Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tokyo’s Manga Madness

School girls on "Maiden Road" in Ikebukuro

Plastik magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Tokyo

The Japanese are crazy about manga and no where more so than in the manga capital of the world, Tokyo. Comic books come in all sorts and sizes, from samurai and science fiction to haute cuisine and porn. Comics café’s offer all you can devour for an hourly fee, while in “cosplay café’s” waitresses dress up as anime characters to serve drinks and, at times, a “happy ending.” Welcome to the wonderful world of manga, which in Japan alone is worth a staggering $31 billion annually.

To get a sense of how manga mad the Japanese really are you must visit Tokyo's “otaku” (geek) districts of Akihabara (Akiba) and Ikebukuro. Originally known as “Electric City” for its cut price electronics, Akiba in central Tokyo has morphed into a manga and gamers' paradise. Store employees call out deals on megaphones, young women dressed as saucy maids hand out fliers on the streets, music pulses from store fronts, while men and women of all ages browse the store’s shelves for the latest titles to bargain-bin deals at $1 a copy.

Building after building along the district’s main drag is covered in bright colorful strip lighting and advertising while the interiors hold floor after floor of manga: comics, dvds, games, costumes and merchandise of all that can seemingly be commercialized: chocolates, toys, bottled water, clothing, models, playing cards, headphones, plastic dolls.

Akihabara aka Electric City

Browsing for manga on "Maiden road"

One store has five floors of normal manga – Japanese for “whimsical sketches” or cartoons – while the top two-floor “adults only” section is stacked floor to ceiling with manga “dojin” (porn), ranging from feature-length stories and one-off 10-page sexual encounters, usually between a bug-eyed, big breasted, tiny waisted girl and an exceedingly well-hung male, to all-female-action, alien sex and hermaphrodites with colossal boobs and swinging dicks.

Vivid is hardly the word to describe much of the content – nearly all dojin manga involves such a copious amount of splattered cum that you can almost feel it oozing out of the bindings. Meanwhile, outside each floor are machines selling models of nude female manga figures in “interesting” postures dispensed in plastic cylinders for reassembly back home.

If purchasing models or dressing up in the costumes of a favorite character are not enough, then there are the cosplay (“costume play”) cafes, where waitresses are dressed up like anime characters. More personal maid cafes are dotted around Akiba, where massage “happy endings” and fetish inclined wants can be satiated.

Dojin manga on sale in Ikebukuro

Drink dispenser in Akiba

It is over in Ikebukuro in northwest Tokyo that you find “otome” (geek girls) on so-called “Maiden Road.” Otome hang out at manga shops to browse boys' love, or “boizu rabu,” a female-orientated manga that focuses on homo-erotic or homo-romantic male relationships that are usually created by female authors (but distinctly different from “bara,” or gay manga). There are even role-play cafes featuring women in drag waiting tables as butlers.

For the more mainstream reader who is low on funds yet wants to buy all the cartoon candy the eye desires, “manga kissaten” (comics cafes) are found all over Japan, where customers can read manga, watch dvds and surf the internet for an hourly fee or stay all night to plough through a 25-part manga series in-between cat naps.

The amount of manga available in Japan is truly staggering, with the all encompassing manga industry - from comics to anime to toys - worth an eye-popping $31 billion a year. The Kyoto International Manga Museum alone stocks what is considered a conservative number at 50,000 manga volumes. And manga, in all its forms, covers all genres: samurai tales, history, fantasy, science fiction, action, romance, porn and even educational content. Food is also an immensely popular genre, evidenced in the “Oshinbo a La Carte” series by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, which have sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

Japan's visual entertainment has certainly made its mark on global popular culture, despite a lack of translations and promotion over the past 30 years. That Japan has done so in the face of the Hollywood entertainment empire is down to the vivid, artistically rich imaginings of futuristic and fantastical worlds coupled with a willingness to take the material, as well as the viewer, seriously. A realization that comics are not solely a medium for children as escapist entertainment and can verge on the high-brow in the stories and ideas expressed.

Indeed, the international commercial success of post-apocalyptic anime films “Akira” (1988), “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) and “Appleseed” (2004) showed that what some deride as “cartoons” requires not only a “Parental Advisory” warning but also a more than functioning brain.


What pushed anime into the realm of adult entertainment was the development of manga from the easily digestible American superhero comic of the 1940s and '50s into a more realistic, violent and sexually explicit style. Spearheading the rise of manga was legendary artist Osamu Tezuka – aka the “God of Manga” - who revolutionized the medium by adopting film-frame visualization in his drawings and taking manga from child-safe series (and current American film) “Astro Boy” to the likes of “MW,” a story about a gay priest sexually entangled with a schizo-psychopath whose mind was messed with as a child by exposure to a US-made chemical weapon.

