Sunday, July 08, 2007

Going to Japan

Ayumi (L) and Koda Kumi (R). I downloaded the photo from

Ah, sorry for the delay in posting. It has been one of the most hectic four months in my life. During this timespan, I, with the class I was teaching, helped run America`s second maid cafe at the kawaii-kon anime convention, and then I taught summer school classes at UH Manoa. Then, it`s getting ready for my field trip. Yes, I am taking 16 students to Tokyo, so they too can experience the Japan that I know. You know, the one of kitschy pop culture, like the a replica of the Statue of Liberty in front of the shopping center at Odaiba. Or, the joys of a workingman`s drama called taishu engeki (google it with my name *kakure gaijin* and you`ll see my description. Hopefully, I can get others excited about this Japan and spawn more Japanologists.

Anyway, here`s the pop culture tidbit for today. Wanna be a singer? Often, you can find more fame and fortune overseas than in your own backyard. This is a bit dated information, but please let me tell you about Ayumi Lee, a Korean who moved to Japan as a child. She was a member of the girl group Sugar, and last year, as a solo artist, released a cover of Cutie Honey, the theme to a Japanese anime made popular again by Koda Kumi, who did a cover of this song as well. This song became one of the most downloaded songs of the month.

Now the irony is that Korean society prides itself on being homogenous and there is an intense pride in being Korean. And on the other hand, there is a fascination with Koreans from outside Korea. It's as if these Koreans are quite exotic and yet Korean enough to be familiar. Daniel Henney is an example of this.

Let`s start off with the original anime version of Cutie Honey. This is a strange anime, one of the classics that I have never seen but my wife tells me about. This heroine seems to get naked a lot and this was PRIME TIME FAMILY FARE back in the 1970s!

A few years ago, Koda Kumi sang a cover of Cutie Honey and it made her famous.

Now Ayumi Lee, who became popular as a member of the group Sugar, has struck out on her own solo career. It seems that she is playing on her Japanese upbringing to add some exoticism to her image. Koreans who I talk to say that she sings with a thick Japanese accent. Indeed, much criticism was levelled at her, as some thought this song sounded too Japanese, and the video seemed to Japanese influenced.

Ayumi singing Cutie Honey

She`s a good example of how culture and artists can flow between borders. Technically, she's Korean, as she was born in Korea, and thus should have Korean citizenship. But she was raised in Japan, and I think this adds to her exotic appeal among Korean fans.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Spider-Man Japanese style!

The Japanese version of Spider-Man (1978)

Someone once told me that the Japanese are good at taking other people's ideas and making them better. Take for instance, cars. We in the U.S. found a way to mass produce them efficiently, making America the car capital of the world for a time. Then the Japanese come along, and learn to make them better and more efficiently. I would beg to differ. Rather, as other scholars have argued, Japanese take other people's ideas, and adapt them to their own culture. What comes out is a new product that bears a resemblance to, but is considerably different from the original. We can see the same thing in Spider-Man.

The American 1967 animated Spider-Man
First, let's look at the American version of Spider-Man I grew up with (I watched lots of reruns in the 1970s of this 1967 cartoon). The best thing about this cartoon was its catchy song. That's about it. Even as a kid, I knew this was trash animation - the producers, in order to save money, constantly reused the same scenes of Spider-Man swinging. And swinging. And swinging. I remember as a grade schooler, timing the swinging scenes in an episode where Spider-Man is being chased by a giant cat. About half the show consisted of him swinging.

BTW, click here for a link to the live action 1970s U.S. version of Spiderman. I love the 1970s theme music!

