Friday, August 22, 2008

GOLD FEVER Goldfish Hot This Summer

A girl wearing a goldfish-adorned yukata
One of the most popular attractions at summer festivals around the country every year are booths at which people use a paper scoop to attempt to pluck goldfish out of a tank. Doing so is more difficult than it may sound; the paper is quite thin and tears easily when it gets wet. This is an age-old tradition in Japan, one that is enjoyed by many children and young people. Goldfish this summer are showing up in other places as well; especially popular are yukata (informal summer kimono) with goldfish patterns, but there are many other goldfish-related goods, too. The number of people keeping goldfish as pets is also increasing. While it is unclear exactly what sparked this boom, some are of the opinion that last year's popular NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) morning TV serial drama Sakura, which was set on a goldfish farm, played a role.
Children wearing goldfish-adorned jinbei

Goldfish-Adorned Goods Popular
Yukata are an established part of summer fashion for young women, but the bright pastel colors of last summer are now out of style. This year the hot look is traditional Japanese colors, such as purple or navy blue. A spokesperson for kimono maker Sagami notes that yukata made from dyed indigo cloth featuring goldfish or other nostalgia-invoking patterns are all the rage this year. The company expects sales of yukata overall to be up over last year.

Fast Retailing Co., which sells casual clothes under the Uniqlo brand name, began selling women's yukata this year. A Uniqlo yukata together with an obi (belt) sells for the low price of ¥3,900 ($32.50 at ¥120 to the dollar). A selection of 20 variations is available, and yukata featuring goldfish or other cute patterns are selling well.

seals and wrapping paper
Personal seals decorated with goldfish (Clover365 Co., Ltd.) and wrapping paper

The goldfish motif is not limited to yukata, however. It is showing up on such items as towels, folding fans, and even personal seals, which are often used in place of signatures in Japan. In the Osaka area, personal seals decorated with colorful images of goldfish on the part that is held in the hand are popular. A spokesperson for Naniwa Gensendou, which sells these seals under the brand name Osharehanko, says, "While seals previously had a rather staid image, people are now purchasing them with an eye to fashion and fun." Approximately 80% of the customers are young women. At the company's store in Kyoto, some 600 of these seals are sold in an average month, and the figure can rise as high as 1,000.

Popularity Surpasses That of Tropical Fish
Goldfish have even surpassed tropical fish in popularity as pets. At the Horiguchi Fish Farm in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward, the area is teeming with families even on weekdays and during summer vacation. It has become known as the location where the TV series Sakura was shot last year.

This fish farm has nearly 100 separate ponds, and the goldfish raised here are shipped and sold all over the country. Approximately 20 different varieties of goldfish are available, from the telescope goldfish, which is quite popular, to the ranchu, a type of goldfish developed in Japan that lacks a dorsal fin but has an attractive face. Prices range from ¥500 ($4.17) all the way up to ¥100,000 ($833) per fish. Recent developments have made goldfish easier to take care of, so there are more than 5 million households in Japan raising them as pets.

Goldfish Seen as Lucky
Goldfish are said to have originated in China near the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in the area that is now Jiangxi and Zhejiang Provinces, and they were brought to Japan in 1502 during the Muromachi period (1333-1568) from the Ming Dynasty. They were originally kept as pets and playthings by nobles and wealthy merchants, but after they were featured in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) in the mid-Edo period (1603-1868), they became popular with the general public, and street stalls selling goldfish began to appear. In the past, it was common to see vendors peddling goldfish on the street in the summer.

Over the many years that goldfish have been bred, variations have appeared through sudden mutations and also through crossbreeding. At present in Japan, goldfish are mainly raised in Yamatokoriyama City, Nara Prefecture; the Yatomi area in Aichi Prefecture; and in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward.

Long ago in China, goldfish were believed to bring happiness and prosperity. With the economy suffering from a bout of deflation, it may be that some people are attracted to goldfish in the hope of brighter times ahead for Japan.

MANGA MIRACLE Afro Samurai Comic Takes Hollywood by Storm

Afro Samurai is set to debut in the US. (c)TAKASHI OKAZAKI - GONZO
For a major Hollywood project, Afro Samurai's roots are about as obscure as can be. The soon-to-be-released movie originated as a manga created in Japan by Okazaki Takashi, who began his career not as a manga artist but as a graphic designer and originally funded the comic out of his own pocket. Afro Samurai fuses two disparate cultural themes - those of black America and of the ancient Japanese warrior class. The title character is a black swordsman on a journey to avenge the death of his father, which he witnessed as a child.

