Recent

Takarazuka revue: Love & Dream

tiki-download_fileWhat could be more romantic for a young Japanese lady than for a handsome prince to whisk them away on a romantic adventure? Well, when that prince is actually a woman, apparently. Japan has a strong tradition of cross-dressing, from the female roles in Kabuki to the okama bars of Kabukicho, plus of course the elegant males of visual kei who with the help of huge amounts of makeup and far more photoshop are as convincing as any Thai ladyboy, plus more glamorous (though the illusion tends to shatter up close). But while josou – boys dressing as girls – tends to dominate, the opposite, referred to as dansou, is not uncommon. Prominent cosplayers are celebrated for pulling off the male look well, singers like Valshe look and sound like attractive pretty-boys – and then there is Takarazuka. In front of audiences that are at least 98% female, the various troupes of the Takarazuka Kageki-dan are all female. Half of them play female roles, half male. These all-female troupes put on high-camp musicals that take their melodramatic love stories very, very seriously, and showcase some extremely powerful voices. In heavy makeup and often elaborate costumes – usually sparkling with many, many sequins – the girls tease their audiences with love stories and over their 101-year history have of course courted controversy with overt homoeroticism. The audience is certainly not filled with lesbians, but something about the masculine otoko-yaku being a woman, clean-cut and charming and understanding the feminine heart, is deeply attractive to the adoring female fans. The idea of young female students having a crush on an older girl at school is very common in Japanese media, and in some ways this is an extension of that mildly thrilling bit of transgression. Interesting though the sociopolitics are, the performances themselves are very straightforward. Emotions are bombastic and direct, performances hammy and sets and costumes opulent. It’s romantic and overwrought and revels in that campy excess. In many ways the result is like a British pantomime, only less twee and more erotically-charged. Love & Dream was somewhat atypical – rather than a single story, this revue was divided into a Disney tribute and then a kind of best-of compilation from Takarazuka’s long history. Dealing in grand, overwrought emotions, Disney material is somewhat ideal for Takarazuka, and it was big emotional numbers with the chance for the singer to belt like ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Go the Distance’ and of course ‘Let It Go’ that showcased some extremely impressive singing talents. Songs that allowed the otoko-yaku to show some personality worked well, too, like ‘Friend Like Me’, and it was fun hearing these familiar songs in Japanese – it’s somewhat gratifying that they call Hercules ‘Heracles’, like we should. CO-xVWRWIAAdP4H Some parts were misfires, but the pacing was brisk enough that the awkward parts quickly segued into something else. Whoever thought ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ needed a hard rock remix with guitar solo was misguided, and Mary Poppins numbers were a bit of a mess, needing much more elaborate choreography to work. But hey, when a dozen highly enthusiastic women come running out dressed as extremely camp pirates (to the theme from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) and launch into ‘Under the Sea’, one really has to embrace the absurdity of it and enjoy the silliness. The second half of the show was more of an authentic representation of what the Hoshigumi usually does, with various songs apparently familiar to Takarazuka aficionados that were as camp as just about anything Disney could put forward. The song I remember best was about being a vampire, though most of the content wasn’t quite that silly. There was a very funny comic interlude with a domineering sempai figure in a huge and absurd ballgown getting fussy about being upstaged by a young and cute idol-like group of girls, which quite bizarrely called heavily on the humour and tropes of drag – it was very much like having a drag queen or pantomime dame onstage, only in a female-only company. In addition to the interesting gender divide, watching the audience was quite fun. In common with most Japanese musical performances, there was what seemed to be a correct way to behave – everyone clapped together, and large numbers of fans had brought glowing Hs much like the glowsticks of idol concerts to swing side to side with the beat. The appearances of the main otoko-yaku stars also inspired much excitement and febrile attempts to get noticed with a two-handed wave. High camp, very silly and occasionally baffling, I’m pleased to have been to see Takarazuka in action. 20160110 02

Cover Reveal and Q&A with illustrator Richard Sala!

ThiefsApprentice_front Hot on the heels of a music announcement yesterday, today I have extremely exciting book news to share! My publisher Lerner Books have just revealed the cover of my book, along with an interview with the superb illustrator, Richard Sala! I am inordinately pleased with how everything is going and very excited for the book launch on October 1st. Please check out the cover reveal and read the Q&A here, and have a look at Richard's other work here!

Album Pre-orders!

a1175452205_13 Apologies for not updating my blog in a while! It’s been a very busy few weeks, with a whole lot about to happen all at once. There are a number of announcements I’ll be making in the next few days, but here is the first! My record label have announced that our album is now officially available for pre-order, ahead of its June 10th release! The digipack is going to be beautiful, and I can’t wait to receive it in physical form. Having an album released by a record company is a long-standing ambition and I’m delighted it’s coming true for me, especially so soon before my book is released. Check us out at http://www.badelephant.co.uk And pre-order at http://paradigmshiftuk.bandcamp.com/album/becoming-aware

A Day Out in Kichijoji and Inokashira Park

20160105 01

Ramen, capybara and many many Guinea pigs in Kichijoji

Kichijoji, often ranked by locals as the best place to live in Tokyo, is a really pleasant suburb a few stops down the Chuo-Sobu line from me. I’ve been there before a few times – as a tourist to go to the Ghibli museum (though we didn’t see any of the surrounding park either time I went) and more recently with my band to record our album. But as yesterday was a beautifully sunny winter’s day, we decided to take a trip to see the park and zoo. I had an errand to run first – I wanted to go to Tokyo Fencers to get my épée rewired. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long the Japanese New Year’s break is and the shop was still closed. Better try again next week – and maybe go to the Ghibli Museum!
Ghibli museum visit in 2013!

