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Eastern Cowboy

Manga and Anime May Have Their Fans, but at Otakon the Real Star is T.M. Revolution

By Josephine Yun | Posted 8/6/2003

At Tokyo's Kokusai Forum, a female voice calmly issues flight preparations over the sound system. The lights go out, followed by the sound of a plane taking off. Two guitarists mosey onstage and launch into a sassy, rollicking intro with a drummer. Then, a young man appears in a stylish, futuristic cowboy outfit: ruffled white shirt, golden vest, blue jacket, and boot-cut pants. He plays a little harmonica, then begins to sing.

The vocalist is right on-key, his hair blowing away from his face, and the seats are shaking. It's not from either the bass or drums but the packed hall jumping in place, singing with him. Clean, electric energy flows between fans and musicians, though the singer's presence is what sparks it. He is creating waves, which makes perfect sense. His name is T.M. Revolution.

T.M. Revolution (which stands for Takanori Makes Revolution; his given name is Takanori Nishikawa) is a mainstream Japanese musician. Seven years into his solo career, TMR concert tickets sell out minutes after going on sale, filling the Kokusai Forum (capacity: 5,000) five times over.

That's staying power. And it's enough fuel to fly him to Otakon. Otakon, which swallows the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend, has already preregistered 9,000 attendees. Long the largest annual Japanese animation and East Asian culture convention on the East Coast, 2003 may possibly place Otakon as largest in the United States.

"Frankly, we're a little nervous," convention publicist Pete Prellwitz says in an e-mail. "Both the BCC and Otakon staff can handle these numbers, but we'll need the members to try and be real nice to us come Sunday."

By then, a projected 17,000 otaku (translation: dedicated hobbyists) will swarm the the convention center's hallways. The pull may be attributed to TMR's appearance, which continues a trend of bringing Japanese and anime-related musicians to similar cons across the country. Escaflowne and Cowboy Bebop soundtrack composer Yoko Kanno graced Otakon in 1999. British rock band Boa performed its music to Serial Experiments Lain in 2000. Japanese indie band Duel Jewel appeared in Dallas at Project A-Kon 2002, then con-hopped across Virginia, Illinois, and California for a minitour before returning to A-Kon in 2003. Another band, BLOOD, played FanimeCon in San Francisco earlier this summer.

"I'm a little nervous," T.M. Revolution says through an interpreter. He's seated at a white, curved table in his management's southwest Tokyo office outfitted in a snug, gray tank top, checkered flannels, and a black beret. "But, I'm really looking forward to the convention in Baltimore because it's something that I've never really done before. It's completely new."

TMR may be completely new to the American public, but his music is fairly familiar to anime fans. His first major Japanese hit single, "Heart of Sword," closed the popular series Rurouni Kenshin. And the new Gundam series, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, carries his latest single, "Invoke," as its opening song.

Besides being wired to anime through his work, TMR is admittedly a fan of Gundam (which he grew up with), Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), and Neon Genesis Evangelion, among others. "There's a cable channel in Japan that plays nothing but anime all day long," he says. "I live for it."

In living for anime, TMR isn't alone. Otakon draws dedicated enthusiasts from as far away as Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Indiana. According to a post on the convention's online message board, a group of fans in Oregon are road-tripping it to Baltimore to see TMR perform--sleeping in the car to save money.

"He's one of the first [Japanese]-pop/J-rockers I ever listened to," says Jessie, who's flying up from Florida with her fiancé. "I just really liked his music. I always thought it was very catchy--you can't help bopping to it, even if you're doing something else."

"Invoke" is more than catchy. It's wonderfully dizzying, dense synth sheets rippling over breathless dance beats. Cascading key changes laced with swirling, throwaway samples keep the tension high, making you feel like you could take off any second. The song changes shades without disconnecting; transitions and chorus are seasoned with wicked power guitar, making it just a little more flavorful and gutsy than a Joe Trance track.

