[The Russo-Japanese War – The End of The Cold War]
The War in Ukraine jolted the world to wake back up. The dream that future wars would only ever be fought in far-flung minor countries, far away from the chummy borders of North America, Europe and Australasia has crumbled. To respond to this rationally, rediscovering the hard-nosed realities of grand warfare, of Great Power politics is vital. Nowhere moreso is this true than with regards to Japan. A nation which has swung in the last century from swirling expansionism to shy pacificism. And yet now must face the reality that it, just as the nations of Europe, directly stares into the eyes of a resurgent Russia.
Moreover, such an analysis can be instructive globally. Western perspective on Russia is traditionally envisioned solely from one direction. With European Russia forming the core and Asian Russia an afterthought. Moscow sits in the Western half of the country, as do many of its other major cities, with the maw of Russia permanently opened over Eastern Europe. To understand the Japanese perspective we must flip Russia, and start at Siberia.
Directly bordering Mongolia, China and North Korea, with the Sea of Japan giving direct access to the Japanese islands the Tsars colonised the vast steppes of Siberia in a grueling 200-year campaign from 1580–1778. Always inhospitable and sparsely populated, what the region lacks in population, with a measure 33 million+ population, it more than makes up for in enormous natural resource reserves of petroleum, iron ore, coal diamonds and more.
The Russian settling of Siberia coincided with the Japanese period of Sakoku (from 1633 – 1853) During this period Japan’s Shogun rulers shut itself off from the rest of the world, leading to extremely limited contact between the countries. Broken by the arrival of the American Commodore Perry, Russia and China would begin initial diplomatic links in the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda. This led to relatively cordial relations between the two nations, before competing ambitions in Korea and Manchuria eventually led to a fierce rivalry.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 marked an escalation into open war. Japan’s highly motivated military, forged by modernising reforms of the Meiji Restoration, proved decisive against the more lumbering Tsarist army. The robust defeat of the Russian forces, on land and at sea was seen contemporaneously as Japan’s ascension to the world stage. No longer a reluctant trading post to be prodded and harassed, but an assertive Great Power able and willing to engage and defeat European colonial powers. Korea was Japan’s and Manchuria lay wide open.
Yet Russia did not shrink from Japanese concerns after the war. Especially with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks morphed a relatively analogous fellow Empire into an utterly novel red workers-state. Japan sent troops to aid the Tsarist forces in the Russian Civil War, but similar to the other Western powers, met with limited success and no major gains as the Red Army eventually restored the boundaries of the Empire.
The bafflement and hostility at the existence of a communist country on the borders of the Japanese Empire led to a new sense of crusader zeal within the Imperial army. The Hokushin-ron (北進論) Strike North Group, doctrine encouraged the confrontation with the Soviet Union, to asset Japanese supremacy in Korea and Manchuria. While initially the favoured policy of the army, the border conflict which resulted with the USSR, from 1932 – 1939, ended with a Soviet victory. The Battles of Khalkhin-Go must surely rank as some of the most impactful, yet under-studied, engagements of the entire war. With Generals Grigoriy Shtern and Georgy Zhukov routing and destroying the Japanese Sixth Army in Mongolia. The defeat led to the signing of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Act and despite being members of opposing alliances, an uneasy peace fell between Japan and Russia.
This turn marked a watershed moment for Japan, with the struggle against the USSR put aside in favour of the alternative Nanshin-ron (南進) Southern Expansion Doctrine. This doctrine contrastingly aimed at confrontation with the United States of America over the Pacific and South-East Asia. Unlocking resources and territorial expansion from a multitude of European colonies in the region. It also shifted national priority from the land-based Army to the sea and marine capabilities of the Navy. This would be the war the Japanese Empire ended up actually fighting fully and to the death. With the attack on Pearl Harbor commencing on December 7th 1941, thereby the entire might of Japan turned to desperately struggle against the neigh-unlimited economic power of the United States.
On the 9th of August 1945, mere days before the Japanese surrender, with the Empire bloodied on the ropes across the Pacific, the Soviet Union rolled back into Manchuria and Korea. Adding further Communist countries to the Eastern Bloc, while also- along with the dropping of the US Atomic Bombs- sealing the final defeat for the Japanese Imperial Army.
Thus, the battle for supremacy in East Asia between Russia and Japan which began in 1905 came to a close. Japan was occupied, almost entirely by American troops (much to the annoyance of Stalin) and became a solid corner of the Asian-zone of the Western Bloc. Japanese society underwent a total transformation. With Article 9 of the Constitution revoking the nation’s “right of belligerency” in favour of American protection, and with the populace focusing their energies on internal economic and social development.
Yet the continued looming Soviet threat so close to Japan, and Communist adventurism in Asia, required Japan to conduct a careful balancing act. Giving deference to the United States as protector and political guide, and yet respecting the wishes of a Japanese population that had truly internalised the pacifist principles of the new Constitution. Japan acted as a staging ground for American troops during the Korean War, but played only an economic role itself, and likewise sent no troops to Vietnam. As the Cold War expanded into the 70s and 80s Japan continued to rebuild its indigenous defences and military capability- but always to be kept on a tight chain, entirely for territorial defence. Likewise, Japanese foreign policy became more assertive and loudly anti-Soviet, but remained pragmatic. Sanctioning the USSR for its invasion of Afghanistan, while focusing on trade, aid and investment to allied countries. The question of what role would Japan play in confronting Russia during the Cold War was answered very simply, a non-military economic one.
Yet our puzzle is missing a number of pieces to make up a full picture: those being the Kuril Islands.Disputed and argued over since the first formal links between Russia and Japan, the controversy also contains the seeds of potential future conflict between the two. A full essay focusing on the controversy of the Islands will follow shortly. Along with an analysis of Japanese-Russian relations post-Cold War and into the Putin era.
When I was about 13 or 14 I decided to teach myself to draw. I’d been getting progressively more interested in anime and manga, and while I’d never shown a huge amount of artistic talent, I wanted to learn. I was moderately successful at it, it took a lot of daily practice but I got better. Eventually I was good enough to sell some of my prints at comic conventions and win an under-18s art competition. A job decently well done.
But the universe didn’t have a career in the arts in its plan for me. I’d improved and was committed, but I always lacked the artistic flair that truly talented artists have. I got a B in Art GCSE, decent. There was always someone slicker, quicker and just better. It’s not enough to be able to clank around with a pencil, becoming a good or great artist requires a depth of understanding and technique that I did not have. I moved on to other pursuits, and my skills atrophied.
With this background it’s been interesting watching the blazing rise of AI art in the past few weeks. AI art generators allow users to type in a number of word prompts and then the algorithm will create an image using them. Prompts can be broad “a green tree” or robustly specific “an astronaut / lounging in a tropical resort in space / in vaporwave style”. The DALL-E program was the first notable AI art generator. Initially released in January 2021 to a select clientele, competitor Midjourney joined in July 2022, while open-source Stable Diffusion released in August 2022. By September 2022 DALL-E opened up usage to anyone and everyone. An avalanche of debate, discussion and galleries upon galleries of AI art ensued, with DALL-E alone now producing 2 million+ images a day of everything from puppies to aliens to anime girls.
Initially any interest in the technology from wider culture was driven by curiosity and novelty. Isn’t it funny that I can put Ronald McDonald in Star Trek, haha. But this initial fallaciousness soured, and battle lines are being drawn. The way AI art generates its pictures is through algorithms of existing art. Partitioning libraries of existing images throughout the web and frankensteining them together at your whim. Your prompts can specify a particular art style or artist’s style in the prompt tags. These artists can be obscure, famous or dead, but if their work is on the internet, it’s fair game to be summoned into the mix at will.
Think about what the central conflict is here. At its most blunt and brutal. It’s between creators, people who have spent in many cases years of hustle, ambition and sweat. Late nights, exams, deadlines, slowly grasping towards financial independence and career success. And on the other side are the passive consumers. People who like the images, are curious about the technology and are often baffled by how easy it is to operate and play with. You just type in a few words and there’s your creation, made just for you. It might be a bit wonky initially, requiring further tweaks and revisions. But it’s yours alone.
