Tease + title reveal for my upcoming web comic collaboration with Hiroyuki Takahashi… He draws, I write, you get HYPERSONIC. Spoiler for deep readers: although radically different in style and content, this will be the second part of the Mystery Frequency saga following Paranoia Girls. More in early 2015.
Her lace glove hand holding a tightly folded McDonald's bag containing hot apple pie within for warmth, Luna Kobayashi is wandering on high heeled sneakers down a cold rainy day shotengai towards the JR station, frayed and torn pitari cold mask plastered across her mouth, medical bandage for a right eye, her ruined face a masterpiece framed by an imitation fur cheap down jacket hood. From her strange gait alone comes the rapid switch of weather which takes effect as soon as we get on the Shonan Shinjuku line at 4:27. We go from passing through mere clouds and drizzle to miles of cold hard stone above our heads, asphyxiated dead blue colors like the whole world under polar icewater now; nothing left to see except dying sun, fluorescent office light, and LEDs all blurred by moving train windows like this. And then she stops walking / stumbling long enough to finally lay down and die, last breaths clearly visible, but seen by no one, as steam mingling and twisting with evaporating mositure from the runied city below.
I am gathered here today to pay tribute to Bunta Sugawara whose death marks the end of the modern movie yakuza, the last shot of the machine gun dragons, and the final police sweep of the Showa era...
Discovering Bunta’s 1970s output on dozens of VHS tapes at SF’s Japan Town (egged on by Chris D.’s pioneering reviews in Asian Trash Cinema magazine) pretty much changed my life. Gendai Yakuza – Hitokiri Yota (AKA Street Mobster) in particular wound up a primal scene, and without it, I might never have wandered into the deep end of Japanese pop culture beyond the boundaries of anime and kaiju flicks.
Back then, it was impossible to find a subtitled copy of any of the Kinji Fukasaku / Sugawara films, but Bunta’s hellfire persona was more than enough to go on. There was THAT FACE, twisting and contorting with overclocked emotion. Then there was THAT VOICE, which could go from a deep menacing rumble to something I can only equate with the sound of an entire room filled with beer bottles breaking and ramen bowls shattering (usually over someone’s head). I needed to write about it. I wound up writing books about it...
Looking back, I think I was seeing something of my own father when I saw Bunta and many of the yakuza movie tough guys mixing it up. While he wasn’t an abusive person by nature, explosive rage mixed with remote coolness was something I did experience up close on several occasions. I think I was trying to understand what masculine violence was and where it came from. I wound up looking for answers in post-war Japan; both in real history and in the exploitation “true document” films in which Bunta and directors like Kinji Fukasaku relived their own past traumas in.
Bunta’s death arrives mere weeks after the loss of fellow icon Takakura Ken (that's both of them destroying the world in the picture above). Together, they were the alpha and omega, the ninkyo and the jitsuroku, of Japan’s movie tough guys. Ken was stoic, suffering, and deeply connected to the crisis of Modernization during the Meiji and Taisho era. Bunta was something more primal: a libidinal Frankenstein monster that 20th century Japan created by proxy, but could not tame with law and order. An outsider outlaw no matter what gang he might belong to.
That both Bunta and Ken are gone means we are on our own now -- death claims victory in yet another cynical freeze frame ending – but at least we will forever have role models, real and imaginary, for how battles without honor or humanity can be fought.
So let's start everything over right here, right now.... what the fuck are you staring at?
Trying to wonder now what good it all did me. Still here in this place where I have to test it out every day. Hand out the window, neighbors wondering what’s wrong. We never ask, we never see each other. Running from sidewalk to doorway. Inverted giant triangle pointed downwards like sword point at the park, diorama sized palace where the empress lives only a few blocks away. Probably just playing a TV game, lost in SNS bullshit, giving half-attention to someone in the same room, getting older, waiting until the wrinkles around your eyes expand into frowns, upset at the fact that you are aging (which is bound to make me smile). Protests at the holy sites nearby, but who has bandwidth for that? Have to devote discipline to others, larger causes. I guess we need the money until it finally stops.
Sharp Fox Face. She is walking past ruins of burnt building behind koban, moving away from Basketball Street and towards Spain zaka and from there points unknown. Pinpoint vector lines connecting motion of muscle tissue to cloud shapes overhead. Giant hands in the sky above cupping the Yamanote line below, maintaining the tiny gardens with mass humidity, the moisture coming from you and me as we work ourselves to get on and off the trains to take us to department stores escalators, lines for theme cafes, fast food places with foreign staff, stuff to look and buy on an endless gauntlet (permanent state of construction / reconstruction) inside air conditioning jacked on high. I’m hot, then I’m freezing, now I’m crawling home to lay on the floor where I’ll be sure to find at least a bug or two hiding in the always too-small-sheets when I wake up at 2:46am thinking about what to do for the next seven hours before Shibuya opens and fills up with Sharp Fox Faces all over again.
Paranoia Girls launched a few weeks ago and we are three pages in. English and Japanese versions are available. All hail artist Yunico Uchiyama for making my psychedelic suburban surrealist daydreams a semi-reality.
