The actor Tommy Lee Jones has been the celebrity spokesperson for Suntory’s Boss canned coffee since 2006. Many Western celebrities do commercials in Japan, it’s a quick way to make a buck. But TLJ has been doing it for so long he has become synonymous with Boss coffee and his face firmly part of Japanese popular culture.
In all his commercials he is cast as an outsider, watching Japanese society as a melancholy observer. Over time, we discover he is an alien, sent to investigate the Japanese. He takes a series of odd jobs to get closer to his subjects but he is always removed, watching, alone, with his can of coffee. Stoic.
Last week the Emperor of Japan voluntarily stepped down and a younger generation took his place. It was the end of the Heisei era and the beginning of the next. Everyone in Japan was given 10 days off to reflect and, while I’m not there, I can imagine it must be a time of great retrospection as people look back on the past 30 years and how the country has changed.
The Tommy Lee Jones character is no different so in celebration, Suntory ran this 2 minute super cut of TLJ’s greatest hits as a nostalgia piece.
For a detailed explanation of what’s going on in the video above, read this.
One of the highlights of SXSW 2019 that I want to expand on a bit was seeing the premier of Mr. Jimmy, a documentary film about the Jimmy Page tribute artist, Akio Sakurai.
The film is a loving appreciation of Japanese attention to detail and craft. In much the same way that Jiro Dreams of Sushi introduced the world to the lengthy apprenticeship and dedication of the world’s best sushi chefs, Mr. Jimmy dives into Sakurai’s singular 35-year devotion to replicating the lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page.
Sakurai’s intimate knowledge of all phases of Led Zeppelin’s musicology allows him to recreate any song from any era exactly matching the phrasing, pace and tone. He can even play entire solos from specific concerts that he has collected in the bootleg CD shops of Tokyo’s Shinjuku 7-chome neighborhood.
If you want to hear the famous 30-minute version of No Quarter played on June 21, 1977 in Los Angeles, Sakurai can play it for you, note-for-note. In order to capture the exact sound, Sakurai insists on using the same (now vintage) equipment that Jimmy Page used. The same guitars, amps, cables and even pick-ups. He plays the acoustic portions of Stairway to Heaven on the same guitar used by Mr. Page. The exact same one. He spares no expense in his pursuit.
Before the screening of the film, the director (Peter Michael Dowd) told a story of when he first heard Sakurai play. As a Led Zeppelin fan himself, he understood the time it must have taken to get the sound just right. Sakurai told him it took him 30-years to learn that particular song to his satisfaction. Dowd could tell from the look in Sakurai’s eyes that this was not just a term of expression. It really did take Sakurai thirty years.
There are wonderful snippets of dialog with the constellation of craftspeople who support Sakurai’s quest for perfection. They each have a gleam in their eyes as they know they are working for someone who notices every detail they put into their work. From Shinji Kishimoto makes Sakurai’s pickups to Rie Nakahara, the costume designer, who pours over concert footage with Sakurai in order to capture and recreate the stitching and creasing of the custom shirts worn by Jimmy Page.
It’s this pursuit of the pure experience that has attracted a devoted fanbase in Japan that is equally obsessed with the church of Zeppelin. His fans in Japan study his every move as if they are experiencing the band for the first time. Most of them have never seen the original band so a Mr. Jimmy concert is their only experience of a live Led Zeppelin show. It all comes full circle when Jimmy Page attends one of Sakurai’s concerts while visiting Japan. After the show, Page compliments Sakurai and they exchange a moment when Page recognizes a telltale lick that reveals which era’s style he was playing. The master giving an approving nod to the apprentice.
The film follows Sakurai as he leaves his family and steady job (at a kimono maker) in Japan for the United States to follow his dream. We see him struggle with his Western bandmates who are more realistic about playing the hits, selling tickets, and having fun. “No one wants to hear an 8-minute guitar solo, even if it is faithful to the time period.” they say to Sakurai. They are not used to getting post-show pages of feedback on their performances – criticisms about how they sang or placed their hands. Sakurai and Led Zeppagain eventually went their separate ways and Sakurai seems happy to leave the “jukebox band” behind.
But true artists eventually find each other and we see Sakurai form another band, joining together with Jason Bonham, the son of the late-John Bonham (drummer for Led Zeppelin) for a world tour. It’s a dream come true.
Please see this movie. It was a labor of love (the director sold his car to make a second trip to Japan) that investigates Japanese otaku culture through one person’s journey, a hero journey but with a twist. Sakurai can never truly become Jimmy Page but instead the audience has internalized a bit of Sakurai’s obsession. I have been listening to old Led Zeppelin bootlegs for the past week.
After the movie, we were treated to a few songs played by Sakurai himself who was in the audiences. Here’s a clip I filmed of him playing The Rain Song which we were told was written on a dare by George Harrison who complained that Led Zeppelin never wrote any ballads!
