The sixth annual J-POP SUMMIT Festival was held in San Francisco’s Japantown over the weekend of July 19-20, 2014. It was fun and exhilarating and loud and crowded (a serious crowd of humanity in the space of a few blocks) and full of unexpected and wonderful things. Here are some of those things – and it’s not even all Hatsune Miku, but there’s a lot of her, too.
(Fair warning: more than one person has described Nose Hair Lint Gland as “unlistenable.”)
I arrived early on 9am Saturday morning while they were still setting up, got my press credentials (Lanyard Achievement Unlocked!), and had my first run-in with cosplayers.
1. So Much Cosplay! (Also, We Looked Swell.)
My first thought was “Sailor Moon!” But that’s because there’s a great deal that I don’t know about anime and/or Japanese pop culture. (Which, among other things, is why I was there.) It wasn’t until the Cosplay Masquerade later that day that I discovered they were in fact from a game, a game whose name was spoken clearly and loudly in fluent, unaccented English by American citizens more than once yet which I’m still unable to parse, and it thoroughly defeats my Google Fu. Any of you recognize the name of the game?
I should mention that I didn’t take many pictures of cosplay as such, since that wasn’t really my primary interest. However, CosplaySF was on the scene and took many high-quality pictures, as did SF Weekly, so check those out – after you’ve finished reading this article and patronized Topless Robot’s gracious advertisers, of course. (Remember, when you use an ad blocker, you’re using COMMUNISM and blocking FREEDOM.) Besides, even though I was there under the auspices of the Voice Media Group, I felt like I was well over the line from spectator to active (cos)player, which is kinda where I live most of the time anyway. My daily-use purse is a replica of Ramona Flowers’ Subspace Suitcase, and those synthetic dreadlocks are actually woven into my hair, just for starters.
I spent most of Saturday with my dear friend Ilene, and people asked to take our picture more than few times, probably because we looked terrific together. We hadn’t coordinated ahead of time to both wear black and purple, nor for her green hair to match my green press pass, but we’re just that good.
A nice detail about the friendly vibe of the event was that even though these signs were posted…
…as a rule, almost everybody asked politely first, even the creepy guys.
As I say, taking pictures of general cosplay didn’t interest me so much as cataloging…
2. So Many Mikus!
Indeed, while they were setting up the Sega booth early in the morning, Miku was on guard…
…and posing with herself later in the day.
She was in the Cosplay Masquerade, naturally, though not as many Mikus as I expected.
(Language note: my usage of the name “Miku” mirrors that of Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas; from my experience, any given one is simply called Elvis, as in “Elvis should be arriving soon,” or “Hey, there’s Elvis!”)
Miku was also to be found near Moshi Moshi Nippon’s KAWAii! booth…
…and on the street…
…and even occasionally indoors, in felinoid form.
Speaking of cats —
There were wigs for the nascent Mikus…
…and all sorts of merchandise, of course, since Miku is nothing if not a merchandising bonanza. And there’s certainly nothing new under the sun; I recently acquired a used copy of The Elvis Catalog: Memorabilia, Icons, And Collectibles Celebrating The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, and mercy, was there a torrent of tchotchkes. Elvis was real and Miku is not, of course, but neither is Mickey Mouse, and that hasn’t prevented billions of dollars in merchandise sales over the decades. All that said, however, I do not know what the hell this is:
Nor do I want to know, and I certainly don’t need anyone to Google it for me, as doing so would ruin the delightful mystery of “Christmas Piano Cake” as a consumer product. I’m just glad that it exists.
I do have a better idea of what this is, though.
3. The New Miku Video Game.
At the SEGA Booth, one could both pre-order the upcoming Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd for the PS3 and PS VITA, and/or play a localized version of the game. I did neither of these things, since I don’t anticipate acquiring PS3 or PS VITA in the near future, nor did I want to fail miserably at it in front of a crowd. I do like rhythm games quite a lot (in general, I find I gravitate towards games that don’t involve killing people), and I recently installed MikuFlick /02 on my iPad (and can be heard playing it in the right channel through much of the 7/16 Nose Hair Lint Gland), but this was far too daunting.
Here’s one woman playing Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F 2nd…
…and another woman playing on the other screen, at least until the fellow behind the table cut the power for reasons I never quite grasped.
4. So Many People Wanting Ramen!
By far the most popular area of this year’s J-POP SUMMIT Festival was the debut of Ramen Street, featuring six different ramen shops from various locales such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a couple straight outta Nippon. Among the offerings were a ramen burger which, I’d wager, was much better than the one our fearless leader Luke recently sampled.
