Shiro Bako is the Story of Japanese Society

I shoulda known. Japanese animation studios are the same as any other Japanese company–filled with stupid politics, inefficiencies, and people who stay around until the wee hours of the night. Shiro Bako is a pretty accurate description of Japanese professional life in animated form, and boy is it heavy with all of the anguish that entails.

These Characters Need to Eat

After the opening segment with smokescreen moe antics of girls in their high school animation club, the scene that immediately follows puts our intrepid Miyamori-san at a red light during a late-night genga run. As she waits at the wheel with dead eyes, she catches sight of one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour beef bowl joints, and just can’t help but express her desire to dig into its (likely under-500-yen) glory. The look of hunger on her face shot me through the heart. Flash forward to episode four, and immediately after an establishing shot of Miyamori’s rundown apartment, it cuts to the inside of her microwave, where a 398 yen bento is in the process of being warmed up. First thing I think: “Straight to the conbini, straight home, and straight into the denshi renji? Been there.” Second thing I think: “If only you got home earlier, you coulda got the cheaper bentos at your local super market right before it closed. Too bad it’s already closed.” This is then actually mentioned in the following episode, after the girls finish their drinks at the izakaya Zuka-chan part-times at. Ema splits off from Miyamori early to hit the grocery store–“I’m going to get my lunch for tomorrow–right now bentos are probably half-off.”

Being an adult in this country (or being anyone in this country, really) involves not having a lot of time, so nuisances like eating have to be taken care of quick and efficiently, as well as satisfy one’s base definition of what tastes “good,” which is basically “anything super oily.” This need to eat cheap and delicious junk is actually exhibited impeccably in the opening, where cute shots of the girls are shown matched to the backdrops of Japan’s star lineup of junk foods: ramen, curry, takoyaki, burgers, fries and pizza.

You know, Japanese burgers, fries, and pizza.

These Characters Need to Drink

The other thing I like about the scene in the opening with all the girls smiling with their big stupid moe eyes to the backdrop of junk food is that the shot of Miyamori has her arms filled with beer and other alcoholic beverages. That’s right, these characters can’t fucking take it anymore. You need a Goddamn drink, or fifteen, to get through this drudge called life. And you need to do it for cheap, too–which is why when Miyamori gets home in the first episode, she cracks open a can of (what is likely) happoushu, and reminisces about the better days. Characters in this show one way or another find themselves with some manner of poison in the mitts, whether it be in the security of their 1k apartments, or an izakaya. Alcohol is so easy to get your hands on here, and it’s also easy to drink a lot of it with cheap all you can drink plans at pubs around town. People need it ’cause life is tough–especially on those in the animation industry.

I’m actually having one right now as I write this post.

Japanese is Inherently Condescending/The Work Place

The Japanese language is by nature all about talking up and down to people. Juniors talk up their seniors, and seniors talk down to their juniors. This becomes especially brutal in the workplace, where there are a stupid amount of “bosses” over you–shunin, kakarichou, kachou, jichou, and buchou. And those are just the ones in your immediate vicinity. Elsewhere in the company there are honbuchou, toukatsu, joumu, senmu, fuku-shachou, and God–the shachou. Things become especially complicated when you factor in age–some buchou are younger than shunin–do they talk down to them? Up? It’s difficult to ascertain.

Thankfully, in the world of Shiro Bako this sort of thing is more cut-and-dry–animation studios lack traditional office positions, so it all comes down to who’s younger or older, and who’s newer or longer at the company. While it’s lost in translation, all the Japanese societal and office politics are in full force, with Miyamori often being called in yobisute, or certain characters getting the anta/omae treatment. While Shiro Bako presents a more or less perfect diorama of what the Japanese work place should sound like, it does throw a few funny and interesting wrenches into the works. The first is Takanashi Taro, another production assistant like our gallant hero, Miyamori. The funny thing about Takanashi is that he’s obviously a country hick who doesn’t know how societal rules work. He uses the arrogant male pronoun ore–which should never be used around seniors–and mixes it with half-assed polite language, thinking everything will be okay. This is part of what results in people treating him like a dimwit (also, he’s just actually a dimwit) and if you understand the Japanese nuance, it adds another level of rudeness to his comments that get him trouble in the episodes about Exodus’ 3D CG scene.  The second is chief production assistant Honda, who speaks politely to the studio’s weak-willed director, while still treating him like shit at the same time. Japanese is beautiful like that.