I fulfilled a freelance fantasy of mine and started writing for MTV81. My latest piece for them is on THE BLOCK PARADE's epic all night club event. Read here.
We think about a world, hollowed out, surrounded by silent invisible super weapons in space. Billions of biological processes below hung on tiny first person perspectives to what end… can’t ever be shown; field of vision always too small. Draped and un-structured. The inability to execute much beyond consuming what is front of you; minefields of miscommunication, dominated by landscapes someone else made decades ago, went home to their own rabbit hutch night after night trying to pass the time without incident. Red missile outlines pouring down on us from assorted points on the compass, the defense shield lazily catching them in neon green geometric grids. Who’s to say they aren’t inside us now? I'm armor and evasion. You keep on launching more at me.
Walking to Asakusa through deserted cityscape. Stores are shuttered. Very few people streaking by on bicycle or scattering to conbini safety. It’s a holiday and the sky is heavy and grey. Time wave zero vibrations flowing out from the subways, water rushing through dark and secret passages under heavy steel manhole covers. Ghosts we can’t see in the street. Going in the wrong direction so I get a cab. Figuring Sensoji and Kaminarimon will be the last places effected by the flow, I tell Archery Bow Child to meet me at the Nakamise gate. For once we both arrive at the same time. Impermanence holding fast here in the form of fading Kodak film booth, eroding instant cameras from decades past. American Godzilla toys stacked up in the old omochaya. Corrugated gates coming down. It’s a holiday after all. We make for Rokku-za to see what happened to the movie theaters: the Toho and the Meigaza only to find construction sites. Cops and drunks still clinging to their old ways, but the parachute ride at Hanayashiki looks like a building crane now. A glittering celestial Don Quijote dominates the block now, all lights and new car smell like something out of a Las Vegas afterlife. Archery Bow Child consults her clackbox to see what the street used to look like 100 years ago, but there are no matches, no hits, and everything comes back completely and totally blank. We were just projecting it ourselves the whole time.
We live in the gap: dead center in the middle of disparity between what is promised and what we actually get. Surrounded by oversized menu photos from a million chain izakaya; obscured faces identified by false names and phone numbers; the pet on the poster, the one you wind up with; ads on the trains promising happy news, happy mail, happy places. The distance between things is probably why everyone looks so constantly beat down, hard work and a full time job trying to make up the difference.
Ok, so PARANOIA GIRLS, my experimental psychedelic suburban surreal science fiction opus about teenage girls and acid fried army colonels, has begun serializing on tumblr.
Features art by Yunico Uchiyama with translation and a lot of behind the scenes support by the incredible Marie Iida. We will be updating the main story bi-weekly and posting apocrypha and related artifacts whenever we find them or the Extra Dimensional Reality Archive can be bothered to loan them out. So yeah, here we go…
Umbrella walking in crowded Shibuya side street, of course everything is ragged and falling apart, so the umbrella is already broken and plastic tips protecting sharp edges are missing which is unfortunate because in a tight spot where there is no more room to maneuver, the metal points scrape the eyeballs of a office lady passing by, turning at least one into bloody jelly leaking everywhere, mingling on the street with rain water, soy sauce, urine, and boss coffee all of it collected as evidence of a serious crime – but it was an accident – that can never be properly explained as rights and freedoms are taken away in holding cells and miserable rooms where nothing is ever resolved.
Constant rain, constant drizzle, heading down tiny corridors between buildings, inverted red triangles on the windows showing the way of decent. A scene where we sit in a new restaurant on the second floor of a building that has seemingly always been there, interior painstakingly designed to look decidedly postwar. Deliberately uncomfortable, staff girls wearing pink Crocs to offset the difference. Fake dirt, fake nostalgia. This used to be a row of offices where agents of the Government of Darkness faked work and toil and did much more harm that way than if they had set out for something deliberate. Their children fated to recreate half century loops of history they know nothing about save the consistency of food and drink preparation. Jetlag highballs and feeling old sitting next to fresh recruits in identical while button down shirts and black slacks. They start to smoke, not from tobacco, but from the peak friction of things inside that can no longer be contained because they’d stopped long enough to sit. And then I run.
Fun fact: I barely go out at all when I’m here in San Francisco. I like my Xbox and HDTV waaaaay too much. But when in Tokyo – which is where I spent most of June this summer – I’m continually running around, bugging people if they “know of any events”, and hightailing it to whatever weird scene or place makes itself available. Case in point: Heavy Pop Vol. 16, a head spinning mix of crazy outfits, Anison delights, packed with assorted jpop and techno highlights.
Heavy Pop, organized by Ray Ochiai, is a regular club party event with strong ties to the Harajuku scene. To wit: a typical Heavy Pop event will see lolitas getting down with cyber kids, goths, decora, and other varieties of fashion monsters. While the event was open to the public, my invitation to Heavy Pop Vol. 16 came from a girl named Merupan I’d met a few months earlier at a gallery opening where artist Hiroyuki Takahashi’s work was on display. Turned out Merupan was an Anison DJ and was going to be spinning at Heavy Pop while I was in town. I looked at the flier below and figured I had to go…
Some other friends and acquaintances were on the bill, including Raveman, he of dark wave duo Aural Vampire, and The Lady Spade who have performed at Anime Maturi and whom I’ve interviewed before. So I shotgunned a sugar free Red Bull and made for a tiny dark club called HELL’S BAR in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya ward. Below is my video report on what when down….
