"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
This is the story of how I found myself contemplating a sign, meant to be hoisted by a Japanese action figure protesting in a Singaporean park, bearing the subversive declaration: “The Freedom to Download Fan Subbed Anime is the Right of All Sentient Beings.”
Sometimes I follow links that I shouldn’t. This journey began when, desperate to drag myself away from the appalling sight of young Japanese women dressed in bikinis throwing cream pies at each other while riding rocking horses, I successfully distracted myself by learning from the referring Web site that the pop music accompanying this spectacle was performed by the Japanese band Asian Kung-Fu Generation.
Since those four words had “riveting-blog-post-headline” written all over them, I straightaway hied myself to Wikipedia for a primer on the band’s history. Next stop, YouTube, for a sample of their wares. While I can’t say I liked their poppy, guitar-driven sound enough to purchase any of their music, I’ve definitely heard worse. The following sports a catchy tune. (E-mail me if you can explain the dancing elf.)
I can already hear some grumbling from people wondering why anyone would bother to pay for music by Asian Kung-Fu Generation when one can easily while away the entire afternoon listening to them for free via YouTube. This is a valid point. Personally, I frequently purchase music after vetting it at YouTube and other locales, but I’m a dinosaur. Kids these days have other ideas.
Then again, kids these days are exposed to Asian Kung-Fu Generation in ways that go beyond your typical CD or digital download. According to Wikipedia, Asian Kung-Fu Generation songs are featured in Nintendo and Konami musical games, as movie themes, and grace the credit sequences for half a dozen anime shows, including “the second opening” for “Naruto” and “the fourth opening” for “Fullmetal Alchemist.”
Let us pause now to consider the awesome brilliance of the title “Fullmetal Alchemist.”
Second opening? Fourth opening? In Japan, I learned, anime television shows not only feature different songs playing over both the opening and closing credits, but swap in new songs as many as four times per season.
Once upon a time, a rock band played local clubs, got a record deal, released a single, made an album. Today’s up-and-comers license their tunes to video games, movies, cartoons and, of course, commercials.
I confess, I went a little crazy on YouTube. Anime cartoon-credit video clips are their own art form, a genre high in sugar content and addictive as all get out. I am sure dissertations are being written at this very moment deconstructing their culturally-informing discourse.
By the way, did you know that the first (and as far as I know, only) Japanese pop star to hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts while singing in his native language was Kyu Sakamoto, with his 1963 hit “Sukiyaki.”
You can watch it on YouTube:
Play it! You know you want to. Plus, some of the best whistling this side of “Dock of the Bay.”
Someone, somewhere, I thought, must have written the definitive article on how new business models for pop music are being forged in Japan. But it’s probably in Japanese. All I could find was a growing anxiety, on the part of the creators and distributors of anime, over the paradox that even though anime is exploding in popularity across the globe, sales of anime DVDs are falling.
Some blame YouTube.
In a keynote speech at “The Future of Anime” conference held this summer, Debra J. Kennedy, the vice president of marketing and new media for FUNimation, a major anime producer and distributor, said that up to 40 percent of the videos uploaded to YouTube are anime-related. Another estimate claims that one-third of YouTube’s visitors hail from Japan.
Maybe Google’s new copyright enforcement system will clean up all this wanton piracy. I doubt it. If there is one law that rules the Internet, it is that content only becomes more accessible, not less. A good appraisal of the challenge posed by YouTube to the economics of anime can be found here.
We should also be very careful of bandying around the word “piracy” — as if it was a bad thing — when considering the topic of anime and the Internet. Long before the Cartoon Channel was blasting anime straight into the frontal cortex of every 9-year-old boy in the United States, and even before the World Wide Web had broken through into mainstream consciousness, anime fans were using the Internet to help trade “fan-subbed” dubs of their favorite shows and movies with each other, thus helping to lay the groundwork for an eventual mass market.
A fan-sub is a version of a Japanese-language show that hobbyists, aka fanboys or otaku, have translated into their own language and sub-titled without official authorization.
Despite the growing global reach of anime, fan-subbing still flourishes. But the powers that be, in some regions, appear to be going to greater lengths to suppress it. In Singapore, one such clampdown by the distributor Odex even sparked a protest — a dicey undertaking in a country where, as Reuters reported in its coverage on Sept. 7, “outdoor demonstrations are banned and any public gathering of more than four people requires a permit.”
But what if your protest features Ultramen figurines carrying signs made from chopsticks?
The full, photographically documented story of the great “People’s Action Figures Party” can be found here.
“So, was this how the student activists felt the night before Tiananmen happened?” mused Cuz…
I’d already been toying with the idea of doing a figurine photography session. This is an activity that’s characteristic of Ota-culture. Although it’s almost close to impossible for Singaporeans to stage demonstrations and rally in the street, there’s no prohibition against action figures if they did the same. After all, they’re unlikely to run amok and disrupt public order. So I thought the theme of a symbolic protest, with action figures lined up carrying pickets as if they were staging a demonstration or rally, would make an interesting theme for the shoot. I won’t deny that the Buangkok white elephants served as an inspiration…
When we were ready for the photo shoot, the police also took out their video camera to film us in action….
And of course:
The Freedom to Download Fan Subbed Anime is the Right of all Sentient Beings
Some stories tell themselves. But I must add a personal note. As a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1993, I was assigned to write a story about an anime convention in Oakland. I asked the organizer of the convention if he could put me in contact with any fanboys, and he told me to look on the Internet, where the otaku liked to hang out. The Internet? What is this thing you call the Internet? For reasons too complicated to explain here, I had a Compuserve account that I never used, so I logged on and found a forum where anime fans were congregating. Epiphany smackdown! I knew, at that instant, that I had stumbled across the greatest tool ever invented to help reporters find interview subjects. Within days I set up SLIP access to the real thing via my wife’s U.C. Berkeley student account. There was no going back.
Oh yeah, and the Internet turned out to be useful for some other things also.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)