Outside of the crazy bubble that is anime production, recently Miyamori’s sister, Kaori, made her way into the show, and we got a glimpse of how funereal her job is through some flashbacks. Here’s the rundown: Morning assemblies with bosses lecturing their subordinates about how much they suck, co-workers making idle lunch chat in the break-room about some goukon (that won’t lead to anything because half the participants are married), and asinine exchanges in the bathroom about some bad TV drama. It’s a short scene, but it paints an alarmingly stark picture of what it’s like to be in the trenches here.

Location, Location, Location

While Musashino Animation is not a real anime studio, Musashino is a real city in Tokyo, and according to the show, the studio is specifically in the Musashi-Sakai district of the city–a place where a friend of mine used to live. There’s an episode where the girls eat pancakes in Kichijoji, and make their way to Inokashira Park–complete with swan boats in the background. This show is going out of its way to ground itself in my world, and I really like that.

For anyone who knows Tokyo’s geography, all of the main action happens within the 23 wards. Musashino is one of Tokyo’s “cities”, which more or less makes it the suburbs. Lots of animation studios are what is effectively the boondocks of Tokyo, and the show lays down the lame suburban experience on us thick in the first episode.

She’s driving a car.

In most parts of the 23 wards, you only drive a car because you’re rich and can afford one. Most people take the train. But when you get out far on the Chuuou line where MusaAni is, cars–or least a bicycle–become necessity. Furthermore, when Miyamori’s sister comes around, she says outright that Musashino isn’t that different from the countryside town she’s from. While there is this image of Tokyo as this big bustling metropolis in the minds of Japanese country bumpkins, Shiro Bako exposes the truth about Tokyo’s sprawl–once you’re out of the Yamanote loop, things turn into houses and grocery stores real fast, and the distance between stations gradually grows farther and farther.

The show  does a very good job of getting the grime of Tokyo’s suburbs down right. It’s not Shinjuku Kabukichou grime, but it’s that distinctly Japanese suburban grime that you see once you get past Shinjuku or Nishi-Nippori, depending on which direction you’re going. The Musashi Animation building is drawn lovingly as the rundown piece of late 1990s/early 2000s Japanese architecture it is; a typically ugly tiled Japanese building that has been obviously weathered over the years. The surroundings are typical for any area of west Tokyo beyond Kichijouji–lots of apartments, with some down-home restaurants and pubs. The show has a distinct sense of banality soaked into the characters’ surroundings that’s really specific to Tokyo, and does a spectacular job of grounding the show in reality.

The People

While Shiro Bako focuses on an ensemble of simple moe girls, they are all working adults, which is more than one can say about characters in other moe anime. They have worries about their future, and like I said above–they like drinks and food that’s bad for them. While they could stand be a bit more realistic–both in design and in characterization–they do provide an pretty accurate and relatable representation of what it’s like to be an adult in Dai Nippon, even if it’s a little simplified.

Also, all the dudes smoking on the studio’s outdoor staircase is a nice touch.

The Goddamn Point

To make a long story short, Shiro Bako works for me because it’s The Perfect Illustration of adult life in Japan.The manner in which it goes out of its way to paint how mundane and hard these peoples’ lives are is a near perfect visualization of the grind that happens every day in Japanese society–especially in the animation industry. While it is kind of lightened up with its cute cast, the show turns that element a little bit on its head by giving the girls real grown-up worries, and real grown-up bad habits.

The show also works for me because it’s about a bunch of nerds making anime, but I don’t think I need to talk about how much of an otaku I am again.

Posted in Anime, Reviews | Tagged | 5 Comments

The Two O.L.H. Shows of 2014

Yeah, it’s been a while. I’m currently trying to figure out how to keep up with stuff like this while maintaining one of those crazy Japanese jobs that sometimes keep you at the office for 13 hours a day. That said, I’ve almost fallen into a decent groove, so hopefully I can churn out more posts before the year is up.

                          

As some of you may be aware, I love the Japanese band Omokage Lucky Hole. This fact can be confirmed by taking a look at my last.fm account in which I have currently logged 25,776 playbacks of the band’s songs. Currently known as Only Love Hurts (in an attempt to invite more mainstream tie-ups) the band did two shows this year–one in February, and one in October.

WWW presents O.L.H./2014-2-1/WWW, Shibuya

2014_OLH_1Photograph shamelessly stolen from natalie.mu

Only Love Hurts’ first big show after changing their name was the band’s second consecutive show at Shibuya’s happening WWW live house. Up until this point I had been to a few O.L.H. shows, and they were all good, but they lacked some fire. As a proud owner of the band’s super-rare live DVD, and a nice collection of aCky’s MC routines, I can say that the fire I saw in those recordings was not quite there in the previous shows I’ve been to. But things were different this time around.