The Japanese 1978 live-action Spider-Man
Here's my rough translation of the lyrics
In the darkness between the buildings
Eyes burning with rage (lit: eyes shining brightly with anger)
He sacrifices his (inner) peace. (lit: He throws away his serenity.)
He sacrifices everything. (lit: He throws away everything.)
He pursues evil and soars across the sky.
Change to Leopardon!
Why do you... Why do you?
Keep on fighting and put your life at risk?
You live for just one thing. You live for just one thing.
Invincible man
Now look at the 1978 Japanese version Spider-man (put up by VideoStar13), produced by Toei, the same folks who brought you other Japanese superhero shows such as Kikaider and Kamen Rider. As you can tell by the lyrics, it's a much more serious version of Spiderman. The producers did obtain the license from Marvel comics to show their version of Spider-Man to the Japanese. However, the producers had to make considerable changes to adapt this cartoon into the Japanese tokusatsu genre. For the uninitiated, tokusatsu (literally meaning "special filming" or "special effects"), is a live-action genre usually with superheros doing martial arts moves on agents of a villainous organization, and always crying out the name of their martial arts technique ("double chops!" "giant swing throw!") as they pummel their opponents. Think of the "Power rangers".

Yamashiro Takuya, Japan's version of Peter Parker

Someone else put up a fake subtitled version, which has nothing to do with the plot (click here if you want to take a peek, but the subs are purposely wrong). I can understand Japanese, but it takes a lot of energy and concentration for me to do a proper translation, so I took the lazy man's method and looked up the story at The following plot synopsis is a combination of that article and my personal translation. First of all, Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker, was changed to a Japanese motocross champion, Yamashiro Takuya. This made sense since the other Toei tokusatsu shows usually featured a cool motorcycle-riding hero, and it would be very difficult to explain the presence of a nerdy white guy in Japan taking pictures for the Daily Bugle.

The Tetsujyujidan (Iron Cross), evil organization in this show. Hmmm...doesn't the guy on the right seem familiar?

To fit the tokusatsu genre, the villains had to undergo a change as well. No more individual villains like the Green Goblin or Dr. Octopus. Remember that Japan is a group-oriented society, and so even villains are organized into groups, this time as the "Iron Cross Organization" (Tetsujyujidan). Also this evil organization was headed by the 400-year old Professor Monster (Kaiju kyoju), played by Ando Mitsuo (who also played the flute-wielding Dr. Gill, head of the evil organization "The Dark," in the series Kikaider).

Spider-Man's ship called the "Marveller" (no joke!)

We all remember how Peter Parker got his spider powers right? (Bitten by a radioactive spider). And that he decided to fight crime when his Uncle Ben was killed by a robber. Well, this story got adapted to Japanese genres. The Marveller (named obviously after Marvel comics), a spaceship from another planet, crashed on Earth, being chased by the Iron Cross and Professor Monster. Takuya keeps hearing voices in his head telling him that "we are brothers." This was actually a telepathic signal being sent by Gariya, the last survivor of the Spider planet destroyed by the Iron Cross.

Aren't Japanese shows so violent? The Iron Cross kills Takuya's father

Takuya and his researcher and other family/research members father go out to investigate the crash site. There, the Iron Cross finds his father and kills him. Takuya grieves over his slain father, and then is chased by the Iron Cross bad guys into a cave, where he bumps into Gariya.

Being given spider powers is no pleasant experience

Gariya tellls Takuya his story and how he has been trying to contact him via telepathy. Gariya wants revenge for his planet, and tells Takuya that he must also avenge his own father (Just like in the 47 Ronin, revenge is a powerful factor in tokusatsu). And so he gives Takuya spider powers through a device that he clamps onto him. Note that in Japanese shows, the hero is usually created by someone, or gets their power from someone else. That's how skills are supposed to be transmitted in real life, from a master.

This is how "Spider sense" was depicted, as a radar

Out of the cave, Takuya discovers his powers. I like how they used live action stuntmen to climb up the walls of real buildings. Even his powers undergo some adaptation. The Spider Sense is more of a radar, where you can locate people. So Spider-Man figures out where the bad guys are (at a dam kidnapping a researcher to make evil monsters) and goes out to fight them. These are the bad guys for the first episode:

The Ninder, grey-clad henchmen to be used as target practice

Sexy villians such as Amazoness to turn Asiaphiles into Spider-Man fans!