Izumi turned me on to a YouTube channel she’s discovered that features lovingly documents the kitchen recipes of an older, sometimes forgotten, generation in Japan. Each short vignette explores the life of these women who fed their family with what they had and passed on traditions of their region.
From the producers:
Our team especially tries to focus on eccentric, lovely but “Rock” ladies above the age of 80, who have lived through World War Two. We interview them with great care, and through their recipes which represents the relationships they share with those they care about, we are able to uncover great depth in their life stories. We want to spread those stories to the young generations living today. We believe that if we can share the stories of those beautiful and loving ladies to the world, regardless of borders and languages, people may appreciate even the dinner table just a little bit more.
When asked what we’re trying to build at SmartNews, I sometimes explain it with a department store metaphor. When algorithms are applied to online shopping, they are optimized to show you exactly what you are looking for. Amazon and Netflix are famous for perfecting the “others-that-bought-what-you-bought-also-bought-this” algorithm to great effect.
If you’re looking for a red sweater, they will show you the best red sweater. But that only works if you’re looking for a red sweater.
What if you are just browsing around? What if you are wandering around, looking for inspiration, not sure what exactly you want? Japan has a some of the world’s best department stores. They are wonderful at curating interesting things from around the world and introducing them to the sophisticated urban consumer. They have a long tradition of doing this.
Ginza has a new department store called Ginza Six that opened a couple years ago. Besides these wonderfully packaged $20 tubes of toothpaste from Italy (above) you can also check out the completely impractical spiked boots (below). It’s a curious browser’s delight.
What I’m getting at is that SmartNews is trying to re-create the Japanese Department Store experience online with news. I keep talking about “hidden gems” and this is what I mean. You never know what you’re going to find but we’ll do our best to make an algorithm which is optimized for finding something serendipitously, interesting.
Anyway, more on this in this interview with my boss, Rich Jaroslovsky, below as he describes the concept of “personalized discovery.”
The key is personalized discovery. Of course that also means sometimes users will see stories they don’t like. I’m generalizing, but a conservative might see a Mother Jones story, or a liberal might see something from Fox News.
That’s probably the biggest complaint we get: That the stories are all “left wing,” or “right wing.” But when we look at studies about user engagement in news apps, our audience is far more engaged than that of any other news app.
My argument is that those are two sides of the same coin. As a 40-year journalist, when all you see is stuff you already know or already think you’re interested in… news gets boring. There’s no serendipity. You don’t get to learn anything new. You don’t get to discover.
That’s the textbook definition of a filter bubble.
Television news programs in Japan are famously entertaining. The sets are more interesting and the hosts are much more physically involved with the story-telling. Below are some screenshots of a lengthy and incredibly detailed explanation of the sport of speedskating.
Here they are talking about the importance of drafting complete with a huge fan for effect. I can’t imagine Brian Williams or Savannah Guthrie doing this.
We spent this morning looking at YouTube videos of Kasou Taishou. These are short skits that re-create special effects using charmingly amateur stage effects. Think of it as a mashup between traditional Japanese kabuki stage-craft and a high school play.
Add a twist of self-depreciating humor and you’ve got a winner.
With the Oscars coming up tomorrow, I thought it would be fun to share this performance by Japanese comedian Yuriyan Retriever where she nails (as in totally skewers) the genre of the overly emotional acceptance speech.
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a year off to teach English in Japan to help pay for tuition. Having experienced taco truck street food while attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, I yearned for the late night snack and saw an opportunity to introduce a decent street taco to the Tokyo late-night crowd. Japan had not discovered Mexican food back in the 80s. Tacos were a caricature of the real thing, cabbage was often substituted for lettuce and the only tortillas you could find were El Paso’s fried hard shells at the expat grocery store.
There is a long tradition of street food in Japan. Scores of ramen or oden pushcarts (yatai) could be found at every railway station with groups of salarymen grabbing a bite after a long day at the office or a night of karaoke. The yatai business is hyper-competitive and you would often spot dusty old pushcarts under railroad bridges, abandoned by someone who had tried and failed to bootstrap their career. My thought was to reclaim one of these old carts, fix it up, and introduce my tacos in the streets of Tokyo after my evening English lessons. Encouraged by my fellow English teachers, I felt I had a core group of regular customers with which to start and it seemed easy enough to fix up an old yatai, find a spare spot, and set up shop. Boy was I wrong.
Locating an old yatai that was abandoned and in decent condition was easy enough. During my spare time between classes I found some carts that were parked a good distance away from any station that appeared no longer in use. There were several of them in what looked like an old yatai graveyard. I found an old one that clearly had not been used for a long time and left a note asking if I could take it. I came back several days in a row to check. When I was confident the owner was long gone, I set to work refurbishing it for service.