However, before I get to that, there was an opening act. This time instead of the soothing (read: bizarre) Showa-inspired tunes 0f Machi Akari that opened the band’s New Name Concert, us attendees were subject to the comical hip-hop stylings of stillichimiya. With a set that spanned a seamless fifteen songs, these boys from Yamanashi prefecture glowed on stage with rhymes so skillful I couldn’t even understand what they were going on about. Well, I guess there’s also that language barrier thing.

Stillichimiya is a humorous group, putting stupid lyrics on top of really hot beats. A lot of their songs seemed to hinge heavily on their top grade stage antics, so I don’t know how well they’d sound as just audio coming through my ears on a crowded Tokyo subway train. Among their  shenanigans, they brought a local bottle of their home-prefecture’s sake, and passed it around the audience, encouraging everyone to take a swig. By the time it came back, it was unsurprisingly empty. Also, among the young men on stage, one older and quite bizarre gentleman stood out: Mr. Maro. He always broke up the group’s hip-hop flow with a masculine serenade, and his appearances would be marked by ever increasing amounts of intricate makeup. In the end they were a good time–I need to check out their mp3s to see if they have any re-playability in my daily life.

The main act of the night followed, and something was notability different right away. A lot of the distance I noticed between aCky and the crowd in previous shows had gone. He was having fun singing, and playing around with the songs, all backed by the band’s reliably solid performance with the instrumentals. “Good evening, we are Omoka–er, Only Love Hurts,” aCky said completely unintentionally in his first MC bit. There was a fire back in the band that I didn’t really see in previous shows. I suppose aCky was in his element at Friday, but in all the other shows I saw he was missing something, even though I was reluctant to admit it. I could tell aCky and the band were more into it when they broke out the on-stage routines I had seen in videos of past shows, like their call-and-response chants which involves coaxing the audience into saying dirty words, or aCky’s phone sex routine. While there was something to a lot of the bleaker, quieter, and darker MC bits that were common in shows up until this one, it was better to get something a bit more relaxed and fun. I think aCky’s more upbeat because the band is getting more work with their new name, between a movie and a musical.

Standouts in the set included Yubikiri, which I had never heard live, and is one of the band’s lesser known tracks that I really like. The title is a play on the fact that “yubikiri” means either “pinky promise” or “getting your pinky cut off ’cause you’re in the mob.” It has a bit of a country twang to it, but is also quite rich with horns that came through well live. Onna no Michishirube (The Woman’s Signpost) was also an unexpected treat. It’s one of the band’s older cuts and not one of their trademark tunes, so hearing them get at it on the stage was awesome. They also did Kore ga Kore na Mon De (She’s Knocked Up), which I simply hadn’t heard in a while, and was nice to hear, especially with all the enthusiastic gestures miming pregnant bellies when aCky sung the song’s “she’s knocked up” refrain. As always, they closed off with Tokyo (ja) Nightclub (wa), and disappeared for the night. This time I was unfortunately unable to run into aCky after the show, but there are only so many times you can meet your mid-40s, overweight, real-job-is-a-civil-servant heroes.

I met up with some friends afterwards who also went to the show (the guys I met in Yokohama at Friday), and we had a nice dinner with some drinks. And that was the night.

Oshiete O.L.H. Yoru no Chiebukuro (Tell Us O.L.H. — Late Night Life Advice)/2014-10-11/WWW, Shibuya

2014_OLH_2

O.L.H.’s latest show (and likely their last for the year) was awesome.

The opening act was a guy called Fujii Youhei. While I liked what I heard, I was unfortunately a little late for the show, and wasn’t able to catch most of his performance. I managed to procure a glimpse of his last song, and it reeked of Okamura-chan, so I decided I had to check him out. Turns out he’s this guy who comes up with really smooth R&B tracks that have killer guitar portions (played by him) and matches them to hilariously childish lyrics that are primarily him repeating things like “I wanna suck on mama’s teats and live off papa’s money forever,” or “I wanna make your pussy mine.” He will then accent these clever lyrics with lines like, “I read some gag manga and laughed, read some porno manga and jerked off.” In short, his music is all about being the lamest dude you can possibly be, and putting it into the bluntest, most straightforward words possible. Of course, I LOVE IT. His first pro album, Banana Games, can be found on iTunes here.

