Nerd Passion: Manga

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of comic books. It is also not a secret that I harbor a deep love for all things Japanese. So why have I never talked about manga? After all, manga are nothing more than Japanese Comic books! Well, there is a story there…

Back when I was a young lad living in Okinawa, my family briefly resided in an apartment building in downtown Ishikawa (now called Uruma).  My front yard was essentially a parking lot for a massive Pachinko parlor. So, for my brief stint living downtown whenever I wanted a place to play, instead of dodging traffic, I’d actually go out onto the rooftop of the apartment. Most of the kids in the apartment building would play up there. One day, while I was hanging out on the roof, I noticed that someone had left behind what looked like a thick phone book. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a Japanese manga. Now, being an American, I had never seen anything like this. The content was much more mature than anything I’d ever come across in a Marvel or DC book. It was some sort of crime story and it was extremely violent. It was interesting, but not really my cup of tea. I flipped through it for a moment and then left it where I found it. Over the course of my three-year stay in Japan, I encountered many other manga books. But of course, not being able to read Japanese, I also didn’t give them much attention.

Fast forward several years later… I’m back in the USA and Japanese culture is gaining in popularity. I now see manga starting to pop-up in local bookstores. On a whim, I pick up a book that looks interesting and bring it home. This book was Chobits, a story about a young man and his personal android companion. I become hooked instantly and ended up reading the entire series in just a few days. Sadly, the cost of these little books was a little too high for my budget at the time. So, I decided to willingly put off this new hobby for the time being.

Time goes by and anime and manga have become even more popular. These days, nearly any bookstore in the US is going to have at least one single shelf dedicated to manga. A few years back, my oldest son talked me into watching the Sword Art Online anime with him. I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected, so I decided to give the manga version of the story a try. Again, I became hooked immediately. In fact, I actually liked it much more than the anime.

At that point, I could no longer deny it: I like manga. Despite my deep-rooted love of Japan, I try my very best to avoid being labeled as a weeabo. Sadly, this is another mark in the “Is Sensei a Weeabo?” column… But I’m still resisting!

So, what does all this mean? Well, it’s simple. I’m going to throw manga into the overall “comic book” topic on this site and include them in my reviews. In the coming days, I’ll be introducing my first manga overview. I hope you enjoy it.

Yatta!

 

It Came From Netflix: Final Fantasy XIV – Dad of Light

Welcome to the very first “It Came From Netflix…” post! If you’re not sure what this is all about, you can read my announcement here: “It Came From Netflix…” – In my first review for this new feature, I will be discussing an interesting Japanese drama; “Final Fantasy XIV – Dad of Light”.  Since Final Fantasy games are a big part of this site, I thought this show would make a perfect segue into this new series of articles.

Netflix has recently introduced a number of foreign films and television shows. “Dad of Light” is one of them. Now, let me state of up front that this show does not chronicle the events of a particular Final Fantasy game, nor does it feature characters from the series. Instead, it’s a show about the game. More specifically, it’s a story about a father and son who bond through the online world of Final Fantasy XIV.

The plot is simple, it revolves around a young adult named Akio and his father. Akio works a full time job but still lives at home with his family. When he was a little boy, Akio and his father used to spend time together playing old Final Fantasy games. These days, they have drifted apart. One day, Akio’s father suddenly announces his retirement with no explanation. In an effort to rekindle the relationship with his dad, Akio purchases a Playstation 4 and a copy of the online game Final Fantasy XIV and presents them as a gift to his father. His plan is to secretly meet up with his father in the game and befriend him. Then, eventually reveal his identity in hopes of forging a stronger bond through the experience.

The series takes place largely in the real world. But occasionally, certain scenes are shown from an in-game perspective. A large part of the comic relief comes from the interactions between the father’s character and Akio’s in-game persona. The show itself is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. As is the case with most Japanese dramas, it can be oddly quirky at times. But is overall, very charming. There are a few adult situations but for the most part, the show is largely family friendly.

When the series was originally announced in Japan, it went by the rather unflattering name “Daddy of Light”. Yuck… I’m glad to see that Netflix took some artistic privilege when bringing the title to US viewers. I first heard about the series online, shortly after it’s Japanese release. It was no secret that the production company was shopping the series around to American distributors. I was nearly certain that it would be snapped up by Crunchyroll, a company that specializes in Asian media. But, much to my surprise, Netflix got the exclusive rights to the show.

The good thing about this series is  that even viewers who have no interest or knowledge of Final Fantasy XIV will be able to watch and enjoy this show. Of course, players of the game will certainly recognize certain elements and may get a bit more out of the experience. I watched this series with my entire family, and it was enjoyed by all.

