Culture clash: Fans fight for J-Rock
Japanese punk ambassadors, Shonen Knife.
June 29th, 2012
01:46 PM ET

Culture clash: Fans fight for J-Rock

Editor's note: Zac Bentz has been writing about the fringe of modern Japanese music for many years, covering hundreds of bands both in print and on the web, including his own ZB’s A-Z of J-Music. He’s also a musician, graphic designer and pet owner. Bother him on Twitter

Being a film geek is easy. Being a comic book geek is easy. These days, even being an anime geek is easy. But things start to get a bit tricky when it's bleeding-edge Japanese indie rock that you're after.

Sure, you might get a taste now and then if you're a hardcore anime otaku, but even then you're not getting an accurate feel for what's going on in the sweaty back alley clubs of Tokyo or Osaka. For that, you need to dig deep and have a passion for chasing down the ghostly hints of guitar feedback humming just beyond the horizon. Word of mouth from fellow fans is stronger than any billion dollar PR machine when that machine speaks a foreign language.

For many people, the first taste of what Japan has to offer came from the band Shonen Knife. The all-girl punk rock trio has been not only rocking non-stop for over 30 years, but they've also been touring the world for most of that time. They sing in English and are the perfect blend of foreign and familiar.

“I first got into Japanese music via a discarded Shonen Knife CD, Let's Knife, in maybe 1996 or so. I fell in love with them, because that is the correct reaction to Shonen Knife” says Daniel Robson, a Tokyo-based writer, event organizer and host of It Came From Japan. “After that, a Japanese college friend started recommending some other cool bands to me and I fell in love with some of them, too.”

Robby Takac (of the Goo Goo Dolls) founded the American label Good Charamel Records, which took Shonen Knife into their roster. “Once we began working with Shonen Knife we began to discover many other original and exciting bands in Japan and began courting female fronted rock bands to release to North American audiences...Each time we are introduced to another act, we are blown away by the originality and the unique angle the bands approach their music from.” FULL POST

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The jump from J-drama to K-drama
Lee Min Yung, left and Gong Yoo, right, star in the Korean romcom, "Big." The show is based on Tom Hanks' hit 1988 movie.
June 22nd, 2012
02:29 PM ET

The jump from J-drama to K-drama

When I became a hardcore fan of Japanese dramas, I thought I'd discovered the alpha and omega of Asian entertainment.

Crammed with manga-esque storylines, good looking pop stars, and dream romances, J-drama was perfect. When friends mentioned Korean drama, I turned my nose up at them, uninterested in anything that didn't stoke my Japan-centric obsession.

Older, wiser and having developed an insatiable appetite for Asian idol culture, I've now warmed up to Korean media.

Korean pop music was my gateway drug - I couldn't resist the catchy songs. Google reinforced my new interest not long after that, promoting an all-Korean concert at their headquarters and pushing the trend called "Korean Wave" (also called Hallyu) to a whole new audience of potential fans. By that time, I was completely converted when it came to the music, even finding indie Korean acts such as Guckkasten and Glen Check to fall in love with. Fully enticed by these Korean stars, I was ready to find out why Korean dramas inspired equally devoted fans.

"The Korean entertainment industry has grown immensely over the last few decades, and dramas are now being produced with enormous budgets,  aimed for export more so than ever before," said Girlfriday, writer for the highly active drama community Dramabeans.

"They're produced slickly, enough to compete with American entertainment, and tend to be romance-centric. They also tell a complete story in 16 to 20 episodes, so its just long enough to get you addicted to something and just short enough that you don't feel burdened by picking up a show," Girlfriday said.

Like the Japanese dramas I'm used to, K-dramas are broken into subcategories by genre. The most popular shows are referred to as "trendies" in fan circles, and usually feature popular casts with young protagonists. There's also "ajumma" drama, which feature older or divorced female characters who find new love, "sageuk" drama, which plays out fictionalized versions of Korean history, and "makjang" drama, which is the closest thing to the American soap opera, traditionally taking a sensational approach with lots of absurd twists and turns. Korean dramas also include thrillers, action/intrigue and procedural genres.

But for all their similarities, K-drama has some major differences from J-drama. For instance, Korean shows air two episodes a week, whereas Japanese shows only air one. The biggest difference of all, however, is a key one: availability. While Japanese shows are rarely licensed for the American market, Korean shows are readily available through American-based services such as Hulu and Dramafever. Therefore, audiences outside of Korea can get their hands on them sooner. FULL POST

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Bridging the geek divide with Dad
Joe Peacock with his dad in 1996 in Jonesboro, Georgia. This is what an actual, aged poloroid picture looks like.
June 11th, 2012
12:25 PM ET

Bridging the geek divide with Dad

Editor's note: When he's not teaching the Internet how to fist-fight, why being weird is awesome or how to self-publish your own books, Joe Peacock tours the world, showing his extensive "Akira" art collection. He's searching the internet for the perfect gift for his dad.

