the story.  Read on to see why.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, directed by Nishimura Yoshihiro

It is an vast understatement to say that Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl represents the best and worst of the horror movie genre.  On the one hand, you have cute characters, strong female leads, great gags, entertaining one-liners, buckets of fake blood, fake dismemberment, gore, ghouls, and over-the-top fight sequences.  On the other hand, you have disturbing portrayals of American Black culture, complete with age-old stereotypes and exaggerated facial features, linguistic markers, and social characteristics.  Inappropriate at best, these images, however, have a purpose and can stimulate discussion–something I am sure that the prolific manga-ka and author, Uchida Shungicu, had in mind when she created the manga (the Japanese word for comic/graphic novel) from which the movie was adapted.

Uchida is well known for themes that are shocking–this is her intent.  One of her works, Fazafakka, deals with a young girl, who was coerced to sleep with her step-father.  This work is purportedly drawn from authentic experiences in her past; Uchida’s mother was a dance instructor and bar hostess who became involved with and began living with another dance instructor; when Shungicu was made to sleep with this man, her mother did not get involved.

Using manga, and other forms of literature, for that matter, to address and explore uncomfortable, shocking themes is a longstanding theme in the Japanese literary community.  Authors such as Tayama Katai, Konô Taeko, Murakami Ryû, come to mind, as well as a host of others.  This is true for manga and anime as well; the “god” or “godfather” of manga, Tezuka Osamu, routinely explored violent and sexual content, as well as ethnic stereotypes in material written for children.  Tezuka wished to educate and inform children about the world–even with uncomfortable themes–from which American children are often shielded.  The intention of Tezuka, and many who followed him, was to encourage debate and self-reflection rather than imitation and participation.

Thus, returning to the movie you are about to see, complete with its portrayal of black stereotypes and girls who cut themselves, there is a point to their invocation.  Some young girls (and guys) with strong emotional, self-esteem, and control issues cut their skin to feel pain and feel in control of their body and their circumstances.  Some who cut are also sufferers of violence, abuse, and bullying–we see this in America as well.  It is generally hidden from view and the remaining scars are covered up with long-sleeves or pants.  In some circles in Japan, there is a fetishization of black culture.  Those who fetishize this culture neither understand it, nor what they themselves are doing; it is entirely based on images received from both American and Japanese media; far from the USA, there is no way such fetishizers could understand the real black culture.1

In the late 1990‘s, some zoku or “tribes” of young, urban Japanese females would dye their skin with makeup or excessive time in tanning salons in an attempt to emulate black skin tone; similarly, these ganguro (black faced) girls would select fashions considered African or African American.  It was a fashion choice, just as easy as dying the hair blond and getting surgery to make eyes appear caucasian.  As recent as 2009, some Japanese comedians made a blackface parody of President and First Lady Obama, and it caused quite a stir.  Uchida (and the producers of this film) would certainly have been aware of these trends; coupled with her love of shock value, it may well be that she purposefully employed these inappropriate and uncomfortable images.

As you watch this movie, keep this in mind, especially during the introduction of the “pseudo-black” girls, the cutters, and without giving away too much of the movie, the makeup of the new Frankenstein girl.  What constitutes her new body?  Who is she?  What may she represent?  For that matter, how do you interpret Vampire girl? At first glance, this movie a wild ride: humorous, far-fetched, gross, and inappropriate.   But, at second  glance, while you may squirm in your seat at times, you will also be forced to deal with shocking themes that make you think.  Sometimes this is just what we need.  Thank you, and thank you for coming!

This is not to say that there are not Japanese participants in the global hip-hop culture who enjoy black culture but also respect it and do not attempt to subsume or parody it inappropriately.  For more on hip-hop and its splendid growth in Japan, see Ian Condry’s Hip-Hop Japan (Duke, 2005).

Manga as Intellectual Property

Now that Japanese publishers have scanlation sites in their gunsights, perhaps they may consider a few lessons from the American market.

For about one year, I worked for a company that distributed non-theatrical digital releases of films from a variety of US studios.  We had to adhere to strict MPAA conventions to protect every master in the vault and account for every transaction, every visitor, every digital copy we made, ensuring secure deletion/destruction of both encrypted and unencrypted resources, with constant video surveillance.  The same was true for the warehouse of film and DVD prints. This was a secure shop.

While I was an employee at that company, the MPAA was severely levying penalties on students and casual downloaders of a variety of TV and motion picture content. The RIAA was also making hay out of the numerous methods of downloading/sharing digital music. These heavy handed tactics did not make people more inclined to see the RIAA and MPAA in a positive light.  While I supported the MPAA’s desire to keep things secure and money flowing back to the studios that created the original content (heck, they were helping pay my salary as part of this food chain, and of course, we sent buckets of royalties back to them), I thought that there must be a better way.

Five years later, we have many more legal options for obtaining content.  From iTunes rentals, to purchases (cheaper than DVDs), from Hulu to Netflix.  Each has a revenue stream, whether consumers purchase media for a reasonable price, or advertisers pay for it.  Earlier attempts to consolidate media as an online, accessible library did not pan out well for a variety of reasons.  Ruckus network failed because their marketing was off and their technology was limited by what the MPAA would allow.  They only allowed Windows Media files with an encrypted back end controlling the content license.  Well, WMV did not play nice on Macs, so that cut out 20% of the market.  Plus, who likes Windows Media?  It’s heavy and requires an external player.

Youtube changed the landscape because they used Flash video.  FLV allowed so much

more flexibility, better quality, higher compression, and less bandwidth.  Some studios got wise to this, and we see the joint between Fox and NBC (and now others) in the form of Hulu.  The studios and Hulu make money off advertising, and it’s free to the end user.  Netflix, which is a paid subscription, skips the commercials and has a vast content library that works on lots of platforms, including, now iPad and iPhone4.  Nice thing is that you can also get physical media of newer content that is DVD/BRD only.  Google has monetized Youtube with advertising (as they have with everything else) and now even Bandai is using Youtube as a distribution mechansism for anime.  Hulu has Naruto Shippuden and Bleach among others.  Legitimized has an increasing library, much like Netflix, while you can also access near Zero-day translations of anime.  This model, in conjunction with Japanese publishers, seems to be increasing in ability to get money back in the hands of animation studios.

So, what to do with Manga as intellectual property?

A Crunchyroll method may work, with a Netflix style distribution.  Could you imagine getting zero-day translations of manga, legitimately, on you iPad or whatever device you like, with a purchase option for discounted physical media?

What about renting manga?  Pay a few bucks to get a manga title physically and send it back for another later?

Of course, the other great way is to allow each chapter to be available for a limited time until the physical book is published, a la Kyokai no Rinne.  As long as the publishers have a meta-representation that allows for money to flow back to the manga-ka, this model may be viable.

And to that extent, I am more concerned that the actual artists make the money so that they keep doing what they do best.  The publishing jimusho need to take care of their artists better.  If a manga-ka could sell their works as iBooks, however, they’d probably make an even better cut.  Much like the musicians who publish to iTunes without a traditional record company.  Maybe indie manga publishers, a group of excellent manga-ka and crazy American translators could reinvent the industry?

I’d be up for that.