I visited the local government office to ask what was required to open a yatai and received a document with several pages of requirements. My basic Japanese translation of the document listed out things such as a source of running water, refrigeration, and a way to keep the food warm. All these would be examined at an inspection by the health authorities before I could get a license.
Perhaps it was my naiveté but I chose a creatively liberal interpretation to meet these requirements:
Running water? A 20-gallon plastic jug with a hose connected to a spigot running into a “sink” which was a plastic bucket with a hole drilled out of the bottom.
Refrigeration? I cut a series of styrofoam panels and glued them to the walls of a cabinet and fashioned a door to seal it shut.
Burner? I placed two portable table-top gas burners into a rack I fashioned to hold them and the pots of taco fillings I would serve.
I think the old health inspector took pity on the innocent gaijin kid with a capitalistic gleam in his eye because when I rolled my contraption to the government office for my appointment, he took a cursory glance, listened patiently to my explanation of how I satisfied all the checkboxes on the form, grunted his approval, and stamped my certificate! All I needed now was a location, this is when I learned about the yakuza.
The yatai business in Japan, is lightly regulated by the government (as demonstrated by my easy approval), but strictly controlled by the yakuza. The area immediately around each train or subway station, while clear during the day, hosts a warren of cozy little noodle stands that crop up around 8 or 9 pm each evening. Every open spot is “controlled” by the local gang who takes a share of the revenues as “protection money” to keep things running smoothly. The yakuza runs interference with the local government, police, and rival gangs to keep them out of the hair of the proprietors and for this service, each yatai owner pays the gang a cut of their profits. A noodle stand can clear between $1000 – $3000 a night so it’s a good business so long as everyone’s happy and things are running smoothly.
My English school was near Yokohama station, a major terminus south of Tokyo so the streets leading to the station were already crowded with many yatai, all with their own specialties and faithful regulars. Of course no one was serving tacos so I felt that was my in. I had scouted out a location on a street under a nearby highway overpass that was in between a busy nightclub district and the station so I felt I could grab some people on their way home or going out for the evening. It was also on the way home from the English school so convenient for the teachers and students as well. It appeared that the space was open so I asked the nearby yatai owners if it would be ok if I opened my stand in that spot.
There is a clear pecking order among all the yatai and I was directed to one stand lording over a fork in the road, a prime spot at the nexus of two major walking routes to the station. The yatai was a ramen cart and the broad shouldered proprietor had such a steady stream of clientele that he required two satellite tables to serve all his customers. I bought a bowl of his excellent tonkotsu and after making small talk about the secret of his broth, explained my street taco concept and how I might go about securing a spot down the road and how much the “protection money” would cost. He explained to me that I would have to meet “the man,” explain my business, and this person would negotiate a fee and grant his permission. I asked when I might meet this mysterious person who didn’t have a name and was told that he would introduce me when appropriate.
Several nights passed and each time I would stop by the ramen stand and ask if “the man” was around and each time was told I had either just missed him or that he had not come by that night. Finally, after about two weeks, I decided that the only way I was going to meet this guy was just to set up my stand and he would come by sooner or later, the chips would fall and I would then know what I was working with. I made final preparations, cooked up a batch of taco fillings to open for business after my last lesson.
Opening night was a roaring success. All the English teachers and several students came by to try out my 300 yen tacos. I sold cans of beer out of a cooler and all the activity attracted a few curious barmaids on their way to work and they promised to tell their friends. No “man” came by on the first night, neither on the second. Just as I was beginning to wonder if such a guy existed, on the third night a cheery guy just looking for a good time stopped by and was full of questions about what I was doing.
My imagination prepared me for some scarface gangster in a black suit and red tie but I was totally thrown off by this guy with the fashion sense of a carnival barker. He was such a bundle of joy I showered him with free beers and tacos and me and my English teacher friends quickly won him over. He clearly enjoyed the music we were playing (I think it was Aretha Franklin) and loved the vibe. Later that evening, as I was cleaning things up and he was on his 5th can of Asahi Dry , I broached the topic of “rent” and he shrugged it off and patted me on the shoulder and said that he wanted to do his bit for international relations and sponsor my stand gratis!
I continued the stand the rest of that year, later bringing on a partner who ran the stand on alternate evenings so I could get some time off. One evening it was pouring rain so my partner and I decided not to open for business. The next night, when I was setting up, he was waiting for me, sitting on the curb. He scolded me saying that if I wanted to establish regular customers it was imperative that I be open, rain or shine. A fundamental rule of business that I have never forgotten.
My yatai adventure ended that Summer as I got ready to return to college but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. The hardest part of starting a business is starting. Once you gain momentum, people and promise have a way of materializing and turning your dream into reality. And with the right attitude, barriers that you imagine for yourself are just that, your imagination. Chip away at anything and it’s all just people.