Friday, September 30, 2011

The Rise And Fall Of The House Of Mario: Can Nintendo ‘Leave Luck To Heaven’ Anymore?

Nintendo once held the undisputed position as the king of video games thanks to its long-living handheld Gameboy series as well as early consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and its many successors. The company has captivated the gaming audience ever since the mid-70s when they decided to look to electronic games to turn around their fading fortunes as a playing card company. Now the likes of Donkey Kong, Link, Samus Aran, and, of course, Mario, are recognized names worldwide for casual and core gamers alike.

Today, however, things are different as competing gaming consoles with superior technology from Sony and Microsoft and numerous smartphone games threaten to bury the venerable video game mainstay.

In 2006 the Wii jump started Nintendo’s resurrection from the failure of its predecessor, the Gamecube. Many bought into the Wii’s unique motion controls, which led to it completely leapfrogging the PS3 and Xbox 360 in sales for years, even remained in short supply for a awhile. However, the gimmick kept the console popular only briefly as gamers realized the other consoles provided more mature, engaging content and not just family-friendly fare that Nintendo is known for.

The 3DS, the latest in Nintendo’s handheld line which launched this year, has suffered disappointing sales and in a few short months resorted to a large price cut to encourage stragglers to purchase the glasses-free 3D gaming experience. With the announcement of the Wii U over the summer, fans were confused by the unclear purpose of the controller-console hybrid that finally seemed to have caught up with the level of current generation consoles. Investors were also unconvinced as demonstrated by a severe drop in shares following the reveal. Another negative change in their stocks occurred following a string of announcements at the recent Tokyo Game Show, though the drop is hotly contested.

Though uneven, there is urgency behind these sudden changes. While core gamers are over the various gimmicks and casual players have plenty of options in the saturated mobile games market, how can Nintendo secure their future in the industry?

Japan Society’s panel Nintendo: What’s Next for the House of Mario? on October 6 features two experts who look at the Nintendo’s “ups-ups, downs-downs”, as one Japan Society Facebook fan so cleverly put it, and how the company can compete in today's market. Dan Sloan, author of Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and Video Game Industry’s Greatest Comeback, leads the discussion, and Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen Magazine, moderates. Whether attending as a concerned shareholder or an anxious fan of the Big N, the discussion promises insight into the now and future of the once undisputed gaming system king.

--Sean Tomizawa

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wilbur Ross: Ups From The Market’s Downs?

Wilbur Ross. Via.

Yesterday Wilbur Ross, chairman and CEO of WL Ross & Co. and chairman of Japan Society, sat down with Council on Foreign Relations’ Benn Steil to talk Greed vs. Fear: Making Sense of the Market Crash (watch the full video). The discussion used the August 2011 crash as a springboard to look at the economic situations of the U.S., Europe, China, and Japan, and how they can improve and fix their respective problems.

Reporting from the event, The Wall Street Journal noted that "Ross has to squint to see the bright side":
Wilbur Ross isn’t optimistic. He says he’s not totally pessimistic, but the financier is short on happy thoughts.

Over the course of an hour-long talk Wednesday afternoon at the Japan Society in New York, Mr. Ross voiced just about only one view that was in the not-totally-depressing camp. Stock markets, he says, “have priced in a very bearish scenario. Unless things get truly bad, the worst is probably over for the markets,” he said. 
While WSJ goes in-depth about the more pessimistic points, there were several observations and key takeaways for overall improvement from the discussion:

● The U.S. has gone two years with practically no budget. The lack of Democrat and Republican consensus on what needs to be cut is due to both sides aiming at each other’s "sacred cows". The resulting political inertia is the U.S. economy’s worst enemy. It prevents strong leadership and a lack of bold responses to various crises. The preoccupation with presidential and congressional elections, along with the Tea Party phenomenon, further polarizes the political structure doing little to help the economy.

● Greece has been at the brink of default for some time. The European Union never had preparations if a member leaves voluntarily or is forced to leave, which belies that a single currency means a cohesive political and fiscal union. European nations need to stop applying small fixes to crises and instead apply big changes to the point of overkill as soon as they come up.

● China is doing fairly well for itself despite a major housing shortage. The nation’s recent high economic growth means housing demand can be supplied without too much worry of a crash. Ross said that because of the economic success China is having, he would rather bet on their banks than the European ones.

● The U.S. and Japan both have cash rich economies, but they are not as liquid as they could be. True liquidity should be attained to help stimulate their respective economies.

● Japan, while the response to the recent earthquake was incredibly quick, needs to continue focusing on rebuilding the Tohoku region in order to help revitalize the economy. The cultural avoidance of change is also not helping progress, leading to further depression and low growth. Due to the labor shortage, Japan needs to incorporate more women and immigrants into the workforce.

