“God Bless Baseball”: Playwright Toshiki Okada probes international relations through baseball

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Prizewinning playwright Toshiki Okada’s God Bless Baseball examines Japan and South Korea’s complicated ties with the United States through the lens of sport, also offering a new way of looking at the two countries’ own troubled history. Over a century since America’s national pastime arrived in both nations, Metropolis heard from Okada about the motivations behind his new piece and the differing Japanese and Korean approaches to the sport ahead of the work’s staging as part of this year’s Festival/Tokyo.

Why did you choose baseball as a subject for this Japan-Korea project?

Director Toshiki Okada

I’d wanted to create a work about baseball for a long time, but I didn’t know when I would be able to do it. When this year’s Asian Arts Theatre festival in Gwangju invited me to participate, I thought to create a joint production bringing together Japanese and Korean actors. It may have been intuitive to choose baseball because of the popularity of the sport in both countries. And as baseball implies a strong American influence, it made sense to include [the U.S.] too. The influence of America is an essential question for both countries, and both are trying to figure out how to think about the U.S., so it made [for] an ideal theme.

Tell us about your personal experience of baseball.

I played as a kid—but only because my father strongly wanted me to, and it wasn’t much fun. One coach would beat us for no reason. So for me, baseball was a traumatic experience; it’s actually the worst memory of my life. For that reason, I’d long wanted to write a play about baseball.

How does baseball differ in Japan and Korea?

Korea seems to lack the connection with spirituality, the earnestness, the sometimes coercive nature of Japanese baseball. The fans I saw in Seoul come for the excitement. Fans are invited to hold drinking competitions or propose marriage on big screens in the stadium.

How can baseball provide a new way for Japan and Korea to approach America?

I hope the play can help us think about what America means to the people of both countries. One way to consider the U.S. is through the popular sport of baseball, as America looms large for both countries. But this means I was lumping together Japan and South Korea, which created various challenges. When you think about both countries, historical problems come to mind. Approaching historical issues that divide us through the lens of America helps to offer a new way of looking at our differences. Baseball provides the ideal means to attempt this.

Differences between American and Japanese baseball have been explored in books like You Gotta Have Wa and films such as Mr. Baseball. How does God Bless Baseball add to this work?

Unlike these, I’m not considering the differences between Japanese and American baseball. Rather, the comparison is between Japan and Korea at one level, with America standing above us. For example, the fact that Japanese and Korean players now go to the major leagues is a way to judge how much both countries have improved. We compete over how many players we have in the major leagues. I’m interested in these kinds of relations between the countries.

Who are the South Korean members of the team, and how did you come to work with them?

Yoonjae Lee is an energetic and effective actor. Actress Sung Hee Wi is a veteran of physical theater, and also a choreographer. I auditioned them both last summer in Seoul.

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The Songs of Jim O’Rourke: The producer and multi-instrumentalist keeps it simple

Photo by Taikou Kuniyoshi

Photo by Taikou Kuniyoshi

By the time Jim O’Rourke moved to Tokyo in 2001, he’d amassed a body of work—his own music, as part of Sonic Youth, and as producer—that made him a sought-after figure. A mercurial musician whose music ranges from the melodic to the experimental, O’Rourke now prefers a more uncomplicated life than the one in the commercial record industry. Metropolis reached him in Hokkaido ahead of the debut concert for his new album, Simple Songs.

Where are you and what are you doing?

O’Rourke

I’m on tour with [sax player] Akira Sakata in Yakumo for a gig put on by [the] city. People aren’t going to come to see a free jazz show in a place like this. It’s more doing tunes, which is good practice.

Why a solo singer-songwriter album now?

It sounds ridiculous, but if I’d done it by myself I probably never would have put it out. I took about six years to make it and there were three other people who played on recordings we made again and again. The fact I put it out is because I wanted to pay them. But I don’t even know if that will be possible. The last time I put out a record like this was 13 years ago, and the world has really changed—people don’t buy records anymore. So at this point, I still don’t know if I’ll be able to give them any money.

Tickets sales have been good, right?

