J-Pop explodes: New People mall opening in S.F.
Beth Hughes, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, August 9, 2009
New People, the nation's first retail and entertainment complex dedicated to Japanese popular culture, opens on Post Street on Saturday.
J-Pop, as its friends call it, is all about the cultural phenomena that are comic books, animated films, movies, music and riotous up-from-the-street fashions.
Now, after 30-some years of simmering in the United States - who doesn't know Hello Kitty? - J-Pop has hit a full, rolling boil. And Seiji Horibuchi, the founder and CEO of San Francisco's VIZ Pictures and Viz Media, one of the first importers and translators of manga, or comic books, called it when he decided to embark on the New People J-Pop project four years ago.
His vision is realized in a $15 million, 20,000-square-foot project in a three-story building with a transparent glass facade that will reveal a taste of Tokyo's giddy controlled chaos within.
Designed by the Japanese architectural firm Torafu as a giant art installation, there's a subterranean cinema (all Japanese contemporary movies, all the time) with a concession offering Blue Bottle Coffee and organic snacks from Delica.
A retail operation called New People, The Store occupies the ground
floor. Upstairs, Horibuchi installed boutiques for some of Tokyo's
hottest J-Pop fashion labels from the trendy Harajuki district - Baby,
The Stars Shine Bright, Black Peace Now, 6%DokiDoki and Sou-Sou, which
sells updated versions of jikatabi, the traditional split-toe workers'
Topping it off is the Superfrog Gallery, on the third floor, showcasing the work of artists inspired by Japanese pop culture. First up, Yoshitaka Amano, who designed the characters for the video game Final Fantasy.
Why is this J-Pop's U.S. moment?
"If you're in your teens or early 20s, it's hard to miss manga and anime," says Frederik L. Schodt, the Bay Area author of "Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics." If you're outside the demographic cohort that grew up on Gundam and Pokémon, you're quite possibly a parent or grandparent or unrelated adult who shared viewing time, if not game time. Chances are, some J-Pop stuck with you.
Thus, more and more people realized that "manga and anime are fun, and they're interesting. If it weren't interesting and fun, it wouldn't have gone anywhere," says Schodt, who was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette by the Japanese government in June for his work popularizing manga and anime outside Japan. "It's not like there was an open door for this. The early fans had to really struggle to get hold of what they wanted."
Today, there's so much anime, or animated film, on television and cable networks that Web sites like Anime on TV maintain up-to-date showtimes, episode synopses and reviews. Wal-Mart and the big chain bookstores sell anime and manga. There's even a New York Times best-seller list for manga; titles from Viz Comics are almost always on it.
San Francisco's Asian Art Museum saluted Tezuka Osamu, the creator
of Astro Boy, with a show called "The Marvel of Manga" in 2007.
Moviemakers are also embracing J-Pop. Hayao Miyazaki's latest, "Ponyo,"
opens Friday with Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett voicing
characters in the goldfish fairy tale.
Bringing back customers
Which brings us back to what's happening in Japantown, an ethnic enclave that even its boosters agree needs a boost. J-Pop established a significant presence several years ago when a Best Western emerged from a makeover by its new owner, San Francisco's Joie de Vivre Hospitality, as Hotel Tomo, a colorful tribute to J-Pop's verve.
Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, sees New People as a way to recapture young customers, dissatisfied after Japantown Bowl closed in 2001.
He's ready for the reboot. He watched "Astro Boy" and "Speed Racer" on TV as a kid, "and it's amazing to see how it's revived. ... I'm excited."
Beyond the anime and manga mania, the blast of Tokyo retail will be very hard to ignore. New People, The Store is an almost curated assemblage of goods including Fewmany's collectible figures, Q-Pot jewelry, Giraffe neckties, stationery and ergonomic items for home and office, with many items available for the first time outside Japan.
"It represents the whole spectrum of Japanese pop culture," says Horibuchi. "We want our customers to have a true Tokyo shopping experience."
Rounding it out are the J-Pop fashion boutiques, all of which will offer items sized for Western physiques. (If you want to be big in Japan and you're not a band, be a U.S. size 10.)
Sou-Sou, the split-toe shoemaker, is the first of a planned
cavalcade of merchants who will set up shop for just a few months. CEO
and designer Takeshi Wakabayashi says the company, which gets orders
for both its handmade shoes and the special socks worn with them from
outside Japan via its Web site, plans on staying at least six months.
Harajuku's greatest hits
Baby, The Stars Shine Bright opted in after the 2004 movie "Kamikaze Girls" ("Shimotsuma Monogatari") became a cult hit outside Japan. A main character wore only clothing from the company founded in 1988 and named after a song by Everything But the Girl. That increased non-Japanese interest in its kawaii (cute) look, according to Fumiyo Isobe, one of the founders. Known as Sweet Lolita, it's created around pastel colors, cute fantasy princess and floral prints, and a profound appreciation of the more rococo aspects of Victorian and Edwardian girls' clothing.
Asuka Hagiwara, general manager of Black Peace Now, said the company realized the overseas demand for its Gothic Lolita look three years ago at the Japan Expo in France. Horibuchi chose almost that exact moment to propose they open a shop at New People. "We were intrigued by the idea and decided to proceed," said Hagiwara in an e-mail.
Gothic Lolita resembles Sweet Lolita but with a darker palette of dark blues, purples and black that continues right through to makeup and accessories. Cross jewelry and other religious symbols make the Gothic Lolita goth, as do bags and purses shaped like bats or coffins.
Countering those somber tones is 6%DokiDoki, a leading light in decora, immediately recognizable because of its vivid colors and whimsical gaiety inspired by dolls and toys. Think stars, hearts and circus animal motifs, big lamé bow clips arrayed in customized looks. "It makes the person wearing the style and the surrounding people happy," Sebastian Matsuda, the company director, said in an e-mail.
To keep U.S. customers from crossing that fine pink line separating cute from clownish, 6%DokiDoki is pulling out all the stops, even as it presents the "Sensational Kawaii" line as a San Francisco exclusive. Matsuda says employees "will act as guides to the 6%DokiDoki outlook on the world and make it easier to understand and figure out."
This article has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.
Visiting New People
1746 Post St. (between Webster and Buchanan), San Francisco. Boutiques open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. For a schedule of New People opening events, including the J-Pop Summit Festival co-chaired by Hello Kitty, go to newpeopleworld.com.
Beth Hughes has lived and worked in Japan, where a career highlight was interviewing Hello Kitty at her world headquarters. E-mail comments to email@example.com.