Tokyo Memories pt. 2 – Tokyo Rain

A different kind of rain falls in Tokyo. It gets into your bones, or rather, your soul – a kind of stealthy wetness by gradual, intense infiltration. A seeping into the very essence of your being via slow osmosis. Forget the instant power showers of Britain, all blast and fury, but done in under an hour. In Tokyo, when it rains, it rains all day, and then some…

When I visited Tokyo, I wondered why so few people wore hooded coats like in Britain. Instead, the umbrella was ubiquitous – as were the little plastic bags in shops to sheath them in to prevent drippage. Neat, tidy pocket sized umbrellas, ready to be stowed away in bags. Powerful, masculine models ready for deployment at the click of a button. All shapes and sizes were evident.

And it got me thinking, maybe the umbrella is so popular because it is uniquely suited to the Tokyo rain. Blowing in, close to the sea, it has an omnipresence to it – light drizzle, yet constant. Even the most waterproof of coats become soaked into a slick sheen. And yet the humble umbrella can be shaken free of droplets and readied for a Round Two. With the coat, the rain becomes you – but with an umbrella, grasped tightly in hand, there is an air that you remain permanently equipped and ready to put up with it.

And so the rain has entered into the wider visual aesthetic of Tokyo – just look to Blade Runner, and its vision of a future Orientalist future-topia, all neon streets bathed in the pulse of light scattering through a million raindrops, a thousand puddles refracting endlessly the bounty of coloured crystal magnificence. Real life Tokyo offers this too – the glow of Shibuya unfolding across another sea of mushroomed umbrella caps – the droplets pattering away like so many liquid grains of sand. The water flows as the people flow, moving endlessly – another rhythm of life coursing through the veins of this great city.

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Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss

Another absolutely rocking release from the good folk at JPU Records. Picked up a copy of this one at the latest MCM Comic Con, and it fits very neatly alongside similar releases of material from Aldious and Mary’s Blood. There’s a real upswell of these fantastic girls-n-guitars groups in Japan right now, and Lovebites are one of the most instantly engaging of the bunch with a speedy, frenetic style that recalls the best riffs of the 80s. The aesthetic is there to match, with some cracking cover art and videos. Some of the most powerful vocals I’ve heard amongst the many similar bands clamouring for attention in this particularly little sub-genre too, with a proper sense of heart and soul to it – one to really turn up loud and pester the neighbours with.

Tokyo Memories

I recently returned from my first trip to Tokyo, and while I imagine many would follow the well-trodden route of busily uploading glossy photos and a veritable list of ‘Top Tips’ and touristy recommendations, while I certainly indulged in a little of that on Facebook, for me, travelling to Japan for the first time was always about something else. About capturing something I came to call ‘real Japan’, about soaking in an atmosphere beyond the face-level visuals so opulently shown in countless YouTube videos and photos. In an age where it’s easy to be an armchair traveller via the path of the internet, I wanted my time in Japan to be more about a raw, transitory feeling – a poignancy almost too powerful for words. A kind of lived-in manifesto for how the true wonders of travel to a foreign country should be. When I’ve travelled in the past to Europe, I’ve always looked back fondly on what I’ve called ‘golden moments’, those nuggets of memory that stick in the mind long after the trip itself, slowly fuzzying around the edges, but warming like a gently toasting log fire on a cold winter’s day. Tokyo, for me, was about engineering these golden moments in the best manner I could – but also allowing it to creep up on me and surprise me, revelling and bathing in the simple fact of a world so different from the London I’ve lived 27 years in.

Arrival and adjusting

One thing I remained expressly conscious of when coming to Japan was that I didn’t want to fall into the trap of being another purveyor of ‘weird’ or ‘unique’ Japan. I’m firmly of the belief that no matter how far we travel, we remain bound by the common fact of our humanity and that – beyond notions of culture, visual look and feel and such like, a sleepy suburb in Japan remains much like a sleepy suburb anywhere else in the world.