How popular was Ramen Street? The above picture was taken at 10:44am on Saturday. I was told that people had already started lining up by 8:30, and the average wait was three hours if you were lucky.
As you can imagine, it was difficult to tell where a line for a given shop might end, and some of them were kind enough to provide signage to that end.
(And yes, ha ha, “seimen.”)
There was a surprising backlash against the long lines, and people on social media who weren’t there called it a “fiasco.” Granted, passing judgment on things you haven’t actually experienced yourself is what social media (and comments sections, and really, the Internet at large) is for. But as someone who was actually present, and who had to fight her way through crowd to get the stairs to the parking garage, I don’t think it qualified as a fiasco on any level. Even Hitler got mad about the long waits, but I think we can all agree that he was history’s greatest overreactor.
Was Ramen Street super-busy with long lines? Without a doubt, but that would only qualify as a fiasco if it was the only food available at the fest, and it was not. All of Japantown’s regular restaurants were open (including the source of my favorite ramen dish in San Francisco, the cold hiyashi chuka at Osakaya, which has been my birthday dinner more than one year), plus there was a whole block of food trucks, which actually had shorter wait times in spite of the equally dense crowd….
…including the J-POP debut of the BACON BACON truck. They’re famous for their bacon, we’re told.
Plenty of dessert trucks, too. Whether you were in the mood for CUSTARD or kuhsterd, the J-POP organizers had your back.
On Saturday, Ilene and I waited a very reasonable 15 minutes or so in the Phat Thai truck line, and on Sunday I had quite possibly the most delicious Urban Food Log ever, the kimchi-and-brown-rice burrito from the Bobcha SF Korean food truck.
I know, right? And it was even tastier than it looks!
Saturday was an atypically hot and sunny day in San Francisco, so after lunch, Ilene and I were more than ready to take a load off in a cool, dry place out of the sunlight. So, we headed to the New People Cinema for….
5. J-POP Splash! Part 1: Daichi, the Human Beat-Boxer.
J-POP Splash! was the second feature in the Japan Film Festival, which launched at noon that very day and runs through Sunday, July 27. I cover a lot of film festivals for SF Weekly, and the fact that the Japan Film Festival is only two years old yet runs for over a week is pretty impressive; most festivals in this town are only for a few days. I’ll be providing a list of movies to watch out for from the Festival here on Topless Robot sometime next week, if all goes well.
J-POP Splash! opened with a performance by Daichi, seen above holding the official sparkling cocktail beverage of the festival, and billed as the human beat-boxer. (Yes, I know that “human beat-boxer” sounds redundant, since in the American vernacular, beatboxing specifically refers to sounds only humans can produce. Deal.)
Here, Daichi shows off the range of his skillz.
He also accompanied himself on a cover of Pharrell’s “Happy.” You can parse it as a cover of Weird Al’s “Tacky,” if you’d like.
…and then it was time for:
6. J-POP Splash! Part 2: The Videos.
J-POP Splash! proper was a series of 13 Japanese music videos played straight off of a YouTube playlist (complete with interstitial ads, as well as those little ones in the corner that you have click on the X to make go away) on the New People Cinema’s screen. Like any music anthology, it was hit-or-miss – and I overheard one of the hosts mentioning that getting to show each individual video required no small amount of negotiation with the given record company – but the ones that hit, really hit. And if it seems like I’m shouting certain artist names, that capitalization is culled from the event’s official website. For that matter, I don’t know why the festival is officially called the J-POP SUMMIT rather than J-Pop Summit, but that’s what they call it, and I respect that.
6a. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, “Ninja Re Bang Bang.”
I suspect this is the kind of thing most people think of when they think of J-POP music: bouncy techno beats, a high-pitched, occasionally auto-tuned female singer, and a generally batshit video, this time featuring Kyary dancing with psychedelic anime robots. It’s okay, but nothing special.
6b. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, “Yumeno Hajima Ring Ring.”
I enjoyed this Kyary Pamyu Pamyu video much more, and not just because it’s shot on an actual set rather than in front of a greenscreen, Kyary is wearing stripey tights, and a polar bear is shredding on the electric guitar. On second thought, that’s exactly why I like it.
6c. Sakanaction, “Yoru No Odoriko”
Sakanaction, which literally translates as “fish action,” is a rock group with a new wave bent, and what I especially liked about this video is that almost all the special effects are done through either in-camera or through editing and lighting. There appears to be very little done to it in post-production. Reminds a bit of the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” video, but with more interesting ideas.
