Thursday, 8 December 2011

Objective music reviews:

For those people on Twitter and in The Japan Times' email inbox who were upset with the mean things I said about Perfume's mediocre new album and concerned about its lack of something called "objectivity", I thought I'd offer up a cut-and-paste objective music review that they can use for all their favourite J-pop albums:
[CD title] is the new album by [J-pop group]. It features the singles [uptempo summer pop tune], [mid-paced autumn track] and [string-laden winter ballad], and fans of these singles are sure to like some of the other songs on the album too. These include [TV drama theme], [TV ad campaign song 1] and [TV ad campaign song 2], which will already be familiar to listeners who watch a lot of television, spend any amount of time in shops that have music piped by USEN, or have walked past a big TV screen outside a station. The vocals are cute and the lyrics deal with the themes of love and friendship. All the songs are between four and five minutes long. Fans of this kind of music will probably like this music.
No need to thank me. You can have this one for free.

(12:32pm edit: Additional objective measures of quality suggested by Dan Grunebaum)

Friday, 12 August 2011

AKB48, "Koko ni Ita Koto"

(I reviewed this album ages ago for The Japan Times, but this was a longer, more detailed analysis I did together with a friend and colleague of mine that was originally published in Japanese at and cross-posted in English from Clear And Refreshing)

With the staggering popularity of AKB48 and their ever-expanding legions of sister groups, there can be no denying that Yasushi Akimoto is in possession of a particular kind of genius. To have taken what at first seems like a niche product, best suited to performing at anime conventions and amusement parks, and made it into the most successful group in the country demands attention. The release of "Koko ni ita Koto" provides as good a platform as any to subject the AKB phenomenon to some measure of analysis, not least to answer the question of whether Akimoto's genius extends beyond the group's marketing and into their music.


To achieve the level of commercial success that AKB48 have, they would never have been able to do it without attracting a sizeable female following. Nevertheless, look at the queues outside AKB48's theatre in Akihabara and you see precious few female faces. And while many of their casual casual audience are female, everything the group does is predicated on the assumption of a male audience. In this way, it seems that the group's success is built on an obsessive core of male fans, to whom they faithfully pander, and female fans are simply invited to follow: "This is what kind of female image is considered attractive,” “this is how to be cute,” etc.

AKB48's image treads a thin line in lyrical content, participating in the obvious “moe” sexualisation of childlike imagery but avoiding the kind of direct appeals to lechery that were the stock in trade of 80s predecessors Onyanko Club. Or, indeed, the earlier AKB48 of "Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru"-- in many ways, "Koko ni Ita Koto" shows these earlier works to be naive. The sex is merely a hook to draw audiences towards something longer-lasting: the pursuit of true love, and when we say "true love", what we mean is "the relentless march of consumer capitalism."

The main manifestation of this is in the way that beneath the superficial atmosphere of friendship and mutual support, the members of AKB48 are made to constantly jostle for the affection of fans via the "senbatsu elections" and special edition CDs. Despite the claim that "Dare mo minna Team B oshi desu yo ne?" the song "Team B Oshi" basically amounts to the members of Team B engaging in the equivalent of an intra-team rap battle over who should be the listener's favourite.

There is more to this paradigm of competition than meets the eye. Consider that dozens of girls are singing songs together about the importance and uniqueness of "one true love" to a single imagined male listener. It's reminiscent in some ways of that creepy moment when, listening to a boy band, you realise that there are five guys singing about wanting to get with the same girl -- and yet it's different. With a group like 'N Sync or Blue, the band are the subject and the girl the object: they are seducers and she their quarry. In AKB48's case, the hypothetical man they are singing to is still the subject, with the power to choose from the array of girls before him, while the girls objectify themselves in competing for his attention. This relationship is most obviously apparent on "Ponytail to Shushu", where the girls take on the voice of the male listener and narrate his pursuit of his object of affection from the male perspective. The song also romanticises the obvious point that the man's love can never be physically requited:

