Insatiable entertainment hub Akihabara reinvents on the fly

TOKYO — For decades, Tokyoites went to Akihabara, a sprawling shopping district in downtown Tokyo, to buy everything electric — from Christmas lights to floor fans — at discount prices. In the heady days of the postwar boom, Akihabara also became a showplace for the washing machines, televisions and other glitzy consumer products pouring out of Japanese factories — products that were electric dreams to the nation’s burgeoning middle class.

Today, the streets of Akihabara are still thronged as of old, but computers and related electronics have edged out white goods in the battle for shelf space. Scattered among the stores of major retailers — Llaox, Yamagiwa, Ishimaru and Sofmap — are the dozens of shops catering to fans of games, anime and other Japanese pop-culture products, from the mainstream to the X-rated.

Among the shoppers are the otaku, or techie geeks, who obsess on everything from Gundam figures to porno anime featuring wide-eyed, big-chested girls who do amazing things with octopus tentacles. Last year, the Akihabara otaku became a media sensation with the release of “Train Man,” a hit romantic drama about a socially inept otaku who falls in love with a woman he meets on a commuter train — and woos with the help of his online pals. Supposedly based on a true story (though the “real” otaku has yet to come forward), pic was partly shot in Akihabara.

From Oct. 21 to 29, the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival will celebrate everything Akihabara (or as the natives call it, Akiba) with the Akihabara Enta-Matsuri (Entertainment Festival). The fest features stage events with cartoonists, comics and other acts at Akiba Square — a futuristic space near Akihabara Station — and sales events sponsored by Akihabara retailers, including a lottery with hundreds of prizes for winners.

And though the geeks with the slept-in hairstyles and banged-up knapsacks will be in the crowd, they are not the fest’s focus, says Enta-Matsuri producer Daiki Matsuyama.

“The image of Akihabara you see in the media, the foreign media especially, is about two or three years out of date — the core of otaku culture has shifted to places like Nakano and Ikebukuro,” Matsuyama explains. In other words, don’t expect to see any porno anime.

Instead, the highlight of the Enta-Matsuri, which launched just last year, is Animecs TIFF in Akihabara 2006, a fest devoted to the hottest of the new toons from Japan. Held at two venues — the Akiba 3-D Theater in Akihabara and the Roppongi Hills Arena in Roppongi — Animecs opens with “Paprika,” a sci-fi toon by Satoshi Kon that screened in competition at Venice. The fest will unspool four other toons by Kon, including his 1997 debut “Perfect Blue,” as well as hold a public talk event with the man himself.

Matsuyama, who also programmed Animecs, is frankly trying to draw crowds with Kon’s celebrity. At the same time, Animecs aims to “introduce the work of young animators who deserve to be better known by the world at large,” he adds.

“We want to show people that there’s more to Japanese animation than (Hayao) Miyazaki, (Mamoru) Oshii and (Katsuhiro) Otomo,” Matsuyama says.

In cooperation with Bandai Visual, which has been in the toon biz since 1982, Animecs will present a special section of toons by up-and-coming directors. One is “SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers,” a toon based on a story by Otomo and directed by Shinji Takagi, the animation director on Otomo’s 2004 period epic “Steamboy.” The story: Four kids explore the Tokyo subway system, retracing the footsteps of another gang of kids from decades past, using a mysterious map.

Also screening is “Oban Star Racers,” a retro-styled French-Japanese co-production about futuristic racers, directed by Savin Yeatman Eiffel and Tom Romain, with music by Taku Iwasaki.

Another Animecs section showcases HD animation from satellite broadcaster Wowow. Among the highlights are six episodes of “Chevalier,” a series set in 18th-century France and made to commemorate Wowow’s 15th year on the air. The director is Kazuhiro Furuhashi (“Rurouni Kenshin,” “You’re Under Arrest”), and the toon house is Production IG (“Evangelion”).

In addition, auds will see “Kemonozume,” the latest toon by anime sensation Masaaki Yuasa, who made a critically acclaimed debut in 2004 with the surreal romp “Mind Game.”

All the toons in the fest are aimed at adults more than children and “express an individual sensibility,” Matsuyama says. “They’re not just trying to cash in on a popular manga or whatever,” he explains.

There are, Matsuyama believes, a growing number of young animators like the ones at Animecs who are not content to be cogs in a studio machine. “A lot of them are going off on their own to make anime, which would have been unthinkable not long ago,” he says.

Among them are Shuhei Morita, creator of the 2004 horror toon “Kakurenbo,” and Makoto Shintai, helmer of 2002 sci-fi cult hit “Hoshi no koe — Voice of a Distant Star.” They work as independent agents making low-budget straight-to-DVD toons (locally called OVA, for “original video animation”) for a dedicated fan base.

But for all the creative ferment in the anime underground, the mainstream, Matsuyama believes, is losing touch with the sort of innovation and risk-taking that made Japanese anime a global force.

“The box office pressures are growing — they’re only making what they think will sell,” he comments.

Also, to keep up with the soaring demand for animation on TV and elsewhere, Japanese toon houses are subcontracting more of the lower-end tasks to Asian studios with cheap wages — and the hordes of animators willing to work for them.

“The (studios) are not training young animators here the way they used to,” Matsuyama says. “That’s dangerous for the future of Japanese animation. In the past, great animators worked their way up from the bottom, learning every aspect of the business. Fewer people can do that now. ”

But Akihabara, which has reinvented itself time and again over the decades, promises to roll on forever, even if it has to sell made-in-China anime to make ends meet. Or floor fans, for that matter.

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