The concerts sold out in a day or two, which surprised me. It sounds disingenuous, but I don’t care if they sell out or not. I care because I want to pay my musicians, but personally, the only thing that matters is it being better than whatever I’ve done before. This one is really involved because it’s four sets of new stuff. I’m still in the middle of writing it all, so there are going to be a lot of rehearsals. I don’t just want to play the songs on the record—it’s got to be more than that. I don’t want to just do the same show again, which is why I don’t tour as myself. It’s not just the band. If it were just that, it would be fine; but one set’s a jazz band, another a string quartet … so it’s going to be a lot of work. But my way of working is hard for people here to understand.

In what sense?

I’m very particular about things … not that the rhythm is correct, but the sense of rhythm. The hardest thing to get across to musicians here is that tempo does not rule music. The metronome is not tempo; your heartbeat and the air around us are the tempo. Getting them off the metronome is really hard.

Regarding the album title, tell us your thoughts on simplicity in music.

I don’t necessarily have an affection for simplicity in music. I like patience in music, which, in a way, I think of as simple, allowing the material to be itself, as opposed to pushing the sounds around. If I was to think of simplicity in music, it’s just allowing the music to be itself, pared down to the necessities.

Tell us about the creation of the song “Hotel Blue”.

That song was originally written for a Koji Wakamatsu film. He insisted on there being an end roll song for the soundtrack I did. That stuck around as something I thought was worth working on. There were so many songs, and the question was, which made the arc of the record work? And that was probably the last thing we did. In the end, all the sections that weren’t part of the original, I wrote in 20 minutes while everyone was downstairs having a cigarette break. At that point, Wakamatsu had passed away, so I wanted it on the record. He’s a big reason I moved here and finally learned Japanese. The record is dedicated to him.

Do the best songs arrive in epiphanies?

Either that or six to seven years. There’s no “in between” with me; it’s either immediate or takes years of sitting on it. “Last Year” was written eight years ago. Even the basic track is from six years ago. I must have rerecorded it 20 times, and the first was the best. I’m happy to work on things for years and years, because I don’t feel the need to put anything out. It’s got to be right, or there’s no point.

Are they written traditionally on acoustic guitar?

I only write when I have to. I never sit down and say I’m going to write now. I have no interest. It’s only when I’ve got to write something, that’s the only way I’m going to do it. When I have a deadline, or a show. If I’m working with someone else, no problem; but as soon as it’s my music, I’m ten thousand times harder on myself. I don’t think I should bother people’s ears with everything I do, so it’s got to be worth it.

There’s a sense of humor to the songs.

I think all of them! But it depends on your sense of humor. It’s not that humor doesn’t have a place—I think there should be more—but it depends on your sense of humor. And many don’t have the same sense of humor as me. I have a fairly black sense of humor … it’s all just death and sex. That’s all the lyrics are about: dying while having sex, or having sex after they’re dead. Half of this record is sung from the viewpoint of a dead person. Whether you find that funny or not depends on the person.

What brought you to Japan?

I started coming to Japan in ’92, and from ’94 onwards, I came two to four times every year—about 50 times before I actually moved. I had tried moving in my 20s, but was too young and didn’t speak the language. But from that failure, I became determined. Over time, I would come home and felt like I didn’t want to leave Japan; it didn’t feel like I was going home. What finally pushed me to move was Wakamatsu. He asked me to do music for his Red Army film, but said if I wanted to work on the film, I’d have to learn Japanese. Of course, he was teasing me a bit, but that was the kick in the ass I needed. I quit everything I was doing in the States, sold everything, and moved.

What took the most to get used to about the Japanese music scene?

I decided not to get used to it and quit producing. I just decided I didn’t want to participate. The first few years here, I had to work to get my visa, and I was obligated to do stuff because I’d take on the work. But then I decided I didn’t want to be part of it, so I’ve slowly removed myself to the point where I do my stuff off-the-map.

At the same time, you have to make a living.

For me, I’m going to play this tour with Sakata, which is something I enjoy doing. But you wouldn’t usually find someone who’s done the sort of work I have: being content doing a countryside tour for two weeks. But I have no problem with that. And I’ll do that, and be able to pay the bills for a couple months. I don’t want making a living to have anything to do with my own work. Which is why I learned how to engineer—that was my work. I didn’t want the things I wanted to make to have anything to do with making a living.

Are you here from the duration?

Oh yeah, until I fall over.

