Thursday, 27 November 2014

HYPER JAPAN 2014: Christmas Market (interview with Diana Garnett and Joe Inoue

Due to be published on Friday 28 November 2014 in Felix. Original link here; pages 10-11. Online link here.

Note: my online posts are revised with changes or corrections. Refer to them for the latest version of the piece. Any published articles go through editing which is beyond my discretion.

Last edited on 3 February 2015.

HYPER JAPAN: a showcase of culture and inspiration in the heart of London
Saturday morning - upper floor of Kensington Olympia National
The biannual gathering of dedicated Japanese markets and exhibitors took place last weekend from 14-16 November, and managed an exhibition which was a verifiable smorgasbord of Japanese culture.

Exhibitions like these are a clarion call for like-minded small and medium business owners to come together in one place to show themselves off to curious wanderers. The self-stylised HYPER JAPAN Christmas Market succeeds brilliantly in creating a thematic atmosphere, presenting not just the Japanese products, but stages and performance areas which emblazon every single aspect of Japanese culture, from idiosyncratic fusion bands to traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and dance theatre. HYPER JAPAN boldly claims that it is the best representation of Japanese culture outside of Japan, and as an outsider to the event whilst still claiming to know a fair amount about the country through visits, I am utterly bought by their claim.

Ended up buying not one, but two of these.
The event takes place in Olympia National, near Hammersmith and West Kensington. The bottom floor has an array of delicious smelling food stalls, all selling Japanese dishes (as well as the return of the Nice Ice shaved ice dessert I found at MCM ComicCon) and slightly bigger businesses along with a huge stage at one end, whilst the top floor seemed to be reserved for independent shop-owners and a smaller display area where martial arts and other demonstrations were carried out. From any point in the exhibition hall, whatever was coming from the speakers beside the stage could be heard, and the stage could be seen from any point on the top floor, which mean that you never missed a thing - and never had to push your way through crowds or fight for seats to see what was going on. Between performances, J-POP (Japanese pop music) greatly enhanced the ambience of the whole event.

Cosplay, or dressing up as fictional characters found in anime, manga, video games, films, etc. is a noticeable theme in the convention. Contests were on for the best costumes but I only recognised Hatsune Miku, a “humanoid persona voiced by a singing synthesizer application” after watching a quasi-3D performance in a side room of her songs. Sounds pretty weird to someone passing by, but I greatly admire the Japanese creative spirit and Hatsune Miku has turned out to be a massive marketing success for the company behind her. Perhaps 1 in 6 were in costume at the convention overall - this is a rough estimate as I could not discern the ones who dressed as characters from the ones who just took the opportunity to wear really edgy clothes.

Not sure if this is okay. Be mindful of any minors you reach out for with your paws.

Although cosplay is one of the loci of the event as one of the pillars of modern Japanese culture (even cosplay restaurants exist in the country), it is not by far the main one. In fact, one of the major successes of the convention overall was the fact that there wasn’t a single, individual focus; rather, a smooth amalgamation of all aspects of Japanese culture presented in tandem which are consciously recognisable but end up simply flowing together and creating a natural atmosphere. On the upper floor, there are a group of retro arcade machines and Japanese video game consoles, including a Dance Dance Revolution on which I witnessed meteoric competition which redefined my definition of “pro gamer”. In contrast, downstairs belonged to big Japanese video game developers such as Square Enix and Capcom which promoted their latest products and merchandise.

Absolutely stunning artwork. This is SQUARE ENIX.
Soon the crowd was gathered around a sushi stand, and I managed to find myself witnessing a tuna cutting display. The show culminated with the tuna mercilessly dichotomised by a five-foot long sword. I can testify that this smooth-filleted tuna beats John West with regards to taste and texture by formerly unimaginable amounts.

Something that appeared odd but was in fact interesting and helpful were a few airline companies, advertising their tours and trips to Japan. The representatives were candid and helpful in giving advice about when to book flights and when to get the best deals.

About five-foot long, used to cleanly fillet the tuna.

For some reason, I think I've seen these outside Japan somewhere before.
By far the most enjoyable was the sampling of all the sake, whisky, and umeshu alcohols for sale. The exhibitors were generous with their samples and light-headed gratification led me to purchase a bottle of Choya Umeshu, a delicious citrus-smelling and flavour liqueur. Ume is a sweet Asiatic fruit which is described as somewhere between an apricot and a plum.

