Big in Austin, Big in Japan

If a holiday gift trend is big here this year, chances are, it was already big over there

Momoko (Photo By John Anderson)

In case you hadn't noticed, while you and your Gap exposed-seam cowl neck sweater were sitting comfy in your Ford Explorer, sipping your Starbucks, draped in red, white, and blue hegemony, a battle has been raging for the minds and hearts and holiday dollars of consumers across the land. Some might even say America is at war. And that would be tacky. So let's stick with "battle."

Now, we're not talkin' planes dropping outta the sky or spelunking Special Operatives donning burqas (... or Dooney & Burke-a, for that matter).

MTV Karaoke Machine
MTV Karaoke Machine (Photo By John Anderson)

Nope, we are talking about Poo-ChiTM.

Remember Poo-Chi? Who can forget Poo-Chi and her littermates Super Poo-Chi and Tekno, the interactive wonderdog, or whatever the hell it's called? Those li'l be-circuited bitches were last year's hot holiday hoochie pooches, a franchise of electronic companions for the disenfranchised. For the price of your average low-cost neuter or spay, one could possess a mechanical approximation of the American domestic pet experience. Too bad that robo-hound did not hunt, and moreover, could barely rollover. Hell, some of these mass-market mutts were known to go haywire after an afternoon of peanut butter-smeared persistence from the family 4-year-old. But at that cheap-ass price, what did American consumers expect, Lassie? Nah ... and that might lend insight into what makes us different from the Japanese.

To wit: The Nippon counterpart to the putrid Poo-Chi was a little laddie made by Sony called AIBO (Artificial Intelligence RoBOt, or something like that), which commanded price tags of upward to -- hang on to your Old Glories -- $1,500. But according to accounts I've read (at that price, you don't think I've actually seen one, do you?), the damn things worked and wowed and did their job as the approximately infinite family pet. And when you think about rental space in Tokyo, a pumped-up cyber pooch almost makes sense. Not that it's supposed to; we don't live there, after all. That, among other little annoying cross-cultural details, however, hasn't stopped us one lick from lapping up the latest and greatest exports from the Land of the Rising Sun. We Americans love Japanese trends and desperately wish to make them our own, and here in Austin, we've many opportunities to prove it. And while some might twitch at the thought of any nation having that type of economic advantage over the mighty U.S., this particular Japanese economic invasion makes some of us patriots very, very giddy.

Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon (Photo By John Anderson)

It's about time we reveled in someone else's cultural imperialism for a while.

Et tu, Poo-Chi?

The Ballad of the Empty Orchestra

One of this holiday season's hottest items is the direct result of a Japanese-influenced trend -- the home karaoke machine. Though once dismissed as a fading fad, karaoke (from the Japanese phrase karappo oke or "empty orchestra") has sure proven her detractors to be quite out of tune. While the karaoke club scene keeps up with its own bar tab (check our archives for Kim Mellen's fine ode to karaoke, "We Are the Stars," which appeared in print January 1, 1999 and now resides at: austinchronicle. com/issues/vol18/issue18/xtra.karaoke.html), the phenomenon of private karaoke functions has really taken off. The most solid evidence is karaoke's tremendous appeal to children. Kid parties, for instance, have become karaoke havens, and toy market lords are responding in sweet harmony. Specialty chain stores like Mars Music have been carrying the components by JVC and Panasonic in the $99-$550 range for the past few years, but this year, the more kid-friendly "boom box" varieties and the e-kara hand-held unit by Hasbro ($58.99) have made it to toy store shelves. The Singing Machine (TSM) is a company that's been in the business of these smaller home-market models for years, mostly with CD-G (a special karaoke CD format that includes graphics that can be read by your TV by special CD-G units) or cassette capabilities. These boxes range in price from the retro-Jukebox style single cassetter for $29.99 to the $149.99 unit with CD-G, dual cassette, and built-in 10 watt amp. The most popular styles this year are the two MTV Karaoke Machines also put out by TSM. Local Toys "R" Us stores carry most of the line, including the lower end MTV unit for $79.99. We are finding most karaoke supplies at chains. If you are aware of local independent outlets we may have missed, please let us know -- likewise on the pricey karaoke discs. Mars carries a fine selection, but at list price ($13-$40). Here are some great Web resources for reasonably priced karaoke discs: www.karaokeonfire.com,www.tsckaraoke.com,www.karaokeandmore.com, www.ebay.com