Humble Beginnings
As a designer, Okazaki achieved some renown in Japan for his character designs, which can be seen in the hit movie Odoru Daisosasen (Rhythm and Police). Yet in the early days, his efforts at manga had little success. That changed after the 1998 release of Afro Samurai, which originally appeared in the magazine Nou Nou Hau. Funded by Okazaki and his friends, the publication is said to have had a circulation in the hundreds.

The series managed to catch the attention of GDH K.K., an anime production company whose aim was to bring new Japanese works to a global audience. GDH decided to turn the obscure manga into an animated TV series, which is scheduled to air throughout the United States on the cable network Spike TV from late 2006. The series is also expected to air in Japan, where it will be subtitled. A major figure behind the US series will be the Hollywood star Samuel L. Jackson, serving not only as the lead voice actor but as producer as well.

Hot in Hollywood
The planned movie, shot on film, also has Jackson in the lead role. A joint development project has started in Hollywood among Mosaic Media Group, an influential US-based film production company, GDH, and Japan's Fuji Television Network, Inc., and a number of big names in the movie industry have been brought in, including the producers Charles Roven, who worked on Batman Begins, and Kameyama Chihiro, producer of Odoru Daisosasen.

A scene from Afro Samurai (c)TAKASHI OKAZAKI - GONZO

As if that were not enough, Afro Samurai will also be available to fans in the form of a video game, thanks to Japanese game maker Namco Ltd. The job of producing a game version of the story has gone to one of its US-based subsidiaries, Namco Hometek Inc.

Although Japanese anime is regularly shown throughout the United States, none has yet been made into a Hollywood motion picture. That Afro Samurai, with its obscure beginnings, is set to become the first such production makes it a truly extraordinary project. Perhaps no one is more surprised by Hollywood's enthusiasm for Afro Samurai than Okazaki himself. In an interview with the Japanese media, he said: "Even in Japan, it was popular only among a certain segment of manga readers. It never entered our minds that this would be seen by large numbers of people in the United States."


Japanese Novelist Wins Franz Kafka Award (April 24, 2006)

A symposium on Murakami organized by the Japan Foundation [Photo by Atsuko Takagi (Courtesy The Japan Foundation)]
Japanese author Murakami Haruki, who is perhaps best known for his novel Norwegian Wood, won the Czech Republic's Franz Kafka Award for Literature in March. As two previous recipients of the Franz Kafka Award have gone on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, there are growing hopes that Murakami might one day win the world's most prestigious literary prize.

A Sense of the Fantastic That Transcends Borders
Franz Kafka was a famous Czech writer from the city of Prague known for such novels as The Metamorphosis. The prize named after him, which was created in 2001, is awarded to writers who have made a major contribution to highlighting the importance of ethnic culture. It has just marked its sixth year, and the annual winner receives $10,000.

Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. He made his debut as an author in 1979, winning the Gunzo Award for New Writers for his work Hear the Wind Sing. Since then, he has released numerous short stories, essays, and novels, including the critically acclaimed A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He has also translated works by such American writers as John Irving and Raymond Carver.

Murakami's works are very popular in translation, especially among young people, as they are easy to read. His 1987 novel Norwegian Wood became a worldwide smash hit, as have most of his subsequent works.

In his writing, Murakami sketches out unique worlds that are not limited by a sense of being in a particular country, and his books have been translated into a number of languages and published around the globe. He has a great number of fans not only in North America and Europe but also in Asian countries like China, South Korea, and Taiwan. His name has often graced best-seller lists in these places. Murakami is easily the most famous modern Japanese writer outside Japan.

The Japanese covers of Kafka on the Shore (Shinchosha Co.)

Hope for a New Nobel Laureate
Murakami's recent novel Kafka on the Shore was published in translation in the United States in 2005. (It was originally released in Japan in 2002.) This work was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2005 by the New York Times, and it also became a best-seller in China.

Murakami has followed a different pattern from many writers in that he has first achieved fame overseas and then brought his works back to Japan, as in the case of his short story "The Elephant Vanishes," which was carried in the US magazine The New Yorker before being imported to Japan and published.

This past March in Tokyo, the first international symposium on the works of Murakami Haruki was held, bringing together translators of his books and researchers from around the world for intensive discussions of his literature.

