News and Opinion

Obama Is Beautiful World!

I had class today, so I didn't even think of going to DC to witness Obama's inauguration, even though I would have liked my son to have seen it (at any rate, he said they herded everyone into the school gym and he saw it on TV there). I watched it at work: they put the CNN live stream on a big monitor in one of the classrooms at the Film Study Center and about 25 people watched it from there, clapping and commenting. Still, if I had gone to to the inauguration with my family, my wife and I decided we would've had to sing the wonderful song "Obama Is Beautiful World."

This song has floated around the net for a while, though most people mistake it for a song solely about Barack Obama. It is actually a song by the Anyone Brothers Band that celebrates as much the small city of Obama in Fukui Prefecture on the Japan Sea side of Honshu. A lot of these chiho toshi have been trying to think up ways to generate business and tourism as depopulation and economic inequalities continue to plague places outside the big cities in Japan (in the 1980s and 1990s, one way was to start a film festival, which is how Yubari and the YIDFF got started). Obama City took advantage of the candidacy of Barack Obama to create some merchandise and publicize the city. The song, done by a local band, is not unrelated to this and the lyrics speak as much about the town as the man. The wonderful Japanese English "Obama Is Beautiful World" can refer to the city, as well as to the world President Obama hopes to create.

Movies over Art?

I just saw this in the news. As a promotion gimmick for 20th Century Boy (20-seiki shonen), they've transformed Okamoto Taro's famous sculpture, Tower of the Sun (Taiyo no to, built for the Osaka World Expo in 1970), into the "Friend's Tower" (Tomodachi no to), bearing the mark of the mysterious and destructive "Friend" who attacks in the movie. Does this mean that in today's booming movie business, movies trump art? Or does Toho (whose kanji can mean "the Eastern treasure"), now by far the most successful film company in Japan, have so much power it rules the Eastern Sun in the Land of the Rising Sun?



The Roots of Japanese Anime

Here's a bit of promotional news, but I wanted to announce that my wife's company, Zakka Films, has just released its first DVD, The Roots of Japanese Anime. It's a nice collection of rare prewar and wartime films (Momotaro's Sea Eagle is particularly important, but Chameko's Day is one of my favorites) and involved the participation of a number of my grad students (doing subtitles) and colleagues like Jasper Sharp. I wrote the individual film commentaries and my brother Matt did the graphic design (he runs a design company called Grapheon in Portland and makes movies too).

Here's the official announcement:


We are very pleased to announce the launch of our company, Zakka Films, and the release of our first DVD, The Roots of Japanese Anime, which presents 8 classic films, many of which are appearing for the first time on DVD with English subtitles.

Zakka Films is new venture dedicated to introducing rare and important Japanese films, particularly anime and documentary, to North American audiences.  Many of the powerful and wonderful films we love aren't available outside Japan, so our mission is to change that.

Starting with The Roots of Japanese Anime, we'll present some of the great works of Japanese cinema on information-rich, high-quality DVDs ideal for individual, scholarly, and classroom use. Every DVD will come stocked with extra bonus features and commentaries by noted scholars sure to enlighten students, researchers, and even the casual observer of Japan.

The Roots of Japanese Anime is our first release and contains 8 ground-breaking films from the developmental years of Japanese anime. The centerpiece is Momotaro's Sea Eagle (director: Mitsuyo Seo), Japan's first feature animated film from 1942 notorious for showing "Peach Boy" and his cute animal forces attacking Pearl Harbor. As an example of both Japanese wartime propaganda and the great leaps made in the evolution of Japanese anime, Momotaro's Sea Eagle has been the subject of great interest amongst scholars and fans, but is coming out in North America here for the first time.

The other 7 films introduce the delightful variety of Japanese pre-WWII anime and the popular everyday culture it represented. There are masterworks by anime pioneers such as Noburo Ofuji, Kenzo Masaoka, and Yasuji Murata; cartoons presenting folk tales and legendary samurai heroes; sing-a-long films; and even a wonderful work introducing the day in the life of a young girl from the 1930s.

The DVD includes a 12-page booklet describing the history of early anime and the background of each film written by prominent scholars.

For more information on the DVD and to view the trailer, please visit us at The Roots of Japanese Anime will also be showing on Saturday, March 28, 9:00 AM at the 2009 AAS Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Thank you very much!

Seiko Ono
Zakka Films

Terebi Oshogatsu

Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu! I hope everyone's had a good new year so far!

For me, a Japanese oshogatsu is not just about osechi ryori and hatsumode and kakisome and "traditional" things like that, it's about television. Yes, nenmatsu specials, oshogatsu bangumi, etc. etc. When I lived in Japan, I looked forward to finishing up the osoji (the big year-end clean up that is a great occasion to get you off your ass and cleaning up the house), making some homemade soba, sitting down in front of the TV on New Year's Eve, and vegitate by watching Kohaku uta gassen (the Red and White Song Contest) and Yukutoshi kurutoshi. The next days would be filled with watching all those silly New Year's programs like the Kakushigei taikai and the monomane shows and whatever special came up. Of course I had to watch the Hakone Ekiden too. These were all great ways of catching up with who's who in the geinokai and music world, but there was also something ritualistic about it. Kohaku used get ratings of about 80 percent in the 1960s, so it was as if what helped you define yourself as Japanese was not just going to the shrine on gantan, but watching that peculiar amalgam of enka and pop singers. (Kohaku's lower ratings today may hint at the end or redefinition of such national rituals.) Watching all the TV, beyond being a source of relaxation, was a way of feeling at home at my second home.

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