Your long hair is bundled in a polkadot scrunchie
I cannot catch that tail of love
If I touch it, this illusion will disappear

In the 2D world that AKB48 and their fans inhabit, "true love" has been systematised like that. The girls make a play for the man's attention in the brief snatches of time the format of the group allows them, through their enactment of the various pre-determined "moe" behavioural elements that act as shorthand for more complex human character traits. At the same time, the man sits in judgement, indicating his affection through voting power that is conferred on him directly in accordance to how much money he spends. It is love as perceived through the mind of a piece of accounting software.

That is not to say that AKB48 fans are stupid. The notion of the single true love that they perpetuate through their lyrics is a lie in which both sides are complicit. The whole time the group and the fans are acting out this curious late-capitalist pastiche of love, what we might call the "Akimoto System" is encouraging the fans to take time to sample the different flavours. "Come to the theatre more than once to see all the girls perform, buy all the different versions of the single, complete the set. You will fall in love with one, but you don't know she's the best until you've shopped around, right?"

In this way, the relationship between AKB48 and their fans is rather like a video game dating simulator played out in real time and on a mass scale. Like with AKB48, "gyaruge" and visual novels operate in a paradoxical world where the player and game enter into a shared fantasy of true love and intertwined destiny, while at the same time, the player is encouraged to replay multiple times to complete the paths of each girl on offer.

"Heavy Rotation" pushes the notion of one true love hard, although it also (probably unintentionally) hints at this "replay factor":

I wonder how many times can people fall in love in the span of a lifetime?
If I could have just one unforgettable love story, I'd be satisfied

The beauty of this system, of course, is that whatever the fan does, whether he completes his collection, or whether he focuses wholeheartedly on the one girl he truly loves, Akimoto is always there to collect the money. The house always wins.


Musically, the image of the group as an offshoot of otaku culture is not really accurate. Genuine otaku culture, for all its quirks, is constantly evolving, and most of the fans AKB48 had among hardcore otaku have already left them for the likes of Momoiro Clover or the all-virtual world of vocaloid software. AKB48 have always been a simulation, an otaku-themed Disneyland ride.

In contrast, the music on "Koko ni Ita Koto" remains in a musical furrow that has existed relatively unchanged for years. These are the same watered-down, eurobeat-influenced rhythm and major chord progressions that you hear from pachinko parlours and game centres all over Japan. In each case, the sound is linked not to the specific content of what goes on inside, but to the image of cute, cartoonish, colourful, synthetic good cheer. It’s a world where human interactions and life experiences can be simplified to commodities and financial transactions, a world where the only law is "Follow your dreams," and for convenience's sake, the choice of dreams available to you is laid out on a laminated menu.

While this sound is evocative of the 90s, it's not really retro. To be retro, you must first consciously draw a distinction between the music of today and the period that you want to imitate. In contrast, with a few exceptions, this music simply doesn't recognise the existence of any musical advances made since the mid-to-late 1990s.

It's a shame that it has to be like this, since a group like AKB48, at the very pinnacle of the Japanese pop music scene, are in a position with audiences where they could define a new direction that would influence J-Pop for a generation. But that isn’t what’s happened. Whether through fear of alienating fans, or the need to provide reliable content for the advertisers that bankroll an increasingly significant proportion of the music industry, or through sheer lack of imagination and curiosity, the music relies to an extraordinary degree on a sound that has been in stasis for at least fifteen years.

That's not to say, however, that the album never diverges from this template. If you can get over the karaoke backing track production, the firm beat and more aggressive arrangement of the 2010 single "Beginner" sounds like it might be an attempt at a response to the rising popularity of Korean girl groups like Girls' Generation, although the lyrics disregard these superficial trappings of sexual maturity in favour of a familiar brand of faux-inspirational sentiment:

We should be as brand new as a child...
Let's tear off the chains that controlled us

To be completely fair, both "Kaze no Yukue" and the title track are competent enough ballads. "Ningyo no Vacance" is also notable for actually sounding like it might have been written by a human being, and is perhaps the closest thing on the album to legitimate pop songwriting. None of this is enough to redeem the album, but it bears mention.