My first impressions were: practically everyone seemed to know each other. Despite the various fashion and music tribes present at Heavy Pop, it was still a very tightly knit scene. This inclusive vibe is pretty rare. Subcultures can be extremely exclusive in Tokyo sometimes, and you’ll often know right away from glares and stares if you’ve strayed too far outside your boundaries, which tend to be even thicker than normal if you’re a wacky foreigner. But the denizens of Heavy Pop were totally open to whoever, or whatever, wandered in the door.
With a lot of mingling going on, the dancing and DJ-ing sometimes felt secondary to surreal socializing among the attendees and shop stall staff that filled the floor with spooky handmade goods for sale. The proceedings could be stop-start. Just as the music threatened to fully take over, the scene would switch to a fashion show, a live performance, a mini-birthday celebration complete with candles and cake. The vibe was slightly bittersweet throughout: the HELL’S BAR venue was set to close down for good after this event, even though Heavy Pop continues to be a thing, the vibe of something changing and coming to an end was palpable. The family feel reached its apex when everyone gathered together to take a group portrait to commemorate this installment of Heavy Pop. And hey, what do you know, I wound up in the picture as well…
So yeah, while Anison and otaku culture didn’t play a central part in the proceeding – aside from Merupan’s spirited DJ set – experiencing the underground eco-system of Heavy Pop was totally worth the trip.
Glowstick trails… anime themes at warp speed bpms… legions of cosplayers dancing and laughing in the dark… My heads-spinning summer of Anison (otaku-speak for “anime songs”) began last month in Tokyo with a visit to a club event called AniLOVE!!, which you can read about here.
And it was at AniLOVE!! that the gang there suggested that we check out another regular anison event that’s been active in Japan for nearly 4 years now… Anison Disco, a name which conjured up images of big afros, funky platform heels, and wide lapel shirts. While there was a giant mirror ball involved, it was a bit different from the Saturday Night Fever-like experience I was half expecting. For starters, Anison Disco is funny. Deliberately so. A pair of comedians from the famed Yoshimoto talent agency – most notably BAN BAN BAN Yamamoto who certainly cuts a striking figure in his tail swinging Frieza cosplay - are the main organizers of the event, and are backed up on stage by a gaggle of up-and-coming aspiring comedians. You’ll probably get some sense of what Anison Disco’s agenda is simply by looking at the quite intriguing staff pic below…
The Anison Disco event I went to was held on a Sunday afternoon at club WOMB in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward: a massive venue that’s a ground zero of sorts for music and DJ events of all genres (it is also home to “Asia’s largest mirror ball” according to some rumors / reports). I had seen the anison groove work its strange magic at the small club where AniLOVE!! was held… how would things turn out in a much bigger place? Watch the video below to find out!
First things first: the place was PACKED with attendees, as in “no place to move”. Most folks (both sexes equally represented, early to mid-20s seems about right) were in cosplay. Pretty much everyone had at least one glowstick to wave around wildly. All attention was centered on the stage where the Anison organizers held court, leading the wota dance moves, and putting on short “cosplay masquerade” skits based on whatever anime theme the DJ spun. People from the audience were welcome to jump on stage and do their thing as well, although groups of similar cosplayers tended to travel in packs, like the Madoka glowstick gang seen in the video, or the air swimmers from Free! in the pics below.
The result was controlled chaos; some degree of planning and professionalism was clearly at work behind the scenes. This was not a free-for-all: everyone was encouraged (in a very Japanese way) to follow the leaders, unify, and have fun together, resulting in a feeling not entirely dissimilar to the exercise portion of a particularly crazy morning kids show.
The one major goof in the Anison Disco experience was the near total lack of actual anime itself. As BANBANBAN Yamamoto explained to us, since this event was also being livestreamed to the internet, they opted to just spring for generic VJ visuals (other smaller Anison Disco events do include anime video though). Too bad… I can only image how much more crazier the event would have been with some opening and ending title sequences layered on top of the mayhem. Still, I emerged from WOMB sweaty and half-crazed by what I had experienced, wondering (as I am increasingly these days) why aren't more anime fans doing this kind of stuff outside of Japan. But no answers were to be found...my Anison summer still wasn’t over by a long shot…
At the bottom of the shadows cast hard by Nishi Shinjuku skyscrapers. Crawling somewhere in the direction of Donki to meet someone. Assorted superheroes pose on the walk ways or try to look busy in the cockpits of carrier vehicles flying overhead. Lost tourists and locals milling about in buzzed trance step. Empty office of the government of darkness where windowed light collects only in corners where it cowers in the presence of office chair. We never know what to do during the aches and pains of afternoon. Let the environment do the slow fade for you.