All in all, Dad of Light is a heartwarming series. The storyline is very self-contained and there’s pretty much no chance of a second season. Many Japanese television dramas typically only last for one run. In a way, they could be compared to what US viewers know as a “mini-series”. So there’s very little time investment if you simply want to try something new.

If you’re new to foreign media, this series is a pretty good starting point. It’s familiar enough to comfortable, but it still has just a touch of foreign “strangeness” to stand out on its own.

Target Audience: This show is aimed towards a general audience, but fans of Japanese culture, anime, and Final Fantasy are likely to be more drawn to it than others.  It’s a good launching point for Western audiences who are not familiar with the Asian Drama genre.

Number of Episodes: 8

Netflix Exclusive?:  YES

Score (1 out of 4): 3

 

Record Shop: Princess Princess – Self Titled

So far my Record Shop posts have focused on alternative rock from the early nineties. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were certainly big influences on me in my early Rock n Roll days. But, in truth, I’ve always been a fan of different types of music. As a child, I would often borrow vinyl records from my parents. In their collection I found everything from The Doors to The BeeGees. One of my favorite albums as a young kid was actually the Grease soundtrack! As I grew a bit older my personal collection contained everything from Twisted Sister to Madonna. In fact, by the time I was about thirteen years old, pop and hip hop music were actually my primary go-to. Back in those days, I was living in Japan and the record shop on the Air Force base carried an excess of top 40 albums.  If you looked through the stack of CDs next to my boombox, you’d find artists like Mariah Carey, Bell Biv Devoe, MC Hammer – you get the picture. At that time in my life, rock music was not the primary thing on my radar. Oddly enough, the album that steered me back to Rock n Roll wasn’t Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It was a CD by an obscure all-girl Japanese group named Princess Princess.

It was the Winter of 1990 and my family was hosting a “Homestay Student”. This is a bit like an exchange student, except there’s really no exchange. A Japanese student volunteers to live with an American family for a few days to a week to observe their culture. I think this program was something that was exclusively available to military families, I’m honestly not sure. But it was a program that my family participated in on several occasions. For this particular stint, we hosted a sixteen year old Japanese girl for the Christmas holiday. She was a music fan and a fellow gamer. Even though there was a massive language barrier, the two of us hit it off quite well. When we weren’t playing Game Boy games together, we were trading music. I was surprised to learn that many Japanese folks were already very well versed in western pop music. So most of this exchange was very one-sided. She shared with me a number of various J-Pop bands. Most of which I’ll never remember since they were handwritten copies that I could not read anyway. But she did leave me with one cassette tape by the group I mentioned above; Princess Princess. This was my first real taste of Japanese Pop Music.

This is a record that is likely going to be very hard to find. Even with the internet and music sharing scene, this is a bit of a rarity. Princess Princess was not a groundbreaking band. They don’t have the following that other pop idols from Japan do. They do not fit neatly into a certain genre. The songs on this record range from hair metal to cutesy pop ballads. Maybe it was simply because it was given to me as a gift, but I wore this cassette out. Even after returning back to the United States, Princess Princess was a record that remained a personal favorite.  Allow me to share this gem with you.

1: ROCK ME –  The first track on this record starts with an electric guitar riff that immediately calls bands like Van Halen and Motley Crue to mind. But as soon as the Japanese female vocals kick in, you know that this is not your average hair metal band. This track is simply stellar. It’s the type of song that you’d expect to hear on any US classic rock station. It’s truly a shame that most people will never have the pleasure of enjoying this song.

2: ティンカーベル (Tinker Bell) – This is a moderate tempo rock track. This one is a bit more bubblegum than the debut song. But it’s catchy and it’s been a guilty pleasure of mine for many years. I’m losing Man Points by admitting that I find this song enjoyable.

3: 台風の歌 (Typhoon Song) – Having sheltered through a number of Typhoons in during my time in Japan, I can honestly tell you that this song doesn’t even remotely call to mind anything close to those dangerous storms. This track is not a favorite of mine, but it’s admittedly infectious. It’s what I call “Candy Shop Pop”. I’m generally not a fan of brass in a rock or pop song, and this song has it’s share. I don’t skip past this track when it comes on, but it’s not one I ever queue up either.

4: 逃げろ (Run Away) – This song rocks. It’s a favorite of mine. Maybe because the first few lines are in English, but this was the first song on the record that caught my attention. I don’t speak Japanese and I’ve never looked up the lyrics to translate them (nor would I, as I fear it might ruin some of the magic), but I feel like this might be a bit of political song. It features a really groovy rock riff and a driving backbeat. Good stuff.