While it seems like the music of AKB48 is a relatively minor aspect of the total media-mix, the problem remains that the popularity of AKB48 and their sister projects as entertainment icons grants an undeserved aura of legitimacy to this regressive, infantile, musically unadventurous approach to pop. Recent Japanese-language singles "Jet Coaster Love" and "Go Go Summer!" saw Korean girl group Kara aping the thin-sounding, cheap production values and lolita-esque demeanour of AKB48 even though their more mature and sexy image had made them stars in their own right. More upsettingly, Japan's most forward-looking pop group Perfume slipped into a worryingly familiar sort of sentimental 90s balladry on their recent B-side "Kasuka na Kaori". It would be a terrible shame if the enormous popularity of AKB48 were to drag an already creatively moribund Japanese pop scene any further into the abyss. Connor Shepherd & Ian Martin 3.August.2011

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A Conversation...

ME: Seems like there are different British and American dubs for the English version of Arrietty.
MY WIFE: Why's that?
ME: I don't know. Maybe the UK distributor thought that because it's based on a popular British novel, lots of British people would feel weird hearing these characters speaking with American actors.
WIFE: No, I mean why bother with an American version?
ME: ...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tohoku, Fukushima, and the social contract

There has been a lot of comment around the world on the Japanese people’s response to the March 11th triple-disaster, mostly positive, with observers from The United States to the traditionally Japanophobic China praising the order and resilience of Japanese people in the face of the almost unimaginable catastrophe that hit large parts of the country.

Trying to unravel what lies behind this orderly response is more problematic. Some web comments in China bemoaned how far their own country was behind their eastern neighbours, making declarations along the lines of “this is what it really means to be a developed country”. Some people in the West shook their heads and muttered, “automatons” or “zombies”. Many people in Japan noted the discrepancy between the way Japanese media downplayed the crisis, relying on government statements and officially established facts, while many parts of the Western media sensationalised the crisis (yes, I’m looking at you, The Sun).

However, I think what it mostly comes down to is the idea of the social contract. Responses to a disaster are calm and orderly when people feel that there is a social contract between them and the establishment that is being respected. In New York after the September 11th terrorist attacks and London after the tube bombings, people mostly responded in a similar way to the way Tokyoites responded to March 11th. These are large, wealthy cities, with strong infrastructure and government institutions that may not always be liked, but which are on the whole trusted to deal with a crisis. In all three of these cases, the people trusted their city as a whole to deal with the problems in a calm, orderly manner, and as a result, they themselves responded in a calm, orderly manner.

Now take New Orleans, a city rife with economic and racial inequality, where right from the moment the crisis started to emerge, the signs were there that the social contract was not being respected. The wealthy, largely white part of town occupied the safest ground, the levees had been neglected, and the evacuation still left many of the poorer residents behind. When the city was flooded, the Bush government initially refused to intervene, politicians squabbled over responsibility, and the news media demonized the starving, neglected evacuees who resorted to looting. Where the establishment doesn’t honour the social contract, the people have no security to cling to.

The people in Tohoku, and Japan generally, still have that sense of a social contract, and despite the much publicised failures of government response after the Kobe quake of 1995 (of which current Prime Minister Naoto Kan was vocally critical), and despite many lingering administrative problems, there is still a sense that society, both at the top and the bottom, is united by shared social bonds.