● It would be most logical for Japanese companies to make more foreign investments especially while the yen is so strong. However, there is seemingly no push for that move, unlike in China where natural resources are in small numbers so they have dipped into Africa, South America, and even the U.S.

● Finally, there is a self-correcting mechanism in the economy that will only activate when governments decide to be more decisive with their actions, be more willing to invest, and generally be much bolder.

--Sean Tomizawa

Monday, September 26, 2011

Destination JS: Digging Dag Hammarskjold Plaza

Destination JS is a regular series exploring the sites, shops, and eateries surrounding Japan Society’s landmark building

Across from Japan Society is the cozy, tree-lined, avenue-length Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a Midtown park where weary business folk, diplomats from all nations, and curious visitors find rest. Known as the "Gateway to the United Nations", the plaza is an oasis in the Turtle Bay neighborhood.

A steel gazebo at the Second Avenue entrance opens onto a brick promenade lined by light fixtures that take after old-fashioned gas lamps and benches modeled after those made for the 1939 World's Fair. Several fountains surround the plaza imbuing calm, while public sculptures and memorials stand in fascinating contrast to the urban, monochromatic surroundings.

One historically charged piece is Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, which is a sculpture of Saint George Slaying the Dragon comprised of parts from Soviet and American ballistic missiles.

Further in, one can stroll through the Katherine Hepburn Garden where the late movie great’s image and memorable quotes decorate stepping stones that form a path through seasonal flowers and vegetation.

For those who don’t speak Swedish, learning to correctly pronounce the plaza's name is easier than it looks. It comes from the plaza’s esteemed honoree and namesake, Nobel Peace prize recipient Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld, who served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations throughout most of the 50s and traveled all over the world for missions to end disputes and work towards world peace. Tragically, a plane crash while on the way to oversee the United Nations Force he established in Congo took his life 50 years ago this month. The city has preserved his legacy through the beautiful Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.

While most visitors to the plaza come to find peace from hectic everyday life, many come during the course of a year to fight for peace in their own country. Given the proximity to the United Nations and various consulates, public demonstrations are a regular occurrence. As a man who vigilantly aimed to progress world peace, Hammarskjold would have it no other way than to have the people of all nations freely speak their minds.

In addition, designated areas allow for a variety of performances and community events throughout the year, there is a constant rotation of public art, and every Wednesday fresh foods are available at a farmer's market beginning at 8:00 am.

Whether attending a film screening, performance, exhibit, discussion, or language class, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza is a memorable stop whenever you make Japan Society a destination.

--Sean Tomizawa

Top photo by Sean Tomizawa; bottom photo by This Week in New York.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Japan’s Textile Pioneers: Weaving Threads Of The Past Into The Future

When visitors climb the stairs to Japan Society’s new exhibit Fiber Futures: Japan’s Textile Pioneers, they are greeted by Kyoko Ibe’s Requiem, created specifically for the show. The large, dark purple, net-like weave adds mystery to the Society’s typically calm lobby, and yet engulfs the garden pool from above in an almost protective manner. Japan Society gallery director, Joe Earle, notes that the piece is:
a memorial to victims of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The fluidity of water is one of the miracles of nature, yet all of us were shocked and saddened to see how it could destroy so many lives and livelihoods. Ibe created Requiem from ancient indigo-dyed paper, made in a pristine natural environment and originally used for Buddhist scriptures. Sensing that our uncertain times cry out for the qualities of peace and stability embodied in this lovingly preserved material, she has twisted and worked it night and day for many months as a prayer for divine protection.
The piece is just one of 35 featured textile artworks that combine the beauty of tradition with eye-popping experimentation. The use of color and incredible shapes are the first things that may strike visitors, but upon closer inspection, the impossible textures and intricate techniques stun the imagination. Each installation, ranging from soccer ball size to meters wide and tall, is imbued with personality and a story. Those that hang on the walls cast equally striking shadows, subtly adding to their mystique.

Fiber Futures runs through December 18th. You can view more photos from the exhibit here and here. Related programming includes an exhibition talk, a day with family activities, an evening with former Miyake creative director Dai Fujiwara, and individual workshops on weaving, dyeing and embroidery.

If you can’t make it to Japan Society, you can check out the gorgeous catalogue or download the free app for iPhone or Android, and wrap yourself with Fiber Futures wherever you are in the world.

--Sean Tomizawa

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Landmark Birthday for Japan Society’s Building

"I have tried to express in contemporary architecture the spirit of Japan." --Junzō Yoshimura
Days before the opening of its 104th gallery exhibition, just after turning 104 years old, Japan Society celebrated the 40th birthday of its building, recently designated New York City’s youngest landmark.

It was shortly after Japan Society launched the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund to aid recovery after the devastating tsunamis struck Northeast Japan when news broke that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved four new landmarks, including Japan Society.

