Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

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Katsuhiro Otomo / AKIRA Exhibition – Gengaten

For me this must be the exhibition of the century: a 3,000 piece gallery display of the work of Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the legendary AKIRA manga and, of course, animated adaptation. Also on display will be Kaneda’s famous red bike, and I’ve heard they even let you sit on it! The red jacket is also available, and you can wear it too apparently. Included in the exhibition are ALL of the original pages and drawings that were used to create the whole manga series of books, some 2,300 of them. The exhibition is being held at 3331 Arts Chiyoda which is a gallery converted from a high school located not too far from Akihabara, north of Suehirocho metro station on the Ginza line. It runs until the end of May, so surely this one is not to be missed. It’s probably worth coming from overseas especially to just see this exhibition! All proceeds will go to charities supporting victims of the Tohoku disaster.


Thermae Romae

This is a new anime that I’ve been watching recently, and it’s hilarious. It’s about a guy in ancient Rome called Lucius who is an architect responsible for designing the empire’s public hot spa baths. He gets criticized by the emperor for having ran out of ideas and inspiration for how to develop the bathing culture further and reflects on this during a hot bath when suddenly he’s pulled underwater by a mysterious force. When he resurfaces he finds he has warped to present-day Japan and finds himself either in a Sento (public bath) or an Onsen (natural hot spring) or some other location particular to the Japanese bathing culture, depending on the episode.

During his short time there he picks up ideas and is routinely astounded at the technological advancements he sees. After warping back to Rome he employs the ideas in Roman baths and becomes the toast of the empire. For each episode, rinse and repeat!

NOTE: As of writing this post, you can watch episodes on



Recently I was introduced to this animation which airs on MTV Japan called USAVICH. As soon as I saw it I was addicted and I’m now in the process of watching all the episodes on the MTVJ website before they disappear. The name comes from the Japanese word usagi meaning rabbit (anyone remember Usagi Yojimbo?) plus the Russian family name suffix vich. So basically the story is about two rabbits Putin and Kirenenko who are trapped in a soviet prison in some other twisted parallel reality. Each episode is 10 minutes long and deals with their daily goings-on in their prison cell, and eventually their time on the run after escaping. No more spoilers, get watching.

Usavich is made by the talented Satoshi Tomioka of Kanaban Graphics.


Kuniyoshi Exhibition At Mori Art Museum

Rapidly becoming my favourite gallery recently, due to the fact that they had Metabolism – The City Of The Future and now the warped ukiyo-e of Kuniyoshi, which looks like it’s going to be great – Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills is hosting a two part exhibition, the first of which ends tomorrow (17th January 2012). So firstly sorry for the late notice, but the second part is on until 12th February so plenty of time to catch it.

Kuniyoshi has been coined Edo’s ultimate graphic designer, and if you look at some of the work on the exhibition’s website it’s easy to see why. He certainly stands out from his better known contemporaries Hokusai and Hiroshige with his depictions of ghosts, demons, fantasy stories, folklore and other such lurid subject matter. It seems he was also a cat-lover.

I wasn’t familiar with him until this exhibition started, although I recognize a few of the works. but now I’ve seen it I’ve been looking through the other pieces by this artist on Wikipedia and they’re unbelievable. When you consider when these were made and when you consider the state of Japanese visual communication nowadays, you realize just how important this guy was.


Illustration in Japan

Japanese Illustration

Looking through a collection of recent photos, I realised I had quite a few pictures I’d taken of signs and logos where I really liked the illustration they used. That lead me to realise that this is a major reason why I choose to live in Tokyo. The visual language of the Japanese would be considered so esoteric by people back in the UK. For me, it’s enigmatic and familiar at the same time, often incorporating European and American iconography that is then twisted or exaggerated or even overlayed with oriental elements to align with the tastes of the Japanese. The above rabbit motif for example I saw on the sign above a cleaners, and the below image is stuck to the door of my elevator in my apartment building.

Japanese Illustration

It’s basically warning you to avoid getting your hand trapped in the elevator door. This overlaps somewhat with another area of visual communication loved by the Japanese: diagrams and infographics. These can be found everywhere, from leaflets to toilets, even on restaurant menus. Here’s a typical example:

Japanese Illustration

Although the above diagram looks pretty hard to fathom, there are much worse to be found, especially in pamphlets and promotional material from banks and mobile phone companies. I don’t think anyone understands them, they just look reassuringly informative. The next one I took outside a restaurant in Kayabacho. It’s obviously a Sumo wrestler, so often associated with food, but I just liked the style of the way it was drawn. If you were so inclined, you could easily create a flickr set full of interesting restaurant signs from Tokyo. Sometimes you even get robotic crabs or mechanized moving chopsticks lifting noodles out of a ramen bowl. White, back-lit boxes like this one are very common though.