What is interesting, is the response of people in Japan to the Fukushima situation. Here, it is increasingly becoming clear that the government and TEPCO have consistently lied and concealed information from the people. That the dishonesty and corruption between business and government is deeply rooted and has been to the detriment of the people with whom they had this unwritten contract. When LDP lawmakers can gather to form a nuclear industry lobbying group with the crisis on their doorsteps still ongoing, when figures are starting to emerge on the extent to which former politicians have been gifted lucrative positions in energy firms in return for passing helpful laws, and when the Japanese media refuses to report on the biggest protests of any kind seen in the country since the 1960s, people start to feel that their social contract is not being honoured. Instead of “us” in this situation together, it becomes “us”, the victims, and “them”, the establishment.

If the Japanese government wants to retain the trust of its people, it needs to be very careful how it deals with TEPCO and Fukushima, because something quite fragile is at stake.

Monday, 11 April 2011

2:46 Now on sale -- all proceeds to the Japan Red Cross

Written in two days, edited and put together in one week, and released in just over three weeks, 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake is the result of the #quakebook project, put together via Twitter in the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake in Tohoku.

The book went on sale in ebook form today via Amazon. I wrote the piece Radioactivity, which I also posted on this blog, specifically for 2:46, and it appears there in an edited form. The book also features contributions from Jake Adelstein, William Gibson and Yoko Ono, but the real reasons to buy it are firstly, the way that it pieces together the real-time experiences of ordinary people as they reacted to the quake, and secondly, because Amazon have agreed to donate all the money to the Japan Red Cross.

You can buy 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake from Amazon here.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Radio Activity

I'm in a small club in the Tokyo suburb of Koenji, drinking beer with a group of twenty or so young Japanese people. A man in a hard hat and face mask is conducting a mini orchestra of vintage 1980s synthesisers in a goofy cover version of the Korean pop group Girls Generation's recent hit "Gee". The audience rewards their set with a cascade of applause and whoops.

Beneath the cheer and good humour, however, these are people only too aware of the unsettling new situation that Japan finds itself in. The man’s getup is just one of the eerie reminders around the room of the tragedy that had struck northeastern Japan less than a week previously. His father was from Fukushima, close to the nuclear power plant that was dominating news headlines that day, and the band’s drummer also hails from the same area. There are smiles and laughs around the room when Kraftwerk’s 1975 song “Radioactivity” comes on in the background, but it’s a dark, ironic sort of humour on display – one that you would never normally expect from the kind of cheerful slapstick that dominates Japanese TV comedy.

A small TV in the corner remains tuned to NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster and most reliable source of news, and all eyes turn to the screen. An aftershock has been recorded near Tokyo. Here in our Koenji basement, no one felt a thing, but as numbers recording the strength of the tremor start appear on the onscreen map, a cheer goes up among some of the people present; the Koenji area scored 4, putting it in the level of most extreme shaking. There’s a sense of victory: we took the worst of that tremor and didn’t even feel it. The party goes on.

At the end of the evening, the audience and band members drift out, leaving money for the relief fund in a small tin in front of the DJ booth. People talk of music as an agent of healing, but for people in Tokyo, it’s also a weapon of defiance.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Worried you might have accidentally made a cool anime?

Already set yourself up with a dull as ditchwater, platitude-spouting, male lead who drearily moralises about how robbing sunken u-boats is disrespectful to dead Nazis, and still the show manages to be hard-edged, intelligent and by and mature?

No worries, just add a fucking kid.

No one has ever found a child annoying. Their pure-hearted sincerity, innocent courage and untainted belief in simple matters of right and wrong are a beacon of inspiration to us all.

More than anything, children anchor the moral compass of a show while providing lovable light relief from all the violence and moral ambiguity. Just think how much better Ghost in the Shell would have been if Section 9 had had a cute kid tagging along with them in all their missions. Miles better, right?

