Tales from the 2017 J-POP SUMMIT Festival: Spheres, Darts, and Bros Cuppin’ Balls - September 11, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Tales from the 2017 J-POP SUMMIT Festival: Spheres, Darts, and Bros Cuppin’ Balls

The J-POP SUMMIT Festival is a celebration of Japanese pop culture — music, food, art, film, and many points between — and it’s long been my most anticipated weekend of the year. When a friend asked me last weekend if I was going to Comic-Con that day, I’d actually had no idea that it was happening — and indeed my first thought was, “Wait, we have one of those?” 

But J-POP is always blocked out on my calendar, even if this year’s weekend of Sept. 9-10 is the latest it’s taken place on the calendar in recent memory. (I was only able to attend on Saturday, Sept. 9 this year.) It’s not that big a change for it to be held in September rather than the usual July or August weekend, especially considering that it used to be held in Japantown before moving to Fort Mason in 2015, but the autumnal-adjacent time is fitting since the festival is changing colors before our eyes.

The first thing that my dear friend KrOB and I noticed when we arrived at Fort Mason on 9:30 a.m. Saturday was how much more parking there is. Getting on-site parking is one of the reasons we typically get there at such an unseemly hour, plus we’re able to get our press passes and check out the scene before the public is let in at 11 a.m., hence the backgrounds looking so underpopulated in many of the pictures and videos to follow. But there was still more parking than expected because there were no vendors set up in the lot. That was not a good sign, since they tend to be the local artists and merchants who have the more interesting things for sale.

The food trucks and ramen stands were set up outside the Festival Pavilion, however, and there once again was an attempt to prevent the Ramen-ocalypse from spreading into the Pavilion. Or, worse, Ramen Alcohol!

Though the inside of the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion has a certain ramshackle nautical charm, it was nice to see that the organizers had added some translucent colors to the proceedings.

After cautiously approaching one of the glowy monoliths, KrOB then found a bone and used it to kill an antelope.

Throwing the bone into the air after defeating his enemies — we’ll have to wait several million years to see how that pans out — KrOB developed speech, at least enough to get into the spirit of the proceedings.

The centerpiece of J-POP was Ideo’s Beach Ball Synth, originally designed for Moogfest last year and more recently appearing at the Exploratorium. They’re ginormous white beach balls that cause different electronic sounds to be created, depending on how they’re moved.

And they kept you on your toes, as KrOB demonstrates.

In spite of the presence of the big hanging spheres — and, for the record, I’m saving the obvious testicle jokes for something I found far less pleasant — the overall layout felt far more open in past years.  This is because there just wasn’t as much stuff this time around.  Other than Hiroyuki-Mitsume Takahashi (who designed the official poster and whose table was on the left as soon as you walked in) and Ken Hamazaki of Red Tea Ceremony fame, there were no artists present. OK, further clarification: There were no fan artists who drew art that you could take home and frame and put on your wall. The last few years, I’ve ended J-POP weekends with original illustrations of either Hatsune Miku and/or My Little Pony characters, but there were no such neat things available at Fort Mason. Fair enough; last year they were back in Japantown, outside the Kinokuniya Bookstore. (On the official J-POP guests page there are four people other than Takahashi and Hamazaki listed as “artists,” which devalues the word just a skosh.)

Also not present this year were the Go-Torch characters. No Paper Bag Fairies or Zombear, other than on a billboard in the travel pavilion.

That said, this year’s MikuWatch overall was about on par with last year’s.  I was happy to see the return of the young Miku cosplayer from 2015, now with a companion! That warmed my heart no end.

Miku was created by Yamaha, and their booth had a neat display about her 10th-anniversary celebration! (Which was in Tokyo and ended last week, but still.)

As I looked closer, I noticed that Miku had been — what’s the word for it? — bukkake’d by her birthday cake.  Oh, Japan. I love ya, but yeesh.

Yamaha was also demonstrating their new Vocaloid software, and KrOB talked shop with them for a bit. His birthday was last month and he doesn’t like to talk about it, but the software was even kind enough to sing him “Happy Birthday,” which can be reproduced here because the song is finally in the public domain where it belongs and Warner/Chappell can seriously go fuck themselves.