And yet, for all this, there remains a simple joy in ‘spotting the difference’, as it were. And taking the train from the airport, you begin to compile a checklist of these facts – much for your own adjustment as anything else. Remembering which side of the escalator to walk on, basking in the cleanliness of absolutely *everything*, marvelling at traffic lights that don’t require you to push a button, simply *existing* in smells and sounds not found at home. In a gentle summer haze, even the greenery feels different – different species, different textures; a rubbery waxiness at odds with England’s soft, autumnal shades.

You notice the tiles, the boxiness of the buildings – an architecture ugly to some, but for me, pure wonder. Anime and Japanese films does not prepare you. Not really. To exist in a Japanese city is to be consumed by its urban aesthetic completely and wholly. The buildings enfold you in their endless similarity, but also in their endless difference. No lengthy avenues and boulevards or picture-postcard Edwardian streets. Just blocks of streets so tight you marvel at how anyone could get a car down them. Little streets that seem to go nowhere only to open up on a whole web-like complex of inhabitation. This is the real Tokyo, the world of its countless millions – where its people sleep and live and eat. The world of work and pleasure seems far away. Here, there is simply ‘living’.

Food and drink

Almost all of the money I spent in Japan went on food and drink, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And as expensive as that might seem when compiled together, individually, Japan stands as a refreshingly cheap place to buy fantastic food – especially compared to London and its disgustingly overpriced coffee shops and sandwich boutiques. In Tokyo, food is more than simply food, it’s a way of life – from the way you grab your set-meal tickets from a dispenser at the entrance to the endless supply of free ice-cold water, topped up before you’ve barely had a chance to sip from it. The service, as if it even needs to be mentioned, is beyond impeccable. Food arrives quickly and staff are always polite. And the food itself, when it comes, is a veritable delight – both visually and in its taste. There’s something about Japanese food that makes even their equivalent of fast-food and simple homely cooking seem like a masterpiece of culinary perfection.

People eat alone at small tables, taking pleasure in a simple meal after a long, hard day of work. Daughters eat together with fathers. Friends chat in a lively, communal tone. All of life’s rich tapestry passes you buy in a simple Tokyo bento shop. Meals punctuating the turning hands of the daily clock.

Vending machines, umbrellas and bikes

In Japan, you see bikes everywhere. Sometimes it’s frustrating – they ride silently, up behind you, and on the pavement. Coming from the UK, where for anyone to ride a bike on the pavement is to be met by immediate scorn, social taboo and hatred, it can come in the shock. But in Japan, it’s the norm – leading to a tricky balancing act of clinging either as close to the wall as possible to avoid speedy riders, or somehow clinging to the omnipresent yellow ‘bumps’ that run down every pavement for blind pedestrians. Nobody rings a bell. Ever. Maybe it’s because they’re shy?

But regardless, there’s an upside to all this bicycling. And that’s the very simple pleasure of seeing bikes left every on the street, unlocked, without a care in the world. Imagine living in a society that safe – unthinkable in the UK, of course. But again, in Japan, it’s the norm. This paragon of safety, of trust, of simple public mindedness. Ditto with the vending machines – an absolute godsend in the sweltering summer days. Ice cold coffee on tap, and at the cost of less than £1. They are *everywhere* – sometimes you’ll see two right next to each-other, walk 50 yards, and then see three more. So much choice, so much simple joy in the pleasures of having a cheap, disposable drink. Readily recycled in the conveniently placed bins that always accompany every machine. If you are ever lucky enough to see a vending machine being maintenanced and refilled, it’s like a special reminder that this entire network also provides gainful employment.