The stage is full with back-to-back displays of sake mixing, technodelic performances, karaoke, and an incredibly diverse, ballpark outline of every imaginable and unimaginable aspect of Japanese culture. However, one performer’s story stood out as particularly galvanising. I snuck backstage to get a cheeky interview in after the performance had ended.

SIRO-A, an innovative Japanese band which uses projectors to create interesting and engaging performances.

Martial arts display in the upstairs performance area.
Her name is Diana Garnett, an American singer who shot to fame last year by winning Song for Japan, described as the Japanese equivalent to The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent, and the X-Factor all rolled into one.

“I’ve wanted to become a singer in Japan since I was, like, seven,” Diana tells me. “My dad watched a lot of anime so I had exposure to Japanese music and I wanted to be a performer before I’d figured out all the details, like how far Japan is from Washington D.C.” Her bubbly personality and cheerful demeanour brings unwarranted smiles to the reticent English audience.

Chasing your dream through twenty years of hard work and perseverance paints a clear image of the undeterrable heart beneath the easy smiles. Diana first visited Japan at the age of sixteen, a daunting prospect enough for anyone wishing to take a year out in a country with just 0.07% native English speakers. "From a cultural perspective, as well as a human one, it was an experience I'd not trade for anything. Studying abroad changes how you think about everything; it reforms your definition of "common sense" as well as your own perception of self and others. Without it, no doubt I'd be a very different person." On her third and most recent visit to Japan, Diana also became an English teacher, instructing schoolchildren in various Tokyo Junior High schools, as well as tutoring 1-on-1. I asked her about the motivation behind her singing– a fervent and passionate intensity which can be felt during her renditions.

“As a schoolteacher, I often get kids coming up to me when they’re young with their dreams of becoming Pok√©mon masters, superheroes, and famous ice skaters along with all sorts of wonderful things. But then they grow up and settle into their perceived reality of just being able to live as an office worker somewhere. It’s heart-breaking. I sing for my fans and anyone who happens to be listening, in the hopes that they’ll be brave enough to follow their heart once again.”

I've actually been waiting so long to embed this photosphere. It encapsulates the event so well; single pictures often have difficulty when it comes to expressing the entire atmosphere.

This was taken during Sunday evening's performance in which Diana and Joe (read on) showcased their collaborative efforts on stage. Although the photosphere tech has been around for a few years, it still has some minor glitches (guy with no legs, guy with no torso etc.). I was standing in the press box and must have ruined some recordings when some funny acts came on.

You can use the left and right arrow keys (as of now) to scroll horizontally, but as far as I know you have to use the mouse to drag up and down, and the mouse wheel to zoom. Fullscreen button is in the top right.

The Japanese language itself presents a major obstacle for literacy rates in Japan. Fundamental differences in the construction of sentences, such as omission of articles and subjects, all contribute to the difficulty of learning English as a native Japanese speaker. The absence of English in everyday Japanese life, due to a stellar translation industry for businesses and geographical isolationism, means that English skills can only be put to use in giving tourists directions. Even that particular usage can suffer due to the traditional Japanese honour-shame culture which causes undesired anxiety due to fear of mispronunciation or other mistakes; they would rather not speak it at all than risk getting it wrong. Diana’s songs are all in Japanese only; is the language barrier a problem this way?

“The focus of the songs is not the language, but the sound and music,” Diana tells me. Japanese is naturally a very lyrical and expressive language due to its liquid consonants and this makes it still remarkably communicative even to a non-speaker like me. As a musician myself, Diana and I concur by bringing up the indisputable fact that music is the true universal language of expression.

This is the new ending for Naruto. I still don't really know what Naruto is, but am told it's popular. (That was irony and sarcasm.)

"One of the reasons I’m so fond of Japanese music in particular is that it’s very listener-centric. It’s entirely developed to be related with. There is great importance placed on personal character, much more so than the western larger-than-life diva types, and that’s on purpose. Music is presented by someone that isn’t too different from you, an easy to digest idea of an idealized, yet fairly regular person. Think idols and their unprecedented popularity in the market. It’s not that they’re good at anything in particular, they don’t tend to look like models either. They’re pretty much regular cute girls with normal hobbies that try really really really hard. Even the non-idols tend to be produced as a more concentrated image you can connect with immediately. Manga and anime echoes this as well; Main characters are often average people that connect with those around them to become great, rarely geniuses that have it all. No one wants that.

