Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Things that go VRRROOOOM in the Night!

Today I was searching for a gift for the two-year-old daughter of a friend I am having dinner with tomorrow night. I wanted to get her a stuffed Ponyo or a Ponyo puppet, because, let's face it, what little Japanese girl wouldn't absolutely love a stuffed Ponyo? Heck, I'd love a stuffed Ponyo and I'm 24 years old!

Sadly, after cruising around the toy shops in Ginza, and even visiting a Studio Ghibli-specific store, it became clear that there are no stuffed Ponyos to be had in the city of Tokyo. I can already see the tears streaming down the little girl's face as I write this post.

The employee at the Ghibli store said they are busy manufacturing stuffed Ponyos in China and that stores won't receive them until early August. I still have to find a gift before tomorrow night. Maybe I'll get her a stuffed Hello Kitty in a fish suit and hope she doesn't know the difference.

While walking around and drinking fluids to avoid heatstroke, I took pictures of automobiles.



This logo can mean only one thing...it's time to RACE!

A shot of the Nissan GT-R in all its glory. The car was released in December of last year here in Japan and will make its way overseas near the end of this year. The car really is very pretty up close. Too bad it was impossible to get a picture without other people lingering in the frame.

The front-end of the automobile. Let's check out some of the body work...

What would a sports car be without nice rims and tires? No sports car you'd ever see me driving, that's what!

The latch was super cool because it sits flush with the door. You have to push on the dotted end to make it pop out, then you can pull the latch towards you to open the door.

Some nice trim by the door featuring the GT-R logo.

The back-end of the GT-R. Let's take a look at some of the intimate details...

I like spoilers.

Check out those tail lights! This is my most artistic of the car shots if I do say so myself.


Let's turn our attention to the interior of the car...
Here are the racing seats that you will be sitting in while driving or passenger-ing.

There was a screw up at the factory and an untold number of cars got produced with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

How fast am I going?

Here is the screen developed by Polyphony Digital, the makers of the Playstation racing franchise Gran Turismo. The screen was fully functional, so I could click the buttons and make stuff happen.

I asked if I could pop the hood and the lady said it was okay. So, I got to pop the hood from the driver's seat! I think test drives were also available in some form or another.

The engine. I'd tell you all about it if I knew the first thing about engines. The only thing I know is that it is a twin-turbo 6 cylinder engine.

This is what I'd see if I were a bird looking to mark my territory.

Here's the price of the car. It ranges between 73 to 78 thousand USD depending on the options.

Let's take a break from cars and change up the pace for a second...

I stopped inside Ginza's famous Toy Park toy store in search of my gift. Out front of the store they were selling Ramune sodas. You all know about Ramune right? It's the Japanese equivalent of Sprite that comes in a bottle with a marble lodged in the neck.

Anyways, they were selling limited edition Ramune flavors including caramel flavor and curry flavor. I just couldn't help myself, I bought a curry flavored Ramune and gulped it down. It was quite good. It tasted sort of like a spiced apple cider mixed with cream soda. I chatted with the Japanese woman selling the sodas as I drank. She wanted to know what it tasted like since she was too afraid to try one for herself.

Since the Sony building is right near the Toy Park, I peeked around inside. This is Sony's 11-inch OLED monitor released at the end of last year here in Japan. The picture is indeed incredibly bright and vivid. I wondered if the picture might be a little too bright for prolonged viewings and cause possible eyestrain. I watched the same footage on both the OLED and on the regular Bravia HD plasma display. The colors seemed to pop-out a lot more on the OLED. I want one!

This shot didn't come out very well cause the camera didn't know what to focus on. This was supposed to show how incredibly thin the OLED monitor is (approximately 5 mm).

The Sony building in Ginza had some sort of an aquatic / aquarium theme going (don't ask me why). Here's a shot of the real-life school of fish from the giant aquarium outside the building. Inside the building, there were many screens displaying virtual sea life.

Okay, our break was long enough! Back to cars...

From a real-life automobile to one that's a little more fantastical. It's the Mach Five from Speed Racer! Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Another shot of Speed's car. I forgot to check to see whether Chim Chim was in the trunk.

The tires were my favorite part of the car. I totally thought this was a make believe tire company until I looked it up on the web.

It is called the Mach 5 after all. If you could choose between the Nissan GT-R and the Mach 5 (Assuming you could drive it with all its powers in real-life), which one would you choose?

This is where Speed sits! I thought the steering wheel hub was supposed to have buttons labeled "A" through "G"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Yebisu (恵比寿)

Yesterday I visited the small district of Tokyo known as Yebisu (or Ebisu, the “Y” is intentionally archaic and doesn’t affect the pronunciation). Yebisu is most famously known as a brand of beer in Japan, owned and bottled by Sapporo Breweries.

The premiere tourist spot in Yebisu is the “Yebisu Garden Place,” a beer-themed shopping and dining area. After speed walking, Bionic Woman – style, along what seemed like no less than fifty moving walkways, I finally emerged at the entrance of the Garden Place.

Yebisu Garden Place is a trip to Sapporo for those who are afraid of flying. Upon walking into the central plaza, I was immediately greeted by the same red brick buildings I had seen at the Sapporo Brewery in Hokkaido.

In fact, Yebisu Garden Place contains replicas of many of the exact same tourist spots one can see in Sapporo. Examples include a nearly identical Sapporo Beer Museum and a Beer Station Restaurant that features a fake façade lifted directly from the original brewery.

During the summer, free movies are shown Saturday through Monday in an outside amphitheater. Yesterday’s movie was Michael Moore’s SiCKO. I’m not sure exactly when the film was scheduled to begin, but the smattering of Japanese viewers I saw seemed to be sitting in their seats for hours. They were still waiting when I left for home.


This main Yebisu Garden Place building welcomes visitors to the entire shopping and dining area. I'm sorry that this picture has an unsightly lamppost smack dab in the center >_< I have failed at picture taking!

There must be a nationwide law in Japan stipulating that every building with a clock face must subject passersby to a sugary sweet animatronic show every hour on the hour. The Yebisu Garden Place main building was no different. This Germanic themed clock show featured men dancing around in lederhosen and busty women carrying big pitchers of beer. Yay for stereotypes!

This is the picturesque arch the ushers visitors down the escalator to the movie amphitheater and shopping area below.

I chose not to eat at the Sapporo Beer Station restaurant because the menu consisted entirely of sausages. Yay for Oktoberfest in Tokyo!

The building's facade was lifted directly from the Sapporo Brewery in (where else?) the city of Sapporo.

This is Ebisu Tower. You could take the elevator up the tower to the 38 or 39th floor for some dining in the sky.

This is the Chateau Restaurant. Lots of people (including myself) were taking pictures of the building for its unique architecture. Where's Belle and The Beast?

This is a Rodin sculpture. It's like I'm back at Stanford! He sort of looks like he is melting.

This sculpture is not a Rodin, I remember that much from the plaque. Okay, let's all appreciate the art in silence now.

Look, it's ol' Gran'pa Yebisu! He's reaching into his pocket to pull out that can of crisp, refreshing Yebisu Beer he smuggled into the park.

What would a trip to Yebisu be without a glass of their signature beer? No trip to Yebisu you'd ever see me on that's what! Sapporo is my #2 favorite beer brand behind Asahi Superdry. Don't you even try to serve me Kirin Ichiban!!! YUCK-O!!!!

My dinner of Sapporo miso ramen. Since most of the restaurants in the area are Sapporo themed, it's a no-brainer that one was serving the city's famous ramen. Having had real Sapporo miso ramen in Sapporo, I can say that this facsimile simply didn't stand up to the original. Even though it looks super yummy, there really wasn't much flavor to be found in the broth.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ponyo Review (ポニョ)

Since yesterday was my birthday (I guess it’s technically still my birthday in America), I gave myself the present of going to see Ponyo, the just released new film by world-renowned Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎 駿). “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” (崖の上のポニョ) literally translates to “Ponyo on the top of the cliff.” The official English title is, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.” Since the film won’t likely be localized and released by Disney until the holidays in America, this is my early review.

I have seen every Miyazaki directed feature. While this is the fourth Miyazaki film I have seen on the big screen (the first was Princess Mononoke), Ponyo marks the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing the original Japanese voice work in a theater setting. With no disrespect meant to the American voice actors who dub the films into English, the native Japanese voice work is simply superior in every way.

Without giving much away, the story of the film centers around the small female goldfish creature named Ponyo (pictured above) who makes her way from the depths of the ocean to the human world above. During her brief trip to the shore, Ponyo has a chance encounter with a five-year-old boy named Sosuke. As the two become fast friends, Ponyo longs to escape her underwater world and become a human girl.

This film has much more in common with Miyazaki’s fantasy classic My Neighbor Totoro than it does with his more mature and emotionally complex films like Mononoke and Nausicaä. Like Totoro, Ponyo seems content to present the audience with a simple narrative concept, and display it imaginatively onscreen. While we know from our Disney upbringing with the likes of Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid that Ponyo will eventually become a human girl, the joy lies in watching the journey through the eyes of these superbly realized animated characters.

While the story may be on the simplistic side, the film still packs all of Miyazaki’s trademarks, from his inventive vehicular designs, to the strange and fantastical creatures that lurk just outside our view, to his Ozu-inspired “pillow shots” of the serene crashing waves and blowing wind. The film even gently hits upon the Miyazaki staple of environmental conservation, showing an ocean floor littered with debris. The sight of Ponyo swimming in the ocean, only to get stuck in an empty glass jar, does wonders to bring home the point that we all inhabit this earth together, and should work to take care of it.

Ponyo on the Cliff was completely hand drawn and animated by Studio Ghibli. The opening scene of the film, which introduces the viewer to Ponyo’s underwater world, simply has to be seen on the big screen! There are so many layers of animation, with so many unique characters moving about, that one cannot help but be amazed. Every single element was drawn by hand!

Later moments in the film feature superbly realized water and storm effects. One critical scene, that I dare not spoil, had the Japanese couple in the seats next to me saying “wow” out loud over and over again. Not only is this film a reminder that Miyazaki is our best living animator, it is a reminder in this age of CG films that hand drawn animation still has the power to amaze.

Aesthetically, the film utilizes a warm color palette and round shapes. The result is that the look of the film often evokes watercolor paintings, a first for Miyakazi. As is always the case, Miyazaki depicts the children (Sosuke and Ponyo) with incredible realism and heart. I find myself always mesmerized by the lifelike human movement that the characters exhibit onscreen.

Ponyo is just about the cutest character you’ve seen in a film since Totoro himself. Amazingly, while Ponyo is a nonstop squealing bundle of energy throughout the entire film, she never becomes annoying or grating to the audience. This is a testament to Miyazaki’s ability to create loveable creature characters, whose human hearts shine through their fantastical exteriors, often with very few spoken words.

The words that are spoken in the film are superb all around, thanks to a wonderful cast, with special credit going to the real-life children who voice Sosuke and Ponyo. While you’ll see no singing Rastafarian crabs in this film, there is an insanely catchy Ponyo theme song that you’ll be humming on the car ride home. The score, composed by Studio Ghibli veteran “Joe” Hisaishi, fits the lighthearted fantasy film well, while never quite achieving the level of greatness set by his previous themes from Mononoke and Spirited Away.

If I had one small criticism, it is that, in my opinion, the film rushes us a little too fast towards the finish line. I would have enjoyed a bit more quality time with goldfish Ponyo and her world under the sea at the film’s outset. A byproduct of this forward momentum is that, at times, the supporting adult characters can be as one-dimensional as their child counterparts are vivid and lifelike. Two key adult characters have barely enough screen time, let alone character development, to make their actions during the film’s conclusion seem weighted and natural.

These small personal gripes aside, Gake no Ue no Ponyo is an incredibly enjoyable film. If you are a fan of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, it is a no-brainer that you will want to see this film (and on the big screen too!). If you are a fan of animation, you will certainly want to see this film. If you are a fan of…okay enough of this!

Listen! Just see this film when it comes out in America or wherever you live! Okay? You’ll smile and you’ll feel happy while watching. This feeling of happiness will stay with you for a long while after viewing. In my book, that’s all we can ask for from a good movie.


A cute poster featuring Ponyo and all of her little sisters.

I call this pic Kaidan no Ue no Ponyo (階段の上のポニョ) or "Ponyo on the Staircase by the Theater."

This banner hails the arrival of Ponyo across Japan!

While I was taking this picture, a middle aged Japanese woman walked past me and called me a "stinky gaijin" to my face. This takes the top spot as the new worst insult I've received in a foreign language :). I turned to her and said "You got a problem with me?" in English. This startled her and she rushed off to go smoke a cigarette under a nearby awning. Since it was my birthday, I stayed positive and resisted the urge to cuss her out in Japanese. Oh well, there are narrow-minded people wherever you go.

Me waiting in line to be let into the theater to see Ponyo. Since Ponyo just opened across Japan this Saturday, the theater was quite crowded. I lucked out with a great seat though! Truth be told, Ponyo wasn't playing in nearly as many theaters as I thought it would be. Perhaps this is because it has competition from a new Pokemon movie, Indiana Jones, and Speed Racer.

Someone's idea of a joke. Even a lion needs a good smoke! For some reason I think this lion resembles the Japanese comedian Tamori. Just picture the lion in sunglasses.

This little girl wants you to come into her Shinjuku ramen shop.

A Pig mask wearing tanuki statue. Why? I dunno.

Not quite Ponyo, but cute nonetheless!

In keeping with the day's aquatic theme, here is a neat looking tour boat of some sort traveling down the Sumida River near my apartment complex. It looks like something Batman would own.

A closeup of the nifty looking tour boat. Look at all those mesmerized passengers!