5: ジュリアン (Julian) – This is a sappy power ballad. I remember this track being the favorite of the young lady who gave me my copy of the record. I feel like this might have been one of the singles. Even though this type of song is not really my style, it is a bit of an earworm. I can imagine many Japanese prom dances went down to this one.

6: ROLLIN’ ON THE CORNER – This is another funky rock/brass band tune. Not a favorite of mine, but it has its moments. The chorus is its saving grace.

7: 錆びつきブルース 歌 (Rusted Blues Song) – This is a weird one. It sounds like a Jerry Lee Lewis tune mixed with some weird Asian doo wop group. When I hear this, I see Japanese girls in poodle skirts dancing at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Again, not a favorite but certainly interesting.

8: 月夜の出来事 歌 (Moonlight’s Event) – This is a pure J-Pop track. Even though I can’t speak Japanese, I don’t need to know the language to hear the universal sound of romance and longing. This is a magical track. It might be my favorite.

9: THE LAST MOMENT – This is an interesting tune. It almost has a Spanish flair to it – until the spell is broken by the unexpected sound of a harmonica. This is a hard track to nail down stylistically. But it works perfectly.

10: HIGHWAY STAR – This song reminds me of Van Halen. Its a rocking tune that’s a perfect mix of well polished hard rock and J-pop. It’s a flawless blend of everything that’s great about this record.

11: One – The album closes with a solid jam. It’s mild pop track, but a memorable one. I remember listening to this one on my Walkman as the plane that took me back to the United States lifted off the ground. I can still see myself looking out that oval-shaped window and watching the island of Okinawa get smaller. It’s fitting that this is the final track on an album that will always remind of that magical place.

Obviously, this is very personal record for me. In most cases, I wouldn’t recommend something this obscure to others. But these days, J-Pop and Japanese culture are all the rage. So, if you’re  fan of Japanese music, I’d encourage you to put down the Utada Hikaru CD for a moment and check out something unique.

When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system, or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. The Japanese are perfectionists when it comes to sound quality. This shows on this record. It’s beautifully mastered despite it’s age.

When listening to a record, always listen from start to finish. Some songs tend to be more enjoyable when following the song preceding them. Put the record on while you’re driving, or doing house work. Let it play in the background. Listen it to a few times. Some records need to grow on you. Don’t skip around. Even if a particular song doesn’t grab you right away, let it play through. Your opinion may change.

The Anime Conundrum

As this blog will attest, I’m pretty much the complete stereotypical nerd. I like video games, comic books, science fiction, Dungeons & Dragons, etc. But there’s two typical nerdisms that I have always proudly be unassociated with: Anime and Live Action Role Playing. In this post, I want to talk a bit about Anime. The picture above is a poster from a Japanese cartoon called Thunderbirds 2086. This show has the honor of being the first piece of Japanese animation that I was ever exposed to…. and I hated it.

I don’t recall many of the details because I was probably around pre-school age. But I believe this series was being aired on HBO in the early 80s and for some reason, my father taped it for me. Not having anything else to watch, I watched Thunderbirds. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, and I didn’t like it any better after the 50th time I saw it. But for some reason, I watched it.

Today, I couldn’t tell you what it was even about. I won’t cheat and look it up online either. All I remember are big yellow machines, some kind of underwater expedition and a bunch of starfighters that reminded me of something out of Star Wars. Aside from this show, and a healthy dose of Speed Racer cartoons, I had no other exposure to Japanese animation for quite some time.

I next stumbled into Japanamation (that’s what we called it at the time) with the debut of Voltron on American television. Now this show was cool! Bright colors, robotic lions that could connect into one butt kicking robot! This show had it all. However, shortly after becoming interested in Voltron, the show seemed to vanish from the airwaves. So, my interests returned to more American shows like He-Man and Silverhawks.

A year or two later, I found myself living the life of an Air Force brat on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Back then, there were only three channels available to watch. One armed-forces-ran English channel and two local Japanese channels. 9 times out of 10, it was English-speaking channel that was on in my home. But occasionally, I enjoyed flipping it over to the Japanese stations. Japanese programming was quite different from anything I was used to. Crazy game shows, cheesy-looking soap operas and of course, anime cartoons. Around the time I was living there, Dragon Ball Z was just in its first run in Japan. It was actually quite popular among the American kids, even if we had no idea what it was about. We traded Dragon Ball trading cards, we had Dragon Ball pencils, it was everywhere. I thought it looked cool, but I wasn’t able to understand the storyline because I didn’t speak a word of Japanese. A few years after I returned to the states, Dragon Ball had made it’s way here and I remember being amused by everyone thinking it was something knew. No one believed me when I told them it was at least 3-4 years old.

