J-Pop

extralarge   Princess Princess

J-Pop. AKA: Japanese pop music is another interest of mine that just won’t die. There’s something about these magical singing/dancing pixie people that enthralls me. The first time I was exposed to J-pop was my second day living in-country. I turned on the radio and searched for the military network, I heard Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and immediately turned it off. I sat there for a moment, pissed at realization that my days of being entertained by the radio were probably on hold for the next three years. I flipped it back on and decided to see what type of nonsense was being broadcast over the local airwaves….

What I found intrigued me. I stumbled upon what must have been some type of in-studio concert. Two Japanese men were talking back and forth for a few moments then all went silent and a guitar was heard. The intro consisted of some pretty elaborate and speedy fingerpicking, I waited for the first verse to begin, and I waited, and waited, and waited…. It seemed like 10 minutes before the song actually started. But that couldn’t be right. Could it? Finally, an older sounding man in a raspy voice began to sing. In fact he began to croon the same line over and over again. To my young American ears, it sounded like he saying “English! Didi-la-la Didi-la-la”. Who knows what he was really saying, but he went on repeating this for nearly another 10 minutes, over and over and over. I turned of the radio and silently wondered what I getting myself into.

That was the extent of my interest in Japanese music until maybe a year later. As part of a culture exchange program, we had a teenage Japanese girl stay with my family over the Christmas holiday. She was a very nice girl and she happened to bring a tape with her of an all-girl Japanese rock band “Princess Princess”. A quick listen revealed that this was MUCH DIFFERENT from “Didi-la-la
“. She made a copy for me and I listened to it often. Despite not being able to understand the lyrics, I found the recording to be one of my favorites. I kept the tape for many years until finally it simply wore out and broke sometime in the mid-90s.

After returning to the states, the years went by and I became involved in the whole 90’s Alternative scene. It wasn’t until many years later, after I got married, that my love for J-Pop was rekindled. I had taken a hiatus from video games for most of the mid to late 90’s. After marrying and settling down a bit, my wife and I bought a brand new PlayStation 2. One of the first games we purchased was Kingdom Hearts. This game was a strange blend of both Disney characters and icons from the Final Fantasy universe. It featured a theme sung by the J-pop idol Hikaru Utada. I found the song to be quite catchy and thanks to the Internet I got my hands on some of her other works.

utada-hikaru   Hikaru Utada

Fast forward a few more years, I find myself living in Tennessee working the graveyard shift for a bank. I discover a streaming J-pop station on the Internet called J-Fan Radio. This station opens my ears to even more Japanese artists. I fall in love with idols or bands with names like:  Tommy February6, Dragon Ash, Balzac, Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi, and Gackt.

In recent years, Japanese culture has entered the American mainstream thru video games and various Anime. With them has come many original soundtracks featuring J-pop. Due to this, it’s very easy these days to get your hands on the latest music from our friends in Japan. If you’ve never experienced it, I recommend giving a listen. They make great soundtracks to late-night video game marathons. I take a bit of pride in being able to say “J-pop? Oh yeah, I was listening to that 20 years ago.” But honestly, I didn’t learn to appreciate it until many years later.

004392w9   Gackt

 

Final Fantasy

If Wizardry is considered the grandfather of western-style fantasy games. Than Final Fantasy is its far-eastern cousin. While Wizardry was rooted in classic Tolkien style swords and sorcery, Final Fantasy can be summed up as a more unfamiliar techno-fantasy type of genre.
I was introduced to the series while living in Japan. I had seen the game in the collection of several of my Japanese friends, and I knew that it was off limits. “No play!” They would tell me. I assume they feared I would accidentally delete their character data due to my inability to read the Japanese menus. I enjoyed watching them play the child-like characters, as they explored weird underwater shrines, and did battle with goblins or vampires.

Eventually, the game was translated to English and made available to the western audience. I snapped it up immediately and never looked back. The summer of my post 6th grade year was spent exploring the game to the fullest. I created characters of every class, snooped through every nook and cranny of every dungeon, and defeated the final monster countless times.

I knew that Final Fantasy II and III were already available to my Japanese friends, and I was more than upset to learn that Nintendo of America intended to skip these tiles and repackage the upcoming Final Fantasy IV and “Final Fantasy II” for the American audience.

