It’s been a tough year for San Francisco’s super-fanboys. And fangirls. Despite best intentions to return to the rejuvenated Moscone Center this year, the much loved fan-fest WonderCon got stuck in Anaheim for another year due to “unavoidable conflicts” and its big brother, Comic-con, has become such an endorphin-enhanced nerd orgy that patrons regularly camp outside instead of paying for a thousand dollar room in downtown San Diego. That’s no way for a caped crusader to live!
Enter the J-Pop Summit Festival, an event now in its third year which was conceived by Minami Iiboshi and Mika Anami, the pair behind the always-entertaining, ever-evolving celebration of Japanese culture that is New People. Devoted to returning Japantown to the sort of cultural hot-zone status it had in the 1980s, but this time with more furry tails, J-Pop is, in many ways, the antithesis of the commercially juiced Comic-con. "We're not repackaging Japanese pop culture for the Bay, we just bring it here and watch what happens," Iiboshi said in a recent interview.
What happens invariably falls on a spectrum somewhere between delightfully weird and completely bonkers. The expectedly silly theme this year is "Making Kawaii Universal." For anyone unfamililar, kawaii, which means "cute" in Japanese, is a concept that hardly needs translation. Given that Japan is the country that gave us Most Extreme Elimination Challege and Brain Wall, or Human Tetris, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, we figured we’d organize the weekend’s events into a series of gameshow-like categories.
Explore Your World!
Much as you might have sat enraptured while the mighty Olmec’s thundering voice bellowed on Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple, you’ll definitely be dazzled by the eye-popping (literally) antics of “Japan's official ambassador to Kawaii” Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. While we can’t be certain that such a position actually exists, the megawatt brightness of Pamyu Pamyu’s candy-colored world makes the LA club-kid scene look like a one-use necklace fading the morning after a rave. She’ll take to the Japantown main stage on Saturday during a fashion show, but the real performance will be downtown in Union Square between on Sunday afternoon. Japanese pop-tart Kylee, who came to the festival last year, will also perform.
This year also marks the inception of the Japan Film Festival, which though littered with genre gems like Library Wars and anime entries like Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, boasts perhaps the only deliberately adult-oriented offering of the weekend with an appearance by “Zero Yen” architect Kyohei Sakaguchi, along with his film How to Build a Mobile House. Provided they can brave the throng of tweaked teens, such an appearance could be of interest for some Bay Area builders and designers with an interest in small-footprint living.
Survive Physical Challenges!
Saturday’s J-Pop Idol 2013 contest is exactly what it sounds like: You get up on stage in front of a whole mess of people and sing a song, then you get graded on your performance. Enjoy the terror! For the third year running, the festival hosts a Vocaloid Dancing Contest, which is actually two different internet memes sandwiched into one. Wrap your head around this: Vocaloid is a program created by Yamaha that allows you to create a "virtual diva" to sing along to music. The most popular Vocaloid in Japan, Hatsune Miku, is a "16 year old with long green pigtails," most of whose fans are, expectedly, somewhat creepy. Still with me? Apparently, on top of the immense popularity of Vocaloids in Japan, there are also tons of videos of people dancing to them. Now you can be one of them.
Like a boomerang made of chocolate-covered pretzel hitting you straight in the mouth, the legendary Pocky Eating Contest is also back once again. As ever, contestants will race to the bottom of seven boxes of Pocky. The winner, who presumably hasn't had enough of it at this point, takes home 365 boxes of the snack. Practice by eating seven saltines at once! Check-in is at 11 am on Sunday.
SCRAP, the Japan-to-US company behind the seriously weird real-time/real-life game Escape from the Mysterious Room, are organizing a massive mystery, called 1000 Treasure Hunters, that urges participants to "use your detective mind" and "cooperate with your fellows," all 999 of them, presumably, who will be likewise hunting in Japantown for the two days of the festival. You'll need a ticket to participate.
Collect them All!
Fashions derived from Japan’s cute-obsessed neighborhood saw their peak in the US a few years back thanks to Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls. Guess what: They’re back, and on sale at the Harajuku Kawaii!! Pop-Up Shop. As with most things cute, colorful and Japanese, the names account for at least half the fun: 6% DokiDoki, Milk Boy, Innocent World and On the Couch are among the brands on offer.
The last event falls somewhere between the last two categories: Berkeley-based Takara sake is hosting a Sake and Chu-hi Tasting stage with beatboxer Daichi, where they’ll offer various sakes and flavors of Chu-hi, a canned Japanese variant on flavored vodka soda with flavors that we’re not sure are entirely legal in the US. Numerous Bay Area food vendors will also be present with a smattering of food and snacks to make your stomach protrude far enough to complement the curvature of your seared retinas.
So train hard, rest up, and once you're ready, make your way over to Japantown and let the games begin! Ganbare!
The J-Pop Summit Festival runs this weekend, July 27th and 28th from 11 am to 6 pm. Most events take place in Japantown.