Let me show you something wonderful. A new world! – Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
I’ve been enchanted by Asian culture since I was a child in the early 1970s. My love affair continues today. Culture can be a powerful magickal lifeforce. It binds, inspires, electrifies, and influences us. Being exposed to Asian culture as a child fired my mind with endless possibilities. By identifying specific nodes of cultural influence that have deeply impacted me in some meaningful way I will track the indentations of robust cultural magickal tools which have punctured my consciousness and tattooed themselves into my isness with their raw and naked penetrative powers which I will attempt to discuss in a concise and hopefully entertaining way.
The sound of Marine Boy’s boomerang hissing through the TV speaker was enough to lock my face towards the screen in a hypnotic state of awe. Marine Boy was one of the first colour anime cartoons to be shown in dubbed form in the U.K. It was originally produced in 1965 in Japan as Undersea Boy Marine. I watched it on Saturday mornings transfixed by Marine Boy’s service with the underwater policing agency, the Ocean Patrol, making the Earth’s oceans safe from a variety of dangers such as strange attacking seaweed, giant shellfish, Professor Doomsday, Mr. Smirch, Scorpo, synthetic jelly monsters, Mr. Fuddidudder, and a bucket load of animated creeps to fill hours of surreal dreamtime viewing. The magic for me of this show rests in the colours, the voices, and the music colluding to support the narrative framework of an insanely and at times psychotic headstrong young boy chewing “oxygum” to breathe underwater with his pet dolphin, the effects of pressure and depressurization being conveniently ignored. Marine Boy’s mermaid girlfriend, Neptima, was topless (although her hair always covered her breasts). Her pearl, besides being a defensive weapon, also showed glimpses of future events. The idea of having a half-naked, half-fish, half-human girlfriend with an all in one precognitive and destruction power orb jewel and the powers of a sea witch did much to spike a small and at that time undiagnosed autistic young boy into considering the ideas that had been presented to him as very desirable and worthy alternatives to his own reality. Marine Boy left a huge imprint in my mind. It’s sounds and music are triggers of deep joy for me. It’s beautiful and yet raw in its naïve quality with its own bottomless kinetic energy. In its cartoon stylistic foetal explosions you can see similar explosions in the show Battle of the Planets decades later. It has never ceased to amaze me how Marine Boy could speak without any form of headgear underwater.
Despite the justified and valid accusations of discrimination brought by George Takei and the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists (AAPAA) who filed a formal complaint for unfair hiring practices Kung Fu still made a very large impression on me. James Hong (who was the AAPAA’s president), said later: “As the show went on, we realized it was a great source of employment for the Asian acting community.” Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, stated that the concept for the series was stolen by Warner Bros writing; “Bruce himself had been working on the idea of a Shaolin priest, a master of kung fu, who would roam America and find himself involved in various exploits. The studio contacted him, and he was soon deeply involved. He gave them numerous ideas, many of which were eventually incorporated in the resulting TV success, Kung Fu, starring actor David Carradine.” The 1970s three season TV show Kung Fu still managed to turn me to the slow motion battle sequences, Asian culture and the ancient and precious philosophy of the Shaolin Monastery, the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Shaolin Kung Fu. In later life the Shaolin Monastery honoured David Carradine for his promotion of this ancient school. In a strange moment during the ceremony David Carradine drop swooped down to the floor from full height, crouching then placed his hand upon the vast stone slabbed floor and then spiralled his hand, drawing up particles. Standing up he showed his palm. There inside it was a very tiny pebble from the floor which he then put into his pocket stating that a part of the Shaolin Monastery would always be with him. Much of the wisdom in the show is derived directly from the Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Taoist philosophy attributed to the sage Lao-tzu. Chan from Sanskrit dhyana (meaning “meditation” or “meditative state”) is a Chinese school of Mahāyāna Buddhism which is the originating tradition of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Never has walking on rice paper without breaking it, burning scorching dragons into your wrists by lifting a screaming hot cauldron above waist level, and ending each episode by walking off alone into the sunset been so cool.
“In worlds before Monkey primeval chaos reigned”. This show is the first time I saw the concept of “chaos” explored and acknowledged as the natural state of all things. Coming home from school at teatimes were always associated with the TV show Monkey. This highly charismatic programme is a part of the UK’s DNA. Each time it is mentioned on Twitter there is an effusion of deep love and respect for essentially something that is really quite obscure. This is something that is core to its success. It appeals to people “of a certain age”. Monkey is described in the theme song as being “born from an egg on a mountain top”. It is based on the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Many episodes feature Buddhist and/or Taoist philosophies. Since this show aired much has changed. A lot of this show is founded in a time that has fortunately passed and evolved. Examining the show’s painfully forced stereotyped accents with cringeworthy dubbed voice-overs (the character of Horse was spoken by Andrew Sachs aka Manuel from Fawlty Towers) and the occasional bigoted dialogue (Monkey calls a tiger demon a homophobic slur) Monkey despite the detractions managed to capture and entertain. You can watch the first four episodes here.