Over the years, I consumed every Final Fantasy title made available to me.  Eventually, after I was married and had children of my own, the elusive third entry in series was finally brought to the American shores in the form of a 3D remake.

To date, I have played and beaten every single-player entry in the series (except for the newly released XIII-2). As far as the online titles go, I was active in Final Fantasy XI from 2003 until the spring of 2011. I have been a supporter of Final Fantasy XIV ever since.

While Wizardry, nurtures the purest part of my dungeon crawling, spell casting, classing D&D spirit, Final Fantasy appeals of me in other ways. The art direction reminds me of my years living in Japan, while the settings and in-depth stories cater to the classic fantasy elements that make Wizardry so appealing.

A few years ago, I thought it might be interesting to play through various game franchises and post reviews of each game, noting how they have matured and developed over time. I did this with the Final Fantasy series.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting these reviews.

Japan

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If you’ve actually read this blog, you’ll know that as a child I was a military brat. Shortly after starting my 4th grade year, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan.

Living in Japan was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I still remember exiting the quiet, climate controlled airplane after a 22 hour flight. Stepping thru the archway of the plane and into the Okinawan air for the first time was like a slap in the face. The air was thick and moist. It was just like a steamy sauna, only with the smell of salt water and foreign foliage in the air. The jet lag had really got ahold of me, and I found myself unable to sleep in the hotel room that day. I flipped on the TV only to find three channels. One English speaking channel operated by the US government and two local Japanese channels. Watching Japanese television for the first time was a wake up call like I’ve never had. The cheesy samurai soap opera, followed by a children’s show featuring an octopus farting into a Jello mold made on thing abundantly clear; I was in a completely different world.

3772349310_7b9de77e47 A bottle of Sake featuring the corpse of a venomous Habu snake in the bottle

Living on military base in a foreign country can be a bit deceiving. Inside the confines of those walls, you could almost believe you never left the normalcy of the USA. But step outside, and there’s no question… You are in Japan. One of the first things I learned to enjoy about Okinawa, was the food. Thankfully, I love noodles, and there no short supply of them. Over my three-year stay in Japan, I became quite fond of the various flavors the orient had to offer. It’s an obsession that lasts to this day.

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The first time you taste something like Miso, or some other foreign spice or sauce, it can be a little off-putting. But once you break thru the defensive concept of “I’m not used to this”, you might just sup rise yourself with what you actually enjoy.

One thing I will say about these Japanese, they certainly like their candy. Japanese snacks and confectioneries are like no other. The variety of flavors seems endless. For example, over here in the US, we have three flavors of Kit Kats. Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and White Chocolate. In Japan, on the shelf of any random convenience store, you might find Kit Kats in such exotic flavors as: Wasabi, Orange, Banana, Cheese, Sweet Potato, Basked Potato, Key Lime, Green Tea, etc.

In the short three years I lived there, I was never able to get a firm grasp on the Japanese language.  But I did have many encounters with kids my age. One thing that we both understood, regardless of our language barrier was video games. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or as it was called in the Japan, the Famicom was in just as many Japanese households. Many of our games were the same. Things like Mario and Zelda didn’t rely heavily on words, so there was no real need to to be concerned with communication. It was not uncommon for a Japanese friends to lend me a Famicom game to take home and play. However, the size of the carts were different. This led to a compatibility problem. Thanks to the black market, this problems was easily solved for a mere $10. Meet the honeybee.

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This beautiful piece of Asian engineering made is possible to fit a Famicom game into a standard US NES. Oh, the fun times that were had thanks to this little devil. I may have never learned the secret that the REAL Super Mario Bros. 2 was not the same as the SMB 2 that was presented to the American audience… but I’ll save that rant for another time.

I slowly became absorbed with Japanese pop culture. I viewed Dragon Ball Z cartoons on TV during their first run, I saw video games months before they were even revealed to the western audience. I read manga, collected anime branded pencils, listened to Japanese pop music. There’s so much I could write about when it comes to my experiences in Okinawa. Perhaps I will do so in future posts. For now, let this serve an introduction into my obsession with a particular genre of video game, the Japanese RPG.