Since Tezuka put pen to paper manga has never looked back, providing the inspiration for anime films, TV series, video games and e-manga. What is on the page is on the screen. And as entertainment in general became increasingly hardcore so did manga in its
über violence and graphic sex, particularly in genres such as “yaoi” (“boys' love”) and dojin.

But while manga comics in Japan are a $5 billion-a-year business, outside the Far East just a fraction has been translated or is readily available. Annual Japanese sales of manga magazines are estimated at $2.2 billion and manga books at $2.5 billion, while best selling magazine “Shonen Jump!” has a weekly circulation of 2.9 million copies. Manga is such big business that in 2009 the Japanese government made manga part of its economic recovery plan by aiming to boost exports of manga, anime and pop music from the current two percent of the country’s total exports to 18 percent over the next decade.

“Japanese content, such as anime and video games, and fashion draw attention from consumers around the world,” said Taro Aso, the then prime minister and a self-confessed manga addict. “Unfortunately, this soft power is not being linked to business overseas. By linking the popularity of Japan's soft power to business, I want to create a $212-$318 billion market by 2020 and create 500,000 new jobs.”

This is great news for manga aficionados around the world, some of whom are so starved of new content that they learn Japanese to be able to delve into the ever expanding universe of manga, while more translations will make manga grow beyond the largely “geek” sub-culture following it has in the West.

Yet for manga to hold truly global appeal, merely translating content may not be enough. Perhaps it is about time the “value added” visual entertainment readily available in Tokyo is exported alongside the newly translated content, so we can enjoy dojin, college-age girls dressed in drag and manga kissaten on the streets of Berlin, Paris and Beirut.







All photographs by Paul Cochrane

Hayao Miyazaki: The Akira Kurosawa of anime

Plastik magazine
By Paul Cochrane in Beirut

Spirited Away

Film maker Hayao Miyazaki hates the nickname that has been pinned on him in the West, “the Walt Disney of Japan”. He may have teamed up with Disney to translate and distribute his movies, but Miyazaki is certainly no Walt. If any monikor should apply it's the “Akira Kurosawa of animation.”

While a small man, at just 1.64 meters tall, Miyazaki is the towering figure of anime in Japan and renowned internationally for his children-orientated, yet agelessly appealing stories that continue to emerge from his sublime imagination.

Consider the train that traveled across the surface of an aquamarine sea in Spirited Away, the cat bus in My Neighbor Totoro, or in his latest film, Ponyo, of a girl leaping from one tsunami size wave to another. Pure movie magic.

Indeed, Miyazaki's work is anything but staid or formulaic; neither do his creations suffer like James Cameron's recent blockbuster Avatar did, from being visually stunning in portraying a fantastical “other” world yet weak in character development and storyline. Miyazaki's plots are entertaining, the characters are compelling and his artwork breathtaking in its scope and vision.

My Neighbor Totoro

Ironically it was because of a crap English language release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) in the US, which cut nearly 30 minutes of time, changed character names and watered down the film's themes, that Miyazaki's films were not available in English for an overly long time. The director was reportedly so angry about how the film had been butchered that he would only grant distribution rights for his movies - eventually to Disney - if there was a strict translation of the Japanese dialogue and no scenes were removed, even if they might puzzle the audience, as he admitted during an interview.

“I can't believe companies distribute my movies in America. They're baffling in Japan! I'm well aware there are spots where I'm going to lose the audience. Well, it's magic. I don't provide unnecessary explanations. If you want that, you're not going to like my movie. That's just the way it is,” said Miyazaki.

Given his commercial success it is exactly because his movies have that magical touch that Miyazaki's work has resonated with audiences worldwide. Yet while a multiple award winner in Japan, his talent was only recognized in the US in 2003 when Miyazaki won an Academy Award for best animated feature film, Spirited Away.

Castle in the Sky

What also makes Miyazaki's films stand out compared to the crowd-pleasing Disney films is his frequent references to nature, ecology, and pollution by humankind; his homages to the working class; and the promotion of peaceful dialogue over violence.

But in that Miyazaki (born in 1941) is not alone in Japan, part of a generation of artists that grew up in the wake of two atomic bombings that had profound impact on Japanese cinema and its depictions of a hypothetical, post-apocalyptic world. The difference between Miyazaki and his Japanese counterparts is that his imaginings of such a future is not of one destined to be a dystopia ad infinitum but can be overcome – the silver lining – by respecting and living side by side with nature, as in the film Nausicaä.