Masters of the Universe

Remember how the Power Rangers TV series and its attendant toy phenom came to America? It first existed in a very different form in Japan, before being chopped into bits and re-edited, to appease our impatience with subtitles and foreign-looking TV characters. Asian actors were replaced with Western ones and plots and dialogues Americanized. Do you remember any outrage? There wasn't much (except amongst diehard fans). The pop cultural bastardization didn't stop there. It happens all the time now that Japanese anime, or animation, has become so popular. Anime, the animated form of Japan's popular Manga comic strip art form, is often mistaken as a U.S. comic strip derivative. Not so. Japanese anime shares its rich cultural heritage more so with early Chinese art, stemming back to the 700s. Anyway, it's this sort of brash ethnocentricity that seems to drive our attitude that it's okay to screw with another culture's art to make it more palatable for a domestic market. But as anime's popularity has grown, most true fans are looking for the real thing, not some decontextualized knock-off. Ask any eighth-grader. Mine'll tell you that even the most innocuous seeming change to plot or character messes with the author's intent. Sure, someone at the Asian end of the pond is authorizing and profiting from these horrid reduxes, but it's got to stop somewhere! Just Say no! to lame-assed Americanized plots! Likewise, Just Say no! to the American versions of these popular titles' toy off-shoots. While Toys "R" Us carries a perfectly competent array of U.S. versions of Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Gundam Wing, and even more obscure titles like Tenchi Muyo and Akira action figs and gadgets, your discerning tot or teen will appreciate if you do your homework and instead gift them with an original imported Japanese version from our local indie stores like Momoko, Animagix, Gamefellas, Austin Books, Comics & More, and more. After all, even the kids know that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune are lesbian lovers and not the ditzy, boy-crazed "cousins" that the insipid American censors try to pass them off as.

Sweet Sticks of Pleasure

We don't have to tell you that Austin is a hotbed for cold fish! Sushi is as popular in some CenTex circles as Tex-Mex, and that's a whole enchilada of cultural influence. But hey, we're not the food department, so we're not going to focus on Austin's obsession with sushi (but check out the next blurb about Japanese housewares, fashion, and home décor, which encompasses the great selections of sushi place settings and sake sets available locally). Instead, we dedicate this paragraph to the glorious power of a little treat known as Pocky. Pocky is a stick. It is a bunch of sticks. It is a bunch of sticks covered in chocolate. And it is the naked Godhead. They are so good! So delicate! So precious! So flavorful! And so full of flavors, they are: chocolate, white chocolate, strawberry, almond, hazelnut, oh my. And the packaging! Okay, we have done our best not to fetishize Japanese culture in this feature encouraging you to buy Japanese for the holidays (but not at the expense of exotifying them), but allow us this: Japanese food products are so damn cute! Pocky boxes, in particular, are stunning, user-friendly artworks that keep your treats fresh and upright and ready for their next adventure into your mouth. And Pocky is not the only Japanese taste sensation you can encounter in Austin. Bubble Tea shops are popping up all over town, and likewise, we have seen an incredible emergence of Asian groceries locally, many catering to Austin's domestic fascination with sushi specifically, but also attending to the need of our local Asian and Asian-American communities. Personally, we like Asahi on North Loop. This small shop has been family run since 1967. They get extra credit for utilizing every possible square inch of space, affording customers a dizzying array of every size of rice cooker, shrimp chip, tofu slab, and seaweed packet known in the Western world (and most likely beyond). Go there, and create your own imaginative gift basket out of the many fortifying treats!
Asahi (Photo By John Anderson)