On a glib level I don’t think the debate about “is AI art real art?” holds huge significance. At least in the realm of technology uptake and experimentation. Most people don’t know or care what art is. They know it when they see it. Art to the majority is a pretty picture, a nice song, maybe a movie that makes them think a little bit. Every day users can scroll through oceans of fanart and novelty meme content, cute, funny, sexy, shocking. Awarding each a few seconds of attention and a flick of the like/retweet if they’re feeling generous.
Art in the deep philosophical sense, with no art for art’s sake, is abstract. It’s a debate that intentionally has no end point and because of this only appeals to elite subscribers. You already have to elect in, so it’s not going to put many people off. Especially if you’re using it to argue against the promethium fire of a new creative tool.
I’m not in the business of hack futurology or evangelism, but taking the work, the gunk, out of creation is going to change the world as we know it. AI visual images are only the end of the beginning. We’ve had AI music for a while, AI videos are in their infancy, but growing, AI movies next? AI video games?
The accessibility and complexity of these systems are improving daily. How many people have vague ideas in their head that are impractical or difficult to make into reality? How many potter around thinking they have a movie idea, a cool concept for a comic, a fresh music genre blend or video game level? How many would just like to try their hand at iteration, making something based on a franchise or album they love, or a series that never got that second season?
What prevents 99.99% of art from being made is the lack of physical skill which can be applied to put ideas into practice. If you can’t draw, paint, play or act your options are to either learn yourself or pay someone else to do it. If you don’t have any money you’re not going to pay anyone. So you either use your own bad skills and no one likes what you’ve made, or you’re one of the lucky and talented few who can bring your fully fledged form to life in grand technicolor.
George Lucas hit the ultimate creative bullseye making Star Wars. Changing the world forever and managing to convey his own highly specific vision well enough for other people to understand it and fall in love with it. His own talent, the actors, special effects teams, production money and audience all lined up at just the right time. Imagine a future where everyone can generate their own 3, 9, 200 part Star Wars-style sci-fi series. Where The Lord of The Rings never has to end and every dead artist in history can be necromanced from the grave to dance in VR and sing in AI. Because that world is coming.
It sounds like liberation? Your hyper little brother can create a Dinosaur Megazord Pikachu hybrid, you can create the dream image of you and your girlfriend’s future wedding, your aging grandpa can paint a picture of his long-lost childhood home. AI looks to be able to free the vast majority of people who do not have the skills to express their ideas. Even as the technology greedily hoovers up the creative output of those who have put in the sacrifices and work to bring their ideas to life.
I resent the idea of artists as smug skill “havers” while the sullen masses are left as deprived “have nots”. Those skills were acquired with sweat and blood. But what is the answer here? Because AI art looks to me like a steamroller, which is going to crush, or at least mangle beyond recognition, artistic production as we know it.
Something feels different with AI art. Web3, the Metaverse, Crypto, NFTs. Mark Zuckerberg wants to own your brain, Crypto lets you quit your job at McDonalds and become a millionaire. NFTs, with their own promise of fairer rights for artists, but their impenetrable cultish exterior. At the moment these are all bespoke, techie clubhouses which mean a lot to some and nothing to others. And there’s money money money sloshing round in every direction. Promoters and critics battle it out. Fortunes are made and lost. But these technologies all need to be explained. You have to watch a 45-minute lecture to start grasping at crypto trading, let along join in yourself. We’re sinking our costs and learning now to buy in for the promise of tomorrow.
AI art does not need to be explained, it exists right in front of you. This is why the explosion is happening in a way it hasn’t for other technologies. This is an iPhone moment, you don’t need to tell me the benefits- I can see them. Art is a pretty picture, AI art can produce for you a bespoke pretty picture, and those pictures will keep getting prettier and prettier. A kitten, an old bike, a castle, a beautiful girl in a sun dress smiling at you and only you, a seaside view, a Panzer tank, a rabbit, Ronald McDonald. It’s right there for you. Whatever debate is to be had is had after the image is made.
In 2000 Lars Ulrich, drummer of iconic thrash metal band Metallica attempted to sue fans who had downloaded the band’s music illegally from the nascent Napster. Now seen as a pointless and damaging act of Boomer idiocy, which made Ulrich aggressive and profoundly uncool, Ulrich was still prescient in his understanding of the situation. If not in how he chose to express his concerns.
Music piracy (even calling it that now seems so antiquated)swallowed everything and the music industry that Ulrich was attempting to defend was brought to heel by the end of the decade. Consumers wanted more for less, simple as. No pleading, threats or corny PSAs were going to stop this. You could sue one person and a thousand would take their place. The pleasure derived from free music was always going to win.
AI art will become like music piracy, there is no way to stop the drive of pleasure. Being able to create your own images of whatever you desire or need is unlikely to be tut-tutted away or argued against. Not because the legal and moral arguments of artists don’t hold weight, they do, immense weight, but because the change is too fundamental to be stopped. This is not even beginning to unpack how AI will transform the wider workplace and economy. The floor is shifting under all of us very quickly.
I have every faith that the talents of artists will find new avenues for creation and success after the AI revolution crashes into us all. But AI is coming for everything and everyone, and will utterly remake society into images we can scarcely imagine.
All images were created with a web version of Stable Diffusion in a very rudimentary fashion, they’re not that good. But they’re not bad either.
Japan is one of the world’s largest economies, ranking third behind the USA and China, and even then punches above its weight in terms of cultural power, prestige and global interest. Understandably many organisations, startups and businesses are eager to get a foothold in the Japanese market. But if your organisation has ambitions to start doing business in Japan, how should you start? I reached out to a number of experts: business owners with years of diverse, hard-won experience in the Japanese market. Here’s our guide to help your business flourish in Japan. Focusing on three key points: language, mindset and diversity.
Japan is a relatively monolingual society. Despite attempts by the Japanese Government to increase English competence Japan hovers at an unimpressive 78 out of 112 in the EF English Proficiency Index. This means that step one of any business plan when it comes to entering the Japanese market should be Japanese language proficiency. Everything else springs from that. Ed Thompson is a marketing consultant and founder of the ConceptDesign I/O consultancy. Having lived and worked in Japan since the mid-90s he puts it plainly, “You will either need to learn the language at an adequate business level, or you will need staff and/or partners to help you fully navigate most business interactions.” Julien Tirode, an event organiser for 13 years and now bar owner agrees, “always use Japanese language to promote your activities.” Ed elaborates that all effective international business starts with clear mutual understanding, “it is usually in the context of messaging and communication where I have seen certain types of disconnection arise.”
This kind of advice might sound obvious, but it’s notable how wrong an approach can go if language is not handled properly. Stop and think before you reach for Google Translate or cheap auto-translation software. Romen Barua runs both a talent acquisition firm and supercar rental service in Tokyo. He makes the point that translation isn’t simply about flipping words from one language to another in a binary way, but about holistically altering how you communicate, “language, it’s not “translating” but trusting someone to re-write and brand in the correct way.” The two different businesses he runs have different markets and so require very clear approaches, “one business is services so it’s fairly easy [to translate in a straightforward way], the other is luxury branding which is super tough. Too many mistakes can be made when you try and translate your vision into the Japanese language. You need to re-start the entire UI-UX discovery process ideally from the perspective of a Japanese business owner and user. I made this mistake previously and burnt a lot of cash.” A thorough translation approach therefore might require comprehensive rethinking, rewriting and redesigning of content.
This kind of language ability will also help to make genuine connections with existing businesses and potential partners in Japan. Ian Chun has lived in Japan for 20 years and runs an e-commerce export company selling Japanese tea globally, procuring tea from Japanese suppliers and then shipping it across the world. “I think my Japanese language fluency and understanding of Japanese culture (for example, that I can express an understanding of umami flavour in foods) helps in approaching suppliers, in finding suppliers and getting ultra conservative industry members to work with me.” These suppliers now form the trusty backbone of Ian’s flourishing business.
Knowing your limits seems to be the message here. No matter how great your initial business plan is, you need to have, improve or hire the skills required to communicate your idea to consumers in a language and style they understand. If you’re caught lacking it’ll be very clear. However, this kind of effort shouldn’t be seen as an unnecessary burden. As Ed points out, “the deepest connections and long-term opportunities will come from cultural and language competence.”