Miyazaki has also never let his own misgivings about the direction the world is taking or his own political stance – he famously refused to attend the 2002 Academy Awards out of protest over the US invasion of Iraq - result in a negative story.

“When I'm making a film, I don't want to transfer my pessimism onto children. I keep it at bay. I don't believe that adults should impose their vision of the world on children, children are very much capable of forming their own visions,” he said in an interview.

Miyazaki's opus very much indicates hope, of creating enchanting worlds and through letting his imagination run wild inspire the next generation to do the same, to imagine another world.


Virtual reality is a denial of reality. We need to be open to the powers of imagination, which brings something useful to reality. Virtual reality can imprison people. It's a dilemma I struggle with in my work, that balance between imaginary worlds and virtual worlds,” he said.

Miyazaki's reliance on drawing in creating his anime reflects his stance, not allowing more than 10 percent of footage in his films to be computer generated (CGI). “I've told the people on my CGI staff not to be accurate, not to be true. We're making a mystery here, so make it mysterious,” he said. “Do everything by hand, even when using the computer,” he has said elsewhere.

There is also a degree of mystery in how he develops a film and the script. “I don't have the story finished and ready when we start work on a film. I usually don't have the time. So the story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keeping working on the film as it develops. It's a dangerous way to make an animation film and I would like it to be different, but unfortunately, that's the way I work,” he said.

Experience is a central part of Miyazaki's ad hoc method, something he has decried among contemporary animators. “When I think about the way the computer has taken over and eliminated a certain experience of life, that makes me sad. When we were animating fire some staff said they had never seen wood burning. I said, “Go watch!” It has disappeared from their daily lives. I don't think you can become an animator if you don't have any experience,” he said.

Miyzaki, curiously enough, studied political science and economics at university – no doubt giving him a taste of the big, bad real world – while his fondness for depicting flying machines (evident in Nausicaä, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky) stems from his early exposure to aviation due to his father being the director of a company manufacturing fighter planes.

Porco Rosso

Taking experience to a further level is that the majority of characters in Miyazaki's work are based on people he knows in real life. In Spirited Away, for instance, the main character, a young girl called Chihiro, is based on the daughter of one of his friends.

Miyazaki's belief in experience and relying on his own mind for stimulation has meant that he pretty much shuns watching contemporary pop culture, saying the only images he watches regularly are on the weather report.

Nevertheless, it was Miyazaki's incredible attention to detail, exceptional drawing ability and endless supply of new ideas that got his career started in 1963 as an animator at the Toei Douga studio in Tokyo. This lead to work at other studios until he brought out Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984.

The film's commercial success provided him with enough capital to establish Studio Gibli, from where he has developed all his movies since – such as Howl's Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart, and Princess Mononoke - while a few years ago creating the immensely popular Studio Gibli Museum in Tokyo. His next film, currently in post-production, is The Borrowers.

Lebanese designer Basil Soda's interior ambitions

iO Magazine
By Paul Cochrane in Beirut

Kelly Rowland wears Basil Soda

The oblong, stone clad exterior of Basil Soda's new fashion house in Beirut oozes style. Inside, the design is minimalist, with graphite-colored tables, sofas and walls while the fashion collection itself is conspicuously absent, a handful of mannequins the only indication you are not in the lobby of some boutique hotel.

The collection itself is hidden behind mirrored cupboards, where on opening, taffeta and raw silk shimmer amid hues of purple, orange, red and sequined cocktail dresses. Attendants show around two Khaleeji ladies, giggling while admiring the dresses and imagining the possibilities presented when wearing such glamorous fashion.

The building is a perfect mix of fashion and interior design. Soda's designs emphasize women's curves, while the interior is linear and clean cut – mirroring the designer's pencil marks and the tailor's scissors - to optimize the fabric on show.

For Basil Soda who, since 2000, has carved out for a niche for himself as one of Lebanon's leading designers in haute couture, the 2009 building is a symbol of a decade of creativity and a lifetime's passion. “If I wasn't a fashion designer, I would've been an architect, for sure,” said Soda.

That the building has turned out the way it is, is down to a fusion of Soda's ideas and interior designer Danny Aoun's abilities. “After working on my house with Danny, it was different doing a work space as I needed a place I could be relaxed in - it's my playground,” he said. “But I knew what I wanted, and he's a good listener and artist.”

The layered building has a workshop on the lower floor, the boutique and a more private area upstairs for meeting customers. The decision to use gray for the custom-made furniture and walls was a reflection of modernity and unity. “It will last longer in terms of trends, unlike black and white. And you can combine gray with any shades of a fashion collection. The choice was also influenced by my liking of the graphite look, as I don't use pens but pencils,” said Soda.

The use of mirrors that encase the front of the wardrobes – but not the sides, allowing for another perspective of the dresses within – reflects a careful blending of artificial and natural light while imposing the vegetation around the Horsh Tabet area of Beirut.

“How many thousands of graphics do we see everyday? I think the eye needs to be more relaxed to see beautiful things,” he said.

But while Soda is a perfectionist, he sees the importance of contrasts and mixing styles, as in his fashion when using raw silk. “To see an unfinished product has a beauty. Raw materials are like a chandelier with rope, and such a mixture gives a new view,” he added.

And while the interior is all straight lines to not detract the eye's attention, Soda carried out a tiny touch that makes all the difference in such a minimalist environment – the tables are gracefully curved, “for some femininity and allure.”

Time to lay tracks

Railways are a need, not an option for the Middle East
Commentary - Executive magazine

An undated postcard shows the old Rayak train station in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

The Middle East and the United States have a lot in common when it comes to transportation. Both places have a love affair with the automobile and both had long-distance train networks well over 100 years ago. Both now also have an over abundance of private vehicles clogging up the roads while railways and public transport systems are substandard, if they exist at all.

There is a clear correlation that can be drawn here, between the rise of the car and the demise of rail transportation. But what is more noticeable on a macro-level is how the Middle East and the US stand out from nearly everywhere else in neglecting and underfunding their respective railway networks. Around the world, from South America to South Korea, investment in railways, metros and high-speed trains has been ongoing for decades.

In recent years a growing web of tracks has enmeshed the globe, with China alone earmarking $300 billion over the next decade to build 25,000 kilometers of high-speed railroads. By comparison, the US has just 735 kilometers of high-speed track. The Middle East has, well, zero.

The tide seems to be turning in the US, which had long practiced a policy of “starving the beast” — underfund the railways then shut them down due to inefficiency — until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 allocated $13 billion to improve the railways over the next five years.

It's been a long time coming but the Middle East is also finally undergoing a railway renaissance. Jordan and Syria are both reinvesting in train lines that were built in the early 1900s and once linked Damascus to Mecca, part of the famous Hijaz Railway.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf Cooperation Council investment in railways could reach $109 billion over the next decade, according to a report by the Kuwait Financial Center. Saudi Arabia is expanding its railway network, which will include a $1.8 billion high-speed railway between Mecca and Medina; Qatar is spending nearly $25 billion on railways and a metro; and the United Arab Emirates is mulling a railway network to compliment the Dubai and Abu Dhabi metros.

All three countries would then link to the 2,177 kilometer GCC rail network slated to open in 2017. With an estimated cost of $25 billion, the network will run from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE before the last stop in Oman, or possibly Yemen. This will be money well spent, as an effective railway will better connect the people and economies of the region and reduce the environmental impact of travel.

What is remarkable is how long it has taken the GCC to roll out a regional track, despite its obvious benefits, and to not have done so as a priority over other major infrastructure projects. The same incredulity can be applied to Lebanon, with the government squandering the opportunity in the early 1990s to implement a comprehensive railway network alongside all the other post-civil war reconstruction work. A train line running down the coast between Tyre, Beirut and Tripoli would be a dream; connecting Beirut to Damascus beyond a fantasy.

But Lebanon may yet take part in the Middle East's railway revival. The French government announced in May that they plan to fund a study to rehabilitate Lebanon's coastal railways, which would be a start. The traffic situation around Beirut is appalling, and is set to get even worse as more cars pile onto the roads. It is the same in pretty much every major city in the region.

The public will be hoping that for once, talk of improving Lebanon’s transport network goes beyond the planning stage. But judging by some of the discourse on transportation heard in Beirut of late, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Earlier in the year Beirut’s muhafez (governor) came up with a creative idea to solve the city's traffic problems: sidewalks should be no wider than one meter. And in 2005, during discussions of the national master plan, investment in public transport was dismissed with the claim: “Lebanese like their cars and don't like public transport.”

Considering the problems that the region’s cities face in terms of congestion, pollution and infrastructure, governments need to get serious about public transport planning. Their citizens deserve better than smaller sidewalks and clapped-out old taxis: it’s time to wean people off their love affair with cars and start laying tracks.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services