6d. Sakanaction, “Bach no Senritsu wo Yoru ni Kiita Seidesu”
Where the first video at least featured the whole band, this one is all about the frontman Ichir? Yamaguchi’s very handsome face, in many different forms. (At one point Ilene leaned over to me and said, “I think he may be a little narcissistic.”) It’s possibly justified by the lyrics, inasmuch as it needs to be justified, but if not, that’s okay, too.
6e. World Order, “Machine Civilization”
Calling World Order “the Japanese OK Go” feels lazy and reductive, and for all I know OK Go is “the American World Order” (which sounds a bit chilling) but I’ll be damned if I can think of another equivalency. Among the fun things about this video is the reactions of the passerby in the airport to World Order’s characteristic choreographed robot dancing…
6f. World Order, “Have a Nice Day”
…but that’s nothing compared to the public interactions in this video, shot on the streets of, and in the arcades, nightclubs, and sushi boat joints of the city of Akihabara. If you only watch one World Order video, this is the one to watch, though we haven’t yet reached the best of playlist.
6g. Perfume, “Magic of Love”
It’s not this one, sad to say, though this is the best of the girl-group videos, if only because there’s SO MUCH COLOR and SO MUCH CAMERA MOVEMENT. I can’t fault any video the works out the rods and cones so much. The handout we were given describing all the artists says that “Perfume serves up deceptively simple yet punishing choreography with the utmost mechanical perfection.” I can’t disagree with that.
6h. Perfume, “Spending All My Time”
Though the video has a considerably more subdued color palette, this one is far more satisfying, both because the song is catchier, and the video involves levitating apples. That’s always a plus.
6i. SEKAI NO OWARI, “RPG”
This right here, this is the good stuff. I can’t even properly express how happy this video made me. The music has a big Wall of Sound-eqsue production, there’s a cute girl (Fujisaki Saori) on the accordion, and a goddamn clown as DJ. Both the song and the video are just so joyful, and in a completely non-cloying way. I’m not even annoyed that the (really very adorable) lead singer Fukase Kei often has his hand in a pocket, which is one of my peeves. He earned it. And Fujisaki-san is clearly having so much fun in both this and the next video!
6j. SEKAI NO OWARI, “Honou to Mori No Carnival”
Everything I said about the previous video holds true for this one as well – except that this time the clown is holding a sousaphone – and it confirmed that I’d just discovered one of my new favorite groups. And, again, Fujisaki Saori is just clearly having a blast.
6k. RIP SLYME, “SLY “
Anything would be a comedown after the SEKAI NO OWARI videos, but this video by Japanese hip-hop group RIP Slyme is not without its charms. The funk-heavy tune is catchy, and the obligatory Sexy Dancing Lady is wearing a tail, so clearly they know what I like. (The cut to a fox is a bit obvious, but what are you gonna do?) MSTies may notice a cameo by the chiropractic helmet.
6l. YANAKIKU, “PAKUPAKU KINGYO”
I caught a bit of YANAKIKU performing live elsewhere at the J-POP SUMMIT Festival , they were among the judges of the Cosplay Masquerade – and they refer to the kimonos they usually wear as “KIMO-COS,” or Kimono Cosplay, which is an interesting little semantic shift – but this video is…yeah. Points for effort, moving on.
6m. Mr. Children, “Kurumi”
A middling, mid-tempo rock number. Not great, not terrible, and I get why the band has been so popular since debuting in 1993. I do like the time-looping storyline of the video, though.
To sum up J-POP Splash!: SEKAI NO OWARI FTW.
It let out in enough time for Ilene and I to make our way from New People to the Peace Plaza (normally a walk that takes two minutes, but was a bit longer considering the booths and masses of people) for the best live music of the event…
7. “They Have a Girl Drummer!” (And a Girl Bass Player, and Guitarist / Singer.)
I’m always ready to bust out a Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World reference, and while I hope I’m never in a situation in which “He punched the highlights out of her hair!” is factually accurate, I’m prepared if necessary.
Anyway, The Akabane Vulgars on Strong Bypass is a punk rock trio from Tokyo, and they were incredible. I assure you, your face has not been rocked this hard in a long time.
From my vantage point at the foot of the stage in front of the security gate (and at least down there, I was the only Press Pass holder dress up at all – get it together, people!) I took many pictures of the bass player. I mean, a lot. Perhaps more than was strictly necessary. But, you know, you can’t be too careful about these things.