The recipients of the Franz Kafka Award in 2004 and 2005 both went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature that same year, so there are growing expectations in the domestic media that Murakami may become the third Japanese to win the world's most prestigious literary prize, following in the footsteps of Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo. Murakami is a writer who truly belongs to the world.


Manga for Girls Catches On in America (March 28, 2006)

The December 2005 edition of Shojo Beat (VIZ Media, LLC)
In the United States, the latest trendy Japanese import is shojo manga (girls' manga). As its name suggests, this is a genre of comics for and about girls and young women. Japanese manga and anime already claim legions of fans throughout the world. However, most of these comics are aimed at male readers, such as the famous Dragon Ball and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which gained worldwide popularity in the 1990s. A manga featuring ninja, titled Naruto, is a current favorite. Manga for girls and women, however, have arrived relatively recently on US shores and are now beginning to make inroads.

Harry's New Rivals
An example of the current boom for girls' manga is Shojo Beat, published by VIZ Media, LLC, a magazine that began publication in the United States in 2005 through a partnership between Japanese publishers Shueisha Inc., Shogakukan Inc., and Hakusensha. Shojo Beat carries such well-known Japanese hit series as Nana, written by Yazawa Ai.

The growing popularity of girls' manga was highlighted in the summer of 2005 by a US-based news website that ran a story titled US Teenage Girls Prefer Japanese Heroes. Similarly, when Shojo Beat first appeared, it caused a sensation on par with that of the release of the latest Harry Potter title.

US book retailers, which until just recently had never carried manga, are now having to clear more and more shelf space to make way for the comics from Japan, according to the same website and Japanese newspaper reports. What is more, much of the sales growth is coming from girls' manga. In 2005, a girls' manga titled Fruits Basket, written by Takaya Natsuki, climbed high up the best-sellers' chart for manga of all types.

The US craze for manga is increasingly being supported by teenage girls and women in their twenties, many of whom grew up with Japanese cultural imports of previous years, such as the Pocket Monsters anime series. This makes them especially receptive to Japanese manga.

In shojo manga, the heroes are often girls and young women, much like the readers themselves, with real-world problems. The complex storylines portray subtle human relationships and psychological characterizations. American comics, by contrast, regularly feature male-oriented heroes with a strong sense of morality.

The Mecca of Manga
Another thing regularly portrayed in manga from Japan is the trendy Tokyo district of Harajuku, which is quickly gaining a reputation as a center of pop culture among American girls. The most enthusiastic fans head to Japan to see Harajuku for themselves. Many also visit Akihabara, a hangout for otaku, Japan's brand of geeks, and Otome Road, a concentration of shops specializing in girls' manga, which is in the Tokyo district of Ikebukuro. Some also go to experience some of the hot-spring resorts featured in the comics.

Other developments in the United States include the regular appearance since January 2006 of a girls' manga series, Peach Fuzz, on the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, Tokyopop, a manga publisher based in Minato Ward, Tokyo, includes works by an American writer, even though the heroine features big, saucer-shaped eyes, a hallmark of Japanese girls' manga.

With so many exciting developments taking place, it is clear that girls' manga has firmly captured the hearts of its young American fans.


Young Painter Takes Japan's Art World by Storm (June 22, 2006)

Matsui Fuyuko (Gallery Naruyama)
The school of Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) is an expression of Japan's artistic traditions. However, little of this art is taught in schools, and so most Japanese people are unfamiliar with Nihonga compared with more common styles, such as watercolors and oil paintings. This is changing, however, thanks to a young female artist called Matsui Fuyuko, who has caused a sensation in the world of Nihonga not only for her works but also for her striking looks.

Tradition and Innovation
Matsui, born in 1974 in Shizuoka Prefecture, is now working on her Ph.D. in Japanese-style painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. She relies on traditional techniques yet at the same time portrays the world of spirits and ghosts, a subject matter far removed from the traditional Japanese theme of the beauty of nature. Hers is a style of dark mystery.

"The cut long-term experiment" (Gallery Naruyama)

Her quintessential works include "The cut long-term experiment" (Setsudan sareta choki no jikken), whose subject is a large prowling dog, and "Keeping up the pureness" (Joso no jizoku), showing the internal organs of a pallid young girl. "Nyctalopia" (Yamosho) deals with a beautiful but eerie-looking ghost, and "Suddenly settled down and fell asleep" (Tadachi ni odayaka ni natte nemuri ni ochi) portrays an elephant on the verge of death.