“We’re very proud of our building,” Japan Society gallery director Joe Earle told HyperAllergic at the time, adding, “It’s a remarkable place to walk into every day.” The article continues:
As a manifestation of the relationship between the United States and Japan, Earle points out, the design and construction of the Japan Society building came at a very interesting time. In 1971, “New York was just becoming aware of Japanese architecture. [The building] represents the rebuilding of the relationship between the two countries after World War II.” As a combination of Brutalist severity and Zen simplicity, the structure crosses artistic cultures.

“Looking out of my window now,” Earle describes during a phone conversation, “the long horizontal bars that filter the light give the whole front [facade] this kind of horizontality that was associated with Japanese domestic architecture … It’s a suggestion of Japanese architecture without actually being a copy of it, that’s what strongly appeals to me.” 

Completing a circle of great Midtown East architecture including the United Nations headquarters, Tudor City, the Ford Foundation building and Grand Central Station, Japan Society’s 5-story, charcoal gray building on 333 East 47th St. overlooks the cozy Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza Park.

The building is a smartly designed, geometrically playful edifice that contains warmth and reflective quietude—as useful for solitary thought as it is for intimate conversation and coming together to share ideas. While some might dismiss it as a “modernist box”, for most who visit, the brooding boxiness is a dark chocolate square with a liquid caramel center. It is the architectural incarnation of the quintessential New Yorker—austere and brusque perhaps at first blush, but warm, storied, and endlessly fascinating once you break the surface.

Known for infusing traditional Japanese elements in his modern works, architect Junzō Yoshimura used a much subtler blending of Japanese sensibility with contemporary materials in Japan Society’s building. The slats mentioned by Earle above, running horizontally on the second and third floors of the façade, are meant to evoke amado (Japanese storm windows used during typhoons). Hinoki (Japanese cypress) louvers in the exterior entry continue into the lobby ceiling, diffusing light and warming shadows. (Initially, the heat from light bulbs would release the wood’s fragrance, but regulations now require they be flame retardant, which masks the scent.)

Although the building has undergone two campaigns of adaptation and extension over the years, its original atmosphere is especially well preserved in the lobby area with a low, modular, precast concrete ceiling; extant original slate floors and walls; a large river stone near the entrance positioned as a foundation for seasonal floral arrangements; bamboo pond and waterfall; and stairs leading invitingly up to the gallery spaces, which encompass the entire second floor.

And while the building also contains a sub-level language center, a 262-seat state-of-the-art theater for lavish performances, pop concerts, film screenings and more; and three floors of administrative space, almost everyone who enters comments on its quiet beauty and remarkable stillness, welcome relief from the tireless energy of the city’s streets.


A brief history of the Turtle Bay neighborhood, home to Japan Society, the United Nations, missions of foreign governments and many private organizations including the International Institute of Education and the Ford Foundation, has been included in the Landmark Preservation Commission Japan Society Designation Report (PDF).

The area had remained little developed until after the Civil War, when residential and commercial development followed the opening of the Second and Third Avenue Elevated Railways around 1880. The large waterfront site along the East River between 42nd and 48th Streets was acquired by the Rockefellers, and John D. Rockefeller 3rd later donated the 47th street site to Japan Society in 1968.

“From the start, Japan Society was characterized as ‘the first building of contemporary Japanese design to be built in New York City’”, notes the report. Designed by Junzō Yoshimura in partnership with George G. Shimamoto during 1967-68, Japan Society, earlier called Japan House, opened in 1971.

Gabrielle Birkner in an article in The Real Deal refers to Japan Society as one of the notable exceptions to have been designed by a Japanese architect as it was not until much later that the architectural community in New York was receptive of design talent from abroad. According to the landmark's report, Yoshimura was “likely the first Japanese citizen to design a permanent structure in New York City.”

Shortly before the opening, Leah Gordon, an arts columnist for The New York Times on September 5, 1971 wrote:
In an area replete with UN Missions and consulates, this building has no seals, no mottos and is distinguished only by a slanted, 3-foot iron fence . . . It is soon apparent that this is no customary New York architectural atrocity but a sedate, jewel-like structure that, in its quiet way, commands attention.
Similarly, The Architectural Record in 1973 commented that the building:
...adds quite a dollop of civility to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Its exterior is quiet, nicely scaled and guardedly transparent: fleeting glimpses of the interior are afforded through bronze anodized aluminum screens, and the glass entrance doors.
In Yoshimura’s own words:
People the world over used to build their houses with local and traditional materials. Today, however, contemporary buildings all over the world use the same basic materials – concrete, steel and glass – yet different characters and nationalities can still be perceived amongst them. In designing Japan House I have tried to express in contemporary architecture the spirit of Japan.
 --Anu Tulachan and Shannon Jowett