See Pics of Beatles, Stones, U2 and More From Japan’s Top Rock Photographer

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When Koh Hasebe became a rock photographer in the 1960s, the word “rock” didn’t even exist in Japan. “It never even came to mind to try to become a rock photographer,” the 85-year-old lensman tells Rolling Stone in Tokyo. “I was at a dead end as a film photographer — the arrival of rock in Japan gave my career new life.”

Born and bred in Tokyo, Hasebe had gone to Paris to recharge and happened to meet the head of one of Japan’s biggest music publishers. “He offered me the job of shooting the Beatles in London,” Hasebe recalls. “After the Beatles, all my offers came from rock photography. It was just as Western artists began to visit Japan, and I somehow became the go-to guy to document tours.”

The quiet, unobtrusive Hasebe jokes that when he went to his high-school reunion and told his friends he was a rock photographer, they replied, “So, you take pictures of rocks?” It’s an indication of just how alien rock culture was to a Japan that had only just emerged from the ruins of World War II, a time of hardship etched on Hasebe’s memory.

“Rock wasn’t something that decent people listened to,” Hasebe notes. “But for anti-establishment youth, it was a beacon. I was already a bit older, so I was able to view rock a bit more coolly. But it wasn’t as if rock changed Japan overnight. It’s only now that we can look back and see that rock did in fact gradually — but, in the end, greatly — impact Japanese society.”

Over time, rock provided a powerful spur to individuality in a highly conformist society. “Japanese musicians didn’t write songs for themselves at the time, like, for example, Bob Dylan,” Hasebe observes. “Artists weren’t really able to express themselves freely. It was in the Sixties and Seventies that self-expression was born.”

Click below for the full Rolling Stone gallery:

Koh Hasebe recalls documenting legendary artists in Tokyo, London and beyond

Klein Dytham: Expat architects make Tokyo their own

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Shonan T-Site (Photo courtesy of Nacása & Partners Inc. – Klein Dytham architecture)

When Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham alighted at Narita, little could the budding architects have imagined that, in two decades, they would have left their imprint on Tokyo in the form of some of the city’s most recognizable buildings.

“Visas weren’t easy,” recalls Dytham about their early years of struggle after launching their own firm in 1991. British-born Dytham and Italian-born Klein had arrived in Tokyo in 1988 with scholarships and hopes of interning for one of Japan’s leading architects.

Mark Dytham (left) and Astrid Klein (right)

“We pushed for it, and the authorities were extremely lenient—and if we were a different color, it wouldn’t have happened, I think,” he believes. “There were heartstopping moments when we were flying back into Japan with an office, wondering if they’d let us back.”

The pair were drawn by Japan’s freewheeling architectural spirit and booming bubble economy, and worked in the office of renowned architect Toyo Ito before creating Klein Dytham architecture.

“We feel less pressure as architects here in Japan, because you know a building is only going to be here for 30 years, whereas in London you’re building for 400 years,” Dytham observes. “In London, there’s a whole public debate by people who really don’t know anything about architecture, and that was one of the reasons we came here. We felt restricted coming out of college in London.”

Fast-forward two decades, and the modern-yet-playful Klein Dytham look can be seen across Tokyo in buildings like the Harajuku Q Plaza and Daikanyama T-SITE, the latter of which we sit in, enjoying a lunch in the cozy complex of cafés and shops anchored by a Tsutaya bookstore. And architecture is just the beginning of KDa’s activities.

There is also PechaKucha, a TED-like presentation night whose signature “20 images x 20 seconds” format now takes place in 800 cities worldwide, as well as cutting-edge Roppongi performance space SuperDeluxe, where PechaKucha was born a decade ago.

Harajuku Q Plaza

Unlike many starry-eyed artists and architects who come to Japan seeking Zen and bamboo, Dytham says it’s Tokyo’s protean energy that provides their inspiration. “Our aesthetics don’t come from traditional architecture, but from a humanistic point of view,” he offers. “We’re Tokyo architects. Sure, we see the temples—but we get inspired by Harajuku, Shibuya … contemporary currents in the city. We try to draw people in and lift their spirits.”

Being foreign works both for and against Klein and Dytham. “We see Japan in a very different way than Japanese,” Dytham says. “We see things they can’t see. For example, a standard taxi in Japan … you’ve got lace and gloves, automatic doors—but a Japanese person sees nothing. Although we’re all building in Japan, the same influences come out different.”

“Some say our work is easily read,” Dytham laughs. “When we show a model, we can’t explain it with fancy Japanese architectural speak, it has to speak for itself. Here at Tsutaya too, it has to speak for itself. There’s a massive T. We drew the T in the first three to four minutes of the briefing. Everyone understands a T. It’s storytelling through architecture in simple form. It’s fun and easily read, even by kids. [The] Japanese seem a very serious race, but they actually have a very good sense of humor.”

The love for constant renewal gives Dytham mixed feelings about the last vestiges of postwar Tokyo now being modernized—some say robbed of its essential spirit—with wide boulevards and quake-strengthened structures.

Home for All in Soma City

“People say it’s slash and burn,” he says, “but they’re making the city safer and more efficient. In an earthquake-prone country like Japan, this renewal of the buildings is useful, and could be seen to save the city in the future. It’s tough about places like Shimokitazawa and the Okura, but Japan’s always been like that. You make things of wood, they burn down, and they just rebuild, like Ise Shrine. And in Tokyo, there is no historical context anyway.”

With a building in the works at Ginza’s main crossing and several T-SITES in various states of planning and completion, times are good for Klein Dytham following a brutal patch after the financial crisis and disaster.

“What’s happened is the Olympics,” Dytham says. “It was an amazing thing to do because the country collapsed in on itself after the disaster, and the Olympics has spurred a huge amount of works for us. We’ve even now got an Olympic mondai—construction costs are thirty to fifty percent more because everything is in short supply.”

Which leads to the inevitable question as to Dytham’s thoughts on the Olympic stadium fiasco.

“It was a bad brief,” he answers diplomatically. “The architect [Zaha Hadid] built to the brief, which was over-spec’d to the site. It got out of control—they could have learned lessons from London where they made so it can be downsized after the Olympics. But they were obviously looking for a showcase project. It was convenient they chose an overseas architect so there wouldn’t be any backbiting over the job, which was a shame because there are many brilliant Japanese architects. It was a political decision.”

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis: The three-piece band keep it in the family

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When Metropolis reaches Lewis Durham in England, the singer, multi-instrumentalist and self-taught audio engineer is fixing some vintage recording equipment, trying to get it working alongside the computers at Kitty, Daisy & Lewis’ band studio.

“The old equipment has a more honest sound, and for recording real instruments, it captures it more faithfully than a computer does,” Durham says about the sessions for their simply-titled third album, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis The Third. The trio of siblings not only makes music inspired by ragtime, jazz, blues, honkytonk and vaudeville; they also approach the entire endeavor with an old-fashioned family ethic. Despite emerging from a generation whose musical palette is formed by electronic sampling and hip-hop, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis harken back to an era when performing musical families were common.

“My dad used to sing and play guitar, and his family did, and we did it at home growing up,” Durham explains. “At school there was contemporary pop, but at home there were always old songs being sung. We started off playing older songs because that’s the simplest place to start: You pick up the guitar and sing. I guess it’s considered old-fashioned now, but it seems natural to me.”

Notwithstanding their taste for musical styles from a century ago, the Durham siblings have managed to open the ears of a contemporary crowd, signing with BBC Radio 1 DJ and Bestival curator Rob da Bank’s label, Sunday Best. It’s not just the endearingly vintage warmth of their music but the modern way they mix it up that makes Kitty, Daisy & Lewis’ material intriguing.

Third, for example, takes in everything from the saucy, vaudeville flavor of “Whenever You See Me” to the boogie-woogie beats of “Good Looking Woman,” to the lively rhythms of “Feeling of Wonder.”

“The rhythm changed entirely from what it first was,” Durham recalls about the latter song. “Originally it had more of a jazzy swing to it. Kitty was playing it in the studio, and I started a new drum beat, and it changed out of nowhere.

“We’re really lucky because we get all kinds of people coming to our shows—young and old,” he continues. “We use all different kinds of feels and approaches, there are lots of variables, even more with this new album—it’s all different kinds of genres.”

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis songs often begin as the siblings have always made music: With loose jam sessions. “A certain groove will start happening and then a song will come out of it,” Durham says. “A lot of it is from just messing around, and stuff comes out of it. Often in between rehearsing songs, we’ll get a nice rhythm going, and then put some words on it.”

The Durham siblings (Daisy is the eldest, followed by Lewis and Kitty—and yes, they do fight sometimes) still live together in Camden, where they grew up. They’ve moved out of their parents’ house but seem remarkably close.