But in this system of recycling and reproduction, we’re also left wondering about another ubiquity – those little plastic bags to put your umbrellas in when entering a store. When you visit Japan, you quickly get used to a very special type of rain. In the UK, when it rains, it rains short and hard – momentary downpours to catch you out and ruin your day. In Japan, the rain is omnipresent – long and soft, a gentle trickle that somehow ends up soaking you even deeper than the most powerful of UK showers. And to counter this, the umbrellas come out, a sea of mushroom like cups bobbing down every street. When you enter a store, you tear off a cheap, thin plastic bag and put your umbrella in. You do your business in the shop and then leave, chucking said bag away in the provided bin. In an age where the UK is striving to rid itself of seemingly every plastic bag, you have to wonder where this all fits in. Somewhere alongside the readily provided disposable chopsticks and wet hand-towels, we imagine.

But all this is part of the charm – and not in a ‘weird Japan’ way, that exciteable glee that infuses so many of the zany pop-culture ‘psyche!!!’ books that filled shelves in the Soft Power cool-Japan Pokemon boom of the early 00s. No, more in the gentle glow of basking in the daily accoruments of simple living. The participatory actions of a daily life so different from your own, one that beckons to you with its apparent ease just as much as it surprises with its own complex code of actions to be learned. These are the things we remember, the things we long for when we’re gone.

Atmosphere. Nostalgia. Aesthetic. It’s as simple as that.

A real blast from the past: Heat Guy J

I often talk about how the early 00s, in the era before mega hits like Death Note and Code Geass came along in the holy grail years of 00s anime (’06 and ’07) there’s a veritable ‘lost era’ of digipaint shows that are now mostly lost to time – ill remembered and ill loved.

Heat Guy J is one of those shows. Although it’s acquired something of a reputation of being a bit of a bomb, I hear it actually sold half decently when released by Manga UK over here a few years after its original Japanese broadcast. Maybe it was the expectations – after all, Heat Guy J was directed by Kazuki Akane, best known for Escaflowne, and co-penned by Hiroshi Onogi, who was behind the script/scenario of some of the biggest shows in anime like the original Macross and Zeta Gundam, as well as working on RahXephon on 2002, the same year Heat Guy J started airing.

The Escaflowne connection continued in the form of Nobuteru Yuki, the self-same character designer from Escaflowne – and it sure shows in the pointy nosed character designs, for me one of the biggest sells of Heat Guy J, along with the highly Kanno-esque soundtrack.

In short, Heat Guy J – produced by studio Satelight – was every bit the spiritual successor to Escaflowne. And yet, in so many other ways, it wasn’t. Gritty, grimy and dark to Escaflowne’s rolling fantastical feel, many of the same storytelling qualities were present (a mix between an episodic and more long-running story style), but let down by the classic feeling of bloat that afflicted many two cour shows in the early 00s. Whilst Escaflowne was lean and clean-cut, Heat Guy J lumbered in its muscular urban setting, never quite realising the sheer power and charm of its predecessor.

And yet, I still feel it’s a show ripe for re-assessment at some point. With the recent re-release by Funimation of another classic early 00s shows – Wolf’s Rain – I think people are starting to come round to the idea that the early 00s wasn’t all digipaint horror. And while Wolf’s Rain was always a much better show to begin with, I think it too shares many of the same stylistic and storytelling hallmarks present in a show like Heat Guy J.

Those looking for a bargain, the whole series in box-set form can be had for around five quid at the time of writing, second hand, on Amazon.

Shigeo Komori – Traditional (From The New World OST)

Considering the sheer quality of Shigeo Komori’s soundtrack for From The New World / Shin Sekai Yori, it’s surprising to see he hasn’t done more in terms of anime soundtrack duties. Aside from arranging/production duties on songs used in K-On and Saekano, his only other soundtrack work according to MAL is 2011 series A Dark Rabbit Has Seven Lives and current season show Elegant Yokai Apartment Life.

I love the deep, mystical quality to this track – people often talk about the purpose of religious music to put ‘the terror of God’ in people, and never is it more true than here. From The New World is a fantastically dark series at heart, and the swirling transition between age-old choral chant into distorted electric guitar contains this kind of timeless ‘through the ages’ feel so true to the series ‘return to ruin’ brand of post-apocalypticism.