I don’t want to say “caricature” but that’s kind of the idea, and I don’t mean it in a bad way. It’s just an idea to immediately understand, latch on, relate to, and grow with. And that’s awesome.

This way, even if you're a foreigner in Japan, you can present an image based off familiar feelings or emotions shared throughout cultures. We all have complexes, dreams, and problems. We all strive to continue developing. The Japanese entertainment industry is very human. This listener-centric presentation of entertainment is a way to come together in a community based on similarities, not differences, supporting and learning through one another’s experiences. It’s often said music is easily able to break cultural barriers because of this. What I’d like to do is bring a new perspective to the industry, to at least become a brick contributing to the bridge that brings us together."

The realisation of a dream may not necessarily come as a single, cathartic, watershed moment. Diana continues to work on her music and she starts by collaborating with Joe Inoue, announcing their work on December 1. Joe is an American-born Japanese pop artist whose gained prominence through his song “Closer” being used for the opening song of the anime series Naruto. Joe is well-known for playing all the instruments in the backing track when he records a new song – in fact, his Facebook page description includes the line “Plays all instruments”. I manage to get a few words with him too, after he agrees to marry a fan in the audience. It remains to be seen if he is as true to his word as he is dedicated to the red bean ice cream he claims he loves – “it’s delicious and healthy,” he claims, right before Diana quips back “it’s not healthy, it’s ice cream.”

Joe was born to Japanese immigrants in California, and learnt Japanese from reading manga and watching anime, despite growing up in Los Angeles. “I had to teach myself,” he tells me, “but the comics are definitely the number one Japanese textbook.” As well as playing all the instruments in all of his songs and composing all of them himself, almost all of his song lyrics are in Japanese too. It’s Joe’s first time in Europe and he expresses confusion at the reason why the audience weren’t receptive to his American-style jokes about boobs and such on stage. I tell him that they’re just being polite.

I think he took a panorama. Well, Joe, if you wanted to truly capture the event you should have taken a photosphere like I did - it would only have taken about five minutes of stage time to complete.
HYPER JAPAN showcased a strikingly extraordinary cultural event, with a very strong inspirational aftertaste. Our world is huge and encompasses unimaginably colourful cultures and lifestyles within our reach. Pursue your dream, and you’ll end up living it.

End article

Some additional media:

One of Diana's covers from... four years ago. Literally the only anime I have ever watched was Cardcaptor Sakura when I was about six, when it succeeded whatever TV show I was into at the time. I got hooked onto this and my parents kept finding cards I made myself (the main subject of the show; go watch it to find out what it means) for years afterwards. Regardless, this song is catchy as hell.

Also - because I'm a writer, you can't call it stalking. You have to call it 'investigative journalism'.

This is Joe's most well-known production, the song Closer used in the opening of Naruto's fourth season. Remember that he played and recorded everything himself. Don't know who did the music video but it certainly is interesting and well worth watching, especially if you're looking for something with some other style than Western pop videos for a change.

Feel like the yellow/blue dog thing is photobombing.

Unsure which is creepier.
Some unhealthy obsession with llama merchandise at these events.

And that's the dark side.
During the break on Saturday lunchtime, only press and organisers remained in the hall. My companion managed to capture this sneaky snap of Diana practising for the evening - although she seems to be singing to the press tables. She also has a tail from the tail shop.

Q&A and signings of CDs by the performers; the queue extended back beyond the main stage. (Is queue a British word? Joe didn't know what I meant when I said it.)

If you sponsor me equipment, I can do this too. Feel free to donate as much as you want. I promise to give good interviews and not just take very high resolution photospheres.

This also happened during the show on Sunday evening. I was lucky enough to be recording when this happened.

Of course, I have to add these in as well.

Even though better lighting is clearly needed. If I get enough sponsorship I'll buy a film lighting kit too. And maybe a green screen.

Location: Olympia, London W14, UK


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