The battle-scenes were also adapted to tokusatsu standards. Whenever Spider-Man shot his web, in true tokusatsu fashion, he had to announce his attack "Spider String!" And he used lots of martial arts moves and gymnastics to knock his opponents about. Lots of explosions thrown in for good measure. Note how Spider-Man actually moves like a spider, with his arms and legs flailing about. And also you can hear the 1970s enka (Japanese traditional music) horns in the background. Eventually, the villian Amazoness got tired and brought out a robot which morphed into a giant robot.

When the villain is getting his butt kicked, go into giant mode

Now here's where this show really gets hog wild. When the bad guys were on the losing end of the battle with Spider-Man, they would morph into a giant version of themselves. Spider-Man would then call in his giant Transformers-like robot to battle the giant villain. First he would jump into his Spidermachine GP7, then jet into an open bay in Marveller, which then transformed into the giant robot Leopardon.

Spider-Man jumps into his Spider Machine GP7 (How can you tell? It says so in English on the side of the car)

And flies into Marveller, which transforms into the sword-wielding Leopardon

Of course, Leopardon ends up smashing his enemy to pieces to save the planet for another day. This program helped to popularize the idea of giant robots fighting in these tokusatsu shows, and thus explains why shows like Power Ranger have giant robots fighting giant versions of the enemy. Plus, it also makes economic sense - the toy companies can sell giant robots and make more money.

Amazing rooftop stunts, even by today's standards!

Compare Spider-Man to how Saban had to adapt Kyoryuu sentai Jyu-ranger to America as the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: dumbing down the plot (the Power Rangers fight to save the high school dance, not save the world), toning down the violence, and just making this a show that only children could enjoy. No wonder Japanese products are so in demand - take other people's ideas, use quality control, and make them better. Just take a look at the detail in which they filmed the martial arts action scenes. Click here or the pic above to see an amazing clip from another episode to "marvel" at the stuntman's footwork jumping around the roof of a building and doing martial arts moves - wow!

What in Stan Lee's name is this "Thing"?

BTW, click here and here for clips (posted by bobx2x) of Japanese Spider-Man fighting a villain who suspiciously looks like ...well, the "Thing". And yes, the Japanese Spider-Man did have the American creator Stan Lee's seal of approval.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Taekwon V: Korean version of Mazinger Z

Robot Taekwon V, Korean version of Go Nagai's Mazinger Z. Click on the picture above to see a youtube clip of the opening song posted by dodonga33

Mazinger Z . Click on the picture above to see a youtube clip of the opening song posed by dragonnar.

As I wrote in a previous post, the Japanese giant robot anime Mazinger Z, popular worldwide, was also a smash hit in South Korea. In fact, the main character in in the hit drama My Name is Kim Sam Soon (내 이름은 김삼순) even hums a few lines from the song in an episode. However, Mazinger Z came from the hated former colonial occupier, the Japanese, and so in 1976, Kim Cheong-gi directed South Korea's first home-grown animated robot, Robot Taekwon V. In this animation, we can see a lot of the complex South Korean love/hate attitude towards Japanese popular culture.

I found, on a Korean web site, this size comparison of Taekwon V (far left) with the Japanese anime robots Mazinger Z (2nd from left), Great Mazinger (2nd from right) and Grendizer (far right). C'mon, does size have to matter that much?

On the one hand, one wouldn't fault the Koreans for hating the Japanese, for during the 1930s, the Japanese government embarked upon a forced assimilation policy and attempted to eradicate Korean culture. Now colonists have often done this since the beginning of history: Americans attempted to destroy Native American and Native Hawaiian cultures under the guise of assimilation, and similar policies were seen by the British in Ireland and the Soviets in many of the lands they conquered. But while it puts these policies in perspective, it still doesn't excuse the Japanese colonial authorities.

During the 1920s, in response to mass uprisings in 1919 (known as the March 1st movement and put down by the Japanese authorities at the cost of several thousand Korean lives), the colonial government did give Koreans a few limited opportunities to express their own culture, such as in Korean-language newspapers or even radio broadcasts (as noted by Professor Michael Robinson). However, with Japan's military aggression into Asia in the 1930s, the Japanese decided upon a forced-assimilation policy making Koreans to pray at Shinto shrines, change their names to Japanese names, and during the war, millions labored in Japanese factories as conscripts or forced labor. Many unlucky women ended up as "comfort women," forced prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Koreans were forbidden from using their native language in schools or in government documents. In fact, I met many elderly Koreans during my trip there who could speak Japanese fluently, no doubt having learned this language in school.

Taekwon V statue in South Korea

After the war ended in 1945, Korea gained its independence, but the scars remained. So strong was anti-Japanese feeling that Japanese-language television and radio broadcasts, publications, and pop music, were all prohibited, with the ban only being gradually lifted in 1998. However, despite this ban, Japanese popular culture did manage to make its way into Korea. Often, Japanese cartoons were dubbed into Korean, stripped of all Japanese references, and then broadcast in Korea, often without telling the audience of the true Japanese origin. Or else, as Jasper Sharp points out in an interesting article, it was common practice among the Korean film industry to use Japanese film scripts. Of course this made economic sense - if Japanese culture is banned and so your audience has no idea you are ripping off a Japanese film, then why not cut corners and use ready-made scripts from Japan?

Note the similarities and differences between Taekwon V (L) and Mazinger Z (R)

Anyway, back to Mazinger Z. This cartoon was broadcast in Korea and became a huge hit. In fact, as the Chosun Ilbo points out, "Mazinger Z was so popular here as to be treated as an honorary Korean." But alas, this was a Japanese cartoon, and what Korea needed was a giant Korean Robot for kids to look up to. So, much as how Hyundai cars first used an engine developed by the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, out came a Korean giant robot that looked suspiciously like it was based on Mazinger Z: Taekwon V! But there are differences, however subtle. The head was replaced with a helmet similar to that worn by Admiral Yi, who fought of Hideyoshi's 16th century invasions, and to make sure viewers understood this was a Korean-made cartoon, Taekwon V fought with Taekwondo! Other than that, Taekwon V looks a bit like a reverse-engineered Mazinger Z. Click here for a video of Taekwon V.

Poster for the 1976 film, "Robot Taekwon V"

The movie version of Taekwon V has just been restored and re-released. Now Japanese nationalists may call this a Korean ripoff of Mazinger, and Korean nationalists may try to deny the Mazinger-inspired origins of Taekwon V, but there may be a better way to interpret this anime: cultures have always borrowed from each other. Historically, the Japanese have historically borrowed kanji, Buddhism, and architecture from their Korean neighbors. And if we look at Korean manhwa comics today, they bear a striking similarity to Japanese manga. So culture travels back and forth in all directions. My hope is that rather than argue who imitated who, young Koreans and young Japanese can learn they share much in common, and that popular culture can help bring those two nations closer together. (BTW, the Japanese First Lady is a huge fan of the Korean drama Winter Sonata). Imagine - both Koreans and Japanese grew up watching giant robots! Maybe we should ask for a Japanese-Korean joint production, such as "Taekwon V and Mazinger Z versus Dr. Hell"

BTW, I found some open source movies of Mazinger Z in dubbed into Arabic. You can figure out what is happening even if you don't understand the language. In this episode, Kabuto Koji, under the guidance of Miss Yumi Sayaka (pilot of Aphrodite A), is clumsily learning how to control Mazinger Z.

UPDATE: Just found this video on youtube. It seems to be a Korean video of someone playing the Mazinger Z theme song on the piano. Wow! And what about this video of an Italian singing show with the theme to "Great Mazinger"?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Catchy songs by offbeat Japanese girl groups

Ever hear a song that you find so damn irritating, but the more you listen to it, the more it worms its way into your brain? Pretty soon, you catch yourself humming along to the song and wonder what has happened to you.