At this point, I was very indifferent to anime. I really enjoyed the artwork visually, but I had no real love for the shows themselves. My next stint with anime is where I think I really began to disdain the genre. I was dating a girl, and she basically forced me to watch this bizarre sex/alien-based cartoon called Legend of the Overfiend. I didn’t enjoy this show at all. I remember something about giant alien penises tearing apart a city, and monsters with tentacles raping women. It was totally not my cup of tea. It burned me from anime for a very long time. Almost 10 years to be exact.

Flash forward to around 2006, I find myself being an avid player of Final Fantasy XI online. Many of the people I play with are major otakus. In fact, I realize I am slowly becoming the minority with my peers in the game. Everyone is watching anime. Everywhere I turn people are talking about things like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion. I try watching some of these shows, but to me they still seem slow-paced and boring.

Then one day, I find myself at the book store and I look up to see a shelf of Manga (Japanese comics). I pick up a Dragon Ball book and flip through it. I find myself liking it, so I buy it. I loved the comic so much that I went back and purchased a bunch more. Man, I’m really digging this book! So maybe this is it, I think. I decide to give Dragon Ball another shot and I put it on my Netflix list. Well, the DVD comes, and I fall asleep watching it. It’s just…. too childish. I try again with another Manga that I really enjoy, Chobits. This show is not childish at all, but it still doesn’t click with me.

A few more years go by, and now it seems like everyone is into anime but me. So finally a few weeks ago, I bite the bullet and ask some of my friends in Final Fantasy XIV to recommend a few titles to me. I summarize my experiences and I get quite a few suggestions. One of these is a series called Sword Art Online. It’s a show that’s essentially about a futuristic virtual reality-based MMO. After everyone logs in on launch day, they find themselves trapped inside the game world. It turns out this trap was laid out by the game’s sadistic creator as twisted experiment of sorts. If you die in the game, the VR machine sends a shock to your system terminating you in real-life (think, Matrix). It was fantastic. Simply amazing.

After watching only one episode of this show, I was hooked. I finally found an anime cartoon that enjoy. Thanks to some Netflix suggestions, I have a few other titles on my list that I’m going to try out as well. So I’m very curious to see if this one show is an exception to my rule of “I hate anime” or if it will actually be a doorway that gets me into the genre. I’m genuinely curious. – but needless to say, I recommend this show.

If any of you have some good suggestions, please feel free to either comment or send a message. I will be sure to check it out.

Despite this new development, no matter what, I still refuse to dress up and participate in any LARPing whatsoever. So there’s always that.

J-Pop

extralarge   Princess Princess

J-Pop. AKA: Japanese pop music is another interest of mine that just won’t die. There’s something about these magical singing/dancing pixie people that enthralls me. The first time I was exposed to J-pop was my second day living in-country. I turned on the radio and searched for the military network, I heard Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and immediately turned it off. I sat there for a moment, pissed at realization that my days of being entertained by the radio were probably on hold for the next three years. I flipped it back on and decided to see what type of nonsense was being broadcast over the local airwaves….

What I found intrigued me. I stumbled upon what must have been some type of in-studio concert. Two Japanese men were talking back and forth for a few moments then all went silent and a guitar was heard. The intro consisted of some pretty elaborate and speedy fingerpicking, I waited for the first verse to begin, and I waited, and waited, and waited…. It seemed like 10 minutes before the song actually started. But that couldn’t be right. Could it? Finally, an older sounding man in a raspy voice began to sing. In fact he began to croon the same line over and over again. To my young American ears, it sounded like he saying “English! Didi-la-la Didi-la-la”. Who knows what he was really saying, but he went on repeating this for nearly another 10 minutes, over and over and over. I turned of the radio and silently wondered what I getting myself into.

That was the extent of my interest in Japanese music until maybe a year later. As part of a culture exchange program, we had a teenage Japanese girl stay with my family over the Christmas holiday. She was a very nice girl and she happened to bring a tape with her of an all-girl Japanese rock band “Princess Princess”. A quick listen revealed that this was MUCH DIFFERENT from “Didi-la-la
“. She made a copy for me and I listened to it often. Despite not being able to understand the lyrics, I found the recording to be one of my favorites. I kept the tape for many years until finally it simply wore out and broke sometime in the mid-90s.

