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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012

2.5D wants to change how you see Japan


Staff writer

A crowd much smaller than solo-guitarist Miyavi is accustomed to has gathered to hear an intimate set at the 2.5D studio in Shibuya's Parco Part 1 building. About a third of the 80 or so people have gathered around the stage so close that they can almost touch the artist. They don't try, of course, but it still causes Miyavi to mention how unusual the situation is.

The rest of the guests, which includes many music executives, hang back. An even larger crowd, topping 10,000 over the course of the evening, watches the whole thing live online. It's a big night for Kenjiro Harigai, the man behind "social TV station" 2.5D. The event is celebrating the launch of MTV 81, an all-English website that hopes to introduce Japanese music to fans overseas. The team at 2.5D are in charge of curation for the site, as well as its overall look.

"MTV covers the mainstream and deals with major record labels. We at 2.5D have a good idea of the core parts of current Japanese youth culture, the stuff that's more street level," Harigai tells The Japan Times a week later at a cafe in Parco. "By combining the two sides, we can present a balanced view of current Japanese pop culture."

It's an interesting pairing. While MTV has changed its format overseas to focus more on reality television, the Japanese version continues to emphasize music-video programming. Locally, it has faced stiff competition from music networks such as Space Shower TV, but due to its global recognition it still has a strong reputation in Asia — where a lot of new markets are opening up. In comes 2.5D, a group of fewer than 20 people that started live-streaming their own events a year and a half ago. So far they've offered up specials on pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, visual-kei band the GazettE and Vocaloid artist kz (livetune) for MTV 81. According to Internet feedback, the results have been impressive.

The 2.5D team is also very young, and Harigai, 35, says a lot of what they've done they've learned along the way.

"After two years of working hard to get where we are now, there were a lot of lessons," says Harigai, adding that the people he hired were right out of college and that a lot of them were new to the music business, live broadcasting and event planning. "We had the desire, though, and when we started to broadcast on the Web there was a point where we thought, 'This is a big project ... what have we got ourselves into?' But we did 250 broadcasts in a year — that's a lot of hours of live-streaming. We may not be pros, but now it'd be hard to find anyone with more experience than the team I have."

Harigai's goal with MTV 81 is to present an accurate picture of Japanese pop culture. He's critical, however, of the government's "Cool Japan" campaign, which is trying to do the same thing, because he believes a lot of the money is being wasted on things that "aren't that cool." Though it places emphasis on promoting culture, it is apparent that the strides 2.5D is making in the field of live-streaming events could be a more important contribution to the nation's economy, not just its pop culture, when it comes to opportunities for new small businesses.

Streaming live video on the Web is a new field in Japan, and 2.5D joins three pioneers in the industry: Nico Nico Douga's Nico Nama, Sony's Jamboree Station and Dommune. Harigai is excited about the possibilities of the format, though he speaks with a dose of caution.

"There have been challenges just because nobody has really done this before," he says. "I think it's especially important that 2.5D and Dommune are successful. If we are, then we can be examples that smaller companies can follow, and it will hopefully build the scene. If we fail, then the culture itself might not develop."

There's an added pressure in that 2.5D doesn't have financial backing from any established companies. Dommune has teamed up with Tower Records, and Jamboree Station has Sony behind them. So the 2.5D team has had to become particularly adept in many areas in order to turn a profit. Graphic design is an important element of live streaming, as is being able to run an event. Physical live-house spaces depend on entrance fees to make money, but 2.5D runs its operations like a broadcast studio, and that means it can't rely on ticket sales. To overcome that lack of revenue, the team has had to strengthen their ability to attract advertisers. They've also had to use the skills of a promoter to make connections with record companies and bring talent in. Harigai says one organization doesn't usually have to perform all these tasks at the same time, but 2.5D has had to combine them into its operation.

While the staff of 2.5D has developed the skills of running a performance venue, the studio space itself is not a live house. Harigai stresses more than once that it is first and foremost a broadcasting studio, but people are allowed to attend the recordings by filling out an application online. The space is filled with lights, cameras and a lot of white surfaces, but the size allows for some intimacy.

"If we went any bigger and turned it into a live-house-size venue, I think we'd lose the special feeling it has," he says.

What visitors get from 2.5D is a mix of so-called idol culture, netlabel producers and indie bands. This week, 2.5D directed a two-day event that featured Tokyo Girls Style and Babyraids on an "Idol Day," and DeDe Mouse and Shinsei Kamattechan on an "Artist Day." Other events have included underground electronic-music producers such as Seiho, Fazerock and Taquwami. What's striking about this approach is the mix of genres, and the 2.5D fan is being exposed to many types of new music. Since teaming up with MTV, Harigai says he has thought about the kind of culture his site presents from a more global perspective.

"I think that a lot of people looking at Japan may get the sense that the culture is weird, but where we are is really exciting right now," he says. "In the 1980s and '90s, you would get a lot of (Japanese) artists who would look to overseas musicians for influence. But right now a lot of artists here are looking at other Japanese performers for inspiration. You could say it's kind of a 'Galapagos' style (referring to Japan's problem of relating to the rest of the world), but it's not necessarily a bad thing ... something good might come out of it.

"This is the age of creators who are able to use technology," he continues. "Before, it was really cool to be in graphic design, but now developers, programmers and app creators — the people at the forefront of technology — are what is exciting. I'm curious to see where this all goes in the future."

Harigai brings up the recent collaboration between pioneering composer Isao Tomita and digital pop star Hatsune Miku as an example of new innovation in music. Miku is the popular anime persona that fronts Yamaha Corp.'s Vocaloid singing software. The team at 2.5D has been supporting independent artists using this technology since it launched.

"Now anyone can make music using Vocaloid, so there is probably going to be a lot of things that are not good quality," Harigai says. "But due to social media, the good stuff should be able to shine through.

"And what happens when people with real talent start to use this new technology? That was seen at the Tomita performance, and will be again at this weekend's Vocaloid opera being performed by Keiichiro Shibuya in Yamaguchi. You have all these creators and pioneers coming together, and at the center of that is a computer-generated character, Hatsune Miku."

Harigai is referring to an opera penned by the musician Shibuya and called "The End," which is set to be performed at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media on Dec. 1 and 2. The production, which has Toshiki Okada as its stage director, features Vocaloid software performing the parts of the singers. Organizers say it will turn the concept of traditional European opera on its head by removing the human element.

"The fact that these projects by Tomita and Shibuya are coming out now is more than just good timing," he says. "It could create new opportunities for quality music that you can make money from, and it could pull in interest from backers and more established artists. To put it another way, I think the lifespan of the whole Vocaloid movement would have been quite short without their contributions."

While Harigai's vision of pop culture will carry tremendous weight via MTV 81, he says he has been surprised by what he's gotten in return.

"I've been thinking a lot about English, actually," he says chuckling. "Looking at some of the responses to the videos we do on 2.5D, I really see a potential market opening by being bilingual. I really love Japan, and too often it's presented as strange overseas. I want people to see Japanese culture as I see it."

For more information about the websites 2.5D or MTV 81, visit www.2-5-d.jp or www.mtv81.com. Keiichiro Shibuya's "The End" will be performed on Dec. 1 (7 p.m.) and 2 (3 p.m.) at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Music (ticket prices vary). For more information, visit www.ycam.jp/performingarts/2012/12/the-end.html.

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