Ghibli museum visit in 2013!

Headed to the park and the cute little zoo. It’s split into two parts, and the first part we found was the smaller bit mostly housing waterfowl, but also a little aquarium. We went there to coo at the giant salamander (not as big as the ones in Ueno Zoo) and the fire-bellied newts (much fatter than my pet ones!), then headed over to the main part. Hanako the elephant, Japan’s first and the oldest living Asian elephant, wasn’t anywhere to be seen – and has actually been subject to a lot of controversy lately, with British tabloids running sob stories about the elephant having been there for 50 years with a lot of unsubstantiated claims of it being violent or ill. I didn’t see the elephant so I can’t make any informed judgement, but I sincerely doubt its level of care or level of suffering is significantly different to that of the elephants in London Zoo used to be for 70 years. Or are we pretending to be enlightened because we moved those animals to Whipsnade in 2001 after they killed a man? With emotionally-loaded words in the media, memories are short. I think animals should get decent care, but my point is that I don’t think a badly-researched article or two leads to the definite conclusion that this particular creature is suffering or that its habitat is inappropriate compared with that of any number of other comparable animals. And given Hanako is currently the oldest Asian elephant in the world, surely the standard of care can’t be that dire? Anyway, elephants aside the zoo was small-scale and sweet. There was a focus on indigenous animals, with tanuki, Japanese foxes and flying squirrels on display, plus a very large, green expanse for some deer that looks like it might have been a good place for Hanako, given how much those articles complained about the concrete. I was a little surprised that a large monkey habitat was given to Rhesus Macaques instead of Japanese Macaques, but they’re quite hard for the layman to tell apart anyway. There were also some very cute penguins, owls and fennec foxes.
20160105 08

And this stork

After the zoo, we went around some of the shops around Kichijoji station. There seems to be just about everything you could want there – the place has a small-town feel yet just about every shop you could want, which must be why it’s considered such a desirable place to live. We went to look for a place to eat in Harmonica Yokocho, with its pleasant smoky post-war feel, but everywhere was very crowded so we went to a ramen place we’d passed earlier and had no regrets, because it was absolutely delicious. Overall, our day in Kichijoji was great – will have to go back next week to try and get my épée rewired!
Scenic!

Scenic!

Fine Dining: my birthday meal at The Square, London

The Square is the favourite restaurant of my brother and his wife. For my birthday meal this year, I wanted to go back to Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, but didn’t manage to get a booking in time, so instead remembered this excellent restaurant with two Michelin stars. We had been twice before, but it must have been at least six years since the last time so I thought it would be nice to try it again. After all, The Square served the best dessert I’ve ever eaten on my first trip there, an absolutely delicious pear tarte tatin, so it was well worth another try. Though I was jetlagged and flagging toward the end, the meal last night was excellent once again. Rich, bold flavours balanced with more delicate ones and some superb amuse-bouches. The first of these was the best: a cone filled with delicious foie gras mousse, just the right balance between crispiness and rich creamy flavour. It was accompanied by a fun little spicy prawn cracker affair. 20151219 01 A second amuse-bouche was simpler, three little canapes with rich, interesting flavours to them, though none as direct and mouthwatering as the foie gras pastry. 20151219 02 Continuing on the same theme, what followed was a generous piece of buttery, extremely flavoursome braised foie gras. It was cooked to perfection with the crispy burnt layer perfectly judged. The accompaniment was apple and pear with a meaty pastry-like strip, plus crushed almonds, but honestly I felt all of it detracted from the simple pleasure of the foie gras, so I ate everything else first and then enjoyed the centrepiece unadulterated. 20151219 03 My go-to menu is always foie gras and then beef, and I made no exception, choosing steak for my main course. And what a steak! Shame my photo didn’t come out better, because this was superb. Everything on the plate, from spinach to burnt onion and particularly the meat itself was absolutely delicious. I would eat it again in a heartbeat. I didn’t want to drink wine because it made me much more drowsy after my 15-hour plane journey, but it was worth it with the steak. 20151219 04 The third amuse-bouche before dessert was a little sorbet and meringue arrangement that surprised with rich vanilla flavours, and certainly set us up to finish the meal well. 20151219 05 My dessert was ‘tiramisu’, the inverted commas amusing us – and of course indicating deconstruction. The chocolately affair that arrived looked very pretty and tasted very rich indeed, but a few concentrated dark chocolate balls were just a little overpowering in comparison to the rest. Still very delicious, though. 20151219 06 After that, considering we weren’t having coffee, the little petit fours-style chocolates were a bit redundant, but welcome anyway and served in sweet little wooden boxes. 20151219 07 I was shattered by the time we finished eating and midnight approached, but very gratified. It was a delicious birthday meal and wonderful to spend with the family!