When trying to do business in Japan it’s important to understand that different consumers have different wants, needs and priorities. Japan is a complex place and cultural differences can be nuanced. But what is certain is you can’t just copy/paste your existing marketing and business outreach material, translate it into Japanese and call it a day.
Suryanarayanan S. works in program management for Amazon in Tokyo and illustrates this with a case study, “the expectation in terms of customer service, value (価値観) of a product or service are entirely different. Case in point is Amazon implementing unattended delivery in Japan which was not initially well-received”. Japanese deliveries are usually carried out face to face, which can result in a lot of missed-deliveries needing to be physically attempted multiple times. Amazon attempted to disrupt this by rolling out unattended “drop-off” delivery to the Japanese market, which led to mixed results and consumer concern about potential loss and theft.
Suryanarayanan continues with another example, explaining that conforming to market expectations might require a business to go against their own initial processes or instincts. “Japanese consumers tend to value more (quantity) information on a single page/screen – this is typically found in e-commerce platforms such as Rakuten, or in printed promo materials etc. While non-Japanese consumers find it very confusing while presented information in such form, it is standard UI/UX for the Japanese consumers. “
Getting these basic cultural elements right is important: you don’t want to make consumers confused, annoyed or hostile towards you. The specifics of what to do and how to do it will depend on the product or service being sold. The Japanese retail, banking, travel and entertainment industries will all have their existing systems of doing business, so prepare yourself by researching how the industry you want to enter currently works in Japan.
That being said, disruption is inevitable in the world of business, so simply blindly conforming to existing standards and ways of doing business isn’t always the right call. Suryanarayanan continues, “With a declining population and stagflation, the value perceptions of Japanese consumers are changing drastically. The biggest challenge for an entrepreneur or a marketer in Japan will be how to appeal to the right senses of the Japanese consumer.” In other words, how to appeal to the right sensibilities and fit in, while also pushing the envelope.
Differences will also exist in terms of internal company processes: the Japanese businesses and employees who are hired to help an organisation succeed in Japan. Steven Lejeune founded My Circle International Digital, a marketing agency in Tokyo, five years ago. “Major business misunderstanding can come from valuing results over process in western culture. In the west we tend to implement strategies, see what comes out of it and make adjustments when necessary along the way. Learning from mistakes and failure. When dealing with Japanese professionals, you almost have to come up with a cookie cutter type of plan packaged in a safe and somewhat conservative way. Avoiding risk.”
Making structures clear and avoiding risk are two points that repeatedly stand out in discussions with professionals working in Japan. Romen concurs, pointing out that that even within Japanese professionals there can be a wide diversity in terms of mindset and attitude, “my first GM hire was Japanese but he spent a big portion of his life and career in Europe as the “overseas” director. When he returned to Japan he joined a global OTA where again the culture was globally minded-Japanese employees or international school folk, who are a different bubble and very different from the average Japanese consumer.” It’s important to find the right professionals, at the right stage of their career, who can connect you with the wants and needs of the wider consumer.
Even beyond these more abstract questions about mindset and mentality an important task is to centre your organisation and quantifying the material reality of the market you are entering. This can range from industry price-points, marketing trends, service expectations, logistics, technology and beyond. Ed elaborates, “I noticed from the early 2000s that there was always a difference in the ways that Japanese consumers / companies would adapt and use digital media. In many ways this was driven by the peculiarities of mobile carriers and media platforms at that time. Over the years, this has been less so with the wholesale adoption of smartphones and dominance of global social media platforms (IG / FB / TW). But there are still rare cases where global standards can be upended by legacy technology.”
You might have heard jokes about Japanese offices still using fax-machines or Japan being the last hold-out of the once illustrious filp-phone. Sometimes these are lazy stereotypes, but there can be a grain of truth to be had in terms of respecting industry difference and preference across culture. Do your research and if you don’t know, find someone who does. Just copy/pasting your existing assumptions and mindset isn’t going to lead to good results.
Whenever you try and analyse a whole country or market there’s going to be a degree of simplification. To some extent this is unavoidable but it can and should be mitigated. Essentialising an entire country and culture can lead to out-dated thinking which can easily hinder business and sour relationships.
Ed explains that while differences can exist, often entrepreneurs will use the nebulous idea of “cultural difference” as an easy crutch. Sometimes the reality is that there isn’t a profound cultural barrier at play, but that the aggrieved organisation simply hasn’t taken the time to learn how business is conducted in Japan.
When problems occur, “this is usually covered with a blanket phrase that [in Japan] ‘ways of doing business are opaque’. The proper way of looking at it is that there are some heavily entrenched methods and practices for how business is conducted in Japan.”
Ed uses a case study to illustrate this. He was working for an international whisky company who was urging his team to push their product directly to Japanese consumers. Ed quickly realised that the whisky company simply didn’t have the right marketplace knowledge or sales team to pursue this B2C route. Instead Ed focused on fostering connections and orders from popular and highly respected bars in the nightlife district of Ginza in Tokyo. “Once the campaign was perfected as a hybrid B2B2C, we were able to expand the our efforts from Kanto to Kansai and subsequently cover 20+ locations to drive growth in annual sales by 7-10%.”Sometimes slowing down and focusing on business fundamentals and strengths is the answer to seemingly confusing barriers.
Ian’s position running an export company, interacting with Japanese producers and international consumers, gives him a unique perspective from which to understand any differing outlooks. “I don’t think it’s useful to take a general approach to “Japan” vs “non-Japan” My customer base of tea connoisseurs is, for example, much more educated about Japanese tea than Japanese people in general. I think you need to look at a specific market and understand it…understand when a market is a high context situation or low context situation.” A high context situation being a culture or market that requires extensive assumed knowledge, vs a low context situation where information is provided overtly and directly.
Ian gives a further example of this, “As we refocus our company to take on the Japanese market, we are not going to market to the same customer profile but rather examine what our strengths are, and where the opportunities are in the market: specifically, we think that there is an opportunity to create a brand focused on incorporating Hawaiian influences into traditional Japanese products, and with tea specifically, creating interesting Hawaiian-Japanese themed flavored tea products.” Cultural blending, not cultural flattening is the way forward.
A Changing Population
It’s also important to respect Japan’s internal diversity. While Japan is relatively monocultural by global terms, it is gradually diversifying, with foreign residents now representing 2.3% of the population. With these changes come different consumer wants and needs.
Suryanarayanan makes this point, “The non-Japanese consumers in Japan, while low in number compared to the general population, tend to be more global in their outlook (for instance they are already working/living in a different country). It’s therefore important not to generalise the entire foreign population in Japan & not treat them as a homogenous group.” Emphasising that, “The communication style & messaging need to be different for Japanese & non-Japanese consumers.”
However, this works both ways- and illustrates why specific market research is so important. Julien explains that, for his particular market of nightlife and entertainment, he actually uses the same messaging and advertising content for Japanese and non Japanese attendees. “In my case, marketing and promotion is exactly the same for Japanese and non Japanese customers. I’m proposing to them a service [which allows them] to meet and interact, in as many ways as possible, (Language exchanges, cultural meetings, Dating events…).”
Everyone is looking for the same culturally-mingled experience, so the alterations Julien makes are in the building blocks of his advertising, namely the language. He promotes in a bilingual way using both Japanese and English/French. This is why context is so necessary. Julien’s business is focused on connecting and blending Japanese and non-Japanese consumers. While for an organisation targeted squarely at non-Japanese consumers in Japan the messaging may need to be totally different as Suryanarayanan suggests. No one-size fits all.
On Track For Success
Entering and succeeding in the Japanese market is a significant task for any organisation. Preparation and research are the bedrock of any successful market introduction. But with the right tools success can be effectively chased and potential pitfalls avoided. Focusing on solid language competency, understanding differences in mindset and priorities and respecting the diversity and richness of the culture a business is seeking to enter are all vital and will lead to success from day one of launch, far into the future.
Many thanks to all of the industry professionals who took part in giving their perspective for this article.
Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth. Home to 14 million people, stretching from mountains to sea, the metropolis has been stealing hearts for centuries. With a sophisticated culture, world-class food, smooth public transport and endless treasures to explore, it’s no wonder Tokyo attracts waves of visitors from across the globe every year.