Well, Chatmonchy's "Shangri-la" (Shan-gu-ri-ra) is one of those songs. I first heard it after renting Countdown TV (a weekly TV show that counts down the top 50 hits in Japan) from the local Japanese video store. Anyway, Chatmonchy (チャットモンチー)is a all-girl trio from Tokushima prefecture Japan, on the island of Shikoku. Their members are Kumiko on the drums, Eriko on the guitar and vocals, and Akiko on their bass. The first time I heard them do a live performance song on Countdown TV, I thought the Eriko's voice sounded like a poor imitation of the quirky Japanese singer YUKI. And we've already seen this genre of off-beat quasi-amateurish girl trios, like the group Shonen Knife. I grumbled, "Oh no, not ANOTHER one of THOSE Japanese girl groups," and I fast forwarded the DVD to skip their performance (click here or the clip above to see their video posted by Tofumon).

And then it happened. I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen and caught myself humming the chorus: "Shan-gu-ri-ra shiawase datte..." I was doing medicine ball push-ups in the gym and found the beat in my head "Shan-gu-ri-ra..." Then I was trying to write a lecture for a class and heard the walls sing to me: "Shan-gu-ri-ra. "The song would not go away, so I popped in the DVD and listened to their live performance again. "Shan-gu-ri-ra..."

Halcali's Strawberry Chips - a surprisingly catchy song!

So I admit defeat. Chatmonchy has gotten into my head and now I await their American debut. Now they've joined other irritatingly catchy tunes by quasi-amateurish girl groups that have wormed their way into my head such as Halcali's Strawberry Chips (subtitled and posted by Novaforever) or Kigurumi's Tarako Tarako Tarako (posted by Prekorata).

Kigurumi (dressed as Tarakos) singing Tarako, Tarako, Tarako

NOTE: Tarako Tarako Tarako is from a commercial for Kewpie brand tarako (salted Alaska Pollock roe) spaghetti sauce. This must one of the oddest commercials I have seen, even by Japanees standards (click here to see a commercial posted by ebisen). Yes, the Japanese like to mix cream and tarako to make pasta topping- believe it or not, it's quite delicious!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The transformations of Mazinger Z (マジンガーZ)

Mazinger Z, influential Japanese anime

Did you know that 60% of the world's animated series were produced in Japan in 2004? (Source: Time Asia). Indeed, people around the world have probably grown up watching the same made-in-Japan animated shows. Even last year, I remember watching a Chinese dub of Inuyasha in my hotel room in Xian. Now many animation studios are being outsourced to South Korea, where labor is cheaper (did you know that the Simpsons are drawn in a Korean studio?) but still there is no denying the power of Japanese animation.

Let's look at how Mazinger Z (pronounced with the British "zed" not the American "zee") a classic Japanese anime underwent global transformations. This anime, which ran from 1972-4, was the first of its kind: a giant robot piloted by a human. Kabuto Koji would jump into a hovercraft and dock into Mazinger Z's head (click here to see a poorly translated video of the first episode). BTW, his robot comrade is Aphrodite A, who would eventually be modified to shoot missiles out of her breasts. I remember as a kid, watching dubbed versions of Mazinger Z in a movie theater in Hawaii. Frankly, the only scene I remember is when Mazinger fell into the water and Kabuto could not see out the glass since there were no windshield wipers. Click here or on the Mazinger pic above to see the opening song for Mazinger Z. It's a cool sounding song that just sticks in your head.

Look at the size of the Mazinger statue in Spain!

