… Or, How Digicon6 Is Opening Tokyo To Asian Mythmaking
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Tokyo is not very easy to write about. There are a multitude of expectations that come with the prospect of venturing into its airspace and city limits; you know the reality on the ground can’t possibly be as mythic as you’ve been inclined to believe growing up, and it’s equally impossible to dismiss Tokyo as just another point of transit.
I’d like to think Hollywood had a hand in shaping my misconceptions about Asia’s premier city: even when it’s not mentioned explicitly, there’s a little bit of Tokyo – or at least our idea of Tokyo – in movies like Blade Runner, Gattaca, TRON, Inception. Justly or not, Tokyo in my mind is filled to the brim with clean lines, youth in revolt on steroids, caffeine-fueled hordes of karoshi hungover from last night’s sake binge crossing streets like automatons, unbridled futurism and a level of cultural advancement and complexity that makes urban Japanese culture almost absurd to the rest of the world. I mean, come on – they had Nicolas Cage shill pachinko machines on TV. How sane could they be?
But we all know Hollywood makes it its business to embellish greatly. As I got on the bus from Narita International and sat my way through to Tokyo’s commercial district of Akasaka Mitsuke an hour and a half away, I realized one unassailable truth: real cities have to be practical, or else they’d be Disneyland (one of which Tokyo has) or Las Vegas (in which case, I could just have bussed it to Singapore, harhar). There were no blinding lights to greet me, no broad technologically utopian landscape as I crested a mountain ridge overlooking the city. I liked being in Tokyo, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t what the movies said it would be. Maybe Tokyo knows that, too. Certainly it knows enough to have a highly adept mythmaking machine of its own – to call Japan’s Studio Ghibli a Far Eastern Disney is an affront to the vision of Hayao Miyazaki. And, like, The Hidden Fortress. As in the movie that inspired Star Wars. These Japanese movie and animation people know what they’re doing. And perhaps they’re looking at expanding that expertise to their Asian neighbours – while at the same time broadening their palette of cultural references and tapping into a regional industry that might leave even them in the dust if left unchecked and unexploited.
The Tokyo Broadcasting System, or TBS, doesn’t pussyfoot when it comes to letting Japan and the entire region know that it means to converge new filmmaking talents with emerging techniques and technologies. Digicon6 has for the past 13 years been pulling the best Asia has to offer to Tokyo, giving creators not only a free trip to the land of Godzilla and raw fish (they still have to get their own tickets to Disneyland, though), but also an opportunity to peer outside their localized creative communities and meet the worthiest like-minded filmmakers from a good half of the planet. Recruitment scouts from Toho Co and TBS itself lurk enticingly around the bend. Notes are compared; new compositing software and yet-to-be-released gear are salivated over. Creative juices get flowing. I heard tell there is sake involved after hours.
Anyway. We walk to the TBS Broadcasting Center, about 10 minutes away from the hotel they’ve put us in. As with many buildings in Tokyo, it’s utilitarian and generally nondescript, eclipsed by the more fun-looking Akasaka Blitz live performance centre in front of it. I always figured a TV station would have more of a sprawling campus layout than a high-rise and accompanying concert hall, but I suppose real estate here is too expensive for a complex the width of Sri Pentas or the ASTRO headquarters. 30 minutes in and I realize I shouldn’t have worried: the TBS building is all business straight up its 20 floors, and has just about everything you need for complete TV domination, save for maybe a Japanese Mad Men set and corresponding smarmy cast. This is the company that brought Ultraman and Takashi’s Castle into the world, for Pete’s sake. TBS headquarters has a soundstage roughly the size of a basketball arena; a whole floor is allocated to the set design department – it dwarfs the Catcha Media staff in terms of size (and probably time put in the office). In a global broadcasting industry that now relies on CG graphics, even for news pieces (hi, Taiwan) it’s heartening to see TBS employ a full-time team of miniature prop designers for some handcrafted visual trickery. Their newsroom team told us that as the Japanese Tsunami was devastating the country last year, the station halted all of its scheduled programming to bring realtime updates on the disaster relief efforts for two straight weeks – a commitment to ethical broadcasting that was adopted by all the other networks as well. Also, TBS has a souvenir shop that would look right at home in Tokyo Disneyland. What I’m trying to say is, these guys are dope.
The benefits of being recognized as one of the best short filmmakers in Asia by the likes of TBS should be obvious by now. Entries from 10 countries – Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, The Philippines, India, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan itself – produced by amateurs and professionals, students, enthusiasts and incorporated production studios, all swamp the national heats once every year, and even by the time the national winners and shortlists make it to the finals in Japan, there’s still about a hundred short films to run through. Some films are skewed to educate, such as India’s leading entry The Boy Who Slept In Class by Lavanya Naidu: it’s a parable on the responsibility of communities to be aware of and act on child abuse and emotional neglect, a pertinent issue in Lavanya’s home country; others are reimaginings of local legends and folk tales, as Malaysia’s Glue Studios ably did with its slick CGI short Timun Mas, based on the Indonesian fable. Other entries were out-and-out technical muscle flexing, as Singapore’s Hillary Yeo’s CG tribute to the classic mecha anime of the 70s and 80s, which he cheekily titled GODAIZER, illustrates. Most entries were either full-on CGI, with a few traditional animation shorts and even fewer live action films. There are practical reasons for this, of course: CGI, tedious as it may be, is a process that is more manageable for small groups of creators, or even one (possibly OCD) auteur, to undertake than live-action. Animated characters, especially anthropomorphic ones, are more easily relatable to worldwide audiences than human ones with inescapable cultural and ethnic signifiers.
Language, as you can imagine, is an obstacle in multilingual Asia – but it’s something this year’s Digicon6 entrants mostly overcame with flair. Visual communication is a storytelling tool all of these creators have taken to heart, and even with the sound muted, most of the film shorts in contention got their message across with few problems; you should check Speedy Life by Thailand’s Animania Co for proof of this. Also because it’s pretty damn hilarious. The short that walked away with Digicon6’s Golden DigiCon6 Award, Sing In My Own Way by Japan’s Kousuke Sugimoto, definitely simplified its communication barriers by being an animated music video. I had no idea what the lyrics meant, but it was all good – Sing In My Own Way is a high-concept, multiple-timeline acid trip of sharp, angular line art and non-stop bursts of psychedelic colour about a young man going about his hectic daily business. It’s infectiously upbeat, frenetic and completely understandable, despite the fact that most of the Asian delegates attending the screening knew not a word of Japanese.
I wasn’t in Tokyo for very long; it’s expensive to be there, and I was getting jaded with their 7-Elevens and the strange things on their aisles. On my one free evening, I managed to find myself knee-deep in Roppongi, which is something like Bukit Bintang but with more people wearing Uniqlo. This city has been through a lot, and very recently. It shows, but only in a good way. I never got to Harajuku, so I can’t say what madness went down there, but the Tokyo I saw on foot that night was stoic, but hopeful. Facing off with the aftermath of a tsunami, nuclear fallout, and other calamities both natural and man-made, the people of Tokyo and Japan in general might be looking for something to, if not help them forget, help them remember in peace. Myths offer that small escape, and stories give a sense of continuity to a narrative larger than that depicted on the screen. The ability to create happy endings and all that. I hope the pretty little myths Asia brought to Tokyo that winter helped however they could. Digicon6 is in a unique position to spread all these stories out to a much larger audience, and we can only hope that they become our stories soon enough.
Digicon6 went down on 17th November 2011. Hit up the official website on how you can be a part of this year’s short movie mayhem.