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

It was the first J-POP festival of the Trump era, and while it was still fun, all was not quite right.

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.

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