After returning to the states, the years went by and I became involved in the whole 90’s Alternative scene. It wasn’t until many years later, after I got married, that my love for J-Pop was rekindled. I had taken a hiatus from video games for most of the mid to late 90’s. After marrying and settling down a bit, my wife and I bought a brand new PlayStation 2. One of the first games we purchased was Kingdom Hearts. This game was a strange blend of both Disney characters and icons from the Final Fantasy universe. It featured a theme sung by the J-pop idol Hikaru Utada. I found the song to be quite catchy and thanks to the Internet I got my hands on some of her other works.

utada-hikaru   Hikaru Utada

Fast forward a few more years, I find myself living in Tennessee working the graveyard shift for a bank. I discover a streaming J-pop station on the Internet called J-Fan Radio. This station opens my ears to even more Japanese artists. I fall in love with idols or bands with names like:  Tommy February6, Dragon Ash, Balzac, Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi, and Gackt.

In recent years, Japanese culture has entered the American mainstream thru video games and various Anime. With them has come many original soundtracks featuring J-pop. Due to this, it’s very easy these days to get your hands on the latest music from our friends in Japan. If you’ve never experienced it, I recommend giving a listen. They make great soundtracks to late-night video game marathons. I take a bit of pride in being able to say “J-pop? Oh yeah, I was listening to that 20 years ago.” But honestly, I didn’t learn to appreciate it until many years later.

004392w9   Gackt

 

Japan

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If you’ve actually read this blog, you’ll know that as a child I was a military brat. Shortly after starting my 4th grade year, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan.

Living in Japan was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I still remember exiting the quiet, climate controlled airplane after a 22 hour flight. Stepping thru the archway of the plane and into the Okinawan air for the first time was like a slap in the face. The air was thick and moist. It was just like a steamy sauna, only with the smell of salt water and foreign foliage in the air. The jet lag had really got ahold of me, and I found myself unable to sleep in the hotel room that day. I flipped on the TV only to find three channels. One English speaking channel operated by the US government and two local Japanese channels. Watching Japanese television for the first time was a wake up call like I’ve never had. The cheesy samurai soap opera, followed by a children’s show featuring an octopus farting into a Jello mold made on thing abundantly clear; I was in a completely different world.

3772349310_7b9de77e47 A bottle of Sake featuring the corpse of a venomous Habu snake in the bottle

Living on military base in a foreign country can be a bit deceiving. Inside the confines of those walls, you could almost believe you never left the normalcy of the USA. But step outside, and there’s no question… You are in Japan. One of the first things I learned to enjoy about Okinawa, was the food. Thankfully, I love noodles, and there no short supply of them. Over my three-year stay in Japan, I became quite fond of the various flavors the orient had to offer. It’s an obsession that lasts to this day.

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The first time you taste something like Miso, or some other foreign spice or sauce, it can be a little off-putting. But once you break thru the defensive concept of “I’m not used to this”, you might just surprise yourself! There’s often a whole world of good food out there that you may never experience.

One thing I will say about these Japanese, they certainly like their candy. Japanese snacks and confectioneries are like no other. The variety of flavors seems endless. For example, over here in the US, we have three flavors of Kit Kats. Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and White Chocolate. In Japan, on the shelf of any random convenience store, you might find Kit Kats in such exotic flavors as: Wasabi, Orange, Banana, Cheese, Sweet Potato, Basked Potato, Key Lime, Green Tea, etc.

In the short three years I lived there, I was never able to get a firm grasp on the Japanese language.  But I did have many encounters with kids my age. One thing that we both understood, regardless of our language barrier was video games. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or as it was called in the Japan, the Famicom was in just as many Japanese households. Many of our games were the same. Things like Mario and Zelda didn’t rely heavily on words, so there was no real need to to be concerned with communication. It was not uncommon for a Japanese friends to lend me a Famicom game to take home and play. However, the size of the carts were different. This led to a compatibility problem. Thanks to the black market, this problems was easily solved for a mere $10. Meet the honeybee.

honeybee_adaptor_gold_60-300x156-5B1-5D

This beautiful piece of Asian engineering made is possible to fit a Famicom game into a standard US NES. Oh, the fun times that were had thanks to this little devil. I may have never learned the secret that the REAL Super Mario Bros. 2 was not the same as the SMB 2 that was presented to the American audience… but I’ll save that rant for another time.

I slowly became absorbed with Japanese pop culture. I viewed Dragon Ball Z cartoons on TV during their first run, I saw video games months before they were even revealed to the western audience. I read manga, collected anime branded pencils, listened to Japanese pop music. There’s so much I could write about when it comes to my experiences in Okinawa. Perhaps I will do so in future posts. For now, let this serve an introduction into my obsession with a particular genre of video game, the Japanese RPG.