It’s a city with an aesthetic like no other: dense neon hanging from weathered office blocks. Shrines dotting the landscape, opposite brightly lit convenience stores. The streets busy and dense, thick with excitement. It drips electronic sweat. Tokyo’s waves and vibes have inspired countless artists over the years, from Bladerunner and City Pop, Persona 5 to Vaporwave, via Pizzicato Five and Your Name. If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo and would like a taste of the specific a e s t h e t i c gems the city has to offer, these are the districts to visit.
Late Night Delight
Shinjuku & Shibuya Twins Shinjuku and Shibuya are the beating hearts of Tokyo. Immense and intense these districts make you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of Mega City One. Taking your first step outside the station, into the blazing streets below, is sure to be a vision.
Neon upon neon, each sign loudly, defiantly competing for your attention. Years of accumulating electronics building into a power web.
Shinjuku & Shibuya serve as a brilliant example of one of Tokyo’s most notable traits: shops, bars and restaurants stacked on top of each other high into the sky. While western cities tend to focus on the street level experience, Tokyo is all about verticality. A great tip for any visitor is to make sure to look up over your head as you walk the streets. Don’t be afraid to ride elevators and pound stairs to reach that quirky bar that’s just caught your eye.
When you combine the countless skyscrapers full of shops, with the signage used to promote them you start to appreciate the full power of Tokyo’s nightlife. Each and every single one of those dive bars and izakayas are full of people who have come from somewhere and are going elsewhere. Every single block and floor has a story to tell.
Bladerunner isn’t just a movie from the 80s. If you want to feel connected to the city, dizzy with excitement and the possibilities open to you, these districts are a must.
Osaka While not in Tokyo itself- no discussion of neon in Japan would be complete without mentioning Osaka. Specifically its rolling central district of Dotonbori. Dotonbori has some of the most famous neon displays in all of Japan and one of the busiest nightlife districts in the country. If you’ve got a JR Pass (you definitely should) and are looking to chase the lights make sure to check out Osaka.
Ginza Japanese shopping malls have a distinct vibe. Clean and crisp, with a focus on neatness and propriety. Unlike the more practical shopping centres you might find in the UK or America, Japanese malls can be a calmingly pleasant, almost beautiful. The kind of gleaming ‘Mallsoft’ aesthetic captured on Palm Mall or Hologram Plaza can be felt in the flesh.
Nowhere in Tokyo boasts more elite malls than Ginza. The feeling of excess, wealth and money sticks to the district. Yet it’s not without an artfulness.
Broad, clean streets, glass and steel, shops gleaming with luxury goods. You can easily spend an afternoon casually wandering. Browsing the shops, visiting the many cafes and food courts. Letting loose your inner Millionaire.
Roppongi Hills For another kind of style visit Roppongi Hills- a shopping mall complex built high on one of Tokyo’s major hilltops. It comes sporting fantastic views of Tokyo Tower in the distance. If Ginza is the place for Mallsoft during the day, Roppoingi is the place to go at night.
The Sumida River Tokyo’s main river, the Sumida, might be not be as famous as the Thames, Seine or Tiber, but it comes brimming with its own unique charm. The low-key nature of the Sumida is where its appeal lies. A clean crisp flow of water, buttressed by a jagged urban landscape, its banks are some of the quietest areas you’ll find in Tokyo.
Far from the main tourist trail, the riverbanks are well-used by locals. Many Tokyoites use the banks for jogging and running. And for visitors, the Sumida can be a great place to come to relax and reflect. When you want somewhere quiet to process your experiences of the city. It brings calmness and stillness to a place defined by energy and movement. Put your earbuds in and let world’s end girlfriend twirl you.
Since it flows through so many districts of Tokyo there are multiple ways you can approach the river. I usually get the train to Asakusabashi and walk down the high street. Eventually reaching the banks and following the bends and winds of the water from there.
I find myself walking down this same stretch of river each time I come back to Japan. Usually on the last day before I leave the city. Thinking about everything I’ve experienced and forming plans for the future.
Far Side Virtual
Akihabara Arguably the most popular tourist area of Tokyo. Akihabara is a district of the city almost entirely swallowed up by anime, manga and gaming culture. The streets are packed with anime figure shops, DVDs, merch, Blu-Ray vendors, maid cafes, gaming stores and karaoke parlours. Akihabara is all about what’s new and what’s hot in the world of anime and gaming: billboards for currently airing anime dot the skyline. For any modern anime fan, the district is a sight to behold. Anime characters plastered on buildings and billboards. Multi-storied department stores full of virtual merchandise. A physical space dedicated to a hobby which most people only partake in through the computer screen. Akihabara can feel like a victory, that niche, weird hobbies can blossom and develop into something truly powerful. Vaporwave fans take note.
But it’s not just about anime. Akihabara’s roots lie in the electronics shops which still dot the district. Originally the city was dedicated to the kind of cutting-edge progressive tech which once defined Japan. Filling the streets around Akihabara station with vendors selling computer parts, wires, processors, LEDs and capacitors. Over the years, anime (with its similar demographic audience), was layered over the top, leading to the mesh between the two cultures which now exits. Explore the backstreets of Akiba and you’ll be able to find the echoes of the area’s old focus. Old CRTs, countless jumbled mechanical parts and retro video game stores, an absolute goldmine of computer nostalgia waiting to be discovered.
Whether you’re a diehard anime fan or not, Akihabara is a fascinating vista. An ideal place to spend anywhere from hours to days exploring. A space where the virtual and physical connect, a trip to the far side.
Nakano If Akihabara is dedicated to modern anime, what about older series? Where do I go to find my Sailor Moon and Urusei Yatsura merchandise? The answer is Nakano Broadway.
While equally famous for its anime culture stores, unlike Akihabara Nakano Broadway operates less like a grand shopping district and more like a flea market. A mix of shops selling edgy fashion, curios and niche collectibles (think model trains, anime, Godzilla figures and Sentai merch).
Since the majority of wares for sale in Nakano are second-hand, the anime which populate it tend to be older series. This makes Nakano a great place to go to look for merch from the ’90s and ’00s classics which got many western fans into anime in the first place. The kind which now populate a million looping Future Funk .gifs. The selection is constantly in flux, so you’ll need to do some serious crate-digging and window shopping to filter through the massive selection. But as with all hidden treasure, it’ll feel that much better when you find it.
For the now era, Akihabara is your friend. But for nostalgia, Nakano Broadway is hard to beat.
Tokyo TMG No visit to Tokyo would be complete without a skyline view. Luckily the Tokyo Metropolitan Government provide a free viewing platform at the top of their gigantic towers. Remember: make sure to get to the towers an hour or two before sunset- so you can watch the sun go down and the city spring up.
Tokyo Skytree If you’ve got a few yens weighing down your wallet you could also visit the Tokyo Skytree. While not free like TMG the Skytree is more modern and offers an especially slick viewing experience at the top of one of Tokyo’s most famous buildings.
Odaiba Odaiba is, without compare, the most Vaporwave place on the planet. An artificial island built in Tokyo Bay, during the 1990s the island was turned into an ultra-modern entertainment district. With morphing architecture blending in with bright sidewalks, palatial greenery, giant shopping malls and crowned with a gleaming monorail. The island remains popular today with tourists and locals alike. Proving itself to be one of the most unique and singular of all Tokyo’s districts.
Take a trip to the Joyopolis, a Sega theme park built at the height of ’90s Sonic-mania. Relax at Oedo Onsen, a massive Onsen complex complete with an eternal Summer festival. Take a stroll through Palette Town and experience a faux Roman shopping market, complete with a fake blue sky and plastic roman busts. Enjoy some culture at teamLab Borderless, an art installation designed to be experienced just as much through your selfie camera as your eyes. Peruse the grand mall of Diver City, before emerging under the shadow of a giant Gundam robot. Take a photo of the miniature Statue of Liberty at the shoreline, before heading back to the station next to the giant rainbow Ferris wheel.
When I took a friend to Odaiba recently they remarked that it reminded them of the world imaged by 1950s retrofuturism. Too clean, too pristine, too full of pleasurable sights and sounds. It shouldn’t feel real- but it is.