Japanese Illustration

One place you might not expect to find good illustration is on a carton of milk, but in Japan it even finds its way onto those. Like in the following example which is a mark for the Japanese milk industry. It’s similar to the rabbit at the top of this post in the sense that it’s got all the hallmarks of vector-based illustration software written all over it (literally). Even so, it’s well executed and I liked it when I noticed it on the side of my carton of milk I bought from the supermarket. I think it was Meiji brand.

Japanese Illustration

One final one I wanted to post is one I’ve been seeing everyday on the train since Suntory started this new campaign to promote its black oolong tea as a health product. According to the scary looking guy in the next picture you can reduce the amount of fat your body gains when eating fatty foods by drinking it. Love this character. He’s obviously from an old animation show but I don’t know which one. Please let me know if you know who this guy is:

Japanese Illustration

UPDATE: I’ve been told that this guy is actually a slightly modified version of Boris Badenov from 60’s animation Boris and Natasha. He may also have appeared in Rocky & Bullwinkle? Thanks to Melissa Pouridas for the info.

UPDATE 2: Another reader (check the comments thread) has told me that this character is from a manga and anime and his name is The Laughing Salesman or Warau Serusuman (笑うセールスマン). I watched a couple of episodes and this guy is seriously disturbing. Whether or not the character was inspired by Boris Badenov is open to debate. Warau Serusuman first appeared in the manga BIG COMIC in 1968 as Black Salesman and Boris Badenov first appeared in Rocky and Bullwinkle in 1959. Boris’ hat and trenchcoat is very generic so it could be argued that the link is tenuous at best. Thanks to British artist Wil Overton for the info this time.

Here is an episode for you:

TV アニメ「笑ゥせぇるすまん」 第1話 「たのもし… 投稿者 spyagent0011

UPDATE 3: On the salesman’s business card, his name reads Moguro Fukuzou – a very strange name in Japanese, but his real name all the same, and his occupation reads Kokoro no Sukima (ココロのスキマ) which I think means cleansing of the heart. So, he’s a quasi-supernatural character who spiritually purifies base and vulgar salarymen!


New Studio Ghibli Movie, Kokuriko-Zaka Kara

Kokuriko Zaka Kara

When I was at the cinema this week, I saw the trailer for the new Studio Ghibli movie Kokuriko-Zaka Kara (From Kokuriko Hill), due out in Japan this summer (2011). Unfortunately UK, US and the rest of the world probably won’t get to see it until much later – as much as a year judging by what’s gone on with The Borrower Arrietty, which has now finally got a cinema release date for 29th July 2011 in the UK.

It would seem that this new movie is about the life of a girl living in Yokohama, the large port city conjoined with Tokyo. In the story, based in the 60’s, her father had gone missing at sea and her mother often worked abroad as a photographer so she spends her time hanging out with friends in the many school clubs and after school activities common for students in Japan. When the time comes for the school clubhouse to be demolished to make way for preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the friends unite to defend it from the wrecking ball.

There’s absolutely no way of passing judgement on this until it comes out this summer, but I’m disappointed by the lack of supernatural themes, wizards, giant beasts, airships, robots, ghosts and so on, and there’s more than an outside chance that this could be a schmaltzy and overly sentimental offering from the once great studio.

EDIT: I’m just messing around because actually, I was a big fan of Mimi wo Sumaseba and Omohide Poro-Poro.


Ghibli Game, Ni No Kuni

Ghibli Game, Ni no Kuni

Ghibli are working on a video game. I still don’t own a Wii or a PS3, but then something always comes along that tempts me to buy one, like this game for instance, Ni no Kuni (Second Land). It appears to be an RPG in which Studio Ghibli (responsible for the animated movies Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) are in charge of the character, world design, background artwork and storyline, and possibly even the gameplay too. If you thought that was a good idea, you’ve also got the legendary Joe Hisaishi composing the musical score. Game development is by Level 5 and it will be available in 2011 on both the Nintendo DS and the Playstation 3. See the trailers for more details, you really have to see it.


Karigurashi no Arrietty

Karigurashi no Arrietty

There’s a new Studio Ghibli movie coming out and it looks to be loosely based on the classic, British children’s book The Borrowers. This isn’t the first time a Ghibli movie has been based on children’s books written in the UK either; Howl’s Moving Castle was based on a book written by Diana Wynne Jones.

The title of the movie is going to be 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Karigurashi no Arrietty) which translates as Arrietty the Borrower – the official website is here, for what it’s worth. It will be directed by Hiroaki Yonebayashi, and not by the great Hayao Miyazaki, although Miyazaki will be responsible for writing the script. Apparently, the idea for the movie has been discussed before a long time ago by Miyazaki and his team, but only now is it being put into production. Miyazaki stepping back from the directing duties is interesting, as he has already retired once before and looked to be trying to appoint individuals capable of carrying his legacy forward, most famous of which being his son, Goro Miyazaki who took directorial duties on the movie Gedo Senki – Tales from Earthsea (which was also loosely based on a series of books by American author, Ursula K. Le Guin). As he relinquishes control on Karigurashi no Arietty it will be interesting to see if he will be able to keep his hands off the drawings and animation all the way through production, without seizing control of at least one of these aspects as he has been alledged to have done on past features (where he was supposedly not going to be involved in either).