All of Matsui's works convey a sense of the macabre. Though all are of the Nihonga school, they also bring together diverse cultural elements, as well as mixing madness and sanity, creating a world filled with intense and unforgettable apparitions.

"Keeping up the pureness" (Gallery Naruyama)

"I'm not interested in ghosts themselves, but rather in clearly understood expressions that convey the fear and anger of everyday life," she once told an interviewer. "I want to express the paradox that exists when you're depressed, when considerable strain weighs down your body, yet your emotions are floating around."

Dual Appeal
Beyond her startling works, another apparent reason for Matsui's success is her own appearance - the artist boasts the looks of a fashion model. Perhaps the gulf between her own physical beauty and the grim world she portrays on canvas is one of the factors behind her ever-growing popularity.

Matsui has received acclaim for infusing Japanese painting with a new sensibility, and her 2004 exhibition, "L'espoir 2004 Matsui Fuyuko," was hailed by her peers in the art world.

"Nyctalopia" (Gallery Naruyama)

In an interview, Matsui said she decided to become a serious painter while in elementary school, after seeing a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. She studied at the Junior College of Art and Design of Joshibi University. With a reputation for being a tireless worker, she then spent four hard years preparing to enter the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It was around this time that she shifted away from oil painting and into Nihonga, which she describes as "fundamentally strong, cool-looking, fearsome."

The Japanese art world is delighted at the emergence of such a promising and popular artist. Matsui's appeal has the potential to set off a new boom in Japanese-style painting.


Films Adapted from Comics Spearhead a Boom in Japanese Cinema (July 26, 2006)

A poster for the movie Death Note
The Japanese film industry was once thought to be in decline, overshadowed as it was by blockbusters from Hollywood. But over the past few years Japanese movies have won new popularity, and both box office sales and the number of releases are now on the rise. Live-action movies adapted from manga comics are a major force shaping this trend.

An Accent on Casting and Makeup
Japan is the land of comic books, and manga are a treasure trove of stories. Until recently, however, most manga-based movies were animated, and live-action productions tended to be low-budget affairs that got poor reviews.

The manga version of Death Note
(c) Tsugumi Oba • Takeshi Obata / SHUEISHA Inc.

Today, however, a new generation of directors brought up on manga is active in the movie industry, and computer graphics technologies have made substantial advances. Film makers can, for example, depict futuristic scenes from manga powerfully and realistically. And they can also produce works that are faithful to the original and do not disappoint manga fans, something they achieve by taking special care with the casting of the actors and makeup techniques.

Manga offer a number of advantages as the basis for a film. First, the titles of manga tend to convey the worldview and overall image of the work, so the gist of the story can be conveyed readily to potential readers without large-scale advertisements. The same holds true for movies adapted from manga. In addition, movies based on popular manga are guaranteed to attract fans of the original works.

Among the noteworthy films in this genre are Azumi, released in 2003, and Cutie Honey and Umizaru (Sea Monkey, the nickname for the Japan Coast Guard’s professional divers) released in 2004. In 2005, Nana and Always Sanchome no yuhi (Always: The Sunset at Sanchome) moved up the charts to become top-ranking Japanese box office hits.

A scene from the Death Note manga
(c) Tsugumi Oba • Takeshi Obata / SHUEISHA Inc.

Debut of Sequels
This year the list of manga-inspired films is even longer, with Saishu heiki kanojo (The Last Love Song on This Little Planet), Umizaru: Limit of Love, Rabu*kon (Lovely Complex), and Hachimitsu to Kuroba (Honey and Clover) among them. The manga from which they were adapted include both old and new titles and run the gamut from science fiction to love stories, thrillers, and comedies.

One of this year's hot new films is Death Note, which began showing in June 2006. The original manga was carried in the weekly manga magazine Shukan Shonen Jump through May 2006 and was also published separately as a set of paperbacks, which had sold more than 20 million copies as of July 2006.

Death Note is a mystery whose unique plot revolves around a notebook with the power to cause the death of any person whose name is written in it. The movie was made in two parts, unusually for a Japanese project, with the aim of remaining true to the spirit of the original work. The second part is scheduled to open in theaters in November. There are plans to release the film in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a number of other countries and regions in Asia, and the possibility of a US and European release is also being discussed.