This article only scratches the surface of the multitude of delights which Tokyo holds. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to explore yourself and find your own delights. The secret parts of the city that give meaning to you, and that you find yourself returning to. Tokyo is too big to be distilled effectively into guides and lists. Use parts of what others suggest to you, and combine that with what you discover yourself. That way you can really make Tokyo yours.
Words and photos by Sam L. Barker. Sam is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory. Follow him on Twitter.
Building on the success of his Kingdom Hearts inspired 2019 release Door to Darkness rising Vaporwave star Crystalpep64 talks about his upcoming album Nova Sixty-Four. A Synthwave tinged adventure back into his inspired realm of Technology, Nostalgia and Video Games.
Could you talk about some of the musical influences on Nova Sixty-Four? You mentioned there’s a Synthwave influence?
Seeing as most of my releases draw from video game soundtrack, it’s not a surprise this one kind of does too. Delving into these PC-Engine and NES role playing games often feels like rummaging through an old cardboard box in the attic and it always gives me intriguing new ideas I want to implement in my style of music. That’s when the clashing begins. The synthwavey aspect of the ep certainly stems from games like Hotline Miami or Slipstream, but there is no denying the fact that HOME played a role, too. Translating those influences into a coherent sound is difficult but also very interesting.
Conceptually the release is about a utopian society which is decaying and facing collapse. What kind of ideas are you looking to explore with this setting?
Starting with sentimental, nostalgic sounds and then slowly plunging them into a darker sphere was the first idea which culminated in the final concept of a decaying society. And while the synths build up to be the tracks they now are, my head canon build up as well. In the end there was just really a lot to work with and almost half of it fell by the wayside, but I’m confident I got the very best out of the different ideas.
Is there a particular story to the album (characters and narrative)? Or is the setting more abstract and conceptual?
There is no real story taking place in the ep. The tracks are supposed to paint a large picture in which each listener can interpret a narrative themselves. But it is no coincidence that the tracks at the beginning of the ep are still very light and are slowly becoming darker. In that way, yes, there is a story. And there is also the artwork on the cover with the lady staring at her hologram, looking for answers it probably can’t give to her.
You’re getting one of your friends to play guitar on the record right? Could you talk about the instrumentation on the album and how that might be different from past releases.
Exactly, one of my friends lend me his guitar-skills and his singing talent, which I used to make a track called “Dataquest 3000”. He’s a talented musician and gave me good feedback when working on the ep. The instrumentation heavily relies on synthesizers, the guitar part actually is an exception. But while “Door To Darkness” consisted mostly of samples, I’m really proud that this release contains almost no samples. That is an achievement for me, although I kinda miss recontextualizing already existing music and I think I will definitely work sample-based again in the future. At least for some of my music.
In our previous conversation we talked a lot about nostalgia and memory (kingdom hearts especially) are you looking to explore these ideas again with your new release, or are you trying to look more into the future then the past?
I hope that “Nova Sixty-four” delivers that certain nostalgic feel for people who crave that but it was a decision made early on to not fall back on the same themes, my last release already dealt with.
Following on from that question, how do you see nova sixty-four within your discography? Is it a culmination of all your work up until now? Are you drawing influence from past releases or is it a new departure and experiment?
I’m doing this whole music thing for a relatively short time span, I would say. And I wanted this release to be something, I could pour all my insights and learnings of the last few years into. And of course there are old influences that shape the way this ep was made. Even though it is a culmination of my old work I could have probably done Nova Sixty-Four under another alias. I know that many artists in the scene have a range of different identities to do exactly that. Trying different things and making it easier for the listener to grasp the artists respective vision. But I’m not at the point where I can pinpoint the exact road we’re gonna go with all of this and I’m super excited to explore new possibilities with my music in the future.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
There is so much output nowadays and time is always limited and new and exciting content just waits around the next corner. That’s why every minute someone spends with listening to something I made is precious to me. So thanks to every human being who gives this a chance. I appreciate you.
I’m a sucker for weird, experimental music. So when I came across Alpha Chrome Yayo I was struck. A music industry veteran blending a synthy progressive morass. Glitchy aesthetics with grungy, versatile imagery. I wanted to talk to him about his new album Choke, his musical influences and the grey, lively streets of Northern Ireland.
Mxhdroom: One of the things that attracted me to your work is the idea of it as “experimental synth”. What’s the thinking behind this label?
Alpha Chrome Yayo: Y’know, it’s a funny one. I guess first and foremost I tend not to describe my music as straight up synthwave as I don’t want to annoy anybody! Sure I’ve got tracks that are pretty much classic Outrun, like Cerberus 3000 (Killing Time), but I’d say the majority of my output is more accurately described as ‘synthwave adjacent’. It tends to land somewhere in and around synthwave, vaporwave, lofi and ambient, with some hot flashes of funk, metal and other assorted oddness.
I’m not too fussy when it comes to genre descriptors myself, and personally I love when the lines blur. But I know that’s not the case for everybody, and that’s totally cool too. So I figure ‘experimental synth’ is a good catch-all for what I do! I love exploring new territory with each release, and I often go down weird wormholes. One thing I am extremely grateful for is the warmth with which these new directions are welcomed and encouraged by synthwave and vaporwave fans and artists alike. It’s so freeing and refreshing to be able to break new ground and have whole swathes of communities interested in what I’ve got going on.
Following on from that question, are there any particular genres you like to blend into your music to give it that experimental edge? I get tinges of hip hop, industrial and maybe a bit of jazz from your work.
Oh man, just so many. So, so many. I’m musically fickle! On my most recent release, Choke, there’s a huge jazz influence going on as you mentioned, which is noticeable straight off the bat. I was listening to lots of Ryo Fukui while I was making it and, honestly, tons of Chuck Mangione. I love that guy! And of course, all the rest of the genres you mentioned too. The closing track, Facilis Descensus Averno, is overwhelmingly influenced by black metal, and I had such a great time with those vocals, and the lyrics. I absolutely have to tip my hat to the endlessly incredible Winterquilt for helping reignite my love of all things kvlt, and inspiring me to snake my musical tendrils in that direction.
Elsewhere though… ooohh where to start! A track of mine that’s a personal favourite is ‘Anchorage’, and it’s really just me doing a straight up slice of yacht rock, with some smooth grooves and soaring soft-shred, whereas Take My Advice is a whole EP dedicated to cop movie soundtracks. So lots of Lethal Weapon squealin’ sax, and sultry grooves a la Lalo Schifrin’s latter-day Dirty Harry scores. I could go on all day, and that’s not meant to be a boast or anything. I think most people have a pretty rich sonic palette when it comes to the things they enjoy listening to. I love taking a snatch of an idea and running with it, in whatever direction it takes me. An album that is a huge influence on me is Imaginary Sonicscape by Sigh. I first heard it when it came out in 2001, and it really stuck with me, not just in terms of the music itself, but its approach. Ostensibly at face value it’s a black metal album, but it’s also full of weird woozy jazz, disco and funk. So yeah, blame Sigh!
How do you pick your visuals? The promo video you made for Choke was incredible. It caught my eye immediately and had that kind of ‘experimental’ edge which drew me to you.
Hey that’s very cool of you to say! Thank you very much. Above all else, I really just want to paint pictures with my music. I’m a pretty visual person and come from a film background so, while the music does the talking, if I’m accompanying it with video, it’s hugely important to me that it’s also saying the right thing.
I spend a huge amount of time trawling through all kinds of footage, and one of my favourite promo videos I knocked together for Choke was for my track, Veins. It’s a real slow-burn of a track, no drums at all, heavy on ambient piano and strings. I wanted something on the older side of retro for it, that also captured something more ancient and primordial. What I ended up with was an edit of old ’50s – ’60s public domain educational biology videos. They’re just wonderful; really quite macabre. They remind me of old ’20s German Expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Partly for pleasure and partly for inspiration, I spend hours watching old advertisements too, as well as late ’80s/early ’90s CGI. The kinda stuff that reminds you of bowling alley videos! And, eh, yeah, I watch a lot of bowling alley videos. I love all that Mind’s Eye kinda era animation, guys like Robert Abel, Tatso Shimamura, The Post Group… It’s just pure joy, and for me typifies an era of unbridled experimentalism. And for my Komorebi EP I found myself diving deep into some performance art videos, particularly work by the legendary Roger Shimomura. I actually got in touch with Professor Shimomura during the making of that record, and ended up using – with his permission – an incredible image of him for the artwork. That was a real highlight of 2019 for me.
What aesthetics and vibes inspire you? Choke especially is really dark and heavy. I get a really strong ’90s industrial vibe from it. Like a cyberpunk kind of landscape of grungy tech and gaudy lights.
Oh you’re so on the money! Choke is probably the darkest release I’ve ever put out, and it originally stemmed from hearing an ice cream truck rolling around my neighbourhood late at night. There’s something so fiercely unnerving about that, something innocent and sweet turned suddenly sour under sinister circumstances. I mean, I don’t know what that guy is doing, but he sure ain’t selling snowcones! The first track on there, Snuff ‘Em Out, really draws on that twisted carnival kind of sound, and that’s something that resonates throughout the whole record. I wanted it to sound like something for movie goons and henchmen to listen to; a soundtrack for those unsung denizens of the night. But there’s inspiration to be drawn from so many sources. I’d even argue that Choke is probably the direct inverse of my previous release, Twirl. In fact, talking of which…
How would you say Choke builds on or develops from Twirl?
Heyyy good timing! Twirl was brilliant fun to make, and I love it so very dearly. It’s also so, so different to Choke. The whole thing is basically my love letter to the adventure that was the early internet. That beautiful time long before trolls and YouTube comments, when it was all the Information Super Highway and abstract software art. Where Choke is black, white and every shade of grey, Twirl is hypercolour.
In terms of sound, it’s also very, very different. Both have a sort of lofi jazz sensibility, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where Choke is noir, Twirl draws from the jazz fusion soundtracks associated with the Sega CD, and ambient work by guys (or rather, legends) like Spencer Nilsen.
Something that I haven’t really seen mentioned by many is the distinct lack of guitars on Choke. When they are there, they’re mostly very understated. Whereas on Twirl, and most of my other records, there’s a fairly hefty amount of shred going on. This wasn’t a conscious decision, it just isn’t that sort of record. But it did made me quite happy when I realised I didn’t need to have wild widdly solos all over the place; this particular record is stronger without ’em. That being said, I’m already working on some stuff that has… SHITLOADS OF WILD WIDDLY SOLOS ALL OVER THE PLACE, so fret not, axe fans. *Fret* not. Eh, eh?
Haha, so following on from that. How do you produce your music? What instruments and programs are you using?
I’ve got a modest little home studio with a nice mix of hardware and software synths, and I’m the biggest fan of Reason. Within ten minutes of first trying it, I knew it was for me; it just makes sense to me, and that’s not meant to be a clever play on words. The fact that it’s software that plays like hardware is awesome, and I adore it.
In terms of hardware, I’ve got a few trusted synths, and one particular favourite is the Roland D-05, which is really just a D-50 in a tiny little box. It’s perfect for the late ’80s/early ’90s tones I love so dearly; it can do new age, new wave, new jack swing… it’s just wonderful. And I recently became the owner of a Moog Sub Phatty, which I’m already in love with, and future records are going to be saturated in so much hefty goodness from that box of joy.
Other treasured synths include the Roland JV-1080, the DX7, the Casio CZ family… I’ve also got such a soft spot for slightly shitty sounding organs, which I do my best to emulate as I don’t have the room or the wallet to handle collecting them.
Aside from that it’s a lovely ice-white Ibanez that I use on just about everything, and the usual assortment of cables, stomp-boxes and oddities. I love to record live instruments here and there, the odd bit of sax. Today I was sampling a bosun’s whistle, used for naval calls. I think this year I’m going to make a concerted effort to dig into more found sounds and unusual instrumentation. I mean, I say that, I’ve got at least two songs with a hurdy gurdy on them. But I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of where I want to go in terms of ancient instruments. Time to get weird.
You’re from Northern Ireland, what’s the electronic scene there like? Is it mostly online or are there fan meet-ups/shows and such?
There has always been a really rich musical heritage in Northern Ireland, and I’m proud to be part of that. You’ve got these bona fide heroes like Gary Moore, The Undertones, etc… as well as more contemporary – but equally excellent and important – acts like Ash, and Therapy? I mean, damn, Therapy? are just unreal.
And the grassroots scene is similarly impressive, with a smorgasbord of incredible artists. Punk, metal and indie rock have always been huge, and metal is the world I guess I came from originally. So the electronic scene is slightly newer to me, but holy smokes, the talent. You’ve got guys like Arvo Party, Carlton Doom, giant duo Bicep, to name but a few. And in terms of synthwave/retrowave/vaporwave, there are incredible artists like Danny Madigan, Tripp Mirror, Transpacifica, Asyne and Last Survivor. And then down south, Bart Graft. Who is, for my money, not just one of the finest musicians in the country, but in the world. Dude. Is. Incredible.
It’s a funny one, as I’ve never really thought of myself as a ‘local musician’. I mean, does anybody really like to think like that? At the very least I don’t think anybody has to think like that anymore, with the way music works today. Most of the people listening to my music are from other parts of the world, and that is just amazing to me. It makes me feel very lucky, and I’m thrilled to think of my music finding a home thousands of miles away from me.
But still, lovely support from people nearby means the world to me too. I’m honoured every time I pop a cassette in the post, whether it’s destined for ten minutes down the road, or to the other side of the planet.
Any plans for the future from here? New projects/ EPs / albums / experiments?
Ohhh yes. Haha I got a few irons in the fire. First up… and I haven’t spoken about this tooooo much anywhere else really… is a fairly ridiculous golf themed album. I’m talking Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge vibes, a little bit of PGA Tour Golf for the Sega Mega Drive… and more than a dash of Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore.
I would say it’s not an entirely serious album, but that wouldn’t be true, I’m deadly serious about it! But it is definitely pretty funny and very tongue in cheek. I’m loathe to say it’s a comedy record, because it isn’t, but if Frank Zappa taught me one thing, it’s that you can be completely 100% serious about silly subject matter. If anything, I’m taking longer to write and record these tracks than normal as they’re very different to anything I’ve done before. I guess that’s what keeps it interesting!
Apart from that, I’ve got a whole slew of collabs that I’m working on, and am very excited about. And one other mystery project that I can’t talk about yet. Haha I always get a bit pissed off hearing people say that in interviews, that sort of teasing vagueness. But hey, here I am doing it. It’s really cool though, completely different to anything I’ve done before, completely unique, and involves working with someone who I find truly inspirational.
So yeah, sorry for the vagueness. I know it’s assholey. But, keep your eyes on my Twitter or whatever for updates if I’ve piqued your interest!
Anything else you’d like to say?
I don’t know if this is the best place to say it, but this week I lost someone dear to me. Someone dear to a whole lot of people, an excellent musician and friend called Casey Platt, who released music under the name Shelf Black.
He passed away suddenly, and I’m still completely shook by it. So many people are. Anybody reading this who knew him, or even spoke to him once, probably realised that he was the kindest, most supportive, magnificent person, and a magnificent musician. There’s a Go Fund Me page to raise money for his family, and it is at over $10k in 24 hours. That’s a testament to the strength of character this man had, and if another two 0s are added onto it, it’s still not enough. We never met IRL, but talked online all the time. Shared photographs of our families, dorky videos of our pets, our hopes and dreams… real friend stuff, basically.
I don’t want to end this interview on a sad note… so I won’t! What I do want to say is, first up, a huge thank you to Casey. Without his effervescent enthusiasm and encouragement, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I just straight up wouldn’t. I’m so grateful, and I’ll never forget you man. And to extrapolate on that a bit further, I want to thank each and every person who supports me and my music in any shape or form. Shit, I want to thank each and every person who supports ANY music, in any shape or form. You are making real, literal magic happen and it is beautiful. You are so appreciated. And I guess that’s it. Thank you very much for talking to me!
I didn’t even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures.”
Crystalpep64 is a big fan of Kingdom Hearts. So much so that his recent release, Door To Darkness is a concept album based on the series. It dropped on Seikomart this April, blending lofi beats, samples from the game and Vaporwave stylings into a unique package. It’s a brooding, haunting album and whether you’re a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series or not- a necessary listen.