Japanese artists have often been dismissed as poor imitations of '80s music and American glam rock, but that view is changing. One reason is accessibility: The growing popularity of anime and video games in the United States has increased interest in other aspects of Japanese culture. Another reason is that the overall quality of mainstream American music has declined, leaving listeners open for other alternatives.

"Basically, the reason I turned to J-music was because, even at its sexiest, it wasn't as monotonous and gropey as a lot of mainstream American music," says Elizabeth, a university student who went to Japan to see her favorite artists this summer. "Mainstream rock is a lot of screaming, power chords, and muttering by gruff-voiced guys who all sound the same."

And though the lyrics are all in Japanese, translated they possess an ethereal quality that also appeals to Americans. "I think that most mainstream music in America has lost the sense of purpose that it used to have," Elizabeth says. "It used to be about rebellion, about activism, and hidden messages; now, it's about 'Hey baby, ooh baby ooh'. It's gotten to a point where if I hear one line of a song, I can predict the next line just by what rhymes."

"We put a lot of effort into writing lyrics," Duel Jewel lead vocalist Hayato said at Chicago's Anime Central con this past May. "They capture the feeling of the music. All the lyrics are in Japanese, but even though we're Japanese we still have to look in dictionaries to find the right words."

Instead of conforming to a particular sound record companies are looking to sell, what sells in Japan are songs that are different. Hence, there is a push for originality with Japanese artists that may set them apart from other musicians. "Sometimes people may have a favorite artist and want to be like them," Duel Jewel lead guitarist Shun said. "But because no two people on Earth are alike, there is no way you can be the band you want to be and the band you're going to be. They are definitely not going to be the same thing."

T.M. Revolution's music tends to sound techno, but there's a streak of rock that has become its trademark. And beyond merely putting on a tight, good-looking show, there is an additional need to connect with his fans. Seven songs into his Kokusai show, TMR takes a seat. He asks all the boys to cheer so he can know how many are in the audience. He asks female fans up front not to flash him: "You don't have to do that; you should cover yourself up." He jokes about considering plastic surgery: "I'm trying to find a way to stay beautiful till I'm 72." Then, he picks up an acoustic guitar and sings a sweet, low-key song in pin-drop silence, as the moon and stars revolve on the screen behind him.

And TMR's concerts are not always the same thing; he designs the stage and specific costumes for each concert according to the idea he has at the time. "You form an image," he says. "If it was a manga [Japanese comic book], you read all the volumes, you get the idea what this is all about. That's how I try to come up with the whole concept, where I get the music for a song."

Aside from his performance, TMR won't be the only one in costume at Otakon. Fans who dress as their favorite anime or video-game character (or a Japanese musician) are called cosplayers. One of the main events at Otakon is the masquerade, in which hundreds of cosplayers display their work. And then there are thousands of those who prefer simply to have their photo taken in the corridors.

"I'm trying to come up with a costume that can beat the other cosplayers," TMR says, laughing. "I'm making a particular one for Otakon, trying to make something that would please the people there. But I haven't really figured it out yet. But, since I'm going all the way out there, I want it to be like, 'Ah! That's T.M. Revolution!' That kind of costume."

It's that kind of thinking that has enabled TMR to establish a rapport with his audiences. He and his fans visibly support each other at the Kokusai Forum, singing back and forth during the show. At one point, he is able, without speaking, to command all 5,000 of them to sit down in their seats, then leap back up for an end-of-song jump.

Later in the show, the air at the forum is still moving with energy. In plaid, red-lined slacks and a black sleeveless shirt, T.M. Revolution is jumping, flying across the stage, drop kicking glasses of water into the audience. He finishes his set with "Invoke." And then, the encores start.

"I love collaboration with people with the knowledge I don't have, and creating something," he says. "I just can't wait to go to Baltimore and hopefully do something more."

Otakon takes place at the Baltimore Convention Center Aug. 7 through 10. For more information visit www.otakon.com or e-mail info@otakon.com.

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