After I caught a glimpse of Fujii Youhei’s genius, O.L.H. came on. Once again, there was lots of audience interaction, and every song was taken above and beyond its original studio cut. The band proved to be red hot once again, and put on a very satisfying show. Everyone in the audience got a giant laugh when aCky came on stage with a dildo attached to a theremin during the show’s opening song (Konya, Sugamo De) with the chorus girls pretending to fondle the erect object, and it responding with hilarious theremin sounds as aCky was about to get into the vocals. They did a version of Ai no Xanadu (Xanadu of Love) where aCky sung the original “blackhole” lyric in place of “Xanadu”. While the word “blackhole” may invoke scientific images of space in the minds of us round-eyes, in a Japanese context it means “the deep black hole that lies between the legs of every female–the pussy,” so it was cool to see them perform the song the way they wanted to. It was originally the theme song for that film the band was involved with, and the lyric change came about because the director requested that aCky exercise more subtlety.

One of the bigger treats of the night was a performance of Chiisa na Mama (Tiny Mama), the spectacular ending track of their pro debut album, Dairi Haha. The live version was rougher, and almost had more impact than the smoother album cut, with forceful drums and assertive horns, as well as effective use of the chorus singers to compliment Tet-chan’s beautiful guitar solo heavy with the song’s inherent tragedy. That’s right, Tet-chan–the band’s former guitarist–was back for the night. He lives in Kyoto, so he can’t come and jam all the time, but he was at the WWW for this show, and his exceptional guitar was one of the main factors that made the show as great as it was.

Other highlights included the band’s only performance of Pillow Talk, Tagalog-Go (Pillow Talk, In Tagalog) for the year, which was as magical as I remember its live version being. With Tet-chan on board for the night, the climax of the song was incredible with his emphatic guitar backing. They also did a performance of Pachinko Yatteru Aida ni Umarete Mamonai Musume wo Kuruma no Naka de Shinaseta Natsu (The Summer I Let My Baby Daughter Die in the Car While Playing Pachinko) which had the most power I’ve seen of the band’s performances of the song, and really got the crowd going. The encore consisted of Kore ga Kore na Mon De and Tokyo (Ja) Night Club (Wa), which also made great use of the previously mentioned dildo-attached theremin. In fact, aCky was so infatuated with the dildotheremin that he had to rush to the mic to sing Kora ga Kore na Mon De’s verses because he was too busy playing with his new toy during the song’s instrumental breaks. At the end of Nightclub, the theremin must have broken, because began to emit an ear-killing screech at the end of the song as aCky dropped it, and the rest of the band left. It was the most appropriate way to end the night.

As per the concert’s title, the band did an advice segment between songs. They took fans’ questions via the net, and received an alleged total of five inquires. Needless to say, all inquiries were answered. Both of the two “Tell Us, O.L.H.” segments opened with a hilarious laid back bossa-nova number, featuring a keyboard section that was revealed to be one of the guitarists going “la la la” into the mic after all the other musicians had stopped playing, resulting in laughs from the audience each time. Highlights included people writing in with problems like “I have a boner that won’t calm down” and “my girlfriend wants to have sex too much,” to which aCky replied, “man, you’re lucky.” There was a moment of tension during one question regarding one pitiable salaryman’s dilemma when it comes to choosing which songs to sing at company karaoke, and aCky suggested a number of off-color karaoke themes with which to narrow down the song choices with, like “Only sing songs by artists that have killed themselves.” After listing off a few names and gradually approaching artists who have killed themselves quite recently, someone in the audience started to get salty. “That’s not funny! That’s not something to laugh about!” This guy was actually being noisy before, and aCky replied with usual retorts–“There’s a deep, dark black river between you assholes and us” and “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk to me.” However, this guy continued to demonstrate that he didn’t know his place, and aCky eventually cracked, giving him the equivalent of a strong “SHUT THE FUCK UP.” He kept quiet for a bit, but ended up splashing beer on aCky during the encore. (For those interested, other suggested karaoke themes included “Artists who have questionable sexuality”, with a Matsudaira Ken mention.)

But while that one guy was an asshole, it was a great show, and I can’t wait for the next one, which at this point does  not have a concrete date. If I had any criticisms with these shows, it would have to be that I’d wish they’d change the set list up a bit. I’ve been to OLH shows since 2011, and while I’ve only been to about enough shows to count on one hand, I wish they’d stay away from a lot of their trademark songs and do more of the lesser-known ones. I realize they most likely stick to the standards because they probably don’t have much time to practice, and since they don’t do shows that often, every show is someone’s first. I personally want to hear more of the weirder and older stuff, though.