Nostalgia is important to Vaporwave- but what sets Door To Darkness apart from many of its peers is how focused it is. We know Vaporwave can succeed by drawing on big, wide emotions. Taking on broad influences like retro technology, Japan, Korea, hauntology and advertising. But the idea of taking one very specific piece of artwork -in this case a video game- and basing a Vaporwave album on it, holds a special flair to it.
Door To Darkness is also notable due to being slightly more futuristic in its ambitions. Much of Vaporwave draws on the sights and sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but an album rooted in the ‘00s? That’s a cool idea. Kingdom Hearts brings back surprisingly vivid memories for me, so when I first heard Crystalpep64’s album I knew I had to speak with him.
How important is Kingdom Hearts to you? I never played the games myself, but I still have a lot of nostalgia for it. It’s quite an iconic series at this point.
My Kingdom Hearts-story really began on a PlayStation 2 that belonged to one of my friends. We used to spend entire days having fun in front of the TV. There were a bunch of games, some good, some bad, but I liked one in particular, and that was Kingdom Hearts 1. When we played it for the first time, I was only about 10 years old and I was just thrilled to experience those adventures with all these colourful Disney characters. I wasn’t always there when my friend played it so I never saw everything in the game. And I didn’t even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures. When I was sixteen I finally got myself a PlayStation 2…and there was much catching up to do.
I played Kingdom Hearts 1 for the first time from the beginning until the very end. And when Ansem was finally beaten and Utada Hikaru’s Simple and Clean chimed from the TV, I knew that this was as special a game as I imagined it to be all those years.
Kingdom Hearts reminds me so strongly of that mid-00s internet era. When streaming and fan culture was just starting to bubble up through the web.
I remember when I was first getting properly into music- and I was using the internet to find new artists. I’d be searching for all these punk and emo bands on YouTube and there’d be so many videos using Kingdom Hearts as a backdrop to the songs. Still images, edited videos, fanart, the lot. It was mixed in with a lot of the really popular media at the time, like Death Note, Naruto, Final Fantasy. So even though I never played it I associate it really strongly with that time period.
That made your album connect nostalgically with me, maybe in a different way to how you might expect!
The relationship between Kingdom Hearts and that kind of emo music was the real deal back then. I thought for a long time, that Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life was part of the original KH soundtrack. AMVs were something I’d never heard of before, and it kind of introduced me to the art of mixing unrelated visuals with audio and creating something new in the process. Those edgy themes really resonated with a lot of people and I know exactly that my 14-year old self was one of them. (I’m listening to Evanescence right now, for the first time in years haha).
There’s actually one specific Kingdom Hearts AMV that my mind always goes to. Gives me goosebumps rewatching it.
It’s also interesting because Kingdom Hearts is itself kind of an exercise in Nostalgia. It’s all about reconnecting people who (at the time it was released in 2002) were teenagers with characters like Mickey, Goofy and Ariel. Characters they probably grew up through their childhood watching and loving. But it’s blending that Disney influence with a kind of cool, edgy Final Fantasy aesthetic. Which was super popular with teens at the time. To help combine who they are now- with who they were then.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts is often described as a mix of Disney and Square Enix, but to me at least, the Disney-part far exceeds the Final Fantasy elements. The Disney movies that appear in the game are childhood favourites of so many people. Aladdin, Hercules or Winnie the Pooh, these were characters who accompanied me very early on in my life through their movies, tv-shows and merchandise. So I believe their inclusion really adds to that nostalgia inherent in the games.
Can you talk about the packaging of the album? The artwork, the design, the poem card. It looks awesome. It’s got that chunky mid-00s style going on.
As the general idea of the EP was becoming clear, the big challenge was, of course, to find a name. As befits a game in which keys are featured prominently, there’s a lot of references to doors. Doors that lead to strange places and other worlds. Doors that protect something, or shut something away. Having such a strong symbol in the title and on the cover of the EP seemed appropriate for a series of games that so often worked with and through symbols. The original idea was to use the close-up of the door (the one that’s now the inlay) as a cover, to mimic opening a door when you open the case of the tape, but in the end, we decided to use the stronger of the two images as the main-visual.
Even if you have never played the game, you still might know about the game’s reputation of telling a rather complicated and convoluted story. It’s not hard to understand if you play all the games, but once time travel and doppelgängers get introduced, it’s easy to mix up all the different plot-points.
The quote I chose to be printed on the inlay highlights the twisting, layered nature of the series. But it’s also a very important part of a conversation in which one of the oldest beings of the Kingdom Hearts universe explains the principles of time travel to the hero, who is about to be swallowed up by the darkness. So that’s neat.
I’m a big fan of blending low, or popular culture (like video games or Pop Punk), with big impactful ideas. So I really love what you’ve done with Door To Darkness. Mixing a very cute, accessible video game with your really earnest impactful music. Like you’re taking something easy to dismiss as flimsy and corporate and going, “no: this stuff means a lot to me, and it has for a long time.” You really care about this. And I can super relate to that passion.
With nostalgia being a key-element of Vaporwave, tracks that come with this distinctive video game sound, like t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 – 永遠に生きる for example, really got me going when I first discovered this genre. Growing up with video games also meant growing up with video game music and I try to archive every good video game soundtrack I come across. Kingdom Hearts’ soundtrack composer Yoko Shimomura really left an impression on me, and I hope that I have enriched her compositions with my own influences.
I’d like to think that through that process I was able to create a new sound experience that can inspire the listener. No matter if they’re fans of talking ducks and big keyblades or not!
“You were able to go back in time to just before your home became a Sleeping World, only because a past version of you already existed there.
Billie Eilish has cleaned up at the Grammys. An impressive achievement no doubt. In the flurry of responses to the news one stuck out to me. A tweet by YouTube mash-up artist Triple-Q pointing out that Billie had risen from producing knock-off Love Live merch to winning a Grammy. Both a critique of Eilish and ironic comment on the state of music and internet culture in 2020. One: it was a bad decision for someone as prominent Eilish to attempt to illicitly profit off another artist’s work. Two: the absurdity of the most successful musician of the moment ripping off a cutesy school idol anime from 2013.
In this way Eilish represents a single, butpersistent, example of a trend brewing for almost a decade. The transition of anime from a niche subculture into part of the texture of the internet. From a specific style of artwork which was appreciated and enjoyed by a committed community: If you liked anime you were an ‘anime fan’ and that differentiated you from other people who didn’t like or engage with anime and thus were not ‘anime fans’. Into something which everyone swims through and responds to.
Here we have to differentiate, we’re not talking about the rise in popularity of anime per se through sites like Crunchyroll and YouTube. Though they’ve definitely grown in popularity over the decade. Not necessarily the stories, or even specific characters. But anime as a malleable visual style. Stylised anime avatars confront everyone across the internet, games the world over trade in anime styles, the use of anime designs on merch, albums, videos and single covers. In this context it doesn’t matter if Eilish knew that the character she was appropriating was Nozomi from Love Live. It doesn’t matter if she’s even watched the show or not. What matters to her, and to most of the rest of the internet, is that it is anime. Fresh, modern and cool.
Many of the most successful artists of the last decade, from the underground to the mainstream, have pulled anime images into their brand. Pharrell Williams’ kaleidoscope video for It Girl, Porter Robinson’s anime mini-epic Shelter, XXXTentacion’s watercolour SAUCE!, Grimes’ twisted Art Angels, Kanye West’s Stronger tribute to Akira, Lil Uzi Vert’s Futsal Shuffle. What makes the use of anime by these artists so smart is that it isn’t a barrier- it’s a boost. If you’re an anime fan you get the ego-pump of seeing a popular artist moving the medium you love forward. But if you’re not an anime fan it can equally work as a cool, eye catching visual style.
Or look to the entire genre of Future Funk. The sounds draw on 80s J-Pop, City Pop and retro music, and its images draw from their parallels in 80s and 90s anime. Looping clips of anime girls, either from legacy series like Urusei Yatsura , or their modern counterparts , are a cornerstone of the genre. What’s the purpose of these loops? To inject the kind of colour and vim which anime is so perfect at. A combination of cuteness and energy which is able to attract the eye and the ear. You don’t need to be an ‘anime’ fan to enjoy them, you just need to vibe with it.