It’s only a minute and a half long, but it sure packs a punch into that short runtime. If ever there was a snatch of sonic quality that so fundamentally caught up all the emotion and tone of a series, this might just very well be it.

(And that’s not even mentioning the series’ use of the sublime New World symphony from Dvorak – probably my favourite Western classical piece of all time)

MAN WITH A MISSION – Dead End in Tokyo

Man With A Mission remain endlessly fascinating for me, and I don’t just mean the wolf-head outfits. Moreover, I find their clear strategy to put out an all English language track part of a wider trend of Japanese hard-rock acts moving into the English-speaking market, filing them next to the likes of One OK Rock – part of a concerted effort that is seeing the biggest inroute of Japanese music to the West in years (and yes, I suppose you can factor the ‘Babymetal effect’ in there somewhere too.

But whereas Babymetal could arguably be dismissed as a quasi-gimmick act, in much the same way Hatsune Miku could be, Man With A Mission ally themselves more with the existing route of Japanese metal acts like Crossfaith making headway in the Kerrang sphere – and indeed, earlier this year Bad End In Tokyo featured on the Kerrang radio playlist itself, a sure sign that they had ‘arrived’ in Western music circles (and crucially, beyond the insular sphere of purely anisong/Jrock fandom).

To be completely fair, Dead End In Tokyo lacks some of the unbridled, high octane pace that made Raise Your Flag such a supreme joy. But it more than makes up for it in swagger, a cocky strut that eyes the global music market and goes ‘I Want a bit of that!’. If anything fully ‘breaks’ Japanese music in the West, it will be via bands like Man With A Mission and One OK Rock.

And yes, the song really does sound like nothing less than the return of Hard-Fi – which in my eyes can only ever be a good thing.

Kenshi Yonezu – Peace Sign (My Hero Academia OP)

When the second season of My Hero Academia started airing, I’m not sure anyone expected the show to become the behemoth it now currently is. While the 2nd season was always hyped to a strong degree, many initially wavered on it, put off by the slow pacing of the 1st season and the fact season 2 was airing alongside another ridiculously hyped second season: Attack on Titan.

But as MHA’s tournament ark got underway, treating us to some absolutely stellar animation and a renewed sense of urgency, it quickly became apparent that MHA was fast becoming *the* hottest ticket in anime fandom right now, with volumes of the manga approaching Tokyo Ghoul levels of public appetite. MHA had officially entered the major leagues.

And the second season’s OP theme Peace Sign is much the same – initially something of a dark horse, not overly bombastic or powerful, but there in the background, ticking away, growing on you until suddenly – BAM – you realise it’s a fully fledged smash. Now occupying the No. 1 spot on YouTube’s Japan top tracks even though it’s now been switched out with another OP theme for MHA’s second cour of the second season. In the process, the song has racked up over 21 million views on YouTube, it’s energetic, brisk indie-pop guitar stylings a fantastic match for the show’s own athletic, brawling ode to self-improvement.

May’n – Belief (Taboo Tattoo OP)

When it comes down to it, May’n remains one of my favourite J-pop singers at the moment – and of course, while much of this is down to her definitive tracks as the singing voice of Sheryl Nome for Macross Frontier, her post-Macross material is totally up to scratch too, delivering much of the same swagger and class as her Sheryl songs.

Belief is chief among them, a fast-paced, frenetic anthem that ended up soundtracking the OP for much-maligned manga adaptation Taboo Tattoo. I’ve always seen shows like Taboo Tattoo in much the same lineage as things like Black Bullet, firmly b-tier action/fantasy shows that throw up simplistic tropes and pretences at ‘darkness’ but are generally forgotten swiftly after the season they aired in ends.

And while Taboo Tattoo ultimately ended up being largely forgettable (though not without some decent moments), I feel Belief ends up being one of the best things about a show – doing exactly what an OP theme should do; pump you up for the action that’s to follow. ‘What can I do for you?’ May’n sings – and really, the possibilities are endless.