Mazinger Z also became very popular outside of Japan:
  • Check out the Italian version known as "Mazinga Z"- the singer is so much more emotional, it's almost a different song.
  • As for the French version, well, it sounds like 1980s Eurodisco music, with the singer going "Mazinger! Mazinger!" But hey, haven't the French have been keeping disco alive long after it died out in America?
  • Also, look the Arabic version, known as مازنجر (Majinger) which starts out sounding like any average cover of the song, and then midway through, changes course and just rocks (video is from Dr. WaSaBe, who also did the translation). I love the ways the singer sounds when he cries, "The time has arrived! Morning has started! GET READY TO START SHOOTING!"
  • Unfortunately, the U.S. version, released in the 1980s as Tranzor Z, got rid of any semblance of an opening song. Talk about the American characteristic of making cuts in quality to cut down on costs. Makes sense, as this series was heavily edited in order to make it suitable for children? Think of all the 1970s and 1980s cartoons in America - any of them had a catchy theme song like Mazinger Z? Sigh, what we were deprived of during childhood...
  • And Mazinger was extremely popular in South Korea, where it was known as 마징가 제트 and led to the creation of a Korean anime, but that is the subject of another post...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Super Girl - China's version of American Idol

Zhang Liang Ying, contestant on Super Girl

Sorry for the long delay in posting. So much work to do, and I have stumbled across so many interesting Asian pop videos. So where do I start?

When I was in China in the summer of 2006, I learned about a show called "Super Girl," (超级女声) officially known as Mengniu Yogurt Super Girl Contest (Megniu is the dairy company that sponsors it). It's the Chinese version of American Idol, which, as I have previously pointed out, is a copy (or franchise) of the British Pop Idol. Anyway, Super Girl caused a sensation because viewers get to vote, via text message, for the winner. Imagine, voting in China! Trust the masses to choose for themselves!

This show was watched by the largest audience in Chinese TV history, by millions (or should I say hundreds of millions?) of viewers. In fact, 400 million watched the finals in 2005, a number, as the Seattle Times (which I read via the China Daily) put it, was more than the combined populations of the United States and Britain!

When I was in Xian last summer, I searched for a pub that broadcast this show, so I could sip beer while watching it. I didn't find any, although I did bump into some cool Chinese college students (one spoke with a PERFECT American accent and knew all the New York punk bands even though he had never left China). In the end, I ended up channel surfing in my hotel room and came across clips of Super Girl on late night TV. I remember, in my drunken haze, a woman doing an horrible rendition of "I believe I can fly" and I was hooked, especially since some of the contestants were quite good-looking.

Hu Ling, 5th place finisher in the Changsha district

So I did some internet research, using wikipedia and youtube when I arrived back in the USA. Now the contestants range from comical (hey, they have their version of William Hung), to the sexy (Hu Ling in another outfit), to the simply amazing. You've got to check out Zhang Liang Ying , 3rd place contestant in 2005. Click on the picture at the top of this webpage or here for a clip of her singing a Chinese folk song...

Ok, so it wasn't a Chinese folk song. But wasn't it amazing how her voice sounded exactly like Mariah Carey's? It's as if all she did was listen to Mariah Carey albums at home. I think she's got the pipes, looks, and charisma to make it in the U.S. (at least among Chinese Americans like me) if given the proper material. Also makes you realize that people around the world often listen to the same songs.

But as in real life, the best do not necessarily win. Just listen to the Super Girl winners. In 2005, Li Yuchun took the top prize. Click here or the picture below for a youtube clip of her singing a stirring rendition of a "Chinese folk song."

Li Yuchun, 2005 winner

In 2006, Shao Wenjie 尚雯婕 took first place. Hmmm...note the resemblance? (Actually, she seems to sing quite well.)

Shao Wenjie, 2006 winner

In case you haven't noticed, both winners look like young boys. Kind of the androgynous look of how Japanese boy singers look like young girls. Click here to see a commercial featuring Japan's hottest boy band, KAT-TUN. (For all you KAT-TUN fans out there, please do not flame me. I'm going be scolded by my wife for mocking them. That should be sufficient punishment). What's with the fascination with androgyny in East Asia?

To me (and the 100+ international students, including Chinese, that I informally surveyed), Zhang (the Mariah soundalike) should have won hands down (sorry if I offended Li fans). Seems like voters don't necessarily look for talent. In fact, Super Girl makes you think about how we elect our politicians in America...