I considered asking if they could program it to sing “A Bicycle Built for Two,” but figured that would be too esoteric and silly. And speaking of deep Kubrick cuts, Yamaha’s also been hard at work at making voice synthesis sound as a natural as possible in the form of HEARTalk, “the speech interaction system with heart.” Their demonstration models were teddy bears, and I so wanted to hear one of them say, “David, do you remember when you cut some of Mommy’s hair?” or any of Teddy’s lines from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. But the technology ain’t quite there yet.

A technology that’s much closer to getting there is virtual reality, and NHK’s explore-the-pyramids demo was simple but very neat, and appropriately vertiginous at times.

On the other hand, even after having read up on it I’m still not sure what or why “Trump World 360°” is, other than a reminder of how desperately off-the-rails the world has gone. I’m so sorry, rest of the planet. America has fucked things up, possibly beyond repair. We have no excuse.

But even the Predator-in-Chief can’t ruin good food.

My eating habits have gotten rather ascetic in recent years, but J-POP being the special occasion that it is, I chow down on things that have more fat and sugar than I’ll otherwise ingest in a week. As such, lunch was a seafood okonomi-yaki from Hirotako.

And later in the afternoon, I had two Crispy California Rolls from We Sushi! Not two orders, but two pieces from a full order which KrOB bought for himself. Never let it be said that I don’t let my hair down at J-POP, calorically speaking.

There remains nothing new under the sun, which is why it’s no surprise that darts are coming back, inasmuch as they ever stopped being a thing. I don’t spend much time in smoke-filled pubs — nor do I live in a state where smoke-filled pubs exist — but I quite enjoyed playing Dartslive. It reminded me a lot of the dartboard Chief O’Brien installed in Quark’s Bar on Deep Space Nine, though considerably more advanced, since this is the late 2010s, not the early 1990s.

I did more or less okay for someone who hasn’t played the game in years, but when we played a timed game, KrOB pwned me hard.

This year’s big festival score for us were Lumiace 2 Omega Color Change Effect Lights. If you’ve ever seen video of a J-POP concert, you’ve seen ‘em in action. The regular break-and-dispose lightsticks we were given at Mikufest last year did the job, but when the next big show hits town, we’ll be ready. Also, and this can’t be emphasized enough: they glow and they’re glittery. That is all the win.

And on other side of the win spectrum…

Yep. Cup-and-ball is back, and balls are getting cupped everywhere you turn.

There were oh so many unsmiling bros playing cup-and-ball. But it wasn’t just cup-and-ball. In their hands, it was extreme cupping of balls. I’m queer and I parsed them all as heterosexual, plus the annoyance I felt was completely disproportionate to the offense they gave, so this childish entendre makes me laugh every time.

Thank goodness there were enough balls for all the bros to cup, so there wasn’t a repeat of the ugly Simpson-Van Houten cup-and-ball brawl.

Depending on whether you use the metric of Election Night or the Inauguration, both of which vie for the worst day in recent American history, we either have two four months until there will no longer be any first annual such-and-such-events of the Trump era. But it seems oddly appropriate that the first J-POP of this truly dark time felt dominated by bros.

KrOB left in mid-afternoon, and I bailed around half past five. I’d come to realize that there just wasn’t anyone performing that night that I was excited enough about to deal with making my way into the press area in the front of the stage — despite the entertainment value in the dirty looks I get from the real photographers when I use my iPhone on a hot pink selfie stick — so I decided to split the difference and head to Japantown proper to check out the fan artists…

…and they weren’t there. Maybe they’ll be back next year, but I doubt it. J-POP is changing, moulting, leaves are changing color and falling off, all those autumnal metaphors of impermanence. I was feeling melancholy yet didn’t want to waste the fact that I was still dressed to the nines in a Wednesday Addams/Marianne Faithfull kinda way, and figured I might as well continue cutting loose further after the okonomi-yaki and two rolls. (I mentioned they were Crispy California Rolls, right? Deep fried! Horrors!) I decided to go to a nearby dive bar I used to frequent back in the day, and which I’m going to be writing about for an upcoming Weekly feature.

As I scribbled away in my notebook and nursed a White Russian, my drink of choice at places that don’t offer a Bloody Mary, I heard some regulars talking about much things have changed, how the bar isn’t like it once was, there used to be so many more people and it was all more vibrant once upon a time. As I pondered why that sounded familiar, I discovered that in my absence, they’ve in fact started serving Bloody Marys.

Not all change is bad, and sometimes it can even be a pleasant surprise.

See y’all next year for J-POP 2018.