Did the slow English release of Platinum End harm it?

I’ve been pondering Platinum End recently – the latest series from the creators of Death Note – and how it never seemed to really ‘hit’ in the way it should have. Beginning in November 2015 in Japan and running in Jump SQ (the monthly equivalent of Shonen Jump), the series had already been translated into French and was available in French supermarkets via Kaze’s manga imprint by summer 2016. A fast turnaround by all accounts.

But here in the UK and the US, the series currently stands at 20,000 members on MAL, the 4th most successful manga series to launch since the start of 2015, and yet about to be eclipsed by current Shonen Jump hot ticket The Promised Neverland, which is chasing up on 19,000 members at the time of writing.

Part of me wonders whether this is to do with the slow/split English release of the series – the digital Kindle version of volume 1 was available in July 2016, achieving parity with the French editions, but the physical version wasn’t available until October. Even now, the 3rd physical volume is set for an August 2017 release, while in France, they released the 5th volume back in May 2017.

Do we know how well the series is doing in its English translation? Sadly, just as the first volume was released in English, the news came that the New York Times was discontinuing its Manga Top 10, a real blow to industry-watchers who found this a fascinating weekly update in terms of what was selling well. Of course, we have the Amazon pre-order chart too, and by this account, the odds don’t look overly great for Platinum End, with series like Tokyo Ghoul and My Hero Academia regularly outpacing it.

Where this all leaves us is a situtation where Platinum End will arguably only be ‘saved’ in the West by an anime adaptation – which to be fair, is sure to come at some point. The general length between the start of a manga and the start of its anime adaptation typically comes in at around three years these days, so on that account, we might expect an anime version of Platinum End in 2018.

With their previous form with the work of the creators, Madhouse would make a natural fit for the series, and would be sure to deliver the hype and fan expectation a series like this needs. Platinum End, like Death Note, excels at the ‘high concept’, the back of the envelope Hollywood elevator pitch stuff that warms the blood with an instantly recognisable ‘sell’ which can be used to hook potential fans on the series ‘Hey mate, you gotta check this show out, it’s about…’

While I’m personally not the biggest fan of Platinum End, as the successor to one of the biggest manga/anime series of all time, it deserves the mass exposure an anime adaptation would lend it to fully ‘realise’ its potential.

How Robot x Laserbeam nails the feeling of ‘elitism’ in sport

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Robot x Laserbeam, the new series from the Kuroko’s Basketball creator, currently running in weekly Shonen Jump. It took me a long time to warm to sports series – finally won over by Haikyuu’s anime as it powered into the mid-season reaches, and aided by Yuki Hayashii’s amazing score. When it comes to manga versions of sports series, I’ve always been a little more skeptical – I invariably find the action hard to follow, lacking the fluidity and dynamism of when it’s translated to anime.

And yet, I find Robot x Laserbeam weirdly gripping. Perhaps that’s because unlike most Shonen sport series which are about a fired up youth aiming ever higher and higher in a very workmanlike feel, Robot x Laserbeam adopts a sleeker, more stately feel from the off. And a large part of that is down to its chosen sport – Golf.

Yes, Golf. I know when the series first started, many ridiculed or scoffed at the focus on golf – surely one of the most elitist, plummy sports known to man. But for me, that’s been part of the charm of the series from the off. Instead of the same cookie-cutter genki high school lads, all immaturity and unbridled energy, the lads of Robot x Laserbeam are all about slick golfing uniforms, impeccable manners and high class styling. They strut and swagger around and in general appear far more poised and refined.

In this more ‘adult’ flavour – I get touches of the kind of ‘game theory’ aesthetic I’ve talked before about in series like Kaiji – and while Robot x Laserbeam doesn’t concern itself with gambling, by selecting golf as its sport of choice, I feel it moves in that same circle of slickness that the world of professional gambling does. It’s ‘high class’ and it knows it.