2014_OLH_3

At any rate, their next show hasn’t been decided yet, so I have to wait for that to happen before I get my expectations up about anything. That said, the band has a musical set to start at the beginning of next year–Iyaounashi Ni–which I’ve acquired tickets for. It has a cast of 1980’s Japanese heartthrobs, and uses O.L.H.’s songs to drive the story, so I really can’t wait to see it. As for Only Love Hurt’s other activities in 2015, the band is set to release a best-of album. I groaned upon hearing this news–until I heard that every track will be re-recorded for the album. It’ll be interesting to see which songs they do, and how they sound in the studio with the current lineup. It goes without saying that you can expect a review right here when it comes out.

Posted in Events, Music | Tagged | 2 Comments

Confessions of a Junior High School English Teacher Part II: The Storm

This post is the second part of a series of posts about my experience working in Japan. Previous posts can be found here.

My flight for Japan was scheduled for March 13th, 2011. Training was in early April, so my plan was to come early and enjoy Tokyo for two weeks before starting work. However, reality wasn’t in the mood to be kind. I was sitting at my computer late one night, when I saw all the Japanese people on my Twitter timeline commenting about the ground below them was shaking. They always do that when there’s an earthquake, so I paid it no mind. However, when I got up the next day, it seems what I thought was just a little quake was worth paying attention to.

I wasn’t around during the big March 11th earthquake, but I know people who were, and it seems like it fucked everyone who experienced it up in some way. I wanted to believe I could still go to Japan, and that the American news media was just playing the whole thing up. To be fair, they were, but the reality was still pretty bad. I mean, there was that big tsunami. Then the nuclear plants going haywire. Interac gave me a choice–come now, or wait until next semester. With family and friends concerned about my well-being in a foreign country that was in a state of real disarray having just witnessed one of its biggest natural disasters in history, I took a long and heavy walk around my block to think it over.

I decided to wait until September, the second semester of the Japanese school year.

My flight and hotel were canceled, and I spent another four months and change in my parents’ place NEETing it out (“I already have a job, why should I get a part-time gig?!” I said as I wasted away in front of my computer monitor). It was a time of depression that has kind of faded into a blur now, so we’ll just skip past that part. I probably should have used that time to study my Japanese, but I was too busy re-loading Twitter and basically wasting my time. Anyway, August came around, along with my new arrival date in Japan. Once again, I was eagerly anticipating my new life in Japan, while enjoying a family beach vacation.

Then I got an e-mail.

The gist of it was, the company didn’t have enough open spots at their schools, so they wanted me to wait another semester.

Fuck that.I’d waited long enough to get my life underway. After giving them a stern and serious phone call, they started to see things my way. The way it would work was, while my placement wasn’t confirmed, they’d still have me come to training, and wait it out at the main office doing office work/substitute classes until a permanent placement opened up. They’d also put me up in a hotel until something was worked out. Finally, I headed to Japan in August to start my new life.

Now, my initial thoughts upon returning to the land of the anime and otaku bullshit can be found here, but I never wrote about what happened afterwords, that is… TRAINING AT THE NARITA VIEW HOTEL.

Yes, after living out of Asakusabashi’s MyStays business hotel (highly recommended for anyone on holiday in Japan) and surviving Comiket (I haven’t been since; need to go again) I jumped on a train back to Narita airport, and then from there a bus to… THE NARITA VIEW HOTEL.

At Narita airport I got on the shuttle to the Narita View Hotel–the only way to get there as there is no train station to speak of. I found a little corner of the bus to myself, overhearing people who were obviously also going to the same teacher training I was. (Talk to them? Hell no, I was a socially awkward little fuck.) Upon arrival, guys from the company were there waiting for us. Since everyone was arriving at different times from their respective countries, the first day was just greetings, collecting documents, and the receipt of training materials. I met my roommate for the next week, and that night we found a group of other trainees and all headed out for Okinawan food.

By the way, the reason for all the textual histrionics upon mention of the NARITA VIEW HOTEL is that simply, it leaves an impression. It’s this great, ludicrously senescent relic from the bubble era, with lots of pomp and circumstance baked into every single detail, and as much rust and wear match. It’s a sad left-over clinging onto life. Card keys? The NARITA VIEW HOTEL has real keys. The Narita View Hotel also has this.

Upon pushing the “BGM” button, a close facsimile to the original 1963 Pink Panther soundtrack makes its way out of the room’s speakers, complete with the expected popping and scratches to match. With the sexy sounds of bubble era luxury making its way through my ears, I put on my suit and headed downstairs for the first real day of training.

Posted in Japan, Travelogue | Tagged , | 4 Comments