Finally, the story (in a nutshell) is going to be about a boy living in a house in Koganei, Tokyo (the real-life location of Studio Ghibli) who has a tiny girl called Arrietty living under the floorboards of his house, and presumably she ‘borrows’ stuff.


Kobe Tetsujin Project

Kobe Tetsujin Project

This is happening in Kobe, but I thought it tied-in quite nicely with the recent Gundam statue in Odaiba. Basically, it’s a 1/1 scale version of the Tetsujin 28 robot from Japanese popular culture. It’s appeared in anime and live action shows here in Japan, it’s also known as Gigantor and Iron Man #28 overseas. This thing is part-way through construction in Kobe’s Wakamatsu Park, and when finished will stand 60 feet tall and weigh-in at a whopping 50 tons. Although this one doesn’t move, I think I like it better. Even so, how many giant robots does one country need?


Giant Gundam in Tokyo

Giant Gundam Tokyo

This is almost too cool to even think about: Bandai Namco are building a LIFE-SIZE Gundam robot in Shiokaze park, Odaba to celebrate the 30th aniversary of the anime franchise! It stands at a huge 59 feet tall, emits light from various points on its body, moves its head, etc. They’re done working on the legs, and now the torso and arms are being added ready for the beginning of July. It will stand for two months before it’s taken down again, but then what are they going to do with it? The robot is the original RX-78-2 Gundam from the first anime series, aired in 1979.


Live Action Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll

Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company are now planning a live action Ninja Scroll to accompany their existing anime adaptation of the epic Akira. He’s looking to get SMAP (a J-Pop all boy singing group) to act in the movie, so it’s looking positive in the sense that he actually wants to cast Japanese actors in the roles of actual Japanese people – seems obvious to most of us I guess, but not to Hollywood’s casting agents it would seem judging by the recently released Dragonball Evolution movie. I’m semi-positive about this, but it still baffles me how they are going to match the provocative, ultra-violent, psychedelic qualities of the 90’s original. Time will tell I guess.


Samurai Shodown V Special

Samurai Shodown V Special

I’ve been playing a new incarnation of an old favourite recently, the last in the series from SNK actually. Samurai Shodown V Special is the best in the entire series. You’ve got most of the best characters, plus many new ones, with additional special moves and additional techniques. In this game, you can go into Rage mode, or you can exchange your anger for ‘concentration’ by meditating in order to, at a certain time, go into Concentration One mode, where all of your enemy’s moves take place in slow motion, whereas everything you do is normal speed. This enables you to land about 10 strikes on him while he’s still drawing his sword, as well as move behind your enemy and slay him before he has time to turn around. There are many more cool features, too many to list, and it’s a pixel-art masterpiece – every frame of every sprite. As icing, Yuki and SNK Playmore added Suicides and Fatalities. If you know how, you should play it (but not if you want to be productive at any time in the near future). Oh, and get the uncensored version. That way you can see people getting sliced in half, beheaded or spraying fountains of blood.


Miyamoto Musashi Anime

People who know their Samurai will know who this guy is. Famed for being a ferocious swordsman who fought with a long sword and an oar used for rowing, he most famously slayed Sasaki Kojiro in a duel of swords. Now, the studio behind the anime cutaways in Kill Bill vol.1 returns to tell the story, writing courtesy of Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell)! Can’t wait. Here’s the trailer for now.


Darling wa Gaikokujin

Darling wa Gaikokujin

Darling wa Gaikokujin (ダーリンは外国人), which roughly translates as My Darling is a Foreigner, is a manga series that deals with the author Saori Oguri’s life as a Japanese woman married to an American man living in Japan. The reason I’m writing about it is that I’ve been watching an animated version on the JR line trains just recently, and the animation style is really nice. The animation has been on the trains since last year. In the most recent installment the couple have a baby. Watch out for it if you’re on the Yamanote line in Tokyo anytime soon.


UT Harajuku

UT Harajuku

Uniqlo’s ever popular T-shirt project UT has been going for a while now, but as a recent addition to their plethora of usual outlets, they’ve added this dedicated UT store in Harajuku. It was opened last April, but this is the first time I’ve been there. With temperatures the way they are at the moment I wasn’t planning on buying any T-shirts, I just wanted to check out the store itself. The shop consists of a few racks of T’s and other items, surrounded by a wall of vending machines, above which you have the ticker-tape displays with lines of text making laps of the room as you shop. The vending machines contain the bulk of the T-shirt stock. You choose the one you want, and then out pops the T in the trademark tube-like plastic packaging. I get the feeling they will need an iron once you get the back to your house though. Generally I like the store, so I’ll be back in the spring to pick up some from the manga series.