The Akabane Vulgars on Strong Bypass’s “House of the Rising Sun” (and Daichi’s “Happy,” for that matter) was not the only great cover, as there was also…
8. Kylee’s Cover of Demi Lovato’s “Let it Go.”
Japanese-American pop singer (and current Stanford University sophomore!) Kylee was actually soundchecking this earlier in the day, but my video of that performance turned out poorly, and we were in J-POP Splash! during her official performance, so above is YouTube user BxB’s video. What I really like about Kylee’s take is that she’s not doing the Frozen version, but Demi Lovato’s pop version from the soundtrack, which I much prefer. And Kylee just nails the bridge of Lovato’s version, an emotional crux which (I feel) is missing from the movie version. So there you go.
You may well ask, did things ever take a bizarre twist? As a matter of fact…
9. The Wall of Umbrella Terror.
This is what happened. It’s Sunday afternoon, day 2 of the J-POP SUMMIT Festival. Ilene wasn’t able to join me that day, and I’d spent most of the morning in line to get a ticket for the autograph session with Kei, the illustrator of Hatsune Miku.
The mission was successful, and the weary but cordial Kei signed a copy of the Mikucolor art book, as well as the posters they were giving away. Afterward, I went to Peace Plaza to catch the end of the BABY, THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT Fashion Contest, where I was soon asked by an official-looking person (Crew Pass rather than Press Pass) if I wanted to go onstage. Um, sure? She said it was for the Merry Project, and all I’d have to do is open an umbrella. Again: um, sure?
Me and few dozen other people were rounded up and taken backstage. Many of them were, shall we say, totally normal-looking people. Clearly the organizers just needed warm bodies, and no matter how ghostly I tried to make my pallor – and I went to town with the Ben Nye face powder that weekend – they could tell I qualified. But it meant I got to go backstage, which is always neat, especially considering the BABY, THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT event was wrapping up.
We were given umbrellas with pictures of smiling children on them, filed onto the stage, and after a brief announcement told to open them and hold them high.
It was, as I may have hinted at, damn weird. I’m not a big fan of children’s faces, or closeups of open mouths, so I was working through some fears.
They hustled us back off the stage in short order, mainly because they had to get it ready for…
10. The Pocky Apocalypse (Pockylypse?).
Also known as the Pocky Eating Contest. I’ve never really understood why competitive gluttony is a thing, but I’m aware that it’s a big thing indeed, and this was just about as close to it as I care to get. (I’ve never seen Man Vs. Food, and I intend to keep it that way.)
There were 10 contestants (including last year’s returning champion), and they were each faced with consuming the contents of 7 boxes of Pocky, including any and all crumbs that might dribble onto the table.
It took about 14 minutes, and I was rooting for Ray, the bespectacled fellow on the far left…
…but the winner was Jacob, and he somehow managed to not vomit it all back up, but it was clear at times that he wanted to.
Curiously, even though the host was encouraging the audience to record it, at the time of this writing I can’t find any videos online of the 2014 Pocky Eating Contest. Instead, please enjoy CrazyDarkOne’s video of the Pocky Hipster in the Cosplay Masquerade.
After the stage was cleared (and the crumbs on the ground were mostly removed using black electrical tape), it was time for what would be my final J-POP event…
11. Tokyo Girls’ Style.
Tokyo Girls’ Style is an all-singing, all-dancing group of teenagers from an unspecified city in Japan. (Kyoto, if I had to take a guess.)
Their set was a lot of fun, and the fact that A) though they were dancing to a pre-recording track they were singing live, and B) their choreography was a bit on the loose side only added to the charm.
I was in the front row rockin’ out – my hair and kitty ears show up in a quite a few videos of the event, including the one by our old pal BxB – but YouTube user helloginelle got a decent video.
After their set, much to my surprise, I got asked by another official-looking Crew Pass person if I wanted to be interviewed about the show. So I got taken backstage yet again, and was asked to talk into the camera about the Tokyo Girls’ Style performance and what I thought of the J-POP SUMMIT Festival overall – and, if possible could I be energetic about it? That, I could do, since I have a tendency to get a little spazzy when I’m talking about something I like, and when I’m exhausted, I just get bouncier. (Bodies are weird.) The videographer wasn’t quite sure where the footage would be used, but probably a Tokyo Girls’ Style promo video.
It was a quarter to five, the festival was officially ending at six, and I took getting interviewed (however briefly) to be a sign that, yep, it was time for Sherilyn to go home. I was exhausted yet exhilarated, and didn’t want to leave, but I knew overstaying wouldn’t do me any favors either. So, I took one last recording of the quickly dwindling crowd (hey, look, my index finger makes a cameo in the upper left corner!)…
…and made my exit. But I’ll be back next year, and watch this space for a list of movies to watch out for from this year’s Japan Film Festival.
Previously by Sherilyn Connelly: