Series Review: James May: Our Man in Japan

216

James May: Our Man in Japan is a new travel series from Amazon, charting an eleven week trip in Japan, from its northern coast to its southern coast, by presenter James May. My fascination with Japan began with Jonathan Ross’ Japanorama, broadcast in the early 2000s. Since then, I have seen countless travel shows and documentaries about the country and its customs, but it has been some time since one has gripped me so thoroughly.

This six part series sees James explore the country in a variety of segments as he navigates his way through Japan’s main islands. Each segment is introduced by an often humorous title card, presenting a bemusing word that has either been discovered by James or lost in translation. The tone of the series is very playful (in one episode, James refers to it as a “travel show full of light-hearted laughs”), but the producers struck a fine balance in the casting of presenter May.

There is a large emphasis on fooling James and presenting him as a sort of baka gaijin (stupid foreigner) by involving him in many outlandish scenarios, but the presenter never quite succumbs to the bumbling Brit abroad stereotype. Though he can be haphazard and blundering, he is nonetheless an inquisitive man, and through his sheer willingness to get involved and try new things—though he may fail at them—he is able to come away with a level of understanding and enjoyment that ultimately gives the series its charm.

I feel a lot of English-language shows made on Japan fall into the trap of portraying it as some sort of bizarre strange land that is to be observed and experienced like an amusement park, without actually understanding what makes it tick, and while the actual depth of content here is not staggering (though it is very diverse), James is the prefect presenter as someone very British and not at all obstinate. There’s this great balance between contrasting Japan’s supposed ‘otherness’ with James’ British slant and embracing the culture in all its richness and variety.

All the usual bases are covered, from haiku and samurai, to cat cafes and cherry blossoms, but also featured are many esoteric and seldom seen recreations, such as competitive snow ball fighting and interactive digital art installations, as well as more Japanese specific pastimes like the inconspicuous yatai. James approaches each subject with typical British dry wit, which may at times seem a tad condescending (though it is for comedic effect and not at all malicious) and often takes precedent over any meaningful examination, but James’ thorough participation ensures there is at least a measure of depth and intricacy with a lot of entertainment.

James and company do a brilliant job of averting certain tropes so they don’t fall into well worn terrain. I was impressed that, during the inevitable segment on manga, instead of looking at its seedier aspects as these sorts of shows tend to do, it was instead viewed as a literary form that is read by all ages and professions. In another segment on otaku, rather than explore the usual route of the anime geek, they took the phrase at its most fundamental and spent the day with some very enthusiastic train spotters. Again, in a part about anime, rather than trace footsteps, James gets involved with voice acting, performing the part of a barking dog in an upcoming film.

While James’ activities are obviously planned, there is this feeling that the events themselves are spontaneous, unscripted, and largely improvised, which keeps the show fresh and entertaining. As he travels Japan, James is accompanied by a succession of interpreters, until he meets the eccentric Yujiro, who seemed to leave such an impression that he eventually joins James for the rest of the series. The two make an unexpectedly excellent pair, playing off of one another with brilliant camaraderie and comedy.

As a light travel show, James May: Our Man in Japan ticks all the boxes. It is wonderfully rich in content if a little lacking in depth. That said, James once again proves an apt choice as someone who has travelled Japan before, and who first visited the country over twenty-five years prior to the making of this programme. He offers some insight into a changing Japan, contrasting history, tradition, and modernity with the polarity (or lack thereof) between the east and the west. It is also beautifully shot, displaying Japan in all its abundant glory, from the mesmeric snow-covered Hokkaido, to the dense megalopolis of Tokyo, and the exquisite greenery of Shikoku.

I was genuinely sad that it had to come to a close. It’s a thoroughly packaged series that does feel like it could have been two episodes longer, but it stands a riotously funny and truly high-quality production on Japan, showcasing both the country’s deep history and its alluring modernity with a fascinating variety of local people.

Manga Review: Billy Bat (Naoki Urasawa)

Title: Billy Bat
Author: Naoki Urasawa (Story and Art), Takashi Nagasaki (Story)
Publisher: Kodansha
Published: 2008 – 2016
Length: 20 Volumes


Billy Bat is an intricately woven mystery-thriller; it’s a manga where twists and turns are around every corner and one which you will have to invest quite a bit of time into before any kind of revelation or payoff, but my is it gripping.

We begin with Kevin Yamagata; a Japanese-American cartoonist whose series Billy Bat – which follows the adventures of an anthropomorphic bat detective – is published by the reputable Marble Comics and adored throughout America. However, by chance Kevin learns of a manga which features a similar protagonist to his in Japan. Realising he may have unconsciously plagiarised the character whilst in Japan some years prior, he travels there hoping to meet with the author, but what he discovers is a web of conspiracies, murder, cover-ups and betrayal which all seemingly lead back to his bat character. Before long, however, it becomes evident that Billy Bat is something far beyond Kevin, as he’s whisked into a mystery surrounding the bat’s inception millennia ago and how – since the beginning of time – it has influenced history.

62

‘Begin with’ is an opportune phrase as – while Kevin is the protagonist – like much of Naoki Urasawa’s work, the cast is impressively extensive, with Urasawa dipping in and out of different time periods and into the minds of numerous characters. The story is sinuous to say the least, but following it is never a chore. Urasawa nails the pacing, with much of the latter content split into story arcs which usually consist of eight chapters (one complete tankobon). As a manga which portrays no less than fifteen different time periods – ranging from the 1st century to the 21st – it rarely comes across as confusing or disjointed, with Urasawa utilising sublime, almost cinematic transitions, along with many familiar faces in the form of characters based on real-life historical figures, which many readers will be able to pinpoint.

These characters – along with the inclusion of many real-life incidents, such the the Shimoyama affair, the JFK assassination, the falling of the Berlin Wall and even the 9/11 attacks – make the series feel as though it’s grounded in reality. Billy Bat has a certain familiarity about it; it’s an evocative series which balances fiction and non-fiction well, all the while displaying just how much planning and preparation Naoki Uraswawa and Takashi Nagasaki have put into the story.

It does require a certain amount of patience, however. Much like in 20th Century Boys – one of the authors’ previous series – a hundred and one questions are proffered before only a handful are answered. Urasawa grips readers with frequent twists and startling cliffhangers at the end of every chapter – the story itself never sours – but readers of an impatient disposition may encounter some frustration with how long certain questions are held in limbo.

63

The characterisation is phenomenal, with both the fictional and non-fiction based characters portrayed immeasurably. Certain characters are more well-rounded than others, but for such a huge cast, Urasawa works wonders. I’m delighted to say, both the protagonists and antagonists are superbly crafted; with a heart, a soul, emotions and clear motivations. It’s especially great to see the more villainous characters looked after, so to speak. One dimensional characters can cause a story to fall so utterly flat, but Urasawa deserves much praise. He has created a multitude of level-headed, layered, intelligent, intriguing, well-written, well-implemented characters sure to leave an impression.

Urasawa’s handiwork continues in the art, which rarely misses the mark. Certain panels could do with a little more detail, but all-in-all, the characters are appropriately differentiated and well-drawn, the backgrounds are stunningly detailed – especially in the page spreads – and, as before, Urasawa’s use of transitions from one scene to the next is second to none. Urasawa utilises a different style for the comic-in-a-comic sequences of Billy Bat – it’s more cartoonish and Americanised – which works exceedingly well and adds yet another flavour to an already appetising manga. The flow of his artwork and panel placement is admirable, with the dramatic beats hitting their mark and the action sequences thrilling to follow.

Ultimately, Billy Bat is a precisely planned and efficiently presented manga; it’s clear to see how in control Urasawa is. Despite such a gigantic cast and involved plot, he never loses his way. The story is well-rounded and confidently written, with the characters consistent and appealing. Additionally, the drama is realistic and attentively developed, with many of the story arcs able to garner substantial emotional investment. Overall, Billy Bat is an immersive, gripping and highly stirring read; among Urasawa’s best.

64

Movie Talk: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Title: All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて)
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenplay: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Itô, Yû Aoi
Released: Oct 2001 (JP), Jul 2002 (US), Aug 2002 (UK)


Ever since I discovered All About Lily Chou-Chou in 2006, it has held a special place in my heart. Along with Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, it is one of the first Japanese films I remember watching and – still unlike anything I have seen since – it remains to this day one of my all-time favourites. It is a film rich in detail, substance and beauty; a story of youth culture, escapism and loneliness just as important now as it was fifteen years ago. Rather than present a straightforward review, I wanted to take a moment to write somewhat about the films aesthetics, why it is so important and continually relevant, and why it should be on your radar.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai released his third full-length feature – All About Lily Chou-Chou – in 2001. The film – a rather eerie and melancholic drama about the escapism of a group of children through cyber culture and the fictional pop sensation Lily Chou-Chou – follows Yuichi, a particularly shy and lonesome youth, who becomes entranced by the mysterious pop star. The film charters the increasing solace and comfort Yuichi discovers in Lily’s music – and explores others touched by the enigmatic figure through messages posted on a ‘Lilyphilia’ internet forum – to the backdrop of the harsh realities of the outside world. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of its time. Released fresh into the new millennium, it portrayed a generation of youth caught in a seemingly endless adolescence, enthralled by cyber culture and confused with their identity and emotions, isolated in the all-too-big world and seeking escape through electronic communication rather than physical interaction.

55

The characters find redemption of sorts in the form of ambiguous pop-sensation Lily Chou-Chou. Her music provides them with an emotional resonance; the characters confide in her songs and revel in the other-worldly feeling her music creates – what they label as the ‘ether’. With music and a fan-base reminiscent of the Icelandic ambient scene (think Sigur Rós, amiina and múm) back here in the real world, the characters empathetically discuss the singer on the ‘Lilyphilia’ forum and listen intently to each other’s stories of self-discovery and what Lily’s music has brought them. But as the characters progress deeper and deeper into the ‘ether’ and engage more and more openly with their online counterparts, thus begins their descent into isolation and withdrawal from reality. Their internet messages are communicated to the viewer through text on the screen, though with only internet handles and vague clues to go off, it’s up to the audience to work out which of the characters are typing what. Very little is explicitly stated in the film; the audience – more so than usual – are mere observers and it is clear Iwai has great respect for the viewers’ intelligence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film that could only be made in this millennium, in the here and now, as it centers around the evolving of communication – or perhaps degrading, depending on how you look at it – in the age of the internet. It captures the disconnectedness of the current youth and, as Empire note; “portrays a generation in a world of electronic communication which promises greater interaction, but instead fosters isolation.” Loneliness and isolation are major themes within the film and the characters are all grounded in their attempts to connect physically with one another. Iwai even presents an underlying barrier between adults and children; in fact, the adult characters take a step back and almost have no place in the story at all. Iwai displays them as very distant and incomprehensible; people, despite social constructs, which the children struggle to look up to or trust in. All About Lily Chou-Chou spares no expense at posing questions, yet it seeks to answer none – Iwai displays the world as anything but simply black and white, as anything but straight forward.

This is emphasised in the narrative, told in a non-linear fashion with the middle first, followed by the beginning and then the end. References to disconnectedness are left, right and center, and for such emotionally compromised characters, the hugely dominant child cast work wonders. The films main characters are Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) – mutual admirer’s of Lily Chou-Chou whose friendship collapses after a fateful holiday – and the films back-drop is largely rural Japan, with much of the middle chapter set in Okinawa; largely secluded and alien areas, again referencing that isolation. The cinematography and tone is very melancholic, with the crew creating some stunningly bleak visuals, often contrasted with the hypnotic beauty of the Japanese countryside. Iwai presents a spellbinding, starkly beautiful and wholly unique visual flair, which has since become one off his trademarks as a filmmaker.

56

Another key aspect is the music and the films almost God-like idol, Lily Chou-Chou. The singer herself is rarely glimpsed, but is always portrayed as some near-deity, an ethereal Goddess, absolutely worshipped by her fans, which displays the level of idolisation and the prominence and development of pop culture through technology and social media in the current generation. The music in All About Lily Chou-Chou works as a narrative element and a vessel for the main characters, helping to communicate their thoughts, feelings and desires to the audience. The soundtrack is actually made up of two complete CDs, one being the film score (a stunning collection of melancholic piano compositions written and arranged by Takeshi Kobayashi, along with three wonderful Claude Debussy renditions by actress and pianist Yui Makino) and the other an album by Lily Chou-Chou titled Breathe, which was made specifically for the film and features prominently. The film and its music was actually received so well that it established a career for Japanese singer Salyu, who portrayed Lily Chou-Chou.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a master class in filmmaking, displaying completely how every element in sync creates one tremendous piece of art. The film just oozes emptiness and desolation, but it is tackled in such a calm and – dare I say it – ethereal way, that it isn’t necessarily depressing so much as it is enlightening. Like the music of Lily Chou-Chou, the film has an other-worldly feel to it, something magical resides there. It isn’t light viewing, but once you wrap yourself around the narrative and delve into the minds of the characters, it’s comforting in a slightly haunting way. Anyone who has ever felt disconnected or apart from society should watch All About Lily Chou-Chou; it is a film about what it is to be human in the 21st Century and quite possibly one of the most important of its generation.