“We’d always had music in the family, and when we first started playing it was because someone asked me to come onstage and do a song,” Durham remembers.

“Kitty joined in because there happened to be drums there, and that was it, really. It was basically doing what we’d always been doing, but doing it on the stage. Then Daisy got involved and we added a few more songs, and a friend of ours asked us to join a festival. We didn’t have a name, so he just put on the poster, ‘Kitty, Daisy and Lewis.’ It all started kind of by mistake.”

A few albums and festivals later, the Durhams found themselves backing the likes of Coldplay and traveling to Japan for Fuji Rock. “We’ve been twice to Japan and it was probably the most different place we’ve ever been,” Lewis says. “The last time we hung out in Tokyo with Gaz Mayall (ska impresario and son of blues legend John Mayall). He’s been in Japan a lot and was showing us around these little bars where you can fit around seven people. He called it ‘piss alley.’ We just thought it was amazing.”

But even if their touring adventures end, Durham affirms they’ll always be a musical family.

“I tell people that even if we’re not playing on stage or making records, we’ll have our music at home, because that’s what we’ve always done,” he says.

“We’ll just see where it goes. We enjoy touring and making records a lot, but we’ll just take it organically and see where it goes. It seems to be going pretty well at the moment. But if we ever did stop playing on stage for a reason, we’d still play at home, because we don’t play music to play in a commercial band—we just play music together because we enjoy it.”

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis. Apr 24, 7:30pm. ¥6,000. Shibuya Club Quattro. Nearest station: Shibuya. http://meturl.com/kittydaisylewis2015

Uhnellys CD Release Party: Avant-garde rap-rock duo presents Loopholic

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Avant-garde rap-rock duo Uhnellys welcomes special guest Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her for what looks to be one of the season’s best live music nights.

With guitarist, rapper and sampler-extraordinaire Kim at the mic and the lovely—and dead solid—Midi on the drums, Uhnellys is consistently one of Japan’s most energetic and imaginative rock outfits.

Aggressively philosophical, the band celebrates the release of its latest live outing, Loopholic, on December 22 in Daikanyama.

Dec 22, 7pm, ¥2,500 (adv)/ ¥3,000 (door). Daikanyama Unit. Nearest station:  Daikanyama. 

Mr. Porter “A Saturday with…Zim of Black Shadow”

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Film by Mr Antony Crook (Text by Dan Grunebaum)

They are Tokyo icons. Visit Yoyogi Park or the waterfront of Odaiba on a Saturday or Sunday and they’ll be there, rain or shine. Swivelling in leather get-ups to vintage rock blasted through portable sound systems, they’re Japan’s self-styled rockabillies.

Zim is the leader of Black Shadow, a well-known gang who dress up like 1950s rock’n’rollers. During the week, Zim is Mr Kinya Ueno and he holds down a regular nine-to-five job. But he prefers not to talk about his life Monday to Friday, for he is a man who is truly working for the weekend.

Black Shadow’s heyday was in the 1980s, when Japan experienced a retro-rock boom and American and British pop culture offered an irresistible lure of freedom to rebellious Japanese youths, who railed against a conservative society ruled by the proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.

Zim left high school in the provinces as soon as he could and fled to Tokyo as a teenager, determined to become part of the scene. Like many who reject Japan’s corporate treadmill, his decision consigned him to a life on the margins.

But for a member of Black Shadow, being part of the gang was more than ample reward. Music and fashion provided more of a satisfying life than being one of Japan’s corporate salaryman drones ever could.

Heavily tattooed, clad in black leathers and with their “Regent” pompadour hairstyles blow-dried and styled to crazy heights, Black Shadows do what many Japanese can only dream of: express themselves. Extravagantly. Unabashedly.

Now these rock’n’rollers are growing old. Zim, now 45, has been in the gang for nearly 30 years. But teens today are into J-pop or electronic dance music. They have home-grown styles such as cosplay (dressing up in anime/ manga/ cartoon costumes) and don’t look to the West as much as Zim’s generation once did.

Still, as long as Zim can wax his Regent and shake his hips to the rock’n’roll beat, he’ll keep coming back each weekend to the place – and the people – that gave him his identity and set him apart from the mainstream; that made him and all the Black Shadows, in a word, different.