Yellow Magic Orchestra
Yellow Magic Orchestra was formed in Tokyo in 1978 by Haruomi Hosono (bass, keyboards, vocals), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums, lead vocals) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards, vocals). The single “Firecracker” charted to number 17 in the UK in 1979. This sublime and exquisite piece of “electrowave” was a cover version of Martin Denny’s 1959 exotica melody “Firecracker” with modern electronics namely the Roland MC-8 Microcomposer, the Korg PS-3100 polyphonic synthesizer, the Korg VC-10 vocoder, the Yamaha Drums and Syn-Drums electronic drum kits, the Moog III-C and Minimoog monosynths, the Polymoog and ARP Odyssey analog synthesizers and the Oberheim Eight-Voice synthesizer. The cover version was a subversion of the exoticisation and Orientalism from a Japanese perspective. I was privileged to see Yellow Magic Orchestra at the Meltdown Festival in the Royal Festival Hall 2008. During their set the occasional cry of “Firecracker!!!” was screamed across the hall in silent in-between song moments. Such is the depth, weight and enduring fascination of this bass funk driven and ornate charm array which still has clarity and beauty to dispense. “Firecracker” was also heavily sampled on Jennifer Lopez’s 2001 single I’m Real. Yellow Magic Orchestra has influenced many artists. Jumping into their discography is like jumping into a long pleasurable sonic rabbit hole.
Entering into the ICA in London in 1988 a special excitement overran me. Inside the small and intimate cinema I beheld what was to be a glorious and unparalleled immersion into a new and complete world, the world of Akira. I felt the same way as I watched Blade Runner for the first time. The word captivated is used often to describe things but rarely delivers in truth. I was literally nailed to the seat. I could not look away for any reason whatsoever. It was a form of worship. While the music was composed by Shoji it was performed by the musical collective, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, which was comprised of hundreds of musicians, giving the silences an epic depth of grandeur. The score was composed before the film was made, animations drawn to fit the score, giving the whole film a peculiar atmosphere and surreal otherness in its movement. Similarly Ennio Morricone in 2007 said about his work with Sergio Leone: “Some of the music was written before the film, which was unusual.” Earth shatteringly essential. It is now a part of all animated manga’s DNA. It received a 4K transfer which has been viewed as unnecessary and problematic. “Very interesting color difference between the two versions. Some might say the 4K is too green, but others may say the BD is too red.” says Stanley Wong on YouTube. I say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I have the remastered version that’s just fine.
The Frank Chickens
“We can change our shape, we can change our looks…” – We Are Ninja. I first heard Frank Chickens on the John Peel Show in the 1980s. I then had the pleasure of seeing them live at the Edinburgh Fringe. They are a quintessential Pop Art music performance group whose first album We Are Frank Chickens is a highly underrated. The insane and chaotic nature of their music and performances make this duo (now group) an infectious and bizarre world to enter into. The group founded in London in 1982. Started as a duo with Kazuko Hohki and Kazumi Taguchi. They played at a benefit for N.U.M. during the Thatcher Junta of ’84 -’85. How can you not like them? You can hear the whole album here.
Panorama of Hell
Panorama of Hell is a 1984 Japanese horror manga by Hideshi Hino. Ink becomes blood. In it an artist describes his work using his own blood and then shows us his unconventional family, his abusive parents, who escaped from Manchuria after World War II, and his violent childhood and his final plan to paint a “Hell on Earth”. It is one of the most disturbing and horrific manga strips of all time in my humble opinion. Copies of the original Blast Books 1984 publication go for thousands. I had a copy once and it got blasted into the four winds when I became homeless in the 1990s. What remains is an overwhelming sense of ink as blood. The wet ink dripping buckets of blood. The visceral carnage of this work has left its mark on me, and I have nothing but respect for Hideshi Hino’s profound vision of terror.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
It was useful that I’d seen David Lynch’s Eraserhead and The Elephant Man before I had seen this film. Not there is any connection whatsoever between them. There isn’t. It is the brutal noir slaughter of shadows and interplay that makes the viewer partially acclimatised to Shinya Tsukamoto’s low budget cyberpunk body horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This at times inexplicable and surreal black and white metal dream industrial hyperkinetic contorted battlescape takes the viewer into a violent and surreally weird nightmarish hyper-reality. When I first saw this film I basically shat my pants. Not in the physical way of course but metaphorically. To try and explain this film to someone who hasn’t seen it is like trying to explain dropping acid for the first time. It’s something that you just have to do for yourself. The film is a little bit like David Cronenberg’s The Fly genetically spliced into a metal machine workshop deep inside the bowels of hell itself. Strangely enough during the last few moments of The Fly the character Seth breaks halfway out of his own pod, the fusion process activated, the pod gruesomely amalgamating him with a chunk of the telepod itself. It is this idea of the “new flesh” which Cronenberg explores in his 1983 body horror film Videodrome.
All of these examples of Asian cultural nodes have for me exhibited enormous magickal power to change and transform. There is a singular thread which links them. This is the thread and idea of “The medium is the message”. This is a phrase coined by the Canadian communication theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan in 1964. He showed that artefacts such as media affect any society by their characteristics, or content. I believe that the discussed Asian nodes of cultural influence have themselves transcended into forms of cultural magickal power tools, which visually and sonically leave a transformative and evolutionary effect within anyone that comes into contact with them. Such is the power and majesty of all great art, literature, music, and film.