After all, young children are so terribly under-represented in animation, so it's really nice to see them being catered for. To fail to insert a shrieking, wailing, selfish, self-righteous fucking kid into every anime, including retroactively adding them to any that have already slipped through the net, would be like the worst crimes of the Nazis by a multiple of a million, and should be enforced by law. Obviously.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Fractale: (lots of) thoughts after episode 1

Azuma Hiroki wrote possibly the best book ever written about anime and manga culture (certainly the best available in the English language), in Dobutsuka-suru Postmodern (Otaku: Japan's Database Animals), which explored, nailed down, and examined otaku culture in a way that was both fascinating, detailed and accessible. He was, as one might imagine, hated by some sections of otakudom (no one likes being analysed against their will), yet they bought his book in droves, and by the end of the early 2000s, Like his ideological contemporary, artist Murakami Takashi, it was becoming clear that many people working in the industry had read his book and absorbed what it had to say.

This is not the time to go Azuma-hunting in the world of 2000s anime, but the appearance of Fractale, based on a story and concept by Azuma (although only the novel, which follows a different story, was directly written by him, it is probably fair to say that the universe Fractale inhabits was developed under Azuma's strong influence), is very interesting, seeing the critic's position rotate through 180 degrees, to the other side of the screen.

The director tasked with bringing Azuma's idea to life is Yamamoto Yutaka, whose previous includes work on shows like Kannagi and Shakugan no Shana, as well as working for moé titans Kyoto Animation on Air, Kanon and Haruhi. As a result, Fractale is a work that turns on the influence of two creators with important connections to otaku and moé culture. One its arch analyst, dissector of its habits and behaviours, the other one of its most experienced practitioners, with a hand in some of the most iconic moé works of the decade.

The story begins in somewhere that might be a future Ireland or might be some kind of Celtic Neverland, with a boy called Clain encountering a mysterious, faintly alien seeming girl called Phryne, who is being pursued by a gang of assorted ne'er-do-wells. So far, so familiar. The environment and the animation are largely realistically drawn, with few of the usual visual signifiers one would expect of a moé anime. However, some of the characters' behaviour and certain cliches they act out, indicate that Azuma or Yamamoto (or both) nevertheless intends to run with some of moé's key tropes.

Flushed, sweating, eyes wide with fear: is he being sacrificed to the Great Cthulu? No, he just saw a girl's tits.

Within seconds of first encountering Phryne, Clain as been put in a situation where he must (in order to help the poor girl, natch) gingerly lift part of her dress covering her leg. He frets and faffs over this tedious piece of voyeurism that the production staff have contrived for him, which is par for the course among anime heroes of course, because it allows the audience to experience the thrill of precariously concealed underage female flesh, with hero-avatar's reaction providing the reassurance and validation that their intentions are actually the opposite. They are being forced to look up the unconscious teenage girl's skirt: they don't want to, but they have to in order to help her, and they feel really bad about it because, you know, they're not usually that kind of guy (yes, these are sarcastic italics).

Later when she appears topless in his room asking for help with the minor wounds she sustained, we're treated to the same paroxysms of crippling social inertia from Clain, but this time she is conscious and openly displaying herself to him, although the magic moé sex-away wand is at work here too. In order for the show to provide its audience with the titilation they require without ever making the girl seem like, you know, a scrubber, she behaves in a way that shows her to be entirely innocent of Clain's sexual discomfort. Thus the production team preserve her purity and innocence while at the same time preserving her role in appeasing the audience's sexual demands.

Naked, but not in a dirty way, thus the audience may be titillated also not in a dirty way.

Yes, I'm making a big deal out of something that is hardly the main point of the story. Nevertheless, compare and contrast with almost the exact same scenario in Miyazaki's Laputa. Pazu lives a self-sufficient life alone, working for the shaft engineer at the mine. When the girl Sheeta falls from the sky into his arms at the beginning of the film, there is also obvious interest in the beautiful, angelic young female presence that has appeared in his life, but there are important differences in the way he responds to her. His attitude is more brash, he wants to show off to her, be it his athletic abilities, the view of his home town, or his collection of flight memorabilia. In an instant, we know what is important to him, what kind of person he wants to be, and what his dreams are. We also find out that he can be clumsy in his pursuit of those goals, as when he falls through the roof of the house into a pile of rubble. But then we learn that he can bounce back from these setbacks through the sheer power of his enthusiasm and never-say-die attitude.