Su-Su-Sushi & Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fashion

  • Grab a passport to the Far East -- without ever leaving the city limits. Our local elegant emporium Zanzibar presents a stunning array of Asian housewares. For the dining room, a good portion of the merchandise is packaged in lovely presentation boxes, making the gift that much more alluring. Selections include sushi sets at $15-$34, sets of chopsticks from $8 up to $110 for a gorgeous 12-piece silver-tipped service, sake sets at $22, ceramic rice bowl sets with a crackled finish at $30. Magnificent bowls carved of solid chunks of jade range from $215-$240, antique-style Chinese boxes from $125-$220, a spectacular two-piece Tansu chest for $1245, as well as zinc vases, traditional cherry bark vases, trays and small chests, fabulous hand blown wine, shot, and old-fashioned glasses.

  • The work of local designer Judy Masliyah can be seen in a variety of locations, including: Pink Salon & Gallery, Blackmail, and Forbidden Fruit. With an abiding love for Asian silks, Masliyah's latest collection combines the fabrics with other details of Asian apparel and creates a completely contemporary new look in eveningwear. Her exquisitely constructed corsets in vinyl and silk brocades pair with Edwardian-inspired skirts and a variety of approaches for tops and jackets for a look of cutting-edge glamour. A perfectionist in construction and technique, Masliyah's clothes shock and delight, and never fail to turn the head. With different collections at several retail locations, prices range from $120-$575. Masliyah can be reached for special orders at 441-6799.

  • Inspired by the prevailing J-Rock movement in Japan (get to know it at www.geocities.com/goth501/lolitahome/home.htm, www.jrockarena.com, and www.jrocker.com), Summer Lawson, who debuted her "Big in Japan" collection earlier this year, creates a head-to-toe look that is part goth, part Lolita, and part Barbarella. While the look is being co-opted by other designers across the globe, Lawson's approach is purely her own. All pieces are special order only, requiring a five-week lead time, and prices are determined by fabric and size.

  • Ever seen the Mega Man video game for PlayStation? Now the charming figures can be seen on your very own chest. Japanese anime runs wild at Momoko, emblazoned across shirts, jackets, purses, lunch boxes, and just about any other item of personal adornment. From the mechanical robots of Gundam Wing, to the beloved heroes of Robotech, Nadesico, Dragonball Z, and Transformers, the shirts instill a child-like appreciation of fun and fantasy. Mighty Atom, Mr. Friendly, Pochecco, and popular fave Tare Panda (lazy panda!) appear on all manner of accessories. T-shirts are $20-$50, and many of the women's styles are offered at sale prices. Momoko's selection of merchandise includes Japanese housewares, such as chopsticks, teapots, and sushi sets.

    GO on With Your Bad Self

    The Japanese game of Go has experienced a resurgence amongst Japanese youth culture within the past few years. The pensive board game, played with simple, elegant black and white stones on a carved wooden grid, is the grandpa to our popular Pente and Othello. According to a cool kid-aimed Web site What's Cool in Japan (jin.jcic.or.jp/kidsweb/cool/), "Although it is a traditional game, Go was not popular among young people in Japan for a long time. The Japan Go Association began holding tournaments aimed at elementary and middle school students in 1980, but the number of participants kept dropping every year. So what has brought so much attention to the game now? The answer lies in a comic called Hikaru no Go (Hikaru's Go) that uses Go as its theme." Hmmmm, there's that comic influence again. Locally, Great Hall Games features a large selection of Go stones and boards, as well as "Shogi" or Japanese chess sets, and extensive WWII miniature figures. They also host regular Go Tuesdays (7-11pm) at their convenient Dobie Mall location. While it looks as simple as checkers, Go's depth reaches more into the strategic realm of chess or Risk; the goal of the game is to dominate with your color and take over the board.

    Talk about your cultural imperialism ... end story

    Kate X Messer was born in Misawa, Japan (albeit on a U.S. air base), and dreams of the day when she and her video-game conquerin', Cowboy Bebop luvin' kid can ride off into the Rising Sunset together, at least for a year or so sabbatical ...

    Chronicle Style Avatar Stephen MacMillan Moser contributed to this story.

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