I first saw the legendary animated film "Akira" when I was twelve years old.

The year was 1989, and it was released in the US very sporadically. There was a student-run screening at the University of Georgia that I found out about via a flyer at my local comic book shop. I asked - nay, begged - my father to take me. Despite the fact that it was on a school night and took place nearly two and a half hours away, he knew this was a big event for me. So he agreed.

He picked me up from school and drove me to Athens, Georgia. We had pizza and visited the local comic book shop to kill time until the screening at 8:00 PM. Normally, my father would be in bed around the time that the film would be half over, since he got up at 4:30 AM every single morning - but for that night, he toughed it out. The film ran two hours and nineteen minutes, and IT. WAS. BEAUTIFUL.

Life-changing, even. It didn't matter that the screening was from a ratty multiple-copied VHS tape a student at the University of Georgia's film club scored at a comic convention. It didn't even matter that the film wasn't subtitled or dubbed. I knew enough from the American edition of the "Akira" manga to derive the overall plot, and the static on the top and bottom edges of the screen was hardly noticeable.

We rode in silence for a short while on the way home. I was agog from what I'd just seen - my favorite manga brought to life in full color 24-frame-per-second fully hand-painted animation. The epic battle between Kaneda and Tetsuo in all its frenetic glory. Explosions. Motorcycle chases. Cataclysm.

I studied the fan-made, fold-over program cover to cover at least thirty times. I studied my insanely expensive, imported "Akira" shirt featuring Kaneda holding his laser rifle that I'd spent a month's worth of lawn mowing pay on.

I was in heaven.

It was about twenty miles into our journey that my father turned to me, cleared his throat, and asked, "Joe... what the HELL did we just watch?" FULL POST

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Toonami returns – but can it succeed again?
Toonami mascot, TOM, then (left) and now (right.)
June 1st, 2012
02:18 PM ET

Toonami returns – but can it succeed again?

When Cartoon Network's Adult Swim recently announced the return of Toonami, a long running programming block  dedicated mostly to Japanese animation, anime lovers took notice. With classic titles such as "Bleach," "Casshern Sins," "Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood," and "Ghost in the Shell," on the slate, fans of high quality anime knew a soothing balm was in store for them in those late hours of the night when sleep doesn't quite come. (Disclosure: Both Cartoon Network and CNN are owned by the TimeWarner company.)

But some anime fans are less than excited about the new programming block. They think the titles Toonami offers are stale, re-aired episodes of old shows – a notion Cartoon Network Vice President of Marketing Jason DeMarco passionately sought to clarify on his personal Twitter account.

"SPEAKING OF WHICH," he tweeted, "Something you should know about THIS Toonami: We have very,very little $. This experiment will need ratings success....to receive more funding for new shows, more Tom animation, etc. I'm thankful for the $ we've gotten, but it isn't a lot.

DeMarco also hinted that other popular series like "Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt" and "Fairy Tale" could be in the program's future if it performs well. FULL POST

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How a Swedish teenager brought Japan to its knees
YOHIO debuted "Reach the Sky" last month.
May 29th, 2012
11:27 AM ET

How a Swedish teenager brought Japan to its knees

A few weeks ago, a memorable video made the rounds of the usual Internet hangouts. It featured a pale, beautiful, blond-haired singer named YOHIO with huge dark eyes, wearing pigtails and a Lolita-style ensemble and playing a white guitar.

The song, called "Sky*Limit," is a full-on Japanese rock ballad, evocative of a musical subgenre called visual kei that celebrates dramatic fashion and a androgynous look not unlike that of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust.

However, YOHIO is not Japanese. In fact, he's not even female.

Raised in a musical family, the Swedish teenager was already in a visual kei band called Seremedy at the age of 14. After making the rounds at several conventions, the band signed with Nintone Records/Universal Music Japan in 2011. And this year, YOHIO released his solo debut album, "Reach the Sky."

To promote the album, YOHIO appeared at Shinjuku Station Square in Tokyo and drew a crowd of 6,000 [Japanese website]. He's also appeared on several Japanese television shows.

YOHIO proudly describes himself as a "bishouen" – a Japanese word that literally translates to "beautiful youth." The trend of men toeing the line between masculine and feminine looks has long existed in the culture, as evidenced by the popularity of male idols with distinctly feminine stylings. FULL POST

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