With Fractale's setting based on Ireland rather than Laputa's imaginary Welsh valley (although one picturesque Celtic location is surely as good as another, right?) Clain's interest in Phryne is displayed through sweat-drenched, cripplingly self-conscious voyeurism. Apart from a desultory interest in music, and the requisite otaku tendencies, his goals are vague; he demonstrates little interest in the world he inhabits, meanwhile his parents are distant, interacting with him only through a pair of inhuman looking automatons.

Elsewhere, the villains chasing Phryne are clearly modelled on the Grandis Gang from Anno Hideaki's Nadia, although with a shrieking underage girl in a nurse's uniform replacing the sexy and mature Grandis Granva as their presumed leader. One imagines (hopes?) that someone as clever as Azuma would have clever ideas for subverting these standard tropes in later episodes, although if he is really all that clever, then there is also the chance he'll know where his bread's buttered and just pander away for all he's worth.

"Shh, my dear: don't cheapen the moment."

This episode, however, does give hope that the former case may be true, for while Azuma may have immersed himself to a stupendous degree in otaku culture, he's not really an otaku: Azuma is a philosopher and to a limited degree a sociologist, and he has a more old-fashioned way of thinking. He may wish to dress up his work in some of the trappings of hyper-post-modern, "superflat" otaku culture, and he plays those cards well -- well enough in fact that some of the early interactions between Clain and Phryne (combined with Clain's infuriating habit of dropping his voice to a whisper for the final syllable of every fucking sentence that vomits forth from his face -- it just pushes my hate button, OK? Just wait till I start writing about Banner of the Stars) had me in spasms of spitting rage and hate -- but at the heart of Fractale, there is the sense that for Azuma, everything must mean something.

Clain's sense of dislocation and alienation, his vaguely geekish tendencies: these things are not the "boo-hoo, no one understands us" mutually masturbatory victimhood yowls of self-obsessed otaku. They are cultural observations from a person both intimately involved in and a keen observer of society. Like Miyazaki, and like any socially-concerned science fiction writer, Azuma is looking at the world, observing the interaction of technology and society, and projecting what this does to us.

When Clain explains that the reason he keeps the old videos of himself and his now (physically at least) absent parents is because they're in a rare, outdated video format, the moment is freighted with meaning because it forms part of an interlocking sequence of small events and incidents that have set up the theme. We don't really believe that Clain doesn't care for his parents, what this scene shows rather poignantly is the way that Clain is so disconnected from his feelings that his sentiment for outdated machinery is the only outlet he is emotionally capable of using to express the loss he feels at his parents' absence.

Phryne sheds tears in place of Clain, who sits uncomprehending, surrounded by screens, speakers and the silent eye of the webcam.

There must be some debate as to what aspects of it are down to Azuma and which down to Yamamoto, and indeed to what extent the two are singing from the same hymn sheet, but yes, at least from this first episode, it is clear that Fractale has absorbed, and is casually regurgitating, many of the themes and cliches that underlie modern moé-influenced anime; and yet, it also seems intent on putting them in a wider social context. Yes, it is littered with transparent references to older anime works, but the characters thus far have remained innocent of them, free from self-referential comic asides.

Where it's obvious that someone like Hayao Miyazaki passionately wishes that the modern otaku had never been born and, thanks to his more mainstream popularity in Japan and overseas, is able to continue living his life in blissful denial of their existence, Azuma and Yamamoto have been getting their fingers dirty, peeling through the onion skins of moé culture for the past ten years and more, and are among the best placed people out there to engage with this most divisive aspect of Japanese pop culture in an interesting and valuable way (before presumably ruining it with a feeble final episode, like we all secretly know they will).