Making comic-based live-action movies was once the exclusive domain of Hollywood, while Japanese filmmakers commonly focused on making animated versions of manga. Now that manga have an international readership, live-action Japanese movies adapted from these comics are likely to gain a following in the rest of the world.


Summit Unites Fans of Japan's Latest Pop Culture Export (August 18, 2006)

The winning Brazilian pair
From Japan, the birthplace of manga, anime, and video games, comes cosplay, another form of Japanese pop culture that is beginning to sweep the world. "Cosplayers" like dressing up as characters from their favorite manga and anime. Japan plays host to the annual World Cosplay Summit, a festival that attracts "costume players" from around the world.

Breaking into the Mainstream
Cosplay is an abbreviated form of the English words costume and play, and recently it has been gaining currency among speakers of English. Cosplay was originally regarded as part of the exclusive domain of otaku (anime and manga fanatics regarded as somewhat geeky), but in the 1990s an increasing number of cosplayers began appearing at comic markets and anime events, to the point where they gradually entered the mainstream through frequent coverage in magazines, TV, and other media.

The German representatives

Recently, more and more cosplayers are displaying their costume fashions over the Internet. Fan clubs have sprung up, and some celebrity enthusiasts have even been featured in their own photo shoots.

Cool Japan on Display
With a culture of dressing up already established for occasions like Halloween, young people in Europe and the United States have proved highly receptive to cosplay. The World Cosplay Summit attracts cosplayers from all over the world and is a showcase for Japanese pop culture. Since the first summit in 2003, the event has grown by leaps and bounds each year. In 2005 it was held as one of the events of Expo 2005 Aichi Japan, and it has now become a truly worldwide event.

World Cosplay Summit 2006 was held on August 6 in Nagoya. The event has received backing from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport as a platform for communicating Japanese culture to the rest of the world. Cosplayers attended from Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Singapore, China, Thailand, Brazil, and Japan, following preliminary rounds of cosplay competition held in these countries.

We caught up with some of the participants to ask them about their love of cosplay. Daniela Guldenpfennig and Tanja Reschke from Germany came dressed as a character from the Aoi Nanase art book SevenColours of the Wind and Hotaru Futaba from Garou Mark of the Wolves, respectively. "Most of my friends do cosplay," said Tanja, confirming the growing popularity of this pastime. As for their view of Japan, Daniela said, "We love the temples. They're so beautiful. And Shibuya - the shopping is great!"

The French team dressed as characters from Prince of Tennis

Maurisio Somenzari L. Olivas and Monica Somenzari L. Olivas are a brother-and-sister team who represented Brazil, winning the grand prize at the 2006 summit. Dressed respectively as Hughes de Watteau and Augusta Vradica from Trinity Blood, they made their costumes by hand with help from their parents. Mauricio started learning Japanese six years ago when he became hooked on the anime Sailor Moon. He likes the cross and pants in his costume, while Monica likes her hat.

Chinese representatives Yu Xin Hao and Ni Jia Ting were visiting Japan for the first time. Yu was dressed as Genzo from Saiyuki, while Ni was dressed as Kagome Higurashi from Inuyasha. Both of their costumes were hand-made, and both expressed a desire to continue this unique hobby.

Anne-Cécile Martin and Léna Desfontaines from France came as Bitter Saki from Pinky St.: The Animation and Nadia from Fushigi no Umi no Nadia, respectively. Anne-Cécile reported that so many people had entered the French cosplay contest that some had to be turned away. Léna, meanwhile, said, "At first my parents were not happy that I spent so much money on my costumes, but now they think it's great that I've been able to come to Japan for the cosplay summit."

The Chinese representatives

Cosplay is particularly popular in France, a nation with a well-established base of manga fans and one of the first foreign countries to be introduced to Japanese anime. A contest attracting some 400 contestants vying to represent France as cosplay competitors was held as part of the Japan Expo, which took place in suburban Paris in early July.

The Japan Expo introduces elements of Japan's subculture, including manga, anime, and pro wrestling. This year's expo attracted a record-high 60,000 visitors. Contestants as well as regular expo visitors turned out in their cosplay garb to strut their stuff and show off their originality.

With costumes inspired by manga and anime popular even in Paris, the high-fashion capital of the world, cosplay looks poised to take the world by storm as a new form of Japanese pop culture.