I remember back in the 00s, when I was first getting into anime, the idea that a celebrity was even aware of anime, let alone liked it, was truly wild. I used to pour over esoteric images of Blink 182 members wearing anime shirts with amazement. Magazines used to draw up rumor lists of celebrities who liked anime: the Wachowskis , Keanu Reeves, Rivers Cuomo? Definitely dude.
In retrospect this was all symptom of the slowness of pre-internet culture. Cross-pollination took a long time. Anime was wrapped up in physical media: boxes,CDs and tapes. You had to work to even interact with it. Now the internet has unchained it to run wild and free in video and image format across almost every website possible. Now Kim Kardashian can post a picture of Two Zero on her twitter, declaring her, “my hair inspo”, and the most notable thing people have to say is that she should have credited the original artist.
So anime sits alongside Spongebob Memes, Lofi Hip Hop to study and relax to and Synthwave sunsets as part of the common language of the internet. It’s a paradox that as much as the internet thrives on weird, niche communities, it still cherishes shared images and familiar touchstones. There’s a kind of magnetic pull that as much as we all branch out into different sites and communities- we end up responding to and reproducing the same images. The doors that once separated our hobbies into neat little rooms have been blown wide open and now we’re all rolling around in the computer room posting Lum .gifs.
The must-watch anime of the season by almost everyone’s account. It’s rare that an anime comes along with the full package: concept, visuals and execution. We’re lucky if we get a handful a year, but so far Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! is zooming along with flying colours.
Eizouken tells the story of three school girls founding an anime-creation club. Capitalising on the popular anime trend of showing the creative processes of the anime and gaming industries. However, unlike its more realistic counterparts Eizouken focuses squarely on the imagination and passion that drives its girls to create. How they create is less important than why.
It also has a strong, highly stylised visual aesthetic. Allowing the world to crumble and rise alongside the girls’ inspiration. It’s telling that all three anime I’ve responded to this season focus on making their visuals charming and memorable, rather than just shiny. Ultimately the show is just so darn sincere. Any creative, of any stripe or type, will likely see a bit of themselves in Eizouken.
Dorohedoro is really weird. A gritty, grimy, and often frankly disgusting series tracking the adventures of an amnesiac reptile-headed hunter and his gyouza-shop owning partner. If the world of Eizouken is inviting the world of Dorohedoro is repelling. Cyberpunk horror; everything has an organic, meaty pulse, with a layer of grime smeared over it. Weird half-formed monsters and human body-horror. The kind of nightmare fuel which brings to mind the ’90s Japanese underground.
So naturally the tone of the series is a jolt of action slap-stick, with our main duo being totally loveable. Bumbling do-gooders in a world of ultraviolence. The show’s animation uses a kind of uncanny valley CGI for a lot of the action scenes, but in these murky surroundings it almost works. If you’re looking for an edgy seinen kick this season Dorohedoro is definitely going someplace strange.
Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun
I’m a sucker for high school comedies. When done right they’ve produced some of my favourite anime ever. And Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun has proven itself to be a fizzy treat. I was always going to check out this anime due to how solid the manga is. Weaving the story of a mysterious ghost haunting the lady’s toilets, and the lonely girl who befriends him. The anime smooths out some of the manga’s jagged visual edges, while leaving the bejewelled, colourful palette. Lush backgrounds take full advantage of the Japanese-Gothic vibe of the series.
And it’s funny! And the characters are likeable! With strong designs and a nice blend of dumb anime jokes mixed with subtle personality. The series also draws on Japan’s extensive supernatural folklore for some interesting cultural elements. I’m pretty chuffed that the series is being as well received as it is, but that’s the power of a great anime adaption: building up something classic while giving it a fresh lick of paint. New fans, old fans, we’re all Hanako-kun fans.
Hatsune Miku is a singing synthesiser. Born in 2007 as a cutting-edge piece of technology, she combines a voice synthesiser program with an anime girl shell. Allowing anyone, be they a budding songwriter or a big-name producer, to collaborate with their very own virtual pop star. The strategy is genius. A character with enough edges to make her solid, but enough mystery for infinite exploration.
Since her creation Miku has gone on to become a cultural phenomenon in both her home of Japan and the world at large. Propelled through the Internet, her brand now spans a countless and constantly growing number of albums, EPs and singles. With genres ranging from Rock and Pop, to Dance, Metal and beyond. Branding endorsements, figures, anime, clothes, leeks, everything can be Miku. Her stable of collaborators has also grown, with the Vocaloid range now boasting numerous official and bootleg partners for Miku. Each one catering to a different vocal range and visual style. Evolving ever more niche, in the way that anime culture is so expert at.
Miku also performs live shows, and I was able to catch her most recent stop in the UK . The gig was part of Miku Expo, a string of New Year’s concerts throughout Europe, taking in Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the UK. I’d also been to see her during her 2019 London show, with her yearly visits becoming something of a tradition.
The Miku Expo structure, wherein Miku performs a select number of shows across the globe each year, is a great example of artful artificial scarcity. Highlighting some of the contradictions that come from her virtual pop-stardom. Miku is present on stage in hologram form- singing, dancing, switching costumes and even thanking the crowd in their native language. Backed by a well-drilled live band and a simple but effective stage rig. Which leaves it to be noted that, bar this specific lineup of live band, Miku could be performing live on an almost constant basis. She could be on tour in Japan every month, with different band members tag-teaming in and out across different cities. Then take the show on the road and have her performing in different parts of the world simultaneously, from Hong Kong to Moscow to Brazil. Do to her live show what the internet has done to her music. She’s a hologram, there’s literally nothing to stop her.
But Miku doesn’t tour like this. She tours like a traditional pop star. Yearly tours across the globe taking in the largest countries and cities, and an annual Magical Mirai event in her home country of Japan. Because the truth is that Miku, for all her virtual nature, is a an existent character to her fans. Through the endless kaleidoscope of videos, fanart and songs, her character has been built up by thousands of different creatives. The divergent visual and musical styles enhancing, rather than shattering her realness. The Miku that appears in the iconic World is Mine video is the same as the one fading away in the tragic Disappearance video, or her collab with Anamanaguchi or the meme machine Po Pi Po. In order to tie all these Mikus together, to conjure her into a single essence at a particular place and time. To pull her from the internet into the real world, her appearances have to be limited, special. They to have grandeur.
That’s reflected by the feeling in the room. This was a crowd who had waited fervently for this event, this once-a-year chance to glorify their idol.
Miku delivered in full force at Brixton. Her lightshow was excellent. The live band were beyond reproach, adding a little frisson of organic energy into the otherwise digital proceedings. Miku’s support squad of Vocaloids (Len and Rin being the most impressive consorts) added a mix of varied colours to the proceedings. Quite literally in fact, as the obligatory glowsticks wielded by the crowd can turn into their respective colours depending on the Vocaloid singing. Blended green for Miku, red for Meiko, purple for Luka and so on. Unified waving of these coloured sticks, in time to the beats and waves of the songs, allows the crowd to become part of the live show. Huge seas of synchronised light being reflected back at their hologram star. An interesting half-contrast to the moshing, dancing, singing and lighters-in-the-air seen at a rock concert. Miku crowds like to project energy as a unified whole, which both empowers each member, but also surrenders them to the group…Woe to the person waving a blue glowstick during the yellow and orange twins’ duet.
I remember once having an argument at University with some friends who claimed that synthetic Vocaloid-style musicians would one day take over the world. They claimed that within a decade all music would be made by algorithm and sung by machine. That the technology which powered Miku was going to improve exponentially, and nothing could stop it. The objective pleasure and perfection of the software was going to drive humans out of the arena. As of 2020 they were clearly overly optimistic in their predictions, but I’m sure they’ll be proven right eventually. While English-language voice synthesisers haven’t caught on massively (and indeed due to the more haphazard structure of the language, simply don’t work as well as Japanese counterparts) the clock is ticking.
Yet I don’t think it’ll ever be a rout. There’ll always be space for a Tom Waits or an Iron & Wine in music, people are too messy, and their emotions too needy to leave behind warbling human imperfection. In the same way that her fans reflect light back at Miku, sometimes we need raw human empathy reacted back to us. But while the old pillars will still stand, they’ll be buttressed by some of the most amazing light, smoke and Electro performances you’ve ever seen.